Thursday, November 13, 2008


Small town council meetings are never what one expects. I almost skipped last night, thinking that this time of year things would be quiet. But they weren’t and at one point my temperature went out the top of the thermometer.

First thing on the list was the need for more EMT’s to ride the ambulance, maybe to drive it. There are five qualified people at present but two want to ease out over the next year, one is a teacher whose superintendent is luckily sympathetic about him suddenly taking off during class time, one has an out-of-town day job now, and the fifth is just getting worn out. People are already working two jobs to make ends meet so it’s harder to find the energy for this. Our town population is retirement-age and older. I reflected briefly on volunteering and then laughed -- I am not competent to get up at 3AM in a blizzard to go rescue someone who just wrecked. In “big” places they pay. This is a do-it-yourself place, but one must have 140 hours of class time, plus re-certifying workshops through the year, something like the fire department. No one even mentioned pay.

Second was a Teamster’s Union rep doing follow-up on a contretemps from last summer, resolved mostly. One of the town employees, a bachelor, has a little house up the street from me. His priorities (rather like mine) don’t include a pretty yard, so he tends to have long grass, gas cans for the boat, fish coolers, and other stranded objects. The citizens of this town get angry about it, esp. if they’ve been sent a letter asking them to cut their weeds, and remove their scrap metal, old boards, etc. This came crashing to a head that left the employee sore. The point the union rep wanted to make was that just because someone works for the town, that doesn’t give the town council the right to supervise his home. (In fact, Heart Butte paid out big money in a lawsuit when their school board told a teacherage resident that she had to throw her boyfriend out.) On the other hand, if the rules about yards are to be enforced, town employees don’t get a free pass.

Next our oldest and most dynamic Senior Citizen asked for a break on the rent for the Town Hall which provides hot meals for Seniors and others. The problem is that this month has so many holidays when meals are NOT served, but the cooks (whom everyone loves) are still paid the same. So the income ($4 a meal) didn’t meet the bills. Council quickly awarded a proportional discount.

The issue of time-clocks for the town employees was resumed and it was agreed to install one, along with custom log sheets that showed what the guys were doing all day. Jackie-the-Clerk does about the same things daily, but the guys are very much dependent on weather since so much work is outdoors. Where everyone can observe and criticize!

A bar owner asked for permission to put her camp trailer alongside the bar this winter since she lives in Cut Bank and the roads might easily become impassable. She’s just exploring and if it won’t work, she’ll rent a motel room as necessary. Much reflection on all this, since people living in camp trailers is a hot button issue: there is worry that we’ll turn into a kind of migrant trash town. (Not unrealistic.) No conclusion.

MUCH reflection and discussion on the problem of the last big derelict building in the center of town. It used to be a post office and earlier a bank, but has been empty for decades. Restoration has begun by the brave female owner of an art and customized clothing business but major problems are turning up, esp. in terms of the sewer which was not adequately considered when the recent sewer project was done. In fact, it just wasn’t connected and the complexity of how, why, and where to connect it now is enormous. What makes the discussion fascinating to me is that most of these guys are hands-on people who have businesses nearby, who have actually dug up much of this ground in the past, who know the basic principles of functioning sewers but are also very aware of state regulation of how things have to be done: is this restoration or upgrading or something that requires engineering (at enormous expense) or is there some other angle they haven’t considered? Their heads were working hard. There was no question that the connection MUST be restored, and all agreed some flexibility will be required.

Something similar but slightly easier was the question of whether a woman who had survived ten years of cancer and wanted to include fireworks in her birthday celebration would need a permit or be somehow forbidden. All agreed she should celebrate. But they got out the ordinance book to check. (The book was busy at this meeting.) It’s okay.

The next problem was again pretty knotty, about survey lines and set-backs and the propriety of surveys. After tracing out the history, checking the book, reflecting on related situations, the precedents and future consequences, and considering the personalities involved, the consensus was to back off. They aren’t anxious to have a dog in that fight.

Then came what we thought was the end, just approving bills and time cards, until one of our newer “citizens” asked for “a moment” for “a few things.” This turned out to be endless irrelevant demands (all couched in near-sarcasm) about a host of little nitpicks. Holding a sheaf of papers with notes in fiber tip pen of several different colors, clipped together with clamps of various colors and kinds, he began by saying how unaesthetic the post office wind shield was. It’s just a few sheets of plywood attached around the entrance to try to keep the wind from tearing the door off the building. All agree it’s an experiment and doesn’t really work. My opinion is that the only cure is to put the entrance on the south side of the building instead of the west where the wind hits, but the post office is a bureaucracy and this was the way their standard floor plan -- a long wall of mailboxes with the public on one side and the workers on the other -- fit on the lot.) The town has little or no control.

Then Mr. Whiny went on to a lot of fake-flattery questions of the clerk about the budget and how she should make a monthly presentation to this poor benighted council which didn’t understand with appropriate detail and subtlety the financing of the town. He went on and on, with what was in the past his speech about the great wisdom of investing in the stock market. Then he started demanding all sorts of information about the town wells, insurance, fire-proof storage, and how the shop should be rewired. The council all sat, politely listening and answering for half-an-hour. I just ran out of patience. Unacknowledged by the chair, I shouted at him, feeling my blood pressure go to the red-eye stage. Luckily, I didn’t curse.

Luckily, he rose in great hauteur, scrambled together his sheaf of papers, and left. Whew! He had demanded of me, “Tell me one good thing you’ve ever done for this town!” When he had gone, I said to the council, “One good thing I’ve done for this town is drive that guy out of this meeting!” They laughed. Some say nothing ever happens in Valier. You have to be here.


Alethea said...

That was a priceless description. Like I was there and yet didn't have to be. The best of all worlds. Thank you.

Dona said...

Mary, we have several guys like that (and several women) who haunt our Commission meetings. I have the family Irish temper, and there have been times I bite my tongue nearly in half. If you don't televise your meetings, count yourself lucky! Then this type would crawl out from under rocks and beat a path to the door!

Peter said...

In Long Island, where I live, almost all the fire and EMS departments are volunteer outfits, and almost all of them are having a very very difficult time finding enough members. While the large population means that the pool of potential volunteers is deep, it also means that the departments can be busier than many departments with paid staffs and therefore need large numbers of volunteers. As in Montana, onerous training requirements scare off many potential volunteers. People are willing to donate their time to a good cause, but only up to a point. It doesn't help that many fire (though not EMS) departments see themselves as men's clubs and are less than welcoming to women who express interest in joining. They still have "ladies' auxiliaries," an anachronism that's nearly vanished in other contexts.

To make matters worse, each local community has its own fire and EMS department even though most local government functions are regionalized. It leads to a huge duplication of effort, to the point that Nassau and Suffolk counties, with a total population of 3.2 million, have more fire engines than New York City and Los Angeles combined. My community of 20,000 has three firehouses, two of which are barely a mile apart, and ten to twelve engines; one of these is a massive tower ladder capable of reaching six or seven stories ... notwithstanding the fact that no building in town is over three stories, or the fact that all the surrounding departments have their own tower ladders too. Many firehouses, including the main one in my town, are huge opulent palaces that cost fortunes to build and maintain. The idea is that building swanky firehouses attracts more volunteers, but clearly it doesn't work that way. Given all these considerations switching to countywide paid departments might not necessarily cost more even though the employees would be paid.

It's a bad situation, and just getting worse, but the volunteer tradition is so strong that no solution is in sight.

Anonymous said...

Mary - Change the name of the town, and most of this could easily have described our Missoula City Council meetings. Silly me, for thinking smaller towns are different.
-- Kathleen