Thursday, April 15, 2010


We’re just emerging from a major record-setting snowstorm that brought enough moisture in from the West Coast to let the flowers bloom at last. Softball is just around the corner. And suddenly there was a notice at the post office calling a 6:30 PM meeting of the town council to discuss Conflict of Interest. So off I went with my clipboard because there is no more vivid on-going example of process dynamics than the town council of a village of 350 people and a history that reaches back in time to 19th century Belgium.

The precipitating event was that Jerry had threatened to sue the village, or at least the mayor, because gravel for the streets (another spring event is reclaiming the streets from winter’s damage) had not been bought from him -- rather from an out-of-town person. Jerry is a hard-driving guy (one heart attack recently) and carries much of the town’s underground history (literally -- of water and sewer pipes) in his head. I like him because (ironically) you’re never in doubt about where you stand and his goals are pretty clear. His methods are direct and, sure enough, he had brought a lawyer.

The mayor had just gotten back from Arizona. She is a retired corporate veteran with expertise in insurance, so one of her preoccupations is liability. She bought a cute little house, owns a new car, and stirred up the town right off the bat by challenging a springtime event a few years ago: nesting. Lake Frances, alongside the town, has an island that is normally isolated by water and thus is a good nesting spot for herons, geese, and seagulls, ground nesters. Seagulls are not well-loved around here. When the drought lowered the water enough for people to drive four-wheelers out to the island, some heinous person entertained himself by driving over seagull nests.

The mayor, a romantic full of Seattle liberal sentiments, was horrified. She writes poetry about that lake and island. So she protested and even contacted the Audubon Society. She had no idea what she was stirring up. First, the lake is not a natural lake but an impoundment reservoir for the irrigation system that is the raison d’etre of the town. It is only secondarily an aesthetic or recreation asset. Water is one of the most emotional topics around, interwoven with lack of water which means going broke. Litigation over the water that has been owed to the Blackfeet but used by white farmers is very hot because it will mean the end for some people. Almost all of the laws involved are confused, insufficient, and on many levels.

Second, the lake is owned, both water and shore, by an irrigation company that allows the village certain privileges, like a campground. A walleye fishing society has made improvements. People forget who owns what and why. But not the canal company. You want to make trouble? Fine, we’ll just bulldoze the damn island. Environmentalists know that farmers and ranchers are waaaay leary of letting federal fish and game come around making rules to save something like sage grouse at the expense of making money, for instance through the hundreds of wind farm turbines you can see from here. (The wind farm is the new canal company.)

Mackenzie knew none of this. She is a small elderly woman and the town women rallied around her, seeing her as sophisticated and courageous. There’s an element of “boys against the girls” mixed with something that purports to be “educated against ignorant” but isn’t. The first I knew of her directly was when she called me on the phone to ask me to run for alderman while she ran for mayor. Plainly she thought that I would be her ally because I write and that I would be eager to be on the council since I attend all the meetings and take notes. She had never attended a council meeting herself. She wanted to meet for coffee. I refused. She was elected because she was unopposed. The Catch-22 fact that she ran for the office shows she was not qualified for it because she didn't understand it. What does the fact that no one else ran mean?

She had asked the town’s lawyer to attend last night’s meeting. There were two cruxes of the matter: one was whether gravel could legally be bought from a member of town council. The law governing that is confused. One of the forces at play is the state’s effort to “educate” and regulate the small towns. The only new alderman is Rod. I’ve written about him before. He’s big, he’s tough-minded, and he plays fair. As things went along, it turned out that there had been TWO gravel purchases for ten thousand dollars or so each and neither had been run past the town council members. They would have no knowledge of the purchase and delivery until they went to sign the bills at next month’s meeting. ZOWIE !!!

Jackie, the town clerk and a protective woman, began to raise her voice to protect the mayor, whom she considers to be her boss. The council soon set her straight that THEY were her boss. Leo, one of the two town maintenance men, was the one who chose the gravel company but he had sent his wife in his stead because he was teaching a hunter safety course. His wife has been a focus of controversy because the school fired her last year and she fought it. There is ongoing tension over both maintenance men. One ruckus bounces off another one and the town aligns and realigns itself into factions. Mackenzie is a Venusian in a town of Martians. The Earthlings are missing in action.

Both lawyers sat bemused. Finally the town lawyer made a little speech about trying to improve communication and people calmed down a bit. The issue had shifted back to whether a council member could profit from anything the town did, which is pretty crucial in a place so small that everyone on the council is a businessman. “Do your business at home,” is a Big Red Rule here and it ought to be. The town’s lawyer said he would re-examine the state regulations to find a work-around.

Just as that issue seemed at least tabled and the lawyers left, up popped Homer, who has been obsessing about the water meters we’re more or less forced to install. The mayor left. Jerry and the other councilmen stayed to answer Homer’s questions and I found out a lot of things myself that I wouldn’t have known otherwise. This story is not going to end soon. It may never end.

1 comment:

Feed Store Girl said...

Love it! This is small town Montana on any given night!