Friday, August 20, 2010


What do you call a steam shovel when it’s no longer driven by steam? An excavator. What’s the difference between an excavator and a backhoe? An excavator moves around on big tank-type treads while a backhoe has rubber tires. I found this out by asking the guys digging giant pits in the street by my house. The one up by the highway is maybe twenty feet deep and fifty feet long -- very impressive.

What do you call a scandal? A mayor who signs up for all this (a renovation of the town water system that means installing water meters and raising rates) without the backing of her town council or the townspeople themselves. The project is well under way, but the machines -- whatever they are called -- have been quiet this afternoon. There is action behind the scenes. Of the four town councilmen (all men -- some describe them as “good old boys” who conspire for their own good instead of what is good for the town) only one has not resigned. (He is a person who doesn’t act quickly.) The news accounts on the front page of the Valierian are hostile.

Mackenzie Greye (note fancy spelling) came to town with money and high intentions. She is retired. This is not the first place she’s tried to settle after leaving Seattle corporate culture, where she was a computer expert. In Valier she published her poetry on a blog and drove to Cut Bank to teach art classes. And she quickly lined up the town’s women as her admirers. Except me. She called me up to ask me to run for the council, though she’d never met me and knew nothing about me, nor had she ever been to a council meeting. She wanted me to go for coffee and I proposed that she just bring a thermos to the next town meeting, since I normally attend all of them. (I don’t know whether I’m glad or sad that I missed this last confrontation. I was pushing a deadline of my own.)

A minister dreads to see this kind of person coming into a congregation, not because they bring new ideas but because they are divisive, don’t know what the real stakes are, don’t bother to find out the lay of the land, and try to enforce fine print in long documents instead of using common sense. Ms. Greye was soon appealing to state authorities and, in turn, being courted by a certain kind of business (consultants, engineers, salesmen) that makes its living off small town projects. They arrive, identify trouble (starts with a T), point to disaster (starts with a P -- like pool) and offer to sell the finest in band instruments and uniforms. This time the trouble was an ancient water delivery system, the threat was that if there were a fire at the school there would not be enough water to save the children, and the answer was a new water main, water meters, and a new water tank. Maybe some new wells.

Earlier the way has been strewn with disaster. The first fiasco I heard about was a local knothead taking his ATV out to the little nesting island in Lake Francis, made accessible by drought, and gleefully smashing through every ground nest he could find. “They were just filthy seagulls.” Greye raised hell with everyone from the Audubon Society to the feds about the Wordsworthian solitude and beauty being violated. Every enlightened woman in town was on her side. The Pondera Canal and Irrigation Company which owns and operates the lake (it’s actually the reservoir for irrigation) declared that they would resolve future problems by bulldozing the island out of existence. Every practical man in town (except for the idiot who caused the trouble) was alarmed at the official hue and cry when a well-placed word would have done the job.

Another major blunder came when the town needed some gravel and the mayor went out of her way to buy it from someone other than the local gravel provider, who happened to be one of the councilmen. She let the word be passed around that the only reason he wanted to be a councilman was so he could make money off town projects. (His prices were never explored.) The bill for the gravel was high and was sprung in the council meeting AFTER the purchase. So were some other expenses, to the point where some councilmen were wondering why they were even asked to sign the checks. At one remarkable meeting the council and mayor confronted each other in lawyer-to-lawyer combat. The lawyers were embarrassed.

Then there were the Great Horse War. Horses are now forbidden in the Great Metropolis of Valier. But you can have a 4-H project, so we have hogs.

It began to appear that the mayor thought she had been elected Queen. And yet in meetings she spoke in a voice so soft no one could hear her as she sat hunched and meek beside the protective town clerk. The latter, a local solid citizen and good Mom, once lost her temper entirely with a power and righteousness that brought the meeting to order in a hurry. She apologized but she needn’t have.

Confrontations with the town employees (1 clerk and 2 maintenance men) continued. They had started with the previous mayor whose health had deteriorated badly during her tenure. The union rep came. Confrontations between councilmen and employees flared at every meeting. Behind the scenes citizens were demanding to know why THIS was done and why THAT was done and also why wasn’t that other done? But they never attended council meetings. Greye complained that the councilmen were plotting against her, lingering on the sidewalk after meetings in order to mock her. (Actually, I stood with them for a few minutes and got the impression that they were just kind of confounded and trying to blow off some emotion.)

I’ve attended nearly every council meeting for the past few years, not to follow content -- though that’s often interesting -- but rather to follow group dynamics, a major part of my training both as a minister and as a teacher. I didn’t often say anything. I did try to help find a way for an old rancher to keep a couple of horses in a field that’s technically inside the town, as he has for several years. There’s a major lesson in this situation. It could never have come to this if the townspeople had cared enough to attend meetings or even run for office. But they are all too busy for democracy. Democracy takes too much time. Let the Queen do it. Okay. Then she sets the terms. She says that everyone is so awful to her that she’s just going to move away. Okay.

1 comment:

artemesia said...

Life in a small town!

Thank you, Mary, for this!