Friday, December 20, 2013


When I moved to Valier in 1999, the mayor was an older man who ran a loose ship and most people seemed to like it that way. 

The next was Velda Loch, a person with strong social skills who grew up in the town.

The next is McKenzie Graye, a person from the urban NW with a lot of corporation experience and a feminist skew.  Mayor Loch was plagued with poor health, but knew how to network the state for help with the problems that dog every small town in Montana, partly because the infrastructures are aging out and partly because the population is unstable -- receding very far from the boom days when they were built, but then jerking back into action in response to a new wave of industrial resource development like frakking and wind farms.  

Both recent mayors brought in grants and loans to help pay for a new water tower, an expansion of the sewage lagoon, and some work on the “collection tree” of pipes under the town streets, unseen but vital.    Drought and a sinking well water table made water meters necessary, which some considered an invasion of privacy.  Water access had come to be taken for granted, like rain.  A new well was begun and a new watertower built.

The ladies didn’t get much praise for this.  The town worries about potholes, dust and chickens.  But they are VERY worried about money, so they voted down the levy meant to address the streets.  At the last election the town gadfly, who is sometimes so troublesome that he has had to be escorted out by a deputy sheriff, has been elected mayor.  He had used the work on infrastructure, or more specifically the financing of them, as a wedge issue to imply the same dreads that are chewing on the nation:  corruption, unnecessary expense, connections producing personal gain, and the search for scapegoats.  Now the gadfly has become the mayor.  He will bring his high-lighted spreadsheets, his dubious bookkeeping, his scorn for any regulation, into office.

A contract -- which he opposed -- has just been signed to improve the sewage treatment plant so the town will pass the increasingly stringent standards imposed by the state and DEQ.  At the most recent meeting, the elected but not sworn-in mayor once again objected that he thought it was unnecessary, that he knew better ways, and so on.  The present mayor again explained the steps of logic that led to the contract.  I have sat in many previous meetings as she has explained it to the same man.  

He always brings props.  Flourishing his charts and spreadsheets, he tacked them to the bulletin board (Luther nailing up his objections to the church door) and made the same claims.  The mayor explained again.  Then another time.  This man could not assimilate the information.  The town employee who is closely involved in the matter explained it.  No impact.  The mayor tried again, louder.  A letter from our town water master, quoting difficulties just like ours in Fort Benton, was read aloud.  Brushed aside.

Finally, Shannon Gabbard,  a deputy sheriff and board member, who was not re-elected although IMHO he is exceptionally gifted at this kind of situation, stepped in with new information, reminding us all of atypical weather conditions that have occasionally overwhelmed the lagoon.  He mentioned the illegal access to the sewage lagoon through an unmonitored manhole.  The lagoon has been discovered floating with grease rags, with feminine hygiene applicators, with paper debris that could NOT have come through the town sewage collection system, and with quantities of wheat, most of which came from private “honey trucks” that pump out septic tanks (very few of which are located in town) and which could not be digested by the lagoon bacteria.  Permission for honey trucks to discharge directly into the Valier sewers has been suspended.  Monitoring the manhole would mean an expensive camera which would undoubtedly be vandalized, but the practice seems to have stopped.

The actual construction and function of the Valier lagoon depends upon bacteria digesting sewage.  When the water is “finished,” it goes into the water table.  The state requires testing of effectiveness and will impose fines if the tests are flunked.  Valier’s lagoon began to flunk too often, esp in cold weather.  The Town Council asked engineers to investigate.  The problem seems to be that the aerators are at the top of the water where they can freeze and that the circulation in the water is “short-circuiting” -- that is, by-passing the farther regions.  The remedy recommended is a floating cover and relocation of the aerators to under the water where the air forced through to keep the bacteria breathing will also be heated.  

At the same time as this struggle goes on, state and federal regulatory bodies keep imposing higher standards on the quality of the sewage treatment so though the objective numbers are the same, they are now sometimes technically below par.  The town council was so eager to demonstrate good intentions and so well-prepared on their application for help that the state has given the town a temporary "pass" providing they won’t be fined so long as they keep making progress towards solving the problem.  But each violation is recorded.

What the gadfly and other dinosaurs can NOT understand, no matter how many times it’s explained, is that the state and national government can impose requirements and levy fines.  The balkers seem to classify that with climate change and Obama-care, some kind of flimflam for political reasons.  The realistic bottom line was expressed by Velda Loch, who made an impassioned, eloquent, informed, and generously motivated attempt to get this confronter to see what is at risk:  the welfare of Valier.  At last he shut up.  We are desperately hoping he will not use the same tactics on the state that he used to get elected.  Luckily, the mayor has no power not authorized by the council.

Very few citizens attend these council meetings.  They say there is no use to it, that voting all incumbents out and boycotting meetings is an effective protest against a world that has turned against them.   Yet democracy cannot work if the citizens do not participate beyond playing thumbs-up/thumbs-down at elections as though it were just a video game.  First the co-ops began to fail, then the schools begin to hurt, the volunteer firefighters and EMT’s wear out, the churches shrink, and so on.  One day there is no town.

  An excellent article about the same subject in Bozeman is at

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