Wednesday, December 11, 2013


Meagher County is a Montana county that is the “center” of the population of the state, though that means only that it is a small community about halfway between the bulk of the population which tends to be attached to mountains because of resource economics, and therefore divided into two centers, east and west.  Meagher County is not typical of the high population areas ( Montana has NO major city) or the four university-located towns: Missoula, Bozeman, Great Falls and Billings.  But it IS typical of the homesteader-based, small merchant, and ranching people.  White Sulphur Springs, the capital, got its kickstart from hot springs which were never developed into a major resort, but still attract a steady flow of people.

White Sulphur Springs

Today the librarian is the one in hot water.  There is no controversy over the books per se, but a struggle over the building, which has become the focus of what I interpret as foundational forces that are now typical of the whole state and even the whole country.  That is, the management of tangible assets like the building and a management “style” which is, let’s say, non-collaborative.  The latter does not value humanities.  These two forces are typical of men who run ranches, businesses, and schools in this state -- probably just about everywhere rural.  I’d throw most churches into that pot as well.  It’s the norm most places that are still dominated by older white men.

According to the GF Tribune, the underlying problem here is quite literal:  the library building is on unstable ground, which is not surprising given the kind of geological forces that create hot springs.  The 2007 building had problems because the ground underneath was unstable.  Rebuilding was necessary in 2008, mold damage required two months of mitigation in 2009, and now there is a smell of sewer gas and the librarian, who is in the building the most, has developed strong allergic reactions.  

I’d be very curious about who managed to sell this land to the county for its library and what review by site development engineers was in place.  In the nineties I was the clerical support for the City of Portland’s site development team, becoming well aware of the kind of shenanigans that go on when someone wants to make some money and potential problems are “underground.”  No doubt there are people who have good reasons for not wanting such shifty stuff to be investigated.  When the librarian, Debbie Benedict, an eight-year veteran, was gone to a librarian’s conference, the carpets were shampooed, some kind of sealant was put on windows, and a trustee, acting as an individual, spread “essential oils” all around.  It was a “smother-up.”  Cosmetics in the face of possible structural problems.

The returned librarian, who says she’s made seriously ill from the smell in the library and believes it is actively dangerous, used the only weapon she had: she refused to open the library and work in it.  A “loss control specialist” employed by the Montana Association of Counties came in, looked around, and said he didn’t see any problem.  An “industrial hygienist" from the Montana Department of Labor and Industry came and tested for mold, but that was all, though she recommended that a licensed plumber take a hard look at the sewer system and suggested the installation of air scrubbers in the ventilation system.  The next level up of air testing would cost $1,500, which the Friends of the Library offered to pay in full.  The commissioners refused the offer.  The potential cost of sewer repair and land stabilization could go higher than the value of the building.

Instead, the trustees called a short-notice meeting and fired Benedict without public input.  That’s how you get rid of female pain-in-the-ass employees -- and wives.  The cows go to auction.  Little problems just become big problems unless you end them.  Don't get rid of the complaint -- get rid of the complainer.

There are two or three or maybe four issues here.  One is the importance of air purity which is taken far more seriously these days than just a “stink,” particularly when children are involved.   This issue seems -- at root -- about the building.  The building itself sounds pretty questionable -- the inspectors I worked with would challenge it.  Maybe state people ought to be taking a good look at how a public building came to be built on unstable land.  

If I were a member of the Friends of the Library in Meagher County, I would be thinking about moving the whole shebang to a different building or maybe even a different town in the county.  If the county officials would not support that, perhaps it is time for a private library foundation separate from their oversight, even in another town.   Possibilities include  Martinsdale, Checkerboard, Lennep or Ringling.   

Charles M. Bair

Checkerboard and Lennep are pretty small and not incorporated but there’s a lot of land for sale.  "Martinsdale was the home of the poet Grace Stone Coates, author of Black Cherries, Mead & Mangel-Wurzel, and Portulacas in the Wheat. It was also the home of Charles M. Bair one of the largest and most successful sheep ranchers in the United States, and the former Bair family home is now a museum.  Ringling is perhaps best known as the setting for portions of Ivan Doig’s 1979 book, This House of Sky. The town was also the subject of the Jimmy Buffett song "Ringling, Ringling" featured on his 1974 album Living and Dying in 3/4 Time."  Ringling is on highway 89 and in the path of “Chinook” winds, so gets a bit of winter warming.  Looks like Martinsdale or Ringling are good candidates.  

I suppose the next lawsuit would be over who owns the books.  I suspect that the County was paying for heat, lights, salaries but not much for books.  Benedict might be able to specify which books they did or did not buy.  Interesting stuff at the national level -- far more interesting than a little spat over firing one librarian who was too stubborn for her own good.  (Been there, done that.  Times have changed.)  It raises questions about the value of books, the practice of de-accessioning, and who owns the computers that equip most libraries.  Not unlike the early Congregational church splits in which there were legal battles over the Communion silver.  So many pesky problems.

But beyond these issues is an old-fashioned ham-handed management style that works in a private context and even in public venues if the citizens don’t care enough to get involved.  Forced compliance, cover-ups, denial, and quiet behind-the-scenes deals cannot be sustained in the long run.  Not because of high ideals, but because they don’t work.  Eventually, the truth comes to light, or an accumulation of small problems turns into a big one. (What happens if there’s an earthquake -- very common around Montana -- that brings the roof of that library down on a visiting group of school kids?)  Sewer smells are meant to be alarm signals.  Something underground is still shifting.

What happens if the citizens actually get interested enough to vote?  The most recent election was October 16.   There are three commissioners serving staggered terms.  Take a look at them.  Look like “good old boys” to you?  Their annual salary from this county job is a little over $7,000.  Why do you think they want these jobs?  For the library card?

I wonder if they have realized that they can be personally sued for bad decisions as commissioners.   Of course, maybe they did the right thing.

1 comment:

Ron Scheer said...

An irony that WSS was once the stomping grounds of writer Ivan Doig.