Don Rogers: Grand show at the people’s house
I thought I’d spend the morning at the county supervisors meeting this week.
No particular reason. I could catch up on email, take some notes, get away from the office, maybe write a little.
It’s like working in a coffeshop amid the buzz. Novels have been written this way, J.K. Rowling’s most famously.
I found plenty of buzz in the supervisors’ chambers, but sadly, no coffee.
Board meetings are an acquired taste, like German opera. But listen closely enough and you’ll catch the tune. Government dramas tend to start out deceptively melodious. But wait for it: A sharp whine or a grand bloviation at the lectern for public comment as one gadfly or another finds their voice, a clarion.
Entertaining as the loud scenes turn out, I think I prefer the long calms between storms, savoring the quiet hum as a board legislates the rest of the docket, those boring but essential parts, like the HVAC system kicking on.
As long as it’s not your ox being gored, witnessing a body conducting the people’s business can be sublime.
I won’t go so far as to declare love for these proceedings, but there is a charm to the legalesy cadence in the rote parts — the vote counts, the introductions to ordinances and resolutions and presentations, the honorifics. Especially the honorifics, this hint of gravitas, this note of civility sometimes ringing amid pandemonium.
As theater, government bodies are as distinctive as Shakespeare. There’s a level of understanding to crack through before the language begins to make sense. Then you might catch the verbal swordplay, the subtle shifts in voice, the innocent-sounding question leading to what the players and the discriminating observer might find a withering riposte. Opera or baseball should be so scintillating in these moments.
All this while the support staff, a mostly silent Greek chorus, all gaze into their laptops, poker faced, ears perked for a question or a cue to trigger the next act.
I suppose I’ve become an aficionado in the long years since I covered these meetings myself, one more participant in the pageantry. County boards are the major bodies in rural counties, and I’ve observed ones with as few as three members and as many as 17 for an upstate New York County about half our size. They are fingerprints, each unique while doing the very same work.
I’ll admit I do tend to love the characters who fill their roles, even or especially those most vexed at me. Hate ’em, love ’em, they are among the blessed few willing to step up this way.
This is what I’m thinking in my seat, backpack serving as desk for my laptop. It’s been awhile, too long. Still, old habits come right back, familiar as that bicycle from childhood.
On this morning, the entertainment will be lower brow, all blunt blows. The early tip-off comes with the entrance of a bunch of proudly unmasked residents who prove quick to demand respect and bear the body language of the easily aggrieved.
Their ringleader is smartly dressed, a well-practiced speaker, and appears to enjoy attention. I think he oversteps in his eagerness to cluck at the supervisors as the day’s session opens, eroding the regard he expects from them as his band loudly echoes his example.
OK, then, it’s going to be one of those mornings. Looking around, I see this has become a regular feature. Now I understand the presence of a few more deputies than I’m used to seeing in this setting, each inured to today’s budding fireworks.
This bunch fashions themselves “the people,” as if speaking for you and me as well. Of course, that’s only a rhetorical tic borrowed from every national level politician near a microphone. The ringleader and several others clearly enjoy hearing themselves speak in similar modulation.
I enjoy them at this level of performance, too. I disagree almost completely with their content, but I can divorce substance from presentation and appreciate the show. Besides, I agree fundamentally with their right to be there, even as they begin to border on hectoring and the deputies get a lot more alert.
There’s the young teen put up to lecturing the supervisors about how things are supposed to go, but who won’t until later see actual legislation in action — that quieter hum around a Firewise Communities Program presentation and awarding of a grant, then a report and level-headed discussion on progress following the big snowstorm and the hard work ahead.
There’s the woman who presumes to speak for God; the guy who knows everything, which is all bad, always; the gadfly in the cowboy hat who never quite sits before lining up again for the lectern; the physician who displays in his first words why he might not be the very first choice for public health officer.
The cumulative effect is to grow my respect for the supervisors, the staff, the deputies who surprise me with their easy way with the people who have trouble managing themselves. It’s not long before these folks are back in the room and back at the lectern, more or less politely, moths to the microphone.
I’m sure it’s all very wearying for the public servants trying to get the people’s business done. And frustrating — though with a distinct undertone of righteous satisfaction — for the devoted critics.
I leave reassured, though. This is America pretty much as it has always been, so familiar across our great country. Bless our hearts. There is hope for us.
Don Rogers is the publisher of the Sierra Sun and The Union, based in Grass Valley. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 530-477-4299
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