Despite having spent 18 consecutive years in the town, Chip still had to Google to find out just which official looking building was City Hall. When he arrived 10 minutes early for the 7:30 meeting, the closest municipal parking lot was already full and he had to go a block over to find another municipal parking lot with plenty of spaces. Apparently when word got out that the fur might fly, all of the cats in town came out to watch.
Chip had figured that by getting there early, he could secure himself a seat near the back and then by studiously looking down at his phone while the rest of the room filled up, he could avoid conversing with anyone who might ask awkward questions. This was not to be, since when he got in the meeting room, there were only two seats left unoccupied in the whole room and they were both in the front row. When he weighed the option of standing for who knew how long against the option of picking his way across the crossed ankles of 10 people in full view of everyone in the room, he chose the more restful option and headed for the least central of the two seats in the front row. Before he got there, a young woman in a gray pantsuit with a notebook slipped into the seat he had been wanting to occupy and now he had to take the last seat in the whole place: dead center in the front row.
The speaker’s podium was directly in front of him and it was obvious that the Board of Supervisors had been spending their discretionary funds lavishly. This was no particle board, assemble-it-yourself Ikea podium. This one was made of solid wood and even had three small lights across the top to indicate when the speaker’s time was up. It had the intended effect of making the five individuals in the front of the room look very important indeed to be listening to people speak from behind such a fine piece of furniture.
Chip glanced furtively down the row where he was sitting. The woman in the pantsuit had pulled a yellow writing pad from somewhere and seemed poised to transcribe at a furious pace. Further down the row, a broad-shouldered man in steel-toed work boots with a distinct pot belly must be Buck Lemaire. Chip didn’t really recognize him, but the ravages of one’s twenties as well as 45 extra pounds will do that to you. When he was in high school, Chip never really saw Buck as more than an archetype, so when he tried to picture what he looked like back then, the only face that came to mind was that of Michelangelo’s David from 10th grade art history class.
Don Mockson must be the older man with the ponytail surrounded by an adoring crowd of younger ponytail wearers. For now, they were just sitting in a small group spanning a few rows of folding chairs. Chip wasn’t sure what the difference between sitting and sitting-in was, but there was nothing confrontational about the way that they were joking with each other and drinking for reusable coffee cups. Chip wondered if Lurlene was present, but he wasn’t ready to crane his head back over his shoulder and look for her. Possibly she would just watch the meeting on instant replay tomorrow morning at the salon.
At seven thirty on the dot, according to his wristwatch that set itself from the atomic clock time standard, the man with the impressive walrus mustache sitting in the center of the dais gaveled the meeting to order with a flourish that suggested he had been practicing his gaveling and that he was doing it with a suitably august instrument that could have come in a package deal with the podium. Since he didn’t know the back story from previous meetings, the first part of the meeting which outlined the current status of the committee in the data structures of parliamentary procedure was way over his head, although he did appreciate the internal logic whereby motions had to be popped from the stack in first-in-last-out order in order to finally adjourn this proceeding sometime before midnight.
Pretentious parliamentary posturing completed, the walrus called for those who were interested in speaking for or against the current motion, whichever one that was, to line up along the aisle for their two minutes at the very nice microphone. Buck and Don and a few other people stood up from their chairs and shuffled along their rows toward the middle. He noticed that the two men kept their distance from one another which reflected well on Don Mockson. Any 65 year-old vegan yogi who could intimidate Buck Lemaire even a slight amount was worthy of respect.
The first two speakers were long time residents of the town who wanted to register their disapprobation of the mining permit on the basis of the effect it would have on local property values. Without seeming completely like greedy skinflints, both commenters said in their own way that if they thought mining would bring in enough money to make their land worth double what it was now, well then, they could take away the top of any mountains they wanted. It seemd that their arguments hinged around the fact that they didn’t think there was going to be a big enough mining boom in the town to make housing scarce and so they didn’t want to be bothered. With that message of mixed skepticism on the record, Buck Lemaire stepped up to the mic.
“My fellow citizens,” he began sonorously, “what you have seen here in Fredrickton is the conflict between progress and obstinate obstructionism.” He had obviously given this speech a number of times and with some kind of professional vocal coaching. The voice of a former quarterback had taken on a soothing tone of authority that was immediately pacifying to the restless crowd.
“The B and C mining company is committed to the responsible stewardship of all of the natural resources of this community. We recognize the value of the natural environment, and we simultaneously recognize the value that this land can have for the rest of our country’s economy. Using industry-standard mining technologies, we can transform the latent value of this very ground into a useful commodity for the thriving energy sector.” The plain folk of Fredrickton probably hadn’t been snowed with this many buzz words since the Lincoln-Douglas debates. He continued, “Those who wish to halt the engines of progress are the true enemies of the people of this town and the natural world here. They ignore the natural wonder living in this land and impose on all of us their choice to forgo the economic benefits of B and C’s resource stewardship efforts.”
Lemaire was carrying the room now, from the slightly parted lips of the reporter down the row to the nodding heads of walrus and the other supervisors. Mockson had better have some good material up under his balding ponytail or the supervisors were going to trip over each other unwinding their parliamentary ball of yarn to get this permit signed.
“In closing, my hope is that the board of supervisors along with all of the people in this room will stand on the side of progress and not obstruction. The choice is yours to be on the side of the future or the side of the past.” A few people had to stop themselves from starting to applaud as he wound up his speech just as the red light on top of the podium winked on. Turning his girth around and smiling like a used car salesman, Buck winked at Chip as he returned to his seat. What was with all of the winking now? Was Buck one of those compulsive winkers who twitch their eyelids a bit at everyone to make them feel like part of a secret club, or had he recognized Chip and wanted to gloat over some of his apparent triumph? Chip shook his head to try to get clearer answers to those questions and when he looked up, Don Mockson had stepped up to the podium.
With his craggy eyebrows and faded paisley button-down shirt, Don looked something like a cross between Gerry Garcia and Richard Nixon. Striking in his own way, he had friendly, crinkly eyes with a sharp gleam to them, a bit like a gnome or pixie. He spoke in a low, experienced voice that sounded like it had been around a city council meeting or two in its day.
“Friends and neighbors, what you have heard today from this man is the basest kind of lie.” He pointed a gnarly forefinger right at Buck’s protruding belly. “Buck Lemaire is a sweet talking company man who wants you to believe that up is down and good is bad. He calls destruction of the land care for it and claimss you that you have to choose the future he envisions for you or you will not have any future. These baldfaced lies and veiled threats are exactly what the company we are dealing with is built upon.”
The audience wasn’t expecting this sort of confrontation. Midwestern social norms make these sorts of accusations tantamount to sleeping with someone’s wife. If you’re going to live in the same small town with someone for 5 generations, you don’t want to go around calling them a liar and a bully. Unused to this kind of talk, Buck was starting to get a bit red in the face and sliding toward the front edge of the chair. Those watching could feel it too and the groaning of 100 folding chairs as everyone shifted slightly forward punctuated the pause in Mockson’s rebuttal.
“The B and C mining corporation has paid over 11 million dollars in fines to the Environmental Protection Agency over the past 5 years for violations connected with their frac sand mines in Wisconsin and Minnesota. They remain one of the most profitable companies in the mining sector because they are very good at getting permission from small towns to come in and do their thing. If you talk to people who live in those towns where the mines are now, they will tell you that the bottom line doesn’t pan out for the community, only for the company. B and C made 395 million dollars selling frac sand last year and paid most of their profits out as bonuses to their fat-cat executives. While they took their money to the bank, kids in southwest Wisconsin had to stop walking to school because silica dust in the air gave them long lasting coughs.”
“In addition to their profiteering in small towns, B and C excels at using the courts to get their way, no matter what those communities say. If our supervisors choose to deny this permit tonight, then B and C will file suit in state court tomorrow for violating state preemption, the principle that towns can’t ban what is normal practice throughout the state. Even if we could convicne the entire state of Iowa decided to ban this kind of mining, then they could sue in federal court for violating the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution.”
“So, while I certainly hope that you supervisors will take a stand for the health and welfare of the community that you swore to represent, I don’t think it will do a lick of good. This company and others like them have stacked the legal deck against people like us. It is against the law for us to say what is and is not allowed in our own community.”
“Which is why I came here tonight not to call for a no vote on this motion, but to call for all of us in this room to stand up and fight for what we know to be the right choice.” As he said this, his band of supporters began to stand up. They raised their hands in the air and began to chant along with Don at the microphone “Commerce Clause has got to go!” Most everyone in the room had no idea what that clause might say and some of them might not even have known what a clause is in the first place, but every mob loves to chant, so the audience began to get up from their chairs and raise their hands and shout along, “Commerce Clause has got to go! Commerce Clause has got to go!”
As the mob energy began to build, Buck Lemaire jumped up from his seat and his red face threatened to boil over. He started to fume and glance around as if trying to record the names of everyone who had forsaken progress. The walrus was gaveling like crazy at the front of the room, but it only added a frantic backbeat to the chanting. As the sound rose to a crescendo, Buck pointed his finger at Don Mockson at the podium and shouted in his best quarterback bark “That’s enough out of you, old man!”
Mockson dropped like a sack of rocks. The room went silent and all eyes were on the front of the room. As his body fell, he rolled slightly to the side and came to rest on the ground with his head lying on my shoes, eyes staring up into mine. No longer shouting, he wasn’t even breathing. Don Mockson was dead.