High Value, Chapter 1: The Public Hearing


“This is socialism. You all are way out of line.”

Justin Stark watched Brendon Klein step back from the podium and lumber to his chair. The big man carried his indignity with him to his seat, his shaved-bald head red with anger. Klein was the owner of the local grocery store, which he had inherited from his father. Everyone in the room knew that Klein had no intention of putting a digital sign outside of his store, but that didn’t stop his sense of self-righteousness from feeding off the smattering of applause offered by the sparse audience.

Stark knew he was going to get the blame for proposing the new ordinance they were discussing that day, but the piece of it that prohibited digital signs hadn’t been his idea. As the city planner, he was just doing his job, working as he was directed, trying to stay out of trouble. The ordinance was not a bad move, but it wasn’t the right time. It was definitely not the right time.

Of course, none of the commissioners knew that. Stark was the only one in attendance aware of the trouble that was coming, the controversy that would dominate this room over the coming months. The person it would impact the most was Brendon Klein. In fact, it would probably wreck him. This was not the time to pick a fight with the man.

Stark turned his head when Keith Nair, the chairman of the Chippewa Lakes planning commission, pounded the gavel in a facile attempt at restoring order. Like Stark, Nair was a bureaucrat in his day job, only Nair worked for the county board of soil and water. Here in his second term as an unpaid volunteer on the city’s planning commission, Nair was completely overmatched, a small man in a pudgy body. His utter lack of consequence was why Nair had been appointed to the planning commission. It was also why his cutthroat peers had elected him chair.

The planning commission typically heard requests for zoning changes, special use permits, variances from the city code, and other related matters that impacted development of their small town.

Tonight, the five members of the commission were gathering public input on the new digital sign ordinance. Those in attendance were making it very clear that they were not supportive of the change. Nair was under siege, and Stark felt some guilt for finding comedy in his discomfort.

“Mr. Chair, may I speak?”

The question came from Rob Freehet, who sat just to the right of the chair. Freehet was one of Klein’s best friends; they both grew up in Chippewa Lakes. Stark knew that both Freehet and Klein were former football stars at the local high school, and both now had tall and athletic kids of their own, repeating the cycle. The two of them seemed to settle comfortably into middle age, their bodies now thicker and slower than they’d appeared in photos of their glory days. Of the two, only Freehet maintained a full head of hair.

“Commissioner Freehet.” Nair nodded, giving Freehet the floor.

“I agree with you, Brendon. The bank has had a digital sign for years and nobody is claiming that it damages the character of the community.”

“It’s a time and temperature sign.” The interruption came from the far left. Ashley Bare (spelled like the word synonymous with “uncovered,” but actually pronounced Bar-eh) broke formal protocol by speaking without first being acknowledged. Stark barely managed not to laugh. Speaking out of turn wasn’t unheard of with this group, especially for Bare, the youngest member. Nor would an interruption have been out of line for most meetings, but only Bare could be so oblivious to the current tension in the room.

Nair tried to maintain order. “Commissioner Bare, Commissioner Freehet has the floor.”

“Thank you, Mr. Chair,” Freehet said, and Stark caught the subtext of smugness directed at Bare. “As I was saying, we are all comfortable with the bank, even though their sign is digital. I recognize that the new signs have more modern technology, but unless we’re going to force the bank to remove their sign, which I don’t support, then I don’t see why we would prohibit our other local businesses from modernizing their approach, as well. It’s a competitive marketplace, and I don’t want our local businesses to fall behind.”

Bare breathed in deeply and let out a long sigh. Stark turned and saw her staring straight ahead, gazing past the small crowd out at one of the unadorned and windowless white walls that enclosed the meeting room. For anyone else, it might have been an act, but he doubted Bare could act. Everything from her thrift store clothes to that mop of dark, frizzy hair screamed authenticity. Her hands were folded, the impatient tapping of her right index finger on her left knuckles drowned out by the hum of fluorescent lights. She was clearly annoyed.

The chairman looked left toward Bare. Stark sensed that Nair was about to say something when he was preempted by the raised hand of Nancy Hjerne, the commission member who sat between Nair and Bare.

Hjerne was a middle school teacher. Where Bare was painfully authentic, Hjerne seemed to be smuggling authenticity in as part of an act that, had she been twenty years younger, would have made for a bland Instagram profile. With a little too much makeup, and a wardrobe that tried too hard not to be beige, she asserted control of her surroundings by being a mental step ahead of everyone else. She was the only commission member who had served longer than Nair. The restrictions on digital signs were her current passion project.

“Yes, Commissioner Hjerne.”

“Thank you, Mr. Chair. I respect what my colleague has said about the bank and would never ask them to remove their sign.”

Stark heard an extended groan from the far right of the commissioners’ table, from Chris Ekte, the only member who had yet to speak. Ekte, an ice salesman, didn’t care for Hjerne. That was obvious to Stark and to anyone else who spent five minutes around the two. Ekte was thick, not in the formerly athletic way of Freehet, but more like a farmer or a mason who had been away from hard physical labor for a few years, but was still eating as if he spent his days throwing hay or hauling bricks. Hjerne thought he was thick in the brain, too, a sentiment that Stark understood but didn’t fully agree with. Ekte wasn’t book smart, but he wasn’t dumb, either.

Hjerne glared at her colleague while Ekte scanned the audience, seeking silent support for his guttural outburst. “As I was saying,” she continued, “nobody wants the bank to remove their sign, but the people of this community do not want it to look like every other place along the highway, either. Like most people who live here, my husband and I moved to Chippewa to enjoy life on the lake. It’s the unique character of this community that brought people here in the first place, and continues to bring people here today. That is just as much of a market advantage as anything else, and certainly more important than any sign.”

Stark could almost feel Ekte’s gaze bearing down on the chairman. He didn’t need to raise his hand to signal to Nair that he was ready to speak.

“Commissioner Ekte.”

“What happens if the bank’s sign blows down? Can they put up a new one?” He was staring at Hjerne, making clear whom he was directing the abrupt question to.

“Mr. Chair, the staff can correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe it would be a legal non-conforming structure,” Hjerne stated. “They would have the right to replace what is there, but they couldn’t expand it.”

Stark knew he would be asked to provide clarification but, before he could speak, Ekte fired back at Hjerne.

“So, if the sign blows down, they have to find the same one, or they are out of luck. They don’t even make those signs anymore. I can’t vote for an ordinance that hurts local businesses.” Ekte was consistently opposed to any regulation, including this new proposal.

“Mr. Chair, may I speak?” The request came from the far left.

“Commissioner Bare, you may have the floor after we get clarification from the staff.”

Stark suddenly felt all the attention in the room shift to him. He knew it was coming, but it still made him feel uncomfortable. Stark took pride in his consistency and competence, but he didn’t crave the limelight, as some city planners did.

“Mr. Chair,” Stark said, adhering to protocol out of a sense of professionalism, “Commissioner Hjerne is correct. The bank’s sign would be a legal, non-conforming structure. If it fell down by accident, they could put it back within 90 days and there would be no problem.”

Hjerne smiled at Stark, tight lipped. He knew that she mostly approved of him, although he strove never to cross her. Stark was glad she wasn’t the chair.

“Yeah, but what if the sign went out and they wanted to change it? Are you saying they’re stuck with what they have forever? That’s dumb,” Ekte said. A plodding round of applause welled up from the handful of people in the crowd.

“Mr. Chair,” Stark replied, “we can change this ordinance to say whatever we want. That is why we are having this discussion.” Stark knew that last line was unnecessary, but it was annoying to be used as a punching bag in a situation like this. That was the job, though.

Another deep sign came from the far left. Stark didn’t even have to look to know it was Bare. Nair turned his attention there.

“Commissioner Bare, you may have the floor.”

“Thank you,” Bare said, with obvious insincerity. “Nobody in this conversation has mentioned the environment. The climate emergency. Rising water levels.”

A muffled but gruff chuckle came from the audience. Bare continued, unfazed.

“The types of digital signs being used today require lots of electricity. Lots of energy. And for what? What is being sold at the grocery store or Anderson’s or wherever that you can’t discover in some other way? We all have smartphones, now. Why do we need to be wasting energy with more digital signs?”

“And nobody talks about how unfair this is for those who are disadvantaged. Mateo Rodriguez and his partner, Gloria, just started the new flower shop downtown. Do you think they can afford a digital sign? I don’t know how many of you go there, but I do, and I can assure you, they cannot afford a $50,000 or $100,000 digital sign, or whatever it costs. This city should be supporting them, and others like them, instead of allowing corporate America to come in here and exploit this community.”

There was a hush in the room while everyone assessed whether Bare was done speaking. Stark thought she was, but it was never obvious. After an uncomfortable pause in which Bare slid away from her microphone and into the back of her chair, Brendon Klein got up and approached the podium signaling, as a member of the audience, that he wished to be recognized a second time.

“Mr. Klein, do you have an additional comment?” Chairman Nair asked.

“Yes, I do.”

“Please, be brief, and refrain from repeating what you’ve already said.”

Stark saw Klein rolling his eyes at the ceiling, giving the impression that he would say whatever he wanted to say. Everyone knew that he would and that Nair would do nothing to stop him.

“My family has owned the grocery store in town since 1955. I am the third generation to run it and, hopefully if he wants to, my son will run it after me. If we, as private business owners, believe that we need a digital sign to make it in this town, I hope and pray that this planning commission doesn’t stand in our way. No business should be hindered by an ordinance.”

Hjerne seemed to be upset by how far off track the melodrama of the evening had taken the discussion. Her discussion. Stark saw her make a motion to ask for the floor, but she was interrupted by Freehet, who spoke first without being recognized.

“Mr. Chair, it is late and we have received the input we came for. I make a motion to table this matter until our next meeting.”

That was interesting, Stark thought. A motion to table was a proper motion, and he wasn’t going to complain about it, especially this late in the meeting, but tabling at this point was hardly the etiquette for something like this. It was basically a motion to kill the discussion, not only for the time being, but also forcing things to start over if digital signs were brought up again in the future.

“We have a motion, do we have a second,” Nair said.

“I object to the motion,” Hjerne replied. “There is a lot more to discuss and that is what we are here to do. I would like staff to…”

She was cut off by Freehet.

“Point of order, Mr. Chair. We are waiting for a second to my motion.”

Stark looked back and forth between Freehet and Hjerne, the two staring at each other in a procedural standoff. Freehet was technically correct: The proper procedure was to pause to see if there was a second to the motion. It was a jerk move, though, and everyone knew it.

Before Nair could respond to Hjerne’s objection, Ekte stated, “I second the motion.”

Stark had not expected fireworks at this meeting, but it was hard to predict when sparks would fly with this group. He waited to see how Nair would handle the drama.

“We have a motion and a second,” Nair said. “All those in favor of tabling this matter until the next regular meeting?”

Stark heard two “aye” votes from the right side, with Freehet and Ekte voting simultaneously to bring things to a close. If Bare stuck with Hjerne, which was likely, given how they usually voted, then it would all come down to the feckless Nair. Stark leaned forward in anticipation of getting to watch Nair squirm.

Hjerne spoke next, her hands waving in the air, shifting between flailing and pointing. “This item is on the agenda for discussion and I have come prepared to discuss it. It is inappropriate, and a waste of time, for this commission to…”

“Mr. Chair. A point of order.” It was Freehet interrupting again. “The rules of order state that there is no discussion on a motion to table. It eithers passes or it doesn’t. If we are going to continue the discussion on digital signs, the motion on the floor to table needs to be defeated.”

All eyes in the room went to Nair. Stark wondered what he would do. Freehet was technically correct, that a motion to table was not subject to debate, according to the rules of order, but when did they follow rules of order that closely? Nair probably didn’t even know the rules, and he doubted any of them had a rule book to refer to, if it should come to that. This was procedural bullying, a tactic Hjerne had used many times, but which Stark had never seen used this way on her.

“We have two votes in favor of tabling. Are there any more?” Nair paused and a moment of silence followed. “Hearing none, all opposed.”

Hjerne stated “nay,” expecting Bare to join her, but she was the only one who spoke. Stark joined the others in turning to Bare on the far left of the table. She sat still for a few seconds, just staring, then threw up her hands in a gesture of exasperation.

“This discussion is going nowhere. I vote to table,” Bare said.

“Motion is tabled. Meeting is adjourned.” Nair pounded the gavel and, at the crack of wood on wood, the tension of the moment broke.

Now the hard work began. Stark knew that he was about to set in motion something that would consume this board, and likely this entire community, for many months to come. It would change many lives, in ways good and bad. He would avoid it if he could, but this was his job. Best to get things moving.

“Mr. Chair?” He spoke loudly enough so he could be heard by everyone on the planning commission. “Could I speak to you and Vice Chair Hjerne before you leave? We have a request for a pre-submission conference.”

Stay tuned next week for chapter two!

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