Writings and observations

The old Tammany politico George Washington Plunkitt, one of the great cynics of public affairs, liked to say that “reformers are only mornin’ glories” – they never last. Plunkitt wasn’t all right – some reformers have gone on to do good for an extended stretch. But he wasn’t all wrong either: It’s a tough job to keep that reforming ethic intact; so many things, sometimes little things, whittle away at it.

Agie the cat Consider the cat – an easy-going, eight-year-old calico named Agie, as of now the most famous cat in Oregon – that has the city of Willamina in the biggest uproar of its recent history.

Agie was a stray kitten when she fell into the hands of Melissa Hansen, the librarian at the Oregon timber town; she named the feline for Agatha Christie. Feeling that cats and things literary go together (cat blogging, anyone?), she moved the cat into the library, with official city permission. It has been there since, developing fans around town and especially among the children at the library. The chldren also have become enamored of two other library residents, hamsters named Hamlet and Othello.

The cat (as we observed this evening) is friendly but not overbearing, and clearly in good health. She has been declawed, and has no history of biting or other violence. The hamsters were asleep, but they were shielded consistently from children and others by placement of their terrarium inside a book case – visible but not touchable.

That was the situation the Willamina City Council voted, at its meeting of December 8, to upend by banning animals from city buildings.

Hamlet and Othello the hamsters, in their cage A generalized word here about Willamina city. It is one of the many Northwest towns that used to rely, more than it can now, on timber and other industry; while full of assets and a fine location, it has consequent economic and social problems. Its city government has some history of conflict and turmoil, and at tonight’s meeting some in the audience recalled days of council members standing up and yelling at each other. Problems accumulated. In the last few years, council members and a new mayor (though veteran in city activities) came on the scene, determined to work together civilly (as they apparently have) and to solve some of the problems. By varied accounts, they have worked hard and have solved some a number of problems. People spoke of all that, too, at this evening’s council meeting.

But as councilors and constituents ruefully noted, the crowd that filled the city hall meeting room to standing room only was not there to discuss “parks or paving or budgets.”

They were there to proteest on behalf of a cat. And a couple of hamsters.

What apparently happened on December 8 – according to public and unrebutted statements by two non-councilors who attended the meeting – is that most business was undertaken over the course of a couple of hours; the small audience stepped out for a few minutes; and by the time it returned, the council, with strong backing from the mayor, had approved a motion banning animals from city buildings. Meaning, Agie, Hamlet and Othello.

Evidently – according to statements from audience members which were unrebutted – no earlier notice had been given, and no public reasons (then) were offered. The library staff was taken completely unawares, as was the rest of the city.

The council and mayor probably were taken unawares by the depth and breadth of the reaction. Agie became the talk of the town. Petitions were drafted and circulated even in local businesses; one blasting the decision and supporting the cat drew about 200 signatures (this in a city with a population of around 1,800) and was delivered to the council. The story, which broke in the Sheridan Sun, spread to the McMinnville News Register, the Salem Statesman Journal and the Portland Oregonian. Portland television stations were running stories (one of them called an assistant library on her cell phone at the council meeting). The meeting room was standing room only – the first time, all seemed to agree, in anything like recent times.

The explanations for the council decision varied. The mayor focused on legal liability should the cat, say, bite someone, and held up a letter from the city’s insurer saying the cat was not insured. (She admitted she hasn’t inquired about the cost of insuring a cat with no bad history, and gave no indication of interest in finding out.) Another council member worried about residents who might be allergic to cats. Another said that three people – all anonymous – had complained about the cat. However much validity there was in any of these reasons (which had a way of shifting around in importance during the meeting), they suggested an air less of underlying cause than of after-the-fact justification.

By the time the cat part of the meeting had ended, there was a sense that little of this was really about the cat – that something else, some other issue or person or faction or problem or emotion – was buried underneath. The explosive lay elsewhere; the cat was merely the match.

That seems evident because when you consider what would have happened in front of a real “reform” council and mayor. In that scenario, when someone brought forth an issue with the cat – be it liability, health or something else – the “good government” response would be, “Fine. Come to the next council meeting, we’ll put it on the agenda, invite the library people to answer questions, and talk about what options we might consider.” None of that happened. The decision seemed to arrive ahead of much of the justification, and certainly ahead of public involvement. And that, as much as anything else, seems to have aggravated so many of the people at the council meeting this evening.

The council at first seemed determined to stay the course. Mayor Rita Baller said she thought the only thing the council would decide at this meeting was the date by which the animals must leave the library. A proposal to take the centrist course sought by the city’s library board, to grandfather in the existing animals before imposing a ban, couldn’t find a second. But faced with a crowd of city residents testifying almost in unison to the contrary, and evidence that most of the city was opposed, none of the council members seemed eager to be the one who set that date. They deferred further action till their next meeting, next month.

That may have signalled a late awareness of a better approach – or was it a less-packed council meeting room? Council members, and the mayor, bemoaned that the public never gets as interested or involved in the workaday business of the city – budgets, streets, police, parks. But when city leaders make midnight decisions and suggest that the will of a clear and determined constituency will be rolled over, they shouldn’t be surprised at the result:

“Why bother? Why get involved? They won’t listen anyway. It’s just the same old story …”

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Some people are never satisfied. That’s actually one of the realities of legislative reapportionment: No matter how you reshape and rearrange, you can’t please everyone. That doesn’t give the displeased grounds for a lawsuit.

Idaho legislative districtsOur view on the current districting map for Idaho has been that it’s not ideal but not bad either – allowing for some problematic areas. One of those is a district connecting a small group of people near Idaho Falls with a population base located around 80 miles away near the Utah border, with no useful direct road contact between (unless you want to rev up your four wheel drive, you have to veer outside the state or district to get from one to the other). It’s an unfortunate district, no doubt. There’s another running from Homedale to Twin Falls almost as bad. Such things happen to someone in every reapportionment.

But a number of eastern Idahoans, some of them legislators or former legislators, are aggrieved, and they have taken the reapportionment back to the Idaho Supreme Court. It has been there before, during the original reapportionment process in 2002. Further challenges led to more intense inquiry but, in the Idaho Supreme Court decision released Wednesday, the result was much the same.

The easterners have argued, most essentially, that northern Idaho has gotten too much representation – too many districts for its population – while eastern Idaho has gotten too few. But what do the regions consist of? From the court decision:

Petitioners’ definition of “north” Idaho includes districts that stretch from the State’s northern border (District 1) to as far south as Payette and Fruitland (District 9), Caldwell (District 10), and Emmett and Middleton (District 11). We know of no official delineation of Idaho’s regions and we are certainly not the state’s
geography experts, but we are familiar enough with the map of our state to find it
something of a stretch to categorize Payette, Fruitland, Caldwell, Emmett, and Middleton as part of “north” Idaho. Even operating under the geographic definition Petitioners have given us, we are unable to conclude they have demonstrated that the “regional deviation” creates constitutional problems for Plan L97.


In this case, the individuals in the “northern” districts constitute 30.4 percent of
Idaho’s total population, and they are represented by eleven districts. Based on their population, they are entitled to 10.64 districts. On the other side of this coin, individuals outside the “northern” region comprise 69.6 percent of the population, and they are represented by twenty-four districts. Based on their population, non-“northern” residents are entitled to 24.36 districts. Indeed, under Plan L97, the number of districts in any region corresponds quite closely to the number of people therein. Put differently, if the total amount of underpopulation in the “northern” region is spread evenly among each “northern” district, each of the “northern” districts deviates –3.27 percent from the ideal. If the total amount of overpopulation of the non-“northern” region is spread evenly among each of the non-“northern” districts, each deviates 1.5 percent from the ideal. If the state is divided into the two regions (“north” and not-“north”), the maximum population deviation between any “northern” district and any non-“northern” district is 4.77 percent.

They can try again in another five years. But bear in mind that the fastest-growing parts of Idaho are in the southwest and the north, not in the east.

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The formal description reads: “F&M Holding Company, the parent company of Farmers & Merchants State Bank, is the largest independent bank holding company headquartered in Boise, Idaho. Farmers and Merchants State Bank, is a community banking organization established in 1967. FMSB’s business mix is both retail and commercial, with a strategic focus on business banking. Farmers & Merchants State Bank also offers trust, investments and private banking services. The Company, with $582 million in assets, has 11 full-service branches located throughout the Boise and Treasure valley area.”

Make that, “was the largest independent bank holding company headquartered in Boise, Idaho.”

Cascade Bancorp, which is based in Bend an runs the rapidly-growing Bank of the Cascades, just bought it – greatly extending its reach to the east, and making it a much larger regional player in banking. To date, Cascade has 21 branches, all in Oregon, most in central Oregon.

It now seems positioned for a larger regional growth. Speculation: Watch for entry into Washington state before long.

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Idaho Oregon

Time has come for all the year-end lists (we here too are making some lists, checking them twice), but some are more striking than others.

Consider for example the Seattle Times list of 20 stories on its web site which were most-read (or at least most-viewed) during 2005.

Number 1 on the list: “Enumclaw-area animal-sex case investigated.” Number 3: “Trespassing charged in horse-sex case.” Number 6: “Videotapes show bestiality, Enumclaw police say.” Number 14: “Details we can’t quite comprehend” (a Nicole Brodeur column about the Enumclaw case). Number 19: “Charge filed in connection with man who died having horse sex.”

That’s five out of 20: Far outweighing any other topic.

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