12 February, 2011

EXCERPT from The Muckraker's Chronicle: In The Back Room

The Arliss County Animal Control and Mental Health Committee met every second Wednesday at nine in the morning in a back room at the dilapidated white wooden paneled building where the Mental Health Board had their offices. The building had, once upon a time, been where the Highway Department had their offices; but they built themselves a new brick building with better windows, more insulation, and with floors that didn't buckle in places, along with with a bigger, more modern garage for the equipment and trucks. The building sat empty for another couple of years until the county, whose hand was forced by the state, created the Mental Health Board. Then, the (at the time) new board chairman Johnny Franz pushed through a measure to consolidate the committees – which led to Animal Control and Mental Health being made into a single committee, since nearly everyone agreed that the only thing more useless than worrying about crazy people was worrying about stray dogs.

The first few minutes was generally conciliatory and boring. Going over the bills. This never took long, because there were never a lot of bills to pay. Stan Sheraton, the committee chair, wasn't one to dawdle over such things as signing off on checks. He wanted to get business done and get back to North Eustacia, where he was the part-time Assistant Fire Chief. There weren't many fires in North Eustacia – but once upon a time his brother was the mayor and his older cousin was the Fire Chief – an unpaid position at that time that primarily allowed him to drive the fire truck in parades. Sheraton was given the title of Assistant Fire Chief primarily because his cousin had a tendency to lock himself in the back room of the barn where the fire trucks were kept and drink homemade rye until he was blind drunk. Later, when the people of North Eustacia had decided they'd had enough, they pushed to make the position a paying one so that the Chief would at least stop siphoning off the fire truck gas to sell. Even this didn't last, however; an honest to god fire happened that resulted in the death of a 10 month old girl named Ada-Lee. Not only was the chief too drunk to respond, but he'd managed to drain the gas tank. The ripple effect of this was that the mayor lost his reelection bid by a land slide and the new mayor hired someone else to be the new part-time Fire Chief, completely jumping over Sheraton, who was kept on because no one really had any issues with him other than his family being littered with fools.

As a result, Stan Sheraton was very conscious of public opinion – which was in part why he was elected to the county board and given the less than glamorous task of chairing the most irrelevant committee in the county.

After the bills were taken care of, Jon Simms the county Dog Catcher – who insisted that he be called the Animal Control Officer in spite of the fact that he never did anything but pick up stray dogs, since he despised cats and refused to handle any wild animal calls – gave his report. In short, there was nothing to report. There was only one dog call, he said, and it turned out to be a rabid raccoon.

“And you didn't try to capture the animal?” asked Babette Rooney. She was handpicked by Chairman Franz to finish the term of Doug Tourney, who died of extreme heart failure at the age of 57. Rooney, who had married into one of the biggest farm families in the county, had once been Don Franz's high school sweetheart, and it was thought by some that he either chose her out of some kindness at the memory of her after their senior prom or because the relationship had continued off and on through the years, or because hers was the only farm in the county that rivaled his for size and affluence in the county. She didn't like her committee assignment any more than Sheraton... but unlike Sheraton, who was a Democrat, Babette was a dye in the wool Republican and so was also given a Tourney's old seat on the Finance Committee. She didn't like Jon Simms, who had been given the duty of Dog Catcher to keep him from falling drunk in the gutter, and she didn't like that the county had to worry about stray dogs at all. That, she figured, was what a bullet was for.

“Well,” Simms shifted uncomfortably in his chair. “It was a RACCOON, and I didn't have the right tool in the truck.”

“So what happened?”

“The complainant shot the animal.”

“And what did YOU do?”

“I... uh... collected the remains and took it to the vet to perform an autopsy.”

“And what's the point of THAT?”

“To... uh... make sure it wasn't rabid.”

“But it was already DEAD. Right?” Old Charlie Bale asked that question. He, like Sheraton, had been relegated to that committee due his ignominious party affiliation.

“Uh... yes.”

“So what's the point in an autopsy?”

“State law requires that any animal suspected of being rabid be tested.” Simms recited it like he'd read and practiced it in front of the mirror that very morning.

Babette rolled her eyes and shook her head. “State law.” She spit the words out. “And who has to pay for this... dissection?”

“Uh... we do.”

“Sheesh!” She said. That was as close as she got to cussing... most of the time.

“So... uh, anyway... other than that...” Simms looked like he was ready to run for the door. “There's not much else to report, really.”

“What's this, on your expense report about $50 for a new pair of boots?” asked Willis Cranston, another committee member. He was also on the Zoning Committee – an appointment he'd wanted in order to push through a zoning change around his house to make his property easier to cut up and sell. He'd been on the committee for a year and had his eye on the chairmanship of that committee come the next election.

“Well,” Jon shifted in his seat and looked at the floor. Whenever he shifted in the old wooden chair, it creaked and wobbled like it was going to come apart any minute. It was also significantly shorter, like it was made for someone even shorter than he already was. “Boots wear out and you gotta replace them.”

“Do you ONLY wear the boots while you're working?” Babette asked.

“Uh...well. Not NECESSARILY.”

“How much did the boots cost again?” That was Mike Seaver. He could barely walk and had two hearing aids, one on each ear. He often excused himself from meetings to go to the bathroom, and when it was too icy outside, someone had to meet him outside and help him in so he didn't fall and hurt himself.

“FIFTY DOLLARS,” Sheraton spoke loudly.

“They must be fancy boots,” Seaver commented.

“So...” Babette leaned in and took aim. “You don't just wear these boots while you're doing your duty...” she paused as if the word choked her “.., as Dog Catcher?”

“Not only while I'm Animal Control Officer, no.”

“Ugh. Fine,” Babette said with disgust. “ANIMAL CONTROL OFFICER. But if you didn't wear them out on the job, why should the county have to buy you boots?”

“Well, I did...”

“You're telling me that you don't make enough money to buy a separate pair of shoes?”

“Well, I don't think we should ask the tax payers of Arliss County to buy you a new pair of boots just because you can't manage the money you're paid.” Babette's dark eyes were gleaming. She knew she had won the argument and was now just enjoying watching Jon squirm.

Sheraton cut the victory short, though. “Did you use county money, Jon?”

“Uh... no. I was hoping that I might get reimbursed...”

“Ha!”Babette snorted.

“We can't reimburse you for boots you use for other than official county business,” Sheraton said.

“Can't I get partially reimbursed?”

“What percentage of time would you say you wear the boots for official county business?” Babette asked.

“Huh?” Jon looked like his eyes were about to explode out of his head.

“If you can give use some … PRECISE ACCOUNTING … on just how much time is spent doing your job when you wear the boots, maybe we can come up with an acceptable percentage.”

Simms looked at the floor. It looked like he was thinking – hard – about what to say next. It was difficult to tell if he smart enough to see through Babette's statement. If he gave a generous percentage, they'd make him explain what he did. If he gave a more honest one, they'd ask him why his job was needed in the first place, or why they should bother keeping him as Dog Catcher.  Sorry. Animal Control Officer.

He spoke very carefully. “I... uh... don't have those numbers.”

“Well,” Babette sat back in her chair like she had just finished a large meal. “Then I don't see how we can grant you a reimbursement.”

“Sorry, Jon,” Sheraton added. But it was pretty clear that he wasn't really sorry.

“Can we move on to Mental Health?” Willis asked as Jon skulked out of the room. “I need to get back.”

“Is there anything on the agenda for Mental Health?”

Babette looked through her pile of papers. “No.”

“Then I motion to adjourn the meeting,” Sheraton said.

“Second,” said Babette.

“Is the meeting over?” asked Seaver.

“It is now,” Cranston answered.

“Oh, good,” Seaver said. “I need to use the facilities.”

“Meeting adjourned,” Sheraton said.