Of madness and the hatter
This is a tale not of two cities but of two women, both in the same city. Still, the opening lines of the classic Charles Dickens historical novel seem appropriate.
It is indeed the season of light and the season of darkness. We are indeed going direct to heaven, and we are indeed going directly in the opposite way.
Neither of the two women in our drama merits the role of Madame Defarge, the vengeful revolutionary of the Dickens tale who knitted into death shrouds every transgression that eventually would lead people to the guillotine in France’s Reign of Terror.
It’s not for lack of things to knit but rather more noble character that prevents either from filling that role.
One of our women is Johsie Reid, trying her best — which is considerable — to build both her business, JR Hatters Mercantile, and the economy of the city of Marion.
The other — also heroic, though many wrongly regard her as an antagonist — is city council member Ruth Herbel, doing her more-than-considerable best to do what’s best for Marion.
At issue is not a comment like Marie Antoinette’s “let them eat cake,” but rather one of “let them drink beer.”
Right or wrong, Reid thinks offering to sell customers a cold one while they wait for her hot irons to complete their hats might provide a valuable marketing advantage.
Neither accepting nor questioning this, Herbel has seemed to stand in Reid’s way by questioning whether Marion legally can approve Reid’s request for a beer license.
Herbel’s colleagues on the city council and in city government seem as disconnected from the reality she’s trying to check as some of the rabid revolutionaries and rancid royalists in the Dickens novel.
They voted Monday to waive — as they are allowed to do — a prohibition that Reid’s establishment is too close to a church. The church council’s charitable letter in support of Reid’s application was a key factor, just as another Methodist church’s ascent for Pizza Hut serving beer next door proved persuasive in Hillsboro.
The problem is, no public hearing on the matter was scheduled, as required by city code. And even if there had been, zoning doesn’t allow a bar there without a conditional use permit, which has neither been sought nor approved, and code requires, among other things, two bathrooms, one for each “cis” gender, which Reid’s building does not have.
Some officials seem to think that Monday’s waiver of the rule about proximity solved everything. As Herbel clearly understands — but they do not — it’s only the beginning.
City councils do not have the power to waive ordinances unless the ordinance involved specifically grants them that authority. In this case, only the proximity requirement can be waived.
Why Monday night’s surrogate for Marion’s newly appointed city attorney failed to be prepared to tell this to council members isn’t clear. The restroom issue and the zoning issue both had been raised publicly a week earlier.
City officials’ statements that beer sales could resume after the waiver similarly demonstrated a shocking lack of understanding or appreciation for the gravity of the situation.
As Herbel well knows, the question isn’t whether Reid should or shouldn’t be able to sell beer and alcoholic seltzers. It’s whether we live in a society ruled by laws or one ruled by what sounds best to the masses at the time.
We doubt anyone will soon be bringing a guillotine onto Main St., but the latter system of mob rule — or, in a modern sense, crony rule — is what led to France’s Reign of Terror.
What happens when the next person — someone not as liked, respected, or connected as Reid — wants something that isn’t allowed by law? Will favoritism play a part? And if it does, will a judge at some point decide that laws not enforced are not laws at all, stripping the city of its legal basis for challenging something far more odious than what Reid has proposed?
This is the principle Herbel is fighting for. Yes, she at times can seem overly concerned with details, just as Reid at times can seem overly eager and zealous in her approaches. But both qualities are urgently needed in our community, and both should be honored — not faulted — for trying to do what they think is best.
Next time you encounter either of our heroines, commiserate with them for the difficulties they have had to endure with this issue but encourage them to keep up their efforts. Marion needs all the Johsie Reids and Ruth Herbels it can find.
What it doesn’t need are ostriches who condemn others while sticking their heads in the sand and believing with macho pride that they are somehow above the law.
If Marion’s economic future depends on more businesses more easily being able to serve beer, let’s have that debate and change our laws. If not, let’s enforce the laws we have instead of stroking officials’ egos by letting them act as benevolent dictators, able to waive laws whenever they desire.
— ERIC MEYER