Affordable trees, cared-for children and drive-up pawn shops

My quixotic search for good news in government meetings

Photo Illustration by J. Alex Stamos

So here we are at the Henderson Parks and Recreation Center conference room, where, during the monstrous downfall of civilization, seven people have gathered to plan an Arbor Day celebration. Two months ahead. As if Rome wasn’t burn-drown-imploding around them. The reporter sprouts up like an ominous weed in their park. She says that she is here to search for good news in the hellholes of government meetings. Because the daily news is a repetitive, magnified ruing of a great social tragedy, fallout after failure after foreclosure, she’s looking for something super-polka-dot happy. Like a party for trees.

And the members of the Henderson Commemorative Beautification Commission—who constitute, by and large, a good-looking bunch, but perhaps not commemoratively beautiful—smile and nod but betray a tad of wariness, because reporters are fishy. And the whole pretense is shaky, because A) reporters don’t look for good news but for unseemly mistakes that can be made into atrocities; and B) this is a suburban beautification meeting. No reporter required.

The meeting gets under way nonetheless, as the lost Fourth Estate can’t impede on the charge of Parks & Rec. And while every unnecessary government committee in the western world is writhing in empty pools of debt, the Beautification Commission chairman says, “It’s going to be a tough year. Fortunately, we’ve got some money in the budget.”

Fortunately, we’ve got some money in the beauty budget? the reporter writes. Could this be an occasion to Woodward and Bernstein? Or to second-guess the City of Henderson’s priorities? Not today, not in February 2009, not in the outskirts of Sad Vegas. Screw it—so the tree people have some cash. Let’s go with the joyful noise and the promise of seedlings: good news in Henderson.

Other notable events that make the notebook:

• commission member’s 6-year-old daughter is only public/sits quietly/legs dangling: cute

• Community Pride Award awarded

• Arbor Day planning: commemorative tree, food coupons, donations, T-shirts, $270 for the banner: fun for all

• clean-up trailer: OK

• Chmn: “Everything is running smoothly. We are right on track.”

There is one moment of heightened moral pressure when a member is asked to judge the children’s poster contest this year, but in a world with enough self-serving acts, he mans up and says, “I will have to recuse myself, because my son is a fourth-grader [competing].”

The meeting wraps up with some members reporting the hours of volunteer service they’ve given this month: 6, 3, 7, 1, 5. The reporter smiles.

A jaded citizen might think that, at best, nothing is accomplished in a government meeting. That more routinely, hard-earned tax dollars are spent on ruses that benefit the committee members, their friends and creditors. Perhaps. But attending a week’s worth of random government meetings in Clark County proves that morsels of good news can be found, moments of pure decency are not altogether absent, and while a society driven by an unregulated free market may be, at times, agonizing, nothing is so agonizing as a meeting run by Robert’s Rules of Order.

Meeting No. 2 in the Hunt for Happiness is to be the Regional Transportation Commission of Southern Nevada Specifications Subcommittee, as listed in the Review-Journal. Here, good news pops up instantly: It’s canceled.

Next up is the Las Vegas Child Care Licensing Board, which has the word “child” in it and therefore portends joy. However, there is something super joyless about the chambers of Las Vegas City Hall, where it’s held: dim lighting, library quiet, mostly empty—an institutional bad-news cloak hangs over the place, despite the stoic portraits of 42 presidents on the back wall.

The meeting starts late, but recovers with remarkable efficiency: Someone wants a license to run a child-care business, staff briefs the members of the committee on the person’s merits, the person stands up to account for herself, a quick interview is conducted, and the panel votes yea or nay. We plow through about 700 million of these in an hour, but there are highs and lows that leave one wondering about whether to categorize this as a good-news or bad-news affair. On the positive side, we’ve got lots of people who want to take care of kids, and a panel that screens them. Generally a good thing, that.

Moments like this:

Panel chairwoman: “What made you decide to open an in-house child-care facility?”

Respondent: “I had a very good foundation with the babysitter I had as a child; she loved me, and I wanted to do that for another child and let them know they’re loved and they can move forward and do positive things.”

Yay! But then there are other episodes:

“An area of concern came up doing your background.”

“Yes, well, in 2004, my sister was battered and came to my house, and I went to get my nephews from her boyfriend. I stay in a bad neighborhood, so in my jacket I had a knife. He hit me, spat in my face, and we started to fight. We both got arrested ...”

Long story short: anger-management classes, it’s all behind her, she is approved for her child-care license ... “We all make mistakes.” Good?

And this, when the panel is interviewing a group of three who already run a child-care facility but sent in questionable documents to the city claiming they’d taken the required course in “Signs of Illness.”

City staff: “The certificates appear to be forged. ... It’s very obvious that one was written over.”

Child-carer: Something in half-English about her daughter copying the certificates and accidentally writing over the date while she was doing laundry.

Board member: “Do you see how unbelievable that sounds? You have a job in which you are responsible for the health and safety of young children. How can we trust you if we can’t trust you to take a class?”

The lone reporter counts this as good news, because the board seems disturbed, as well it should be. Then the child-carer, a woman in her 40s, begins to cry, and say things such as, “I’ve got six children, and I’m so busy, and I want to do everything right, and I really need to work.”

And the reporter is reminded how crappy the economy is, and how people struggle, and how one person’s stresses create exponential stresses for others, ad infinitum, and this becomes a bad-news meeting, despite someone actually having said, “I wanted ... to let them know that they’re loved,” and a business called Little Lambs of God.

A series of scheduled meetings go by as no-shows and rescheduled affairs, which somehow always seem to fall in the good-news column. Another thousand pass by as a series of numerical citations and gavel-poundings that qualify as No News. Still one more, a Las Vegas Zoning Commission meeting, addresses the eternal question, “Why does your massage parlor need to be open till 11 p.m.?” and gets the answer, “Las Vegas is a 24-hour city,” which, the reporter notes in the Good column, is a logical response to a truly absurd question in a city that does not allow prostitution but has thousands of “escorts” working and advertising on the sides of trucks.

And that serves as a good lead-in to the North Las Vegas City Planning Commission meeting, where the answer to the question of whether any good news can be found at government meetings crystallizes.

It happens during the discussion of a drive-through pawn shop, as most enlightenment does. The committee members hem and haw about approving the new drive-through pawn shop on Rancho, the first in North Las Vegas. You can feel it in the air, the sense that there’s just something bad about pawn shops, and that while North Las Vegas is happy to have anyone opening new businesses right now, another pawn shop? And to add stench to stigma, a drive-through?

Board member: “I don’t have warm and fuzzy feelings about pawn shops ... and what about the security at a drive-through?”

Another board member: “Can you address old fears and concerns about pawn shops?”

This is where it becomes clear that anything is a good thing if you look at it the right way.

Attorney for the pawn shop: “If you have small children in the car, and with the laws in effect [about leaving them unattended in the car], a drive-through is supported.”

Good news! You lost your job; you can’t afford child care, and if you could who knows whether the caretaker has had anger-management or how-to-recognize-illness classes; you’re looking forward to a career in late-night massage; you’re selling your family heirlooms to stay out of foreclosure—but you can toss the kids in the back seat and hit the 99-cent menu at McDonald’s and swing through the pawn shop without ever getting out of the car. And you don’t even have to worry about your carbon footprint because someone over in Henderson is planting a tree.

It’s all good.

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