A Sign for Whitewater High School

The Scene from Whitewater, Wisconsin

Whitewater Planning Commission – A High School Sign from John Adams on Vimeo.

Anyone who thinks that small town politics is simple hasn’t watched small town politics. In the video above, the Whitewater Planning Commission took 28 minutes to approve conditions for the local high school to place an electronic sign on school property. (Whitewater is a small city of about fifteen thousand, half of whom are college students attending a local campus.)

I’d invite readers to watch the video (and the video of the full meeting, too, online @ https://vimeo.com/250492564).

A local family raised donations toward the cost of an electronic sign with a scrolling message the school could display. One sees signs like this across America.

Whitewater’s planning commissioners, one of whom sits on the Whitewater city council, consider here whether the sign would be a distraction, where it would be placed, what kind of message should scroll on it, how long the messages should scroll, when some messages but not others should scroll, etc.

The summary written immediately above takes only a few seconds to read; the  discussion of these topics consumes nearly a half-hour.

A few remarks:

1. A lawyer in town raises concerns about the sign. He contends that traffic in the area is intense. That’s a relative term; there are millions of commuters who travel safely each day in Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York under conditions that they would consider intense.

2. How risky is driving at the intersection near the sign? The local lawyer says it’s intense, and a commissioner/council member mentions that the commission might have asked the police department for accident reports from the area.

No one, however, took the simple step before the meeting of asking for a summary of existing accident data for the area. It wouldn’t have been hard, but instead of looking for the best available information, the commissioners and city planner speculate without it. No data will offer a perfect assessment, but it’s a sign of a lazy mindset to know one could get better information – and relatively easily – and not even bother to try.

3. Hyper-rationality isn’t rational. It’s right to ponder something, to think it through, and yet, and yet – some matters will remain undiscernible even after lengthy consideration. Some scrolling letters might be less distracting than other letters, at some times of day, under some weather conditions, at some months of the year, etc.

It’s not a higher reasoning, but instead a lower one, that delves into unknown (and unknowable) speculation. Significance (relevant & material) constrains – as it should – right reason. On and on doesn’t bring one closer – it takes one father away.

4. The question for Dr. Elworthy. Mark Elworthy, the school district administrator, appeared to answer any questions that the commissioners might have. Commissioner/Council member Lynn Binnie decided to ask him one (@ 6:20 on the video):

Binnie: You received a copy of Mr. Devitt’s [lawyer-resident objecting to sign’s location]  letter. What comments would you have with respect to those concerns?

Elworthy: We’ve talked about that, but Mr. Devitt has spoken to the school board, and the school board has responded to all of those. I apologize, I did not, I got the copy, if I could look at those I could answer it. [Receives Devitt letter, examines.] I guess I came here this evening to share that the school board has listened a couple times to Mr. Devitt, responded, we have spoken privately as well, the board has listened to those concerns, after listening to his concerns the board approved the sign.

Elworthy’s right, here, about how to respond. He’s an appointed administrator of an elected, collectively-governing body. He neither can nor should offer an individual, point-by-point reply if there’s already been a decision of the board to which he is responsible. Elworthy’s right to point to a decision of the collective body to which he, Elworthy, is responsible. A point-by-point reply would inch Elworthy away from whatever the board has decided on the matter. It’s the board’s position, and the board’s language, that controls the school district response.

Binnie’s free to ask the question, of course, but Elworthy answered soundly. (One can’t tell whether Binnie expected the response he received. Perhaps he didn’t know that there had been prior discussions with the school district, perhaps he didn’t see that the proper answer precluded a point-by-point reply, or perhaps Binnie just asked the question regardless to appease a complaining constituent.)

5. Conditions. One hopes that there will never be an accident at the high school intersection, or any other intersection in town, for any reason. The relationship between the commission’s conditions for use of the sign and the actual value of those conditions for safety, however, is unknowable.  What one can say, however, is that it’s much easier to impose conditions – one after another – than to show how any of them will actually reduce the chances of an accident.

These conditions should also give pause, that the commission regulates easily, and readily, even over a simple matter.

It would have been a moment of candor for the members of the commission to admit as much.