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Aug. 19, 2022

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Press Talk: Wait. What? It’s still there?

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Clark County Councilor Temple Lentz (The Columbian files)
Clark County Councilor Temple Lentz (The Columbian files) Photo Gallery

‘The hearing room became a circus. It’s not hard to see why Clark County is the butt of jokes throughout our state and region.”

That was Temple Lentz, private citizen, commenting in 2015 on a public hearing to put the words “In God We Trust” on a county meeting room wall.

Wandering into a county council meeting today is quite different than it was four years ago. Today it’s a lot like attending an annual sloth convention, or maybe a conversation between port commissioner candidates. The seats are almost all empty and it feels more like an adult slumber party than a World Wrestling Federation cage fight.

Keep the coffee coming please!

Look, don’t misconstrue the point here. Today’s meetings are important and essential. And being calm and collected — I suspect — will yield results. But one might just need a triple espresso and an intermittent cold shower to stay fully engaged. Hey, I like discussing tree roots and sidewalk cracks (key elements of the meeting I attended a few days ago) as much as the next guy. But it’s just a bit too, ah, deliberate for me.

Now, as Lentz accurately noted four years ago, it wasn’t always this way. Once I even saw a county councilor make another county councilor cry. No kidding.

In those days Councilors David Madore and Tom Mielke ruled the roost. Affectionately known as the M&M boys, these characters knew how to throw a party.

Personally, I loved it. They made good copy for the newspaper and all of that. But, alas, it wasn’t good governance and the general public became exhausted with all the drama. They essentially jettisoned these bad boys. (President Trump, if you want to see what fate awaits, you pay attention.)

So today, instead of seats filled with passionate citizens, you usually end with a scattering of plain oatmeal people like me. Not even any sugar. Just almond milk. The point here (you knew I would eventually get to a point, right?) is almost all of the remnants of the M&M boys are gone.

Well, almost.

While bemoaning my empty coffee cup I noticed a glaring reminder of their infamous past. You guessed it. (Well, I sort of gave it away at the beginning of the column, didn’t I?)

In God We Trust. It was a sign!

Now this wouldn’t be much of a column unless there was some irony involved here, right? I mean it’s been up now for four years. But today, private citizen Lentz — the one who said the sign was “a victory for religious zealots” — is now County Councilor Lentz.

And while everyone discussed tree roots, she was sitting right underneath the sign.

Now before I go any further I should add a little perspective. Mielke and Madore both tried to make the decision to put the sign up to a litmus test on whether or not you believed in God.

It … was … not.

Believers could still think a government building is a poor place to post that message. And, in fact, many residents who publicly disagreed with the sign said just that. Most who opposed the sign simply didn’t want to mix government and religion.

I should also say I completely agreed with Lentz. When this issue was swirling around I wrote several columns on the topic. I even joked that a sign reading “Don’t Do Stupid Stuff” would be more appropriate.

But there was another point Lentz made back then that was particularly insightful. “In truth,” she said, “the debate over whether or not to post a motto of any kind is not a matter for a public hearing and vote. It’s not policy; it’s interior decorating.”

In other words, if you want to put something on the wall, just do it. No need for all the drama.

But Lentz’s point should go both ways. If you want to take something off the wall, just do it. No need for drama. And if that’s the case, why is the sign still there?

• • •

I went to coffee with Lentz earlier this week to ask her about all of this.

Lentz, who actually might be the second-brightest person I know, said it really isn’t as easy as I’m making it out to be. First, it’s not her decision alone to take the sign down. There are four other councilors whose voices matter.

Fair enough, I noted. So get them on board. Talk to the other four councilors (by the way, Lentz is the only Democrat) and call in a carpenter. But, as far as I could tell, there have been no public discussions.

“Lou, the fact that I haven’t done it on the dais doesn’t mean I haven’t done it, haven’t had that conversation.”

She continued.

“Unfortunately, it’s a lot harder to undo something like that than it is to do it. And now taking it down would be a matter of consensus and agreement. At this moment on the county council there is not the political will to move in that direction.”

Lentz said she also believes that by making this issue a public conversation back in 2015, it now stays a public conversation.

“Now instead of talking about governance or our beliefs or our values or our vision for the community we’re talking about a publicity stunt…. And I say that with a great deal of respect for those who have strong religious beliefs and I know if you really do have these strong religious beliefs, then whether or not your government puts it on the wall behind them, you still have them. And that (speaks to) this separation of church and state idea.”

So pushing to undo it now would create consequences, she said.

“I feel that decision a number of years ago was intentionally disruptive and sensational and unfortunately now, any work to undo it will have to go into that same realm.”

In the end, it’s difficult not to agree with Lentz here. There likely would be political consequences — more for the four other councilors, who are all Republicans — than for Lentz. But, for me, it’s just difficult to shake the idea that political consequences should be dammed, if it’s right, it’s right. Just do it.

This fear of doing what one believes is right is how guys like Trump stay in power. Most Republicans in D.C. know he’s a medicine man at the carnival. But he’ll stay in power because of the potential political consequences. So in my world, if it’s right, just do it.

Alrighty, then. My two cents. Now back to those dang tree roots cracking up my sidewalk!

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