Politics in the Hills of Virginia City

Storey County Courthouse
Storey County Courthouse

By Dawn Cranfield

Politics in the Hills of Virginia City

I was prepared for some theatrics when I attended the Virginia City County Commissioners meeting on Tuesday, January 15, due to the controversial nature of some of the events in the town the past few months.  The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) was presenting an explanation of a 30-day scoping project set to begin January 17 regarding the use of Comstock Mining Inc.’s (CMI) proposal to use a haul road that would be beneficial to them as well as more convenient to the community by getting their trucks off the public roadways.  There is a group of citizens in Silver City who have formed a coalition, calling themselves the Comstock Residents Association (CRA); they oppose CMI in general, so I assumed there might be some activity at the Commissioners’ meeting.

As the meeting began, I realized I was ill prepared for the politics of small-town America, or the back-stories permeating the walls of the historic courthouse.  I am not a neophyte when it comes to public hearings or political venues, nor am I a seasoned dogmatic protestor; I am simply an American, interested in what is best for all.

My judgment and dislike for the Chairman, Bill Sjovangen, began as soon as he asked for public comment and two older gentlemen slowly stood up from the audience.  He told them twice to move forward and sit down on the bench in the front of the courthouse, with the second command being incredibly curt.  I was aghast, as my nature is to immediately feel for the underdog and rush to their aid, whether they want or need my assistance.

The first man, Mark, announced his name, referred to the date, the meeting time and place, and referenced a disagreeable point he had with the Commissioners in general and was then excused.  He was courteous and sat back down with his 3-inch binder to wait when it would be his turnimages again.  The second gentlemen spoke, was excused; on the way out of the courtroom, he commented, “I have to get home, my wife wants me.” The audience and Commissioners all erupted in laughter.

The tension started as Mark was called on again to comment about approving the prior month’s agenda.  I looked at Chairman Sjovangen and noticed he has rolling his eyes and lolling his head from side to side as if to say, “You are wasting our time.”  Granted, Mark stood up several times, and each time he did, he started each point with the same redundant information, his name, the meeting time and date and place, even after being asked not to do so in order to spare time.

Mark continued with his list of grievances regarding the agenda; he pointed out inconsistencies, such as one resident, David Toll being referred to as being associated with CMI instead of CRA, it was approved that the correction be made; he pointed out the previous County Commissioners had not published quarterly tax reports as required by the statutes, it was noted.  He was clearly a man with time on his hands and a distinct gift for watching over the minutiae of the governing body of this town.

Finally, the Chairman had enough and asked him to stop; Mark said a few more words, and the Chairman asked a second time.  Mark said okay, but as he was headed back to his seat, Chairman Sjovangen looked at the sheriff and said, “Get him out of here.”  There was audible grumbling from some of the townspeople in the audience.

The sheriff asked the Chairman, “You want me to take him out?”

“You heard me.  Get him out of here.  I’ve had enough of this.  I’m calling a recess.  We’ll reconvene shortly.”  With that, the sheriff walked over to Mark and asked to speak to him in the hallway.  Mark, notebook in hand followed the sheriff and left the courtroom.

I was stunned; this was not the drama I expected to see.

When the meeting reconvened, it took me a few minutes to focus on my task; I was still thinking about the man thrown out of the courtroom.  I could not help but think he was not treated fairly.

However, the mantra I have lived by for almost a decade finally kicked in; there are three sides to every story – the left side, the right side, and the truth lies in a tiny sliver somewhere down the middle.

I realized there was some history between these two men, and decades of history in this tiny mining town.  The stories have filled volumes of books.

Sitting through the rest of the meeting, I softened towards Bill Sjovangen; he was amiable, funny sometimes, and seemed to have the best interests of the community at heart.

Afterwards, I had the opportunity to watch him talk to a few members of the public; he was concerned about their businesses, he asked them about specific issues they were having, even those he had only met a few times.

imagesWhen one man confronted him about the issue with Mark, he was friendly and gracious; as suspected, he opined that Mark has been told at many meetings to tone it down, and he just could not comply.  Chairman Sjovangen stated he simply had to run an efficient and orderly meeting and could not let things get out of control.  The gentlemen asked if there was not some other venue for Mark to feel like a valued citizen and turn in all of his “issues”, perhaps, via email, fax, bring them into the office, the Commissioner stated his office has tried to work with him and there is truly no pleasing him.

While I initially thought the Chairman handled Mark in an unfair and harsh manner, once I removed my rose-colored glasses and looked at both sides I observed the history and accepted the grey streak in the middle.

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