Tuesday night at New Albany City Hall I may have witnessed a real life example of a term that has puzzled me for years.
That term is “Theater of the Absurd,” a label describing several puzzling mid-twentieth century plays by European playwrights, most notably Irishman Samuel Beckett, who wrote “Waiting for Godot.” I was still a young man when Beckett won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1969. I tried then to read Beckett’s plays, as well as some by other “Theater of the Absurd” practitioners. I was a good deal smarter in 1969 than I am now, but I never could quite figure it out.
Finally, well into my dotage, the New Albany Board of Aldermen knocked the scales from my eyes, by performing a live, mostly unrehearsed, example of what those intellectuals and academics must have been rhapsodizing over regarding “Theater of the Absurd.”
Theater of the Absurd: Act I
The performance started with an absurd premise — a poorly reasoned, arbitrary and contradictory sign ordinance promulgated by a board of aldermen in 2006. Additionally, the ordinance has been unevenly — and sometimes arrogantly — enforced over the last nine years, creating a hostile reception for new businesses trying to locate in the city. Passage of the sign ordinance and its subsequent enforcement follies could be considered Act One in this Theater of the Absurd.
A year or two ago Doctors David Childers and Mike Thompson, from Holly Springs, bought a veterinary practice on Highway 30, at the edge of the New Albany city limits. They paid a lot of money for a sign to replace the broken-down one that came with the business. The New Albany Zoning Board decided the sign was not in strict compliance with the selfsame 2006 sign ordinance and told the doctors they could not put the sign up.
The proposed sign, designed to be mounted at ground level, is what the 2006 ordinance calls a “monument sign.” The ordinance specifies a maximum size, and forbids their being internally lighted, although they can be lit by spotlights. (No, we don’t get it either). The sign for the veterinary clinic is a little larger than the ordinance allows, and is to be internally lit. The zoning board’s action was probably correct, as its only function, after all, is to make a simple finding of fact. Its rulings are not final, but are merely recommendations.
The zoning board is a creature of the board of aldermen. Its members are appointed by the aldermen. As with rulings of all such appointed boards, the final decisions rest with the board of aldermen, not with its un-elected appointees.
Then came Act Two in this absurd comedy.
Theater of the Absurd: Act II
Dr. David Childers appeared, represented by New Albany attorney Bill Rutledge, at the July meeting of the aldermen and asked for a simple variance to the zoning board’s ruling. Childers and Rutledge stated their case for a variance, demonstrating how the variance was in no way contrary to the public interest. Not one alderman at the July meeting disagreed with the case for a variance. When asked by Rutledge, not one alderman would state a reason for not granting the variance — except that it was not in strict compliance with the ordinance, and they did not want to overrule the zoning board.
The city attorney told the board at that July 7th meeting that granting the variance was within its authority. Given the opportunity to make a sensible exception to a silly rule, the board did nothing.
That was Act Two.
Theater of the Absurd: Act III
Act Three came on the night of September 1, 2015.
Rutledge appeared before the Board of Aldermen again, this time accompanied by Dr. Mike Thompson. They restated the case for allowing the clinic’s sign to be installed, acknowledging that the sign is larger than the ordinance allows and is to be internally lighted.
There was discussion of the fact that the sign is to be located about 100 feet from Highway 30, that it would be well below the level of the highway, and that it would not be distracting to motorists. It was acknowledged that the sign would comply with the 2006 ordinance were it mounted on a pole well above ground level. It was also noted that there are other internally lighted signs mounted several feet in the air within sight of veterinary clinic.
Rutledge again asked the board if there was any reason not to grant the variance.
First Ward Alderman Jeff Olson said he did not want to grant the variance, simply because the sign is not in strict compliance with the ordinance.
“Bill,” he told Rutledge, “I just don’t feel comfortable with voting for a variance.”
Second Ward Alderman Will Tucker then gave his opinion that an internally lighted sign mounted at ground level would be more distracting to motorists than one mounted on a pole. That was a new argument in the discussion, and no authority was cited to support Tucker’s novel opinion.
Fourth Ward Alderman Johnny Anderson asked whether it might be acceptable to install the monument-type sign at the veterinary clinic, but not light it. Rutledge then asked the aldermen if they could allow the low mounted sign if it were not lighted.
Fourth Ward Alderman Johnny Anderson offered a motion to allow the sign to be installed at ground level but not lighted. Third Ward Alderman Kevin Dale White seconded Anderson’s motion.
Mayor Tim Kent put it to a vote.
On the audience’s right, on the east side of the meeting room, Anderson and White voted yes. On the left, both Olson and Tucker, voted no. Alderman-at-Large Scott Dunnam, as has been the case more often than not during recent months, was not present to vote.
Thus it was a tie, a rare occurrence that is impossible if all aldermen are present and voting.
It was up to Mayor Tim Kent to break the tie. He voted with Anderson and White to let Doctors Childers and Thompson install their sign, but not to turn on its internal lights. Thus the vets were finally allowed, although tardily and only partially, to grow their New Albany practice, giving care to the pets and livestock of Union County residents.
What will be the Theater of the Future?
Anderson, White, and Kent had their reasons for voting to grant the partial variance; Olson and Tucker had their reasons to vote against it. The “who” and “why” of the vote is not the key absurdity here.
Theater of the Absurd, the 1950s version, is noted for leaving many matters unresolved.
The question that remains here, the ultimate absurdity as the curtain starts to fall, is this: Why do the city fathers allow this damned foolish ordinance, with its contradictions, its inconsistent, arbitrary and selective enforcement to remain on the books?
Why allow the sign ordinance to continue in force without major revisions and assurance of fair and equal enforcement?
Not only is the 2006 sign ordinance hostile to new businesses, but it also creates continuing political headaches for elected officials themselves.
I believe I grasp Theater of the Absurd a little better than I once did.
For those interested, here is the link to our original tirade on the subject: http://nanewsweb.com/new-albany-renaissance-iv-sign-language/
and to the July meeting of the Board of Aldermen.