The Irony Report from Small Town America–Episode 4

This morning my heart is about as flat and gray as the clouded sky. As I type this, the sun is breaking through, returning the contrast to the view of the field and barn through my ground level window.

This contrast of light and dark–this is what provides the energy of life. Contrast creates interest. Chiaroscuro. Drama. Bright light alone can create energy and joy for a time, but those who live in climates where blue skies prevail exalt in the coming of storms. Even the earth and the rocks need relief from excitement. If they were always heated by the sun, their vibrating molecules would be forever in a state of agitation, never allowing stillness to penetrate. The cold, the gray allows everything to draw into the silence of its core—an in-breath.

What to write? The pencil poised over the blank page. At the moment, I am acutely aware of the suffering of my friends. Friends with a critically ill family member, a friend whose husband with dementia has disappeared. Friends with grave illness. Friends and family suffering from the stress of trying to make it each day of their lives. Some younger, some older. I am a vessel for their emotion. The self deep inside is making room for them.

And then there are Art and Margaret, owners, architects and builders of the Ferndale Clock Tower, valiantly cheerful and ironic in the face of ridiculous financial threat from the government of a city meant to support its citizens. I’ll get back to their crazy story. It’s a small piece of the enormous and dangerous absurdities happening on a grand scale around us.  It reflects on so much more. It may remind us of the current frustration we face as citizens of a country whose leader is able to tell lie after lie with impunity.  This is a story of what happens when this is tolerated by a community.

Okay, they’re immigrants, not citizens. I’m surprised they even contemplate US Citizenship at this moment in history since they hold Canadian Passports (the country that took them in as refugees from an oppressive communist government) and perhaps passports from their native Poland. But they have contributed significantly to the welfare of this region by re-building schools and college buildings, repairing the dome of a county capital building, creating structures for parks, and last but not least, attempting to make a spectacular creation out of their old house on Main Street. They have been able to complete all of their projects on schedule, within budget and have always exceeded inspection standards. The last mentioned project, however, has represented their ultimate challenge. No other homeowners in the town of Ferndale have been held to the standards imposed on the Roszjas by the authority of the City. For over ten years, the City has acted as if it were dealing with a terror threat–a threat of terror in the form of two Polish immigrants erecting a dangerous and contagious structure on its Main Street, right there for all to see.  They have thrown as many obstacles as they could create in the path of its completion,not to exclude a barage of criminal charges thrown with great abandon at Art, and then dismissed as groundless by the court.  In one small moment of triumph, Art later won a harassment suit against the City (which, as a result, lost its insurer) with a small settlement.  

It has not let up, however.  City officials trespassed on their property while they were away working on a project across the state in order to take “incriminating” photos of recycled building materials stacked behind and on the side of the house.  Wisely, the court would not allow them to be entered as evidence since they were taken illegally. To top off the City’s Laurel and Hardy approach to persecution, staff from the City office used the pretense of an Emergency Status (due to the flooding of the local river) to trespass once again, aided and abetted by the local police shining lights on the early morning scene, and steal many valuable, recycled building materials intended for the house. Under the supervision of the police, they were hauled away in a truck, most never to be seen again.

Meanwhile, the Roszjas have had to submit to makeshift inspections created uniquely for them as the denizens of the city drive by every day, complaining to each other about these shiftless people who never finish their monstrosity. As Margaret said a while back:

The absurd never ends. So many little people want to be a part of the Clock Tower team. We have another one jumping on the wagon (a third party inspector with predictable confusion). The inspector is mixing-up codes, materials, methods of installation, applying his own standard, etc. all in concert with the attorneys—all milking the system mercilessly and all trying to drive the Clock town journey. How many drivers do you need for one wagon? The more the merrier! There are still empty benches at the back of the moving wagon.
After a forensic-style investigation with magnifying glasses, with the highest available resolution and zoom, we learned that on a molecular level, water might penetrate and accumulate in the structure. The highest standard applied to the Clock Tower is still too low for the amazing environment of our city. Under our city standards, the safest and most compliant thing is to build nothing. Even the fiddler on the roof will be in danger in the basement of our building, with or without music. We are restarting with tons of caulking, flashing and special inspection tests, hoping the next report will not find that now the building is watertight but unbreathable.
One would wonder how previous generations built Clock Towers, cathedrals, castles and those structures are still standing today without our current great team involvement in their construction…
We are looking into the future with confidence that in the end, President Trump will make the Clock Tower Great.

At the last court hearing, they were granted the right to find a third party inspector who would be approved by both parties. The difficulty was that there is no precedent for a mid-construction inspection for homeowners. No qualified building inspector could be found in the state of Washington. Most had never heard of such a thing. When an academic was finally located who believed he might be able to come up with something, he found fault with things already approved by the city such as certain types of composition brick used for the siding. At some point it was suggested they would have to deconstruct parts of the wall, remove bricks and caulking and have them ground up and submitted for chemical analysis!

As of my last installment, the Roszjas were puzzling over how to comply with contradictory legal mandates from the City, pouring over emails and a three-inch stack of legal documents they’d recently received from the City’s attorney. All through the fall and winter, they have continued to work on the house ten to twelve hour days, seven days a week except for breaks for other construction jobs. They are now, on top of huge legal fees, facing stipulated fines of $486,000 for infractions they never committed. They have never been able to testify in their own defense to the court. Several requests have been denied. As a result, they have never had the chance to refute what the City has held to be the facts of the case. The court has just accepted these false assertions as correct and allowed them to become the basis of the City’s suit. However unconstitutional this may seem, it someone matches what we are now experiencing on a national level. As a fourteen-year-old friend of mine would say when her outrage reached crisis point, “It’s a TRAVESTY!”

Their appeal is finally moving through to a hearing in late March. Their counsel has outlined a very clear argument stating basically that the City 1) wrote their Settlement Agreement with no actual agreement with the other party (the Roszjas), 2) mandated the Roszjas complete parts of the structure but then, as the permit issuing entity, dragged their feet for two years before issuing a permit for that construction, and 3) never even granted the Roszjas their right to contest the facts of the case, face-to-face with their accusers. It should be open and shut, but I have no faith that the courts will abide by the laws.

Now we get to the light. In the shadow of this darkness, Art and Margaret carry on with liberal doses of humor. When our local Trump fanatic drove his pickup into the graveled parking lot in front of the clock tower in October, Margaret jumped at the chance to enter the City of Ferndale’s Halloween Decoration Contest for the scariest Halloween decorations. In a gesture of supreme irony, Mr. Munchler, Mayor of Ferndale and the party ultimately responsible for maintaining their ongoing persecution, had invited Art to be on the jury for this contest. In light of this honor and in order to prevent conflict of interest, Art could not submit an entry. However, Margaret determined that as an American wife, independent of her husband, she could submit an entry and receive Art’s unbiased judgment. Therefore, she was delighted that fate had delivered her the opportunity for the most genuinely frightening decoration, free of charge. She authorized, without Art’s consent, the installation of the huge Trump sign on top of the clock tower. What parallelism!  Before even a day had passed, they had lost several loyal friends. These folks weren’t laughing.

One spring, on top of an artfully arranged mound of bricks, they mounted three large crosses in front of the house. Again, unappreciated by the citizens of Whatcom County. Undaunted, last summer they established a beach in the front parking lot, blue plastic water complete with waves, a boat, a sandy beach, a beach umbrella and several beach chairs. Occasionally they and their friends could be seen lounging under the umbrella as if they had not a care in the world. A few years ago, they nailed plywood sheets to the front of the unfinished house front, creating a huge flat surface, ideal for a screen. Facing the house from the graveled lot they erected rows of chairs salvaged from a classroom at the college they were refurbishing. For a long and glorious summer evening, we drank beer as we watched, projected onto the huge screen, parts of the great film trilogy, “Red White and Blue”, by the great Polish director, Krzysztof Kieślowski, all witnessed by the Ferndale Police driving by from their extravagant new police station, just across the street and down the block.

This week, as part of their ongoing construction, they are completing the spire for the top of the tower. For now, it is a large wooden pyramid in front of the house, being covered today with zinc panels. It is topped by a tall flag pole displaying the American Flag. Such patriotism! The Masonic Founders would be proud! It was this spire the court mandated be completed before the city even got around to issuing the long-awaited permit.  And, for an even more elegantly ironic touch, two days ago, a City official drove up unannounced in his pickup.  He was one of the City crew involved in the theft of materials several years ago. In the back of his pickup sat a huge, gun-metal dark room door, strangely resembling some sort of retro, futuristic phone booth.

Art and Margaret recognized it as a piece salvaged from one of their college campus renovation jobs. They speculate the guilt must have been eating him all this time.  It now sits like some bizarre monument in front of the house, a complement to the flag pole pyramid.  Even with all the hours and hours of construction spent up on the roof through the winter weather, building things and then tearing them out to satisfy the City, they have now, at last, been able to mount clock faces on the four sides of the tower. They are all permanently set at 10:04. Evidently, no lightning strike was required to stop time at that precise moment, but who knows what the future might hold when we return to it, yet again.

From a perch on top of the house where there was once a temporary walkway from the “deck” to the tower, in the good weather one year we staged impromptu absurdist dramas with Art’s artistic sister from Canada and her witty husband, borrowing lines from the prominent Polish playwright, Witkiewicz, once again in view of the cops driving up and down Main Street, as they do many, many times a day. I haven’t laughed as hard since. As Nell said in Beckett’s Endgame, “Nothing is funnier than unhappiness…It’s the most comical thing in the world.” We need more theater of the absurd—now! Ah, but wait, we are at present all seated unwittingly in expensive, tax-funded seats in some enormous theater-in-the-round called America.

We will certainly have another production on March 3rd when the City of Ferndale again takes our Polish comrades back to court to contend with three-hundred pages of accusations of contempt which would (on top of attorney and court fees) at least temporarily, more than empty the royal treasury of even the Glorious Emperor and Empress of Ferndale.

Long Live the Ferndale Clock Tower! It would make a grand City Hall. In the shadow, all we can do is create some light. The sun is out now, making a most astonishing, transcendent blue in the middle of a huge cumulus cloud that has a bit of gray on its edges.

From left: Art, Margaret and dear Comrade Lloyd (one time owner of the Frank-N-Stein Pub where all the trouble started, and twice mayoral candidate)
The glorious Clock Tower spire


My apologies for the hiatus in my blog. Here’s from Thursday…


Last night we got together with our friends from Susteinability. We met at Maggie’s Pub where we had started meeting about eleven years ago. For many years, Walter and I never missed a Wednesday evening. Lately, the energy from the other participates has been pretty diffuse so we’ve let go a bit and missed a few.

Last night was full of a different energy, generated from long friendship and the weathering of years of local politics.  The evenings had started as a place to meet and talk over beers about all the topics that related to farming, gardening and living sustainably. Broad range. We shared ideas about enriching the soil, cultivating landraces, saving seeds, advocacy, local politics, Lloyd’s idea for a Double Dome swimming pool, mycology, money, getting along, child rearing, everything. The young farmers who were just starting out then have moved into town or moved away. Walter and I started a Farmer’s Market in Ferndale that morphed into a Public Market, and now, under the guidance of one of our Susteinabiilty members, is hanging on by its fingernails in the summer, hoping to barely preserve itself as a vessel of possibility which could expand as times get harder. Local farmers certainly can’t make a living with the markets that currently exist.

When we started, the pub was called The Frank-N-Stein, billed as the smallest brew-pub in America. Lloyd owned the place and the rights to Whatcom Brewing, which he continued in the back building at his house down the road. It was a loose business proposition. He opened when he felt like it, on a skeletal schedule. We’d tell Bellingham friends how wonderful it was and they’d come to Ferndale of an evening just to find it closed. But every night he was there, friends came by to talk with Lloyd, whose expansive warmth and wit enfolded everyone. In 2004, when we had just bought our farm west of Ferndale, we saw the place on Main Street as we drove through town. One night we finally decided to drop in for a pint. We were charmed. Lloyd was the kind of pub owner you imagine when you think about the fomentation of ideas in the local pubs of Boston in the 1760s and 70s. Or the places in Scotland and Ireland where rebellious plans were hatched in small, fervent groups, mixed with jokes and song. Llyod knows everyone and connects people who need to know each other. It’s a significant talent.

At the time we met, he’d just run for mayor and lost by a narrow margin. He ran again a few years later and lost a second time to a mayor we’d all voted for as a Progressive for his first term, who even to a greater degree than Obama, betrayed our hopes scandalously.  That mayor had pegged the Frank-N-Stein as “the place where all the trouble starts”.  I joined the Board of Directors of the Double Dome Swimming Pool project and tagged along as Lloyd made valiant attempts to stir up interest in this fascinating and ingeniously sustainable community project. After our first year of discouraging experience as farmers at the Bellingham Farmer’s Market, we cooked up plans for a Ferndale Farmer’s Market at the back table of the pub, Lloyd bringing us cheap microbrews and sitting to talk every so often.  There we met the array of Whatcom County characters—wild New Jersey transplants, Whatcom County natives who hunted, fished, farmed, made wine and smoked their own fresh-caught salmon, Polish immigrants who were building a Clock Tower on Main Street, a Korean orphan adopted in childhood by a Dutch Reformed family in Lynden now with five girls of her own, a red-headed woman who raised sheep and organic vegetables across from one of the town’s middle schools, a Vietnam vet who experiments with biochar and sustainable gardening of all kinds, former English majors who were trying to make a go of mixed animal and vegetable farming, a Macedonian who made wonderful ethnic sausage, etc. etc. And then there were the two of us—mid-life sweethearts of diverse backgrounds, a Minnesotan anthropologist/public intellectual/farmer/writer and an East Coast-raised intellectual and social worker/writer trying to save the world one child at a time.  We have all traveled the road together, some dropping off onto other side roads, others joining in as their paths converged with ours.

Last night, there was Lloyd, emerging from a serious illness, somehow expansive again, his wit as sharp as ever. And our friend with the five beautiful, talented and difficult girls whose last year has been incredibly complex. And a downtown landlord, friend of Lloyd’s who is opening a wine and coffee bar on the corner next to Maggie’s. And the Polish couple, successful government construction contractors and erstwhile builders of their own magnificent project, the Ferndale Clock Tower. And our newer members, the owners of the lavender farm up the road from us, fellow travelers we’ve known since they moved in about three years ago. And the neurologist of Latvian heritage who married a Latvian woman he saw walking down the street in Riga when he was there many years ago, visiting family.  We laughed and talked briefly about Trump and the joke that our Polish friends had pulled with their Halloween Trump sign on top of their Clock Tower, the highest Trump sign in Whatcom County. It was offered to them one day in October by the “Trump Guy” who drove all around the county with huge Trump signs on both sides of his steroid-sized pickup truck.  Although it was the scariest thing they could think of for Halloween, the irony, as usual, was lost on the majority. They now have Tea Partiers dropping by unannounced at the Clock Tower daily.  They collect their opinions as connoisseurs of American oddities.

As I sat back in the corner and observed for a moment, pressed up against Lloyd whose head is  now bald and watching Walter beside me telling a story, it occurred to me that there truly is a seismic shift that, although the plates have been moving all these past eleven years, is now so clearly obvious to us all. The question appeared then, like a bubble—what to do to help that which is obvious in this moment to so many to remain before us all at every moment. We will continue to  live through an unfolding crisis. There is so much to attend to and so much to push us back to a waking sleep in order to tolerate the stresses of life. Although my material resource may be slim and my physical strength may be ebbing, I have the fortitude built by years of experience watching, listening and experimenting with my actions and the inner strength built by years of spiritual practice. I am listening. I am opening my eyes deliberately every morning, remembering the dreams that kept me company during the night. I am getting up and doing one thing that, as I watch it, as I hear it, as I feel it, has positivity, life, movement, beauty. And another, and another…

It is perhaps actually when we give up hope but do not lose interest, give up our personal investment yet preserve our investment in all of us together, and in this state, continue to do the work… it is perhaps in this way that something which is in itself hope will actually begin to emerge. We may need to give up much of what we have gathered around us to give ourselves comfort, including our conceptions of ourselves and of those around us. We may need to strip ourselves down pretty close to the bone, but that’s the work anyway, isn’t it?



The Irony Report from Small Town America-Episode 3

The current state of the Clock Tower Project
The current state of the Clock Tower Project

We return to the ongoing story of the Ferndale Clock Tower.

In early July, I accompanied Art and Margaret, the owners and builders of this nearly-completed landmark, to a courtroom on the second floor of the Whatcom County Court House. The City of Ferndale vs. The Rojszas, Superior Court–Take Three.

From time to time over the past few years, I’ve overheard people from Ferndale say (with many variations), “What’s with the people who own that tower house thing on Main Street? Do they think they can trash their place and create an eyesore for the rest of us? Why isn’t the City doing something about it? It’s a travesty!”

Well, the travesty is that the City is actually the cause. The city staff, the Mayor, the City’s Attorney and possibly the City Council have colluded to block the Rojszas at every turn. The motives behind their obstruction are not clear, but one suspects a combination of anti-immigrant sentiment and a desire to drive out, by whatever means, a perceived obstacle to their plan for commercial development of that part of Main Street.  It has a very similar feel to a situation unfolding in the King County Superior Court in a homeowner’s suit against the City of SeaTac (see (

Although the details of a situation like the Rojszas’ are, in themselves, tedious, it is the full weight of all these small facts that provide the heft of the absurdity (and worse, dishonesty and deception) we endure as citizens. Small town governments like that of Ferndale are wasting enormous amounts of energy and anger, so much better directed at true injustices (starting say, with Global Warming), in carrying out vendettas against citizens who threaten the status quo by creating something new.  It is an age-old phenomenon. Yet in a world where the remedy for hate is more hate and for violence, more violence, it is important to acknowledge those places where generosity could reproduce itself prolifically. Although people like the Rojsza’s may end up in this country in a search for a more freedom of expression and movement, attempts like those of the Ferndale City government did not disappear with the advent of American Democracy, what is commonly referred to as a “free society”.  In fact, they seem to have become increasingly prevalent as its citizens become less financially secure and more fearful of “outsiders”.

On that Friday afternoon, after this third episode of court experience, Art and Margaret and I were chatting outside on the steps of the courthouse.  Inside, the City had continued to assert that the Rojszas were not cooperating with timely and compliant completion of their Clock Tower. Trying to celebrate the small victories their attorney had eked from the grasp of the City, we joked that each time they come back to court, the City has, in their collective imaginations, piled some new demand on to what has now become a mythic “Settlement Agreement”.   This time, there were, mercifully, no fines and the judge had stated the City would have to share the costs of a professional, third party inspector at the end of the Settlement Agreement period.

When we last left them after their second Superior Court hearing, the judge had asked for a few days’ time to consider the details of the Settlement Agreement.  In her presentation to the attorneys several days later, she had evidently declined to impose fines, but had held them out as a possible remedy should the City “be obliged” to do so for continuing lack of compliance.

Nowhere in her communications to the attorneys or to the court had Judge Montoya-Lewis made any mention of the overreaching and prejudicial acts of the City over the past nine years.  During those years, the Rojszas have been trying to complete their redesign while contending with constantly changing rules, lost permit applications and engineering drawings, and general delaying tactics through non-responsiveness and confusion.

Originally, back in September, the Settlement Agreement had specified the exterior would be completed to meet structural and safety codes.  Even then, the Rojszas had the necessary permits to complete the interior and were proceeding in a timely way towards completion. They continued work on the exterior as they could, since the City had not responded to their requests for permits for several aspects of the construction.  Despite this, the City continued to maintain the Rojszas were stubbornly and rebelliously refusing to move forward expeditiously on the construction and were deliberately creating a “public eyesore” and were themselves a public nuisance.  The cause of this mess rests with the City’s initial (and now continuing) incompetence in responding to permit requests compounded by their criminalization of these homeowners’ attempts to move forward through the mire of City contradictions. Perhaps, as in the case with the City Staff of SeaTac, what is truly at hand is criminal deception by the City.

A bit of history review may helpful. If you can, bear with me. It’s mind-numbing, but it’s a significant little piece of Americana irony.  The Rojszas bought their house in 2002. Soon after, they became involved with a Downtown Revitalization Committee, with Art as the Chair and Margaret as the secretary. They gradually began improvements on their 90-year-old, two story house. Since it was considered an old house, a permit was not required for many improvements since there is a special provision for these renovations in the National Building Code. However, beginning in 2005 the Rojszas applied for permits to modify their roof and put on an addition. Despite repeated requests, applications were lost and the City took inordinate amounts of time to respond when the applications were finally acknowledged.

In 2009, the City noticed that the Rojszas were making modifications to the roof. They then required the Rojszas to hire a structural engineer to determine whether the modifications were safe and structurally sound. If any modifications were necessary based on this structural analysis, the Rojszas would have 90 days to complete them. They would then be granted permits to move forward and, as permit holders, would be subjected to an inspection every 180 days.

It took the City six months to get an engineer out for the inspection. After that, they were required to get architectural and structural drawings done at their own expense, requiring an official engineering stamp. These were completed and the drawings delivered to the City. The City claimed they had not received them.  After a period of time, the City sent back the architectural drawings with markings made by the City staff with the comment from Greg Young, then Head of the City Planning Department, that everything looked fine. The staff continued to maintain they had lost the Structural drawings.  The next email from the City stated that, based on the drawings, there were permit violations. The Rojszas had already moved forward with the planned construction.

In 2010, the City revoked the permit and “red-tagged” the building, claiming the Rojszas had gone outside the limits of the permit. From that time until now, there have been periods during which they were allowed to proceed and periods during which permits were revoked resulting in “Stop Work” orders.  Meanwhile, recycled materials they had saved from other construction jobs waited, rusting and deteriorating, on their property, unused.  By the time a permit would grind its way through the City’s delays, the modifications to the building based on these materials were no longer possible. Since 2010, they have been allowed to work actively on the exterior for a total of about a year and a half. Each time they were forced to resubmit permits, they had to modify their earlier plans due to the shifting availability of building materials.

The City, meanwhile, pulled them into court for several felony violations in 2010, resulting in countersuit by the Rojszas who finally accepted a settlement of $130,000 when the court realized that one charge was based on an unconstitutional City regulation and the other accusation was baseless. The settlement only covers a small portion of the legal fees the Rojszas have incurred since 2009 and none of the wasted time and severe emotional distress caused particularly by false accusations of child molestation at a local Haggen’s grocery store and the City’s trespass onto their property to remove a large campaign sign they had posted for their son’s run for Mayor of the City of Ferndale. They have kept a documentation trail of delayed response to requests, lost documents, contradictory statements and the imposition of new rules at every turn.

In February of this year, the City pulled the Rojszas into Court maintaining they were in violation of their Settlement Agreement. Although there was no specific list of items that had not been completed, the City contended the Rojszas were recalcitrantly continuing to defy completion of the exterior, in violation of their Settlement Agreement.  The judge ordered that they stop violating the City’s rules and complete the exterior within tight deadlines.

The City brought the Rojszas back to court in May, saying they continued to openly disregard their responsibilities and the rules of the city and needed to be punished with fines and deadlines. During that hearing, the Rojsza’s attorney unfortunately failed again to obtain a clear list of the things the City claimed were still in violation of the Settlement Agreement. The Rojsza’s were a bit mystified, but continued working around the clock, seven days a week to complete what they believed had been agreed (and for which they finally had permits).

Facing a court review of their progress in July, they were concerned they still had never received a clear list from the city about what remained to be completed. They asked the City in on June 28th to come and do a 60-day inspection related to the court order. They were clear with the City Administrator that the purpose of such an inspection would be for the City to generate a clear check list of the incomplete exterior items so that all parties have the same understanding. The city at first refused, and then interpreted the request as one for a final inspection of the whole house (interior and exterior), despite a paper trail of clear requests from the Rojszas for an inspection to determine what items were still incomplete.

When the two inspectors from the City (neither of them construction experts) finally arrived on July 8th, they requested to be let in for an interior inspection, despite the fact the interior is not the subject of the Settlement Agreement.  When the Rojszas refused, another black mark of opposition was registered against them in the City’s book. The night before the inspection, a text from Margaret said, “I am so tired from working too much so I am not sure if I am alive or dead, but if I am dead please bury me in a bikini if possible under the mail box. 🙂  If I am alive, please wake me up.” This is evidence again, I am sure, of the Rojsza’s flippant attitude towards authority. If this is indeed so, let us have more flippancy. We will need it to survive.

The Rojszas had waited until the day of their next court date to receive the letter resulting from that inspection. It had been only the morning of that day when we stood on the courthouse steps that the City’s attorney, Dannon Traxler, sent  a follow-up letter to the Rojszas’ attorney.  Her letter stated in part “Unfortunately the majority of the items required by the Judgment remain incomplete, and the inspection was a complete waste of City resources.” Yet, the Rojszas still did not have a clear list of what remained to be completed as a result of the Settlement Agreement, the whole point of the exercise.

The letter contained a “punch list” of items the City drew up as a result of the inspection.  Most of these items had to do with clean-up of the yard and of the building materials still scattered around the property due to ongoing construction.  Other items related to perceived imperfections in siding installation with which the inspectors were unfamiliar. Only two or three items related to things that truly needed to be completed and would be a day or two’s work. The rest of the six-page document is comprised of speculations about the interior they had not been able to see.

As we stood there together on the courthouse steps after the July hearing, laughing yet a bit despondent, Art and Margaret reminisced about how this whole project had begun.

“At the beginning of all this, I know it’s hard to believe, but we were actually grateful to this community and to the US where we had, in the end, come to live. We wanted to create something really interesting here where we were making friends, a gift. What ambitious plans we had! It would be a place that everyone could look to, a central place where you could see the time, like in Europe. We even had an elegant model. Margaret wanted it to be a place for concerts, ballet, expositions, openings for painters, Thursday artists’ dinner with after-dinner intellectual discussions! We knew how to do this, too! We knew how to build wonderful things and we had the energy. Then it started—requests for permits that were never answered, even after repeat letters, emails and phone calls (which we have documented). Then inspection dates that no one showed up for or got postponed repeatedly. All the beautiful recycled materials we had saved from our other construction projects got ruined, waiting out in the weather. When we finally got permits, we had to change the designs since we no longer had the materials! And the accusations we were defying city ordinances with our “junk”! It was our materials waiting for construction to move forward. What else were we supposed to do with them? We put up white tents, and then those were a violation. We put them behind a black curtain, as the city requested, and then that became a violation. And then the false prosecution for “Sexual Harassment”! My God! And they have been talking all along about our “refusal to cooperate” our “non-compliance”. We’ve never known what we had to comply with! In all the places we have done big construction projects, never have I run into such incompetence and obstructionism. We always do the right paperwork, get the right permits and complete the construction when we say we will, always way above code requirements! But here, in our chosen home town, No! We are made instead into criminals! Criminals!”

It is true. In court that afternoon, the city’s attorney again tried to hold that the Rojszas had been oppositional and intransigent.  The government, on both the large and small scale, has the power of authority and purports to speak for the interests of the people who put it in place. If the government holds that someone is in opposition to the best interests of the people as a whole, it bears the preponderance of the power, having the police and the court at its disposal. The citizens to whom this government is accountable tend to agree with their elected officials, much in the same ways they tend to agree that police will always take the side of protection and justice and that America is based on an unbiased judicial system.

It is therefore incumbent on that government to be magnanimous in its power, given how dramatically it outweighs the power of an individual citizen. But, it seems now that the City of Ferndale will not let go of the Rojszas and their fantastical and imaginative project. It is willing to spend inordinate resources and use the full weight of its authority to crush them.  They will not let them be. The officials of the city have convinced themselves and many of the citizens of the county that these are aberrant people (and foreigners, to boot) who are creating a junkyard in the middle of what should be a new, thriving business center on the Main Street.

Even the Court, thus far, seems to take all the City says on faith.  The “Party Line” holds that the Rojszas are criminally irresponsible (“like Gypsies surrounded by junk”) and should be punished as an example to anyone else who wants to step over that fuzzy boundary.

Many friends and admirers of the Rojszas and of their project have written letters over time to two consecutive mayors. We have supported and advocated in every way we know, but these efforts are always countermanded and overwhelmed by the oncoming freight train of the city’s prejudicial stance.

The City Council has abnegated their responsibility to provide a counterbalance to the Mayor in such an instance. They hold that since one of the Council People knows and has admitted to liking the Rojszas, she should recuse herself from any discussion of this matter before the Council. In no other instance has this been demanded of other Council People when friendship has been an issue.  In a small town, that would be unwieldy. It is expected that people elected to such a position will make a special effort to make impartial judgments. She has stood firm on principle and refused to recuse herself. The Council has refused to discuss the issue in her presence. Stalemate.  By default, the Mayor and his appointed officials have free rein. There is much here to remind us of the SeaTac case. Perhaps the court will finally find evidence of the City’s persecutory and unconstitutional behavior. It will take a court appeal by the Rojszas.

What a joy it would be to see this Clock Tower completed, to witness a gala concert, poetry readings, to have the picnics we used to have in the back yard and to create new events for the community. It is such a shame that this sort of joy has become criminal. Instead, we are told to find our happiness in “going along with the program.”  I, for one, would much prefer to see this glorious, idiosyncratic, anomalous fantasy standing in view of Mt. Baker than to see another row of new buildings for offices, many of which are now already standing vacant in this town where we see that white volcano on every clear day and feel the presence of the ocean at our back.

The Clock Tower develops
The Clock Tower develops


Beach Front Property
Beach Front Property
Patriotism on display. (you may notice a tiny model of the Clock Tower inside)
Patriotism on display.
(you may notice a tiny model of the Clock Tower inside)
A collection of windows. “All the better to see you with”

Here’s a video that takes you in to the house five years ago. You can get an impression of how much detail and solidity has gone into this project.

Update from Small Town America

Here I am on the outskirts of a small town in the upper northwest corner of the United States, out in what is called “The County”.  The friends we’ve made over the last twelve years have also been on the outskirts of the culture of this place in time and space.  Our Polish friends, Art and Margaret Roszja are a good example. They come from a very long line of artists and scientists. Margaret’s father, still in Poland, is an astronomer and was a political prisoner in Poland. Last year he received the highest civilian medal for withstanding repression.  Her great-great-great paternal uncle was Frederick Chopin and her paternal aunt, Bronislawa Kawalla, is an internationally renowned pianist and judge on the panel of the international Chopin Competition. Art’s cousin was murdered by the Secret Services in Poland. He became a national martyr and hero. His brother is the pre-eminent classical guitarist of Europe. They fled Poland in 1988 with a small child after a series of events that convinced them of the need to escape a repressive regime where freedom of expression was almost non-existent and where one could easily loose one’s life in challenging authority.

After finding refuge in a refugee camp in Norway, Canada eventually opened its door to them when the US would not. They worked hard in Canada, raised children, created a thriving construction business with public sector contracts, renovated their home near Vancouver and finally decided to come to the US, where Art’s father, grandfather and great grandfather were citizens. For him, it was a return to his homeland.

Their imagination, energy and creativity lead them to aspire to do something unique for a community where they hoped to find stimulation and inspiration, something with whimsy, something unusual, something beautiful and in its own way astounding so those passing by and those in the surrounding area would be able to experience something out of the ordinary, something that demonstrated the possibilities of mind, the extravagance of the spirit.  They could have renovated the old house as others have done, making it a dull, pleasing Craftsman-style set of boxes, painted in drab colors, but they instead conceived of a multi-story Clock Tower, which would be set off by the stunning view of Mt. Baker as you come from the west on Main Street towards the center of town.  They had the energy, money and willingness to do something significant for the town. We all imagined the clocks facing in the four directions, maybe even a chime sounding the hours. Margaret hoped her aunt would come to play piano for the public at the completion.

The judge told them on Friday, among other things, that since they had chosen to do something unusual, creative and unique, causing the city to stretch its thinking about what is permissible, they need to be grownups and take the responsibility for all “the trouble” they’ve caused the City of Ferndale in the past nine years.  They have been categorized as “a nuisance”  for all these years of struggle to finish their project. Never during the nearly four hours of hearings I’ve attended in 2016 was there any mention of the errors the city has committed. No suggestion the city may have brought the whole weight of years of conflict down upon themselves. The local blogger, driven by an ostensible devotion to journalistic objectivity mentions only the government version of the story presented to the court. He has little effort to dig any deeper. Neither has any other local paper, including “alternative” news.

On Friday, Art and Margaret narrowly escaped the fine of over $100,000 the city sought to impose for failing to comply with the terms of a voluntary agreement issued by the court in February.  The city also requested the couple cover all the city’s legal fees (including “staff time” which probably encompasses the hours spent by several city officials who have attended all the hours of court hearings without cause).  It is unclear whether the judge will require this.  However, it is clear the judge issued an order stating that the Roszjas were in contempt of the court’s order from February, although no mention was made at court or in the resulting order of what elements of construction were not completed. In fact, all the elements agreed to were completed, within specifications and on time. The decision of contempt was based solely on the word of the City’s Planner who came to the site and declared the elements unfinished.  No independent inspector was allowed by the city, although requested by the Roszjas. In February, the Roszjas had consented to their attorney’s recommendation and agreed to a faulty order in order to simply move ahead to complete the planned construction, putting the fight behind them and accepting in good faith, as they purported, that the city shared the same goal.

They returned home to do just that, but the city almost immediately had further orders.  Each time the Roszjas moved forward to complete elements of the construction they had been permitted to complete, the city sent them repeated correspondence questioning the legality or safety of things they had already permitted.  In March, they mandated that the reflective glass the Rojszas had installed on the east side of the building be removed and replaced with siding. The city felt they had the right to approve the type of siding the Roszjas would use to replace the glass, although there is no legal basis for this claim. Any other home owner in the city is free to replace siding or replace a roof without permits. The permit for the siding went back and forth for weeks, as had previous permit requests. After much delay and indecision, they required the Roszjas to purchase a Structural Engineering Analysis of the siding proposal, something also not required in any other circumstance when home owners are renovating a home. The engineer the city specified was unable to take on the job for at least a week, further delaying the project.

At court, the judge gave the appearance of again wanting to reach a just compromise in a difficult situation, citing the old test of a true compromise–“Neither side will be happy with the decision.”  However, for a judicially ordered compromise to be just, it must be based on the judiciously weighed facts presented by both sides in a dispute. In this case, the Roszjas have never been allowed to present the evidence of the city’s bad behavior in this conflict. The court appears to believe that if a government claims that something is so, it is so.  Those accused of opposition to the rules of the government evidently have no standing to present a case that runs contrary to the government claims. The position of the Superior Court of Whatcom County runs counter to the whole concept of Due Process.

The Roszjas went home again on Friday, changed their clothes and went back to work to complete what they understand the city will allow them to complete. Tomorrow, the judge will review requests from both attorneys and decide whether there will be further threats of fines and/or a requirement for the Roszjas to pay the city’s legal fees and costs.  The city has repeatedly denied they are treating the Roszjas any differently from any other residents within the city’s boundaries. They feel there is no evidence of bad behavior on their part, no prejudicial or persecutory acts.

We just wonder what will happen.  The people damaged by all of this are the Roszjas. No damage has been done to the good denizens of the city. No one’s safety has been compromised.  The supposed insult to the eyes of the community has been caused by the city’s inaction and ineptitude, if not downright deliberate prejudicial treatment. Although it is the Roszjas who are being treated as criminal actors, guilty of opposition and neglect if not malicious mischief, it is actually the city who is behaving in a manner contrary to American Constitutional Law. The people of the City of Ferndale have, in fact, been damaged not by any compromise of their safety or pollution of the environment, but by the loss of an opportunity to experience something, day after day, which provides a window into a realm beyond the drudgery of the daily grind. They have been deprived of the generosity of art.

It is the Roszjas who will pay for daring to contribute something beyond the normal for which they have been willing to expend large amounts of their own energy and financial resource to accomplish.  This is just the sort of oppression and repression by bureacracy they sought to flee twenty-eight years ago.



A Bulletin From Small Town America

Amidst all that is going on around the world today—the Brexit vote, Donald (the guy teaching the world how to fire people from corporations) vs. Hillary (the guy being hired by corporations), cops being exonerated for the death of a black man in the back of their van, everyone ignoring the real motivations behind the Orlando shootings and believing only what they believe, no one paying much attention at all to the fact of a planet being murdered by all of us together, every day, dying in front of us in fits and starts, gasping—I attended the Whatcom County Superior Court hearing for two dear friends of mine, a couple who escaped a then-Communist Poland years and years ago only to eventually come to be persecuted by yet another authoritarian regime—the City of Ferndale.

They are being hounded for trying to transform an ordinary old two-story farm house they bought almost fourteen years ago on the Main Street (left over from more rural times) into a unique and marvelous Clock Tower of multiple stories, whimsical and attractive.    They run a construction company held in high repute that has renovated many public buildings in Canada and Washington State including several schools, a lighthouse, a city clock tower, a dome, a city park, a wing of a prison, and many others, doing much of the work themselves.  The house was purchased, in fact, right after they had completed seismic improvements on the City’s high school and rebuilt a wing of an old local elementary school. They hoped to incorporate much of the high quality construction materials left over from various jobs into the design of their own Clock Tower (including, originally, four huge clocks which would face in the four directions). They clearly know what they are doing.  Both work harder and more efficiently than people half their ages. In the eight years we’ve known them, the City has managed to obfuscate every permit application they have made, delayed, refused, countermanded their own instructions, written ordinances specifically targeted at this couple’s efforts and prosecuted them for the results of their obstructions.  I know these tactics from first-hand experience when, in trying to initiate a viable Farmers Market in Ferndale, we were ordered to follow  procedures and then told in the next breath there were no existing procedures.

Today was the second time I have attended a hearing in their case. The first was three months ago when the judge “compromised” with the City and gave them mostly 90-day deadlines to complete the construction. They were better than the totally unreasonable deadlines and fines the City asked the court to impose, but still unreasonable.  However, at the time, our friends thought they could meet the deadlines, working diligently and with the materials they had been given permits to use.

Soon after the court date, the City began complicating things further, asking for things already installed to be taken down (including some glass walls they subsequently wrote a city ordinance to prohibit) withholding fire permits, asking for an engineering inspection when none had been specified, etc. etc.  (I’m sure it’s becoming evident that this case as it has wound along for ten years, has been enormously complicated. I plan to tackle an expose-length article telling the whole fascinating story, but I’ll keep it brief here.)  Meanwhile, over the years that our friends have been blocked from using the materials they had accumulated, these had to be stored next to the building. They bought big white tents in order to cover some and decrease the eye sore, leading the City to develop new ordinances against large tents.   As a result of their inability to move forward, public opinion about the site plummeted, even as our friends continued to be hired to work on several of the local schools. It was not hard to find folks in the bars or the local grocery store complaining about those “lazy immigrants who just let things go and create a public eyesore. Why don’t they clean that place up and just finish the damn house!”  The mayor fed this, directly and indirectly, dragging them to court over one thing and another while he proceeded to build a new police station much too large and too expensive for the town in the existing library’s building, almost bankrupting the City in the process.

The eagles flew briefly on the glass walls and the crown lit the sky at night.

Today, the City’s attorney complained in a fretful near-whisper to the judge that our friends were basically unruly children who “didn’t like following rules” and clearly needed to be held in contempt of court and fined severely in order to get them to comply with the completion of the renovations.  The defending attorney made a decent attempt to counter and asked for the court to review what had been completed since the court order was issued in February. He then asked the court leave things as they are since his clients had actually substantially complied and were more than willing to move forward with the final stage as fast as humanly possible. He made the reasonable request that the court put the settlement agreement behind them and, if it felt it necessary, schedule status reviews in front of the court. The City asked instead that they be given a 30-day deadline (meaning they would have to postpone all the jobs to which heir company has committed in the coming weeks) and be fined substantially for their present non-compliance.  No testimony from our friends was allowed.  The group of local supporters who had dressed for court to attend the hearing were not allowed to speak.  The judge appeared to take the City attorney’s word that the agreed items had willfully not been completed.

Hard at work this early, early spring, taking down what had already been built.

To end today’s session, she stated she would take the decision under advisement until tomorrow. We shall see what transpires.  Margaret, the wife of the duo, wondered aloud over coffee and donuts after court if “the death penalty might be imposed for building a Clock Tower.”  (Frivolity and humor were things the City has pointed to as indication of an anti-authoritarian attitude that must be quashed to protect the city from disregard of rules by other citizens.)  Her husband countered that the City’s insistence they complete a metal roof on the tower before completing the spire for which they were just granted a permit would lead Margaret to slip to her death anyway, making it unnecessary for the court to impose that penalty.  One small-town travesty seems to speak volumes about life in our America, even when it speaks with a Polish accent.