With all that heat and humidity yesterday, it sure didn’t feel like Christmas in July. But ask Mary Hess, and she’ll point you to a couple of candidates to play Scrooge in the Christmas Pageant.
Saline resident Mary Hess, like the famed fifth Beatle, has been the unofficial eighth member of Saline City Council as long as I’ve covered Saline. She doesn’t have a vote, but she’s probably done more speaking at the council meetings than half the people who’ve been elected. She gets her 6 minutes a night. And not a second more – because city staff carefully watch the clock when she speaks.
To say Mary gets worked up sometimes is an understatement. When she gets ahold of an issue, whether it’s the tables on the sidewalks outside Brecon Grille or the cars parked at Filip’s Auto, city council members check their caller ID and city staff hide under their desks. To Mary’s credit, a lot of the sidewalk improvements being done by the city these days are a direct result of her work.
Lately, Mary has a new issue that’s eating her up.
A few years ago she was in Florida on Christmas Eve. She called the Methodist church in the phone book to find out when the Christmas services were. When she asked where the service was, the lady on the phone said “follow the light.”
The church used searchlights to let people know where their church was. She found the light and attended church.
“I can’t tell you the wonderful feeling of, in my imagination, going to Christ's birthday party. Jeff (her son) thought it was cool, also. It truly was a joyful experience in my life,” Mary said.
Hess, a member of First United Methodist Church in Saline, decided it would be a great thing to do in her hometown.
She found a company willing to rent the searchlight to the church for $595.
Then Mary, ever the stickler when it comes to city ordinances, made a mistake. She suspected she would need city approval from the city so she contacted city staff. She was right.
DPW Director Jeff Fordice told her that searchlights and beacons are prohibited by ordinance. Hess reached out to Mayor Marl, who said that if the church needed a variance for the searchlight, the city clerk and superintendent would help her with her an application.
Superintendent Gary Roubal informed her that it would cost $600 for Carlisle-Wortman, the city’s planning consultant, to review the application and attend the meeting where Mary’s request would be considered.
So Mary’s $600 idea was now in need of a $1,200 Christmas miracle donation.
The whole thing left Mary a little dispirited.
“My feeling of disappointment of the whole thing still weights on my heart and will for a few days,” Hess said.
Sometimes, Saline feels like a bigger town than it is. Sometimes, the rules seem cumbersome. Bouncing around the City of Saline telephone system always strikes me as too “big city” and impersonal for such a small town.
Rules are rules. And government has to be careful. If you waive a $600 fee for the church on Christmas Eve, do you have to do it for the restaurant in downtown Saline? As Mary knows better than anyone, there are people who keep score when you give favorable treatment to some. And they’ll stick it to the city when they get a chance.
Searchlights are tricky. I bet a lot of people would love a search light on Christmas Eve – for the very reason Mary describes. And there are others, I bet, who would love to point up to the lights in the sky and say to their child, “Hey, they’re looking for Santa.”
On the other hand, for others, the lights might ruin the moonlight over the pristine snow on a silent night.
Can I use a third hand here? Because on the other hand, who cares? Live and let live.
You can’t really just go ask your neighbors and ask if it’s OK – because these lights can be seen from miles away. The city’s planning consultant can’t do it either.
So forget the big city bureaucracy and just go ahead and do it.
That’s not an easy ask of Mary, who has very publicly raked others over the coals for breaking and bending the city’s rules over the years.
But if you go ahead and do it, you might just avoid the unnecessary drama.
If the code enforcement officer is working on Christmas Eve, maybe he’ll stop by and put an end to the fun. And Channel 4 can come out and do a big story – like they did with Mike Gudith’s Christmas lights.
Or maybe you get a call on Dec. 27 from a city staffer that says, “we got a lot of calls complaining about it, and we’d like for you not to do that again.”
Or maybe you create a Christmas tradition in Saline – and families will look for those lights for generations to come.