Dear Ed: I was just reading a pamphlet called "How a bill becomes law." It was fascinating, but also quite complicated, with arrows winding around like the mines under Butte.

There was loads of information about House and Senate conference committees, markups, amendments, vetoes and you name it. What I'm wondering is, how does a bill become law in the city of Billings? -- Billings Citizen

Dear B.C.: It's actually a very similar process. Bills can be proposed in either "house" -- the Billings City Council or the Yellowstone County Commission -- but eventually they have to be approved by the School District 2 Board of Trustees.

If there are major disagreements, the bill will be sent to the Board of Adjustment for fine-tuning. Any bill, however, can be vetoed by the chief of police, or, if he's on vacation, the chairman of the South Side Neighborhood Task Force.

Dear Ed: One often hears about "the power behind the throne." Is there a Dick Cheney-like figure pulling the strings here in Billings, or does the mayor rule the roost? -- Avid Democrat

Dear A.D.: There has definitely been a power behind the throne during the period of my familiarity with the office of the mayor of Billings. That power has been held by the wives of the past three mayors.

Joanie Tooley, Darlene Tussing and Robin Hanel are all smarter than their husbands. If you don't believe me, just ask the men.

Dear Ed: I've heard so much about our exciting City Council meetings, full of plots and manipulation and Machiavellian intrigue, and I want to watch it on TV. What channel is it on? -- Couch Potato

Dear C.P.: Cabal Channel 7, naturally.

Dear Ed: I'm confused. I keep reading that backyard chickens are illegal in Billings, and yet so many people seem to have them. What gives? -- Hard Boiled Oldster

Dear H.B.O.: Though backyard chickens are illegal, you can still get a medical chicken license, with a doctor's certificate. Storefront chicken sales, however, remain illegal.

Dear Ed: What exactly is zoning? -- Local Man

Dear L.M.: At its simplest level, "zoning" simply refers to the process of assuring that like associates with like. In less advanced civilizations, schools might be placed next to hog farms, uranium mines are allowed to operate next to churches and penny-candy stores might share a property line with halfway houses.

In modern societies like ours, zoning rules seek to segregate such uses. Dog owners are not allowed to own cats, and vice versa, and if you want to load your junk car up with fireworks and set it on fire, you'll have to go out into the county.

Dear Ed: I have heard that the City Council cannot take action without something called a quorum. What the heck is that? -- Government Observer

Dear G.O.: A quorum is largish South American rodent, generally nocturnal, with a long, narrow snout and sharp bristles. It generally sleeps under the mayor's chair.

It is no longer known what purpose the quorum was intended to serve, but it is kept on out of respect for tradition, in much the same way that impenetrably vague and stupid laws stay on the books for centuries.

The quorum, by the way, explains why the mayor is armed with a gavel. If meetings go unusually long and the quorum wakes up in a belligerent mood, the mayor is authorized to conk the creature on the noggin.

Dear Ed: I have noticed, watching City Council meetings, that if you are Joe Citizen, by which I mean to say a regular civilian who just walked in off the street, your testimony during public comment periods is limited to three minutes, which is strictly enforced. And yet the council members themselves often ramble on as if there were nothing in the world but time.

Why, there are council members who cannot formulate a simple question in under three minutes. Do you think this is fair? -- Council Critic

Dear C.C.: No, of course not. It is my considered opinion, having attended some hundreds of City Council meetings, that council members should be limited to two comments of 30 seconds each for each item on the agenda. I would gladly run the clock myself.

Dear Ed: I was recently watching a council meeting on Cabal Channel 7, and unless I am greatly mistaken, I saw you sitting up in the front row sawing logs. How often do you fall asleep at council confabs? -- Fess Up

Dear F.U.: I am a professional. I do not sleep on assignment. Occasionally I will pretend to sleep by way of signaling to the council that the current discussion has grown muddled or has gone on too long.

That brings us back to the time clock.

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