#136: Berkley, MI 10/16/17

No sooner had the cameras turned on than Mayor Pro Tem Steve Baker made an aggressive opening bid.

“I’d like to suggest that we move the ‘communications’ before the closed session. So that as we move into closed session, we can just adjourn–” he gazed to the audience with hands outstretched “–without holding these folks here all night.”

Multiple council members simultaneously assented. “Seconded by several people all at the same time,” Mayor Phil O’Dwyer observed dryly.

Speaking of the audience, a substantial number of chairs were filled–and for good reason. Tonight, there was a LOT the good people of Berkley needed to get off their chests and on the record.

“I’m a physician. I come today not with my physician hat on,” a balding man with glasses but no hat whatsoever introduced himself, “but my president’s hat for the Berkley Rotary Club. Every year we have an annual pancake breakfast.”

He brandished a colorful poster. “I’m leaving some flyers. I did not bring any tickets to sell.”

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Yum.

However, I quickly realized what he was “selling” was indeed not pancakes, but rather the very existence of the Rotary itself.

“I’m concerned that our club may be going away,” the man frowned and looked from face to face. “We normally have about 25 members. Every year it’s been dwindling. People move. People retire. People die.”

A woman behind him stroked her chin. A man in a white moustache looked stricken. The speaker continued:

“We’re down to six members, which is a pretty sad state. In the past from Berkley, we’ve had city managers, we’ve had police chiefs, we’ve had librarians. We really have no members representing the city.”

He stood rigidly and delivered the heartbreaking news directly at the mayor. “If we don’t have a successful pancake breakfast, the six members are going to go away. So I’m pleading with the city that we can get some representation in our club.”

Whoa. Normally, people come in to ask city councils for money or services. In this case, he just needs somebody–anybody–to show up. This isn’t some obscure quilting club; it’s the Rotary. If it falls, who will look after the city? The Neighborhood Garden Coalition?

I don’t think so, mayor.

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His message of “our death will be on your hands” isn’t exactly an uplifting call to action.

Whatever the fate of Rotary, his cry for help resonated with the next commenter–the man with the moustache–who was listening closely.

“Proud citizen of Berkley,” was his gruff identification. “We need more citizens to step up. Volunteer. Such as the Rotary Club. The Parade Committee. The Beautification Committee.”

He kept it to all of 30 seconds. “Step up and help. Thank you.”

As if some invisible composer had orchestrated the whole thing, the next woman was spearheading the aforementioned Holiday Parade Committee. And I’ll give you one guess at what the Committee needs:

“Like everybody else, we’re looking for volunteers to help us on our parade staff,” she announced. “We would like to extend an invitation to our mayor and city council when Santa Claus will be given the key to the city.”

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Who needs keys when you use chimneys?

“You are assuring us tonight,” interjected Mayor O’Dwyer in his authentic Irish brogue, “that Santa Claus will be there?”

“Absolutely,” she nodded solemnly. “We’ve gotten word from the North Pole that he will be coming down Twelve Mile and he’ll be greeting all the little children–and adults.”

Have him stop by the Rotary afterward!

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Interview #67: Duluth, MN Councilor Noah Hobbs (with podcast)

This podcast interview is available on iTunesStitcherPlayer FM, and right here:

Noah Hobbs is a first-term councilor in Duluth who has a strong opinion about how his city council should spend its time during meetings. He and I discuss the role of the council president, creative ways to cut off rambling public commenters, and (listen to the audio) I make my best attempt at convincing him to give me the “Distinguished Artist Award.”

Q: Let’s go back to December 2016. The council was considering a resolution to support the Standing Rock Reservation protests against an oil pipeline in North Dakota. You voted for it and seemed to say, “I’m fine with this, but it’s not really our turf.” 

A: Yeah, I think that focusing on core local government issues is where we should spend a large part of our conversation. All the press after that about a resolution that was nonbinding [and] didn’t really affect the day-to-day operations of the city….I do get a little frustrated when we get off-track. I’m not necessarily in the majority on the council with that point of view.

Q: I would point out that for weeks afterward, people came into the council meetings to praise you guys for that vote. Did that make you feel any better about it?

A: Not really. It was an organized effort to make the council–that took a beating from the business community–feel better. It was more a continuation of a story that didn’t have legs, that ended up having legs.

Q: This January, you ran for council president against then-Vice President Joel Sipress. Here is what he said:

What we’re really voting on here is two different understandings of the role of the council president. The argument that Councilor Hobbs has made involves a list of priorities. That’s a traditional role of a council president in large cities like New York or San Francisco where the council president is a power position that drives the agenda.

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Duluth, MN Councilor Noah Hobbs

Noah, would your first action as a New York City-style council president have been to declare the areas of the city where–HEY, I’M WALKIN’ HERE!

A: [Laughs] I do think it’s important to have a council agenda. Our core function is pretty much approving the budget for the mayor. You can have nine different councilors doing nine different things and at the end of the year accomplish nothing. Having an agenda is important to show that we do more than approve the budget.

Q: One criticism I do have of President Joel Sipress is that he is way too “Minnesota Nice” when he tries to cut off public commenters who have reached their time limit. If you were president, how would you cut off a time hog?

A: Yeah, as a born-and-raised Minnesotan, I don’t know if I could do much better. Maybe using the gavel to tap once to get attention and say they’ve got ten seconds left. But as a Minnesotan, that is something we struggle with.

Q: Have you ever thought about hiring some muscle to escort people from the podium?

A: I don’t know if the constituents would really enjoy hiring a bodyguard for council chambers. I think we should get a basketball buzzer. Get a shot clock and when it gets to zero, just have the buzzer go….There’s nothing unconstitutional about that.


Follow Councilor Noah Hobbs on Twitter: @Hobbs_Duluth

#135: Springdale, AR 10/10/17

“Before we proceed,” Council Member Kathy Jaycox stopped the meeting cold in its tracks, “could we recognize some guests in the audience? They’re here because they are trying to earn badges.”

Mayor Doug Sprouse relaxed. “Sure. Would somebody like to tell us who’s here?”

The Boy Scout troop leader stepped to the microphone and ordered his young charges to their feet. “Gentlemen, if you’d like to stand. They’re working on their communication merit badge.”

“Okay,” the mayor replied, doing a little drumroll on his desk and smiling. “I don’t know how much communication you’ll learn from THIS bunch, but we’ll try!”

As soon as the Scouts settled back in their seats, the council took up the titillating issue of an emergency replat of the Sunset Industrial Park Phase II subdivision. Things went smoothly on the first roll call vote. But suddenly, the staffer at the lectern barreled ahead without warning.

“The next item is a–” she announced, before the mayor halted her for a necessary second vote.

“I’m just in a hurry!” she chuckled as the next roll call rolled on. “I’m doing my part to make it short!”

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Communications lesson: keep it short, but wait until people are done voting.

Now, under normal circumstances, updating personnel policies is hardly a mouth-watering affair. But today? Let’s just say: don’t judge a book by its heavily-tattooed cover.

“So, if someone’s trying to apply for a position,” Council Member Colby Fulfer mused, “we can still use discretion based on someone’s physical appearances or sources of income that could be questionable? Could we discriminate?”

“It depends,” replied Mayor Sprouse matter-of-factly. “We do have positions where we can have those requirements. They would be the obvious ones like personal appearance.”

Council Member Mike Overton threw up his hand and grumbled, “not in all departments can we have people looking at Jo-Jo the tattooed man!”

Wow. I would be more worried that a grown man chooses to go by “Jo-Jo” than the fact he has tattoos.

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I associate myself with these reactions.

At this point, Mayor Sprouse, who had apparently been sitting on a powerkeg of exciting news all meeting, finally lit the fuse. “As we’re looking at possible fire stations with a bond issue, I would really like to go look at one,” he prefaced.

“The best one sounds like it’s in the Kansas City area. I think it would be great to go up there and look at that.”

Field trip! I love car rides. Which brings up an important question: I am invited, right?

“We’ll just go when the most people can go,” Sprouse glanced around. “I know that the press will be invited.”

That’s me, baby! If the mayor is a man of his word, City Council Chronicles will happily ride shotgun on the party bus.

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Real talk: I’ll only go if the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette isn’t invited. 

“We would leave 7:30, 8 in the morning,” he continued, diminishing my interest slightly in this excursion. Immediately, crosstalk ensued as council members simultaneously tossed out their availability.

“What about the 23rd?” hollered one voice. As the mayor scanned his schedule, other council members nodded in agreement.

“I’ll have to cancel a couple of meetings, but I can move those,” the mayor assented.

“What could be more important than being with the council, mayor?!” Council Member Overton joked. The mayor pursed his lips and bobbed his head without further reply.

Final thoughts: I’ll see you guys on the 23rd.

Month in Review: September 2017

We had a smörgåsbord of “firsts” in September: the first time we saw a husband bring his wife roses at a council meeting. Our first podcast interview with a knight (even though she claims she’s not a knight). And our first “Best Thing, Worst Thing” story that profiles a non-American city.

And hey! We finally marked our territory in one of the three states that City Council Chronicles had not visited: Montana. Now, it’s only Rhode Island and New Mexico that need to get with the program. Check out which states we did profile with our September Month in Review.

And if you haven’t seen the first country music video we’ve encountered that everybody is talking about (well, everybody who watches the Fayetteville, North Carolina city council meetings, that is), plug in your headphones and jam out here:

Special Feature! “Best Thing, Worst Thing”

In the latest, greatest episode of our “Best Thing, Worst Thing” project, we swing through Western Pennsylvania to visit the famed steel city of Pittsburgh. There may be three rivers and hundreds of bridges, but I take you on a trip to the less obvious places in search of best and worst things: to a machine shop where Chinese students and high school girls are working together; to a Sunday morning church service; and to the “Yugoslav Room” with a local poet.

If you’ve never heard of the project before, catch the previous 11 episodes here. When you are ready to learn about the hardest part of designing a robot, click over to the City Council Chronicles podcast to download this latest episode. Or you can play it below.

Episode 12: Pittsburgh, PA

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Pittsburgh had a reputation as a steel-producing city in Western Pennsylvania and now is known more for its robotics, technology, and medicine. It has a population of 300,000 and is defined by hills, rivers, and bridges. In our visit, we watch a high school team assemble robots with visiting Chinese students; attend a picnic in a park; and experience a Baptist church service. We also hear from a poet, a retired educator, a recently-returned young mother, and a “Girl of Steel.”

#134: Iowa City, IA 10/3/17

Mayor Jim Throgmorton couldn’t avoid it. He had to address it. And within the first minute, he joined thousands of other mayors at council meetings across the country in saying:

“I want to express our profound shock and grief about the mass shooting that took place in Las Vegas.”

He frowned deeply. “Will this sequence of mass killings never end?”

After ordering a minute of silence, the mayor looked up, attempting to lighten the mood.

“Sometimes transitions can be very awkward,” he acknowledged with an avuncular grin. “We have two proclamations.”

Now, if the first proclamation were for “Clowns and Balloon Animal Appreciation Week,” it might have indeed been an awkward transition. But in reality, the segue was far more muted from gun horrors to…Domestic Violence Awareness Month.

“How do you move forward when the one place you are supposed to be safe is no longer?” a woman stood at the lectern and gave a heartfelt acceptance speech for the proclamation. “When everything about your life has been controlled in every way?”

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The rhetorical questions were strong today.

Because Columbus Day was fast approaching, the next proclamation naturally declared–well, not what you’d expect for Iowa:

“Iowa City is built on the homelands of the indigenous peoples and the city is dedicated to opposing systemic racism,” Mayor Throgmorton read. “The city encourages other businesses, organizations, and institutions to recognize Indigenous People’s Day.”

Being a business, an organization, and an institution, City Council Chronicles will up the ante and declare next week Indigenous People’s WEEK. Ball’s in your court, Iowa City.

Moving on to the student representative from the University of Iowa, he informed the council that “we held our first town hall to figure out what topics they had on their minds. The topic was voted on via Twitter poll–we’re millennials, how else would we do things?” he took a small dig at his generation.

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Some of my best college memories were Twitter polls.

He added, in the college spirit: “real quick shameless plug for my fraternity’s philanthropy. We are hosting a 0.1K on October 15.”

Several people giggled at the premise, but he continued wryly. “I understand that’s a far distance and y’all aren’t trained for it. We’ll have a watering hole at the halfway mark.”

“Do you think it’s gonna take that long to run it?” quizzed Council Member Susan Mims facetiously.

“It might,” the student deadpanned, prompting chuckles.

The mayor sat up as he remembered something. “Hey Ben, I’d like to note that on November 28, I’m going to be visiting with student government.”

“You will!” Ben agreed.

“Yeah. I’m looking forward to that.” His brow furrowed and he raised his voice. “BUT IT’S MY BIRTHDAY!”

“We’ll have a cupcake for you,” Ben insisted. “Do you prefer Molly’s [Cupcakes] or Scratch [Cupcakery]?”

“Molly’s,” hissed several council members and folks in the audience. The mayor was forced to acquiesce to the seething mob.

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Partisan crowd

“The Englert [Theater] has done it again,” Council Member Terry Dickens informed his colleagues breathlessly. “They’re bringing Arlo Guthrie! It’s pretty exciting that we get somebody of that quality here.”

“Terry?” Mayor Throgmorton leaned in and cheekily made reference to a Guthrie song, “where can you get everything you want?”

Dickens didn’t miss a beat. “The Englert!”

The mayor was disappointed his joke didn’t land. “No! You can get everything you want–”

“One of his great songs, yes,” Dickens nodded without taking the bait.

Final thoughts: For the record, the answer is “Alice’s Restaurant.”

Special Feature! “A Very Texas Proposal”

Regular listeners of the podcast will know that whenever something unusual or exciting happens in the world of city council meetings, people let me know about it through The Listener’s List. Last week, I was made aware of a super-duper special occurrence:

A marriage proposal at the Flower Mound, Texas council meeting by town manager Jimmy Stathatos! I talked to him and got the play-by-play, which all of you hopeless romantics will want to experience on iTunesStitcherPlayer FM, or right here:

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Photo source: Town of Flower Mound

Q: Did you have any alternative romantic spots in mind to propose, like the Kroger or the water treatment plant?

A: [Laughs] She is a huge sports fan, so I thought about going on the field at a Rangers game. But I thought that was kind of cliche-ish. That’s how I settled on town hall.

Q: I heard that pretty much the entire town was in on what you were going to do, except your fiancé.

A: It was the worst-kept secret! I was surprised she didn’t find out.

Q: Well, yeah, how did you get an entire town of Texans–who are used to shooting things off–to not shoot their mouths off?

A: I threatened them with code enforcement! I’m kidding; I got lucky.

Q: How could you stay focused when you were giving the announcements earlier in the meeting? You seemed a lot more nervous than during the site plan approval for Jerry’s Express Car Wash, but not quite as nervous as during the rezoning for Lakeside Crossing. Am I off base here?

A: No, you’re awesome. You watched! My stomach was in knots. Everytime they were talking about something else, I’m like, “just let me go!”

Q: If someone were to propose at a city council meeting, it seems like they could do it as a total surprise or they could use your method of doing everything short of getting a permit. If one of your employees wanted to do something similar, which way would you prefer?

A: Probably the surprise route. My way worked because I was able to tell the people that needed to know. But also, it is the people’s business and I didn’t want any of my bosses to be offended because I used that venue. But I think people that work for me know that I would be cool with whatever.

Q: Well, my friend, I have a little surprise for you. City Council Chronicles is going to send you on an ALL-EXPENSES PAID HONEYMOON TO–hold on, let me check my bank account….Wow, cannot do that.

New plan: one thing town council meetings are good for is issuing proclamations. And we at The Chronicles have drafted the following:

WHEREAS, Jimmy Stathatos and Michelle Dishman have been engaged since September 2017; and

WHEREAS, Jimmy Stathatos has been a faithful public servant in Flower Mound, Texas; and

WHEREAS, the town council proposal reminded people that government employees are creative, thoughtful, and mindful of their community, and that you should always be watching city or town council meetings for surprises;

BE IT THEREFORE RESOLVED THAT [insert marriage date] be known as Jimmy Stathatos and Michelle Dishman Day.

Now, previous podcast guest and councilman in your neighboring city of Lewisville, TJ Gilmore, will get this signed, sealed, and made the law of the land. What do you think?!

A: That is awesome! He is a good man.