July was noteworthy for two reasons. First: it was Mayor’s Month! That’s right, we talked on the podcast to an unprecedented four mayors from three continents. What we heard was heartwarming in some cases and tear-jerking in others.
Second: this being July, of course we saw fireworks! Mostly they were of the verbal variety. But in one case, someone actually brandished a firework in a council meeting. If you don’t remember that moment, perhaps you should browse our July Month in Review page.
And if you’re still questioning whether July’s council meetings are worth a second look, at least find out why this woman is so g–d– happy:
Amber Waldref and I had a very deep discussion about the regular public commenters (there are tons) at her meetings, an incident involving a presidential walk-out, and her approach to getting the audience on her side.
Q: How would you describe council President Ben Stuckart’s style of running your meetings?
A: It’s easy to criticize, but if you had to do it yourself–because I’ve had to–it is difficult. You have to have a strong constitution and you can’t be afraid of calling people out. I take a little bit softer approach than council President Stuckart does. I don’t know if that helps or hurts me.
Q: When you run the meetings, how do you handle it?
A: It’s all about preparation. Usually you’re given at least a couple days notice so you can get your head in order and research agenda items–make sure you understand where things might go astray and check in with council members to make sure no one’s going to throw in a crazy motion at the last minute.
Q: When you said you take a “softer” approach, that word, when you connote it with being a woman, it’s like, you’re a better listener, you’re more “motherly”–or whatever it conjures up. Is that what you meant?
A: I think it’s just the tone of your voice and the sincerity of your statements. If someone comes up and gives a comment, [say] “thank you” instead of giving a sarcastic, “NEXT!” They may be a difficult person to listen to. They may have something they’ve said a thousand times and you’ve heard it. But you just smile and in the tone of your voice, sincerely say, “thank you for your comment.”
A: You still need to be firm. I think it’s how the tone of the meeting can be set by just making a joke at the beginning or making light of something–getting the crowd to chuckle and getting them on your side. Those are some tricks I use.
Q: What are we talking about here? Knock-knocks? Limericks?
A: I usually use self-deprecating humor. Or, “oh, since council President Stuckart is out, I’m going to be nice to all of you. Haha!”
Q: [Laughs] So, is what you’re talking about not so much “kindness” but “acting?”
A: No, I think it’s about a state of mind. It’s probably easier for me because I don’t have to chair [the meeting] every week. If you were president every week, it’s hard to have that approach. I think you’re at an advantage if you’re only doing it every three months. People maybe have a different perspective on you.
Q: It’s like a substitute teacher: you might think you could get away with things or you might wish you had that teacher all that time.
A: Yeah, I want to be the cool substitute teacher.
Q: [Laughs] One of these meetings you should just put on the Minions movie and forget about the agenda! Are things any different in the small conference room that your meetings are in now versus your old council chamber?
A: It’s a more intimate space. We’re on the same level as the people speaking to us. Which I appreciate. It creates a more casual atmosphere. I think that’s why people are speaking out of turn. There’s plusses and minuses.
Mayor Thomas Price was all smiles as he kicked off the meeting.
“Can I have the Friends of the Children of Brevard come up?” he announced, glancing coyly at the audience. Surrounded by a clique of three women, he reached underneath the podium.
“You’re gonna get the proceeds from our golf tournament. It’s my pleasure to present you with”–he hoisted a giant novelty check–“a $21,000 check!”
The women’s jaws dropped as the council clapped and hollered. After the ceremonial picture, Mayor Price turned toward them. “Are any of you Rockledge residents?”
“I am,” one of them volunteered.
The mayor instantly produced a smaller gift (my sources tell me either an energy bar or a piece of candy) and handed it to her as the room erupted in laughter. I can only assume that this is the mayor’s calling card and it’s not the first time he’s passed out snacks here.
Taking his seat on the dais, Mayor Price steered the council through a series of permit fees and zoning ordinances that were heavy on words and light on drama. He paused.
“Folks, we’re not always this boring. We just gotta get through all these ordinances first,” he winked, causing another round of chuckles from the crowd.
Suddenly, the infamous Rockledge Environmental Enforcement Board had a handful of open spots–and controversy flared.
“How many vacancies do we have?” the mayor quizzed the council. “Two. How many people do we have applied? Two.”
He waved his hand. “This is going to be easy.”
“If I may,” interrupted Vice Mayor T. Patrick O’Neill, “my recommendation would be that we only fill one of these vacancies tonight rather than throwing new meat into too many boards at one time.”
“New meat?” It’s an advisory board, not Army boot camp. I think everyone will survive. Nevertheless, under the New Meat Doctrine, the council dutifully filled one seat and left the other languishing.
It was at this point the city manager announced another vacancy: hers.
“Tomorrow night, I will be flying out of town. I’ll return Monday morning,” she said. “In my absence, Matthew Trine, our finance director, will be the acting city manager.”
“Are beards allowed for our acting city managers?” teased Mayor Price, shooting a look of feigned skepticism to Trine.
“I’ll have to check the dress code, mayor!” quipped the city manager as the council guffawed.
But one man who wasn’t in a lighthearted mood was Council Member Frank Forester, who gave a pained soliloquy on the deterioration of public protests.
“I’ve been watching the news again. You know how THAT can cause problems these days,” he frowned. “I saw a lot of this back in the day when I was in college. The thing I didn’t see then that I’m seeing now is people wearing masks.”
He leaned back in his chair and searched for words. “I kind of feel like, if you’ve got something to say, let people see who’s saying it. Otherwise, who cares? I might care what a man or a woman has to say, but I don’t care what a mask has to say.”
The city attorney joined the grievance bandwagon as council members listened silently. “Those people who dress like that have nothing to say. They really don’t. What they wanna do is cause a scene.”
Beards, masks…the city manager better take a hard look at the fashion guidelines on her flight out of Rockledge.
The layers here are incredible: while a reporter takes a selfie, another audience member takes a picture of the city council taking a selfie. Please tell me there’s a fourth cell phone somewhere so that the selfie chain can be even longer.
It appears that Jeff City’s mayor, Carrie Tergin, stepped away from the council meeting–only to be replaced by a cardboard cutout wearing eclipse glasses! (My sources tell me the cutout also runs a helluva council meeting.) I love the spectrum of emotions from council members; they range from “meh” to “I AM HAVING THE TIME OF MY LIFE!”
There were oodles of voyeuristic pictures featuring people in the process of taking selfies. I like this one for two reasons: first, Columbia has set up their selfie station in advance–major points there. And second, this proves that you can have a good selfie or you can have a good portrait, but it’s hard to have a good portrait of a selfie.
Dallas lands a spot on the list thanks to this fellow gunning it through the city council selfie loophole. Not only is it ingenious to have a chart of all council members’ faces, but do you see that flamingo shirt?! Memorable for sure.
Hats galore! Witches in the back, viking in the front, and the mayor in a top hat inside the council chamber. There aren’t nearly enough props in city government, so nice job raiding the costume store.
Uh, paging all art museums: who wants this masterpiece on their wall?! Seriously, what a trippy and visionary take on a selfie by Alder Maurice Cheeks! I’m getting a bit nauseous, but part of me wants to put on some sitar music and ponder the circular nature of life.
Gaithersburg had all hands on deck. Council Member Ryan Spiegel covered the outside perimeter, Council Member Neil Harris staked out the inside, and Mayor Jud Ashman took the extreeeeeeeeeeeme eastern part of Gaithersburg: Europe! Good teamwork, gentlemen.
“OH, FOR GOD’S SAKE. WHY DIDN’T WE THINK TO USE THE HORSE?!” That’s what I imagine every media person in local government is saying this morning as they bang their head on a desk. Seriously, hats and helmets WAY off to Ocean City for setting next year’s bar at “getting a horse into a council chamber.”
Known as the “Dry Wit of Wichita” (I made that up), Jeff Longwell can be ornery, humorous, and self-aware at council meetings. We had a fun chat about his 10 years on the council.
Q: At the May 9, 2017 council meeting, you were not actually there. Vice Mayor Janet Miller was running things. Here is how she started off:
Vice Mayor: For those of you who are wondering why I’m here and the mayor is not, his orneriness has finally caught up with him. He is home with kidney stones! He’s probably watching, so our thoughts are with you and I’ve told you not to be so ornery!
I’m not a medical doctor, but I DO believe orneriness IS the cause of kidney stones. Were you watching the meeting at home?
A: I was. I was in and out of taking pain medication. I was battling probably in the worst phases of my very first kidney stone.
Q: How much more pain did it cause you that she was bringing up your kidney stones on TV in front of the whole city?
A: [Laughs] Yeah, there’s not much you can hide as a public official! The nice thing is I received a lot of sympathy from people all over the city.
Q: I want to ask about the joint meeting between the Wichita city council and the Sedgwick County commission from June 27 of this year. You were negotiating a contract for ambulance services that the county provides. I don’t know if you’ve read The Art of the Deal, but in a negotiation, you are supposed to go in with your last acceptable alternative in mind–then threaten nuclear war with North Korea. What was your strategy?
A: [Laughs] I didn’t need a strategy to get them to deal. We held all of the cards! We had the option of signing the agreement or voiding the agreement and doing something on our own.
Q: I noticed you cracking some jokes in the meeting. Do you use humor as a negotiating tactic?
A: I use humor sometimes to drive a point home without trying to make people defensive. My humor’s a little dry at times. It takes a while before you fully understand my humor.
Q: If you came out of a council meeting and couldn’t help a citizen or you voted in a way that made people mad, how long would that stick with you?
A: Oh, wow. We don’t have the luxury to dwell on votes. What I like to tell people: it’s great to have robust discussion. But once that vote’s been taken, everyone should act as if that vote was unanimous.
Q: Have you ever had second thoughts about anything that’s happened in a council meeting?
A: There’s some times where I’ve remained totally quiet and just let people talk and later regret, “why didn’t I say something?” Because what we often forget is what it looks like from the other end. If someone is making statements that aren’t necessarily true and we don’t counter that…oftentimes we say, “thank you. Okay, next speaker.” If we don’t counter those mistruths, at some point many in the community will go, “you didn’t say anything, so it must be true.”
Q: You’d err on the side of inserting yourself into the argument?
If you had asked me to write the plotline for a council meeting in a small southern town, there is no way I would have invented anything as riveting as the actual Goldsboro city council meeting.
“My favorite time of the night: public comment period,” swashbuckling Mayor Chuck Allen boomed as onlookers stirred in their seats. He had barely finished his sentence before an elderly man swaggered to the podium, shouting his name and address.
“How are you, sir?” Council Member Mark Stevens greeted him warmly.
“I’m doing wonderful! Everybody’s bright-eyed and enjoying the meeting,” hollered the man. He planted his entire body in an immobile slouch and made his position crystal clear.
“In behalf of all the fine, clean, Christian people who live in Goldsboro and wanna keep this a safe and clean city,” he thundered, “we the clean, Christian people do hereby OPPOSE Sabbath morning sale of alcoholic beverages.”
Heads nodded in the crowd.
“It’s a threat to the church. It’s a disgrace to the community. Thank you for your vote against it.”
In a first for me, he then commenced his own round of applause, which citizens and a few council members joined as he retreated from the microphone.
A petite woman with a shock of white hair took his place. “I attend Adamsville Baptist Church. Serving alcohol at 10 a.m. on Sunday will be a bad influence on the young people.”
She frowned deeply as if looking into the eyes of Satan himself. “If we have our people setting in the bar on a Sunday morning, they are missing an opportunity to attend one of our many churches.”
I should mention, the council was voting today on the “Brunch Bill” to allow alcohol sales starting at 10 a.m. on Sundays. And if you couldn’t tell, there was a teensy bit of opposition from a very specific demographic:
“You have one person–one person ONLY–that is looking at you HARDER than we are,” bellowed a graying church deacon, pointing skyward. “It’s the man upstairs.”
“Amens” flitted across the room. But the president of the downtown merchants’ association strolled to the podium to argue on behalf of the local heretics.
“Seventy-one percent of downtown merchants are in favor of the Brunch Bill. The merchants feel the bill will bring new businesses to Goldsboro,” he countered, rattling off all of the neighboring cities and counties that had Sunday morning sales.
A hostile silence, broken by a single boo, greeted the heathen as he walked off.
Another local bar owner, clad in a neat button-up shirt and a tidy haircut, stared at the mayor and asked a simple question.
“We have alcohol sales starting at 7 a.m. Monday through Saturday. So what’s the difference with Sunday?”
Mayor Allen eyed the gallery as various parishioners muttered, “it’s the lord’s day.”
“The LORD’S day,” the man repeated for emphasis. “THAT’S the difference. So now this is an issue of religion.”
“There are many sabbaths,” this barkeep-cum-professor lectured the council. “Sunday is not the ONLY sabbath. We’re making laws based on religion. I would refer you to the First Amendment.”
Having heard both sides for almost a half hour, Mayor Allen called for the vote. “All those in favor, raise your right hand.”
He and three council members voted aye. The remaining three voted no. The teetotalers had lost.
Council Member Stevens vented in frustration. “For those who were disappointed in this situation, you know…keep praying. The lord will keep you safe.”
Randal Wallace has been a councilman since 2001–and he’s running for a fifth term as we speak! Normally, I get livid when a city like Myrtle Beach does not video stream its meetings. But I calmed down when he told me he would like to see that happen. Plus, he shared a nice thing his mother does after he has a difficult council meeting.
Q: I went on the city’s website looking to watch the Myrtle Beach council meetings and I became kind of angry when I saw that you do NOT put your meeting videos online.
A: We’re televised and you can go to our public information officer and ask for a copy of the meeting. It’s a little old-school. We hired two new assistant public information folks. They’ve been putting the minutes online, so I think we’re moving toward the twenty-first century. We just got a new Facebook page and Twitter presence and Instagram. So that would be a very good next step, to live stream the meetings. I would certainly be supportive of it.
Q: You are running for reelection, as are two other council members and the mayor. If you came across in these meetings as the voice of reason, the consensus-builder, the guy who treats everyone well–I would think you’d want voters to know that. And if someone is behaving abominably, you’d want voters to know that too. Do you feel the same way?
A: Yeah. The seven members that are currently on council, we’ve gone out of our way to disagree agreeably. We’ve had the same upper management staff for, like, 29 years. So you’re seeing a lot of change happening now and we’re moving out of the status quo.
Q: Your meetings happen at 2 p.m. during the workday. Between that and the lack of streaming, it seems like Myrtle Beach is making it difficult to find out what’s happening in those meetings.
A: Well actually, when I was first elected, the televised meeting was at 7 o’clock on Tuesdays. We moved the 7 p.m. meeting to 2 o’clock. The majority of council–of which I was not one–felt like we were keeping staff there. It had been routine that we had meetings that ran sometimes till midnight, 1 o’clock in the morning, and it would make great television. But the staff was having to be there from 8:30 in the morning till we finished. Then they had to come back.
A: I’m more of a night person. So I understood about people wanting to come later on–they might be a little freer. But I was in the minority.
Q: In 2013, I saw that you tweeted this:
@bsmithnews my mom watches council meetings, she will call me when she gets mad at how people talk to me, public and or other councilmen.
A: She’s had a few distractions, but when I first was on [council], if I got entangled with one of the council members or someone came in really mad at me, as soon as we went off TV my phone would ring. It would be her: “don’t you let him talk to you like that!” So it was good to have a mom in your corner!
Q: That’s sweet of her!
A: Over the years she’s gotten a little thicker skin about it. [Laughs] She still can get a little feisty when she perceives I’m getting treated bad.