Interview #99: St. Petersburg, FL Council Member Darden Rice (with podcast)

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

Darden Rice is the District Four council member in St. Pete and we spent time dissecting her city’s restrictive public comment period. Then we practiced convincing teenagers to come and speak to the council! (BONUS: Info about International #CityHallSelfie Day.)

Q: Council Member, I was angry when I heard that only city residents, owners of property, business owners in the city, or their employees could speak in your meetings–and only on city government issues. Does this mean I am not allowed to come and tell you folks why “Shrek 2” was better than the original “Shrek?”

A: Yeah, there might be some issues if you wanted to speak if you’re not a St. Pete resident. Although you could call your friends, like Council Member Darden Rice, and I could invite you to come talk about “Shrek.”

Q: I do know it’s highly unusual for a council to limit the kinds of people who can speak during a public comment. What would you say to the argument that, as a representative, you are obligated to hear what your people are concerned about? Even if that concern is not, strictly speaking, about city business?

A: I think you’ve got a really good point. I tend to be a little more liberal in the application of what rules we use. But at the end of the day, it is on advice from our legal team that the people that speak–because there’s limited time–that we honor those who are residents.

Q: Practically though, how do you screen out people who don’t meet those criteria?

A: There’s really a trust system involved. It’s so rarely that someone doesn’t meet the criteria.

Q: For the record then: if the Queen of England herself walked into the St. Pete council meeting for open forum and you had your suspicions that she was not a resident, you would still not say, “sorry, Mum, I’ll need to see the address on your driver’s license first?”

A: I would imagine that our chairperson of council would give the courtesy of the Queen to speak at council.

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St. Petersburg, FL Council Member Darden Rice

Q: Recently, Council Member Steve Kornell had an idea to ask the ministers you invite to do your invocations to also bring children from their youth groups to speak at council meetings. Can you explain what this procedure is supposed to look like? And please do use words like “dope” or “extra” in your answer.

A: [laughs] I think it has a good intention. I think it would take a lot of work bringing kids and getting them out of school to come and speak to council. I haven’t really thought about whether this is an idea I think is really great or if it’s just gonna make meetings run a lot longer.

Q: Let’s do a role-playing exercise. Let’s pretend you are a minister about to give the invocation–Presbyterian, if you need to get into character. And you are trying to convince me, a moody teenager, to come and speak during the open forum.

A: Hey, Michael. This is Pastor Darden Rice and we are gonna go up and talk to city council today. I’d like you to share some issues you have going on at school and talk about how safe you feel in the neighborhoods or not and just let your elected officials know about what it’s like living in St. Pete. How does that sound?

Q: Ugh, city council? That sounds like old people stuff. You are embarrassing me so hard right now in front of my phone. I will not be on camera without a filter. No way. #noway.

A: Hey, Michael, I think you ought to give this a second thought. When young people show up, we really listen. I think it would be a great learning experience.

Q: It’s not gonna be boring is it? My boyfriend went to an Ed Sheeran concert and said it was super boring and I’m worried this will be like the Ed Sheeran concert.

A: It won’t be boring because you’re just staying for the beginning of it. I promise.

A: Okay, fine. Only if I can text my friends about how I’m at the city council meeting and they’re not so they’re lame.


Follow Council Member Darden Rice on Twitter: @DardenRice

Month in Review: July 2018

July was a solid month for a couple of our key demographics. Readers, for instance, were buoyed by the news that the Book Mobile was roaring back after a 30-year absence!

People who enjoy theater and comedy were also pleased when we interviewed the city manager whose council loves to put on an elaborate production once a year.

We also heard on the podcast from two council members who were part of a once-hostile atmosphere at their city halls that has since cooled down considerably.

To find out who is a city council trendsetter and who is still working out the kinks of the job, check out the July Month in Review.

And if the thought of catching up on all of the council meetings you missed seems daunting, the deputy city clerk here feels your pain:

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Interview #98: Newport, OR Public Works Director Tim Gross (with podcast)

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

Tim Gross is the first public works director to appear on the program! We spoke about how he prepares the councilors to decide on technical issues and what he learned as an actor that applies to the meetings.

Q: How do you feel about the fact that you have to sit at the dais with your councilors during every meeting?

A: Well, there’s a lot of business that takes place at a council meeting that is not public works-related. I wish that I was at the beginning of the meeting instead of at the end [laughs].

Q: What do you do when you’re sitting through that copious downtime?

A: The council meetings honestly are the longest period of uninterrupted time I have for doing work that I have otherwise not had the time to do. It’s a great opportunity for me to get some correspondence done. I’ll keep an ear out for what’s happening in the meeting.

Q: So a public council meeting for you is a better work environment than your actual work environment?

A: Yes, absolutely!

Q: You obviously have a specialized field of knowledge. How frustrated do you get when there is a technical concept that they are voting on and they don’t seem to be getting it?

A: I’m gonna actually turn that on ear a little bit. More often what I get is people coming in from the public who have a solution to whatever problem they’ve identified. It’s not necessarily a good solution. It’s my opportunity and responsibility to–I hate to say the word “educate”–educate the council on how public works operates. I usually make sure that I don’t necessarily get in a battle of wits with somebody who comes into the council chambers.

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Newport, OR Public Works Director Tim Gross

Q: Tim, I’m surprised you don’t like to engage in battles of the wits because is it true that you once acted in “Schoolhouse Rock Live!?”

A: [laughs] Yes, that’s one of the shows I’ve been in. I was the teacher in that musical.

Q: Did you learn anything from working with children that was beneficial to you in the city council meetings?

A: I mean, a city is made up of people. What I like about acting in musicals is you’re working with a bunch of people from a huge variety of backgrounds. I enjoy that.

Q: Most of the meeting is not, unfortunately, public works-related. Because you are a department head–because you are sitting at the dais with everyone else–if there is an issue before council, do you automatically feel that it’s partly your responsibility? Or do you think, “good luck with that, but it’s not really my area?”

A: I have a motto: “if I have the ability, I have the responsibility.” If the council doesn’t get back on point and discuss the issue at hand, it’s my responsibility to be able to make sure they are factual in what they’re deciding. Sometimes they just figure it out on their own.

Q: One time a county commissioner candidate came into a meeting and complained about how the commissioners specialize on issues and aren’t able to speak to everything. Does that happen with the Newport council?

A: It depends. To have everybody do everything is not possible. The candidate was pretty spot-on in that the county commission, because there’s only three of them, have become very specialized. Oftentimes the other commissioners won’t comment at all on some of the special interests. But I have not seen that with the city council.

#165: American Fork, UT 7/31/18

“The city is considering a three-month, temporary land use restriction,” Mayor Brad Frost announced sternly as the first order of business. His microphone was off, but his voice carried through the intimate and ornate meeting space.

“The city will not be accepting new development plans or requests for zoning modifications.”

If you want to rile up a town, nothing does it better than talking about people’s land. Surely enough, a strange but emotional scene slowly unfolded before the council in which one family, member by member, stood up with a single message: get off my lawn.

“What gives anybody the right to decide what’s on my property?” pleaded a gray-haired woman. “I own it. We have no interest in selling this. Ever. It’s a family farm. Please, I would ask that you take us out of the T.O.D. [transit-oriented development area].”

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Lock the doors! Don’t let her leave.

She was replaced by her husband, who stood uneasily as a dozen onlookers stared at his back.

“I’m not very comfortable doing this. But I’m going to because I feel so strongly about it,” he admitted.

“We do not want to sell or develop–at least not in my lifetime and certainly not in my kids’ lifetime. And it’s looking like not in the grandkids’ lifetime.”

Councilmember Clark Taylor fidgeted with his ring. The mayor folded his hands in front of him on the desk. The commenter sighed loudly into the microphone.

“If we could, we’d like to leave the city. We get nothing from the city. No sewer. No water. We don’t even get police protection. We never wanted to be part of the city. We were talked into it by the late mayor.”

He gazed into council members’ eyes and nodded to his wife.

“She grew up there watching her grandparents crawl up and down row crops on their hands and knees. Our kids have grown up there. This is home. It’s not just a piece of property.”

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This story is more American than a baseball bat eating apple pie.

As the man turned on his heels and returned to a chair, Mayor Frost tugged on his microphone.

“I appreciate the decorum. I really do. You haven’t yelled or screamed, but we get your message and I appreciate it,” he said thankfully as the rest of the family–the daughter and the grandson–stepped forward.

“I’m fifth generation that’s lived on the farm. He’s sixth generation,” she said, clapping a hand on her son’s shoulder. “I have no desire to sell ever.”

With this family seemingly committed to guarding their compound to the death–and no one in the government itching to call for a raid by the National Guard–the council segued into other business. Although for a moment, it didn’t seem as if the theme had changed all that much.

“It was really one of those moments where you can say I’m proud to live in American Fork and I’m proud to live in America,” Mayor Frost recalled. “This last Saturday night, we welcomed home a soldier deployed to the Middle East. It was put out on Facebook and boy, did our citizens catch ahold of that!”

His voice was low and measured as he told of the heartwarming scene. “We ushered him in with emergency vehicles, and along Main Street people were holding flags. When he got home, there was 200 flags in his neighborhood. It was really special.”

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This story is even more American than the last one!

The lesson here? A city is not just a collection of property. It’s a home. And I think the farm family would approve of that message.

Interview #97: London, ON Councilor Virginia Ridley (with podcast)

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

How much time should city councils put between heated debates? First-term Councilor Virginia Ridley has some suggestions. Plus, on the podcast we discuss bullying, meeting schedules, and affairs.

Q: I want to go to October 27, 2015. Not to get too specific with the listeners, but there was a report from the city administration about arts funding that the council asked for earlier that year. And Councilors Jesse Helmer and Mohamed Salih did not feel city staff had given you what you requested. So they made a motion to refer the report back to the administration. How often does council vote on something in a meeting and then people don’t follow it?

A: At the beginning of our term, I think it happened more frequently than it should. We had a relatively new council. We had a number of bumps in the road and maybe council’s direction was misunderstood.

Q: So after a bit of debate here, you stood up and offered a motion to reconsider. The council voted on the Helmer-Salih motion, which was defeated, so they moved on to your reconsideration motion. However, the mayor suddenly told you that you were ineligible to make that motion because you were absent from the original meeting. How were you feeling at that moment?

A: Oh, I was angry. We had already established that if we vote no to the motion on the floor, we could do reconsideration right next. You see there was no pause. Within three seconds, it’s, “oh, no, you actually can’t make that motion.” It certainly angered me quite a bit.

Q: Right, one vote can certainly affect a subsequent vote in council. And it did seem a bit suspect that the mayor did not have this information on the screen before he, I guess, clicked “end” on the voting and announced the result. But I’m sure he did the best he could…except for the fact that you learned MINUTES AFTER that vote that you ACTUALLY WERE in attendance and could make the motion! Did you have a realization of, “oh, god. If that was incorrect, what else in our records is inaccurate?”

A: I knew all along I was correct. It was one of those, in the moment, not having the proof at my fingertips. I would agree with you. What other errors could potentially happen here?

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London, ON Councilor Virginia Ridley

Q: At this point, the city manager stands up. He responds to the initial complaint that this report is not what the council ordered by stridently defending the staff. How justified was his pushback?

A: I don’t know if I could say that absolutely he was in the right. That statement probably escalated things more than they needed to. The way our council works is the night before, we would’ve had a committee meeting. That would’ve been Monday night. On Tuesday night, council would confirm and re-debate all of the committees that had happened. We were having the same debates the second time.

Q: I mean, doesn’t that open itself up to the situation we just witnessed? That if you didn’t win the argument on your first night, you get to re-litigate the argument on the second night?

A: The fact that we do it one day apart, people haven’t had the opportunity to reflect. If we’re there until midnight on Monday and we’re back 16 hours later, people haven’t had time to walk away from the situation, think about it, talk to their constituents.


Follow Councilor Virginia Ridley on Twitter: @virginia_ridley

#164: Titusville, FL 7/24/18

It was awards season in Titusville! I don’t mean the Emmys, the Tonys, or the Fakies, but rather the Titusville Employee of the Month trophies, which went to an impressive roster of innovators, life-savers, and jokesters.

First up, the Water Production Department:

“Back in March, this is where we change our disinfectant byproducts. In previous years, this process has taken about two weeks. John was able to turn it into a two-day process.

Next, the police chief:

“Vinny got involved–all the merchandise back and bad guy goes to jail.”

And closing out the honors, the clerk’s office:

“I probably shouldn’t say this, but the last thing Shane did when he left as an intern–he was doing some of our advertisements. There’s something called alt-text where you can hover over a picture. It was a chili festival or something. A few days after he left, somebody hovered over it and it says, ‘ooh! Hot and saucy!'”

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Quick, someone check Titusville.com for alt-text

But the next item had potential to get more heated than a four-alam chili: whether to rename South Street after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

“This is important because Dr. King expressed his dream that all minorities would be treated fairly,” an older man in a vest testified. “Renaming the street will emphasize not just the black minority but all minorities–the Asian minority, the Indian minority, Japanese, Chinese, and even the women minority.”

It was a compelling argument. Although to be frank, the reasoning of Vice Mayor Matt Barringer was less about including minorities (even “the women minority”), and more about raw bureaucratic expediency:

“The benefit is that there’s no street addresses, so it becomes much easier.”

The vote to go forward passed unanimously.

Barreling right along like a hurricane up the Florida coast, the council turned to one final teensy, tiny rezoning request for small homes near Park Avenue. Seems like a no-brainer and we can just–

“I’m not an engineer and I’m not fancy with a degree or nothing, but it just doesn’t seem like a practical area to build homes,” a man in a red Polo shirt protested with a swaggering “I’m no big-city lawyer” tone.

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Ooh, hot and saucyDAMN IT, SHANE!

That kicked off a cavalcade of concerned residents protesting this wetland building spree.

  • “You’re talking about homes that are 50 foot long and 20 foot wide. That’s a fishing boat!”
  • “I believe your intelligence is wrong.”
  • “If god had made square wetlands, it would’ve been a lot easier. But he didn’t.”

At one point, Mayor Walt Johnson perceived that a commenter was itching to say more after the timer had expired.

“You need some more time, sir?” the mayor gently quizzed.

“Uh,” the man mused, “two minutes. You need uplands for the–”

“One second, please,” the mayor halted him, seeking a motion from council to extend the time. It was a kind and merciful gesture. A one-time exception. Except…

“You need additional time?” Mayor Johnson asked the next woman who ran over. “How much?”

“Two minutes?” she offered hesitantly.

“That’s what I’m looking for,” he grinned. Fine, twice in one meeting is extremely benevolent and certainly not–

“Need more time?” the mayor prompted yet another commenter who ran over.

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Would someone get a whip for the mayor to crack??

Finally, the applicant for the housing stepped forward indignantly. “The lady that spoke before had a parade of horribles of things that happen maybe once in a while and acted like they happen all the time! We’re not gonna wipe out the wetlands,” he insisted.

Mayor Johnson frowned. “I’d like to see everybody at least have a shot at talking together and making something better,” he murmured.

And in classic fasion, the council that gave everyone two more minutes gave themselves two more months to figure it out.

Podcast Recap: Heated Meetings

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

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During these hot summer months, why not make it even hotter by listening to some of the most contentious city council meetings featured on the City Council Chronicles podcast?

This week, we revisit:

  1. The takedown of a racist street sign–with Norman, Oklahoma Council Member Breea Clark
  2. A woman who had a traumatic encounter with the Lancaster, Pennsylvania police–with Councilwoman Janet Diaz
  3. Whether to fly the confederate flag on city property–with Danville, Virginia Councilman Lee Vogler
  4. Why the Greensboro, North Carolina city council decided to screen footage of police brutality in a crowded council meeting–with Council Member Justin Outling

Oh, and we did cover one feel-good moment in this episode: the award we recently won! Hooray!