#156: Denison, TX 4/2/18

It was only appropriate that a Texas-sized stemwinder of a prayer kicked off the Denison council meeting.

“Every beginning has its ending and every ending has a new beginning. Help our leaders to know what to cling to, what to preserve, and what to let go of,” a woman in an Easter-Bunny-pink shirt requested from the heavens.

“Empower each one of them to use their unique gifts to create a beautiful life in our community. As they are guided by your holy spirit, our entire community will flourish.”

It was more important than usual that the prayer today be thorough, for the council was facing an issue that might usher in copious amounts of sin:

Whether to give a nightclub an alcohol and live music permit.

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Pray for cheap drinks

“One of the situations in the request is also the operating hours,” a staff member explained. “Proposed operating hours for this are Thursday through Saturday, 8 p.m. to 2 a.m.”

He quickly added, “this is inside the entertainment district. A nightclub use, live music, is appropriate.”

When I think “small-town Texas entertainment district,” I imagine rodeos and gun stores, not live music and dancing. Talk about pushing boundaries!

“We are the owners of the nightclub,” a couple announced at the lectern. “Here for any questions you may have.”

“Is this your first time to operate a nightclub?” Mayor Jared Johnson quizzed them.

“Yes. I’ve worked in nightclubs before off and on throughout the years,” replied the man confidently.

Councilmember J.C. Doty was surprised at how late the nightclub would keep the music cranking. “You’re requesting to be open till 2 a.m. I know some of the other places around close at midnight,” he observed. “Was there a specific reason why you wanted to stay open till 2 a.m.?”

“We’re only gonna be open three nights a week,” countered the owner, much to the chagrin of the Tuesday-night club aficionados. “I believe that’d be very important for our profit margin to have a couple extra hours per night.”

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Who closes at midnight??

“So being in the entertainment district,” the mayor mused aloud, “should there be an event on a Saturday afternoon that they could benefit from being open during that time, what would be the process for allowing them to do that?”

Mayor Pro Tem Kris Spiegel abruptly leaned forward to defend the tiny business from the heavy hand of big government.

“I guess I don’t understand why we’re limiting it to 8 [p.m.] to 2 [a.m.] Whether they open at 5 p.m. or 4 p.m., I don’t know why we care.”

The staff member seemed to back up the libertarian point of view, replying, “I’d have to request the ordinance. I’m not sure that we have to restrict their hours. I believe we request them to give us operating hours.”

The mayor, sensing a compromise between the open-anytime wing of the council and the eight-to-two faction, said, “if it’s the council’s pleasure, what they’re suggesting is to put in a number not to exceed five or six times a year to have different opening hours.”

He glanced to his left. “Mr. Pro Tem, does that make sense?”

Spiegel nodded. “Understood.”

After a moment’s silence, he continued, “does that mean you want me to make a motion?”

“That’d be great,” the mayor deadpanned to laughter, before adding ominously, “don’t mess it up.”

And just as the prayer said: the council knew what to preserve and knew what to let go of.

#155: Richfield, MN 3/27/18

When the sheriff shows up in cowboy movies, it’s a sure sign the bad guy is going down.

“To make sure he got here in time, [he] hustled the vice president out of town so he wouldn’t be late,” joked Richfield Mayor Pat Elliott, welcoming the top cop to apparently the second-most important event of his day.

The sheriff stared down his nemesis: a slide show on the computer. “Which do you think it is? Arrow to the right?” he mused aloud. “Up-down?”

Everyone waited patiently while he solved the mystery of the puzzling PowerPoint. “Help,” the lawman murmured, proving that sometimes even heroes need heroes.

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I believe in you.

Finally he got the hang of it and opened with a bit of trivia.

“I will not ask you, Mr. Mayor, what are the names of the three rivers that flow through Hennepin County. But I know you know the Crow, the Mississippi, and–what’s that last one?” he stumped himself.

“Minnesota,” Mayor Elliott replied, acing the rivers pop quiz.

But between those rivers lay a festering problem, and the sheriff turned on the rhetorical lights and sirens for his nearly 200 opioid overdoses.

“If I had 162 homicides in Hennepin County last year, I’d bet that it’d be in the front page of the Star Tribune or on the 4, 5, 9, 10, 11–all news channels in between. But it’s not.”

As frustrated as he was by the drug deaths, the sheriff was also irritated at himself for the crime of third-degree long-windedness.

“I promised you, Mr. Mayor and council members, eight to ten minutes. I took eight minutes and 35 seconds. I went a little bit over.”

As he surrendered the lectern, Mayor Elliott welcomed a former mayor who had since risen to the ranks of the elite.

“Commissioner [Debbie] Goettel, it is good to see you! You’re back in your stomping grounds,” he gushed. “I hope you have some words of wisdom for us yourself.”

“There are some pretty startling facts that he didn’t share with you,” she countered, dodging any happy wisdom and instead beelining to the opioid wisdom.

“They are disproportionately affecting our younger folks. Anywhere from the age of 15 to about 45.”

After waiting a beat to digest the news, Council Member Edwina Garcia confessed, “we still miss you.”

“I beg your pardon!” exclaimed the current occupant of the mayor’s seat.

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Mayor brawl!

“I mean we,” Garcia quickly clarified, referring to the royal “we.” “Not necessarily sitting right here,” she jabbed at the mayor.

I don’t know who would win in the battle of the mayors. But I will admit: the high point of the meeting was when Mayor Elliott revealed the catchy slogan for “council member announcements.”

“On to ‘Hats Off to Hometown Hits,’” he said.

In his Hometown Hit, the mayor offered the most striking analogy of the day. “Anytime you get a special verdict form that comes back that’s in your favor–this is gonna sound a little strange,” he admitted, holding up an official document. “But when I get one like this, it’s akin to the birth of a child. We got one this past week.”

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Boy or girl?

But Council Member Maria Regan Gonzalez used her Hometown Hit to once again ground her colleagues. “This morning we met with our congressman, Congressman Ellison. The opioid crisis, we did talk about that.”

Well, I think we know what Richfield Public Enemy Number One is. Citizens, let’s run these opioids out of town like they are the vice president.

#154: Monona, WI 3/19/18

What did the city council know and when did they know it?

That was the question one sleuthful citizen had after doing a little amateur detective work on some government documents.

I’m here again to urge the council to reject all of the bids related to the Wyldhaven Park project, a flannel-clad man informed the crowd. The deck is a detriment to the park and serves no practical purpose.

I also have serious concerns regarding procedure. According to meeting minutes–” he continued, hoisting a sheaf of papers in the air as the smoking gun, “there was a committee discussion of a plan for Wyldhaven Park on October 6, 2015. That plan had no deck in it.”

The plot was thick with intrigue. A deck had appeared out of nowhere.  What’s next? A swing? Wind chimes? A grill and some hot dogs? The precedent was dangerous.

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Bag it for evidence

“A number of people I’ve talked to were surprised to hear that there’s gonna be a deck. They said, ‘really? Like, a deck?’” the man recalled, albeit with zero ounce of surprise in his delivery.

“Where did all this detail, including deck, come from? Certainly not in the committee meeting minutes.” He paused before delivering the verdict. “My opinion on this is that the committee must’ve acted on its own!”

Aha! And how did Mayor Mary O’Connor then attempt to shut down the investigation and suppress further testimony?

“If anyone else is here to speak about the Wyldhaven Park project or would like to register, there’s a slip over there to fill out,” she indicated politely.

“We have a deck. We love it,” smiled the next commenter. “The location of the Wyldhaven Park observation deck is one with a spectacular view. You have beautiful sunsets. You have the super moon.”

Having heard from both sides, the mayor wheeled around to a staff member.

“So that was in the minutes?”

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It was there the whole time?

“It’s in the packet,” the employee clarified. “And we approve or recommend approval of all the projects as a whole. Not each individual project.”

Alderperson Doug Wood made it crystal clear that nothing nefarious was afoot. “I think this did go through the normal process, if not maybe a little more so than most capital projects?”

“Correct.”

Well, so much for the secret society theory. Apparently the deck was simply a victim of insufficient bullet-pointing.

But if you thought the council was done with deck-related problems, they weren’t in the clear yet.

“I will move approval but with the requirement that video surveillance be installed,” Alderperson Wood piped up as the council was about to approve an alcohol permit for a Mexican restaurant’s patio.

After several minutes of wrangling, Alderperson Brian Holmquist finally inquired, “Do all our other patios require that you have surveillance?”

The answer was yes–clearing the deck (as it were) for a council thumbs-up.

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No more deck talk

Mayor O’Connor waited until the end of the meeting to air a concern she had been pondering.

“One thing I wondered about: if we want to think about having–” she paused and stared up at the ceiling. “I hate to even bring this up but the way the world is today, some active shooter training for the council might not be a bad idea.”

She indicated to either side of the room. “Frankly, sitting here and seeing these doors, I think it might be a good idea if anybody’s interested.”

Yikes. I guess if Monona keeps having deck problems, it couldn’t hurt.

#153: Pullman, WA 3/13/18

“I’ve sorta got it figured out,” mused Mayor Glenn Johnson after the roll call was complete. “If I start with ‘present,’ then everyone else goes ‘here.’ And if I go with ‘here,’ everyone goes ‘present!’”

It was an intriguing conspiracy theory–made even more intriguing when no one issued any denial. But what was undeniable was that the mayor’s booming radio voice made his mundane announcement about the Irish Feast twice as tantalizing.

“They have corned beef and cabbage, salad, hot bread, pie, and coffee for a mere seven bucks,” Johnson rattled off in a cadence not heard since the days of Cronkite.

“Dave at one time went to Ireland just to get the right corned beef recipe,” he gave an avuncular nod. “And the pie is top of the line, I’ll tell you that.”

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TOP O’ THE LINE

Before I could even reserve my tickets for the Irish Feast, the mayor added with sizzle, “with that, it’s time now for arts in Pullman!”

“This is a picture of our fab new building,” the art museum director bragged, flashing the looming structure onscreen for the room to admire. She then lasered in on her main purpose: to get the council on board with a creative district in downtown Pullman.

“I’m hoping that with the Downtown Coug–I’m calling it the Downtown Coug. It’s not the official name,” she cautioned. (It was probably for the best; “Downtown Coug” is, I suspect, a type of fetish I am not willing to Google.)

“I don’t know personally if I’m 100 percent [for] making Pullman an ‘arts district,’” Councilmember Al Sorensen winced.

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This man is not into Downtown Coug.

“It’s a creative district,” the museum director gestured excitedly. “If it was just about art, I’d be out there throwing statues up. You know me!”

She added, “we’re moving away from coal. We’re moving away from gas. We don’t have the Big Five anymore. We don’t have cars.”

Wow, I had no idea Pullman was once a coal-gas-carmaking hub. By all means, reinvent yourselves! Councilmember Ann Parks heartily agreed.

“We don’t really have an identity in our town and I think it could be something we could be known for.”

But I would argue that Pullman, as of this writing, already has an identity: as the home of politicians moonlighting as art critics.

“In 2016, we wrapped the utility box that you see here in the photo with art,” a staffer explained, displaying a colorful photo of the masterpiece. “And we have gotten just rave reviews about that!”

But two more utility boxes were in line for a makeover and the council would now get to review the cream of the crop submissions.

“The colors appear a little more muted than they actually are in the art,” she hedged as council stared at the vivid landscape titled “Starry Lentils.”

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This screams “utility box.”

“I like the drawings more than I like the photography. I think that we have more possibility to make it pop,” noted Councilmember C. Brandon Chapman. “I like the ‘Starry Lentils.’ I think that could be just cheerful.”

“When the artist says he likes people to come up close, we’ve already had a utility box hit by a car,” quipped the mayor to laughter.

The staffer nodded after noting council member preferences. “Okay, so we have very strong direction on ‘Lentils.’”

“That’d be a great mural!” exclaimed Chapman, pointing to a black and white pictorial of a woman in various costumes. “That’d be really fantastic on one of these spaces where we just have a lot of concrete. I think you could tell a story better that way than if it were wrapped.”

Save it for the new Downtown Coug, folks!

#152: McMinnville, OR 2/27/18

Right away, McMinnvillians knew something special awaited at the top of the council meeting–almost as special as me calling them “McMinnvillians.”

“Because we’ve had a last-minute change in agenda, we’re going to ask for Chloe to come up and speak to us for about ten minutes,” announced council President Kellie Menke, “on the matter of a prototype that she has built.”

The 11-year-old Thomas Edison took her seat at the witness table in the vast gulf between the council dais and the audience.

“Could somebody help her get the microphone just a little closer?” requested Menke, noticing that the mic was not prepped for a much shorter human than normal.

“I am here as a support for Chloe,” clarified the woman to her left. “I’m her teacher.”

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Field trip!

“This project started in my language arts class. We watched a video on CNN for kids. There was a woman in San Francisco who created a mobile shower unit for the transient population,” explained the teacher. “We were talking about one day very soon, they’re gonna be the leaders of McMinnville.”

So, like any teacher looking to stimulate young minds, what did she do?

“I offered extra credit for anyone who came up with a creative solution.”

Chloe launched into a breakdown of her brainchild–a concept simple to understand, easy to visualize, and with a catchy name.

“The Wheel-A-Bed would be like a small–not necessarily a house, but like a shelter,” she described. “The idea is to make a small, about 7′ x 2′ x 2′ box-like shelter with a hollow inside. It would consist of a blanket or small mattress and small microwave for cooking food. The light bulb would be an LED light. The shelter would be solar powered.”

7′ x 2′ x 2′? That seems rather…casket-sized. But as Chloe pointed out, better this than a real casket.

“Homeless people need a shelter to keep them away from thieves, diseases, rain, criminals, and I think you get my point,” she said. Like a shrewd salesperson, she did momentarily acknowledge the device’s weakness.

“One con is the fact that the Wheel-A-Bed does only fit one person. It would be hard to think of just one way to fund a project like this. I know that my aunts, uncles, and grandparents would probably love to donate.”

“May she come up to show you her prototype?” inquired her teacher.

“Oh, we’d love to see it! Yes!” gushed council President Menke.

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Tiny House? More like “Slender House.”

Chloe walked slowly across the room, holding up the shoebox-sized model with wheels.

“Very creative!” “Very nice!” complimented the councilors.

“Good job, mom and dad!” exclaimed Menke.

It was certainly a unique prelude to a council meeting. But this isn’t San Francisco, after all. I don’t see how McMinnville–the Paradise of the Pacific Northwest–could benefit from Chloe’s alternative sleeping chamber.

“I can understand the resistance of having RVs, campers, and cars parked in people’s residential neighborhoods, but the people living in these vehicles are still considered homeless,” pleaded the next commenter. “They are still people but are choosing a different lifestyle than most.”

“I’m also here to speak to the RV ordinance,” admitted another woman. “I am really concerned about the fines.”

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Hmm, maybe the Wheel-A-Bed is more relevant than I thought….

“On March 21, we are going to allocate a certain portion of our workshop time to vehicular camping,” President Menke reminded everyone.

Well, Madam President, I know an 11-year-old visionary who I hope you invite!

#151: Indianapolis, IN 2/19/18

The meeting of the City-County Council of Indianapolis-Marion County (a.k.a. the “Most Hyphenated Council” in the country) began in the most democratic of fashions: with applause for pretty much everybody.

“I’d like to introduce an Orange Township resident, active guy in the community, good friend,” Councilor Michael McQuillen announced, leading the claps for his man in the audience.

Taking a step up from “active guy,” Councilor Scott Kreider introduced two firefighters. Claps.

Not to be outdone, Councilor McQuillen grabbed the mic again. “We have a former city-county council member in the audience.” More claps.

“I want to acknowledge this month being Black History Month,” cut in Councilor LaKeisha Jackson, “and that we give a round of applause for Black History Month.” Raucous claps.

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I like this warm-up!

With no one being able to top Black History Month, the councilors settled in for the business portion of the meeting. But suddenly, Council President Stephen Clay dropped a bomb so large it could have leveled a less-emotionally prepared council chamber.

“In an effort to preserve this institution and advance the people’s agenda, Councilor [Vop] Osili and I have agreed to the orderly transfer of power,” Clay read emotionlessly from his prepared statement.

“My letter of resignation from the office of the president will be presented tonight. I will call upon Democrats and Republicans to support this transition,” he warned sternly, “thus averting any political filibustering.”

Picking up the gavel in preparation to slam it, Clay noted, “I give the gavel to the parliamentarian.” The chamber applauded one last time as Clay stood up, shook hands, and departed for greener pastures–or whatever you’d call the place where the rest of the councilors sit.

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I hardly knew you.

But even this orderly transfer was thrown into momentary disorder when Councilor Leroy Robinson raised his eyebrows and his hand. “Shouldn’t the vice president receive the gavel as opposed to the parliamentarian?” he quizzed.

A constitutional crisis was averted as the parliamentarian calmly agreed. Vice President Zach Adamson hustled over to the chair and opened the floor for presidential nominations.

“I nominate Councilor Vop Osili,” announced Councilor Maggie Lewis.

“Are there any other nominations?” asked the parliamentarian to silence. “The effect of closing nominations with only one candidate will have the effect of electing Councilor Osili as president.”

With no one disputing the outcome, it was official. The new president strode to his seat and with a reassuring smile, delivered a message best characterized as: “there’s a new sheriff in town.”

“Our council has shaken the confidence of our constituents.” He paused. “But that was yesterday. It is time for us to get back to business. And we will start with the next item on the agenda.”

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Crack. The. Whip.

With a calm, steady hand steering the ship, the rest of the meeting proceeded with only minor hiccups.

“Madam Clerk, can you set the, uh…?” Osili backtracked after forgetting to open the voting machine. “All right, let’s go!”

A few minutes later, “proposals numbers 56 and 57 were referred to the Metropolitan Economic Development Committee,” Osili read, glancing up from his notes to the chair of the committee.

She was nowhere in sight.

The council patiently waited while someone rushed to fetch Councilor Jackson. Within minutes, she reappeared, power walking back to her seat.

“I apologize Mr. President,” Jackson blurted.  While the old president might have chewed her out six ways from Sunday, President Osili remained serene. As he might say, some councilors shake the confidence of their constituents.

But that was yesterday.

#150: Bonner Springs, KS 2/12/18

“If you’re not able to hear or see, there’s another area here you’re welcome to stand,” pointed Mayor Jeff Harrington as he wrangled the packed sea of onlookers.

“Since we have a full council chambers,” the mayor advised potential comment-givers, “keep them short to two or three minutes.”

He didn’t mention anything about keeping it civil. But amazingly, it seems he didn’t need to.

“First of all, thank you. I know you guys are all volunteers,” the first commenter showered praise on the leaders. “I am here to respectfully request another public forum discussing the 1918 Building.”

She continued, “I have an online petition with over 800 signatures. I have handwritten signatures of over 2,000,” a staggering 27 percent of the city’s population.

No wonder the room was overflowing–everyone was three degrees of separation from someone who signed a petition!

Right out of a Jimmy Stewart movie, residents quietly stood up one by one, strode to the microphone, and gave impassioned defenses of the 1918 Building. These included the logical:

The current city hall is in decline. The roof is leaking and documents are being stained and ruined. [The 1918 Building is] the strongest, most well-built building in our city. It has a community identity and represents our heritage.

They included the short-and-sweet:

I agree totally with what has been so gloriously stated!

And they included this heartfelt testimony from a woman who adored the haunted house inside:

“I walk into this building and these people have done nothing but treat me like family. They give me and my husband a place to belong,” she said as her voice shook slightly. “It’s not easy for people to admit that they don’t mesh well with our community. So standing here and saying that in front of a whole entire city’s worth of people is a blow to my ego.”

Council members leaned forward on their elbows. The mayor jotted down a note.

“Even though it’s unconventional and it’s scary–‘ooh, it’s a crazy idea and we scare the children.’ Well, yeah, that’s the purpose of it!” she insisted.  “We see little children come through and they’re terrified and I don’t have any problem dropping my character and say, ‘hey, I’m a mommy, too. Touch my face, it’s real!'”

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If it gives kids nightmares, it’s worth saving in my book.

Per the rules, the crowd remained silent, but it was obvious where the popular opinion lay in the room. Mayor Harrington gripped his pen.

“I really want everyone to know how much I appreciate the level of comfort you have speaking to this city council,” he smiled.

But sadly, the council that had been so receptive and attentive would not last to the stroke of midnight.

“It pains me to announce the next item,” winced the mayor, “but item 10 is the consideration of council member resignation for Joe Peterson. So I would entertain a motion.”

There was silence as no one volunteered to make the motion. Once everyone realized what was happening, laughter broke out.

“You’re not getting out of here!” one person shouted to Peterson.

I will make my motion!” Council Member Peterson hollered.

Council Member Dani Gurley whipped her head around. “Can you do that?!”

“He’s a city councilman, he can do whatever he wants!” observed Council Member Mike Thompson.

But who would take his place, inheriting the massive conundrum of the 1918 Building?

“The precedent has been set many years ago,” Mayor Harrington explained. “We’ve asked applicants to make an application and then we’ve taken those applicants to a board of past mayors to review. They made a suggestion to me. I bring that here.”

Ah, secret society stuff. I love it. Who did the Illuminati endorse this time?

“I’d like to appoint Chris Wood to the vacant Ward 4 position,” he said, gesturing to Wood in the audience. Everyone turned to look.

“I am very proud to be a member of the council,” she called out.

“And you know: new council members bring the cookies,” warned Council Member Thompson.

Strictly enforced, I’m sure.