#160: Corpus Christi, TX 6/12/18

The theme of this week’s Corpus Christi council meeting was simple. Straightforward. Short enough to fit on a baseball cap.

Make Corpus Christi Clean Again.

“All right, it’s party time!” Mayor Joe McComb murmured excitedly, cradling a handful of honorary proclamations. Most of them were “feel-goods,” celebrating Juneteenth and women veterans. But the mayor frowned after scanning the page marked “National Garbage Worker Week.”

“We oughta quit trashing our city,” he blurted out unprompted. “Put a bag in your car and put your trash in there and empty it when you go to the gas station.”

As the sanitation workers filed down to the front for a group photo, the mayor was rolling with the cadence of a Baptist preacher. “These people do a great job, but there’s a whole lot more of us than there are of them. So you can figure if we’re in a battle, we’re gonna win if we wanna be trashy. And we don’t need to be trashy.”

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Don’t mess with Texas? More like, “don’t mess with Mayor Joe McComb.”

After the photo op, the applause, and the obligatory handshaking, Mayor McComb again grabbed the mic, worried that he hadn’t sufficiently put the fear of god in the viewing audience.

“I wasn’t being facetious when I was making my comments about the citizens need to not trash the place,” he yelled slightly above the din.

“Let me just ask you: when you go to a city and it’s nice and clean and looking good,” he began riffing as if he were the first person to put forth the proposition that garbage is bad, “you say, ‘man, that’s a pretty nice, clean city. I wouldn’t mind living or working here.’ We want that to be the reputation of Corpus Christi.”

Having littered the meeting with his anti-litter propaganda, the mayor opened public comment, with the disclaimer that “we’re here to listen. We can’t respond.”

The policy was unfortunate, because he almost certainly would have had something to say about the woman who sauntered up to the dais, dropped her purse on the lectern, and immediately produced from it a plastic bag.

“I would like to present to you something that belongs more to you than to us,” she announced indignantly, handing off the bag to the city manager.

“I hope you feel the same repulsiveness that we feel,” she glowered. “Those are roaches.”

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So are those roaches up for adoption or…?

If council members felt any repulsion, they legally couldn’t show it. The commenter barreled ahead.

“You are forcing us to live with this nuisance! Why are you imposing roaches and rodents on the neighbors of Ocean Drive?” she cried out, her voice rising as she railed against the dozens of new palm trees and their creepy-crawly inhabitants.

“Why do you wanna have Corpus Christi full of roaches? You cannot sit outside at night because you have all those roaches coming onto you. Please help us!”

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seem to remember someone else talking about having a good-looking city….

After everyone had spoken, Mayor McComb could no longer contain his irritation.

“There were just misstatement after misstatement after misstatement,” he grumbled. “There ought to be something in there that we’ve got a correction statement period after the public comments. It’s a privilege, not an obligation that we have public comment.”

Although this fresh outrage didn’t appear to be cockroach-specific, it was alarming that the mayor was mulling the nuclear option. (The nuclear option, ironically, being something those cockroaches would survive.) But he stopped, then reconsidered how a lesser, more Pavlovian solution may be needed.

“Or we’re gonna have to devise some method that says either a big bell’s gonna come down or somebody with a water gun’s gonna squirt ’em when they knowingly make misstatement of facts. So I’m gonna work on that.”

Ah, maybe go after the cockroaches first? Then work on the dais-mounted squirt gun.

#159: Scranton, PA 6/11/18

Sometimes it feels like everyone’s a critic. But in the Scranton council chamber, literally everyone who showed up had some beef with the five councilmen.

“I actually have to grab the speaker list,” Council President Pat Rogan admitted with a sly grin, excusing himself from the dais while a dozen pairs of eyes followed him out of the room.

Sitting down with the paper, he brandished it with feigned surprise. “So there’s nobody on the speaker list–” Rogan deadpanned before calling up the first in a series of aggrieved complainants.

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Is that Dunder Mifflin paper?

“Comcast, okay? They are a monopoly. In the United States of America, a monopoly is illegal,” ranted a man in a black “Brooklyn” baseball cap and thick New York accent.

“They don’t want to give a senior citizen’s discount! I come from New York City, okay? Five boroughs–not anywhere in the five boroughs will you find that they will not recognize what senior citizens have done for this country,” he pounded on the lectern. “I have five major credit cards! I have seven different department stores!”

He waved his arms. “How can any one of youse here allow this to happen?”

“We don’t set the rates for Comcast,” President Rogan responded plainly. “Comcast is a private corporation.”

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“So, no discount?”

The commenter was replaced by another middle aged man with a pair of reading glasses on his nose and sunglasses on his forehead. He emitted a deafening sigh into the microphone.

“I don’t even have a computer and I apparently know more about what’s going on in the city than you five, the mayor’s two hacks, and the mayor.”

Okay, let me stop you there. In the interest of time, let me annotate this testosterone-fueled grudge-fest to just the most cantankerous of grief mongering. The three wordsmiths here are:

-A strident elderly man in a yellow Polo (Y)

-An affable college student with half a mohawk (M)

-A woman with pinkish curly hair (C)

Ready? And go:

Y: You’re an elected official and the forum here is for the issue of debate. And if you can’t answer, then I ask you to resign.

M: The reason that people my age leave this area is because we don’t have faith in you guys.

C: Mr. Donahue, when speakers are up here, you have your head down and you are writing what they are saying? You could look on YouTube.

Y: You are a liar and should have resigned and maybe there’s litigation that will remove you.

M: Two of you keep looking down–aren’t even looking at me.

C: When speakers are speaking, you should–okay, you’re shaking your head.

Y: When I brought up the word “despicable” last week, it was mild terminology for what’s going on here. I’d like to put it in real words, but I might burn this microphone.

C: I’m disappointed. I voted for you.

M: This city council has lacked the competence needed to bring Scranton back on the map like it used to be. (A siren goes by in the background, as if on cue.)

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I’m sure the councilmen on the wall had a similar experience.

As yellow-Polo-shirt man walked away from the microphone bellowing for Council Member William Gaughan to “resign, you don’t belong here,” Mr. Brooklyn Hat began yelling from the gallery. That, in turn, prompted others to start yelling.

“You’re both out of order!” pleaded President Rogan.

“This is a sideshow,” murmured the next commenter at the mic.

It was. Although I sense it’s also a regular Monday night in Scranton.

#158: Columbia, SC 6/5/18

“It’s amazing. You referenced the prophet Isaiah–‘come let us reason together’,” Mayor Steven Benjamin mused after a pastor wrapped up his invocation and the audience lifted their heads.

“We’re gonna move to defer item 41 for two weeks in the interest of everyone talking together again. Let’s see if we can get some good discussion.”

Eying the standing room-only crowd–some wearing color-coordinated t-shirts–the mayor added, “we’re not gonna be voting on the healthcare plan tonight. Some of you obviously have other things that you need to be doing.”

A cacophony of disgruntled murmuring arose as a mob of people lined up for the door. Council members sat stiffly and Mayor Benjamin fingered the gavel just in case.

“Please keep it down just a tad bit!” he hollered.

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“See you in two weeks, everyone!”

The crowd may have left, but the fireworks were just getting started.

“Mr. Mayor, I am opposed to this because this is another start of tax breaks for student housing in the city of Columbia,” insisted Councilman Howard Duvall indignantly.

“I respectfully disagree,” Mayor Benjamin replied calmly. “We’re gonna be able to disagree on policy and respectfully disagree.”

For the third time in under a minute, he clarified, respectfully: “But I respect your ability to disagree.”

With that, the fury fizzled. Everyone got on the same page and with rocket speed approved one item after the other–only pausing long enough for Councilman Duvall to exclaim:

“Those were the most detailed plans I’ve ever seen for a bicycle repair rack! About 16 pages!”

All of a sudden, as the clerk prepared to call the roll, Mayor Benjamin stood up and wandered over to Duvall, deliberately switching off the councilman’s microphone and whispering in his ear.

“Mr. Duvall?” the clerk prompted.

With the two men gossiping off mic, Councilwoman Tameika Isaac Devine glanced over. “Howard, say ‘aye’,” she coached.

Duvall whipped around and blinked. “Aye!” he declared, spinning back to continue with the mayor.

Apparently, Mayor Benjamin is a master of keeping secrets. Not five minutes later, he again sprung up to have a side chat with Councilman Edward McDowell, all the while keeping far away from the microphones.

What was he plotting? A surprise party for someone’s birthday? A legislative coup? A strategic ploy to make the front page of City Council Chronicles?

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Mission accomplished, chief.

Councilwoman Devine raised her hand. “I would just say, regarding mainly our land use boards, the new members will have to go through training.”

She fired a warning shot to the newest crop of board members. “They are sitting and representing the city. They need to hear people out. They need to be respectful. And they need to follow the law.”

I would add a final commandment: they need to avoid having side chatter in a business meeting. (Not directed to anyone in particular!)

Moving on to public comment, a man with a striped tie sternly informed council members, “I myself on May 27 was the victim of racial profiling. I wasn’t pleased.”

Then, in a possible attempt at intimidation, he cautioned: “I told your chief, once my people come from Seattle, we will be organizing protests.”

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Seattle knows how to protest, Your Honor.

It didn’t work on Mayor Benjamin. “They’re welcome to come from Seattle, my friend,” he nodded. “We have porous borders. If you are in the borders of the United States of America, you’re welcome to have your positions heard. Happy to talk with you.”

We know you are, Mayor. We know.

#157: Brooklyn, OH 5/29/18

“A council meeting in Brooklyn?” you’re thinking. “Surely it was chock full of complaints about hipsters, the L train, and the smell off the East River.”

Well, I have some bad news for you: this is Brooklyn, Ohio. And the topic today was less about subway delays and more about the equally compelling question of how to spend all this federal money.

“To qualify for this grant funding, cities are required to hold a public session,” boomed President Ron Van Kirk.

“At this time, I would ask members of the audience to come up to the podium if they wish to make a suggestion on ways this funding should be allocated.”

Van Kirk warned the ravenous crowd that they ought to get to the point, and get to it quickly. “Please limit your remarks to five minutes or fewer.”

Not a soul stirred at his invitation.

“All right,” the president murmured, “then there is no one.”

No one has an idea for spending the money?! Repaint the fields at Marquardt Park! Put a streetcar on Biddulph Avenue! Get a better sound system for the council meetings!

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Maybe fix up that tattered George Washington portrait?

This being the first meeting after Memorial Day, the council was obliged to mention the solemn occasion. The perfect spokesperson appeared in the form of Council Member Mary Balbier–the wife of a Vietnam veteran.

“I’m not very fond of the hat he wears–the baseball hat that has the 25th Division and some sort of lightning rod on it,” she admitted with a wave of her hand.

“But I will tell you: everytime we walk through an airport and he’s wearing that, people salute him. People make a comment. And it’s quite heartwarming for him and I think he enjoys it. So I don’t say too much.”

With a slight grin, she let slip her true feelings about her husband’s headgear. “Also, he is TSA approved, so we just walk up and go through the line. I always say to my husband, ‘whatever happens, keep that hat. I may need to wear it!'”

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The master strategist

President Van Kirk steered back to council business with an admission of his own. “I wanna let residents know that I will be absent for our next meeting,” he said regretfully.

“Our first meeting in June falls on the same week that our church has their annual youth camp. Seventeen years, and I’ll be serving there once again as a camp counselor.”

(If he runs his youth camp as efficiently as he runs the council meetings, those kids won’t even need the full week–they’ll be outta there in a matter of days!)

The remainder of the meeting was virtually on autopilot, as the building commissioner rattled off the changes–big, small, and alcoholic–happening around town:

“Aldi’s is getting an addition put on there….Hampton Inn, raising the roof on their building….La Casa Tequila just recently opened up behind Cracker Barrel.”

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Casa Tequila AND Cracker Barrel? Maybe the U.S. and Mexico CAN work things out.

Racing through the final five minutes, the council approved a raft of legislation assembly line-style. This included one agreement for the city to order a whole bunch of salt.

“We could order no more than 3,920 tons.” President Van Kirk paused. “The city has never ordered that much salt in one year.”

Be careful, sir: now that La Casa Tequila is in town, the demand for salted margarita glasses has never been higher.

#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.