#105: Madison, IN 5/16/17

You would think that after 104 city council meetings, I’d have seen pretty much everything.

You would be wrong.

“Six students from Mr. Barger’s government class have been with council members today,” Mayor Damon Welch explained to onlookers curious about the half-dozen teens occupying the dais. “Tonight they will be participating in our council meeting.”

His young shadow mayor stood awkwardly beside him. “Whereas, seniors from Madison Consolidated High School–and actually one junior, by the way–” Mayor Welch bragged, jabbing a thumb toward his own protégé, “–learned about local government, I proclaim today Student Government Day.”

Like a driver’s ed instructor passing the keys, Welch then said, “without further ado, I’ll turn over the meeting to our Student Mayor, Clate Winters.”

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Buckle up, folks

Clate flipped over his notes and fidgeted with the microphone. Mayor Welch pointed with his pencil and whispered something.

“Mr. Clerk Treasurer, would you please call the roll?” inquired the Student Mayor hesitantly.

One by one, council members yelled “here!” from the wall behind their normal seats.

“Have you had the opportunity to review the minutes?” Clate read from his script, so nervous that he pronounced “minutes” as min-OOTS. “Is there a motion to approve the minutes?”

A great deal of whispering commenced at the dais. “Say aye!” council members hissed to their fill-ins.  With some giggling, the minutes were approved.

The Student Mayor gestured to Student Council Member Casey Williams. “Thank you, Mr. Mayor,” Casey smoothly transitioned. “July 8 shall be known as Student Day. High school and college students will be given free admission to Crystal Beach Swimming Pool.”

“Nyla, you did speak a lot this afternoon about this,” eagerly interjected Mayor Welch. “Share some thoughts.”

The girl on the end chuckled anxiously. “We wanted the students to have…something to do, I guess!” She looked around for help.

Casey picked up the mic and launched into a confident explanation. “We wanted to present an opportunity that kept the student body active, but allowed them to exist outside.”

Nice job on the assist, Council Member Williams.

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Little crowded

The Student Mayor flipped over his notes again. “Is there a motion to applause?” Welch tapped him on the shoulder. “Approve!” he corrected himself.

The audience was already applauding good-naturedly. But Clate recovered and casually threw Welch under the bus: “The mayor’s handwriting’s not that good!”

Everyone, including the mayor, roared with laughter.

As this boisterous meeting wobbled to the finish line, Mayor Welch asked the kids to explain the vast knowledge they had amassed as council understudies.

“I attended the Chamber of Commerce meeting,” Student Mayor Clate volunteered. “A lot went over my head because, yeah–I’m not used to the business jargon.”

He reflected. “I didn’t understand a lot of it!”

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Hey, even the adults don’t understand a lot of it.

Council Member Laura Hodges introduced her shadow student, Taylor, who promptly took the microphone and described their visit to the sewage treatment plant: “we got to smell a lot of things.”

Council President Darrell Henderson was paired with Casey. “He’s the student rep on the school board,” Henderson explained, “so he thinks this is really an easy meeting.”

“Well, he’s not wrong,” Casey deadpanned to chuckles. At least we know now where he gets that boatload of confidence!

Like a practiced politician, he added that council members “know more in 1/16th of their brain than I have known in my entire 17 years of living thus far.”

Hmm. Casey, howzabout you come back next meeting?

#104: Columbus, OH 5/15/17

First impressions were VERY strong at the Columbus city council. No sooner had people risen to face the flag than a thundering orchestral rendition of the Star Spangled Banner blasted over the loudspeakers.

Council members stood at attention while the camera panned across the room. As the trumpeting ceased, onlookers were aided in the Pledge of Allegiance by a beautiful tapestry embroidered with the oath.

Talk about class, folks!

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It’s like a g–d– Norman Rockwell painting.

After this patriotic tour de force, Council Member Jaiza Page rattled off her own tour de fitness. “If I’m out there” on Bike to Work Day, she smiled self-deprecatingly, “you’ll probably see me last in line.”

She added, to chuckles, “just don’t run me over!”

More impressively, Councilmember Page revealed that daring Columbusites would soon be allowed to rapel 19 stories off the PNC Building–not for infamy, but rather for a fundraiser for sexual trafficking victims.

“I did go over the edge last year and I was thoroughly frightened for 20 minutes,” she admitted with no trace of anxiety. “But I would encourage those of you who are not interested in rapelling yourself to go out and just cheer the rapellers on.”

Yes, and also be sure to cheer on Page as she bikes, rapels, canoes, bobsleds, and hanglides her way to the title of “Most Adventurous Council Member.”

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“I got to this meeting via luge.”

By all accounts, things were going swimmingly. (Council Member Page will probably be swimming for charity at some point, too.) Suddenly, after Councilmember Michael Stinziano smoothly moved $1.2 million to repair the city’s sewer pipes, President Pro Tem Priscilla Tyson stared down at her paperwork.

“We have several non-agenda speakers that we will take momentarily.” She glanced at the clock. “We will reconvene at 6:30 for zoning.”

With that, the screen faded to black.

A slow horror dawned on me: she had turned off the cameras for public comment.

I wanted to scream, but I realized that even if she were rapelling off the outside of the PNC Building, President Pro Tem Tyson probably would not hear me.

Within seconds, the council chamber faded back in. The time was now 6:30 and the room was substantially emptier.

“Regular meeting number 26 will now come to order,” Tyson cheerfully announced like Richard Nixon after he erased those 18-and-a-half minutes of tape.

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I expected this kind of behavior from Cleveland. But COLUMBUS???

We may never know what was said in public comment that day. All we know is that the zoning hearing was much, much more tedious.

“To grant a variance from the provisions of Sections 3332.039, R-4 residential district; 3321.05(B)(2), vision clearance; 3321.07(B), landscaping; 3332.25(B), maximum side yards required; 3332.26,(C)(3), minimum side yard permitted,” Council Member Page read for nearly a minute off of the numbers-heavy ordinance.

“This is a very interesting situation,” a neatly-dressed white-haired man said as he stood eager to explain the nuances of zoning. “We have a building that covers close to 100 percent of the parcel that doesn’t comply with the zoning district or the university planning overlay.”

Yes, quite thrilling. You know what else would be an interesting situation? SEEING THE PUBLIC COMMENT.

What a shame that a council meeting with such high production quality should fumble this basic feature.

Final thoughts: While the V.I.P. here is clearly Council Member Page for doing “Fear Factor: Columbus,” the capital city’s lack of 100% transparency forces me to give this meeting only 2 out of 5 buckeyes.

#103: Dublin, IE 5/8/17

Councilors were packed tighter than marshmallows in a Lucky Charms box at the Dublin city council chamber. And as with any group of Irishmen this size, things quickly got heated.

The subject was innocent enough: a tame discussion about the maternity hospital. But suddenly, Councilor Paddy Bourke stared down Lord Mayor Brendan Carr.

“On a point of order, I think it would be safer if the members of the board left the room–and that includes yourself,” he demanded.

Lord Mayor Carr, a member of the hospital’s board, pointed his pen defensively. “There’s a lot of us on different boards around the city. And no one’s ever asked to leave the chamber.”

But he dialed back his annoyance and gestured around the room. “I’ll leave that up to the council to make the decision.”

“I don’t think we should create a precedent of the people who are best informed having to leave,” argued Councilor Rebecca Moynihan in disbelief. “Otherwise, we should resign from all the boards. I don’t think that you should leave, Lord Mayor.”

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Will he or won’t he?

Another councilor began yelling for a point of order. Carr glared at him, warning, “there’s another councilor before you.”

As the belligerent councilor persisted, the Lord Mayor sharply cut him off. “I chair the meeting!”

At this point, the clearly un-amused Councilor Daithí Doolan was all but ready to smother this ruckus and head to the pub.

“There’s certain elements in this chamber tonight trying to gag ourselves and straightjacket ourselves. It’s ridiculous,” he groused. “We’re adults. If people want to leave the chamber, feel free to leave. I trust councilors to make the right decision.”

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“I will not be straightjacketed. In fact, I will barely be jacketed.”

Having gauged the temperature of the room and the purity of his intentions, the Lord Mayor reached his decision. “I have absolutely no conflict of interest. I don’t intend to leave the chamber.”

After this wee bit o’ discord, I reasoned that the meeting would be smoother than a field of four-leaf clovers from here on out.

I thought wrong.

“There was a challenge that came in from a member of the public,” Carr announced three hours into the meeting, referring to a citizen complaint, “and we have to try to resolve it.”

He glanced up at the clock. “We’re now agreeing to suspend the meeting and I’ll ask everyone who’s a member of the Protocol [Committee] to meet and come back.”

THAT sent councilors into a frenzy.

“Point of order! Are YOU telling ME we’re about to break up this meeting,” Councilor Kieran Binchy hollered into the microphone, his voice rising throughout the rant, “in order to hold a separate meeting so the Protocol Committee can make decisions in PRIVATE?!”

Other councilors nodded and grunted in support. Now I know where the term “Fightin’ Irish” comes from.

“You cannot convene a meeting right now!” Binchy exclaimed with wild eyes.

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“This is TOO MANY MEETINGS!”

“There was an issue that came in from the public,” the Lord Mayor patiently explained. “We were then given legal advice that the Protocol Committee should meet–please sit in your seats.”

Carr held up his hand while pleading for councilors to listen–with some difficulty. “Someone show a bit of respect somewhere!”

“This is ridiculous,” Councilor Binchy wailed as Carr opened the voting machine. “This isn’t the way to do business!”

Unfortunately for him, three-quarters of councilors sided with their Lord Mayor. The meeting was recessed.

#102: Half Moon Bay, CA 5/2/17

I’ve seen city council meetings that were suspenseful, dramatic, or just plain mysterious.

But here in Half Moon Bay, they had a regular whodunit on their hands.

Nothing seemed amiss as council members watched a slide show about the library construction. It was a beautiful sunny day and the mayor was fresh off of handing a proclamation to a local women’s group.

But without warning, a photo flashed on screen of a gruesome crime scene.

“Uh, a little bit of an end note which I’m not happy about–nor should anybody be happy about,” a city employee grimly informed the next-of-kin, gesturing with a laser pointer to the explicit images. “A few months ago, we installed really nice gates at the Johnston House at the driveway. Over the weekend, somebody yanked those out and took them away.”

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I’m going to vomit.

Too grief-stricken to talk, the council sat silently.

“We will be replacing those and perhaps going to a heavier duty steel,” the staffer shrugged. He added curiously, “we are very surprised that someone didn’t hear or see it. So if anybody sees a couple of new gates popping up somewhere, please let us know.”

No witnesses? No leads? I’m getting too old for this sh*t.

How is Half Moon Bay not swarming with FBI agents looking at DNA samples, tire tracks, and bodily fluids? Why are groundskeepers and handymen not being hauled in for questioning? Can we at least get checkpoints for all pickup trucks in the Bay Area?!

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Whodunit? Was it…the kindly doctor? The affluent socialite? The reclusive innkeeper?

This didn’t add up either for Vice Mayor Deborah Penrose, the Sherlock Holmes of the council.

“How about putting a picture of the gates on our website?” she sharply inquired. “So if somebody runs across a gate they can say, ‘it’s that’ or ‘it’s not?'”

Aha! That’s just the kick in the pants this investigation needs. While we’re at it, put the picture on milk cartons. Send out an Amber Alert. Somebody check craigslist for–

“I wish I had a picture of the gates,” the man chuckled sheepishly. “We have the PLANS for them, but no one ever thought to take a PICTURE of the gates.”

He threw up his arms and let out a hearty laugh. “Who knew?!”

Oh, really? It’s awwwfuuuulllllyyyyy convenient that the city INSTALLED these gates but cannot identify them. Tell me, did the city have insurance on these gates? Are you going to collect a fat payout now that these gates are AWOL?

Also, who took those pictures AFTER the theft? Perpetrators often return to the scene of the crime.

This Gategate goes deep, folks.

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Just to be safe, I’ll need urine samples from all of you.

And as it turns out, the Johnston House gates weren’t the only Bay Area booty to be held hostage.

“I went to a SFO roundtable which deals with airport noise,” announced Council Member Harvey Rarback. “One of the interesting things there: they made a recommendation to the FAA about the height and elevation at which planes can take off.”

He leaned into the microphone and furrowed his brow. “But the FAA is unable to change its regulations because the Trump administration says you cannot add a new regulation without taking away two other regulations. So if you think federal action isn’t affecting you, think again.”

Final thoughts: You know who needs lots of gates? Airports.

#101: Winston-Salem, NC 5/1/17

No flash. No tomfoolery. The Winston-Salem city council meeting was the “salad without dressing” of municipal powwows. There were no detours, no non-sequiturs, and a heavy dosage of the dry stuff.

“The theme for Building Safety Month 2017 encourages all Americans to raise awareness of the importance of building safety,” read the council secretary in a listless monotone. “And to be mindful of fire prevention, disaster mitigation, and backyard safety.”

After checking my backyard for potential hazards, I returned to the proceedings in time for a riveting slide show of the Northwest Winston-Salem Area Plan.

“We’ve had four public meetings, very well attended,” bragged a city employee at the podium. “Overall attendance was 75 people, with about 45 individuals coming to multiple meetings.”

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Let the record show: a Trump inauguration-sized crowd of people attended these meetings.

One hour in, we finally saw a spark of passion from these dying embers. Granted, it was an unlikely subject to cause a dustup: a reexamination of the 2017 property tax appraisal process.

Hear me out! It gets interesting!

“To have our properties lowered like they have been lowered,” Mayor Pro Tempore Vivian Burke made sweeping eye contact with every person on the dais, “it must be our challenge that we let [Forsyth County] know that we don’t like what we are receiving.”

She waved her index finger menacingly next to her oversized broach, signaling that she meant business.

Council Member Denise Adams took a less ominous, more philosophical approach. “For the listening audience and others, there’s always an opportunity to change,” she leaned into the microphone and smiled. “Times change. People change.”

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Fact check: TRUE–people do change.

For pure pathos, Council Member John Larson channeled the inner frustrations of many Winston-Salemites–er, Winstonian-Salemers? Winstoner-Salemanders?

“Nobody likes to see their property devalued. It’s very demoralizing.” He frowned deeply and scratched his demoralized face. “Their home is one of the most important investments they have. Individuals don’t have the stamina to take it in front of the Board of Adjustments.”

But someone who did have a trainload of stamina was Mayor Pro Tempore Burke. Suddenly no more Ms. Nice Council Member, she used Larson’s comments to light a match on her stick of rhetorical dynamite.

“It is a DISGRACE and a SHAME that we allow investors to come through and assault our neighborhoods like they have,” she thundered.

“I said to the city manager, ‘I just want you to go and look. Look at the joy and pleasure we have in keeping our neighborhoods.’ Homes are simply beautiful. We spend many dollars–mine looks like a golf course.”

She stared daggers. “Stop destroying our dreams.”

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Burke: “I buried 15 land mines on my property. I dare you to come destroy my dreams.”

Finishing on a lighter note, the city manager folded his hands politely and smiled. Far from crushing anyone’s hopes, he was instead expanding their horizons.

“You’ve been asking for many years for us to reduce the use of paper. So this is our fist month using iPads for automated agendas so we don’t have to chop down all those trees.”

He paused before teasing a tantalizing piece of news. “And in a few months we’ll actually be voting with our iPads as well.”

Welcome to the future, Winston-Salem. As a great thinker once said, “Times change. People change.”

Final thoughts: I give 10 out of 10 stars to those 45 people who attended multiple zoning meetings. Oy vey, how did you manage?!

#100: Arvada, CO 4/17/17

It was breathtaking how quickly the good news kept rolling in to the Arvada city council chamber. But the best news was arguably reserved for the man who was nowhere in sight.

“[Councilmember John] Marriott is on a well-deserved vacation,” Mayor Marc Williams informed the unlucky working stiffs left on the dais. He added somewhat disdainfully, “South Padre Island.”

Nevertheless, Councilmember Nancy Ford beamed proudly at the Girl Scout named Emma who was standing expectantly at the podium. “Only three percent of Girl Scouts ever earn this,” she said, referring to the elusive Gold Award.

Excitedly, Ford grabbed Emma’s shoulders and spun her around, displaying a vest chock full of badges.

“Look at this!” exclaimed Ford.

Mayor Williams whistled. “Wow! You want to get a picture of that?!” The ladies mugged for the camera as people applauded the impressive garment.

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Mount Patchmore

Wardrobes dramatically shifted as Councilmember Mark McGoff congratulated the VERY casually dressed high school swimmers who took Emma’s place. “The JeffCo Hurricanes have won the 2017 Speedo Four Corners Sectional Meet in Lewisville, Texas,” he read.

“We work very hard as a team in the pool every night,” said their spokesperson, the most formally attired of the teens in a t-shirt and jeans. Another of their crew was in tie-dye and shorts–but the most questionable fashion choice was the standoffish young lad in a sleeveless hooded sweatshirt.

(I’m sure the dress code is considerably looser on South Padre Island. But even there, I doubt that sleeveless hoodies are couture.)

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Thank you for not wearing your Speedos, I guess.

From sports to entertainment: a new movie theater was coming to town–but the president of Harkins Theaters knew there was only one way to make the announcement even sweeter.

“This is our senior vice president–also a Gold Award Girl Scout winner,” he gestured to the lady next to him.

“I was hoping to tell Emma congratulations, but she left!” the VP threw up her arms in mild dismay as the council guffawed.

The pair of Hollywood hot shots launched into a slide show of the finest, most luxurious theater Metro Denver would ever see.

“We’ll bring in local breweries. We have a new concession stand with hot food offerings and all-laser projection,” bragged the president. “The top picture is the recliner seats,” he nodded to the tantalizing stock photo of a family enveloped in cushioned bliss.

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“So help me, god, people will be smiling.”

But while the theater reps were pumping the butter, Councilmember Ford pumped the brakes. “I did a little research on the cinema industry and I found conflicting reports,” she clasped her hands. “How do you see it performing in the future?”

“I’d say that reports of our demise have been greatly exaggerated,” the movie prez reassured her.

With that, Mayor Williams dramatically flourished a sheaf of papers. “I will now sign the contracts!” he boomed, sealing the theater deal.

Councilmember Bob Fifer politely interjected. “I just wanted to share: tomorrow I’ll be flying down to Arizona to speak about broadband. I gotta be at the airport by six in the morning. I was trying to tell the mayor I need to be done by 7:02,” he glanced at the clock.

“Mr. Fifer,” the mayor retorted, “I’ve seen a picture of you at the age of 24. I don’t think beauty rest is going to do you any good!” The mayor and a handful of audience members cackled as Fifer shook his head ruefully.

#99: Medicine Hat, AB 4/17/17

From inside the gigantic semi-circle of the Medicine Hat city council, an equally gigantic subject emerged: how much reading do councilors REALLY want?

“I always wondered whether we needed more reporting, not less,” Councilor Les Pearson fired a shot across the bow of the anti-report lobby. “I’m wondering if council can be advised in a briefer form in a more frequent basis.

“It’s draining, I guess, on some people–on me in particular,” Pearson admitted with the exasperation of someone who had just forced an Encyclopedia-length government report past his eyeballs. “I guess I would like smaller bites along the way.”

“The intent,” Chief Administrative Officer Merete Heggelund replied, “is that you should be able to get the gist of it from the top” pages. She held her thumb and index finger less than an inch apart, measuring out 20 to 30 sheets of paper max. “It’s not that we expect council to have read 500 pages of financial information.”

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Pearson: “NOW you’re telling me?!”

“This is good, spirited conversation,” said Councilor Robert Dumanowski without a hint of enthusiasm–but also without irony.

“Quarterly reports are indicative of the industry and market world, etc.,” he launched into an exhaustive stem-winder that made my skull numb for a solid two-and-a-half minutes. I regained lucidity during his closing argument.

“I could go on and on and on, but the reports will only be bumped a single month. It’ll still be, I’m sure, an award-winning financial report,” Dumanowski reassured fellow Hatters.

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Trust me: this man DID read all 500 pages.

At this point, the meeting was more than three-quarters of the way over and the council was galloping through the budget like a Mountie on horseback. Prospects for a record-scratch, edge-of-our-seats moment were dim.

But dimness? Thy name is Councilor Bill Cocks.

“I can recall–and he shall remain nameless–a former councilor who voted in favor of the budget but NEVER voted in favor of the tax increases to support,” Councilor Cocks glared out from over his bow tie into the camera. “You can’t have your cake and eat it too.”

Yikes. While this was more “passive” than “aggressive,” the T-word touched off a nerve.

“I’m not happy we’re having a tax increase,” Councilor Julie Friesen hunched over and grimaced. “We don’t have a choice. We have to do this.”

You could almost see the Stockholm Syndrome set in. “I’ll support this, but, you know–who wants to? We don’t want to do it!”

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Friesen: “Oh, god. The taxes…they’re waiting for me outside!”

She turned to Heggelund for backup. “You might just explain to people what it would mean if we didn’t do this.”

The Chief Administrative Officer rubbed her chin and said without emotion, “we would have to find the money elsewhere. And we’re running out of places to find that money.”

What a doom-and-gloom way to end a meeting. Heck, even the Civic Recognition Awards were dogged by a rain cloud.

“I’m just a little disappointed that we had no recommendations–NOBODY was nominated for community inclusion or sports and recreation,” Councilor Pearson waved his fist in disdain.

“It’s really too bad that those people were not being recognized. I know there are people who made major contributions to sports and recreation and community inclusion.”

Final thoughts: For those of us who need a picker-upper, here it goes: the City Council Chronicles Sports and Recreation Civic Recognition Award goes to…Councilor Les Pearson! Hooray for closure!