#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.

#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.

#163: Middletown, OH 7/17/18

The atmosphere was pleasantly calm in the Middletown council chamber. Perhaps that had something to do with Mayor Larry Mulligan, Jr.’s preferred icebreaker: “If you’d please stand and join me in a moment of meditation,” he directed, precipitating a hush across the room.

If the vibe wasn’t mellowed enough, they certainly brought in the right person to finish the job: the director of the library.

“Book Mobile hit the road again. First time since 1988,” he announced with the excitement of, well, someone who works at a library. “Regularly stopping around 22 different schools, they’ve seen about 14,000 people on the Book Mobile.”

The first Book Mobile in 30 years? The first since the invention of the World Wide Web? Since Taylor Swift was born? The first since the U.S. and Russia were enemies and–well, okay, the Book Mobile didn’t miss that part. But like any 30-year-old, it can’t live with its parents and needs a place of its own.

“We have a garage project. That will be the permanent home for the Book Mobile,” the director said. “We’ll also have some staff there that can pull in, run in, restock the Book Mobile, and head back out. That’s exciting.”

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If the Book Mobile’s a-rockin’, the staff is restockin’.

A resurrected Book Mobile was only part of the reason to celebrate in Middletown. “We actually got compliments on the fireworks!” exclaimed Council Member Ami Vitori. “I think maybe they were a little longer this year. Just long enough to make everyone happy. AND THEN THEY KEPT GOING!” she breathlessly recapped the experience.

“Really enjoyed the activities downtown–First Friday, the ice cream social event,” Mayor Mulligan reminisced. “I heard they gave out over 350 pieces of ice cream. Some of us just stopped at the adult beverages and not the ice cream.”

Mewonders how many adult beverages it takes for someone to call scoops of ice cream “pieces of ice cream.”

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“I’ll take a cone with two pieces.”

But there was a bigger problem confronting Middletown–and it wasn’t the historical lack of book mobiles or compliments for the fireworks.

“Since my involvement with the city back on the financial oversight committee in 2004, you know that’s–man, 14 years ago. Time flies when you’re having fun, I guess,” the mayor deadpanned. “The roads have been a real area of concern.”

He continued on a long monologue with a message of: hey, we need to wake up and smell the asphalt.

“While I’m certainly not a proponent of higher taxes, the financial landscape has changed quite a bit. We need to come up with some creative solutions,” he warned. “While other cities are at a two percent tax or more, we’re still below that. We could really get a lot of paving done, truly extend those deteriorating roads another 25-30 years.”

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Without roads, how will the Book Mobile survive?!

The clerk read the giant text displayed onscreen. “An ordinance to impose an additional one-quarter percent income tax effective January 1, 2019 for period of ten years to be used solely for the construction, repair, improvement, and maintenance of streets and roads in the city.”

She paused, then added: “We’re not requesting any action until August 7.”

“Be aware,” the mayor mused, glancing around the dais to the three other council members present, “to make our August 8 deadline to get it on the ballot, it will require four votes from council.”

For the sake of the Book Mobile, I hope they have them.

#162: Inglewood, CA 7/10/18

Dueling realities were on full display in the council chamber, where on the one hand city leaders boasted that they were Making Inglewood Great Again, despite evidence that things were actually a bit of a bonfire.

Even the city treasurer was conflicted about the state of things as she started off the meeting with a positive report that the city’s “gross investment interest earnings is $6,902.”

However, “just a little report regarding global debt,” she pivoted. “Global debt has risen to more than $247 trillion, which is 318 percent of the world’s gross domestic product.”

I’m not an economist, but it seems like all the world needs is a slight 318 percent increase in GDP and problem solved, no?

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We are all the deputy city clerk.

But fear not: the meeting was not simply a platform to realize that faraway debt is a problem. It was a platform to realize that nearby city hall is a problem.

“This is a lawsuit filed by an assistant pastor,” a commenter waved around a sheet of paper at the lectern. “He says, quote, ‘this is about abuses of power and civil rights perpetrated by the city of Inglewood through its current mayor, James T. Butts.'”

With his voice raised, the man summed up the lawsuit in a single sentence: “He says both the mayor and his assistant used intimidation and defamation to try to ruin his career and have him shunned.”

To conclude, “at least one other community paper reported on this, but in order to hide problems with this mayor, Inglewood Today is hiding problems from the public.”

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Consider it unhidden

“I don’t appreciate anyone, not even the mayor, suggesting that I choke myself at a public meeting,” the next woman began, sadly providing no further context. “I wonder how many situations are going to be created where someone sues us for a hostile work environment that YOU created. I hope that everyone goes on the Internet and checks out the Daily Breeze story.”

So to recap: one media outlet is covering the hostile work environment. Another one is hiding problems. And a third one is, apparently, giving the mayor glowing coverage.

“I’d like to congratulate the mayor for his interview on ‘Eye on Newsmaker,'” Councilman George Dotson heaped on the praise. “I’ve heard nothing but great comments. I’ve had people call me wanting to see it over again.”

“I also wanna congratulate you,” fawned Councilman Alex Padilla. “You talk about putting Inglewood on the map for all the right reasons.”

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The reviews are in!

Mayor Butts grinned at this 180-degree tonal shift, knowing that amid all this talk about choking and intimidation, he had the final word.

“I’m glad that we have one person the Breeze can always go to to tell us how bad we’re doing. But they can only find one!” he joked. “There are media broadcast outlets that wanna know the real story of what’s going on in this city.” (I am assuming The Chronicles falls in that category, Your Honor.)

Then as he prepared to adjourn the meeting, the mayor reached full-on elder statesman mode.

“Remember, this is an election season. And there’s gonna be all kinds of crazy lawsuits filed and all kinds of stories,” he said quietly but forcefully. “Look at the results. Look at the reality of what’s going on here. Not all the smoke and the distraction. This is the new Inglewood.”

Well, it will be once the “crazy” lawsuit is cleared up.

#161: Fairfield, CA 6/26/18

“I usually don’t use this platform to make a political statement. But I feel like I have to tonight.”

Councilmember Rick Vaccaro seemed to be winding up to drop a rhetorical bombshell. Who would be the subject of his grievance? The mayor? The other council members? The shadowy and pugnacious Fairfield Main Street Association?

“I see what’s been going on in our country and it’s been breaking my heart, just like everybody else. The zero tolerance. Seeing families split apart. Seeing kids in cages. I think it’s a horrible thing.”

Frowning partly at the situation and partly at his own admission, he added, “like I said, I usually don’t make this kind of a statement. It’s just been what I’ve seen.”

To be fair, no one “usually” makes the statement that putting children in cages is bad. And that’s because it “usually” goes without saying. But if you told me two years ago that caged children would be topics of conversation at city council meetings, I would have said, “in America?! Sounds about right.”

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Speaking of cages, those brick walls look awfully claustrophobic.

Councilmember Catherine Moy, booming through the speakers via telephone, had a more conventional pre-Independence Day announcement that did not touch in the slightest on human rights atrocities.

“We’re looking forward to a real good Fourth of July. And that means NO fireworks in Fairfield!” she bellowed. “We have a great parade, and then we can go to Suisun City to watch the LEGAL fireworks.”

Mayor Harry Price took it a step further by announcing a zero tolerance policy of his own. “If someone is using an illegal firework,” he glowered, “do not simply close the doors and windows and ignore it. Call the police.”

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“And then we will put them in the cages.”

But suddenly, the meeting took an abrupt turn. Not because of what they said. But because of what they heard.

“THANK YOUUuuuuUUuu MISTER MAYORRrrrRRR,” Councilmember Moy echoed as if she was talking into a haunted house intercom. “UMMmmmM, I’Mmmmm–”

“Catherine, can you speak closer to the phone?” the mayor’s warped voice responded, reverberating through his own microphone. “And if you close the door, that could help.”

People on the dais exchanged glances as the distorted Councilmember Moy continued, growing fainter and fainter until her voice disappeared into the ceiling entirely.

“We’re having a terrible time hearing you,” Mayor Price announced. Everyone sat quietly as if this were Mission Control waiting to hear any sign of life from a recently-exploded shuttle.

“We cannot hear you.”

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“Ground control to Major Moy?”

After a long pause there came one final sound from the walls.

“Hello?” Councilmember Moy asked faintly. The line went dead. Without warning, a thunderous warbling feedback noise burst from the speakers, causing the clerk to jump back and one of the city employees to wander to another room to fiddle with the dials.

Maybe this is a word of caution for the Fourth of July: if you hear loud booming and crackling, perhaps it’s not illegal fireworks. Instead, maybe it’s the faulty speakers in the council chamber and the haunted voice of the council member trapped inside.

But, as the mayor said, definitely call the police.

#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.