#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.

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#149: Grande Prairie, AB 1/29/18

After a series of critical motions at the Grande Prairie council meeting, everyone became more relaxed with–what else?–shareholder approval for interim financing for the Wembley water line.

“In light of my opposition to the past motion, I wanted to not just vote yes, but express my ENTHUSIASTIC yes!” Councilor Dylan Bressey grinned.

“Thanks very much,” Mayor Bill Given chuckled at Bressey’s amusement with such a dry item. “The motions here are basically telling me what to do as a shareholder. It’s a weird process, just to clarify for the hundreds of people that might be watching.”

Several councilors heckled him facetiously. “Oh, thousands!” he corrected himself.

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That’s a Given

“That’ll take us to council member reports,” the mayor glanced down the dais to Councilor Kevin O’Toole. “We’ll start with the Combative Sports Commission.”

Councilor O’Toole explained in a highly non-combative monotone, “we had a meeting last month and review of the event held on December 15: Festival of Fists 2.”

Hearing giggles, he added, “I don’t name these things, guys, so don’t be looking at me! I’m just the middleman here.”

All right, people. Get your laughter out now. There were serious proposals from the Commission that deserve our attention. Go ahead.

“We’re gonna come back with some medical requirements–the Hepatitis B antigen and also the dilated ophthalmic examination,” O’Toole pronounced flawlessly.  “The promoter renewed his license. The name of the event will be called Brawls Deep and that will be–hey!”

More snickering commenced. “I had nothing to do with this!” Councilor O’Toole pleaded.

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Heck, I’ll take credit for “Brawls Deep.” That is an awesome name.

When it came time for Councilor Chris Thiessen to speak, not only did he 100 percent own his red blazer and substantial mutton chops, but he stood behind his remarks unapologetically. (And for a Canadian, being unapologetic is quite rare indeed.)

“Council and the chamber of commerce sat down for a lunch discussion,” recalled Councilor Thiessen. “The mayor was away on business, but Councilor [Jackie] Clayton did a very fine job as deputy mayor. In fact, Councilor [Wade] Pilat afterward said, ‘you’re so quiet in this meeting. I thought you’d talk more.’

“I said, ‘I was in awe.’ No, wait. I was in AHHHHHHH–” Thiessen posed his hand aloft and raised his voice to a falsetto, singing out the note “–of how much of a boss Jackie Clayton is, not only as a chair but as deputy mayor.”

He gave her a sheepish smile. “It took me five years to finally realize how great you are!”

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Voice of an angel

To recap: the combative sports names were weird. And the compliment to the vice mayor was sweet. But how about something weird and sweet at the same time?

“I watched the Center for Creative Arts. I’d never been there before,” Councilor Bressey announced excitedly. “An offer from the executive director: she said if we want a bonding activity, she will teach us a pottery class! I think we should!”

He was amped and practically itching to mold clay right then and there. “It’d be fun to do together! We REALLY need to do some clay pot making. Bicycling that wheel around together!”

Mayor Given smirked and raised his eyebrow. “For people of a certain age, that makes you think of the movie Ghost. And it makes me think that I probably WON’T be doing any clay pot making with you, Councilor Bressey.”

The entire room exploded in laughter as I wondered whether the mayor believed he or Councilor Bressey would be the shirtless Patrick Swayze in this scenario.

“Everybody thought it!” the mayor added, with apparent accuracy.

#148: Shakopee, MN 1/16/18

Excitement was high in the Shakopee council chamber as the agenda was emblazoned with one big, bold, pulsating item: the 2017 financial statement. It was so massively important, the half-dozen citizens in the audience made sure it rocketed ahead.

“Anybody that would like to discuss an item that’s not on the agenda tonight?” Councilor Jay Whiting scanned the crowd, which remained seated with their heads down.

With no movement, the finance director/master of ceremonies took center stage to unveil the dollars and cents.

“We will be having plenty of journal entries and lots of receivables and lots of payables yet to come in,” he cautioned as the spreadsheet loaded onscreen.

“Looking at your revenue,” he gestured, “your taxes line item is $331,000 under budget at the moment.” Uh-oh. That’s a lot of moolah not in the bank.

But suddenly, he dropped a whiplash-inducing load of good news–it wasn’t a winning lottery ticket, but it was close:

“We talked a whole year about our licenses and permit revenues coming in high–and they have. We’re close to a million dollars OVER what we originally budgeted. It’s a great year on that end!”

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Drinks on him!

“Are we missing a microphone or something?” came an abrupt gravelly voice from the direction of Councilor Mike Luce. “This thing’s not working.”

“Yeah, I can hear myself reverberating here a little bit,” the finance director acknowledged, tapping the mic.

The presentation halted as Luce fiddled with a device near his ear. “Battery issue. Sorry about that,” he mumbled.

“Can you hear me now, Councilor Luce? Hello? Test?”

“What channel are you on?” Councilor Matt Lehman attempted to troubleshoot. “Channel one?”

But it was no use. Councilor Luce tossed aside the battery and instead leaned forward to listen more intently.

“Your revenues for the year are about 102% of budget,” the finance director continued, before pausing near the bottom of the list in front of a glaring red arrow pointing downward.

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No. No, god.

“Kind of the whole point of this report is that you’re quickly able to identify something that’s not quite within that norm. A red down arrow is part of that.”

The Scarlet Arrow was painfully stuck to the natural resources department. Well, nature isn’t cheap I suppose. Did iron ore and mineral sands get more expensive?

“What is going on in that department?” the director asked rhetorically. “Neither of us realized that when public works employees aren’t snow plowing in the winter, they’re out trimming trees. And that time is charged to natural resources.”

“Really sound financial year,” he wrapped up, adding almost too calmly that the ice arena revenues had “an increase of about $280,000.”

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(N)ice!

With no applause or fanfare–although plenty of thumbs up from me at home–the presentation concluded. The attention shifted to councilors’ reports, which could be lively and engaging or, in the case of Councilor Lehman, more depressing than a municipal financial report.

“School board highlights: closing Pearson School,” he sighed. “One year, possibly two. Taking the sixth graders, moving them to the middle schools. They are gonna reroof it and use it in the future.”

He stopped and tried to remember logistics. “Was it the ninth grade going to the high school? They’re making a shift. Had about a $400,000-$500,000 deficit they’re working on. They’re projecting up to a $2 million shortfall for ’18-’19. So there’s gonna be some hard choices.”

That’s a shame. I know a city that’s rich in licenses-and-permits money, if anyone’s looking.

#147: Prescott, AZ 1/9/18

A new year meant a new, positive attitude at the Prescott city council.

“Mayor Pro Tem, do you have any introductions today?” quizzed Mayor Greg Mengarelli.

“It’s just great to see some new people in the audience,” replied a smiling Councilwoman Billie Orr.

The mayor turned and eyed the man to her left. “And Councilman…Sisch-ka?” he pronounced slowly, with some difficulty. “I’m trying!” he added as snickering arose.

“That’s all right, Mayor,” Councilman Steve Sischka nodded sympathetically. “I couldn’t pronounce it till I was 12 years old!”

“Mayor,” Councilwoman Orr interjected. “I do have one other thing. I was so excited to learn that Expedia named Prescott one of the 18 cities in the United States that you must visit in 2018. That’s a HUGE deal for us!”

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But I only have the budget to visit 17!

However, the easy ride ended here. For one eagle-eyed and sharp-nosed councilman was ready to dive into the hard topics.

“I’m concerned about the escalating growth of this contract,” Councilman Phil Goode thundered about the city’s software update. “When is it gonna end?!”

“We’ve been on this software since 1998,” the IT director explained calmly. “It’s almost like ripping open a house: you hope for the best. You have a budget. Next thing you know, it was built out of solid lead. It has asbestos.”

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So…the software has asbestos?

Granted, a solid lead house would be pretty alarming. But what about a 100-year-old dam?

“This item is for construction of the wet side of the dam,” an employee prefaced. “Some improvements to the gate valve.”

“Just so I can hear you say it: how long will this valve last?” questioned Councilman Steve Blair. “That’s an expensive valve.”

The employee waited a beat before mumbling: “a long time.” Council members chuckled.

“Is there a warranty on this valve?” Councilman Blair pressed.

“The existing valves on the dam go back to the original construction of it,” another staff member responded, scanning his brain for the precise year. “1931?”

WOW. An 87-year old dam valve is quite a scary–

“1919–” he corrected himself by looking down at his notes, “–the existing valves are from. It’s a knife gate. It’ll slide up and down on the front of it.”

While part of me wanted to see the 99-year-old knife gate live to see one hundred, Councilman Goode jumped in–this time defending a large expenditure. “I just want to make sure everyone understands that we don’t have a lot of options here. This HAS to be fixed.”

Indeed, it would be difficult for people to visit this Expedia “top 18” city if it was underwater. This just makes smart tourism sense.

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Prescott: Home of the 99-Year-Old Knife Gate

Speaking of smart, one public commenter had clearly done his research on the pending loan ordinance for three wastewater projects.

“With regard to the emergency clause, I understand the need to close the loan within 30 days,” he began encouragingly. “But I’m looking at the emergency requirements under the charter, which require ‘the immediate preservation of the public peace, health, or safety.'”

He looked up and narrowed his eyes with suspicion. “Does closing the loan within 30 days meet that criteria?”

The city attorney leaned forward, obviously anticipating this question. “Emergency clauses are allowed under state law to preserve the public peace, health, safety, and welfare. That welfare provision is critical. Preserving the public welfare also includes the FISCAL welfare of the city.”

You hear that, Expedia? That prudence is cause for getting on the “top 19” list next year!

#146: New Bedford, MA 1/1/18

“Cozy” is how I would describe the New Bedford city council chamber–with curtains decorating the window and an angel topping a Christmas tree in the corner. It could have been someone’s living room. But, you know, with cameras.

The women occupied the front row; men took up the rear. Councilors sat in high-backed reclining chairs, each with his or her own personal desk.

Today there would be no long debates or drawn-out votes on new ordinances. Instead, “Councilors, I’ll open the floor for nominations of council president pro tem,” announced city clerk Dennis Farias.

“I move to nominate Councilor-elect Joseph Lopes,” declared Councilor Linda Morad.

Farias nodded. “Would Councilors-elect [Debora] Coelho and [Ian] Abreu please escort Councilor Lopes to the podium?” As the trio crossed the floor, a smattering of applause greeted Lopes when he took his seat.

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Long live the king, and his glowing lampshades

The adulation was short-lived.

“We are adjourned,” he slammed a gavel on the wooden desk. While it was only five minutes into the meeting–and would have been a contender for shortest meeting on the books–this was actually a pause to swear in councilors elsewhere.

I can only imagine the pomp and pageantry that took place off camera, for two hours elapsed before Councilor Lopes smashed the gavel again to reconvene.

As it turned out, it would be his final gavel to smash.

“I would like to nominate Linda Morad” for council president, Councilor Coehlo stood to deliver a glowing portrait of her nominee.

“She is a lifelong resident of New Bedford. She dearly loves her family. She attended local public schools,” Coehlo rhapsodized as Morad stared stiffly with her hands clasped.

Councilor Dana Rebeiro suddenly shot her arm in the air. “May I–?” she began.

“We’re only having one person speak,” Councilor Lopes rebuffed her. Rebeiro hunched over in disappointment.

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It’s like a Rockwell painting

The vote was unanimous in Morad’s favor, and amidst polite applause she wended her way to the podium, giving hugs and shaking hands along the perimeter of the room.

Standing with her palms flat on the desk, President Morad gave a steady but intense pep talk to her councilors.

“We are the seventh-largest city in Massachusetts. Being a city councilor in New Bedford is a big deal. YOU are the face of government here.”

She reached for a political cliché. “Just like a family, which we are, we won’t always agree. But hopefully we can work together.”

Then, she turned to her right. “I have a couple more pages of my speech. Were you able to get those?” The clerk pushed a hefty stack of papers toward her and Morad thumped them loudly on the desk for effect.

Councilors cackled at the joke.

“Just a few more words if you don’t mind,” she deadpanned.

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Read it! Read it all!

“Madam President,” the clerk segued, “the next item is the drawing of seats.”

A seating chart lottery?! What a rare event to witness. I always wonder how a council seating chart gets birthed and I’ve never seen an actual random assignment. My curiosity will finally be satiated!

“Colleagues, I communicated with you today that Councilor [Hugh] Dunn is not with us tonight,” Morad explained. “Councilor Dunn is interested in moving his seat, so I respectfully ask that we consider tabling this item until our meeting on January 11.”

What?! No, I won’t be watching then!

“The ayes have it,” Morad announced as the deferment passed.

Sigh. I came so close.

A Very Council Christmas: The Chronicles’ Holiday Special

‘Twas the night before Christmas / And throughout City Hall,

Not a mayor was stirring / Nor a council near-brawl.

 

Public commenters were nestled / All snug in their beds,

While concocting some brand new complaints / In their heads.

 

When on people’s phones / There arose a loud clatter.

They opened up iTunes / To see what was the matter.

 

With a square yellow icon / People gave a small nod past,

For they knew what it was: / A brand new podcast.

CCCXMAS

Yes, my friends, this is a special holiday edition of the City Council Chronicles podcast, covering highlights from our best interviews–including all the gifts, challenges, and vintage audio recordings I’ve offered my guests through the months. This “best of” is available on iTunesStitcherPlayer FM and right here:

You will hear excerpts from:

Interview #57: Christchurch, NZ Mayor Lianne Dalziel (with podcast)

Interview #65: London, UK Assembly Chair Jennette Arnold, OBE (with podcast)

Interview #71: Port Moody, BC Mayor Mike Clay (with podcast)

Interview #64: Mobile, AL Council Member Levon Manzie (with podcast)

“A Higher Expectation”: The Council Meeting and the Confession (with podcast)

If you liked what you heard, please give the podcast a five-star rating on iTunes and like our Facebook page. You’d be giving me everything I asked for on my Christmas list!

#145: Nacogdoches, TX 12/19/17

It may be the week before Christmas, but Tuesday’s Nacogdoches city council meeting scheduled an unfortunate, bitter showdown between neighbors.

The source of strife: whether to rezone a Garner Street home–mere yards from the hospital parking lot–from “residential” to “medical.”

Representing the affirmative side was the homeowner, a short woman with a heavy twang who appeared nervous and saddened to be begging for relief.

“Our home has been on the market for several years. We’ve accepted offers that did not go through,” she explained in frustration.

“We have been approached by a cardiologist who is wanting to purchase our property and make it his office,” she said, adding that he was “a highly trained, kind, and caring person….No selfish or self-serving motivation.”

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So far, so good.

Her hand shook and she murmured “sorry” as she scanned the scattered paperwork on the lectern. “Could Mr. Wood speak about the property values?”

Mayor Shelley Brophy nodded sympathetically. “I would allow a brief statement.”

The supportive witness took the woman’s place. “They need to sell their home. When somebody offers you 15 percent more than what you’ve been saying–the only stipulation being the zone change–you have to pursue it,” he drawled.

“I was worried about her getting through this. It’s real emotional for her.”

The final speaker on the woman’s side was unmistakable: bald, bespectacled, and wearing robin’s egg blue scrubs, he was undeniably the aforementioned cardiologist.

“The key thing about this property is the proximity to the hospital,” he explained in accented English. “There’s a patient coming with a heart attack, you attend them and take care of them.”

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Do no harm

Brushing aside traffic concerns, he gestured widely while elaborating upon the simple math. “I see 12, 15 patients a day, three days a week over an eight-hour period. Which means two cars coming and going an hour. That is NOT a traffic increase.”

Stepping up in opposition was a steady stream of neighbors on Garner Street, deeply disturbed about the decay of safety, the rule of law, and the moral fiber of the neighborhood.

A woman with long, dark hair and glasses appeared torn. “I have a lot of sympathy for the Morgans. I consider them friends. They’ve been neighbors for a long time.” She hesitated but for a moment. “For the greater good, please preserve our neighborhood.”

“We have two very small children,” a young mother pleaded. “We purchased this house with the vision of raising our little girls on a nice, quiet residential street where our children could play safely. It would absolutely destroy the integrity and appeal of Garner Street.”

“Apartments, offices, ambulance, hospice, nursing home, psychiatric hospital, boarding house, halfway house, or cemetery,” another man rattled off a list of boogeymen allowed by this “medical” rezoning.

Having sat quietly for half an hour, the council leaned forward to make an uncomfortable decision.

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It’s a tough call.

“I’ll make a motion to deny the zoning change,” Council Member Garth Hinze offered bluntly.

“Doctor, you’re very well respected around town,” he addressed the cardiologist, then turned to the homeowners. “I feel your pain. But for the greater good…that’s why I voted the way that I did.”

“Mr. Norton, do you have comments?” Mayor Brophy turned to her left.

“I don’t have any comment.” Council Member David Norton wrung his hands and muttered quietly: “I’m a little surprised.”

With that, the vote was 4-0 to deny the doctor his office and the homeowner her sale. But the “integrity” of Garner Street? Mostly in tact.