#124: Rockledge, FL 8/16/17

Mayor Thomas Price was all smiles as he kicked off the meeting.

“Can I have the Friends of the Children of Brevard come up?” he announced, glancing coyly at the audience. Surrounded by a clique of three women, he reached underneath the podium.

“You’re gonna get the proceeds from our golf tournament. It’s my pleasure to present you with”–he hoisted a giant novelty check–“a $21,000 check!”

The women’s jaws dropped as the council clapped and hollered. After the ceremonial picture, Mayor Price turned toward them. “Are any of you Rockledge residents?”

“I am,” one of them volunteered.

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My eyes have never worked so hard to watch a council meeting.

The mayor instantly produced a smaller gift (my sources tell me either an energy bar or a piece of candy) and handed it to her as the room erupted in laughter. I can only assume that this is the mayor’s calling card and it’s not the first time he’s passed out snacks here.

Taking his seat on the dais, Mayor Price steered the council through a series of permit fees and zoning ordinances that were heavy on words and light on drama. He paused.

“Folks, we’re not always this boring. We just gotta get through all these ordinances first,” he winked, causing another round of chuckles from the crowd.

Suddenly, the infamous Rockledge Environmental Enforcement Board had a handful of open spots–and controversy flared.

“How many vacancies do we have?” the mayor quizzed the council. “Two. How many people do we have applied? Two.”

He waved his hand. “This is going to be easy.”

“If I may,” interrupted Vice Mayor T. Patrick O’Neill, “my recommendation would be that we only fill one of these vacancies tonight rather than throwing new meat into too many boards at one time.”

“New meat?” It’s an advisory board, not Army boot camp. I think everyone will survive. Nevertheless, under the New Meat Doctrine, the council dutifully filled one seat and left the other languishing.

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Strike it through, boys!

It was at this point the city manager announced another vacancy: hers.

“Tomorrow night, I will be flying out of town. I’ll return Monday morning,” she said. “In my absence, Matthew Trine, our finance director, will be the acting city manager.”

“Are beards allowed for our acting city managers?” teased Mayor Price, shooting a look of feigned skepticism to Trine.

“I’ll have to check the dress code, mayor!” quipped the city manager as the council guffawed.

But one man who wasn’t in a lighthearted mood was Council Member Frank Forester, who gave a pained soliloquy on the deterioration of public protests.

“I’ve been watching the news again. You know how THAT can cause problems these days,” he frowned. “I saw a lot of this back in the day when I was in college. The thing I didn’t see then that I’m seeing now is people wearing masks.”

He leaned back in his chair and searched for words. “I kind of feel like, if you’ve got something to say, let people see who’s saying it. Otherwise, who cares? I might care what a man or a woman has to say, but I don’t care what a mask has to say.”

The city attorney joined the grievance bandwagon as council members listened silently. “Those people who dress like that have nothing to say. They really don’t. What they wanna do is cause a scene.”

Beards, masks…the city manager better take a hard look at the fashion guidelines on her flight out of Rockledge.

#123: Goldsboro, NC 8/7/17

If you had asked me to write the plotline for a council meeting in a small southern town, there is no way I would have invented anything as riveting as the actual Goldsboro city council meeting.

“My favorite time of the night: public comment period,” swashbuckling Mayor Chuck Allen boomed as onlookers stirred in their seats. He had barely finished his sentence before an elderly man swaggered to the podium, shouting his name and address.

“How are you, sir?” Council Member Mark Stevens greeted him warmly.

“I’m doing wonderful! Everybody’s bright-eyed and enjoying the meeting,” hollered the man. He planted his entire body in an immobile slouch and made his position crystal clear.

“In behalf of all the fine, clean, Christian people who live in Goldsboro and wanna keep this a safe and clean city,” he thundered, “we the clean, Christian people do hereby OPPOSE Sabbath morning sale of alcoholic beverages.”

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Oh, my god. It’s Footloose.

Heads nodded in the crowd.

“It’s a threat to the church. It’s a disgrace to the community. Thank you for your vote against it.”

In a first for me, he then commenced his own round of applause, which citizens and a few council members joined as he retreated from the microphone.

A petite woman with a shock of white hair took his place. “I attend Adamsville Baptist Church. Serving alcohol at 10 a.m. on Sunday will be a bad influence on the young people.”

She frowned deeply as if looking into the eyes of Satan himself. “If we have our people setting in the bar on a Sunday morning, they are missing an opportunity to attend one of our many churches.”

I should mention, the council was voting today on the “Brunch Bill” to allow alcohol sales starting at 10 a.m. on Sundays. And if you couldn’t tell, there was a teensy bit of opposition from a very specific demographic:

“You have one person–one person ONLY–that is looking at you HARDER than we are,” bellowed a graying church deacon, pointing skyward.  “It’s the man upstairs.”

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People are literally sitting in pews here.

“Amens” flitted across the room. But the president of the downtown merchants’ association strolled to the podium to argue on behalf of the local heretics.

“Seventy-one percent of downtown merchants are in favor of the Brunch Bill. The merchants feel the bill will bring new businesses to Goldsboro,” he countered, rattling off all of the neighboring cities and counties that had Sunday morning sales.

A hostile silence, broken by a single boo, greeted the heathen as he walked off.

Another local bar owner, clad in a neat button-up shirt and a tidy haircut, stared at the mayor and asked a simple question.

“We have alcohol sales starting at 7 a.m. Monday through Saturday. So what’s the difference with Sunday?”

Mayor Allen eyed the gallery as various parishioners muttered, “it’s the lord’s day.”

“The LORD’S day,” the man repeated for emphasis. “THAT’S the difference. So now this is an issue of religion.”

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If I may answer on behalf of the audience: “Yeah…so?”

“There are many sabbaths,” this barkeep-cum-professor lectured the council. “Sunday is not the ONLY sabbath. We’re making laws based on religion. I would refer you to the First Amendment.”

Having heard both sides for almost a half hour, Mayor Allen called for the vote. “All those in favor, raise your right hand.”

He and three council members voted aye. The remaining three voted no. The teetotalers had lost.

Council Member Stevens vented in frustration. “For those who were disappointed in this situation, you know…keep praying. The lord will keep you safe.”

#122: Poulsbo, WA 8/2/17

There was no shortage of eyebrow-raising announcements in Poulsbo.

Mayor Becky Erickson set the bar ever-so-slightly off the ground with her unorthodox but low-key warning that “after we leave here, we’re gonna go to the third floor. A conference room setting is a little more conducive to an active conversation.”

Fair enough. A change of venue is good for the circulatory system. But the good vibes instantly dissipated as Council Member Gary Nystul flagrantly stoked an intra-governmental rivalry.

“It’s my privilege once a year to point out to my two Navy associates–Warrant Officer [Council Member Jim] Henry and Commander [Council Member Kenneth] Thomas–that August 4 is the Coast Guard birthday.”

He smirked and prepared to rub in his superiority. “Occasionally the Navy doesn’t follow our directions. One day in Hawaii they didn’t follow our directions right out of the shipyard. They put it into a reef!”

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Who among us hasn’t crashed a battleship into a reef?

The mayor quickly interjected. “You’re walking on dangerous ground, Mr. Nystul! Very dangerous ground.”

“Choppy waters” would have been the more appropriate image, but point taken.

Speaking of danger, quick: cue the Musgrove!

“When an earthquake or something happens is NOT the time to figure out: where do I get food for Fluffy?” Council Member David Musgrove insisted. He gestured to an emergency-preparedness handout decorated with a pensive-looking cat.

“It’s like taking care of an elderly parent. You need to do the same stuff.” (Note to self: stock up on cat food for grandma.)

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Cat sold separately

But if residents didn’t have time to prepare themselves for a disaster, Council Member Musgrove offered a logical alternative. “Tomorrow, 10:30 a.m., there’s a walk-through of the Poulsbo cemetery.”

Council Member Connie Lord struck a compromise between death and doomsday prep. “The mayor has opened up city hall as a cooling station,” she announced helpfully.

Mayor Erickson nodded. “The council chamber’s open. There’s bottled water in the fridge.” After thinking a second, she added, “bring a book. There’s nothing particularly exciting going on in here.”

However, the mayor was having a hard time keeping her story straight. Because not two minutes later, she revealed this HIGHLY exciting event:

“This coming Tuesday, I’m having ‘kitty hall’ here,” she bragged. “The Kitsap Humane Society and I are going to have a whole bunch of kitties/kittens/cats for adoption. So if you’re interested in a new feline furry friend, we’ll be out there.”

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When you pick up your cat, get enough food to last through the earthquake.

The final news item came from Council Member Ed Henry and it was a whopper.

“In our codes, self-storage and mini-storage is allowed in the commercial zone,” he informed the council solemnly. “Is the council interested in putting self-storage in those other zones?”

He glanced around. “It is a timely matter.”

“We appear to be having a LOT of interest about putting self-storage along [highway] 305,” the mayor acknowledged.

“We have very limited space if we want to keep Poulsbo Pouslbo,” Henry fretted. “Tight and constricted.”

Mayor Erickson agreed to look into it. But immediately, she worriedly turned to the clerk as she remembered that everyone needed to trek to the upstairs conference room.

“Rhiannon, how are we going to do this? We haven’t done this before.”

The clerk promptly replied, “I see us going upstairs and continue our audio recording up there.”

With that, the cameras went dark and the citizens who came for the cooling station pulled out their books.

#121: Aberdeen, SD 7/31/17

Do you recall the fable of “The Tortoise and The Hare?”

Well, Aberdeen’s city council meeting certainly started out as the hare: brash. Bold. Uninhibited.

“Ordinance 17-07-02, revising the city code relating to intersections. Anything new here?” queried Mayor Mike Levsen, pausing ever so briefly to listen for any intake of air or shuffling of seats.

Hearing nothing, a slam-dunk unanimous vote quickly dispatched the ordinance.

“Ordinance 17-07-04, relating to obstructions parked on city streets,” the mayor barreled ahead.

Briefly, the city attorney nudged the brakes.

“We did have one person who was all in favor of that change,” he informed the mayor with a hint of suspense. “A city employee in the public works department!”

Guffaws broke out as the ordinance again passed without dissent.

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It’s that dude’s lucky day.

Rounding the 11-minute mark, the mayor joked: “we’re done early; we can all go home!”

However, he received only a few wary nods–giving me the feeling that the tortoise phase of this meeting had dawned.

“The much-anticipated city manager’s report with the 2018 budget is next,” Mayor Levsen announced with a trace of resignation. He glanced over at city manager Lynn Lander. “We’ll see if we can appreciate the numbers you came up with.”

Lander took his place in front of a gigantic monitor and an even more gigantic set of notes. For the next 40 marathon minutes, he was in the driver’s seat on a sightseeing tour through the city’s bank account.

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I get it.

“The 2018 sales tax allocation is based upon the actual sales tax revenue collected in 2016, plus a growth factor,” he opened with a flourish.

“There is NO planned interceptor sewer work for 2018,” he emphasized heavily to grab council members’ attention.

“I am recommending adding three new positions to the city workforce: two patrol officers and a marketing concession manager for Wylie Park,” he dropped this major bombshell 20 minutes in.

The minutes slogged by in a dizzying array of pie charts and spreadsheet tables.

“I know I’m going very quickly,” he apologized, perhaps operating under a very different definition of the word “quickly.”

As he crossed the finish line, Lander concluded, “thank you for listening to me. I hope my rambling made sense.”

The mayor took a second to shake off the inertia and reach for his microphone. “Made sense to me!” he quipped cheerfully.

But suddenly, as folks gathered up their papers and rubbed their eyes, one person tossed a wrench into this finely-tuned budgetary machine.

“I have one thing. In the [promotion] fund allocations, we didn’t count the zeros,” Council Member Jennifer Slaight-Hansen thundered. “When you go in counting the zeros, it changes a half dozen of the allocations. I think we need to count the zeroes.”

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Make heroes out of the zeroes.

But Lander raised his hand and politely explained this complex piece of mathematics. “If there wasn’t at least five votes, the zeros really doesn’t matter.”

“It DOES make a difference in that median allocation,” she insisted.

“But,” interjected a confused Council Member Clint Rux, “if you have five people who voted for funding…then…there’s five people who voted for funding. Correct?”

This is why I hate calculus. Aberdeen’s “Zerogate” scandal was spiraling out of control. For the sake of ending the meeting on time, Council Member Slaight-Hansen retreated.

“Karl will send [the spreadsheet] to us and it’ll be more clear,” she sighed.

Final thoughts: I give 10 out of 10 stars to Karl, who was volunteered for spreadsheet duty apparently.

#120: Salt Lake City, UT 7/25/17

Council Vice President Charlie Luke braced himself for the onslaught.

“We have one public hearing for tonight. The rules of decorum are as follows,” he announced heavily, scanning the room for troublemakers. “We try to make this an inclusive location for people who want to speak. We ask from the audience that there be no cheering, booing, jeering or any other outburst.”

He caught the eye of Council Member Erin Mendenhall and the two exchanged knowing smiles. “That would make it unpleasant for people to speak and to listen,” he added.

Luke glanced down at his notes. “I do not…see…any cards. Um, is anybody here to speak about the zoning map amendments?”

No one stirred in the audience. All that buildup for nothing!

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Sorry, Charlie.

But wait: it was the appointed hour for council members to grill the mayor with questions. Gentlemen, let the jeering begin.

“Mayor Biskupski is on her way,” observed Vice President Luke. He paused before gazing around the dais. “Are there questions for the mayor?” No response.

“I don’t think so,” he murmured.

This council meeting was as quiet as a Mormon Tabernacle singer with laryngitis. However, that all changed as a squadron of public commenters lined up with axes to grind.

“I got a notice regarding my property–stating my xeriscape is not adequate,” a woman brandished a packet of papers while simultaneously introducing me to the term “xeriscape.”

“I’m required to have one-third of the property covered in vegetation. We live in a DESERT,” she protested. “I think my yard is one of the most aesthetically-pleasing in the neighborhood!”

She was promptly replaced by a man with multiple arm tattoos and a furrowed brow.

“As I head to work, there’s a nice lovely billboard that screams that if you support panhandling, you support alcoholism. Anyone panhandling is a violent, thieving drunk.” He reeled back with eyes wide. “Anyone agree with that?!”

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No

“I’ve started a petition to have these billboards removed. I’d rather be doing something else, but until these billboards are removed, I will continue coming here.”

He locked elbows on the podium and seemed at a loss for the proper words to express his exasperation.

“I don’t know what to say…these are…this is…this does not make sense to me.”

But his frustration was positively mild compared to the final commenter: a man with a cigarette tucked behind his ear and a strong distaste for the entire council.

“Can I ask y’all a question before my time starts? I tried to get an answer from the cronies down there,” he gestured dismissively to city employees.

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Cronies? That’s a new one.

“You have police come usher the homeless away. Then you take their property. You turn around and stab ’em in the back. That’s hippocratic [sic],” he raged.

He proceeded to give council members the kind of roasting the mayor narrowly avoided earlier. “What about the terrorism going on at the homeless place? Some dude got a double lung puncture with a screwdriver. He bled out!”

“We do still, I guess, live in a democracy and not in the communist state like SOME of us would like to see. He shot a dirty look at Council Member Andrew Johnston.

“Why don’t you go to places like France, Germany, some Middle Eastern countries where they ARE progressive and you would fit right in!”

Well, I’m not sure the Middle East is “progressive,” but you can sure as heck xeriscape there.

#119: Hardeeville, SC 7/18/17

If you didn’t have a big old smile on your face from 6:00 to 6:10 p.m., you must not have been watching the Hardeeville city council meeting.

“Dear Lord, please continue to guide this council,” Mayor Pro Tem David Spisso began conventionally enough, adding: “Please inspire the Apple Company to bring an Apple Store to Hardeeville. Amen,” he concluded, earning an amused glance from Council Member John Carroll.

An elderly man in a baseball cap quietly introduced himself. “My wife was well-known around here. Nobody hardly knows me,” he admitted humbly. “But she died last month.”

“My sympathies, sir,” Mayor Harry Williams replied.

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A Lego plane?

“She was always complaining to me to come here and see you people. I hate to do this, but the neighbor we have refuses to take his garbage off the street. He leaves it there seven days a week.”

“We’ll have code enforcement take a look,” the city manager assured him.

While another citizen might have declared “Mission Accomplished” and returned to their seat, this sprightly nonagenarian had one other news bulletin for the crowd.

“I’ll tell you something else!” he waved his finger. “[My wife] talked me into getting in the bake-off contest this year. I got first place on the cake AND the pie! Ninety-one-year-old beatin’ out all of them women!”

Council members applauded wildly as onlookers cackled with well-intentioned laughter. The man gestured to the cacophony he had created.

“I’m going home!” he hollered.

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She’s loving it.

As it turned out, he made the right choice.

Mayor Williams gave a slight frown as the Parks and Recreation director slid behind the microphone to discuss the troubled Hardeeville Recreation Complex turf project.

The director gestured to the screen. “We have a video here of the progress. It’s a minute long.” An excruciatingly slow slide show cycled silently.

“I’m on my edge of the seat. Is this really necessary?” the mayor heckled impatiently.

At last, stationary photographs of the field flashed onscreen. The director described the current situation: “The plan is to get that [soil] dried out so they can put down a geofiber fabric over the soil that is unsuitable.”

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Yikes! That’s some sullied soil right there.

The mayor stared down at his paperwork and clenched his fist. “So we ALREADY added $4,900 to the original plan. Now we have ANOTHER $49,000. So we’re $53,000 over budget.”

“We’re still under budget for the project,” the director protested.

“No, we’re not,” the mayor shot back in his thick New Jersey accent. “Let’s make that clear.”

Throwing up both hands, he vented savagely. “I have a real problem. We’re coming back at the eleventh hour asking for another $50,000–which is ten percent over budget and six months late. I don’t find that to be an acceptable performance!”

Barely hiding his contempt for the contractor doing the turf work, Mayor Williams ticked off his complaints. “Didn’t get permits on time. At least a week late and counting. If they’re here,” he glared across the room, “NOT a good performance.”

Putting on his glasses and sighing, the mayor initiated a vote to approve the extra money.

“This is something I wanted in the city for a long time. I want it to be right,” Mayor Pro Tem Spisso announced, voting in favor.

With all other council members as a yes, the mayor voted his disgust. “I supported this. As a protest to the performance of the company, I’m gonna vote no.”

On that dour note, the matter was closed.

#118: Rural City of Wangaratta, VIC 7/18/17

Hold your e-mails, Councilheads! I am aware that the Rural City of Wangaratta is not a city. Of course, the actual city is called Wangaratta. But Wangaratta has no council. So the Rural City of Wangaratta council is the city’s council.

I’m glad we cleared that up.

The meeting started off smoothly enough: Mayor Ken Clarke solemnly acknowledged the “traditional owners” of the land and their elders. A new conflict-of-interest policy for councilors was given a round of nods without comment.

Even the messiest subject you could think of–toilets–got a clean airing.

“Last year we conducted an assessment of all buildings, including the toilets,” a staffer explained to the council. “We want our toilets to be at their best. One of the findings is that we want to upgrade all of those toilets. The recommendation is that the council develops a public toilet improvement action plan.”

As requested, councilors dutifully approved the potty proposal. However, I would be remiss if I didn’t thank the unsung hero who had to “assess” all of the toilets. That person’s nose–and possibly other body parts–is quite brave.

At this point, my heartbeat quickened as I realized I would witness “public question time,” an extraordinary opportunity for regular Rural City of Wangarattans (that can’t possibly be right…right?) to grill their elected leaders mano a (it was all men) mano.

“My question’s about the multi-deck car park. I’d like council to investigate how we can get out of the contract of the ongoing debt that’s going to be incurred by ratepayers,” a man in a maroon shirt beseeched councilors. “Also, whether council can find another purpose for the building.”

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Can we get the toilet man to assess the car park too?

“We have a project to do a review of parking which will look at paid versus free parking, appropriate amounts of various time limits of parking,” the chief executive started to explain.

“Why do we need a review on parking? We know where everyone parks,” sharply retorted the commenter. “See whether the state government can get out of this contract or have an inquiry into why it happened.”

The chief executive remained measured. “Yes, and the review is really about whether we’ve got enough one-hour parking, enough all-day parking.” As for getting out of contracts, “it’s not for the state government to be making decisions about those arrangements,” he noted.

At this point, Mayor Clarke, sensing an intractable argument was nigh, stepped in.

“Malcolm, I think you’ve got to realize that the multi-deck car park [decision] was made by the previous council,” he flatly informed the inquisitor. “We would need to find a lot of money to get out of it at this stage.”

“Well, the state government should–”

“The state government will not fund it!” the mayor curtly cut him off.

The commenter barely paused before picking up his rhetorical sword and charging forward.

“So you’re saying the ratepayers are going to continue to be burned for the next seven or eight years? That’s just a waste of money.”

Mayor Clarke was becoming exasperated. “It’s NOT a waste of money if people use the car park.”

The reply was immediate and brief: “But they’re not.”

A long, uncomfortable pause set in. Councilors exchanged glances.

“Maybe all the councilors should have to park there,” he suggested bitingly. “Maybe you should make it that every council worker park there.”

One quick-thinking council staffer at the dais raised her hand. “My car’s there right now!” she revealed. As chuckles broke out, the tension evaporated.