#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?

Interview #47: Crystal, MN Council Member Nancy LaRoche (with podcast)

This podcast interview is available on iTunesStitcherPlayer FM, and right here:

Nancy LaRoche may be a new council member in Crystal, but she has been observing the meetings for quite some time. She told me that after the council changed its rules, meetings have gotten much friendlier. Plus, all of you animal lovers will hear about the council’s tiny unofficial mascot!

Q: You are in your fifth month of city council meetings and the one thing the people want to know: WHO is Bart?!

A: Bart is a box elder bug that I named and gave a title to! My first night, Bart made his presence known on the dais. I watched him walk from one end to the other towards me and I went, “what a curious little fellow.”

Q: Ha! Would you call Bart a regular council attendee?

A: Yes. As a matter of fact, he seemed to favor [city manager Anne Norris] because one meeting he landed on her face, hung out on her cheek for a little bit, and then made his way down and hung out on her hand.

Q: Ick.

A: She was trying to get my attention but I was so engrossed being a new council member that I didn’t notice him with her.

Q: Does your accepting–and some would say cavalier–attitude about Bart send a message to any citizen that they can bring their box elder bug into the council meetings?

A: [Laughs] Well, they might be subject to one council member’s extreme disdain for box elder bugs. I heard a few slams on the counter. So, fair warning.

Q: Who is this Butcher of Crystal to whom you’re referring?

A: That was our Council Member Jeff Kolb.

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Crystal, MN Council Member Nancy LaRoche

Q: You mentioned that the previous council members changed some rules about how the meetings operate. Why did they do that?

A: If you go back to council meetings prior to 2015, you will see the tenor and the tone quite changed from the way it is now. I think that was the decisive reason why those things were done. When a citizen is watching these meetings, it seems more of a personality conflict. Winning was more important than carrying on with the city’s business.

Q: So it’s not just that you got two new council members this year and everything was resolved. The old council said, “our procedures are making us not get along.”

A: The procedures back then left it wide open. I remember sitting in one meeting where they kept arguing about moving an agenda item–and it was because they could. It was more to antagonize either the mayor or the other council members. I believe they had a mediator come in because things were getting so difficult.

Q: Wow.

A: If you come back to now, it’s much more professional. Things are moving smoothly.

Q: Did more people show up to watch back then in case something wild happened?

A: I believe attendance is probably the same. But that lack of attendance might be speaking to the fact that overall, people are pleased with the level of services. Also, people are busy, so they watch us online. Our streamed meetings get quite a lot of views.

Q: Well, most of those views were from me. I’m sorry for goosing your numbers this week!


Follow Council Member Nancy LaRoche on Twitter: @nwlaroche

Special Feature! “Best Thing, Worst Thing”

This is an exciting new episode of the “Best Thing, Worst Thing” project. Usually, I storm into town, do some interviews, hear about the history, and package it together into a neat bundle for you. This time, we tag along with a few locals as they go about their day and get a more colorful listening experience.

For an explanation of the project, check out the page here. If you’re ready to hear a group of folks talk about the best thing about where they live and the worst thing about where they live, head over to the City Council Chronicles podcast to download the latest episode. Or you can play it below.

Episode 6: Colby, Kansas

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Photo source: Google Street View

Colby is technically a city of 5,400 people in the northwest corner of Kansas–but it’s tempting to call this a “small town.” Agriculture is important here, but Colby also has a community college and medical center. In this episode, we tag along to a Rotary Club meeting, participate in a tornado drill, and try not to get blown away by some fierce wind. We hear from a librarian, a hospital executive, a newspaper publisher, a principal, a tax preparer, and a retired city employee.

Interview #41: Detroit, MI Council Member Raquel Castañeda-López (with podcast)

This podcast interview is available on iTunesStitcherPlayer FM, and right here:

Raquel Castañeda-López grew up in Detroit and now she is on the city council, dealing with some truly vexing problems people bring to her: decay, violence, neglect. We talked about challenges from the public, challenges with fellow council members, and the challenges of eating during council meetings.

Q: I came across something disturbing in your background that frankly your constituents ought to know about. You posted this on your Facebook page:

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Tell me about the kinds of things you eat in the city council meetings.

A: I switched to smoothies mostly in the meetings. We will share kale chips or salted seaweed sometimes. Nuts, granola…things you can eat pretty quickly and not make too much of a mess.

Q: I noticed that your council meetings can go pretty long. Recently, the council president added a rule limiting statements by council members to two minutes–

A: Well, the rule has always existed. Unfortunately, it is difficult to enforce it amongst the council members, as we are all prone to talking quite a bit. The reminders come when it’s kind of getting out of control. Meetings, honestly, have been longer than five or six hours sometimes.

Q: If I were going on for too long, how would you politely tell me to shut up?

A: Depending on the content–if you’re talking about something that’s not related to the agenda item, you could say “point of order.” You could “call the question” on a vote to end debate. You could also accuse someone of being out of order. I’ve definitely had people call “out of order” on me, whether justified or not!

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Detroit, MI Council Member Raquel Castaneda-Lopez

Q: Not only do you have your regular meetings downtown, you guys hold meetings around the city at night. They can start off at times like pep rallies, but then they usually turn into extended pleas for help. Do you get anxious before the meetings because you know what’s coming?

A: No. I think there is some mental preparation but it’s our job. You have to be compassionate. The frustrations and suffering that we heard in the comments is very valid. Having been born and raised here, I understand not having very good city services at times and feeling afraid and forgotten. I think the frustrating piece is that sometimes as a council, we don’t have the power that people think we do have. It really lies with the mayor’s office. So trying to explain that to people without them feeling brushed off [is hard].

Q: Well, I get all of my news from the president’s Twitter account, so I know things in Detroit are going “so badly.” What are the three issues that come up most often in your council meetings?

A: I think it’s city services in the neighborhoods. Really. It’s about people having basic quality of life needs met. Safety is always a major concern.

Q: One more thing about public comment: it’s common for council members to respond to people right after they talk to you. Do you know other councils don’t do it that way?

A: There’s pros and cons. It’s weird to come and talk in a meeting and there’s just no response at all. It’s nice to answer the person right then and there if you can.


Follow Council Raquel Castañeda-López on Twitter: @Raquel4Detroit

#93: Batavia, IL 3/20/17

It was as if someone had asked, “which do you want first? Good news or bad news?”

The first half of the Batavia city council meeting was OVERFLOWING with civic pride. Here’s a sampling from the municipal smorgasbord:

  • Mayor Jeffery Schielke swore in a smiling new firefighter/paramedic, who ambitiously vowed to “support the Constitution of the United States.”
  • There was breaking news that the Downtown Egg Hop (sponsored, naturally, by Chick-fil-A) will feature a visit from the real live Easter Bunny.
  • Because so many scofflaws had to pay fines for failing Batavia’s tobacco sales compliance checks, the police decided to give $3,000 to the high school’s after-prom party. “The good news is, people have violated our liquor and tobacco ordinance,” the police chief said to laughter as he handed a normal-sized check to the organizers.
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Was the giant novelty check store closed?

Even the seemingly-snoozeworthy item of “Phase I wastewater treatment plant rehabilitation” got juiced by a mayoral shout-out.

“I had the opportunity to spend three hours here with the Batavia Environmental Commission. They had their movie night,” Mayor Schielke explained to his sizeable herd of 14 aldermen. “But before we got into the movie, they had me speak for a moment. So I get up and start talking about this, and everybody starts applauding!”

He waved his hand incredulously. “This room was full! There’s all these people from Yorkville and West Chicago and Aurora and everybody was here because they thought this was a real cool thing.”

Schielke sat back and marveled one last time at the memory. “I mean, I got a thundering round of applause when I talked about removing the phosphorus!”

Hey, now. If a mayor can’t get an ovation for phosphorus, that’s not the country I wanna live in!

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Watch out, phosphorus. There’s a new sheriff in town.

But alas, what goes up must come down. We had reached the halfway point–and the tone turned solemn.

“I received a notice from the school district. It’s come to our attention that ‘Touchdown Sports’ has been contacting local businesses to solicit sponsorships,” warned city administrator Laura Newman. “The company sometimes claims that specific coaches ask them to contact the business. By all accounts, this is just a scam.”

She emphasized each word. “Don’t share your credit card information.”

Fittingly, a financial scam at home quickly segued to the financial meltdown in Springfield.

“I think it’s crazy they have not been able to come up with a budget,” sighed Alderman Alan Wolff, clamping his fists together while reporting on the council’s field trip to the state capitol.

“House Leader [Barbara Flynn] Currie’s description was, we’re gonna get what we have now. Basically she thinks that’s their ‘gift’ to us.”

At this point, various other aldermen chimed in with their own recollections and grievances.

“We should be ‘grateful’ for their generosity,” one person spat disgustedly.

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“The only thing I’m ‘grateful’ for is this hand lotion.”

“It was all I could do to hold my tongue in that room,” Alderman Wolff flexed his fingers and eyeballed the floor.

Alderman Dan Chanzit stared grief-stricken at the mayor. “I never left a trip feeling so hopeless and in such despair.”

There were sympathetic grimaces around the table as Alderman Chanzit shook his head. “I hear chanting at town hall meetings of our congressmen, ‘you work for us.’ It took a lot for me to not start yelling that.”

#89: Sheldon, IA 3/1/17

It was an exciting day in Northwest Iowa: the city of Sheldon was expecting!

No, not a newborn. Rather, a fully-grown library director.

“We are successful?” Mayor Katricia Meendering inquired with a coffee cup poised at her lips in case a spit take was necessary.

“Yes!” a city employee blurted out enthusiastically.

“Wonderful,” said the mayor, taking a relaxed sip of joe.

“It’s taken us a little bit but we’re happy with Nicole Morgan, who we found from Oskaloosa,” the employee explained, anxiously scanning the council members for a reaction.

There were nods of approval around the room.

“Family?” the mayor quizzed offhandedly. She quickly chuckled and added, “I’m just kidding, you don’t have to answer that.”

The woman was clearly caught off-guard, but didn’t want to say no to Sheldon’s head honcho. “Oh, um, she has family in the area. She’ll be commuting for a bit.”

Okay, folks, let’s not get TOO personal. She hasn’t even started–

“Maybe she could come introduce herself at some point?” city attorney Micah Schreurs inquired hopefully.

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“Maybe you could find out what kind of flowers she likes?”

“Sure,” the staffer responded hesitantly. “We’ll…let her acclimate a little bit first.”

“Yep. Get her feet wet. Then…the first meeting in April!” Meendering barked. She immediately broke into another awkward laugh. “I’m just kidding.”

Perhaps. But if I were Nicole, I’d hold off on the unpacking until I made an appearance at city hall.

In a thrilling turn of events, the library wasn’t Sheldon’s only source of breaking news. The mayor coyly waited until the sleepy middle of the meeting to drop this bombshell on the other unsuspecting Cornhuskers: her exclusive tour of the Crossroads Pavilion.

“Wow,” she deadpanned. “If you have not had the opportunity to see the most recent updates they have done…wow. It’s absolutely breathtaking.”

This modern engineering marvel was so inspiring, there was apparently only one word to describe it.

“We were there at noon. Two, three guys [were] putting the floor down and…wow,” she murmured.

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Interior of Crossroads Pavilion

But the praise had barely died down before Council Member Pete Hamill brought up a subject that was distinctly not-wow.

“For dog and pet owners, be responsible for your pets. Just heard of two incidents in the past ten days of one person being bit by a dog,” he frowned, propping his elbow on the dais. “And then another person walking their dog being attacked by two strays.”

“Oh, my,” exclaimed the startled mayor. “I thought you were going to talk about ‘doody business’ because I’ve been getting a lot of calls on that.”

Council members silently watched her fold her arms in annoyance.

“That’s serious. I think the doody is serious too, but…” she trailed off.

Not as serious as a dog-mauling was the implication. Let’s hope the new library director isn’t watching. She might just choose to stay in bite-free Oskaloosa.

Final thoughts: Clearly the V.I.P. (Very Important Pavilion) here was Crossroads. I give it 8 out of 10 stars for the “wow” factor.

Interview #36: Edina, MN City Manager Scott Neal (with podcast)

This podcast interview is available on iTunesStitcherPlayer FM and right here:

Scott Neal is a fun guy to talk to. Not only has he been the city manager of multiple cities around the Midwest, but he’s a bit of a YouTube star for his “On the Job” video series. We talked about what he learned from British city councils and how public commenters affect how he thinks about the city.

Q: I want to start 4,000 miles away from Edina in England. You were there for ten days in 2005 and you met a queen’s dozen of local councilors. Did you learn anything about city council meetings over there–other than, obviously, their meetings are on the opposite side of the dais?

A: It was a lot of fun. We learned that most of the cities we dropped in on had a huge number of council members compared to the U.S.

Q: What number are we talking?

A: Two dozen, sometimes more. They were amazed that we could get work done with five council members. They had in their mind a link between the number of elected officials and the effectiveness of the organization.

Q: Have you ever gotten sad when a city council member retires or leaves?

A: I’ve had that a number of times over my career. The one that comes to mind most recently is a council member in Edina named Ann Swenson. She was part of the council that hired me. She was clear in what she wanted, which made her an easy person to work for.

Q: At her last council meeting, she said that you put your pen in the air when you want to speak, so she gave you a pen that lights up! Do you use that sparkle pen in meetings?

A: I don’t use it in council meetings. I do use it around my office, yeah!

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Edina, MN City Manager Scott Neal

Q: In Edina, you’ve had a couple of council meetings that stretched on for petty long because you had a bunch of public commenters. You sent out this tweet at a meeting:

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Is that a frequent occurrence?

A: No! I started in this line of work prior to city councils having their meetings shown on local access. I remember when we were making those decisions, city officials worried about that very thing happening: what if we’re having a public hearing and somebody watches it on TV and they decide to just come down and join in? I used to think that was unnecessary to worry about. [This] was the first time in my career it’s ever happened! I’m glad he put on his pants and came here–

Q: Wait, you assume they’re not wearing pants at home?!

A: It’s their privilege. It’s a free country.

Q: Amen to that. There was one contentious public comment back in October. A black man was recorded on video being handled roughly by an Edina police officer. At the next council meeting, for three hours people came up to the podium and they were outraged. When that many concerned people show up, do you think that means the city has failed?

A: I do not. Not necessarily. Doesn’t mean it [hasn’t]. I have had in my career a couple of council meetings that reached that level of anger. They haven’t come around very often, but it certainly makes you sit up and take notice.


Follow Scott Neal on Twitter: @edinacityman