#113: Guthrie, OK 6/20/17

Spirits were riding high in the Guthrie council chamber as Mayor Steven Gentling took center stage with a beaming gray-haired woman.

“Whereas Maxine Pruitt has displayed a true commitment for the city of Guthrie for 25 years,” he read from a plaque so shiny I could see my reflection through the TV, “and has worked for NINE mayors, I am honored to declare Friday, July 7 as Maxine Pruitt Day.”

Whoops and hollers erupted in the standing room-only chamber. The mayor flashed an ear-to-ear grin and Pruitt accepted his handkerchief to dab her eyes.

“I’m so overwhelmed,” she spoke haltingly between tears. “My father-in-law, he very seldom missed a council meeting. He loved this town. I love this town. I love everybody in it.”

She whirled around to the dais. “And council, you all are the best.”

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What a gentleman!

City manager Leroy Alsup crept up to spring a second surprise on her. “Maxine collects paperweights,” he explained with a hefty key-shaped object in his hand. “So we got her a paperweight that has her name on the top and it says ‘Key to Retirement.'”

However, the good vibes promptly faded as the council turned to a subject even heavier than a paperweight: the old Excelsior Library.

“There’s been quite a bit of history on this,” frowned the city manager. “Over a three-year period, the Friends of the Library have committed to certain steps renovating the building.”

Suddenly, Council Member Brian Bothroyd leaned forward, grabbing his microphone.

“What happens if, after year one, the terms aren’t met?” he inquired sharply.

“The city has the right to terminate with 60 days written notice,” the manager replied.

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This is Dewey Decimal devastating

His answer set off Council Member Bothroyd on a forceful diatribe toward the Friends of the Library.

“I was requested to champion and make sure this building wasn’t gonna get demolished. And I did that,” he thundered.

“My goal was always to get y’all the key to the building, which I did. We surplused the building so I could hand you the keys on a silver platter! And it’s still sitting there.”

He gestured in outrage. “I wanna see you guys be successful. Leroy said it: the city has 60 days and they can retract the deal! I don’t wanna do that!”

“The city has some responsibility,” interjected Mayor Gentling hotly, “that we’re not turning over a building that’s set for failure.”

I don’t know what part of “key on a silver platter” the mayor wasn’t understanding. But Bothroyd reached into his bag of superlatives and pulled out a ringer.  “Again, when I’m championed to do something, I follow through. A hundred percent.”

If Council Member Bothroyd was a teensy touchy on the whole keys-on-platters ordeal, it may be because there was another issue knocking in his brain.

“I’m a straight shooter and I throw it on the table,” he ratcheted the folksiness to eleven.

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“I put the pedal to the metal and tiptoe through the tulips, okay?”

“Let me tell you what happened the other night: I got about 40 calls and counting. They asked, how come I didn’t want to settle the Bruning case?”

His voice went high in disbelief. “I said, I voted no on the MOTION. The motion WASN’T to settle the lawsuit. The other part was a tax on you and I! THAT’S what I voted against.”

He waved his hand dismissively after venting. “So I don’t have to field any more phone calls on it.”

I’ll spread the word.

#111: Sioux Falls, SD 6/13/17

When you think of South Dakota, you picture the lineup of four presidents gazing out from a mountainside. But after watching the Sioux Falls city council meeting, I’ll always picture the lineup of provocative public commenters!

“I’m a retired lawyer and full-time writer of nonfiction books,” announced a gray-haired man sporting a white Wilford Brimley moustache. “I want to talk about Senator R.F. Pettigrew. What would he think of his creation today?”

The commenter then traced a mesmerizing biographical journey through the life of Sioux Falls’s version of George Washington.

“He’s one of these people who could sit around a campfire and see a city in the making. He had a funny way of dealing with people standing in the way of progress: they were called ‘kickers’ and ‘croakers.'”

After listing several Sioux Falls mainstays that Pettigrew would’ve admired–schools, small businesses–the man reached an ironclad conclusion:

“One of the things that would make him especially proud is that his city, Sioux Falls, is far, far bigger than Yankton. He didn’t like Yankton.”

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R.F. Pettigrew, seen here grimacing in the direction of Yankton

“It’s tremendous commentary,” gently interrupted Mayor Mike Huether at the five-minute mark, “but I need you to wrap it up.”

Secretly, however, the mayor no doubt wished for another history lesson. Because the next commenter sauntered to the microphone with an American flag t-shirt and a palpable chip on his shoulder.

“I want to apologize to the people that are watching this city council meeting,” he began, presumably not including me. (But just in case, apology accepted, fam.)

“When people come up to me in the grocery store and they talk to me about issues in this city, I apologize for bringing them up to the city council,” he continued with his arms braced squarely on the podium.

“I always ask ’em, why don’t you come and do it yourself? And they said, no, we watch how people are treated at city council meetings. You’re either chastised during the meeting or chastised at the end of the meeting. That’s true.” He frowned deeply and took his seat.

“Thank you, Tim. Appreciate it,” the mayor viciously chastised him.

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Stay strong, patriot

Tim was replaced by an even more cocky complainant who aggressively launched into his grievances.

“After last week’s meeting, I sent you all a copy of the First Amendment. I thought maybe you could sharpen up on what it is,” he oozed with contempt.

“Tim said it best: why don’t a lot of people come up here to speak besides us five? Because they’re scared TO DEATH! They’re scared about repercussions. I hear it A LOT!”

He raised his voice an octave in closing. “We get yelled at. We get chewed out for doing what is our constitutional right!”

“Very good, thank you,” Mayor Huether chewed him out.

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Sioux Falls’s mayor, seen here screaming in the direction of Yankton

As councilors returned to the honorable business of legislating, something was clearly bothering Councilor Rex Rolfing.

“I have one observation,” he grimaced with arms folded. “It was sad to see the media leave directly after public input with seemingly no real interest in the real business of the city. It’s revealing to me, and I hope it is to the rest of the city.”

The mayor paused, then gestured to the back of the room. “Scouts, welcome,” he waved at the dozen Boy Scouts who were caught up in the middle of this awkward exchange.

#109: Saginaw, MI 6/5/17

Somebody, put up the balloons and the streamers! At the Saginaw city council meeting, we’ve got birthdays in the house.

“It is my honor to give this proclamation,” grinned Mayor Pro Tem Floyd Kloc as three stocky gentlemen from the Kiwanis Club clustered at the podium. “I’m also a member, so it’s quite special to me!”

“Be it resolved,” he read, that the city “does extend this expression of gratitude to the Kiwanis Club of Saginaw for their service over the past 100 years.”

A proud centenarian stepped forward. “One of our signature projects is buying dictionaries for all the third graders in Saginaw public schools. Last year we bought 386 dictionaries, I believe.”

Dictionaries? As in, old-fashioned autocorrect? Classy move.

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More importantly: are you buying the children Snapchat filters and fidget spinners?

The Kiwanis may have been turning 100, but I hope they know how to respect their elders–because an even more senior group was also blowing out candles.

“I represent the Plumbers & Steamfitters Union, Local 85. We turned 125 years old on May 1,” a significantly younger man informed the council.

“I am a little partial to Local 85,” admitted Council Member Michael Balls coyly. “My son attained his journeyman card through the plumbers union and he lives in a big beautiful home with a three-car garage and stuff like that.”

Balls nodded with the satisfaction of a proud dad. “It’s been real rewarding to him.”

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“However, if my Father’s Day present this year isn’t a Porsche, I will disown him.”

As it turned out, Saginaw was about to witness another son do right by his dad.

But the circumstances were anything but cheerful.

“Proclamation in memory of Brent R. Smith, whose rich and abundant life came to a close on March 3, 2017,” read Mayor Pro Tem Kloc, standing to shake hands with a long line of bereaved family members.

The bespectacled teenage son then stepped up to the microphone.

“I’d much rather have my dad up here receiving this honor,” he said while family members folded their arms behind him.

“He was greatly influenced by his grandpa. They were best friends and they’re most likely hanging out right now as I speak.”

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😥

“All of his hope and trust was in Jesus Christ,” he continued quickly, so as to avoid becoming too emotional. “He and my mom raised the three of us kids to be god-fearing Christians as well.”

While the audience stared silently at the floor, the boy punctuated his eulogy with plainspoken Midwestern piety:

“My dad did so much for so many people. There’s one thing that we know for sure in all of this: when my dad was standing before god, he heard the words, ‘well done, good and faithful servant.'”

From the back row, a slow clap began. Council Member Brenda Moore slapped the table and stared kindly at the Smith daughter.

“I came in with the young lady and I told her she was so beautiful. You are beautiful,” she repeated in a grandmotherly tone.

“And thank you so much–mom, family–for sharing your husband with the city of Saginaw.”

Then, ending the council meeting on a note of good fortune, she revealed: “I hope that you start to enjoy the sunny weather. I’m actually gonna plant a garden this year with the help of my friends. We’re gonna plant a garden!”

And with that, the cycle of life, death, and birth was complete in the span of a single city council meeting.

Special Feature! “Best Thing, Worst Thing”

On this newest “Best Thing, Worst Thing” episode, you’ll experience more parts of Des Moines in an hour than most people do in a lifetime! Plus, you don’t have to go anywhere–you’ll listen to me do all the walking. I was surprised by what some people said (or didn’t say) about their home, and learned about how having big ideas in a small city can be a double-edged sword. (I was also surprised to end my night on the top of a parking garage, but you’ll have to listen to find out why.)

For an explanation of the project, check out the page here. If you’re ready to take a behind-the-scenes, after-hours peek at Iowa’s main metropolis, click over to the City Council Chronicles podcast to download the latest episode. Or you can play it below.

Episode 8: Des Moines, Iowa

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Photo source: City of Des Moines

Des Moines–population 210,000–is the capital of Iowa. We hear from several residents about how Des Moines is on fire culturally. First, we visit a free art museum and then talk to a worldly t-shirt mogul with a Trump connection. Afterward, we go behind the scenes at the state capitol. We head into the afternoon with the grand opening of a community center, and end up in a dive bar by nightfall. Plus, you’ll see which attraction in Des Moines completely fascinated me!

#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.