#155: Richfield, MN 3/27/18

When the sheriff shows up in cowboy movies, it’s a sure sign the bad guy is going down.

“To make sure he got here in time, [he] hustled the vice president out of town so he wouldn’t be late,” joked Richfield Mayor Pat Elliott, welcoming the top cop to apparently the second-most important event of his day.

The sheriff stared down his nemesis: a slide show on the computer. “Which do you think it is? Arrow to the right?” he mused aloud. “Up-down?”

Everyone waited patiently while he solved the mystery of the puzzling PowerPoint. “Help,” the lawman murmured, proving that sometimes even heroes need heroes.

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I believe in you.

Finally he got the hang of it and opened with a bit of trivia.

“I will not ask you, Mr. Mayor, what are the names of the three rivers that flow through Hennepin County. But I know you know the Crow, the Mississippi, and–what’s that last one?” he stumped himself.

“Minnesota,” Mayor Elliott replied, acing the rivers pop quiz.

But between those rivers lay a festering problem, and the sheriff turned on the rhetorical lights and sirens for his nearly 200 opioid overdoses.

“If I had 162 homicides in Hennepin County last year, I’d bet that it’d be in the front page of the Star Tribune or on the 4, 5, 9, 10, 11–all news channels in between. But it’s not.”

As frustrated as he was by the drug deaths, the sheriff was also irritated at himself for the crime of third-degree long-windedness.

“I promised you, Mr. Mayor and council members, eight to ten minutes. I took eight minutes and 35 seconds. I went a little bit over.”

As he surrendered the lectern, Mayor Elliott welcomed a former mayor who had since risen to the ranks of the elite.

“Commissioner [Debbie] Goettel, it is good to see you! You’re back in your stomping grounds,” he gushed. “I hope you have some words of wisdom for us yourself.”

“There are some pretty startling facts that he didn’t share with you,” she countered, dodging any happy wisdom and instead beelining to the opioid wisdom.

“They are disproportionately affecting our younger folks. Anywhere from the age of 15 to about 45.”

After waiting a beat to digest the news, Council Member Edwina Garcia confessed, “we still miss you.”

“I beg your pardon!” exclaimed the current occupant of the mayor’s seat.

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Mayor brawl!

“I mean we,” Garcia quickly clarified, referring to the royal “we.” “Not necessarily sitting right here,” she jabbed at the mayor.

I don’t know who would win in the battle of the mayors. But I will admit: the high point of the meeting was when Mayor Elliott revealed the catchy slogan for “council member announcements.”

“On to ‘Hats Off to Hometown Hits,’” he said.

In his Hometown Hit, the mayor offered the most striking analogy of the day. “Anytime you get a special verdict form that comes back that’s in your favor–this is gonna sound a little strange,” he admitted, holding up an official document. “But when I get one like this, it’s akin to the birth of a child. We got one this past week.”

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Boy or girl?

But Council Member Maria Regan Gonzalez used her Hometown Hit to once again ground her colleagues. “This morning we met with our congressman, Congressman Ellison. The opioid crisis, we did talk about that.”

Well, I think we know what Richfield Public Enemy Number One is. Citizens, let’s run these opioids out of town like they are the vice president.

#154: Monona, WI 3/19/18

What did the city council know and when did they know it?

That was the question one sleuthful citizen had after doing a little amateur detective work on some government documents.

I’m here again to urge the council to reject all of the bids related to the Wyldhaven Park project, a flannel-clad man informed the crowd. The deck is a detriment to the park and serves no practical purpose.

I also have serious concerns regarding procedure. According to meeting minutes–” he continued, hoisting a sheaf of papers in the air as the smoking gun, “there was a committee discussion of a plan for Wyldhaven Park on October 6, 2015. That plan had no deck in it.”

The plot was thick with intrigue. A deck had appeared out of nowhere.  What’s next? A swing? Wind chimes? A grill and some hot dogs? The precedent was dangerous.

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Bag it for evidence

“A number of people I’ve talked to were surprised to hear that there’s gonna be a deck. They said, ‘really? Like, a deck?’” the man recalled, albeit with zero ounce of surprise in his delivery.

“Where did all this detail, including deck, come from? Certainly not in the committee meeting minutes.” He paused before delivering the verdict. “My opinion on this is that the committee must’ve acted on its own!”

Aha! And how did Mayor Mary O’Connor then attempt to shut down the investigation and suppress further testimony?

“If anyone else is here to speak about the Wyldhaven Park project or would like to register, there’s a slip over there to fill out,” she indicated politely.

“We have a deck. We love it,” smiled the next commenter. “The location of the Wyldhaven Park observation deck is one with a spectacular view. You have beautiful sunsets. You have the super moon.”

Having heard from both sides, the mayor wheeled around to a staff member.

“So that was in the minutes?”

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It was there the whole time?

“It’s in the packet,” the employee clarified. “And we approve or recommend approval of all the projects as a whole. Not each individual project.”

Alderperson Doug Wood made it crystal clear that nothing nefarious was afoot. “I think this did go through the normal process, if not maybe a little more so than most capital projects?”

“Correct.”

Well, so much for the secret society theory. Apparently the deck was simply a victim of insufficient bullet-pointing.

But if you thought the council was done with deck-related problems, they weren’t in the clear yet.

“I will move approval but with the requirement that video surveillance be installed,” Alderperson Wood piped up as the council was about to approve an alcohol permit for a Mexican restaurant’s patio.

After several minutes of wrangling, Alderperson Brian Holmquist finally inquired, “Do all our other patios require that you have surveillance?”

The answer was yes–clearing the deck (as it were) for a council thumbs-up.

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No more deck talk

Mayor O’Connor waited until the end of the meeting to air a concern she had been pondering.

“One thing I wondered about: if we want to think about having–” she paused and stared up at the ceiling. “I hate to even bring this up but the way the world is today, some active shooter training for the council might not be a bad idea.”

She indicated to either side of the room. “Frankly, sitting here and seeing these doors, I think it might be a good idea if anybody’s interested.”

Yikes. I guess if Monona keeps having deck problems, it couldn’t hurt.

Interview #86: Indianapolis, IN Councilor Michael McQuillen (with podcast)

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

Michael McQuillen is the Republican District 4 councilor and minority leader on the Indianapolis-Marion County city-county council. Despite his council’s long name, he tries to make quick decisions on votes, including the difficult ones involving unseating the council president. We talk about those occasions, his perfect attendance, and more.

Q: I hope it is not too late in the year to congratulate you for winning a perfect meeting-attendance award in 2017. Why does the Indianapolis council prefer to honor people who attend all of the meetings instead of my preferred method of shaming people who miss any meetings?

A: That’s actually my crowning achievement for 2017, so we can’t take that too lightly. But seriously, I think it’s something that’s been done for 40, 45 years and I’m just caught up in the minutiae of it now.

Q: You’ve been on the council for ten years. How many of those years have you had perfect attendance?

A: I’m probably about a 50-50 hit or miss. But I generally hit all the council meetings, occasionally will miss a committee meeting here and there.

Q: Okay, gotcha. Well it actually was five out of the ten, and I appreciate you pretending like you didn’t have that memorized. Very convincing! In your second year on council, Republican Council President Bob Cockrum decided to alternate the adjournment between his vice president and the minority leader, rather than have the minority leader do it always. How strongly do you feel about being in charge of that part of the meeting?

A: Being the minority leader, there are very few bells and whistles that that person gets to use. The reading of the memoriams at the end of the meeting is one of the very few. As you point out, that has been my responsibility for the last several years now on council. I don’t know where it would rank in the hierarchy of importance in the council meetings, but I do enjoy brushing up on tricky last names sometimes when I’m on camera.

Q: Sure. I mean it’s ceremonial akin to the invocation and the Pledge of Allegiance. So would you be pretty protective if someone tried to take that away from you?

A: I guess I probably would. Again, it’s one of the few things that puts the spotlight on the minority party for just a very few minutes at the end of the meeting.

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Indianapolis, IN Councilor Michael McQuillen

Q: Earlier this year when the council was choosing whether to retain the council president or elect a challenger, the vote stayed open for a really long time. Do you recall what was going on that took people that long to decide?

A: I’ve never understood in the ten years that I’ve been on the council why some councilors, especially if they know how they’re going to vote on an issue, sit there and wait to hit the button and be perhaps the last person. That’s great if you want to be on the news as the councilor that “made the decision” on how the vote goes. It’s not really true that that’s the way it works, but sometimes that’s how it’s perceived. My personal philosophy has always been to hit that red or green button immediately and move on.

Q: Is that something you’re obligated to do as the leader of the caucus? Or might that be why you’re the leader of the caucus: because you’re so darn decisive?

A: Good point. I do try to throw the button down fairly early for that reason. But also again, I just don’t want to be the last man standing. A few years ago there was a vote on overriding the former mayor’s veto. I was the only person to hit a red button that night. It was 24-1. But it was kind of lonely sitting there at the end of the 60 seconds the board was open and having one lonely, little red button up there.


Follow Councilor Michael McQuillen on Twitter: @mike_mcquillen 

#151: Indianapolis, IN 2/19/18

The meeting of the City-County Council of Indianapolis-Marion County (a.k.a. the “Most Hyphenated Council” in the country) began in the most democratic of fashions: with applause for pretty much everybody.

“I’d like to introduce an Orange Township resident, active guy in the community, good friend,” Councilor Michael McQuillen announced, leading the claps for his man in the audience.

Taking a step up from “active guy,” Councilor Scott Kreider introduced two firefighters. Claps.

Not to be outdone, Councilor McQuillen grabbed the mic again. “We have a former city-county council member in the audience.” More claps.

“I want to acknowledge this month being Black History Month,” cut in Councilor LaKeisha Jackson, “and that we give a round of applause for Black History Month.” Raucous claps.

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I like this warm-up!

With no one being able to top Black History Month, the councilors settled in for the business portion of the meeting. But suddenly, Council President Stephen Clay dropped a bomb so large it could have leveled a less-emotionally prepared council chamber.

“In an effort to preserve this institution and advance the people’s agenda, Councilor [Vop] Osili and I have agreed to the orderly transfer of power,” Clay read emotionlessly from his prepared statement.

“My letter of resignation from the office of the president will be presented tonight. I will call upon Democrats and Republicans to support this transition,” he warned sternly, “thus averting any political filibustering.”

Picking up the gavel in preparation to slam it, Clay noted, “I give the gavel to the parliamentarian.” The chamber applauded one last time as Clay stood up, shook hands, and departed for greener pastures–or whatever you’d call the place where the rest of the councilors sit.

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I hardly knew you.

But even this orderly transfer was thrown into momentary disorder when Councilor Leroy Robinson raised his eyebrows and his hand. “Shouldn’t the vice president receive the gavel as opposed to the parliamentarian?” he quizzed.

A constitutional crisis was averted as the parliamentarian calmly agreed. Vice President Zach Adamson hustled over to the chair and opened the floor for presidential nominations.

“I nominate Councilor Vop Osili,” announced Councilor Maggie Lewis.

“Are there any other nominations?” asked the parliamentarian to silence. “The effect of closing nominations with only one candidate will have the effect of electing Councilor Osili as president.”

With no one disputing the outcome, it was official. The new president strode to his seat and with a reassuring smile, delivered a message best characterized as: “there’s a new sheriff in town.”

“Our council has shaken the confidence of our constituents.” He paused. “But that was yesterday. It is time for us to get back to business. And we will start with the next item on the agenda.”

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Crack. The. Whip.

With a calm, steady hand steering the ship, the rest of the meeting proceeded with only minor hiccups.

“Madam Clerk, can you set the, uh…?” Osili backtracked after forgetting to open the voting machine. “All right, let’s go!”

A few minutes later, “proposals numbers 56 and 57 were referred to the Metropolitan Economic Development Committee,” Osili read, glancing up from his notes to the chair of the committee.

She was nowhere in sight.

The council patiently waited while someone rushed to fetch Councilor Jackson. Within minutes, she reappeared, power walking back to her seat.

“I apologize Mr. President,” Jackson blurted.  While the old president might have chewed her out six ways from Sunday, President Osili remained serene. As he might say, some councilors shake the confidence of their constituents.

But that was yesterday.

#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.

#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.

#139: Madison, WI 10/31/17

It was the final day of October, so you know what that meant:

Council. Meeting. Costumes.

“Mr. Mayor, we have a quorum,” the clerk called out to Mayor Paul Soglin.

“Thank goodness,” murmured the mayor before shooting a bemused glance at council President Marsha Rummel. “What would you like to do?” he inquired warily.

Other council members cackled as Rummel, wearing a lace garment on her head and several buttons on her shirt, flipped on her mic.

“Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living,” she retorted in character as Mary Harris Jones.

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You…you could have bought a wig.

Alder Shiva Bidar-Sielaff, herself in a modest-looking Wonder Woman outfit, used her superpowers for the most mundane of purposes: “On item 56, I requested that it be noted that I’m recusing myself,” she asked politely.

“Anybody else have comments or observations?” Mayor Soglin gazed around the room. He paused and grinned.

“This looks like it’s going to work out quite nicely since it appears that a signficant number of members need to be out on the streets tonight. And Sara is waiting for me at home to watch the last three episodes of ‘Stranger Things’.”

Council members snickered. But they weren’t the only ones taking advantage of the loosened dress code tonight.

“This particular topic sort of touched a nerve,” a public commenter ornately dressed as a hybrid wizard-priest said about a proposed alcohol license. “I would’ve had my pine bough here to bless you with water because god knows we need blessing right now, including on this issue,” he pantomimed spraying water.

“While I’ve got huge issues with this particular co-op choosing to become one more place selling alcohol and eliminating the sanctuary for some sensitive people to shop for healthy food without alcohol…how can we serve the soul?” he asked rhetorically, wearing the perfect attire for his argument.

“So I’ll put my pine bough up here soaked with water,” he again pretended to toss streams of water onto the council. “Bless you and bless the city.”

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Forgive me, public commenter, for I have sinned.

It was corny, but there was no time to savor the moment. For standing at the lectern was the scariest costume of the night: a man dressed as a big, bad developer.

“You can see a variety of housing types–the multifamily and mixed-use as previously located, with the park and the school site located in the center and east portion,” the Dark Lord gestured to his colorful map as a chill swept the room.

Council President Rummel was now in the presiding chair–the mayor having possibly ducked out early to finish “Stranger Things” with his wife as promised. (I think we’ve all struggled to choose between chairing a council meeting and binge-watching TV, so I get it.) She opened the floor to public comment.

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Wait…maybe he really is a developer.

“We would like to have certain conditions placed to make sure the neighborhood stays the good, vibrant neighborhood it is today,” one citizen pleaded.

“Right now during peak hours, that gets backed up past Kwik Trip,” explained another.

“The fix was in,” ranted a third man with a ponytail and faint New Jersey accent. “I’ve never seen a bigger fix. The fix is in. The deal is done. Too bad.”

“The fix” must have been pretty deep, for the entire council voted in favor of the zoning change. Let’s hope it doesn’t “haunt” them.

Final thoughts: Boo!