#150: Bonner Springs, KS 2/12/18

“If you’re not able to hear or see, there’s another area here you’re welcome to stand,” pointed Mayor Jeff Harrington as he wrangled the packed sea of onlookers.

“Since we have a full council chambers,” the mayor advised potential comment-givers, “keep them short to two or three minutes.”

He didn’t mention anything about keeping it civil. But amazingly, it seems he didn’t need to.

“First of all, thank you. I know you guys are all volunteers,” the first commenter showered praise on the leaders. “I am here to respectfully request another public forum discussing the 1918 Building.”

She continued, “I have an online petition with over 800 signatures. I have handwritten signatures of over 2,000,” a staggering 27 percent of the city’s population.

No wonder the room was overflowing–everyone was three degrees of separation from someone who signed a petition!

Right out of a Jimmy Stewart movie, residents quietly stood up one by one, strode to the microphone, and gave impassioned defenses of the 1918 Building. These included the logical:

The current city hall is in decline. The roof is leaking and documents are being stained and ruined. [The 1918 Building is] the strongest, most well-built building in our city. It has a community identity and represents our heritage.

They included the short-and-sweet:

I agree totally with what has been so gloriously stated!

And they included this heartfelt testimony from a woman who adored the haunted house inside:

“I walk into this building and these people have done nothing but treat me like family. They give me and my husband a place to belong,” she said as her voice shook slightly. “It’s not easy for people to admit that they don’t mesh well with our community. So standing here and saying that in front of a whole entire city’s worth of people is a blow to my ego.”

Council members leaned forward on their elbows. The mayor jotted down a note.

“Even though it’s unconventional and it’s scary–‘ooh, it’s a crazy idea and we scare the children.’ Well, yeah, that’s the purpose of it!” she insisted.  “We see little children come through and they’re terrified and I don’t have any problem dropping my character and say, ‘hey, I’m a mommy, too. Touch my face, it’s real!'”

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If it gives kids nightmares, it’s worth saving in my book.

Per the rules, the crowd remained silent, but it was obvious where the popular opinion lay in the room. Mayor Harrington gripped his pen.

“I really want everyone to know how much I appreciate the level of comfort you have speaking to this city council,” he smiled.

But sadly, the council that had been so receptive and attentive would not last to the stroke of midnight.

“It pains me to announce the next item,” winced the mayor, “but item 10 is the consideration of council member resignation for Joe Peterson. So I would entertain a motion.”

There was silence as no one volunteered to make the motion. Once everyone realized what was happening, laughter broke out.

“You’re not getting out of here!” one person shouted to Peterson.

I will make my motion!” Council Member Peterson hollered.

Council Member Dani Gurley whipped her head around. “Can you do that?!”

“He’s a city councilman, he can do whatever he wants!” observed Council Member Mike Thompson.

But who would take his place, inheriting the massive conundrum of the 1918 Building?

“The precedent has been set many years ago,” Mayor Harrington explained. “We’ve asked applicants to make an application and then we’ve taken those applicants to a board of past mayors to review. They made a suggestion to me. I bring that here.”

Ah, secret society stuff. I love it. Who did the Illuminati endorse this time?

“I’d like to appoint Chris Wood to the vacant Ward 4 position,” he said, gesturing to Wood in the audience. Everyone turned to look.

“I am very proud to be a member of the council,” she called out.

“And you know: new council members bring the cookies,” warned Council Member Thompson.

Strictly enforced, I’m sure.

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#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!

#136: Berkley, MI 10/16/17

No sooner had the cameras turned on than Mayor Pro Tem Steve Baker made an aggressive opening bid.

“I’d like to suggest that we move the ‘communications’ before the closed session. So that as we move into closed session, we can just adjourn–” he gazed to the audience with hands outstretched “–without holding these folks here all night.”

Multiple council members simultaneously assented. “Seconded by several people all at the same time,” Mayor Phil O’Dwyer observed dryly.

Speaking of the audience, a substantial number of chairs were filled–and for good reason. Tonight, there was a LOT the good people of Berkley needed to get off their chests and on the record.

“I’m a physician. I come today not with my physician hat on,” a balding man with glasses but no hat whatsoever introduced himself, “but my president’s hat for the Berkley Rotary Club. Every year we have an annual pancake breakfast.”

He brandished a colorful poster. “I’m leaving some flyers. I did not bring any tickets to sell.”

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Yum.

However, I quickly realized what he was “selling” was indeed not pancakes, but rather the very existence of the Rotary itself.

“I’m concerned that our club may be going away,” the man frowned and looked from face to face. “We normally have about 25 members. Every year it’s been dwindling. People move. People retire. People die.”

A woman behind him stroked her chin. A man in a white moustache looked stricken. The speaker continued:

“We’re down to six members, which is a pretty sad state. In the past from Berkley, we’ve had city managers, we’ve had police chiefs, we’ve had librarians. We really have no members representing the city.”

He stood rigidly and delivered the heartbreaking news directly at the mayor. “If we don’t have a successful pancake breakfast, the six members are going to go away. So I’m pleading with the city that we can get some representation in our club.”

Whoa. Normally, people come in to ask city councils for money or services. In this case, he just needs somebody–anybody–to show up. This isn’t some obscure quilting club; it’s the Rotary. If it falls, who will look after the city? The Neighborhood Garden Coalition?

I don’t think so, mayor.

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His message of “our death will be on your hands” isn’t exactly an uplifting call to action.

Whatever the fate of Rotary, his cry for help resonated with the next commenter–the man with the moustache–who was listening closely.

“Proud citizen of Berkley,” was his gruff identification. “We need more citizens to step up. Volunteer. Such as the Rotary Club. The Parade Committee. The Beautification Committee.”

He kept it to all of 30 seconds. “Step up and help. Thank you.”

As if some invisible composer had orchestrated the whole thing, the next woman was spearheading the aforementioned Holiday Parade Committee. And I’ll give you one guess at what the Committee needs:

“Like everybody else, we’re looking for volunteers to help us on our parade staff,” she announced. “We would like to extend an invitation to our mayor and city council when Santa Claus will be given the key to the city.”

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Who needs keys when you use chimneys?

“You are assuring us tonight,” interjected Mayor O’Dwyer in his authentic Irish brogue, “that Santa Claus will be there?”

“Absolutely,” she nodded solemnly. “We’ve gotten word from the North Pole that he will be coming down Twelve Mile and he’ll be greeting all the little children–and adults.”

Have him stop by the Rotary afterward!

Interview #67: Duluth, MN Councilor Noah Hobbs (with podcast)

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

Noah Hobbs is a first-term councilor in Duluth who has a strong opinion about how his city council should spend its time during meetings. He and I discuss the role of the council president, creative ways to cut off rambling public commenters, and (listen to the audio) I make my best attempt at convincing him to give me the “Distinguished Artist Award.”

Q: Let’s go back to December 2016. The council was considering a resolution to support the Standing Rock Reservation protests against an oil pipeline in North Dakota. You voted for it and seemed to say, “I’m fine with this, but it’s not really our turf.” 

A: Yeah, I think that focusing on core local government issues is where we should spend a large part of our conversation. All the press after that about a resolution that was nonbinding [and] didn’t really affect the day-to-day operations of the city….I do get a little frustrated when we get off-track. I’m not necessarily in the majority on the council with that point of view.

Q: I would point out that for weeks afterward, people came into the council meetings to praise you guys for that vote. Did that make you feel any better about it?

A: Not really. It was an organized effort to make the council–that took a beating from the business community–feel better. It was more a continuation of a story that didn’t have legs, that ended up having legs.

Q: This January, you ran for council president against then-Vice President Joel Sipress. Here is what he said:

What we’re really voting on here is two different understandings of the role of the council president. The argument that Councilor Hobbs has made involves a list of priorities. That’s a traditional role of a council president in large cities like New York or San Francisco where the council president is a power position that drives the agenda.

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Duluth, MN Councilor Noah Hobbs

Noah, would your first action as a New York City-style council president have been to declare the areas of the city where–HEY, I’M WALKIN’ HERE!

A: [Laughs] I do think it’s important to have a council agenda. Our core function is pretty much approving the budget for the mayor. You can have nine different councilors doing nine different things and at the end of the year accomplish nothing. Having an agenda is important to show that we do more than approve the budget.

Q: One criticism I do have of President Joel Sipress is that he is way too “Minnesota Nice” when he tries to cut off public commenters who have reached their time limit. If you were president, how would you cut off a time hog?

A: Yeah, as a born-and-raised Minnesotan, I don’t know if I could do much better. Maybe using the gavel to tap once to get attention and say they’ve got ten seconds left. But as a Minnesotan, that is something we struggle with.

Q: Have you ever thought about hiring some muscle to escort people from the podium?

A: I don’t know if the constituents would really enjoy hiring a bodyguard for council chambers. I think we should get a basketball buzzer. Get a shot clock and when it gets to zero, just have the buzzer go….There’s nothing unconstitutional about that.


Follow Councilor Noah Hobbs on Twitter: @Hobbs_Duluth

#134: Iowa City, IA 10/3/17

Mayor Jim Throgmorton couldn’t avoid it. He had to address it. And within the first minute, he joined thousands of other mayors at council meetings across the country in saying:

“I want to express our profound shock and grief about the mass shooting that took place in Las Vegas.”

He frowned deeply. “Will this sequence of mass killings never end?”

After ordering a minute of silence, the mayor looked up, attempting to lighten the mood.

“Sometimes transitions can be very awkward,” he acknowledged with an avuncular grin. “We have two proclamations.”

Now, if the first proclamation were for “Clowns and Balloon Animal Appreciation Week,” it might have indeed been an awkward transition. But in reality, the segue was far more muted from gun horrors to…Domestic Violence Awareness Month.

“How do you move forward when the one place you are supposed to be safe is no longer?” a woman stood at the lectern and gave a heartfelt acceptance speech for the proclamation. “When everything about your life has been controlled in every way?”

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The rhetorical questions were strong today.

Because Columbus Day was fast approaching, the next proclamation naturally declared–well, not what you’d expect for Iowa:

“Iowa City is built on the homelands of the indigenous peoples and the city is dedicated to opposing systemic racism,” Mayor Throgmorton read. “The city encourages other businesses, organizations, and institutions to recognize Indigenous People’s Day.”

Being a business, an organization, and an institution, City Council Chronicles will up the ante and declare next week Indigenous People’s WEEK. Ball’s in your court, Iowa City.

Moving on to the student representative from the University of Iowa, he informed the council that “we held our first town hall to figure out what topics they had on their minds. The topic was voted on via Twitter poll–we’re millennials, how else would we do things?” he took a small dig at his generation.

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Some of my best college memories were Twitter polls.

He added, in the college spirit: “real quick shameless plug for my fraternity’s philanthropy. We are hosting a 0.1K on October 15.”

Several people giggled at the premise, but he continued wryly. “I understand that’s a far distance and y’all aren’t trained for it. We’ll have a watering hole at the halfway mark.”

“Do you think it’s gonna take that long to run it?” quizzed Council Member Susan Mims facetiously.

“It might,” the student deadpanned, prompting chuckles.

The mayor sat up as he remembered something. “Hey Ben, I’d like to note that on November 28, I’m going to be visiting with student government.”

“You will!” Ben agreed.

“Yeah. I’m looking forward to that.” His brow furrowed and he raised his voice. “BUT IT’S MY BIRTHDAY!”

“We’ll have a cupcake for you,” Ben insisted. “Do you prefer Molly’s [Cupcakes] or Scratch [Cupcakery]?”

“Molly’s,” hissed several council members and folks in the audience. The mayor was forced to acquiesce to the seething mob.

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Partisan crowd

“The Englert [Theater] has done it again,” Council Member Terry Dickens informed his colleagues breathlessly. “They’re bringing Arlo Guthrie! It’s pretty exciting that we get somebody of that quality here.”

“Terry?” Mayor Throgmorton leaned in and cheekily made reference to a Guthrie song, “where can you get everything you want?”

Dickens didn’t miss a beat. “The Englert!”

The mayor was disappointed his joke didn’t land. “No! You can get everything you want–”

“One of his great songs, yes,” Dickens nodded without taking the bait.

Final thoughts: For the record, the answer is “Alice’s Restaurant.”

#132: Albert Lea, MN 9/25/17

“It’s encouraging,” Mayor Vern Rasmussen, Jr. quipped after the Pledge of Allegiance, “to not see anybody kneel down tonight.”

That topical humor prompted guffaws from the audience. But faster than you could say “land of the free,” he reached for his proclamation on the splash pad community celebration.

“I think we have a little presentation,” he glanced toward the proud line of ladies responsible for this aquatic masterpiece.

Suddenly, city manager Chad Adams jumped in with a message: stall.

“My computer’s still configuring. If you want to do the check presentation?” he said with a frown.

One woman in a flowing sweater approached the mayor. “This is a check to the splash pad for $28,000,” she announced.

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Do spend it in one place.

Much to my chagrin, the check was not the gigantic, Publisher’s Clearing House-sized prop. Rather, a normal, deposit-ready slip that was quick to hand over.

Too quick.

“The slides aren’t coming up yet,” said Adams in exasperation. “Do you want to just talk about the fundraising?”

Another woman stepped to the podium and revealed the eye-popping total: “the fundraising cash value is approximately $152,000.”

But before you call that a lot of money, the economic development director stepped forward to provide the play-by-play on a major deal that had Albert Leans abuzz.

“In January, we signed a nondisclosure agreement so we could start working with the client,” he recalled mysteriously, only disclosing that Client X was seeking a “distribution center.”

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Blink once if it’s Amazon.

“In February, a contingency of us went to Saint Paul and pitched to the company,” he continued. Their response? Thanks, but no thanks.

However, “we submitted a revised proposal. The company was impressed and got us back into the running. We were in the final three.”

He braced himself on the podium to conclude with what councilors unfortunately knew already.

“It came down to Austin [Minnesota] as the preferred site and Albert Lea being runner-up. All of us are disappointed. The number one thing we’ve been hearing is we need to provide tax breaks and incentives.”

He looked slightly annoyed as he dismissed the naysayers. “We provided a VERY robust incentive package. We were gonna do water and sewer extensions. Cash. Waive permit and review fees. Tens of millions of dollars.”

Wow. Mister, if you’ve still got those tens of millions ready to go, I’m happy to locate the first-ever City Council Chronicles distribution center in Albert Lea. My only other requirement is a nearby splash pad, which–hey! You’ve got it!

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I could store SO MANY city council meeting reviews here.

But the director had one more point to make–apparently on the heels of some tumult in the community. “The negativity behind the scenes online…people see that. Be careful what you put out there.”

Councilor Jason Howland was still devastated and turned to the hotshot state executive in the audience. “Any idea why Austin ended up being chosen?”

The man shuffled to the microphone with his hand in his pocket. “Anything I state at this point is speculation,” he prefaced. “The site in Austin has great visibility from the interstate. Folks put value on getting that free advertising.”

(Again, City Council Chronicles has no such demand. Only tens of millions of dollars in cash.)

“I just want to show you a couple of photos,” broke in the city manager, who at last got the splash pad slideshow functioning. It was a nice reminder to be thankful for what the city does have.