#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!

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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.

#127: Council Bluffs, IA 8/28/17

It took astonishingly little time for the Council Bluffs council meeting to go from zero to 11.

“I need to know what kind of right-of-way you guys are going to take,” the owner of a tire store fretted.

“Jack, I believe it would be just enough to do the sidewalks on the corner,” Mayor Matt Walsh informed him in a low, gravelly tone.

This upset the tire man even more. “They wanna come 25-foot into my parking lot to put the signs, street lights…I cannot afford to lose that kind of parking!”

“I don’t believe we’re talking about 25 feet into your parking lot–” the mayor tried to reassure him.

“I just cannot afford to lose any more parking,” repeated the man.

The mayor nodded, unmoved. “Perfectly understandable.”

“I’m not trying to be the bad guy. But I cannot afford to lose any more parking.”

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I think he’s got it.

Mayor Walsh hunched over and calculated how to end the interaction. “I can’t answer you with any specificity tonight. I can get your phone number out of the phone book.”

The man thanked him, adding, “I cannot afford to lose any more parking.”

Councilmember Nate Watson flattened out his notes and mused about the dilemma. “I think there are a lot of competing interests, though I’d remind all of us that any further alterations to the master plan may test the patience of the funder of such improvements.”

The Funder? Who is this mysterious and impatient funder-who-must-not-be-named? And if he gets angry, how many virgins must the city sacrifice to appease him?

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“Prepare the goat’s blood, madam clerk.”

“It’s primarily geared to making sure there’s enough space on the corner so we can meet the Americans with Disabilities Act,” Watson explained.

Abruptly, the tire store owner moved toward the front and began arguing back from the gallery.

The mayor remained placid. “It’s NOT authorizing them to take your property,” he said firmly. The man continued to protest.

Councilmember Watson nodded sympathetically. However, his sympathy was seemingly at its breaking point. “Your opinion matters a great deal, but it’s not the only one,” he replied gently.

The council moved on to talking about a parking garage. But Councilmember Al Ringgenberg ringgen-berated the whole concept.

“I question whether this is in the best interest of the city,” he frowned. “Not long ago we were provided documents and included is $2 million for [a] parking ramp down payment.”

He appeared deeply frustrated. “What I have a problem with is using general obligation funds that should be used to repair crumbling streets and sewers.”

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Ah, yes. I see the design flaw.

Mayor Walsh grew visibly irritated, raising his voice. “So this is an ongoing diatribe of false statements–”

“Mr. Mayor, point of order!” Ringgenberg interjected in surprise.

“It’s my turn to talk, Mr. Ringgenberg,” the mayor thundered. “It’s my turn to talk!”

“First of all, the $2 million was NOT general obligation money. Second of all, we are the SECOND LOWEST city in Iowa with debt!”

Council members looked uneasily around the dais after the mayor concluded his angry rebuke.

Watson stared out to the audience. “There are a good number of young men here today for their communications merit badge.”

His face was expressionless as he added, “that’s what makes our country great. Stay involved.”

Final thoughts: I can’t imagine what kind of communications lessons were learned here, but 10 out of 10 stars to The Funder, if He’s watching. (He always is.)

Interview #62: Jefferson City, MO Mayor Carrie Tergin (with podcast)

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

I talked to Carrie Tergin last year about her reputation for taking “selfies with the mayor.” But after this year’s International City Hall Selfie Day, I HAD to get her take on the 2017 artwork.

Q: A couple of weeks ago it was International City Hall Selfie Day and I’d like us to critique some of the city council selfies that people sent in. Let’s start with your image. What’s going on there?

A: This is Cardboard Carrie decked out in the eclipse glasses. Councilman [Rick] Mihalevich, who had to run the meeting in my absence, really got a workout and took several pictures. I’m very impressed with Rick and his form.

Q: Of the top 10 city council selfies, did you have a favorite one?

A: First of all, I loved every single one! This Columbia, South Carolina–the gentleman holding it up, he’s kind of got his mouth open. You can tell it might be his first selfie ever. It makes me think of maybe my dad if my dad were to take a selife! He really made an effort.

The second one would be Ocean City. That is, like, wow–Mr. Fuzzy Britches? How impressive! Why didn’t we think to bring Darco, the police dog?

I would say my top choice was Madison, Wisconsin. It almost looks like Maurice Cheeks is standing in the center of the world. He has literally put Madison at the center of the world and that would be my top pick.

Q: Maurice Cheeks’s selfie also has excellent product placement–he’s holding a City Hall Selfie Day sticker! But Mayor, if you came into a council meeting and noticed a big stain on the floor and the police chief told you, “that is from our horse that we brought here after hours and he pooped on the floor,” what would your reaction be?

A: I think I may frown on that just a little bit! I mean, hats off to our police officers, our firefighters, and honestly, that includes our police dog, Darco. It includes Mr. Fuzzy Britches the horse. That’s something else I liked about [International City Hall Selfie Day]: when you recognize those who keep our city safe.

Q: Carrie, I heard an anecdote at one of your council meetings that Jefferson City stopped making public commenters give their address because people were getting fan mail from prisoners who were watching. Is that true?

A: [Laughs] A couple of reasons: one is safety. When you’re at a council meeting giving your address, we do stream our meetings live. So, “oh, guess what? So-and-so who lives at XYZ? They’re not home right now!” You don’t want something to happen. And two: we welcome people whether you’re inside city limits or not.

Q: I saw that a Thomas Jefferson reenactor stopped by one of your meetings! How often does he come in?

A: In Jefferson City, we do celebrate as often as possible. The thought was, let’s have a birthday celebration for Thomas Jefferson and why not invite him to a council meeting?

Q: Do you think the next City Hall Selfie Day, you’ll get a picture with Thomas Jefferson?

A: He kind of photobombs a lot of my selfies because he’s on the city seal behind where the mayor sits!


Follow Mayor Carrie Tergin on Twitter: @CarrieTergin 

#125: Warren, MI 8/22/17

This week’s Warren city council meeting began with as much subtlety as a kick to the groin.

“Mr. President, I’d like if we could separate check #58071,” Mayor Pro Tem Kelly Colegio wagged her pencil in visible irritation. “I called and asked for the invoices for that item. I filled out a [Freedom of Information Act request]. And this council voted for the administration to give us specifications for the basin project.”

She frowned deeply. “I paid $332.50 out of my own pocket for a FOIA when the administration REFUSED to answer a council request on probably the largest project the city’s gonna do.”

Like a detective who’s spotted the inconsistency in a murderer’s testimony, Colegio shrugged nonchalantly as if to say, “I’ve got you, m–f’er.”

“The original contract amount was approved 3/8/17. The date of my FOIA was May. I’m not sure why THIS,” she brandished the smoking-gun invoice, “wasn’t in my FOIA that I paid $322.50 for.”

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Exhibit A

She had now grown fully livid, slamming her papers down on the dais. “Mayor, I am disgusted by the lack of respect. When you were on council you would’ve screamed your head off about that.”

With one councilwoman having ripped into the mayor, it was only logical that two more councilmen rip into each other.

“The motion is on the floor,” President Cecil St. Pierre sharply cut off Councilman Keith Sadowski as he tried to make a motion of his own.

“But you can make several motions under Robert’s Rules,” Councilman Sadowski leaned back in his chair and protested. “I can make a motion to–what’s the problem?” he recoiled after St. Pierre shot him a dirty look.

“I’m just TELLING YOU,” St. Pierre retorted, “you can–”

“We never follow the rules up here anyway,” angrily snapped Councilman Sadowski.

“I’m trying to follow the rules!” roared President St. Pierre. “I don’t make the Robert’s Rules of Order–”

“You don’t follow them either,” Sadowski spat.

President St. Pierre reeled in disbelief. “Are we gonna argue back and forth?!”

The nine people watching in the audience remained silent.

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Not a good night for Robert’s Rules

At this point, the council president turned to the city attorney to ask why Mayor Pro Tem Colegio’s request ($332.50, remember?) got the cold shoulder.

“There’s certain documents we were not releasing because the nature of the FOIA request–we didn’t have to,” pinstripe suit-clad attorney Nathan Vinson replied calmly and slowly. “I don’t know if she wants copies or what.”

“I was told,” the mayor pro tem rebutted, “there were other documents I couldn’t have pertaining to ‘attorney-client privilege.'”

President St. Pierre raised an eyebrow. “Mr. Vinson, do you know what she’s talking about?”

“No,” Vinson said curtly.

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“The mistrust is THIS high.”

“Are those documents ready to be viewed tomorrow?” Council Secretary Robert Boccomino pressed. “The ones that were requested?”

“Yes, they’re still in Ms. Michaels’s office,” volunteered Vinson.

Councilman Sadowski swiveled and tried to suppress a grin as the lawyer’s words sunk in. “So wait…you said you DON’T know what documents they are. But you DO know what documents they are?”

“It’s my understanding,” Vinson defended himself and for the first time appeared flustered, “that there’s a group of documents marked ‘attorney-client privilege.’ Are you [Mayor Pro Tem Colegio] waiving attorney-client privilege?”

“She IS the client!” Councilman Scott Stevens blurted.

“No, she’s an individual who made a FOIA request!” the city attorney sputtered.

“She handed you the FOIA at this table!” yelled an incredulous Stevens.

Councilman Sadowski shook his head. “This is nonsense.”

Yep.

“I’m gonna give my opinion,” interjected bespectacled Councilman Ronald Papandrea. “I don’t think it’s worth fighting over. I really don’t.”

Well, he may not have been paying attention for the past half hour, but Papandrea certainly succeeded in getting everyone to chuckle. The council voted to force-release the documents.