In the latest, greatest episode of our “Best Thing, Worst Thing” project, we swing through Western Pennsylvania to visit the famed steel city of Pittsburgh. There may be three rivers and hundreds of bridges, but I take you on a trip to the less obvious places in search of best and worst things: to a machine shop where Chinese students and high school girls are working together; to a Sunday morning church service; and to the “Yugoslav Room” with a local poet.
If you’ve never heard of the project before, catch the previous 11 episodes here. When you are ready to learn about the hardest part of designing a robot, click over to the City Council Chronicles podcast to download this latest episode. Or you can play it below.
Episode 12: Pittsburgh, PA
Pittsburgh had a reputation as a steel-producing city in Western Pennsylvania and now is known more for its robotics, technology, and medicine. It has a population of 300,000 and is defined by hills, rivers, and bridges. In our visit, we watch a high school team assemble robots with visiting Chinese students; attend a picnic in a park; and experience a Baptist church service. We also hear from a poet, a retired educator, a recently-returned young mother, and a “Girl of Steel.”
The mayor was absent from the Cleveland Heights council chamber, but I am positive she will hear about the tense ten minutes that started the meeting.
“I am a rape victim,” said a woman in a pink sweater. She stared down the council, hand on her hip. “I was raped on May 16. What I have gone through with your detectives has been very difficult.”
She looked down at her notes and spoke haltingly. “Sixty-six percent of rapes are not reported. Twenty-three percent do not report because they do not trust their police to believe them.”
“I was told by your detective to ‘be patient,’ as though I was hungry and needed a Snickers,” she continued angrily, bracing herself on the podium. “I identified the rapist that night when five patrol officers showed up and looked at me like a circus exhibit but did nothing. The rapist was my downstairs neighbor.”
Council members sat frozen at their desks as she reached an ominous conclusion. “To be honest, if I could go back I would not have reported it. What I would have done was gotten a video surveillance system and waited for him to do it again. I would have been armed as I am now. We would have been investigating murder by self-defense instead of rape.”
She threw up her hands and inhaled deeply. “Do you have any questions for me?”
Council Member Carol Roe leaned forward. “I don’t have a question. I just want to say, I am really sorry for your pain. I am sure that I speak for my fellow council people–”
“Show me by actions, please,” the woman interrupted. “I go to counseling every Wednesday night. Those are the hardest frickin’ nights of my life. How can we proceed?”
“Well,” Vice Mayor Jason Stein looked to his left helplessly, “I’ll refer to Public Health and Safety Committee to review policies and procedures….”
The city manager gently broke in. The chief, she said, “is here to have that conversation with you.”
“I need to get this on public record as well,” retorted the commenter. “Change the attitude so that people will trust you and will want to come forward without feeling revictimized through you.”
“We are sorry,” the vice mayor reassured her. Then he admitted, “all of us are very moved right now and honestly, we don’t know what to say. But we’re gonna review our policy.”
As the woman sat down, another commenter took her place and stood open-mouthed for a brief moment. “I find myself a bit emotional from hearing the story. We all know that there are much bigger, more important things going on in other people’s lives.”
She slapped the podium to compose herself. “I wish that woman the best of luck,” she sighed, before announcing the Coventry School open house this Friday.
Given the time of month, public safety made one more cameo as Council Member Melissa Yasinow looked directly into the camera and performed the yearly ritual of council members all across America: a plea for people to not be dumb.
“Fireworks are a ton of fun, but unfortunately, you see an increase in emergency services for people who think these explosives are indeed toys. They are not!”
Final thoughts: I give 10 out of 10 stars to everyone for their tact. Let’s get this case closed, folks.
Nothing could have prepared me for the shocking twist in this week’s Lynn city council meeting.
A mild bit of controversy confronted the council right out of the gate: whether to give one convenience store a wine and malt beverage license.
Witnesses rotated to the podium like they were on a carousel, impressively arguing their case in no-nonsense, rapid-fire succession.
“I’ve known the owners at least 60 years. They’re a reputable family,” a man in a tan suit nodded.
“I work in the area and think it would be an improvement. That’s it,” another man grunted.
“I really think we have enough liquor stores,” countered a woman wearing a crucifix around her neck. “I’m sorry, but that’s how I feel.”
“Too close. Very close,” a rival liquor store owner complained with arms crossed.
With each side fielding an equally compelling roster of testifiers, what would the council decide?
“This issue has come up a number of times,” a gravelly-voiced Councilor Peter Capano rubbed his eyes. “There’s just very strong neighborhood opposition, so I’d just make a motion to deny this.”
The rest of the council fell into line and unanimously shot down the license.
Council President Darren Cyr shoved his glasses onto his forehead and gazed across the chamber. “Any other business?”
“Motion to adjourn–” one councilor spoke up.
“No. I…no,” muttered Cyr strangely. “I wanna say something.”
From the back of the chamber, a man began speaking out of turn. Cyr instantly grew livid.
“HEY, JEFFREY! QUIET,” he screamed, slamming the gavel against the wooden desk. “IF I HAVE TO SAY IT AGAIN, I’LL ASK YOU TO LEAVE.”
Cyr braced himself on the podium. “As council president, this is probably the toughest moment that I’ve had,” he stared solemly at the ground. “I’m gonna ask Councilor Trahant to make a statement.”
He sniffed, then continued in his thick Boston accent. “I’m gonna stand beside him because he’s my brothah. He’s my friend. I’ve known him since I was five years old. I respect him more than I respect any other man.”
Oh, god. What horror is about to befall us? This feels like something out of a mob movie where someone gets 86’ed.
Councilor William Trahant hugged a tearful Cyr.
“Well, this a tough way for me to get up here, but I gotta do what I gotta do,” Trahant nervously gripped the microphone. “As everybody knows, about six months ago I had a pretty bad heart attack. I’ve got a leak into my valve and I need a little more time to rest.”
The room was dead silent as Trahant glanced from face to sympathetic face. “I’m so sad I have to leave. You guys–” he began to cry as Cyr rubbed his back. “You guys did everything for me. You’re like family.”
Other councilors wiped their eyes. Trahant hung his head and searched for the right words.
“I just gotta get better. And I’m gonna get better. I love you very much.”
He received a standing ovation as he stepped down, hugging everyone on the trek back to his seat.
“May god have his hand on you, Billy,” called out President Cyr over the applause.
“Love you, Billy,” Councilor Brian LaPierre whispered.
Final thoughts: For easily being the saddest meeting I’ve seen, I give Councilor Trahant 10 out of 10 “Get Well Soon” cards.
First impressions were VERY strong at the Columbus city council. No sooner had people risen to face the flag than a thundering orchestral rendition of the Star Spangled Banner blasted over the loudspeakers.
Council members stood at attention while the camera panned across the room. As the trumpeting ceased, onlookers were aided in the Pledge of Allegiance by a beautiful tapestry embroidered with the oath.
Talk about class, folks!
After this patriotic tour de force, Council Member Jaiza Page rattled off her own tour de fitness. “If I’m out there” on Bike to Work Day, she smiled self-deprecatingly, “you’ll probably see me last in line.”
She added, to chuckles, “just don’t run me over!”
More impressively, Councilmember Page revealed that daring Columbusites would soon be allowed to rapel 19 stories off the PNC Building–not for infamy, but rather for a fundraiser for sexual trafficking victims.
“I did go over the edge last year and I was thoroughly frightened for 20 minutes,” she admitted with no trace of anxiety. “But I would encourage those of you who are not interested in rapelling yourself to go out and just cheer the rapellers on.”
Yes, and also be sure to cheer on Page as she bikes, rapels, canoes, bobsleds, and hanglides her way to the title of “Most Adventurous Council Member.”
By all accounts, things were going swimmingly. (Council Member Page will probably be swimming for charity at some point, too.) Suddenly, after Councilmember Michael Stinziano smoothly moved $1.2 million to repair the city’s sewer pipes, President Pro Tem Priscilla Tyson stared down at her paperwork.
“We have several non-agenda speakers that we will take momentarily.” She glanced at the clock. “We will reconvene at 6:30 for zoning.”
With that, the screen faded to black.
A slow horror dawned on me: she had turned off the cameras for public comment.
I wanted to scream, but I realized that even if she were rapelling off the outside of the PNC Building, President Pro Tem Tyson probably would not hear me.
Within seconds, the council chamber faded back in. The time was now 6:30 and the room was substantially emptier.
“Regular meeting number 26 will now come to order,” Tyson cheerfully announced like Richard Nixon after he erased those 18-and-a-half minutes of tape.
We may never know what was said in public comment that day. All we know is that the zoning hearing was much, much more tedious.
“To grant a variance from the provisions of Sections 3332.039, R-4 residential district; 3321.05(B)(2), vision clearance; 3321.07(B), landscaping; 3332.25(B), maximum side yards required; 3332.26,(C)(3), minimum side yard permitted,” Council Member Page read for nearly a minute off of the numbers-heavy ordinance.
“This is a very interesting situation,” a neatly-dressed white-haired man said as he stood eager to explain the nuances of zoning. “We have a building that covers close to 100 percent of the parcel that doesn’t comply with the zoning district or the university planning overlay.”
Yes, quite thrilling. You know what else would be an interesting situation? SEEING THE PUBLIC COMMENT.
What a shame that a council meeting with such high production quality should fumble this basic feature.
Final thoughts: While the V.I.P. here is clearly Council Member Page for doing “Fear Factor: Columbus,” the capital city’s lack of 100% transparency forces me to give this meeting only 2 out of 5 buckeyes.
I was SO excited to talk to a councilman from New Jersey. Why? Well, as you could tell from our Hackensack dramatic reading, council meetings in Jersey can easily go haywire. We discussed whether anyone has punched each other in his council meetings (good news: they haven’t) and why things can get aggressive in the Garden State.
Q: I want to play a clip from Paterson’s former city council president, Aslon Goow, Sr. Here he is during an interview:
Goow: There’s nothing hostile about our council environment. We’ve never hit each other. We might yell sometimes. You might have to.
Is it true that no one has hit each other at your council meetings?
A: I can confirm that no one has been physically assaulted since I’ve been on the city council. There have been instances BEFORE I got on of shoving matches. There have been a lot of shouting matches. But it’s not like a session of the Japanese parliament where you got people kicking each other. And it pales in comparison to the British House of Commons where they’re resorting to not only name calling, but profanity!
Q: Is there any actual harm to the city when councilmen verbally fight in the meetings?
A: No, not at all. It’s just the perception. They’ll say we’re a dysfunctional unit and they’ll dismiss us. When I say, “they,” it could be people outside of Paterson and viewers who are tuning in.
Q: A word about the viewers–the clips I found were on YouTube and they were only the negative stuff. That’s because I couldn’t find videos of your council meetings. I’m sure that if you televised the whole meetings, people might see that you threatened your fellow council members only HALF of the time–
A: Not even half of the time! Paterson has to get into the twenty-first century as far as live streaming. For the sake of transparency, you’re right. If we’re gonna debunk that notion that all we do is fight each other as opposed to fight FOR our constituents, that would be beneficial.
Q: Are all council members different off camera than when they are in the meeting and it’s go-time?
A: There are council people [who] when the camera is off they are Type B personalities. But when it’s 7 o’clock on a Tuesday night, they become Type A.
Q: It’s funny you mention Type A. I have seen similar behavior in other New Jersey council meetings. Everything I know about Jersey comes from Bruce Springsteen songs, so why is the state in perpetual DEFCON 2?
A: Think about it. We’re overcrowded. We’re a small state, but we’re densely populated. So every now and then, you’re gonna have people step on each other’s toes.
Q: So people just annoy each other more in New Jersey because you can’t escape them!
A: Yes! Mike, I hope you see some merit to what I said!
Q: I’m curious, when is the last time you walked away from a council meeting and felt good about what happened?
A: …Mike, you ready for this?
Q: Oh, my god.
A: You sitting down?
Q: I am LYING down. TELL ME.
A: Late February, we adopted a budget that did NOT call for a tax increase. That made me feel better than any other meeting.
“Before we start, I just wanna announce: a public hearing on marijuana usage was scheduled for tonight. That won’t be tonight–it wasn’t in the paper, I guess,” a contrite Mayor Gary Aiken warned as councilors stared stone-faced (no pun intended) ahead.
And thus, the Caribou city council meeting started off innocently–and amusingly–enough. However, as citizens lined up to speak, the meeting slowly morphed into an increasingly depressing debtors court.
“We’ve had back taxes for quite some time since my dad took ill. He’s been a couple years passed away,” a man admitted earnestly off-camera. One councilor leaned back. Another crossed his arms.
“So are you prepared to pay the $11,960.76?” the mayor quizzed him.
“Today? No,” the man flatly replied.
Councilor Joan Theriault scrutinized his case file like a sympathetic magistrate judge. “In 2018, you would get a $20,000 homestead exemption,” she finally looked up to inform him. “Make sure you apply.”
“It’s been on my mind for quite some time now. But…I can only do what I can only do,” he inexplicably shrugged off her advice.
As he left the podium, another citizen in dire straits took his place. The mayor massaged his forehead as the desperate plea began.
“We have approximately $2,000 to give,” the man sniffed. “My family’s gonna help us to clear that bill up.”
His wife chimed in unprompted. “You know what my grandmother used to say? ‘Experience is good if you don’t pay too dearly for it.'”
The panel of councilors remained expressionless.
She continued, “You guys have been really, really good and leaned over backwards for him–”
“I’m glad you understand that because I don’t think he understands that,” Mayor Aiken sharply retorted.
Her husband shot back, “I understand that.”
The mayor ignored him. “As of right now, the property is gonna go up for sale–”
“PLEASE take that out of the equation,” interjected the man acidly.
“Take what out of the equation?” the mayor leaned forward, genuinely confused.
“What you just said,” he spat. “Don’t say that to me.”
His wife was horrified. “Knock it off. KNOCK. IT. OFF.”
As her husband protested, councilors sat motionless with their hands clamped in their laps. Picking a fight in front of the people who might sell your house is probably not in “The Art of the Deal.”
“So, it’s part of the equation,” the mayor repeated. Husband and wife did not reply. The council dictated the terms: the man would pay $500 in the next 21 days, plus another $350 by May 5.
There was an uncomfortable pause as councilors watched the feuding spouses shuffle out of the room.
A third man stepped forward to spin a long story about dutifully paying his taxes–sighing the whole time.
“Do you have your receipts?” Councilor Theriault peered over her glasses.
“No,” he breathed another baritone sigh. “I wasn’t very good at keeping receipts. My father’s name is the same, so things kinda get opened that shouldn’t. Uh, it’s hard to explain when you live with the same name.”
Councilor Philip McDonough was done with excuses. “Every time the situation comes up, it’s a different subject for each person! You bring in what you owe and we’ll turn your deed back to you.”
He slapped the table angrily. “Yes, it’s hard to sit here and say that. And it’s hard listening to them. But the rest of our citizens have an obligation and they all meet it.”
Sighing Man turned away disgustedly. “I’m sorry, but you’ve offended me, sir.” He stepped out the door, closing it behind him.
In addition to being a part-time chicken daddy, Ryan Spiegel was ensnared in the infamous “city council walkout” of 2016. How did he respond? Take a listen!
Q: Something special happened to you guys: you got a new council member recently. There was a vacancy late last year and you, the council, got to appoint someone. How much of your decision was whether you could get along with that person at a council meeting?
A: That’s a big piece of it. There are, I’m sure, many councils you’ve covered that have been a bit more adversarial. Pretty much all of the candidates who applied for that opening are people who we could get along with.
Q: Yeah, you actually did that prior to this with Council Member Neil Harris. So you’ve got two people on the council who you personally had a say in appointing–
A: That’s right. And I won’t let them forget it!
Q: [Laughs] Let’s get into the tough issues: roosters. You were on the city council in 2010 when Gaithersburg banned roosters. Tell me what those meetings were like and please do use fowl language.
A: Well, look, I’m not going to squawk about something–
Q: Nice, nice.
A: And you can claw my eyes out–
A: One of the feathers in my cap has been my ability to listen to the public. Of all the controversial things we’ve dealt with, the ONE public hearing that had by FAR the largest attendance was about our chicken ordinance. Roosters can be loud, so we thought it was reasonable to ban roosters but to allow hens.
A: We had cub scouts showing up with pictures of their little pet hen saying, “make sure our hens have a safe place in Gaithersburg!” When I was voting back in 2010, I had no idea that I would be one of the people who would have chickens in his own backyard. A few years ago, my wife found a company called Rent a Coop and surprised me by renting a little portable coop and two hens for the summer!
Q: December 19, 2016. The city council was deciding whether to annex a parcel of land for development. It’s pretty mundane. But there was one vacant council seat and you were out sick, leaving three voting members. Council Member Robert Wu wanted to wait until a new council member was sworn in to vote. Your thoughts?
A: [The annexation] wasn’t exactly the most controversial thing in the world. It had been vetted, there had been public hearings….the charter allows us to have a vote of 2-1.
Q: Wu dropped this bombshell: he walked out of the meeting, taking away the quorum. You were watching at home–did you think you were delirious?
A: I was surprised that he got up and left. I think he believed he was doing something right. He was making some grand gesture. But I strongly disagree with the tactics.
Q: You texted the mayor, “I’m on my way.” You drove down, not so you could vote (due to a conflict of interest), but to have the quorum so the other two council members could vote. Did you want to be the hero?
A: No! There wasn’t a lot of strategizing here. It’s important for us to be doing the business of the city.
Follow Council Member Ryan Spiegel on Twitter: @RySpiegel