#163: Middletown, OH 7/17/18

The atmosphere was pleasantly calm in the Middletown council chamber. Perhaps that had something to do with Mayor Larry Mulligan, Jr.’s preferred icebreaker: “If you’d please stand and join me in a moment of meditation,” he directed, precipitating a hush across the room.

If the vibe wasn’t mellowed enough, they certainly brought in the right person to finish the job: the director of the library.

“Book Mobile hit the road again. First time since 1988,” he announced with the excitement of, well, someone who works at a library. “Regularly stopping around 22 different schools, they’ve seen about 14,000 people on the Book Mobile.”

The first Book Mobile in 30 years? The first since the invention of the World Wide Web? Since Taylor Swift was born? The first since the U.S. and Russia were enemies and–well, okay, the Book Mobile didn’t miss that part. But like any 30-year-old, it can’t live with its parents and needs a place of its own.

“We have a garage project. That will be the permanent home for the Book Mobile,” the director said. “We’ll also have some staff there that can pull in, run in, restock the Book Mobile, and head back out. That’s exciting.”

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If the Book Mobile’s a-rockin’, the staff is restockin’.

A resurrected Book Mobile was only part of the reason to celebrate in Middletown. “We actually got compliments on the fireworks!” exclaimed Council Member Ami Vitori. “I think maybe they were a little longer this year. Just long enough to make everyone happy. AND THEN THEY KEPT GOING!” she breathlessly recapped the experience.

“Really enjoyed the activities downtown–First Friday, the ice cream social event,” Mayor Mulligan reminisced. “I heard they gave out over 350 pieces of ice cream. Some of us just stopped at the adult beverages and not the ice cream.”

Mewonders how many adult beverages it takes for someone to call scoops of ice cream “pieces of ice cream.”

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“I’ll take a cone with two pieces.”

But there was a bigger problem confronting Middletown–and it wasn’t the historical lack of book mobiles or compliments for the fireworks.

“Since my involvement with the city back on the financial oversight committee in 2004, you know that’s–man, 14 years ago. Time flies when you’re having fun, I guess,” the mayor deadpanned. “The roads have been a real area of concern.”

He continued on a long monologue with a message of: hey, we need to wake up and smell the asphalt.

“While I’m certainly not a proponent of higher taxes, the financial landscape has changed quite a bit. We need to come up with some creative solutions,” he warned. “While other cities are at a two percent tax or more, we’re still below that. We could really get a lot of paving done, truly extend those deteriorating roads another 25-30 years.”

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Without roads, how will the Book Mobile survive?!

The clerk read the giant text displayed onscreen. “An ordinance to impose an additional one-quarter percent income tax effective January 1, 2019 for period of ten years to be used solely for the construction, repair, improvement, and maintenance of streets and roads in the city.”

She paused, then added: “We’re not requesting any action until August 7.”

“Be aware,” the mayor mused, glancing around the dais to the three other council members present, “to make our August 8 deadline to get it on the ballot, it will require four votes from council.”

For the sake of the Book Mobile, I hope they have them.

Interview #95: Hillsboro, OR City Manager Michael Brown (with podcast)

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

The thing you need to know about Hillsboro is: they have fun. Whether it’s art in the council meetings or elaborate comedy routines at the state of the city, creativity abounds in the Hillsboro council chamber. City manager Michael Brown elaborates on why that is.

Q: I am impressed by the range of creative expression that gets showcased in Hillsboro. Just in the past six months, you had artists, you had high school performers, and–my favorite–you had second and third graders dressed up as historical figures from Hillsboro. Is there any segment of society or culture that you would like to be featured in your council meetings?

A: Anything. We view our council meetings as basically a community gathering where half of it is creating performances and different ways to connect with the community. And the second half’s a business meeting. The ones that stand out to me are musicals. Those are really, really fun.

Q: Do those ever make you wish you were on the opposite side of the dais entertaining the audience?

A: No, not anymore. I tried to do acting when I was in high school and the acting director pulled me aside and said, “you know, I think you’d be better as a stagehand.” I worked in the back of the stage, not the front.

Q: Is that a good philosophy for a city manager? Be the stagehand, not the leading lady?

A: [laughs] There’s different expectations council has for you, whether you’re out in front or behind. I like being in the background with charismatic, smart, intelligent leaders out in front of me.

Q: Something completely unexpected to me was watching your state of the city address. Normally across cities, these things are pretty uneventful. The mayor gets up there; rattles off statistics about how well the city is doing; people applaud; and an hour later it’s done. But in Hillsboro, the state of the city is not just a speech. It’s a production. In the 2017 state of the city, for instance, Mayor Steve Callaway had the audience do a text message poll. How does the state of the city come together?

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Hillsboro, Oregon city manager Michael Brown

A: Over the course of maybe six months in advance of the performance, we have a group of people that are laying it out and planning it. We sit around, talk about what things might be interesting. In the case of the last mayor and Mayor Steve Callaway, they’re really funny. They really enjoy the opportunity to engage the audience and not get up and give a big speech and have everybody clap. They recognize the value of humor and wit. It is a performance. We view it as a performance.

Q: Your mayor is probably one of the best deliverers of this highly specific kind of entertainment. And speaking of deliver, this year’s state of the city featured former Mayor Jerry Willey walking in as a pizza delivery guy. Did any of the other cities you worked for come close to this kind of choreography?

A: This is a unique place! They enjoy poking fun at each other in a positive way and if you knew Jerry Willey, having him in a pizza uniform is the last thing you think he would do.

Q: One thing that’s not exactly entertaining, but it’s certainly unorthodox for any state of the city address, is that Mayor Callaway actually gives up the microphone midway through and lets councilors have their own time to speak. Why would the mayor give up precious camera time to the hoi polloi on the council?

A: Because it’s a council and the mayor is part of the council. While he’s the political head of government–the person people look to–he wanted to create the space for them to be up there and have the group be together and say, “we view it as a team.” He cares a lot about that.

Interview #93: Meriden, CT Councilor Miguel Castro (with podcast)

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

The Meriden city council is not short on bad behavior–including comments that skirt the border of sexual harassment, multiple censures against councilors, and an effort to delete council meeting footage by this week’s guest, Miguel Castro.

Q: On December 18 of last year, the council was discussing whether to fire your city manager. People brought up his performance and the performance of other city employees. But Councilor Bob Williams, Jr. said:

We have some department heads that you gotta handle with kid gloves. Some people you can have an honest conversation….There’s some people you can’t. You gotta basically pat ’em on the ass a little bit.

I realize Councilor Williams was probably just using some locker room talk, which is completely acceptable in the year 2018. Unless, of course, you’re a female comedian. How did you feel?

A: For anyone to go on the council floor and make a statement like this is really unfortunate. It’s a complete insult. It is unnecessary. It’s uncalled for. The department heads deserve a public apology. People are referring to this as “locker room talk.” Nonsense. I’ve been in many locker rooms and my friends in the locker room do not talk like that.

Q: Here at the City Council Chronicles studio, no one is allowed to talk in our locker room. And it really starts the day off on the right note for me. The next month, there was a resolution to censure Councilor Williams. The mayor ruled you could not vote on the resolution. So who then polices your council, Miguel?

A: It certainly deserves serious discussion and conversations that talk like this should not be allowed anywhere. It should be subject to a much further discussion which should start within our city leaders.

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Meriden, CT councilor Miguel Castro

Q: Coincidentally at that same meeting, there was a censure against you that called you out for political retaliation against your former election opponent. And the mayor again ruled you cannot vote on it. You just said these issues should be discussed openly, so were you disappointed that the mayor denied a vote on both of these resolutions?

A: Well, I appreciate your thoughts but the comparison–it’s not a fair comparison. With regards to the manner you have brought now to our discussion, [it] was something that was referred to a confidential process.

Q: On March 29, there was a finance committee meeting. Apparently there were some councilors having a side conversation near you because the chair told them to be quiet. After that meeting, you contacted the video recording company for the city and asked if that exchange could be deleted from the footage. Did you at all think that a mere inquiry about deleting footage would be construed as a request to delete footage and therefore be records tampering?

A: Well, I appreciate your thoughts on the matter. My approach was posing a question whether that portion of the meeting could have been edited. That was the end of it. I did not wake up one morning to purposely commit something nefarious. If for some reason, for lack of information, I have brought a small level of disruption that could create that kind of perception, I personally apologize. I am sorry for how I approached it. Could I have known there was a right way or a different way to address my concern, I would have relied on that.

Editor’s note: After publication, Councilor Castro sent multiple messages to City Council Chronicles asking for this interview to be deleted. It is not the policy of City Council Chronicles to acquiesce to the pressure of elected officials seeking to set the terms of their own coverage. Councilor Castro was given the opportunity to request correction of any factual errors he found in the interview. He provided none.
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Interview #92: Lancaster, PA Councilwoman Janet Diaz (with podcast)

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

Sometimes you vote the wrong way and need a do-over. Janet Diaz talks about the meeting where she was allowed to re-vote, plus she gives advice on how to handle public commenters who suddenly explode at the council.

Q: Lancaster does not record its council meetings, but there is an individual who runs See-thru City where he live streams all of your meetings. How much of what he was doing contributed to your decision to explore putting cameras in the council chamber?

A: He was the one that actually proposed it. People have made comments that it will be good for them to see it and hear it better. It’s actually the mayor I think that made that decision too.

Q: So it was this citizen-videographer who catalyzed the impending streaming of meetings?

A: Yes. Basically he is videotaping it, so other people are very happy. They appreciate him doing that. What the city wants to do is go further.

Q: Is there a way to incorporate the comments of people watching on Facebook Live into the meetings? Would you support someone representing the Facebook feed being able to come up at the very end of an item and list the comments they got from people watching?

A: Personally, sure. I feel that shouldn’t be a problem. But I can’t make those decisions–it has to be everyone on a whole.

Q: A couple of weeks ago, the council held a special meeting to reconsider a decision to tear down a historic building. Can you think of any vote you’ve made that you would like to cast differently now?

A: The problem on the day that I actually cast my vote–I think it got confusing. There was a person that–the police stopped her and her daughter and there was a yelling and screaming match. I was not thinking completely straight. I was still thinking of the trauma this woman had gone through. I voted incorrectly. I’m honest, I made a mistake. That’s why I called for a special meeting to recant my vote.

Q: Were people pretty understanding of that or do they hold you to a higher standard?

A: I think people understood that there was a lot of chaos. There was actually someone that caused an arson. I don’t see that anybody judged me. I’m just as human as anyone else.

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Lancaster, PA Councilwoman Janet Diaz

Q: At the May 22 meeting, a woman came in to share her story about her interaction with the Lancaster police. But it escalated into screaming. How should a council president have handled that?

A: I have helped people in the past [as] a sexual assault counselor. Sometimes you just got to let them vent. You have to let them speak and get that out of their system because they’re hurting. You’re not gonna fix a problem if there’s so much chaos.

Q: She kept saying she wanted an apology. How appropriate would it have been for the council president to say, “you know what? You walked away from an interaction with the police feeling violated and betrayed. And that should never happen in our city. We let you down and I apologize.”

A: Yeah, that would be something that could’ve been handled that way. Yes, I agree with you. If there’s an apology to give to a constituent because somewhere along the line the system failed them, why should we feel guilty?


Follow Councilwoman Janet Diaz on Twitter: @JanetDiaz1966

#159: Scranton, PA 6/11/18

Sometimes it feels like everyone’s a critic. But in the Scranton council chamber, literally everyone who showed up had some beef with the five councilmen.

“I actually have to grab the speaker list,” Council President Pat Rogan admitted with a sly grin, excusing himself from the dais while a dozen pairs of eyes followed him out of the room.

Sitting down with the paper, he brandished it with feigned surprise. “So there’s nobody on the speaker list–” Rogan deadpanned before calling up the first in a series of aggrieved complainants.

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Is that Dunder Mifflin paper?

“Comcast, okay? They are a monopoly. In the United States of America, a monopoly is illegal,” ranted a man in a black “Brooklyn” baseball cap and thick New York accent.

“They don’t want to give a senior citizen’s discount! I come from New York City, okay? Five boroughs–not anywhere in the five boroughs will you find that they will not recognize what senior citizens have done for this country,” he pounded on the lectern. “I have five major credit cards! I have seven different department stores!”

He waved his arms. “How can any one of youse here allow this to happen?”

“We don’t set the rates for Comcast,” President Rogan responded plainly. “Comcast is a private corporation.”

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“So, no discount?”

The commenter was replaced by another middle aged man with a pair of reading glasses on his nose and sunglasses on his forehead. He emitted a deafening sigh into the microphone.

“I don’t even have a computer and I apparently know more about what’s going on in the city than you five, the mayor’s two hacks, and the mayor.”

Okay, let me stop you there. In the interest of time, let me annotate this testosterone-fueled grudge-fest to just the most cantankerous of grief mongering. The three wordsmiths here are:

-A strident elderly man in a yellow Polo (Y)

-An affable college student with half a mohawk (M)

-A woman with pinkish curly hair (C)

Ready? And go:

Y: You’re an elected official and the forum here is for the issue of debate. And if you can’t answer, then I ask you to resign.

M: The reason that people my age leave this area is because we don’t have faith in you guys.

C: Mr. Donahue, when speakers are up here, you have your head down and you are writing what they are saying? You could look on YouTube.

Y: You are a liar and should have resigned and maybe there’s litigation that will remove you.

M: Two of you keep looking down–aren’t even looking at me.

C: When speakers are speaking, you should–okay, you’re shaking your head.

Y: When I brought up the word “despicable” last week, it was mild terminology for what’s going on here. I’d like to put it in real words, but I might burn this microphone.

C: I’m disappointed. I voted for you.

M: This city council has lacked the competence needed to bring Scranton back on the map like it used to be. (A siren goes by in the background, as if on cue.)

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I’m sure the councilmen on the wall had a similar experience.

As yellow-Polo-shirt man walked away from the microphone bellowing for Council Member William Gaughan to “resign, you don’t belong here,” Mr. Brooklyn Hat began yelling from the gallery. That, in turn, prompted others to start yelling.

“You’re both out of order!” pleaded President Rogan.

“This is a sideshow,” murmured the next commenter at the mic.

It was. Although I sense it’s also a regular Monday night in Scranton.

#157: Brooklyn, OH 5/29/18

“A council meeting in Brooklyn?” you’re thinking. “Surely it was chock full of complaints about hipsters, the L train, and the smell off the East River.”

Well, I have some bad news for you: this is Brooklyn, Ohio. And the topic today was less about subway delays and more about the equally compelling question of how to spend all this federal money.

“To qualify for this grant funding, cities are required to hold a public session,” boomed President Ron Van Kirk.

“At this time, I would ask members of the audience to come up to the podium if they wish to make a suggestion on ways this funding should be allocated.”

Van Kirk warned the ravenous crowd that they ought to get to the point, and get to it quickly. “Please limit your remarks to five minutes or fewer.”

Not a soul stirred at his invitation.

“All right,” the president murmured, “then there is no one.”

No one has an idea for spending the money?! Repaint the fields at Marquardt Park! Put a streetcar on Biddulph Avenue! Get a better sound system for the council meetings!

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Maybe fix up that tattered George Washington portrait?

This being the first meeting after Memorial Day, the council was obliged to mention the solemn occasion. The perfect spokesperson appeared in the form of Council Member Mary Balbier–the wife of a Vietnam veteran.

“I’m not very fond of the hat he wears–the baseball hat that has the 25th Division and some sort of lightning rod on it,” she admitted with a wave of her hand.

“But I will tell you: everytime we walk through an airport and he’s wearing that, people salute him. People make a comment. And it’s quite heartwarming for him and I think he enjoys it. So I don’t say too much.”

With a slight grin, she let slip her true feelings about her husband’s headgear. “Also, he is TSA approved, so we just walk up and go through the line. I always say to my husband, ‘whatever happens, keep that hat. I may need to wear it!'”

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The master strategist

President Van Kirk steered back to council business with an admission of his own. “I wanna let residents know that I will be absent for our next meeting,” he said regretfully.

“Our first meeting in June falls on the same week that our church has their annual youth camp. Seventeen years, and I’ll be serving there once again as a camp counselor.”

(If he runs his youth camp as efficiently as he runs the council meetings, those kids won’t even need the full week–they’ll be outta there in a matter of days!)

The remainder of the meeting was virtually on autopilot, as the building commissioner rattled off the changes–big, small, and alcoholic–happening around town:

“Aldi’s is getting an addition put on there….Hampton Inn, raising the roof on their building….La Casa Tequila just recently opened up behind Cracker Barrel.”

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Casa Tequila AND Cracker Barrel? Maybe the U.S. and Mexico CAN work things out.

Racing through the final five minutes, the council approved a raft of legislation assembly line-style. This included one agreement for the city to order a whole bunch of salt.

“We could order no more than 3,920 tons.” President Van Kirk paused. “The city has never ordered that much salt in one year.”

Be careful, sir: now that La Casa Tequila is in town, the demand for salted margarita glasses has never been higher.

“Tear It Down” — an explanation

Hello, councilheads! Next week, City Council Chronicles will be off its hiatus and back with new profiles of city council meetings from around the globe.

But until then, I have gotten many questions about “Tear It Down.” I recommend that if you would like to know about some of the work that went into preparing the story, take a listen to today’s special episode of the City Council Chronicles podcast or click play below:

(If you have not yet heard the story, all eight parts are at http://www.tearitdownpodcast.com and you can even read along if you’d like. Route Fifty also did a terrific write-up here.)tear-it-down-logo-with-bricks-2


On the amount of time put into the story:

Amber Bailey contacted me on July 10, 2017 and the story came out on May 10, 2018. So doing the math, that’s ten months. I would say I spent over 1,000 hours on this, which works out to about 25 hours a week. It was a pretty time-intensive hobby.

Probably the biggest single category of work was watching the council meetings. The footage is archived with the local public access entity, which is called ICRC. The very first video is actually from the last meeting in 2014, so there are only 3.5 years of council meetings online. That was still nice, but there are some caveats to that. First, committee meetings did not start to be recorded until the last year or so. And there were several meetings that went untaped.

Watching the meetings, I took detailed notes about what was going on, which included time stamps so I could pull clips to use in the story. (I never counted up how many pages of notes, but my guess is over 200 typed pages just about the council meetings.)

Then probably the second biggest amount of time was spent on transcribing the interviews. I did about 60 hours of interviews and for every hour recorded, I spent maybe two hours transcribing everything. It was very time consuming, but I think it saved me time when writing the story.

On some of the challenges:

One thing I did encounter was that the set of characters in the beginning of the story was somewhat different from the characters who were there at the end. And generally, the people who had a lot to say weren’t around for too long, and the people who were around for long couldn’t remember a lot of things.

The main example of that is in Chapter 4, when the Change*nch co-founder, Nick Link, talks about city administrator Mark Fitzgerald taking him aside and calling him a “puppet master.” In Link’s telling, it was very dramatic and angry. And some people did remember the word “puppet master” being used. But other people could hardly remember what time of year it was or even what year it was. And the only reason I know is because the O’Shea lawsuit mentioned when it happened.

On fact checking:

Fact checking was a big deal for me. I read an article about the fact checker for “S-Town” and how he spent several months verifying the information in that story. One example he quoted was they needed to figure out whether something was “shellacked” or “lacquered” or “expoxied.” And no one could really remember or cared what the distinction was. But he had to eventually call an expert who recommended what word they should use in the story.

And I hold myself to a high standard, but that seemed a little too much for me!

I definitely got corroboration on a whole range of events and assertions. The best sources were obviously the council meeting videos because then I could see for myself what was going on. I did want to be very fair to people. I took out some lines near the end where I just could not get corroboration.

One example that came close to the “S-Town”-style fact checking was that at one point, Al Long in Chapter 7 says that Renee Stiles, when she was on the recreation commission, had a “binder” of plans for community events. I wanted to be accurate and find out if she really did have a binder. So I tried to find out if there was anyone else from 2009 or earlier who remembered this binder. The answer appeared to be no.

So I sent Renee Stiles a Facebook message. And she said months earlier that she was not really interested in speaking to me for the story, but I hoped she might be able to confirm this fact. And sure enough she wrote back and said what she actually had was “file folders” of plans, not a “binder.” So that is why in Chapter 7, you will hear Al Long speaking to the preparation of Renee Stiles in putting on these events, and then I interject to clarify the container in which she kept these plans was file folders.

On the schedule:

It was in early February that I began writing the episodes. That was a hectic time because around then, I set the date of May 10 to release the story. So I needed to write one episode per week beginning in February.

I was aiming for all of the episodes to be between 40 and 50 minutes, which, as you can see, did not happen. I spent a lot of time agonizing over what things to cut, what to include. But at the beginning of April, I had eight scripts that were written out–exactly what my voiceover would be, what the interviews were saying, whatever was in the council meeting clips. And I annotated everything so I knew where to pull the clips from and what part of the interview needed to be pasted into the episode.

In April, I started editing everything together. I finished each episode in about four days, which I consider fast. And again, that’s due to me knowing in advance what day and hour and minute to go to when pulling clips.

The part I hated the most was putting music underneath everything. It is so much pressure to pick the right song! And when you don’t have someone custom composing the music, whatever you choose may be perfect for the first 45 seconds and then it switches to a mood that is entirely different from what the story is trying to communicate.

Or I might have something that’s two minutes long, but I need something for 3.5 minutes. Or there’s the fact that I had a lot of sinister-sounding music and there just weren’t that many different sinister songs to choose from. So that was probably the part I hated the most, even more than transcribing the interviews, was picking the music.