#146: New Bedford, MA 1/1/18

“Cozy” is how I would describe the New Bedford city council chamber–with curtains decorating the window and an angel topping a Christmas tree in the corner. It could have been someone’s living room. But, you know, with cameras.

The women occupied the front row; men took up the rear. Councilors sat in high-backed reclining chairs, each with his or her own personal desk.

Today there would be no long debates or drawn-out votes on new ordinances. Instead, “Councilors, I’ll open the floor for nominations of council president pro tem,” announced city clerk Dennis Farias.

“I move to nominate Councilor-elect Joseph Lopes,” declared Councilor Linda Morad.

Farias nodded. “Would Councilors-elect [Debora] Coelho and [Ian] Abreu please escort Councilor Lopes to the podium?” As the trio crossed the floor, a smattering of applause greeted Lopes when he took his seat.

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Long live the king, and his glowing lampshades

The adulation was short-lived.

“We are adjourned,” he slammed a gavel on the wooden desk. While it was only five minutes into the meeting–and would have been a contender for shortest meeting on the books–this was actually a pause to swear in councilors elsewhere.

I can only imagine the pomp and pageantry that took place off camera, for two hours elapsed before Councilor Lopes smashed the gavel again to reconvene.

As it turned out, it would be his final gavel to smash.

“I would like to nominate Linda Morad” for council president, Councilor Coehlo stood to deliver a glowing portrait of her nominee.

“She is a lifelong resident of New Bedford. She dearly loves her family. She attended local public schools,” Coehlo rhapsodized as Morad stared stiffly with her hands clasped.

Councilor Dana Rebeiro suddenly shot her arm in the air. “May I–?” she began.

“We’re only having one person speak,” Councilor Lopes rebuffed her. Rebeiro hunched over in disappointment.

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It’s like a Rockwell painting

The vote was unanimous in Morad’s favor, and amidst polite applause she wended her way to the podium, giving hugs and shaking hands along the perimeter of the room.

Standing with her palms flat on the desk, President Morad gave a steady but intense pep talk to her councilors.

“We are the seventh-largest city in Massachusetts. Being a city councilor in New Bedford is a big deal. YOU are the face of government here.”

She reached for a political cliché. “Just like a family, which we are, we won’t always agree. But hopefully we can work together.”

Then, she turned to her right. “I have a couple more pages of my speech. Were you able to get those?” The clerk pushed a hefty stack of papers toward her and Morad thumped them loudly on the desk for effect.

Councilors cackled at the joke.

“Just a few more words if you don’t mind,” she deadpanned.

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Read it! Read it all!

“Madam President,” the clerk segued, “the next item is the drawing of seats.”

A seating chart lottery?! What a rare event to witness. I always wonder how a council seating chart gets birthed and I’ve never seen an actual random assignment. My curiosity will finally be satiated!

“Colleagues, I communicated with you today that Councilor [Hugh] Dunn is not with us tonight,” Morad explained. “Councilor Dunn is interested in moving his seat, so I respectfully ask that we consider tabling this item until our meeting on January 11.”

What?! No, I won’t be watching then!

“The ayes have it,” Morad announced as the deferment passed.

Sigh. I came so close.

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#142: Twinsburg, OH 11/28/17

The end of every year is a time for holiday celebrations, reflections, and yes, goodbyes to council members.

“Seth has brought his entertaining style to his term,” Council Member Maureen Stauffer read from an oversize proclamation to retiring Council Member Seth Rodin.

“Thank you, Seth!” she concluded, her voice cracking. The two hugged and everyone in the room applauded.

“I’ll miss you,” added Stauffer quietly.

It was a slightly more touching tribute than the next, administered by Council Member Bill Furey.

“Nobody hates being recognized more than Gary Sorace,” Furey quipped as the council president swayed nervously.

“We would like to give you this gavel as a remembrance of your time as council president,” Furey handed over the diminutive token.

“I do have something else,” suddenly recalled Council Member Stauffer, who strolled over to Council Member Rodin and discreetly handed him a gift. Rodin giggled in embarrassment.

“It’s a picture of ME on socks!” he exclaimed, brandishing a long pair of socks custom-printed with his image. I don’t know if there is an inside joke here or if this was merely a gag, but wow, way to take an undesirable present and turn it into a highly desirable present!

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Where can I get a pair?

But arguably, the most heartfelt gift was yet to come.

“Isn’t it amazing how god brings the right people into your life at the right time?” a woman wearing a massive pearl necklace asked rhetorically at the lectern. She and another environmental commission member recited a poem, trading off lines and standing shoulder to shoulder.

“We did not just seek. We felt.”

“We did not just hear. We listened.”

“You helped us to achieve our environmental vision. And you inspired us to be what we knew we could be.”

“Thank you Seth!” “Thank you, councilman!” they concluded in not-quite-unison. They looked at each other, laughing. Good vibes were all around.

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Adorable

But enter vibe-crusher Sam Scaffide.

“I would like to make a motion that we repeal section 11.05 of the rules of council,” announced Council Member Scaffide.

“I’d like to amend your motion,” quickly retorted Council Member Furey. “The purpose of taking it out was because the Ward 5 council person would be new. I recommend we put Ward 5 temporarily at the bottom of the list and bump Ward 4, which is Mrs. Stauffer, and Ward 3 up one year.”

Scaffide stared quizzically at this modern-day Machiavelli, calculating how this would affect the line to the council presidency.

“I’m saying take out the 2018 Ward 5,” Furey reiterated. “Make the 2019 Ward 4 the ’18. Take the Ward 2, which is the following year at ’20. Move those up so that the existing council people don’t get moved out of the line of succession.”

Council Member Scaffide frowned deeply. “I don’t think it’s the fair way to do it.”

“Wait,” spat Council Member Furey. “This is six months old, voted on unanimously. ALL this does is keep the same rotation for the two people who are on council already.”

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Is this a coup? It feels like a coup.

Murmurs of confusion roiled the council.

“Call the roll, please?” Council President Sorace ordered.

“On the amendment?” asked the clerk.

This triggered massive crosstalk and gesticulating in an attempt to divine the right path forward. Eventually, the kerfuffle subsided and the amendment passed unanimously.

Just as quickly as conflict arose, the good vibes returned.

“We’re planing a little holiday gathering on December 12,” the HR director informed everyone. “We bake cookies and here in the lobby, we have cookies and punch. You’re all invited.”

Special Feature! “Best Thing, Worst Thing”

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

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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.”

#115: Cleveland Heights, OH 7/3/17

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.”

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Remember: city councils are here to listen.

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.”

Silence.

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.”

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I don’t know what to say either.

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!”

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Okaaaay, mooooooooommmmmm.

Final thoughts: I give 10 out of 10 stars to everyone for their tact. Let’s get this case closed, folks.

#107: Lynn, MA 5/23/17

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.

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Citizens of Lynn are nothing if not excruciatingly direct.

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.”

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A statement? I don’t like the sound of this.

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.”

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😥

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.

#104: Columbus, OH 5/15/17

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!

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It’s like a g–d– Norman Rockwell painting.

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.”

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“I got to this meeting via luge.”

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.

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I expected this kind of behavior from Cleveland. But COLUMBUS???

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.

Interview #46: Paterson, NJ Councilman Andre Sayegh (with podcast)

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

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.

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Paterson, NJ Councilman Andre Sayegh

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.


Follow Councilman Andre Sayegh on Twitter: @andresayegh