#130: Florence, OR 9/18/17

Warning: if you are easily triggered by unrelenting happiness and optimism, proceed with caution.

“Wendy, thank you for 15 years of service,” city manager Erin Reynolds smiled warmly at the planning director while brandishing an award.

“Her husband is here tonight,” Reynolds stared out to the audience as a man lumbered forth. There were light giggles as he proceeded to pull the master-of-all husband moves: he stood beside her holding a bouquet of roses.

“He does the recording of our city council meetings, but he’s also her husband,” the city manager explained as councilors clumped together for a photo. Ah, yes: it’s fitting that the man thoughtful enough to bring flowers is also the unsung caretaker of the council feed.

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SMOOOOOOOTH

As the husband took his place behind the camera (“nice flowers” someone grunted), he swung it to the projector screen on the wall.

“We’re about 500 people away from 5,000” likes on Facebook announced Reynolds, proudly scrolling through the city’s carefully-curated page.

“I’ve got a couple fun swag items for the 5,000th person,” she teased.

Folks, THIS IS NOT A DRILL. Get over here and claim. the. swag. Also, Florence? If this review gets you to 5,000, I expect commission. Just a water bottle, t-shirt, or a street named after me. Something easy.

But the fun didn’t stop there: Miller Park is getting a facelift and the public works director was positively stoked.

“Miller Park’s a great facility. It just needs to be amped up.” He went all-in on the sell. “It’s a HUGE community destination. Regional draw!”

With glittering scenes of an urban utopia on the screen, he revealed the pièce de résistance. “With this new concession stand, if a group wants to come in and have a movie night, there’s a popcorn machine, soda machine.”

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I now want my commission to be a popcorn machine. Love you, Florence.

After the whirlwind tour of Miller Park 2.0, the meeting turned to what could have been a sticky topic: the performance review of the municipal judge.

“How does it feel down there?” Reynolds joked as the judge slid behind a low table. He chuckled nervously in response. But it quickly became apparent that His Honor had zilch to worry about.

“It’s the recommendation,” disclosed Mayor Joe Henry, “to implement an increase to the monthly retainer of 2.8 percent.”

The pay raise sailed through. But just as quickly, another employee landed in the hot seat.

“We’ve heard a lot from Mike tonight,” Reynolds glanced at the public works director. “He has the challenge of being in the public eye. He does end up taking some heat that he doesn’t enjoy.”

There was nervous fidgeting. Where was she heading with this?

“I think you can all trust in the work that he does,” she pivoted. “So with that, happy birthday, Mike!”

There were several “ahhs” and boisterous applause as the tension dissipated.

“He didn’t know I was going to do that!” boasted Reynolds.

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Quick, bring the roses!

From beneath her desk, she produced not a cake, but a hunk of wood in the shape of Oregon gifted to the city. She thrust it into the hands of Mayor Henry for a picture.

“If you crop it like this, you can get the detail,” Councilor Joshua Greene leaned over and gestured. Inspired, he jumped in front of the dais and held up his phone.

“There you go,” he clicked blissfully away. “One more.”

Flowers, a pay raise, birthday wishes, and the perfect picture. What more could you want from a city council meeting?*


*My swag

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#128: Whitefish, MT 9/5/17

There are a handful of things in this world that regularly get people’s blood pressure up. Fidget spinners. Avocado toast. Anything surnamed “Kardashian.”

But in Whitefish, the trigger word was “water.”

A citizen in a plaid shirt planted herself at the podium and gazed steely eyed at Public Works Director Craig Workman. “Are you thinking about implementing any of the new technology in wastewater treatment?” she inquired.

“Yes, we are,” he replied. “We’ve begun the design of the wastewater treatment plant upgrades.”

“Including metals and microbes?” she pressed the witness.

“Yeah, metals are one of the parameters–”

“Is that being inspected now?”

“Yes–”

“Are you adding more sensitivity?” she interrupted.

“Well, the detection is done at the laboratory–”

“Which is here?”

“It’s in Kalispell.”

She collected her notes and concluded the interrogation. “Thank you…for now.”

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The prosecution rests

The mayor and council sat quietly during this aggressive questioning. A cheerful and somewhat nervous new resident smiled from behind the microphone.

“I’m a single mom of a three-year-old boy,” she greeted the council. “My first month, the water bill was fairly low. In June, my water bill was $100. In July, my water bill was $437.”

She turned to Workman and wondered, “do we really need all of these enhancements going into a water treatment plant?”

“I’ll allow this question,” Mayor John Muhlfeld firmly interjected. “Just for the audience, this isn’t an opportunity for Q&A between the public and our staff.”

Well, well, what a fine time to start enforcing the rules!

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If you’re going to ask questions, go for the jugular right away.

A man in a t-shirt and shorts took his turn at the mic. In a slight British accent, he winced while calling attention to his casual attire. “I just want to apologize for my lack of professionalism.”

“I’m $200,” he referred to his own water bill. “I just can’t keep up. I don’t want to sound like a whiner, but my family is hurting. I have a family of five who shower once a day and I put pressure on the boys to take short showers.”

He grimaced deeply while staring down the bridge of his nose through glasses. “My lawn is brown. When I water the fruit trees, I feel guilty because I see money running into the ground. I’m hurting.”

Councilor Richard Hildner, himself touting a large family, smiled faintly. “I don’t know how you get around that other than you turn off the hot water and they get a cold shower!”

He added, as a glimpse into his own parenting style, “having had three teenagers at home all at once, I know what you’re up against.”

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The hot water czar

At this point, Councilor Andy Feury glanced up from his computer. “I’ll save you a trip to visit Craig,” he hollered to the single mom who had spoken earlier.

“Your usage in June was 6,000 gallons. You used 32,000 gallons in July. And you don’t have a sprinkling meter, so you paid sewage charge on an additional 26,000 gallons of water. That’s why you went from $100 to $400.”

Wow, that was some speedy research! Now do me! How many gallons did I use?!

“I would like to see,” plaid-shirt-lady announced during a reappearance at the podium, “some pencil-and-erasure math on the operating costs. It’s the one area where maybe there could be some tightening of the margins.”

If by “tightening the margins” you mean “policing teenagers’ shower length”–tighten away.

And that really was all…for now.

#126: Salem, OR 8/28/17

Any regular announcements at the top of Salem’s city council meeting were “eclipsed” (MAJOR PUN ALERT) by a single event.

“I want to say to the staff that you did a fantastic job with the eclipse,” Councilor Tom Andersen crossed his arms and beamed. “I pushed back a little bit several months ago–and I see the city manager is nodding his head!–about what should have been done. This may be the first time I ever say this, but he was right and I was wrong!”

There were guffaws from the gallery. That noise was quickly replaced by Councilor Sally Cook signaling for the mayor’s attention.

“I just wanted to ask everybody a quick question: do you know your blood type?”

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Asking for a friend

Sporting a gigantic “I Made A Difference” sticker, she put in a gigantic plug for getting one’s blood drawn.

“I donated today. I had my first ‘Power Red’ donation. Very exciting. Very strange,” she mused. Noticing raised eyebrows, Councilor Cook added, “it means my blood is SO special, I get extra credit.”

Other councilors groaned, causing Cook to grin innocently. “It means they take your platelets and also the plasma. And that has a longer shelf life. I just encourage you to visit your friendly vampire.”

While this doesn’t give me extra motivation to donate blood, it does make me wonder about the shelf life of my own platelets.

But there was no time to dwell on my hypothetical blood. At this point, a deeply distressed public commenter stepped forward to talk about actual bloodshed.

“Car had to be going 60-70 mph down Fisher Road,” the man held up a graphic photo of a car crash’s aftermath.

“Five days later, this young lady,” he shakily displayed a picture of his wife, “was hit getting her mail out of the mailbox and killed right there.”

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😥

He lowered his gaze and continued in a gravelly voice. “Fisher Road just became a speedway. Something needs to be done. It’s just too bad my wife lost her life out there.”

Councilor Chris Hoy braced himself on the desk and looked the man in the eye. “I sat at your dining room table with you and your wife a few weeks before this horrible event. I have not forgotten that–and never will forget.”

It was an uneasy segue, but the council had no choice but to move on to what should have been a less emotional topic: amendments to the sign code.

Councilor Andersen leaned forward and frowned. “I’d like to make a substitute motion that we postpone deliberation on the sign code and have a work session.”

This touched off a nerve for Mayor Chuck Bennett, who lashed out without warning at the suggestion.

“I’ll tell ya: you knew you had two weeks. Not ONE PERSON followed up during the two weeks to talk with anyone about this,” he snapped at the stunned councilors. “I would hope you’ll ACTUALLY put your nose to the grindstone and do some work.”

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“Your mother and I aren’t mad. We’re just disappointed.”

Councilor Cara Kaser bristled at the mayor’s insinuation of laziness. “The two weeks were punctuated by a celestial event that will never happen again in our lifetime,” she protested. “We’re volunteer councilors. We work 40 or more hours a week.”

“Yeah, I also work 40-hour-plus weeks,” retorted the mayor icily. “I don’t mean to be nannyish, but maybe this time folks will step up and do the work.”

Against the mayor’s scolding, the council voted to give themselves more time for their homework.

Interview #61: Spokane, WA Council Member Amber Waldref (with podcast)

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

Amber Waldref and I had a very deep discussion about the regular public commenters (there are tons) at her meetings, an incident involving a presidential walk-out, and her approach to getting the audience on her side.

Q: How would you describe council President Ben Stuckart’s style of running your meetings?

A: It’s easy to criticize, but if you had to do it yourself–because I’ve had to–it is difficult. You have to have a strong constitution and you can’t be afraid of calling people out. I take a little bit softer approach than council President Stuckart does. I don’t know if that helps or hurts me.

Q: When you run the meetings, how do you handle it?

A: It’s all about preparation. Usually you’re given at least a couple days notice so you can get your head in order and research agenda items–make sure you understand where things might go astray and check in with council members to make sure no one’s going to throw in a crazy motion at the last minute.

Q: When you said you take a “softer” approach, that word, when you connote it with being a woman, it’s like, you’re a better listener, you’re more “motherly”–or whatever it conjures up. Is that what you meant?

A: I think it’s just the tone of your voice and the sincerity of your statements. If someone comes up and gives a comment, [say] “thank you” instead of giving a sarcastic, “NEXT!” They may be a difficult person to listen to. They may have something they’ve said a thousand times and you’ve heard it. But you just smile and in the tone of your voice, sincerely say, “thank you for your comment.”

Q: Mmhmm.

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Spokane, WA Council Member Amber Waldref

A: You still need to be firm. I think it’s how the tone of the meeting can be set by just making a joke at the beginning or making light of something–getting the crowd to chuckle and getting them on your side. Those are some tricks I use.

Q: What are we talking about here? Knock-knocks? Limericks?

A: I usually use self-deprecating humor. Or, “oh, since council President Stuckart is out, I’m going to be nice to all of you. Haha!”

Q: [Laughs] So, is what you’re talking about not so much “kindness” but “acting?”

A: No, I think it’s about a state of mind. It’s probably easier for me because I don’t have to chair [the meeting] every week. If you were president every week, it’s hard to have that approach. I think you’re at an advantage if you’re only doing it every three months. People maybe have a different perspective on you.

Q: It’s like a substitute teacher: you might think you could get away with things or you might wish you had that teacher all that time.

A: Yeah, I want to be the cool substitute teacher.

Q: [Laughs] One of these meetings you should just put on the Minions movie and forget about the agenda! Are things any different in the small conference room that your meetings are in now versus your old council chamber?

A: It’s a more intimate space. We’re on the same level as the people speaking to us. Which I appreciate. It creates a more casual atmosphere. I think that’s why people are speaking out of turn. There’s plusses and minuses.


Follow Council Member Amber Waldref on Twitter: @amberwaldref

#122: Poulsbo, WA 8/2/17

There was no shortage of eyebrow-raising announcements in Poulsbo.

Mayor Becky Erickson set the bar ever-so-slightly off the ground with her unorthodox but low-key warning that “after we leave here, we’re gonna go to the third floor. A conference room setting is a little more conducive to an active conversation.”

Fair enough. A change of venue is good for the circulatory system. But the good vibes instantly dissipated as Council Member Gary Nystul flagrantly stoked an intra-governmental rivalry.

“It’s my privilege once a year to point out to my two Navy associates–Warrant Officer [Council Member Jim] Henry and Commander [Council Member Kenneth] Thomas–that August 4 is the Coast Guard birthday.”

He smirked and prepared to rub in his superiority. “Occasionally the Navy doesn’t follow our directions. One day in Hawaii they didn’t follow our directions right out of the shipyard. They put it into a reef!”

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Who among us hasn’t crashed a battleship into a reef?

The mayor quickly interjected. “You’re walking on dangerous ground, Mr. Nystul! Very dangerous ground.”

“Choppy waters” would have been the more appropriate image, but point taken.

Speaking of danger, quick: cue the Musgrove!

“When an earthquake or something happens is NOT the time to figure out: where do I get food for Fluffy?” Council Member David Musgrove insisted. He gestured to an emergency-preparedness handout decorated with a pensive-looking cat.

“It’s like taking care of an elderly parent. You need to do the same stuff.” (Note to self: stock up on cat food for grandma.)

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Cat sold separately

But if residents didn’t have time to prepare themselves for a disaster, Council Member Musgrove offered a logical alternative. “Tomorrow, 10:30 a.m., there’s a walk-through of the Poulsbo cemetery.”

Council Member Connie Lord struck a compromise between death and doomsday prep. “The mayor has opened up city hall as a cooling station,” she announced helpfully.

Mayor Erickson nodded. “The council chamber’s open. There’s bottled water in the fridge.” After thinking a second, she added, “bring a book. There’s nothing particularly exciting going on in here.”

However, the mayor was having a hard time keeping her story straight. Because not two minutes later, she revealed this HIGHLY exciting event:

“This coming Tuesday, I’m having ‘kitty hall’ here,” she bragged. “The Kitsap Humane Society and I are going to have a whole bunch of kitties/kittens/cats for adoption. So if you’re interested in a new feline furry friend, we’ll be out there.”

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When you pick up your cat, get enough food to last through the earthquake.

The final news item came from Council Member Ed Henry and it was a whopper.

“In our codes, self-storage and mini-storage is allowed in the commercial zone,” he informed the council solemnly. “Is the council interested in putting self-storage in those other zones?”

He glanced around. “It is a timely matter.”

“We appear to be having a LOT of interest about putting self-storage along [highway] 305,” the mayor acknowledged.

“We have very limited space if we want to keep Poulsbo Pouslbo,” Henry fretted. “Tight and constricted.”

Mayor Erickson agreed to look into it. But immediately, she worriedly turned to the clerk as she remembered that everyone needed to trek to the upstairs conference room.

“Rhiannon, how are we going to do this? We haven’t done this before.”

The clerk promptly replied, “I see us going upstairs and continue our audio recording up there.”

With that, the cameras went dark and the citizens who came for the cooling station pulled out their books.

Interview #55: Idaho Falls, ID Mayor Rebecca Casper (with podcast)

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

Rebecca Casper thought that her city council meetings were “conventional” and that we wouldn’t have a lot to talk about. I’m happy to report: we had a LOT to talk about. At the end, she shared a candid reflection about how her first two years as mayor affected her friendship with another councilwoman. I cannot recommend it highly enough–go listen.

Q: When it comes to running the council meetings, which of the following best describes your style?

A. Iron-fisted tyrant

B. Lead-fisted tyrant

C. Bronze-fisted tyrant

A: [Laughs] I think it depends on who you’re talking to. I’m sure I’ll have an opponent in the election who will tell you that I am lead or iron!

Q: I consider you a very active mayor–and I don’t mean you’re running marathons. I mean that you explain very thoroughly for city council novices what is happening in the meeting. Why do you do that?

A: I attended my share of meetings as a candidate, watching and observing. It did sometimes seem as though they were performing steps to a dance I didn’t quite understand. So I wanted to make sure that when I had that opportunity to lead, I would make it clear to the public what was happening in their meeting. Because it really is their meeting, not ours.

Q: What procedures did you change when you became mayor?

A: Uh, not that I want to open up a can of worms…but the thing that has been the most procedurally difficult for everybody is the agenda-setting process. It can be quite the “power move” in some people’s minds. I don’t see it that way. I’ve had a couple council members who would like to just be able to order up a discussion. I’ve had a rule of thumb: either a [department] director has to request the agenda item or the council president does.

Q: Mmm.

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Idaho Falls, ID Mayor Rebecca Casper

A: If a council member wants to talk about something, the president can be the one who can tell that council member, “you know what? That’s a crazy idea.” Or “that’s a great idea.” Or “that’s kind of an interesting idea. Have you done the research?” And that council president can mentor the council member. I’ve had that little screening process and it hasn’t sat well with a couple council members.

Q: In your absence, does Council President Tom Hally do anything differently when presiding that you wish you did?

A: I think there’s plenty of cringe-worthiness no matter who’s running the meeting. I’m a little more rigid. Councilman Hally is a little more laid-back. I’m sure people appreciate that from time to time. Having a bossy mom figure all the time can’t be fun, and so–

Q: Is that how you see yourself?

A: That’s how I hear myself when I go back and listen. Especially as you’re playing all these clips now. I’m kind of uncomfortable!

Q: Oh, I don’t mean to make you uncomfortable! I have to listen to my voice all the time for this and there are things I can’t stand and that I do work to fix. What is a similar tic of yours?

A: I would love to be able to be a little more lean with my language. Normally, I fill the awkward pause with blather. Gotta work on that.


Follow Mayor Rebecca Casper on Twitter: @CasperForMayor

Interview #54: Cheyenne, WY Mayor Marian Orr (with podcast)

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

Marian Orr is the new mayor of Cheyenne and from what I can tell, she learned how to run an efficient council meeting in practically no time. She shares her secret study tool with us and also reveals the one physiological liability that she has to keep in check. If you enjoy procedures, you’ll love this!

Q: You don’t preside over a city council–you preside over a “governing body.” Why is Cheyenne TOO GOOD for a city council?!

A: We have a strong mayor form of government. When council meets during their Committee of the Whole, THAT is a city council meeting. But when they add me, it becomes a meeting of the governing body.

Q: I’ve heard you are an honest poker player, which is generally not a good thing in poker! Would you say that being a bad poker player is a disadvantage to running a governing body meeting?

A: I don’t have much of a poker face and I don’t know if that serves me well. People really know what it is I’m thinking and–I’ve always had this since being a kid–when things get heated, so does my neck. Even staff can tell when I’m a little on edge because my neck gets really red.

Q: That’s your tell!

A: I have a tell.

Q: Do the other councilors know about this or is it something you’ve kept with your close friends?

A: I believe it is so obvious that if they haven’t paid attention, they must be sleeping.

Q: How did you prepare for running a meeting before you were sworn in?

A: I spent about half a day with our city clerk who is the queen of Robert’s Rues of Order. She was kind enough–people probably don’t know this, so I’m giving the secret away–she wrote a script for me that I was able to pretty closely read from. I’d say it took the first two months to feel like I can run a meeting without a cheat sheet.

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Cheyenne, WY Mayor Marian Orr

Q: I will be filing a Freedom of Information Act request to get that script, so prepare yourself. Did she give you stage directions, like, “say this (inquisitively) or say this (angrily)?”

A: Boy, I think that now she regrets not putting in stage directions! It was, “if this happens, say this.” She would leave a blank as far as “Mr. _______” and I could write in “Johnson” made the motion. But, oh! There were colors. If a motion passes, it was green. If a motion fails, she would have it in red. It was very helpful.

Q: You have begun to crack down on people who don’t ask or answer questions by first saying “through the mayor.” Why do they need to do that?

A: We have had some meetings where city council has had multiple questions of staff. I believe it’s a better way to keep hold of the meetings. [Staff] feel they are being “put upon the stand” for questioning and it is a way to slow down and temper some of the discussion.

Q: Some councilors have seemed resentful when you reminded them of this rule. Did you perceive that?

A: I did feel that. There is heated debate and we end up leaving the dais shaking hands. Individually, I’ve got a great rapport with every member of council.


Follow Mayor Marian Orr on Twitter: @gofishwyo