#135: Springdale, AR 10/10/17

“Before we proceed,” Council Member Kathy Jaycox stopped the meeting cold in its tracks, “could we recognize some guests in the audience? They’re here because they are trying to earn badges.”

Mayor Doug Sprouse relaxed. “Sure. Would somebody like to tell us who’s here?”

The Boy Scout troop leader stepped to the microphone and ordered his young charges to their feet. “Gentlemen, if you’d like to stand. They’re working on their communication merit badge.”

“Okay,” the mayor replied, doing a little drumroll on his desk and smiling. “I don’t know how much communication you’ll learn from THIS bunch, but we’ll try!”

As soon as the Scouts settled back in their seats, the council took up the titillating issue of an emergency replat of the Sunset Industrial Park Phase II subdivision. Things went smoothly on the first roll call vote. But suddenly, the staffer at the lectern barreled ahead without warning.

“The next item is a–” she announced, before the mayor halted her for a necessary second vote.

“I’m just in a hurry!” she chuckled as the next roll call rolled on. “I’m doing my part to make it short!”

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Communications lesson: keep it short, but wait until people are done voting.

Now, under normal circumstances, updating personnel policies is hardly a mouth-watering affair. But today? Let’s just say: don’t judge a book by its heavily-tattooed cover.

“So, if someone’s trying to apply for a position,” Council Member Colby Fulfer mused, “we can still use discretion based on someone’s physical appearances or sources of income that could be questionable? Could we discriminate?”

“It depends,” replied Mayor Sprouse matter-of-factly. “We do have positions where we can have those requirements. They would be the obvious ones like personal appearance.”

Council Member Mike Overton threw up his hand and grumbled, “not in all departments can we have people looking at Jo-Jo the tattooed man!”

Wow. I would be more worried that a grown man chooses to go by “Jo-Jo” than the fact he has tattoos.

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I associate myself with these reactions.

At this point, Mayor Sprouse, who had apparently been sitting on a powerkeg of exciting news all meeting, finally lit the fuse. “As we’re looking at possible fire stations with a bond issue, I would really like to go look at one,” he prefaced.

“The best one sounds like it’s in the Kansas City area. I think it would be great to go up there and look at that.”

Field trip! I love car rides. Which brings up an important question: I am invited, right?

“We’ll just go when the most people can go,” Sprouse glanced around. “I know that the press will be invited.”

That’s me, baby! If the mayor is a man of his word, City Council Chronicles will happily ride shotgun on the party bus.

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Real talk: I’ll only go if the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette isn’t invited. 

“We would leave 7:30, 8 in the morning,” he continued, diminishing my interest slightly in this excursion. Immediately, crosstalk ensued as council members simultaneously tossed out their availability.

“What about the 23rd?” hollered one voice. As the mayor scanned his schedule, other council members nodded in agreement.

“I’ll have to cancel a couple of meetings, but I can move those,” the mayor assented.

“What could be more important than being with the council, mayor?!” Council Member Overton joked. The mayor pursed his lips and bobbed his head without further reply.

Final thoughts: I’ll see you guys on the 23rd.

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#133: Anderson, SC 9/25/17

There are two things that are universally beloved: cute babies and the fire department. And the Anderson city council meeting had plenty of both.

“I’m gonna ask Chief Bratcher to come up with his wife,” Mayor Terence Roberts beckoned the interim fire chief to the stage.

City staff, meanwhile, wheeled around in front to ogle the talkative toddler bouncing on his dad’s knee.

“Sometimes we get so busy and the chief was doing such a good job being the interim chief, we kind of forgot to recognize him,” the mayor smiled sheepishly.

“I’m going to do the oath of office and I think his wife is going to have a role in this too.”

He looked down at his script and quoted the oath. “I do solemnly swear–”

“I–” began the chief before his quick-thinking wife nudged him to raise his hand. Immediately, he sprung his right arm upward. The mayor was right: she saved the swearing-in!

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Good rescue

After accepting his badge and shaking hands with the city council, the chief invited eight of his men to the front for their own promotions. The baby gurgled and cooed while they all stood silently and were pinned with their shimmering badges.

Now came an interesting assembly line: with eight council members plus four city employees, a whopping 96 handshakes were performed in the space of minutes. The microphones picked up a rapid-fire volley of “congratulations, congratulationscongratucongratcongrats.”

If they could handle that onslaught, they can certainly handle a three-alarm blaze.

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Stay close, boys–there’s a lot of wood here.

As the mass of family, friends, and–tragically–the baby mobbed the exit, the police chief strode to the lectern. He had his eyes on a new set of wheels or two.

“The Interceptor is very handy,” he praised his preferred secondhand purchase. “It’s something different from what we already have. That vehicle will be equipped with lights and a siren.”

His other wish list item was a Dodge Ram. “That vehicle will be an unmarked vehicle,” he explained. (Oh, crap–should I have printed that? Forget I said Dodge Ram. It’s…a Suburu Outback. Yeah.)

“The old cars that you put up for auction,” Council Member Beatrice Thompson raised her hands quizzically, “is anybody buying those?”

The chief let out a light chuckle. “Yes, ma’am. I’m really surprised. We had one of the cars and I drove it from the PD on its last journey. I gave it some gas and it coughed.”

Council members laughed. Then the chief hit them with the punch line. “I believe that car sold at auction for $1,300. I was amazed.”

Murmurs of astonishment flitted across the room. I’m surprised as well: a sentient, coughing police car?! I’d empty my savings account for that modern-day Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

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*cough*

But it was the fire department that had the last word.

“We’ve had interest from citizens about the Veterans Parade,” city manager Linda McConnell reported to the council. “You will remember the group that normally put on the Veterans Parade was unable to do so last year. Our own Fire Chief Randy Bratcher rallied the troops and the parade went off without a hitch.”

Apparently, all that previous time spent not being sworn in was put to good use because, she disclosed, “Randy and his group are once again spearheading that effort, which is scheduled for Sunday, November 5.”

To reassure citizens, she added, “the chief’s wife is assisting with that as well.”

Whew! The parade is in capable hands, indeed.

#131: Mobile, AL 9/19/17

You can’t simply snap your fingers in municipal government and make things happen. But you can sure as heck show up to public comment and TELL people to make things happen.

“It’s really long overdue and it’s something I want to get done,” a woman clad entirely in white ordered Mobile council members. “We need to get this done.” (“This” being renaming Glennon Avenue to “Dr. Yvonne Kennedy Avenue.”)

“I talked with Councilman [Levon] Manzie this morning,” she narrowed her eyes at him. “We’re going to have Dr. Kennedy’s name on the pole?”

“Yes, ma’am,” acknowledged Manzie.

“We’re also going to have Glennon Avenue on the pole?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“We wanna put a permanent plaque and–can I have my way with this? Doing what I want to do?” she inquired.

“No, ma’am!” Manzie exclaimed.

“I love having my way!” she threw up her hands and chuckled.

“I think Councilman Manzie hears you loud and clear,” intervened Council President Gina Gregory as the woman retreated in satisfaction.

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The lady’s got vision!

Success! Could there be anything more slam-dunk than a street named after a scion of the community?

Yes: Christmas.

“I’ve always enjoyed Elfapalooza,” a kindly man in a pink shirt smiled. “I’ve never actually put on my pointed ears and gone down in my tights. And, uh–”

“I’m visualizing that right now,” President Gregory deadpanned, prompting raucous laughter.

“Maybe if you give ’em the $40,000, I’ll do that this year!” the man replied.

“Might be worth it,” Gregory considered with a smirk.

He was, of course, referring to $40,000 proposed to revive the “North Pole Stroll.” It was a hot topic for a cold season, and Council Member John Williams was ready to wrap that present.

“This payment will be for holiday events and decorations,” he cheerfully made the motion.

But just as Christmas needs a Santa Claus, it also needs a fiscally-responsible Grinch.

“We’ve been assured that they’re going to have a robust Christmas celebration in downtown,” Council Member Manzie protested. “We don’t know what those activities will cost, so I’m a little hesitant.”

He added, logically, “if it’s a great success, the expectation will be that we need to continue [payments]. I would hate to start something and not continue in perpetuity.”

Council Member Fredrick Richardson attempted his own Scrooge impersonation. “Sometimes we need to leave well enough alone,” he grumbled.

“I think,” he softened, “we need to go back with the Christmas parade. It brings joy in the hearts of all.”

President Gregory called for a vote. It failed. The man in the pink shirt would not be wearing his elf ears and tights after all (although we can mark that in the “good news” column.)

Yikes. If the Mobile city council said no to Christmas, what would they say “yes” to?

“On Wednesday, I had the honor of being interviewed,” announced Council Member Manzie. “Michael Karlik runs a website and podcast called City Council Chronicles.”

“He came up with some new catchphrases for District Two. I promised I would play it in the meeting, but I can’t get it to function here,” Manzie admitted, trying to recall the catchphrases. “‘District Two: We have a Hardee’s.’ ‘District Two: Walk on the wild side!'”

“Well, Michael,” Gregory mused, “I’m guessing you’re watching….’Seventh Heaven?'” She glanced around as her colleagues giggled at her own district catchphrase.

“‘District Seven…Heaven.’ You gotta rhyme!” she insisted.

Council Member Richardson leaned into his microphone. “Did you get that, Mike?”

Yes, sir!

Interview #64: Mobile, AL Council Member Levon Manzie (with podcast)

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

Levon Manzie is a reverend by day who served on the school board and recently won his second term as the District 2 representative. He shares how he benefits from having prayer in the council meetings, plus his thoughts on rules and compassion. And be sure to listen to the audio–I give him some suggested catchphrases for District 2.

Q: Every Mobile city council meeting opens with a prayer. Whenever you give that prayer, how is it different from the prayer you write for Sunday morning?

A: To be honest, it isn’t that much different because I really don’t write it. When I’m called upon, I seek inspiration. At that moment before a council meeting, I wanted god to bless what we were voting on. What we were deliberating over touches the lives of [thousands of] individuals.

Q: Have you ever watched someone else give the prayer and thought, “oof, that’s a little heavy handed?”

A: That has not happened to my knowledge. The scheduler tries to have a variety of ministers offer the blessing. Now, there have been some I thought were too long!

Q: [Laughs] Would you ever begrudge someone who says, “this is a business meeting. I don’t think it’s appropriate to be praying.”

A: I wouldn’t begrudge someone. But for me, I think prayer is most appropriate. Just last week to the right of us, Hurricane Irma. To the left of us, Hurricane Harvey. So I’m not ashamed about being mindful that we’ve been blessed and it’s most appropriate to acknowledge that. Again, those are my personal views. I believe most persons would pray specific to the city of Mobile or a general prayer asking for guidance in a general sense.

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Mobile, AL Council Member Levon Manzie

Q: You were on the school board before this. Is the difference between school board meetings and council meetings like the difference between the minor leagues and the major leagues? Or between decaf coffee and a shot of espresso? How would you compare them?

A: I think decaf and espresso would probably be the best analogy. On the school board we dealt with one overarching theme, which was providing quality education. Everything was judged off of that standard. Every contract. Every appointment. Every vacancy. Here in the city, it’s not as single-focused.

Q: How would you describe council President Gina Gregory’s style at running meetings?

A: You know, she’s a veteran. She’s compassionate, sometimes allowing individuals to go over the alloted time so they can completely finish their thought. But she’s also orderly. And when people go off topic or when they abuse their time, she knows how to be strict.

Q: So you’re saying that compassion and rule-bending are just as important in some situations as being strict and treating everyone the same in every circumstance.

A: Well, one hundred percent. You have to be as compassionate or as strict as the person will allow you to be. If you’ve got somebody who is causing a ruckus in the meeting, there isn’t any room for compassion. But if you’ve got an individual who is impassioned about changes that are proposed for his or her community and they’re about 90 percent from finishing a complete thought and they’ve followed the rules, it’s incumbent upon you to judiciously allow some rule-bending. And I think she’s mastered that.


Follow Council Member Levon Manzie on Twitter: @lcmanzie06

#129: Fayetteville, NC 9/11/17

My jaw hung WIDE OPEN for the first two minutes of the Fayetteville city council meeting.

It began not with the bang of a gavel. Not with a hello from the mayor. But with the gentle piano chords of a full-on country music video.

My home town Fayetteville / I’m so proud to be from here!

The lyrics ranged from cheesy to…well, whatever level of civic pride this is supposed to stir up:

Babe Ruth hit his first one heard around the world /

Sherman marched for the Union and burned the arsenal.

Being honest though, there is something admirable about a city that opens its council meetings with a slickly-produced, tearjerking, chest-puffing video. Raleigh, take notes.

I’m talkin’ ’bout my home town, Fayetteville.

Council Member Kathy Jensen promptly directed attention to the extra chair on the dais–a little shorter than the others, but occupied by a special visitor.

“Casey is a senior at Pine Forest High School, go Trojans!” she smiled. “She is gonna tell you about the upcoming event we have at the Fayetteville-Cumberland Youth Council.”

The young woman looked down at her script. “This weekend, FCYC is having their second Glow Fest 5k Fun Run.” She glanced around the room and gave it the hard sell: “Just have a lot of fun with food trucks and dancing.”

Mayor Nat Robertson, being skilled in the art of event promotion, quickly fired a follow-up her way. “Casey, where can people register?”

“Uh, people can go online at fcycnc.org,” she replied.

The mayor prompted her gently. “Anything else we need to know?”

“No, sir, that’s it.”

“I understand,” he kindly took over the narration, “there’s gonna be music and a DJ following the run. So hang out afterwards and just kinda ‘glow’ with us.”

He nodded. “Great to have you joining us.”

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More importantly: will that bow tie be there?

However, my smile immediately turned to a frown, then further turned into a string of profanity: it was time for public comment (good), but the cameras WERE TURNED OFF (BAD)!

“I’m here to speak on the horrifying and ongoing assault on our waterways and drinking water,” a woman railed to the council, masked by a sinister screen graphic.

“Duke Energy is a reckless and intentional polluter with the main interest in making profits for itself….Next month I’ll come back and finish this,” she seethed as the timer beeped.

“Always glad to have you,” Mayor Robertson quipped cheerfully. “That’s why we give you the time.”

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GIVE ME THE LIVE STREAM

She was replaced by a disgruntled resident who, in my mind’s eye, was wearing flannel and a baseball cap as he registered this complaint: “I’m still living in the same city I retired in, thinking that an ‘all-American city’ would mirror all-American values.”

He shook his head (probably). “When mom makes her apple pie, she’s doing it under locked doors and closed windows.”

Fella, I do all of my cooking under locked doors and windows. (I’m very protective of my pies.) Besides, if you’re looking for “all-American values,” may I refer you to the Fun Run?

The mayor flicked on the cameras just in time for a touching farewell to retiring Council Member Bobby Hurst.

“Bobby!” exclaimed Mayor Pro Tem Mitch Colvin to laughter. “Thank you, man, for your hard work. You hung in there and you put up with my questions. Thank you!”

Hurst beamed–the living personification of that opening song.

I’m talkin’ ’bout my home town, Fayetteville.

Interview #63: Williamsburg, VA Council Member Benny Zhang (with podcast)

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

Benny Zhang graduated from the College of William & Mary last year–then started as a city council member one month later! We talk about his unique first meeting and his pre-council meeting ritual.

Q: Your swearing-in meeting happened a little differently than those of most city council members. You’re packed into the old courthouse and the town crier yells, “god save the king!” What did you think of that?

A: Being a history buff, I think that was entirely cool. Being the first Asian-American elected to that office, I felt a little bit out of place given where my heritage came from.

Q: Being in Williamsburg for college for four years and walking through Colonial Williamsburg, did that make you feel out of place? Or was it just this moment where you thought, “this is too much pageantry for me?”

A: I think it was just that incident. You also have to see the picture: there is a golden mace [and] the reenactor talks about how, in certain southern states, that mace signifies that there’s a session for the government. But also they’d use it as a drinking cup! I was very tempted to drink from that mace with some beer.

Q: You got onto the city council one month after graduating from William & Mary. Were you concerned that becoming a city council member so soon would impact your chances of moving back to your parents’ basement?

A: [Laughs] Not necessarily. My family invested in a home in Williamsburg, which gave me the ability to campaign as, “I am a Williamsburg resident who pays local taxes, receives city services, who also HAPPENS to be a William & Mary student.” I guess technically in this house, I am living in my parents’ basement–

Q: Is that where you’re talking to me from?

A: Yeah, we’re talking from my home base!

Q: I love how millennial-centric this podcast will be!

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Williamsburg, VA Council Member Benny Zhang

Do you wish more students would show up at council meetings to rebut the complaints of residents?

A: Sure. Students comprise 43 percent of the city’s population. In public comment, it might seem totally one-sided. But not everyone that you wish was in the room are in the room.

Q: Was there any expectation that you would be the “students’ representative” on the council?

A: For me, definitely. I am that resident in Williamsburg and since I can empathize with other residents, I think they see me as more of a young professional.

Q: Have any of your friends who see you now in council meetings said, “Councilman Benny Zhang is different from the Benny Zhang we knew?”

A: Yeah, I think there is a degree of awe there. I will say, I have not changed my wallpaper on my iPhone–“never forget where you came from.” I’m just the same guy on that dais. I’m a little more serious because I have to. I got involved in city council [by] sitting in on meetings. I would go up the dais and say hi and bye to them. What I do now is I always arrive 30 minutes before a city council meeting and I go up to the audience before the meeting starts and try to shake everyone’s hand. That’s an interaction I wish I had when I was sitting in on council meetings.


Follow Council Member Benny Zhang on Twitter: @benming_zhang

#124: Rockledge, FL 8/16/17

Mayor Thomas Price was all smiles as he kicked off the meeting.

“Can I have the Friends of the Children of Brevard come up?” he announced, glancing coyly at the audience. Surrounded by a clique of three women, he reached underneath the podium.

“You’re gonna get the proceeds from our golf tournament. It’s my pleasure to present you with”–he hoisted a giant novelty check–“a $21,000 check!”

The women’s jaws dropped as the council clapped and hollered. After the ceremonial picture, Mayor Price turned toward them. “Are any of you Rockledge residents?”

“I am,” one of them volunteered.

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My eyes have never worked so hard to watch a council meeting.

The mayor instantly produced a smaller gift (my sources tell me either an energy bar or a piece of candy) and handed it to her as the room erupted in laughter. I can only assume that this is the mayor’s calling card and it’s not the first time he’s passed out snacks here.

Taking his seat on the dais, Mayor Price steered the council through a series of permit fees and zoning ordinances that were heavy on words and light on drama. He paused.

“Folks, we’re not always this boring. We just gotta get through all these ordinances first,” he winked, causing another round of chuckles from the crowd.

Suddenly, the infamous Rockledge Environmental Enforcement Board had a handful of open spots–and controversy flared.

“How many vacancies do we have?” the mayor quizzed the council. “Two. How many people do we have applied? Two.”

He waved his hand. “This is going to be easy.”

“If I may,” interrupted Vice Mayor T. Patrick O’Neill, “my recommendation would be that we only fill one of these vacancies tonight rather than throwing new meat into too many boards at one time.”

“New meat?” It’s an advisory board, not Army boot camp. I think everyone will survive. Nevertheless, under the New Meat Doctrine, the council dutifully filled one seat and left the other languishing.

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Strike it through, boys!

It was at this point the city manager announced another vacancy: hers.

“Tomorrow night, I will be flying out of town. I’ll return Monday morning,” she said. “In my absence, Matthew Trine, our finance director, will be the acting city manager.”

“Are beards allowed for our acting city managers?” teased Mayor Price, shooting a look of feigned skepticism to Trine.

“I’ll have to check the dress code, mayor!” quipped the city manager as the council guffawed.

But one man who wasn’t in a lighthearted mood was Council Member Frank Forester, who gave a pained soliloquy on the deterioration of public protests.

“I’ve been watching the news again. You know how THAT can cause problems these days,” he frowned. “I saw a lot of this back in the day when I was in college. The thing I didn’t see then that I’m seeing now is people wearing masks.”

He leaned back in his chair and searched for words. “I kind of feel like, if you’ve got something to say, let people see who’s saying it. Otherwise, who cares? I might care what a man or a woman has to say, but I don’t care what a mask has to say.”

The city attorney joined the grievance bandwagon as council members listened silently. “Those people who dress like that have nothing to say. They really don’t. What they wanna do is cause a scene.”

Beards, masks…the city manager better take a hard look at the fashion guidelines on her flight out of Rockledge.