Interview #80: Peachtree City, GA Mayor Vanessa Fleisch (with podcast)

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

If you were riding on Peachtree City’s 100 miles of golf cart paths this week, you might have noticed Mayor Vanessa Fleisch and I talking about her council meetings. We discussed the one thing her council does extremely well, but also her tumultuous years of meetings as a council member alongside a controversial former mayor.

Q: I do have to compliment Peachtree City for having a surprisingly detailed set of minutes from all of your meetings. Not only are they detailed, you have the minutes going all the way back to 1959! Do you think your council has primarily focused on the minutes instead of the video?

A: Oh, without a doubt because according to the state of Georgia, the minutes are actually the legal part of it. The video and the audio are extra and something we do try to provide. Unfortunately, yes, we’ve run into glitches with some of the video and getting it right with our contractor. By law, it’s the minutes that are the important part.

Q: Hmm, I see. By the way, one of the things the city council did at its first meeting in 1959? Have the mayor call the post office and say, “hey, we exist now.”

A: [Laughs] Well that’s good because we still don’t have a postmaster and it’s been almost 60 years! So maybe you can help us with that.

Q: We might as well get to the stuff that the mainstream city council meeting podcasts are not talking about. How would you describe relations on the council under former Mayor Don Haddix?

A: I think it was a rather strange relationship, particularly during the council meetings. That is something that I think we’ve come a long way and are far more efficient with our meetings now.

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Peachtree City, GA Mayor Vanessa Fleisch

Q: At the July 21 meeting in 2011, there was a resolution for the censure of Mayor Haddix. That included a vote of no confidence and a request for his resignation. The mayor’s complaint was the censure had been added the night before and he hadn’t had appropriate time to write a rebuttal. Do you recall if he was blindsided with that and if that was kind of the point?

A: I do not recall that specifically. I do know by law, when we do make changes to the agenda, it has to be done 24 hours in advance. I can’t imagine he was totally blindsided. We move far more professionally now. That was a difficult period for the city.

Q: How much of the censure was about protecting the city’s image and then how much was it about your professional discomfort with a coworker?

A: There was a concern that we were continually on the front page of the paper with some of the issues at our meetings. It’s very difficult to get things done when you have continual upheaval at your council meetings. A lot of it was to protect the city in general because there’s a lot of consequences to the public airing of discord at these meetings, when there’s a lack of professionalism. It was more about the city–34,000 people is what I think about every day.

Q: You were not really inside the “ring of fire” in those meetings. Was your experience different from those of the other council members?

A: There were a lot of fireworks at the meetings and I didn’t think it was very productive to have just one more person entering into the fray. So yes, I stayed out of a lot of it.


Follow Mayor Vanessa Fleisch on Twitter: @vanessafleisch

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Interview #78: Nashville, TN Councilman Colby Sledge (with podcast)

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

Colby Sledge is the District 17 councilman and a former reporter on the Nashville Metro Council. There is a smorgasbord of procedural features in the Music City that you won’t find in most American city councils–primarily because of the size. Plus, we talk about the many ways in which Nashville’s council exercises politeness.

Q: Most city councils have seven members, nine members–but Nashville has 40 council members. And you all sit at individual desks on the chamber floor. The Tennessee state senate has 33 people, so you have more members than half of your state’s legislature! What are the advantage and disadvantage of having that many council members?

A: Yeah, it’s always a fun thing to throw out whenever we’re at conferences or speaking with lawmakers in other cities, to get “that look” when we tell them we have 40 members. It is a product of when the city and county merged more than 50 years ago. Everybody got to keep their jobs!

Q: Sure.

A: We have the third-largest municipal council in the country behind New York and Chicago. I think the advantage is definitely constituent service. You are expected, as a council member, to know pretty much everyone in your district. Disadvantage is, as you imagine, it can get unwieldy sometimes.

Q: You have a lot of public hearings. You don’t take public comment in the meetings, but you have hearings where people raise their hands in the gallery if they are in favor of or opposed to a bill. I haven’t seen this hand-raising thing before. What are you looking for, exactly?

A: We’re primarily looking for folks who are opposed. Because there are so many zoning bills that we handle, we’re trying to get a sense if there is still dissent within the community. It encourages council members to have meetings before it comes to public hearing. The worst-case scenario is you have a lot of people who are opposed; it kind of reflects poorly on the council member because he or she may have not done all the prep work.

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Nashville, TN Councilman Colby Sledge

Q: I have heard of the concept of “councilmanic courtesy” in Nashville. Essentially, it’s “I’ve got something in my district that I’d like approved. Please do it for me and I’ll vote for the next thing YOU need in your district.” How many times since you’ve been on council have you received councilmanic courtesy?

A: That’s a good question. I think it’s a product of our size. The vast majority of zoning bills–I can’t even think of one that I didn’t [receive courtesy]. If I made a compelling case for a rezoning, most of the time, council members were for it. There’s no written rule that says we’re supposed to be offering this. But when you have a legislative body that’s this large dealing with land-use issues, it tends to be the unwritten rule. I try to think about how it’s going to affect my constituents. If there’s little to no effect, I feel comfortable supporting it.

Q: There is no such thing as councilwomanic courtesy because you don’t have councilwomen in Nashville. You have “council ladies.” What kind of “Gone With the Wind” tradition is that?!

A: [Laughs] I will say that my predecessor in District 17 was a woman and I probably almost always called her “council lady.” It’s really up to each member’s preference.


Follow Councilman Colby Sledge on Twitter: @Sledgefor17

Interview #76: Fairfax, VA Councilmember Jennifer Passey (with podcast)

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

When Jennifer Passey became a council member three months ago, she had already witnessed as a citizen the chaos of 2016 when Fairfax’s mayor resigned abruptly. We talked about the reasons for not having a vice mayor as well as the important topic of guns in meetings.

Q: I actually grew up down the street from Fairfax and am HIGHLY familiar with your city. Which means, unfortunately for you, I can play hardball. So get ready to get grilled about the 703. Question numero uno: how’s my dog doing? Is she okay?

A: [Laughs] As far as I know. I haven’t heard anything otherwise.

Q: Oh, thank god. Question numero dos: does Chelsea Licklider still have a crush on me?

A: You know, let me look into that. Isn’t that a good city council answer?!

Q: Yes, very speedy constituent service! Before city council, you were on the planning commission. Was that any less pressure because fewer people were watching?

A: I think the pressure comes from within of wanting to do a good job, for me. It’s a little more public [on council]. Planning commission, it was a little more candid because you knew not a lot of people were watching. People will look at those every once in a while when it was a heated topic.

Q: Being from Virginia, it didn’t come as a surprise to me at your November 7 work session when the city’s lobbyist casually suggested that you join the city of Falls Church in requesting a weapons ban in public buildings from the Virginia legislature. Do you see any harm in tagging along and requesting to keep firearms at least in the parking lot?

A: It’s not an example of something that’s happened where we feel threatened. I’m not really concerned either way. I don’t feel threatened that there are a lot of people that carry guns. But at the same time, you never know what’s happening around the country. We’ve seen it before in city council meetings in other places. I’m torn: I see the issues of infringement, but I’m not sure if I have a full-on stance.

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Fairfax, VA Councilmember Jennifer Passey

Q: If someone were to carry inside the council meeting and was sitting there politely watching with a gun on their hip, how would that make you feel?

A: I grew up in Minnesota. I don’t want to say people carry guns all the time there, but I guess it depends on whether they come in disgruntled or not.

Q: Would it help to outlaw disgruntlement at city hall instead?

A: Disgruntlement with a weapon!

Q: Well Jennifer, since you’ve only been a council member for three months, we don’t have that much to talk about. So thank you for–HOLD ON, SIT BACK DOWN! Obviously, we need to talk about the hugely controversial Vice Mayor-gate. Last summer, your previous mayor resigned. Fairfax had no vice mayor to take over. What was your take on the problem?

A: Residents and city staff during that time were really angry at [the mayor]. I think a lot of the issue was that city council was figuring out the legalities–from my perception–and we don’t have a spokesperson at city hall. If that’s communicated out, people understand the process. It wouldn’t have looked suspicious or that they were conspiring in the back room with the city attorney.


Follow Councilmember Jennifer Passey on Twitter: @jennifer_passey 

#144: Virginia Beach, VA 12/12/17

“I would like to note that our city clerk, Ruth,” Mayor Will Sessoms nodded toward the petite, white-haired woman seated behind stacks of binders, “this will be her last meeting.”

“We love you, we appreciate you, and we will miss you,” he added, leading the entire council in a standing ovation. “Bravo!” someone hollered as Ruth waved politely.

“All right, Ruth,” joked the mayor upon resuming his seat. “Back to work!”

With emphasis on “work”–for not two minutes later, the electronic voting board had a spastic fit and refused to respond to the clerk’s commands.

“It’s not working,” Ruth muttered. “Is everybody aye?”

“Aye,” responded the council in somewhat unison.

“Thank you,” acknowledged Ruth, recording the vote manually. Yikes. With the board on the fritz, can Virginia Beach really afford to lose its clerk now?

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May god help them all.

But what to my wondering eyes should appear? But old Saint Nicholas–looking very austere.

“Merry Christmas, everybody,” announced a commenter wearing a Santa Claus hat.

“Hi, Santa,” answered council members cheerfully.

“This [item] is about the city manager’s pay, correct?” faux Santa inquired.

“This is extending his contract for the same salary,” corrected Mayor Sessoms.

“I think the city attorney may have a different opinion of that,” Santa gestured to the lawyer, who responded in a quintessentially surgical fashion.

“If you look at the red line, there is an increase. BUT it is an increase that y’all voted on in July. There is no increase in THIS contract,” he clarified.

Santa nodded. “I think these salaries are out of whack with the real world. Go out and look at the free market and see what you can get for a more reasonable amount.”

Methinks the line between Santa and Scrooge is a bit blurry today. The mayor huffed.

“His background at the Army Corps is exceptional and we are thankful for those talents,” he defended the city manager.

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Mommy, why is Santa talking about the free market?

But if the man in the Santa hat was miserly with the manager’s pay, he was downright Grinchlike about the controversial–and unceremoniously-named–“Interfacility Traffic Area.”

“I thought I would read you my letter to Santa,” he brandished a red envelope cartoonishly labeled “TO: SANTA, NORTH POLE.”

“Dear Santa: Mom and Dad want to get me a huge ITA for Christmas and I don’t want one! Who wants a bunch of new development, parking garages, a solid waste transfer station, and more debt? Not me, Santa.”

This routine continued for several minutes, with the man addressing Santa Claus in absentia and the audience stone-faced behind him. But remarkably, he planned a phenomenal dismount. He whipped out a wrapped present from his bag and, in mock surprise, opened it theatrically:

Subsequent public commenters were far less operatic, but no less angry about this big, bad ITA. After Council Member Barbara Henley (her name plate read “Council Lady”) pointedly questioned a critic, a diminutive woman stepped to the lectern in disgust.

“Your horns are showing!” she scolded.

Council Member Henley balked. “I’ve listened to so much misinformation, I’m about to explode.”

“Oh, please do! We would enjoy something different for a change,” the woman retorted to further antagonize Henley.

After listening politely, Henley addressed the bloc of opponents in the audience.

“I apologize if I appeared to lose my cool, but I just couldn’t stand another minute. The ITA is not a creation of the city. The Navy was very concerned that there be no more houses in that high-noise zone,” she calmly explained.

“The city became the owner of a lot of those properties by willing sellers asking the city to buy. This plan is NOT saying we should begin development. On these sensitive areas, we should come up with uses…trails. Baseball parks.”

When Henley concluded, the mayor leaned forward. He glanced over at Ruth again. “Would you like to say anything?”

She rose. “Thirty-nine years, one-and-a-half months. You’ve been very gracious. And I’ve been very dedicated. I thank you.”

Shout-out #3: Richmond, VA

Longtime readers may remember that earlier this year, I reviewed a Richmond, Virginia council meeting and discovered something highly unorthodox: a city council host who did pregame and postgame commentary.

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The man is Dick Harman. He has anchored the Richmond council meetings for nearly 30 years (one year down, 29 more to go for me, by the way). Nowhere else have I seen a city council with its own Dick Harman, which came as genuine news to freshman Councilwoman Kristen Larson, who I interviewed on the podcast after her very first meeting in January.

Fast forward to this week. The Richmond city council surprised Dick Harman by naming the media gallery in the council chamber after him!

But it was in Councilwoman Larson’s comments that she recalled her initial realization that a city council host was special and unique to Richmond, and then proceeded to call Dick Harman “special and unique” to Richmond:

Thank you for the shout-out and congratulations to Dick Harman! He is, of course, welcome to come on the podcast anytime and tell me where the skeletons are buried. And other city councils are highly advised to recruit their own council commentators during this Golden Age of Live Streamed Council Meetings in which we are living.

Why should Richmond have all the talent?!

#137: Maumelle, AR 10/16/17

Tragedy plus time equals comedy. But how much time is needed?

Well, if you’re the mayor of Maumelle–not a lot.

“I’ll need to let you know that Council Member [Rick] Anderson will not be here tonight. He is in the hospital,” Mayor Mike Watson blurted out at the top. Without missing a beat, he added dryly, “I think that’s a valid excuse. I don’t know if that’s what I’d pick for MY excuse. But he can do that.”

While my imagination wandered to what, exactly, the mayor might think up for his excuse, Council Member John Vaprezsan invoked Anderson’s name in the pre-meeting prayer. Pointing to the victims of wildfires, shootings, and hurricanes, he concluded ominously, “we don’t know what’s going to happen in the next few minutes.”

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The mayor looks to be about 16″ from heaven.

With all this talk of death and infirmity, it was about time for some goods news. And it came from a surprising place: the bank account.

“Our financials look better this month. We’re right at budget,” an employee at the lectern gestured to a colorful graph on the wall. “The yellow is–okay, first of all….” She paused and was clearly battling mixed emotions about the yellow portion of the chart.

“I revised all these charts because somebody didn’t like the colors and I didn’t really like the colors either,” she vented to the council members, who squinted their eyes to better comprehend her predicament.

She inhaled and got back on track. “As you can see, we’ve got $5.5 million [cash on hand], so we’re well covered.”

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Yellow? All I see is green.

The mayor abruptly swiveled in his chair and reached down for a few well-covered things of his own.

“We’ve got the budgets here.” He lifted a stack of binders, sliding them down the dais. “Take the one that’s got your name on it. Don’t take somebody else’s just to be ornery,” he scolded preemptively.

“I was still making changes after lunch today.” He let out an exhausted chuckle. “It’s not an excuse, but I’ve looked at it so much, it’s hard to catch mistakes in it now.”

Mayor, if you need someone to proofread the budget–and clandestinely add some puns and emoji–send it to me. My fee is a tiny $5.5 million in cash on hand.

Council Member Steve Mosley leaned forward like an intrigued professor who just thought of a reason to reference some fascinating new research. “I don’t know how many folks saw–this doesn’t have anything to do with us.”

He opened a newspaper. “It talks about Farmington, Arkansas. They recently found that they had some embezzlement going on for $1.5 million over seven years. He was basically taking money home. All they noticed was that traffic ticket revenue had gone down.”

He folded the paper and let the damning accusation settle in.

“Things can happen. So everybody has to stay alert.”

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One more reason for me to look over your budget!

Not to be outdone in the field of literacy, Council Member Vaprezsan gestured to his own magazine.

“I got the City & Town. If you haven’t had the chance to look at it, it’s pretty neat.” Not at all subtly, Council Member Jess Holt reached across and snatched the publication.

“Council Member Holt’s picture is ALSO in the magazine,” noted Vaprezsan as Holt flipped through it with fixation.

“So is Council Member [G.K.] Timmons and City Clerk Tina Timmons!” exclaimed Holt.

Whew! Maumelle made the news without a scandal.

#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.