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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
“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!”
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.
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.
“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.
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!
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.
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.
But it was the fire department that had the last word.
“We’ve had interest from citizens about the Veterans Parade,” city manager LindaMcConnell 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.”
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?”
“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.
Success! Could there be anything more slam-dunk than a street named after a scion of the community?
“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?”
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.
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
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.”
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.”
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.