#170: Albemarle, NC 10/1/18

If there was any concern about the Albemarle city council’s attention to detail, their extensive combing of last meeting’s minutes laid those doubts to rest.

“Where it’s talking about the boarding kennel–it says boarding kennels are currently ‘now allowed’ in downtown,” Councilmember Chris Whitley read from the draft minutes. “Are they ‘now allowed’ or ‘not allowed’?”

“It should be ‘not allowed,'” replied city manager Michael Ferris.

Whitley nodded. He added, somewhat apologetically, “I promise I’m not going to nitpick in these things–”

“One other little correction,” interjected Councilmember Dexter Townsend. “Although I do concur with her comments, I think it was Councilmember Hall that congratulated Colleen Conroy on her win for ‘Dancing With the Stars’ instead of me.”

“And while you’re doing that,” Mayor Pro Tem Martha Sue Hall jumped into the fray of picked nits, “I congratulated Lisa on the play at Central School. It doesn’t make any difference to me but….” She trailed off, suggesting that it really would be nice to credit her for the item after all.

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Credit where it’s due

Mayor G.R. “Ronnie” Michael glanced down at the public comment list. He called the name of the only man signed up, who slowly approached the podium.

“I believe you have pictures before you concerning the condition of trees on Richardson Street,” he began. “I’m scared to walk down through there. I don’t need a rainforest and that’s what it looks like to me.”

“Looking at this first picture,” the mayor interjected, “there’s a utility pole–

“Yeah, there is,” muttered Mayor Pro Tem Hall.

“–there’s a wire going across from right to left. Y’all have been fortunate not to have some ‘other’ things occur.”

The city manager attempted to reassure everyone that a live electrical wire was not booby trapping Richardson Street. “I’d bet that’s not a primary electric line or else you’d have outages,” he speculated.

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Oh good, just a secondary electric line

“We wanna clean the street up but we don’t wanna put our lives in jeopardy either,” the man shrugged.

“Did they ever pick up the mattresses down there?” Councilmember Townsend wondered.

“That’s another problem,” sighed the commenter. “With all that overgrowth, people feel like they’re at the city dump.”

Council members nodded, thanked him for coming, and promised that someone would do something about the rainforest and mattress repository.

Mayor Michael flipped the page to an agreement with Pfeiffer University. “Council, we have a section in our agreement with them that talks about reversion. The request is we approve allowing staff to remove the reversion agreement.”

Councilmember Chris Bramlett gave his best shot at making that motion. “I move that we assign our whoever-it-is to remove whatever-it-is.”

Other council members snickered as the mayor patiently reworded the statement into something more proper.

“Allow staff to work with the economic development attorney that drew the agreement to remove the reversion,” he elaborated.

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Thanks, Mayor Whoever-You-Are

It wasn’t the last clarification he would have to make. Minutes later, Mayor Pro Tem Hall asked if she could table the business park design contract until their next meeting.

“Council, do you have any problem with tabling it?” Mayor Michael asked, receiving no reply. “Okay, we’ll table it.”

“Is there a reason?” Bramlett exclaimed, holding his hands palm-up in an exaggerated shrug.

“Council usually gives a gentleman’s agreement to allow a council member to ask for a continuance,” the mayor revealed.

Bramlett flashed a gentlemanly thumbs up and a smile. “Still learning!”

#169: Van Buren, AR 9/24/18

Mayor Bob Freeman swung around to the front of the council dais and glanced down at his notes momentarily before turning to the two women at his side.

“In July of this year–make sure I’ve got this correct,” he instructed them, “–in July of this year, y’all had gone to a movie?”

“Yes,” replied each woman in turn.

“When you came outside, you noticed there was a gentleman–or, you noticed there was a truck that the engine was revving?” the mayor continued.

“Yes, sir.”

“Yes.”

“So you went to the truck–”

“We actually went around the truck,” one woman jumped in to steer the story in the correct direction. “I looked over because it was revving up so much. The gentleman had slumped over and I knocked on the window trying to see if he could hear me. He was unresponsive.”

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(S)heroes!

She indicated to the good Samaritan next to her. “I had her go get somebody to help. I went around to the driver’s side. Luckily it was unlocked. I pulled him out. She helped me with CPR.”

“You applied CPR,” Mayor Freeman picked up again now that the details were ironed out. “Revived him. Between your actions, you saved his life.”

After the photos and as the mayor plopped down in his seat, he remembered one other brave soul in the room.

“Alderman Swaim had knee replacement one week ago today and he’s here tonight. That’s why he did not stand for our pledge and we’ll say that’s okay!”

Alderman Alan Swaim raised a ringer and quipped: “I did not kneel either!”

That prompted a huge laugh from the room–perhaps from the topical humor and perhaps a window into Swaim’s own views on kneelers.

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Truly presidential

There was something eating at Mayor Freeman. He started off inauspiciously enough by describing a meeting with the county sheriff’s department.

“Last Monday night, [I] went to the Facilities Commmitee meeting because they were discussing the rates that they charge municipal governments for inmates,” he explained. “Our rate has been $10 a meal. We haven’t actually paid $10 a meal until the last year and a half because we haven’t had inmates in the jail.”

He continued, “they are looking at raising that rate. I asked for an opportunity to see the numbers. We sat there through the committee meeting and we left and were later informed that they had gone ahead with an ordinance to raise the rate to $50 a day.”

The mayor frowned deeply. “What disappoints me is the fact that I asked to see the number and that was just ignored. There’s a piece of me that feels I’m being taken advantage of because I am a lame duck. ‘We can do it because the mayor’s leaving anyway.'”

“I’m not!” piped up Alderman Jim Petty to reassure the mayor whose team he was on.

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Stick together!

After Mayor Freeman had vented, it reminded Alderman Darral Sparkman of something.

“Chief, I just wish you’d tell your officers–those deputies or whoever it is run up and down this highway do not turn on their lights, and they drive at light speed!” he railed. “We have been hit nearly three times!”

“Are you talking about our officers?” Mayor Freeman quizzed.

“No, the sheriff!” Sparkman exclaimed. “These guys never turn the lights on!”

It seems like the bad blood with the sheriff’s office runs deep in Van Buren. Let’s hope they clean up their act in time for the next mayor.

Interview #103: Louisville, KY Council President David James (with podcast)

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

David James is a longtime Louisville Metro councilman who became president this year. We talked about an odd twist to the oath of office, how council members spend money in meetings, and about the sexual harassment proceedings against a former councilman.

Q: On January 11 you became the new council president. And I hope you’ll forgive me when I say that the more interesting part of that meeting was when your clerk was sworn in a few minutes later. This was part of the oath:

Do you further solemnly affirm that since the adoption of the present constitution, you have not fought a duel with deadly weapons, nor have you sent or accepted a challenge to fight a duel with deadly weapons, nor have you acted as a second in carrying a challenge?

How big of a problem is dueling in Kentucky that it has to be part of the oath?

A: Apparently back in the day it was a huge problem in the state of Kentucky and they have left that as part of the oath that everybody takes throughout the state, I guess for historical and cultural purposes.

Q: You used to be a police officer. How many times would you break up a duel by saying, “hey. Hey! If you don’t cut it out, you’ll never be sworn in as a municipal officer!”

A: It never happened! I don’t think anybody would listen to me anyway.

Q: We could talk about dueling all day, but this program is about city council meetings. The Louisville Metro council is a smorgasbord of intrigue that makes the Minneapolis city council look like the Branson board of aldermen! Can you explain what “neighborhood development funds” are?

A: Each council member receives $75,000 a year in neighborhood development funds that they get to assign for different purposes. Whether that is to help a nonprofit, or if that’s to put in lighting in a railroad underpass, or if that’s to fund some other organization doing good work in the community.

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Louisville, KY Council President David James

Q: So if you had an organization that, say, produced quality audio content about city council meetings and they wanted to apply, and there was a council member or even council president who supported that cause, how would I–I mean, that organization, get some of that easy cash–I mean, neighborhood development money?

A: You apply for the grant. You have to list your board members and what you’re going to do with the funding. And it’d be up to the council member to introduce it and council would vote on it yes or no.

Q: In the meetings, when council members distribute money through NDFs, it’s like a slowed-down version of an auction. Is it that spontaneous when it happens in a meeting?

A: People have already signed on for X number of dollars by the time it gets to that point. They come to the council meeting as a last opportunity to join in on that. Once we have voted on it, you can’t add any more money to it. It’s the last opportunity.

Q: It’s like going door to door as a Girl Scout selling cookies, and your mom just gets the rest of the orders at her office that day to backfill it.

A: That’s it. There you go.

Q: There is this overtone of salesmanship in these NDFs and it can take the form of guilting people into spending money.

A: Oh, absolutely.

Q: I get that this is politics and you have to be a bit of a cheerleader, but does any of this seem more theatrical than it needs to be?

A: No, not really. You’re just advocating for the particular cause that you believe in.


Follow Council President David James on Twitter: @CouncilmanJames

Interview #99: St. Petersburg, FL Council Member Darden Rice (with podcast)

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

Darden Rice is the District Four council member in St. Pete and we spent time dissecting her city’s restrictive public comment period. Then we practiced convincing teenagers to come and speak to the council! (BONUS: Info about International #CityHallSelfie Day.)

Q: Council Member, I was angry when I heard that only city residents, owners of property, business owners in the city, or their employees could speak in your meetings–and only on city government issues. Does this mean I am not allowed to come and tell you folks why “Shrek 2” was better than the original “Shrek?”

A: Yeah, there might be some issues if you wanted to speak if you’re not a St. Pete resident. Although you could call your friends, like Council Member Darden Rice, and I could invite you to come talk about “Shrek.”

Q: I do know it’s highly unusual for a council to limit the kinds of people who can speak during a public comment. What would you say to the argument that, as a representative, you are obligated to hear what your people are concerned about? Even if that concern is not, strictly speaking, about city business?

A: I think you’ve got a really good point. I tend to be a little more liberal in the application of what rules we use. But at the end of the day, it is on advice from our legal team that the people that speak–because there’s limited time–that we honor those who are residents.

Q: Practically though, how do you screen out people who don’t meet those criteria?

A: There’s really a trust system involved. It’s so rarely that someone doesn’t meet the criteria.

Q: For the record then: if the Queen of England herself walked into the St. Pete council meeting for open forum and you had your suspicions that she was not a resident, you would still not say, “sorry, Mum, I’ll need to see the address on your driver’s license first?”

A: I would imagine that our chairperson of council would give the courtesy of the Queen to speak at council.

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St. Petersburg, FL Council Member Darden Rice

Q: Recently, Council Member Steve Kornell had an idea to ask the ministers you invite to do your invocations to also bring children from their youth groups to speak at council meetings. Can you explain what this procedure is supposed to look like? And please do use words like “dope” or “extra” in your answer.

A: [laughs] I think it has a good intention. I think it would take a lot of work bringing kids and getting them out of school to come and speak to council. I haven’t really thought about whether this is an idea I think is really great or if it’s just gonna make meetings run a lot longer.

Q: Let’s do a role-playing exercise. Let’s pretend you are a minister about to give the invocation–Presbyterian, if you need to get into character. And you are trying to convince me, a moody teenager, to come and speak during the open forum.

A: Hey, Michael. This is Pastor Darden Rice and we are gonna go up and talk to city council today. I’d like you to share some issues you have going on at school and talk about how safe you feel in the neighborhoods or not and just let your elected officials know about what it’s like living in St. Pete. How does that sound?

Q: Ugh, city council? That sounds like old people stuff. You are embarrassing me so hard right now in front of my phone. I will not be on camera without a filter. No way. #noway.

A: Hey, Michael, I think you ought to give this a second thought. When young people show up, we really listen. I think it would be a great learning experience.

Q: It’s not gonna be boring is it? My boyfriend went to an Ed Sheeran concert and said it was super boring and I’m worried this will be like the Ed Sheeran concert.

A: It won’t be boring because you’re just staying for the beginning of it. I promise.

A: Okay, fine. Only if I can text my friends about how I’m at the city council meeting and they’re not so they’re lame.


Follow Council Member Darden Rice on Twitter: @DardenRice

#164: Titusville, FL 7/24/18

It was awards season in Titusville! I don’t mean the Emmys, the Tonys, or the Fakies, but rather the Titusville Employee of the Month trophies, which went to an impressive roster of innovators, life-savers, and jokesters.

First up, the Water Production Department:

“Back in March, this is where we change our disinfectant byproducts. In previous years, this process has taken about two weeks. John was able to turn it into a two-day process.

Next, the police chief:

“Vinny got involved–all the merchandise back and bad guy goes to jail.”

And closing out the honors, the clerk’s office:

“I probably shouldn’t say this, but the last thing Shane did when he left as an intern–he was doing some of our advertisements. There’s something called alt-text where you can hover over a picture. It was a chili festival or something. A few days after he left, somebody hovered over it and it says, ‘ooh! Hot and saucy!'”

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Quick, someone check Titusville.com for alt-text

But the next item had potential to get more heated than a four-alam chili: whether to rename South Street after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

“This is important because Dr. King expressed his dream that all minorities would be treated fairly,” an older man in a vest testified. “Renaming the street will emphasize not just the black minority but all minorities–the Asian minority, the Indian minority, Japanese, Chinese, and even the women minority.”

It was a compelling argument. Although to be frank, the reasoning of Vice Mayor Matt Barringer was less about including minorities (even “the women minority”), and more about raw bureaucratic expediency:

“The benefit is that there’s no street addresses, so it becomes much easier.”

The vote to go forward passed unanimously.

Barreling right along like a hurricane up the Florida coast, the council turned to one final teensy, tiny rezoning request for small homes near Park Avenue. Seems like a no-brainer and we can just–

“I’m not an engineer and I’m not fancy with a degree or nothing, but it just doesn’t seem like a practical area to build homes,” a man in a red Polo shirt protested with a swaggering “I’m no big-city lawyer” tone.

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Ooh, hot and saucyDAMN IT, SHANE!

That kicked off a cavalcade of concerned residents protesting this wetland building spree.

  • “You’re talking about homes that are 50 foot long and 20 foot wide. That’s a fishing boat!”
  • “I believe your intelligence is wrong.”
  • “If god had made square wetlands, it would’ve been a lot easier. But he didn’t.”

At one point, Mayor Walt Johnson perceived that a commenter was itching to say more after the timer had expired.

“You need some more time, sir?” the mayor gently quizzed.

“Uh,” the man mused, “two minutes. You need uplands for the–”

“One second, please,” the mayor halted him, seeking a motion from council to extend the time. It was a kind and merciful gesture. A one-time exception. Except…

“You need additional time?” Mayor Johnson asked the next woman who ran over. “How much?”

“Two minutes?” she offered hesitantly.

“That’s what I’m looking for,” he grinned. Fine, twice in one meeting is extremely benevolent and certainly not–

“Need more time?” the mayor prompted yet another commenter who ran over.

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Would someone get a whip for the mayor to crack??

Finally, the applicant for the housing stepped forward indignantly. “The lady that spoke before had a parade of horribles of things that happen maybe once in a while and acted like they happen all the time! We’re not gonna wipe out the wetlands,” he insisted.

Mayor Johnson frowned. “I’d like to see everybody at least have a shot at talking together and making something better,” he murmured.

And in classic fasion, the council that gave everyone two more minutes gave themselves two more months to figure it out.

Interview #94: McDonough, GA Councilwoman Sandra Vincent (with podcast)

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

Sandra Vincent has been on the McDonough city council for over a decade and only recently experienced her first meeting about tattoos and piercings. We also covered her frustration over a park and what that meant for a business owner who wanted to comment upon it.

Q: Last year, there was one part of the city employee handbook that bothered you–the council was trying to limit tattoos and piercings. Was this the first time in your more than a decade on the city council that this subject came up?

A: There have been other times we discussed dress code. I don’t recall there being another time when we specifically were creating policy that descriptive around tattoos. Tattoos, even though I don’t have a tattoo and don’t particularly like them, culturally there are more young people who are into tattoo wearing. To say that we’re not going to hire individuals with tattoos above the neck is to limit ourselves.

Q: How surprised were you that the others did not see it your way?

A: I was extremely. I think I had a weeklong debate with my four daughters. What was even more odd is that there were people presenting in the audience that evening who represented the local chamber [of commerce], one of which had tattoos and a mouth piercing!

Q: No way!

A: I was sitting there thinking, this is a professional woman that has just presented this amazing piece to us. She has tattoos and piercings and we’re saying that if you exemplify those characteristics, that’s not considered professional. I almost felt like I had been propelled back about 20 years.

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McDonough, GA Councilwoman Sandra Vincent

Q: At the meeting on April 18, 2016, you moved to add a discussion of the Overlook subdivision park to the agenda. But other council members said they had already told people that there would be no discussion and therefore it should stay off the agenda. How sympathetic were you to that reasoning?

A: I wasn’t. Initially, the Overlook discussion was on the agenda. In that chamber were somewhere between 50 and 75 individuals from the Overlook community who had come out. Somebody took it off [the agenda].

Q: After you gave a presentation despite the mayor trying to gavel you down, the audience applauded and you left the chamber. Do you remember where you went?

A: I walked outside of chambers through the back door to try and capture myself. I went out and did have a conversation because those are people that I represent. I think the most heartbreaking thing was an elderly gentlemen–he just kind of looked at me and said, “Ms. Vincent, what do we do now?”

Q: When you came back in the room, you and a public commenter had an exchange in which you wanted her to state that she did not live in the city, despite owning a business there. Did you have a history with that person?

A: The commenter had concerns regarding the park. My response concerning whether or not the individual lived in McDonough was germane to the fact that there were almost 75 individuals who live in the city that were refused an opportunity to speak. We’re talking about specific issues for a particular geographic area and this business is across town. I don’t see how it’s fair to not disclose the fact that the person is not a resident.


Follow Councilwoman Sandra Vincent on Twitter: @sandravincent

#158: Columbia, SC 6/5/18

“It’s amazing. You referenced the prophet Isaiah–‘come let us reason together’,” Mayor Steven Benjamin mused after a pastor wrapped up his invocation and the audience lifted their heads.

“We’re gonna move to defer item 41 for two weeks in the interest of everyone talking together again. Let’s see if we can get some good discussion.”

Eying the standing room-only crowd–some wearing color-coordinated t-shirts–the mayor added, “we’re not gonna be voting on the healthcare plan tonight. Some of you obviously have other things that you need to be doing.”

A cacophony of disgruntled murmuring arose as a mob of people lined up for the door. Council members sat stiffly and Mayor Benjamin fingered the gavel just in case.

“Please keep it down just a tad bit!” he hollered.

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“See you in two weeks, everyone!”

The crowd may have left, but the fireworks were just getting started.

“Mr. Mayor, I am opposed to this because this is another start of tax breaks for student housing in the city of Columbia,” insisted Councilman Howard Duvall indignantly.

“I respectfully disagree,” Mayor Benjamin replied calmly. “We’re gonna be able to disagree on policy and respectfully disagree.”

For the third time in under a minute, he clarified, respectfully: “But I respect your ability to disagree.”

With that, the fury fizzled. Everyone got on the same page and with rocket speed approved one item after the other–only pausing long enough for Councilman Duvall to exclaim:

“Those were the most detailed plans I’ve ever seen for a bicycle repair rack! About 16 pages!”

All of a sudden, as the clerk prepared to call the roll, Mayor Benjamin stood up and wandered over to Duvall, deliberately switching off the councilman’s microphone and whispering in his ear.

“Mr. Duvall?” the clerk prompted.

With the two men gossiping off mic, Councilwoman Tameika Isaac Devine glanced over. “Howard, say ‘aye’,” she coached.

Duvall whipped around and blinked. “Aye!” he declared, spinning back to continue with the mayor.

Apparently, Mayor Benjamin is a master of keeping secrets. Not five minutes later, he again sprung up to have a side chat with Councilman Edward McDowell, all the while keeping far away from the microphones.

What was he plotting? A surprise party for someone’s birthday? A legislative coup? A strategic ploy to make the front page of City Council Chronicles?

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Mission accomplished, chief.

Councilwoman Devine raised her hand. “I would just say, regarding mainly our land use boards, the new members will have to go through training.”

She fired a warning shot to the newest crop of board members. “They are sitting and representing the city. They need to hear people out. They need to be respectful. And they need to follow the law.”

I would add a final commandment: they need to avoid having side chatter in a business meeting. (Not directed to anyone in particular!)

Moving on to public comment, a man with a striped tie sternly informed council members, “I myself on May 27 was the victim of racial profiling. I wasn’t pleased.”

Then, in a possible attempt at intimidation, he cautioned: “I told your chief, once my people come from Seattle, we will be organizing protests.”

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Seattle knows how to protest, Your Honor.

It didn’t work on Mayor Benjamin. “They’re welcome to come from Seattle, my friend,” he nodded. “We have porous borders. If you are in the borders of the United States of America, you’re welcome to have your positions heard. Happy to talk with you.”

We know you are, Mayor. We know.