This episode of the “Best Thing, Worst Thing” project has it all: drama. Suspense. My wife’s grandmother. Not only do we visit this far southern city, but we walk down an empty Main Street, ride into the mountains, and catch ourselves running through the desert in a panic.
For an explanation of the project, check out the page here. If you’re ready to hear a group of folks talk about the best and worst things about where they live–and what adventures I got into along the way–head over to the City Council Chronicles podcast to download the latest episode. Or you can play it below.
Episode 7: Las Cruces, New Mexico
Las Cruces is just one hour north of El Paso and the Mexican border in the hot desert of Doña Ana County, New Mexico. The population is 57 percent Latino. In this episode, we will watch a dust storm roll through the city, go on a nature hike in the Organ Mountains, and even get caught up in a medical emergency. We hear from a city councilor, a union president, a Belgian sailor, a classroom of college students, and my grandmother-in-law (who, by the way, makes a special request at the end of the episode).
I’ve seen city council meetings that were suspenseful, dramatic, or just plain mysterious.
But here in Half Moon Bay, they had a regular whodunit on their hands.
Nothing seemed amiss as council members watched a slide show about the library construction. It was a beautiful sunny day and the mayor was fresh off of handing a proclamation to a local women’s group.
But without warning, a photo flashed on screen of a gruesome crime scene.
“Uh, a little bit of an end note which I’m not happy about–nor should anybody be happy about,” a city employee grimly informed the next-of-kin, gesturing with a laser pointer to the explicit images. “A few months ago, we installed really nice gates at the Johnston House at the driveway. Over the weekend, somebody yanked those out and took them away.”
Too grief-stricken to talk, the council sat silently.
“We will be replacing those and perhaps going to a heavier duty steel,” the staffer shrugged. He added curiously, “we are very surprised that someone didn’t hear or see it. So if anybody sees a couple of new gates popping up somewhere, please let us know.”
No witnesses? No leads? I’m getting too old for this sh*t.
How is Half Moon Bay not swarming with FBI agents looking at DNA samples, tire tracks, and bodily fluids? Why are groundskeepers and handymen not being hauled in for questioning? Can we at least get checkpoints for all pickup trucks in the Bay Area?!
This didn’t add up either for Vice Mayor Deborah Penrose, the Sherlock Holmes of the council.
“How about putting a picture of the gates on our website?” she sharply inquired. “So if somebody runs across a gate they can say, ‘it’s that’ or ‘it’s not?'”
Aha! That’s just the kick in the pants this investigation needs. While we’re at it, put the picture on milk cartons. Send out an Amber Alert. Somebody check craigslist for–
“I wish I had a picture of the gates,” the man chuckled sheepishly. “We have the PLANS for them, but no one ever thought to take a PICTURE of the gates.”
He threw up his arms and let out a hearty laugh. “Who knew?!”
Oh, really? It’s awwwfuuuulllllyyyyy convenient that the city INSTALLED these gates but cannot identify them. Tell me, did the city have insurance on these gates? Are you going to collect a fat payout now that these gates are AWOL?
Also, who took those pictures AFTER the theft? Perpetrators often return to the scene of the crime.
This Gategate goes deep, folks.
And as it turns out, the Johnston House gates weren’t the only Bay Area booty to be held hostage.
“I went to a SFO roundtable which deals with airport noise,” announced Council Member Harvey Rarback. “One of the interesting things there: they made a recommendation to the FAA about the height and elevation at which planes can take off.”
He leaned into the microphone and furrowed his brow. “But the FAA is unable to change its regulations because the Trump administration says you cannot add a new regulation without taking away two other regulations. So if you think federal action isn’t affecting you, think again.”
Final thoughts: You know who needs lots of gates? Airports.
When I saw that half of the San José city council was wearing Star Trek uniforms at last week’s council meeting, my first thought was, “sounds about right.” My second thought was, “get [Councilmember] Lan [Diep] on the line!”
Q: Thank you for joining me on the holiest of high holidays: Silicon Valley Comic Con. What do you have planned?
A: I have the Great American Litter Pickup in the morning.
Q: Uh, I’m sorry, the “litter pickup?” Is that from the Marvel Universe or the DC Universe?
A: I think it’s one of the independent ones!
Q: Okay, on April 18 I had some downtime between watching the Milwaukee city council meeting and the Tallahasse city council meeting. So, like usual, I flipped over to San José and I saw you say this:
LD: Thank you, captain. Government: a fickle frontier. These are the voyages of the Starship San José. Its four year mission–possibly extendable to eight–to explore wonderful new policies. To seek out better quality of life…to boldy innovate where no municipality has innovated before!
Q: Uh, okay, “Starfleet Commander,” what was all that about?
A: Prior to that meeting, Councilmember Dev Davis hosted a flag-raising for the Silicon Valley Comic Con. We created our own flag for it. I’m not sure if the city did it or Councilmember Davis did or the Comic Con did. She invited Steve Wozniak and she got the entire city council involved to dress up in Star Trek uniforms. So we were there and Steve Wozniak was there and a bunch of Star Wars and other cosplayers showed up. Fun was had. We presented a commendation to Steve Wozniak for being a great ambassador for the city of San José. Councilmember Davis and myself and a few other people showed up wearing our Star Trek uniforms from the previous event.
Q: I noticed there were some different colors going on. Some people wore gold, others wore red or blue. What was the logic behind that?
A: My understanding is that red are the engineers. They get things done. The blue is the science group and the gold is the command group. A lot of us wore gold–we did not coordinate that!
Q: You and the mayor were both wearing gold. So if a disaster were to befall San José, would you two be on the same team?
A: I mean, everyone assumes that I was trying to be Kirk. But maybe I was just playing a type and being Sulu, the Asian on the Star Trek fleet!
It was breathtaking how quickly the good news kept rolling in to the Arvada city council chamber. But the best news was arguably reserved for the man who was nowhere in sight.
“[Councilmember John] Marriott is on a well-deserved vacation,” Mayor Marc Williams informed the unlucky working stiffs left on the dais. He added somewhat disdainfully, “South Padre Island.”
Nevertheless, Councilmember Nancy Ford beamed proudly at the Girl Scout named Emma who was standing expectantly at the podium. “Only three percent of Girl Scouts ever earn this,” she said, referring to the elusive Gold Award.
Excitedly, Ford grabbed Emma’s shoulders and spun her around, displaying a vest chock full of badges.
“Look at this!” exclaimed Ford.
Mayor Williams whistled. “Wow! You want to get a picture of that?!” The ladies mugged for the camera as people applauded the impressive garment.
Wardrobes dramatically shifted as Councilmember Mark McGoff congratulated the VERY casually dressed high school swimmers who took Emma’s place. “The JeffCo Hurricanes have won the 2017 Speedo Four Corners Sectional Meet in Lewisville, Texas,” he read.
“We work very hard as a team in the pool every night,” said their spokesperson, the most formally attired of the teens in a t-shirt and jeans. Another of their crew was in tie-dye and shorts–but the most questionable fashion choice was the standoffish young lad in a sleeveless hooded sweatshirt.
(I’m sure the dress code is considerably looser on South Padre Island. But even there, I doubt that sleeveless hoodies are couture.)
From sports to entertainment: a new movie theater was coming to town–but the president of Harkins Theaters knew there was only one way to make the announcement even sweeter.
“This is our senior vice president–also a Gold Award Girl Scout winner,” he gestured to the lady next to him.
“I was hoping to tell Emma congratulations, but she left!” the VP threw up her arms in mild dismay as the council guffawed.
The pair of Hollywood hot shots launched into a slide show of the finest, most luxurious theater Metro Denver would ever see.
“We’ll bring in local breweries. We have a new concession stand with hot food offerings and all-laser projection,” bragged the president. “The top picture is the recliner seats,” he nodded to the tantalizing stock photo of a family enveloped in cushioned bliss.
But while the theater reps were pumping the butter, Councilmember Ford pumped the brakes. “I did a little research on the cinema industry and I found conflicting reports,” she clasped her hands. “How do you see it performing in the future?”
“I’d say that reports of our demise have been greatly exaggerated,” the movie prez reassured her.
With that, Mayor Williams dramatically flourished a sheaf of papers. “I will now sign the contracts!” he boomed, sealing the theater deal.
Councilmember Bob Fifer politely interjected. “I just wanted to share: tomorrow I’ll be flying down to Arizona to speak about broadband. I gotta be at the airport by six in the morning. I was trying to tell the mayor I need to be done by 7:02,” he glanced at the clock.
“Mr. Fifer,” the mayor retorted, “I’ve seen a picture of you at the age of 24. I don’t think beauty rest is going to do you any good!” The mayor and a handful of audience members cackled as Fifer shook his head ruefully.
There is a lot of news to keep up with these days and it would be nice if someone explained what’s really important. Well, you’re in luck: there is a new episode of the “Best Thing, Worst Thing” project! For an explanation, check out the page here. Basically, you will be transported to a city or town where you (probably) have never been. You will hear from the locals about the things they like and the things they cannot stand.
So pack up your skis and put some hot chocolate in a thermos. Then head over to the City Council Chronicles podcast to download the latest episode. Or you can play it below.
Episode 5: Vail, Colorado
Photo source: Town of Vail
Vail is about 100 miles west of Denver in Eagle County, Colorado. Most people know Vail as home to the most popular ski resort in the country. But there is actually a town of 5,300 people who work at, ski on, or vacation near the resort. The town is fairly new–only 51 years old. It is a fantastic place for people who love the outdoors. But it is fairly remote in the Rocky Mountains. And it is increasingly adversarial for people who work there to also live nearby. In this episode, we hear from a journalist, an events manager, a school board member, a house cleaner, and a rabbi.
(And if you want to skip ahead to the fun radio play we did, here it is:)
You may recognize Lan Diep from his city council swearing-in ceremony during which he held a replica Captain America shield:
It was an inspiring moment. But let’s keep our eyes on the prize: he’s a freshman council member in San José (yes, it’s spelled with the accent mark) who is new to the city council meeting game. That’s why I asked him about his “jitters,” his boisterous first meeting, and who his amigas are on the council.
Q: Before your first meeting, you tweeted this:
I'll sit on the dais for the first time in about 30 minutes and boy, I gots the jitters. You got this, Lân… you got this!
A: You campaign for this thing and until you actually get up there, it’s this abstract idea. You can’t anticipate what the job will be like until you’re actually there. There has been a bit of an awakening–not good or bad. Just different.
Q: Is there some glaring disconnect between us watching you on the city council meetings and what you experience?
A: What I didn’t anticipate is that this would be a lifestyle. You can go to an event and see your mayor or your council member get on stage, say some nice words, and shake people’s hands, then leave. And you think, “wouldn’t it be great to have my name called out to be on that stage!” What you don’t realize is you’re still at that event, but the council member probably has three or four or five more events that day. The physical toll of that was a surprise to me.
Q: Your first council meeting was a doozy. You had a full house of mostly Vietnamese and Vietnamese Americans and the topic was whether San José would fly the flag of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam (communist Vietnam) or the Vietnamese Heritage and Freedom Flag. A hundred people came up and talked emotionally about what the communist flag meant to them. Did it surprise you to have that be so controversial?
A: Um, no. San José is home to the most Vietnamese people in any one city outside of Vietnam. Whenever they can, they do things like get their city government to oppose flying the Red Flag as a way to say to the government in Vietnam, “we reject your rule.”
Q: Is there someone on the city council you consider a best friend?
A: I have two people I feel close to. One is Council Member Dev Davis, who I jokingly call my “work wife.” [We] go around to events together. The other person I’m close to is Council Member Sylvia Arenas, who I’ve jokingly called my “best friend at work.” We made a video together reviewing the crab sandwich at McDonald’s that’s being offered for a limited time in San José!
Q: Lan, can you tell the listeners what you put in front of you on the dais during the council meetings?
A: [Laughs] I have a little Captain America Funko POP! figurine that I put in front of my computer monitor so when I’m speaking, he’s hanging out with me. I’m owning the Captain America thing that I unintentionally thrust upon myself. It was a surprise to me that a lot of people tweeted at me saying that I was cool or wished I was their council member. Some people called me an embarrassment. But what was really touching and unexpected were the people who said I presented to them some symbol of hope–I reminded them to look past party lines.
Follow Councilmember Lan Diep on Twitter at: @LTDiep
TJ Gilmore has been a city councilman since 2011. He’s also a Scoutmaster, an occasional tweeter of council meetings, and someone whose dad once came to watch him at city hall. He told me about the time someone got kicked out for using a naughty word!
Q: Some people probably don’t know that Texas has its OWN pledge of allegiance that you say at council meetings after the national Pledge of Allegiance.
A: That’s very true!
Q: When you moved to Texas and first heard the pledge, did you think, “this is cool! It’s doubly patriotic”? Or did you kind of roll your eyes and think, “this is such a quintessentially Texas thing to do”?
A: It is a totally Texas thing to do. When I was a small child, my father took a job in west Texas and I encountered it there for the first time. When we came back to live here in 2000, it popped back up and I went, “oh, there it is!”
Q: Can you remember any unruly or unexpected moments from your city council meetings?
A: The most entertaining one was almost two years ago, I think. We had a gentleman come in with his girlfriend and he decided that he wanted to talk about the Lewisville Lake Dam. We have a dam that’s run by the [Army] Corps of Engineers. It was in the news because it needed some repair.
A: So he came in and was–I don’t know if he was showing off for his young lady–but he decided that he would go into a tirade about why the city was not fixing the dam. It’s run by the federal government, so when he was given those facts he decided to curse. At which point, Mayor [Rudy] Durham said, “that’s it, you’re out!”
Q: Did they look like they were on a date? Or were they coming in because they were concerned about the dam?
A: I got the vibe that he was there to show off. Speak truth to power or something. That would be the first time I ever heard anybody drop the F-bomb in city council.
Q: I have noticed how relatively non-eventful Lewisville city council meetings are–which is what made this Facebook post of yours stand out to me:
What do you remember from that meeting?!
A: It went fine! My dad is 6’4″. He still rides horses and used to work for Sheriff Joe Arpaio as a prison guard. He tells it like it is.
Q: Well, he should be the one to kick people out if they’re f-in’ around in there!
A: There’s one thing I know in my family: I’m not ever gonna be allowed to allow my ego to overstep its bounds.
Q: One council moment I want to ask you about…in September 2011, Councilman David Thornhill died of a heart attack. The next council meeting, there was a tribute video with pictures of him and a eulogy from his son. Is it hard sometimes to be fully present in the council meeting when something like that goes on?
A: Oh, sure. Part of the importance of being up there is to relate to people and what they need. I think it’s important that we recognize the things we lose, the things we gain–what had value.