State of the City Council Meetings Address 2018

sotu

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE–This evening, City Council Chronicles Editor Michael Karlik gave the second annual State of the City Council Meetings address to a joint session of Congress. Reports are that nearly all senators stayed awake and a stunning nine of ten House members did not walk out. By any measure, it was a success. Below is a rush transcript and audio of the entire speech, which is also available on iTunesStitcher, and Player FM:

Mr. Speaker, mayors, council members, Mom: ever since this project began in April 2016, we have chronicled the city council meetings of over 200 cities on four continents in eight countries. And none of them were sh*tholes.

Now, some have questioned my ability to chronicle that many city councils. But I assure you, as someone who is 6’3″ and 239 pounds–239? Is that what we’re going with, Doc? Great–and 239 pounds, I am in perfect health. I could easily do this for another four to eight weeks before I get bored and start reviewing Star Wars instead or something.

But I do not keep watch over the world’s city council meetings by myself. My team of unpaid interns with questionable citizenship status work 18 hours a day reviewing footage, checking Robert’s Rules of Order, and not finding out what OSHA is. And—do not clap for them! Justice Breyer, DO. NOT. Anyway, I am thankful for my interns and as soon as I find out what college credit is, I will consider giving it to them.

Speaking of being thankful, tonight we have some esteemed guests in the gallery. Sitting next to the First Lady is past podcast guest Andy Richardson, city councilman in Charleston, West Virginia, who has since announced that he is running for mayor. Good luck, Councilman. And remember, you’ll always be the mayor of my heart.

Next to him is Lauren McLean, council member in Boise, Idaho who, surprisingly, was elected her council’s president this year. Council Member McLean was a former Scottish Highland dancer, so she’s no stranger to unusual moves.

And finally, we have Fresno, California Council Member Esmeralda Soria, who appeared on the podcast back in December as council vice president, but totally and expectedly became council president this month. But get this: outgoing President Clint Olivier tried to pull a fast one on her by simply not handing over the gavel until she called him out.

When Council Member Soria appeared on the podcast, we talked about her council’s tradition of giving a parting gift to the outgoing president.

***

In case you were wondering, Clint Olivier received a watch and a Captain America portrait. And because he made it into this speech, I am also sending him a check for $10,000–what’s that? My horse lost at the track? Okay, scratch that. I am instead sending him, uh, let’s see…these, oh, these note cards that I am reading off of. So yeah, collectors items. Please clap.

Ladies and gentlemen, one brand new feature we rolled out this past year on the podcast was the Listener’s List–where anyone anyplace in the world could send me hot tips on city council hanky panky. We receive dozens of calls on the hotline each minute, so if you can’t get through, send your scoop to presssecretary@whitehouse.gov or through the City Council Chronicles Facebook page. One Listener’s List item became its own podcast episode last year, and it involved a marriage proposal in Flower Mound, Texas.

***

Thank you, Jimmy. And thank you, Mr. Mayor, for keeping my secret. You know, the one involving, uh, herpes. The State of the City Council Meetings address is typically a time for good news. But because I am standing in Congress, where you cannot swing a dead cat without hitting someone with the competence of a dead cat, let’s get into that weird sh*t. Huh?! Senator McCain, you know what I’m talking about!

I spoke with recently retired Councilor Alberto Garcia of Westminster, Colorado about a bizarre month-and-a-half his city council spent dealing with one colleague who had a score to settle.

***

I meant every word of that. Stand back! I’m soaked in deer urine. I don’t get much out of it, but it’s fun for the deer. Folks, normally the biggest threat a council member has to deal with is being yelled at by an angry public commenter. Oh, and bees. Bees are the silent killer. But in December, Lord Mayor Lesley Alexander of the city of Bristol walked me through a terrifying encounter she once had with a council saboteur.

***

That is why I never travel anywhere without my team of snipers. Plus, my own Colt .45. Stand back! It is loaded and soaked in deer urine. The deer was a little nervous but the gun enjoys it.

Well, I see the hour is getting late and half of the South Carolina delegation is falling asleep–and not the good half. I’m kidding; there is no good half. Let me finish this address by reminding everyone that city councils are human. They cannot solve all problems, and that limitation can be frustrating and depressing. Nowhere was that better illustrated than in Juneau, Alaska, when I talked with Assembly Member Jesse Kiehl. I leave you, the nation, and the world with this story of when councils fall short.

Advertisements

Interview #79: Amarillo, TX Councilmember Elaine Hays (with podcast)

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

Elaine Hays is a freshman council member–as is everyone else on the Amarillo city council. We talked about the changes they made, the coaching they are receiving, and what she is still getting used to.

Q: At your swearing-in on May 16, 2017, I noticed two things. First, were you aware that your son was standing behind you during this, the most important moment of your life, CHEWING GUM?!

A: No, I was not aware of that. I know that his posture made him look more like a security guard, that his siblings certainly gave him a hard time about!

Q: Mmhmm. The other thing I noticed was that Amarillo’s city council has five members, including the mayor. On May 16, how many of you were sworn in for your first council term ever?

A: All five of us.

Q: That’s right, Amarilloans wanted to drain the sw–hold on. Are you in a swamp?

A: We are dry. We are more of a desert area. So draining the swamp, we would take some extra water.

Q: Well, Amarilloans wanted to drain the des–okay, let’s put a pin in that metaphor. Is there anything that was really surprising to you about the way your council does things?

A: One of the things that surprised me was just the record keeping and the documents that–I’m sitting right now looking at this pile of material that stretches across my office that I’m required to keep for a certain time. If I make notes of anything, I have to keep that in case somebody wants a record of, “what was she writing? What did she make a note on?” I make a lot of notes. You cannot even delete junk clutter mail that comes to your official account. You just keep it all in there.

elaine
Amarillo, TX Councilmember Elaine Hays

Q: Something your council changed right away was the setup of the room. Before the council meetings, you guys have a work session. The council before you sat in a line on the dais as usual. However, you sit on the floor at tables close to the audience. Why would you leave your natural habitat?

A: Due to the open meeting laws in Texas, you can’t discuss amongst yourself except in a public meeting. Coming from a private industry background, that was a huge difference. The frustration–when you are sitting up on the dais, you are side-to-side. You don’t have those face-to-face conversations. We wanted to have more of a boardroom/conference type of conversation. I knew [the mayor] was going to suggest that and I was supportive of it.

Q: Your mayor, Ginger Nelson, brought in a coach to turn you guys into lean, mean, municipal governance machines. Why did she do this? Were things not going smoothly?

A: It was not to smooth things out. It’s education.

Q: As part of the coaching, you’re on the second chapter of Boards That Make a Difference. Have you read anything so far that’s applicable to your council meetings?

A: Our past council was very divided. It was very public. It’s been a complete switch: now there have been concerns where, “y’all have so many 5-0 votes.” One of the things from that book that I found interesting: “when you think alike, but you think differently.” With our board, I would say that we think alike in our value system. But we are going to think differently in how we get there.


Follow Councilmember Elaine Hays on Twitter: @ElainesEco

#147: Prescott, AZ 1/9/18

A new year meant a new, positive attitude at the Prescott city council.

“Mayor Pro Tem, do you have any introductions today?” quizzed Mayor Greg Mengarelli.

“It’s just great to see some new people in the audience,” replied a smiling Councilwoman Billie Orr.

The mayor turned and eyed the man to her left. “And Councilman…Sisch-ka?” he pronounced slowly, with some difficulty. “I’m trying!” he added as snickering arose.

“That’s all right, Mayor,” Councilman Steve Sischka nodded sympathetically. “I couldn’t pronounce it till I was 12 years old!”

“Mayor,” Councilwoman Orr interjected. “I do have one other thing. I was so excited to learn that Expedia named Prescott one of the 18 cities in the United States that you must visit in 2018. That’s a HUGE deal for us!”

prs1
But I only have the budget to visit 17!

However, the easy ride ended here. For one eagle-eyed and sharp-nosed councilman was ready to dive into the hard topics.

“I’m concerned about the escalating growth of this contract,” Councilman Phil Goode thundered about the city’s software update. “When is it gonna end?!”

“We’ve been on this software since 1998,” the IT director explained calmly. “It’s almost like ripping open a house: you hope for the best. You have a budget. Next thing you know, it was built out of solid lead. It has asbestos.”

prs2
So…the software has asbestos?

Granted, a solid lead house would be pretty alarming. But what about a 100-year-old dam?

“This item is for construction of the wet side of the dam,” an employee prefaced. “Some improvements to the gate valve.”

“Just so I can hear you say it: how long will this valve last?” questioned Councilman Steve Blair. “That’s an expensive valve.”

The employee waited a beat before mumbling: “a long time.” Council members chuckled.

“Is there a warranty on this valve?” Councilman Blair pressed.

“The existing valves on the dam go back to the original construction of it,” another staff member responded, scanning his brain for the precise year. “1931?”

WOW. An 87-year old dam valve is quite a scary–

“1919–” he corrected himself by looking down at his notes, “–the existing valves are from. It’s a knife gate. It’ll slide up and down on the front of it.”

While part of me wanted to see the 99-year-old knife gate live to see one hundred, Councilman Goode jumped in–this time defending a large expenditure. “I just want to make sure everyone understands that we don’t have a lot of options here. This HAS to be fixed.”

Indeed, it would be difficult for people to visit this Expedia “top 18” city if it was underwater. This just makes smart tourism sense.

prs3
Prescott: Home of the 99-Year-Old Knife Gate

Speaking of smart, one public commenter had clearly done his research on the pending loan ordinance for three wastewater projects.

“With regard to the emergency clause, I understand the need to close the loan within 30 days,” he began encouragingly. “But I’m looking at the emergency requirements under the charter, which require ‘the immediate preservation of the public peace, health, or safety.'”

He looked up and narrowed his eyes with suspicion. “Does closing the loan within 30 days meet that criteria?”

The city attorney leaned forward, obviously anticipating this question. “Emergency clauses are allowed under state law to preserve the public peace, health, safety, and welfare. That welfare provision is critical. Preserving the public welfare also includes the FISCAL welfare of the city.”

You hear that, Expedia? That prudence is cause for getting on the “top 19” list next year!

Interview #77: Westminster, CO Former Councilor Alberto Garcia (with podcast)

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

Alberto Garcia prefers “recovering councilor” to “former councilor,” which is appropriate because he had a lot to recover from. We talked about the two explosive issues of his final year in office: trash hauling and divisive comments by one of his colleagues.

Q: Alberto, we are talking two months after your council term ended, meaning you can say whatever you want. No, consequences, baby! Tell me–and please use as many F-bombs as you’d like–what is something you’ve been keeping bottled up inside about the Westminster council meetings?

A: If I was on council, I would go with the, “we have a wonderful team. We have great staff.” And all that is true.

Q: But….

A: But I cannot begin to describe to you how long these meetings were. I can tell you, many times that was not absolutely necessary. Sometimes you just say, “come on, we’ve talked about this for two hours. Let’s vote!” There is a cartoon I saw once in which Donald Duck and Porky Pig run for city council. Donald Duck wins. Then in his very first council meeting, he looks up at the clock and it’s 2 a.m. And the mayor says, “now on to agenda item number two.” And that is how I felt frequently!

Q: [Laughs] Well, Westminster has audio, but no video, of its council meetings. So I have no idea what your council chamber looks like, but let me attempt to describe it based on what I’ve heard. If I say anything that’s not accurate, please stop me right away.

A: Sure.

Q: Here we go: fully-nude can-can dancers. Burmese pythons. Air thick with hookah smoke. Heads of councilors who lost reelection mounted on the wall–

A: I’m still waiting for you to say something inaccurate.

Q: Perfect. Are you going to talk to your former council colleagues about getting on the same page as every other civilized municipality–plus Hoboken–and video steam these meetings?

A: I am going to raise this issue in the coming days about why we insist on staying in the past and not showing full transparency.

alberto
Westminster, CO Former Councilor Alberto Garcia

Q: One of the big issues from earlier last year was how the city was thinking about switching to a single trash hauler instead of the 13 or so trash hauling companies that operate now. Were you surprised that Westminster residents were massively protective of their garbagemen?

A: In the four years I was on council, that’s the thing that surprised me the most. I did not realize people’s affinity went: their parents, their children, and their trash hauler.

Q: How hard was it for you, the government, to focus on the facts when people were showing up to the meetings channeling Ayn Rand, talking about liberty and economic freedom?

A: I think that was our biggest mistake: “this is the right thing to do. It’s about sustainability, protecting our environment.” We had to go back to the very beginning and try to convince people that recycling is even necessary! This is a community that does not like change. There is a fear of change.

Q: One of your colleagues, Bruce Baker, made controversial comments during several meetings in a row. If you had been in his position, ideological outlier on a council, would you have adopted his approach?

A: Something I admire is that Councilor Baker did not mind voting no. If I was on a council, I would not take his tactics of attacking my colleagues. If I did not get the outcome I wanted, I would still feel comfortable voting no.


Follow Alberto Garcia on Twitter: @AlbertoinWesty

#145: Nacogdoches, TX 12/19/17

It may be the week before Christmas, but Tuesday’s Nacogdoches city council meeting scheduled an unfortunate, bitter showdown between neighbors.

The source of strife: whether to rezone a Garner Street home–mere yards from the hospital parking lot–from “residential” to “medical.”

Representing the affirmative side was the homeowner, a short woman with a heavy twang who appeared nervous and saddened to be begging for relief.

“Our home has been on the market for several years. We’ve accepted offers that did not go through,” she explained in frustration.

“We have been approached by a cardiologist who is wanting to purchase our property and make it his office,” she said, adding that he was “a highly trained, kind, and caring person….No selfish or self-serving motivation.”

nac1
So far, so good.

Her hand shook and she murmured “sorry” as she scanned the scattered paperwork on the lectern. “Could Mr. Wood speak about the property values?”

Mayor Shelley Brophy nodded sympathetically. “I would allow a brief statement.”

The supportive witness took the woman’s place. “They need to sell their home. When somebody offers you 15 percent more than what you’ve been saying–the only stipulation being the zone change–you have to pursue it,” he drawled.

“I was worried about her getting through this. It’s real emotional for her.”

The final speaker on the woman’s side was unmistakable: bald, bespectacled, and wearing robin’s egg blue scrubs, he was undeniably the aforementioned cardiologist.

“The key thing about this property is the proximity to the hospital,” he explained in accented English. “There’s a patient coming with a heart attack, you attend them and take care of them.”

nac2
Do no harm

Brushing aside traffic concerns, he gestured widely while elaborating upon the simple math. “I see 12, 15 patients a day, three days a week over an eight-hour period. Which means two cars coming and going an hour. That is NOT a traffic increase.”

Stepping up in opposition was a steady stream of neighbors on Garner Street, deeply disturbed about the decay of safety, the rule of law, and the moral fiber of the neighborhood.

A woman with long, dark hair and glasses appeared torn. “I have a lot of sympathy for the Morgans. I consider them friends. They’ve been neighbors for a long time.” She hesitated but for a moment. “For the greater good, please preserve our neighborhood.”

“We have two very small children,” a young mother pleaded. “We purchased this house with the vision of raising our little girls on a nice, quiet residential street where our children could play safely. It would absolutely destroy the integrity and appeal of Garner Street.”

“Apartments, offices, ambulance, hospice, nursing home, psychiatric hospital, boarding house, halfway house, or cemetery,” another man rattled off a list of boogeymen allowed by this “medical” rezoning.

Having sat quietly for half an hour, the council leaned forward to make an uncomfortable decision.

nac3
It’s a tough call.

“I’ll make a motion to deny the zoning change,” Council Member Garth Hinze offered bluntly.

“Doctor, you’re very well respected around town,” he addressed the cardiologist, then turned to the homeowners. “I feel your pain. But for the greater good…that’s why I voted the way that I did.”

“Mr. Norton, do you have comments?” Mayor Brophy turned to her left.

“I don’t have any comment.” Council Member David Norton wrung his hands and muttered quietly: “I’m a little surprised.”

With that, the vote was 4-0 to deny the doctor his office and the homeowner her sale. But the “integrity” of Garner Street? Mostly in tact.

Interview #75: Fresno, CA Councilmember Esmeralda Soria (with podcast)

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

Esmeralda Soria is in her first term on the Fresno council and discusses the elaborate gift-giving protocol for the outgoing council president with me. Plus, we analyze one difficult meeting involving the politics of religion.

Q: Each year, a different council member becomes the president. At the end of their term in January, they apparently get to pick out a parting gift for themselves. Can you tell us what the council is getting current president Clint Olivier?

A: We’re still working on that. I think people were very impressed by the last gift–the sign that says your name and then “President” at the bottom, which is what our former president, [Paul] Caprioglio, received.

Q: In 2015, Council Member Steve Brandau got a photoshopped picture of Texas Sen. Ted Cruz smoking a cigarette with tattoos all over his body. When you saw that, did you think, “huh, that seems like a perfectly wholesome and normal thing to give someone?”

A: Well, I don’t think that they were trying to be normal. I think they were trying to add a little humor to the parting gift! I think that was the intent.

Q: Let’s go back to May of this year. Council Member Garry Bredefeld looks at the wall behind you in the council chamber where it says “City of Fresno.” He says to himself, “this is missing something.” How did you first learn what he wanted to do?

A: It was something that Councilwoman–I forget her name–out of Bakersfield…[she] had sent an e-mail. Not just to him, to everyone. He was the only one that it caught his attention and thought it was a great idea to bring to Fresno. That’s how I first learned he was interested.

soria.jpg
Fresno, CA Councilmember Esmeralda Soria

Q: What you’re referring to is putting in big letters behind you, “In God We Trust” under the name of the city. You had over 40 commenters show up on both sides–cheering and yelling, calling this “needlessly divisive.” In the end, you and the entire council voted in favor of this. Did you have any unease over how the process went?

A: At the beginning, there was. I even expressed that to my council colleague. I felt that it wasn’t something the city needed to debate. It became a very divisive issue. But for me, I didn’t see anything wrong with putting our country’s motto on the dais. It wasn’t about religion. Every council meeting, we have an invocation. We invite people from all walks of life to do the invocation because we value diversity.

Q: I’ve got to say, I’ve watched a lot of your council meetings. It’s hard to take away a message that all gods are welcome given how frequently people refer to Jesus Christ in the invocation. Do you see how the actual proceedings would suggest that the council is not totally neutral?

A: I can see that. I can tell you–at least when I have the opportunity–I have the Sikh community come in here, someone from the Muslim community come, and it’s not about Jesus. It’s not a complete representation, but I can see your point.

Q: Did any of the extreme arguments you heard in that May meeting change your initial opinion?

A: I thought to some degree it was a waste of valuable time. The debate didn’t have to be that extensive.


Follow Councilmember Esmeralda Soria on Twitter: @Esmeralda_Soria

#143: Littleton, CO 12/5/17

Freshly sworn in and ready for business, the Littleton city council backed out of the driveway and, metaphorically, immediately hit the mailbox.

Not only were two new council members absent, but one citizen marched down to raise hell about “Candy and Cash”-gate.

“At the last meeting when the recognition of the council members who were leaving–let’s see if I say this right,” she dramatically donned her eyeglasses and stared at the transcript.

“Citizens asked for time to make recognition also. [One council member] said, ‘this group may give us candy.’ Council Member [Phil] Cernanec said, ‘we appreciate cash’ and I’m sure that was a joke.”

lit1
Ix-nay on the ash-cay.

She whipped off her glasses and point-blank recited how much the council members ten feet from her had received in campaign contributions from the cash-and-candy jokesters.

“I’m very concerned about special access for special interests. This raised all the red flags for me. I’m going to suggest it was out of order. I’m sure it was well-intentioned and I’m also sure that it was bad.”

Agreed. If there is one thing I cannot stand, it is jokes about bribery at a council meeting. (Although I am open to changing my views for a simple wire transfer of $8,000 or greater.)

Returning to the council meeting, the city attorney had another dire warning if Littleton didn’t change the definitions in its tax code.

“The legislature goes back into session on January 5. I have to tell the council it’s very, very critical that we do this,” he asserted with a wry smile.

“Property tax does not pay city bills. Sales tax does. If cities do not demonstrate this willingness to look at their tax codes, I think we will be at risk of having our sales tax authority impinged.”

The stakes were straightforward enough. The real heavy lifting, however, went to Council Member Kyle Schlachter, who read an ordinance title so lengthy and complex, it was almost as hard to comprehend as the tax code itself.

“I move to approve ordinance 35-2017 amending Title 3, Chapter 9, Sections 9-9-1-2, 3-9-3-2, 3-9-1-10, and 3-9-6-12 of the city code,” he announced triumphantly.

lit2
Noooooooooo! After all that hard work!

“I need a motion, please,” requested Mayor Debbie Brinkman, flipping through a routine emergency medical transportation enterprise fund budget.

“I move to approve the ordinance,” Mayor Pro Tem Jerry Valdes began calmly enough, “entering into a trust agreement for the Colorado Firefighters–”

“Nope!” the mayor halted him.

“I’m on the wrong one!” exclaimed Valdes, frantically poking at his tablet screen. “Take over, Kyle!”

“All right,” quickly rebounded Council Member Schlachter. “I move to approve the amendment to the Emergency Medical Transport Enterprise Fund 2017 Budget.”

lit3
He is getting quite the reputation as the council’s resident reader.

Eyeing the clock near the end of the meeting, Mayor Brinkman turned to the city manager. “City manager, do you have any report?”

“I do not,” he informed her cheerfully.

“Good,” she replied absent-mindedly. Audience members started to snicker, prompting her to quickly reconsider her choice of words.

“I mean, THANK YOU!” she gushed, somewhat facetiously. As the chuckling subsided, she gave a stern parting reminder to the council.

“I need those who have not given me their goals for 2018, please send me those by the end of the week.”

I can think of one goal: get Mayor Pro Tem Valdes a tutorial for that iPad.