The atmosphere was pleasantly calm in the Middletown council chamber. Perhaps that had something to do with Mayor Larry Mulligan, Jr.’s preferred icebreaker: “If you’d please stand and join me in a moment of meditation,” he directed, precipitating a hush across the room.
If the vibe wasn’t mellowed enough, they certainly brought in the right person to finish the job: the director of the library.
“Book Mobile hit the road again. First time since 1988,” he announced with the excitement of, well, someone who works at a library. “Regularly stopping around 22 different schools, they’ve seen about 14,000 people on the Book Mobile.”
The first Book Mobile in 30 years? The first since the invention of the World Wide Web? Since Taylor Swift was born? The first since the U.S. and Russia were enemies and–well, okay, the Book Mobile didn’t miss that part. But like any 30-year-old, it can’t live with its parents and needs a place of its own.
“We have a garage project. That will be the permanent home for the Book Mobile,” the director said. “We’ll also have some staff there that can pull in, run in, restock the Book Mobile, and head back out. That’s exciting.”
A resurrected Book Mobile was only part of the reason to celebrate in Middletown. “We actually got compliments on the fireworks!” exclaimed Council Member Ami Vitori. “I think maybe they were a little longer this year. Just long enough to make everyone happy. AND THEN THEY KEPT GOING!” she breathlessly recapped the experience.
“Really enjoyed the activities downtown–First Friday, the ice cream social event,” Mayor Mulligan reminisced. “I heard they gave out over 350 pieces of ice cream. Some of us just stopped at the adult beverages and not the ice cream.”
Mewonders how many adult beverages it takes for someone to call scoops of ice cream “pieces of ice cream.”
But there was a bigger problem confronting Middletown–and it wasn’t the historical lack of book mobiles or compliments for the fireworks.
“Since my involvement with the city back on the financial oversight committee in 2004, you know that’s–man, 14 years ago. Time flies when you’re having fun, I guess,” the mayor deadpanned. “The roads have been a real area of concern.”
He continued on a long monologue with a message of: hey, we need to wake up and smell the asphalt.
“While I’m certainly not a proponent of higher taxes, the financial landscape has changed quite a bit. We need to come up with some creative solutions,” he warned. “While other cities are at a two percent tax or more, we’re still below that. We could really get a lot of paving done, truly extend those deteriorating roads another 25-30 years.”
The clerk read the giant text displayed onscreen. “An ordinance to impose an additional one-quarter percent income tax effective January 1, 2019 for period of ten years to be used solely for the construction, repair, improvement, and maintenance of streets and roads in the city.”
She paused, then added: “We’re not requesting any action until August 7.”
“Be aware,” the mayor mused, glancing around the dais to the three other council members present, “to make our August 8 deadline to get it on the ballot, it will require four votes from council.”
For the sake of the Book Mobile, I hope they have them.
Branden Dyer spent 2011-2015 on the Charlotte (rhymes with “car lot”) city council, was defeated for reelection, but was appointed back on the council this March. The difference in tone between 2015 and 2018 is night and day.
Q: In your final meeting during 2015, you said you felt that the “negative campaign” against you was a distraction. Your city is only 9,000 people; don’t take this the wrong way, but what was there to be negative about in Charlotte?
A: A group of individuals who were not happy with the situation made an effort to remove me and other individuals from council. You kind of expect it in national elections, but there was a lot of rumors, a lot of negative Facebook comments and attacks.
Q: Some meetings, commenters seemed to imply the council was a rubber stamp for the city manager. Was that part of the tonal shift in Charlotte politics?
A: Yes. Their intention was to get rid of the city manger. When they made a move to not renew the city manager’s contract, there was a significant community uproar and they eventually backed down.
Q: Did you ever feel any pressure on council to go out of your way to question or oppose the city manager’s recommendations because you had this accusation of a rubber stamp being hurled at you?
A: No, I had no qualms with disagreeing with the city manager. But also, the city manager has a PhD literally in city management and I do not! In this age of complex government regulations and techniques, I think it’s best to defer to the expertise.
Q: Well, I have a PhD in making quality municipal affairs audio content (obviously from the University of Phoenix), but it is 100 percent impossible to look at any of your council meetings from 2015 without noticing a young man named Zachary who was a candidate for mayor and an unrelenting critic of your government. What was his deal?
A: [He] was a disgruntled citizen that definitely exercised his five minute public comment limit down to the second at every chance he got. I tried to get him involved on a city committee but he never responded to my offer. After losing the mayor race, apparently his concerns were satisfied or he just kind of disappeared.
Q: He was pretty much in there nonstop to troll you guys and, I’m assuming, get free video of his speeches for his campaign. How did you respond to being baited?
A: Zach never really came after me personally. [The mayor] did not choose to run for reelection. Her term as mayor was difficult on her. Zach routinely attacked her and the city manager personally. The environment and vibe on council was a lot different than when I first went on council and my current term on council. “Toxic” is not really the word I want to use, but I think that’s kind of the best way to describe it.
Q: Was part of the reason you wanted these meetings videotaped and put online so that people who were not the attackers could look at what you were encountering and kind of sympathize with the situation?
A: I don’t think I was necessarily looking for sympathy, but you want everybody to be informed. The group that came against me and other council members were very savvy at using social media. They could get their view out there, and I wanted to be sure there was an official record so that if individuals chose to, they had the ability to see what actually happened instead of taking one viewpoint from one group in town. I wanted to make sure things weren’t skewed.
Dueling realities were on full display in the council chamber, where on the one hand city leaders boasted that they were Making Inglewood Great Again, despite evidence that things were actually a bit of a bonfire.
Even the city treasurer was conflicted about the state of things as she started off the meeting with a positive report that the city’s “gross investment interest earnings is $6,902.”
However, “just a little report regarding global debt,” she pivoted. “Global debt has risen to more than $247 trillion, which is 318 percent of the world’s gross domestic product.”
I’m not an economist, but it seems like all the world needs is a slight 318 percent increase in GDP and problem solved, no?
But fear not: the meeting was not simply a platform to realize that faraway debt is a problem. It was a platform to realize that nearby city hall is a problem.
“This is a lawsuit filed by an assistant pastor,” a commenter waved around a sheet of paper at the lectern. “He says, quote, ‘this is about abuses of power and civil rights perpetrated by the city of Inglewood through its current mayor, James T. Butts.'”
With his voice raised, the man summed up the lawsuit in a single sentence: “He says both the mayor and his assistant used intimidation and defamation to try to ruin his career and have him shunned.”
To conclude, “at least one other community paper reported on this, but in order to hide problems with this mayor, Inglewood Today is hiding problems from the public.”
“I don’t appreciate anyone, not even the mayor, suggesting that I choke myself at a public meeting,” the next woman began, sadly providing no further context. “I wonder how many situations are going to be created where someone sues us for a hostile work environment that YOU created. I hope that everyone goes on the Internet and checks out the Daily Breeze story.”
So to recap: one media outlet is covering the hostile work environment. Another one is hiding problems. And a third one is, apparently, giving the mayor glowing coverage.
“I’d like to congratulate the mayor for his interview on ‘Eye on Newsmaker,'” Councilman George Dotson heaped on the praise. “I’ve heard nothing but great comments. I’ve had people call me wanting to see it over again.”
“I also wanna congratulate you,” fawned Councilman Alex Padilla. “You talk about putting Inglewood on the map for all the right reasons.”
Mayor Butts grinned at this 180-degree tonal shift, knowing that amid all this talk about choking and intimidation, he had the final word.
“I’m glad that we have one person the Breeze can always go to to tell us how bad we’re doing. But they can only find one!” he joked. “There are media broadcast outlets that wanna know the real story of what’s going on in this city.” (I am assuming The Chronicles falls in that category, Your Honor.)
Then as he prepared to adjourn the meeting, the mayor reached full-on elder statesman mode.
“Remember, this is an election season. And there’s gonna be all kinds of crazy lawsuits filed and all kinds of stories,” he said quietly but forcefully. “Look at the results. Look at the reality of what’s going on here. Not all the smoke and the distraction. This is the new Inglewood.”
Well, it will be once the “crazy” lawsuit is cleared up.
The thing you need to know about Hillsboro is: they have fun. Whether it’s art in the council meetings or elaborate comedy routines at the state of the city, creativity abounds in the Hillsboro council chamber. City manager Michael Brown elaborates on why that is.
Q: I am impressed by the range of creative expression that gets showcased in Hillsboro. Just in the past six months, you had artists, you had high school performers, and–my favorite–you had second and third graders dressed up as historical figures from Hillsboro. Is there any segment of society or culture that you would like to be featured in your council meetings?
A: Anything. We view our council meetings as basically a community gathering where half of it is creating performances and different ways to connect with the community. And the second half’s a business meeting. The ones that stand out to me are musicals. Those are really, really fun.
Q: Do those ever make you wish you were on the opposite side of the dais entertaining the audience?
A: No, not anymore. I tried to do acting when I was in high school and the acting director pulled me aside and said, “you know, I think you’d be better as a stagehand.” I worked in the back of the stage, not the front.
Q: Is that a good philosophy for a city manager? Be the stagehand, not the leading lady?
A: [laughs] There’s different expectations council has for you, whether you’re out in front or behind. I like being in the background with charismatic, smart, intelligent leaders out in front of me.
Q: Something completely unexpected to me was watching your state of the city address. Normally across cities, these things are pretty uneventful. The mayor gets up there; rattles off statistics about how well the city is doing; people applaud; and an hour later it’s done. But in Hillsboro, the state of the city is not just a speech. It’s a production. In the 2017 state of the city, for instance, Mayor Steve Callaway had the audience do a text message poll. How does the state of the city come together?
A: Over the course of maybe six months in advance of the performance, we have a group of people that are laying it out and planning it. We sit around, talk about what things might be interesting. In the case of the last mayor and Mayor Steve Callaway, they’re really funny. They really enjoy the opportunity to engage the audience and not get up and give a big speech and have everybody clap. They recognize the value of humor and wit. It is a performance. We view it as a performance.
Q: Your mayor is probably one of the best deliverers of this highly specific kind of entertainment. And speaking of deliver, this year’s state of the city featured former Mayor Jerry Willey walking in as a pizza delivery guy. Did any of the other cities you worked for come close to this kind of choreography?
A: This is a unique place! They enjoy poking fun at each other in a positive way and if you knew Jerry Willey, having him in a pizza uniform is the last thing you think he would do.
Q: One thing that’s not exactly entertaining, but it’s certainly unorthodox for any state of the city address, is that Mayor Callaway actually gives up the microphone midway through and lets councilors have their own time to speak. Why would the mayor give up precious camera time to the hoi polloi on the council?
A: Because it’s a council and the mayor is part of the council. While he’s the political head of government–the person people look to–he wanted to create the space for them to be up there and have the group be together and say, “we view it as a team.” He cares a lot about that.
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.
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.