This week, we air the newest episode of the “Best Thing, Worst Thing” project featuring a big-name city: Richmond, Virginia. I talked with many different residents about their favorite and least favorite things about Virginia’s capital. Many brought up the city’s ties to the Confederacy and the legacy of segregation. Others talked about the extensive collection of neighborhoods. You’ll come with me to a rally with the mayor, stroll along an island, and visit the pew where Jefferson Davis sat in church.
For an explanation of the project, check out the page here. If you are ready to learn which historical figure had turkey quills shoved up his nose, head to the City Council Chronicles podcast to download the latest episode. Or you can play it below.
Richmond is a city of 220,000 people and the capital of Virginia. It was also the capital of the Confederacy and that legacy still lingers. The James River provides recreational opportunities and the Amtrak station provides a connection to Washington, D.C. and beyond. During our visit, we stand in the middle of the water, attend a rally with the mayor, and visit a restaurant that will be gone in a year. We hear from a real estate agent, some college students, a teacher, a tour guide, people who have moved away and returned, and two political watchdogs.
There was no shortage of eyebrow-raising announcements in Poulsbo.
Mayor Becky Erickson set the bar ever-so-slightly off the ground with her unorthodox but low-key warning that “after we leave here, we’re gonna go to the third floor. A conference room setting is a little more conducive to an active conversation.”
Fair enough. A change of venue is good for the circulatory system. But the good vibes instantly dissipated as Council Member Gary Nystul flagrantly stoked an intra-governmental rivalry.
“It’s my privilege once a year to point out to my two Navy associates–Warrant Officer [Council Member Jim] Henry and Commander [Council Member Kenneth] Thomas–that August 4 is the Coast Guard birthday.”
He smirked and prepared to rub in his superiority. “Occasionally the Navy doesn’t follow our directions. One day in Hawaii they didn’t follow our directions right out of the shipyard. They put it into a reef!”
The mayor quickly interjected. “You’re walking on dangerous ground, Mr. Nystul! Very dangerous ground.”
“Choppy waters” would have been the more appropriate image, but point taken.
Speaking of danger, quick: cue the Musgrove!
“When an earthquake or something happens is NOT the time to figure out: where do I get food for Fluffy?” Council Member David Musgrove insisted. He gestured to an emergency-preparedness handout decorated with a pensive-looking cat.
“It’s like taking care of an elderly parent. You need to do the same stuff.” (Note to self: stock up on cat food for grandma.)
But if residents didn’t have time to prepare themselves for a disaster, Council Member Musgrove offered a logical alternative. “Tomorrow, 10:30 a.m., there’s a walk-through of the Poulsbo cemetery.”
Council Member Connie Lord struck a compromise between death and doomsday prep. “The mayor has opened up city hall as a cooling station,” she announced helpfully.
Mayor Erickson nodded. “The council chamber’s open. There’s bottled water in the fridge.” After thinking a second, she added, “bring a book. There’s nothing particularly exciting going on in here.”
However, the mayor was having a hard time keeping her story straight. Because not two minutes later, she revealed this HIGHLY exciting event:
“This coming Tuesday, I’m having ‘kitty hall’ here,” she bragged. “The Kitsap Humane Society and I are going to have a whole bunch of kitties/kittens/cats for adoption. So if you’re interested in a new feline furry friend, we’ll be out there.”
The final news item came from Council Member Ed Henry and it was a whopper.
“In our codes, self-storage and mini-storage is allowed in the commercial zone,” he informed the council solemnly. “Is the council interested in putting self-storage in those other zones?”
He glanced around. “It is a timely matter.”
“We appear to be having a LOT of interest about putting self-storage along [highway] 305,” the mayor acknowledged.
“We have very limited space if we want to keep Poulsbo Pouslbo,” Henry fretted. “Tight and constricted.”
Mayor Erickson agreed to look into it. But immediately, she worriedly turned to the clerk as she remembered that everyone needed to trek to the upstairs conference room.
“Rhiannon, how are we going to do this? We haven’t done this before.”
The clerk promptly replied, “I see us going upstairs and continue our audio recording up there.”
With that, the cameras went dark and the citizens who came for the cooling station pulled out their books.
Do you recall the fable of “The Tortoise and The Hare?”
Well, Aberdeen’s city council meeting certainly started out as the hare: brash. Bold. Uninhibited.
“Ordinance 17-07-02, revising the city code relating to intersections. Anything new here?” queried Mayor Mike Levsen, pausing ever so briefly to listen for any intake of air or shuffling of seats.
Hearing nothing, a slam-dunk unanimous vote quickly dispatched the ordinance.
“Ordinance 17-07-04, relating to obstructions parked on city streets,” the mayor barreled ahead.
Briefly, the city attorney nudged the brakes.
“We did have one person who was all in favor of that change,” he informed the mayor with a hint of suspense. “A city employee in the public works department!”
Guffaws broke out as the ordinance again passed without dissent.
Rounding the 11-minute mark, the mayor joked: “we’re done early; we can all go home!”
However, he received only a few wary nods–giving me the feeling that the tortoise phase of this meeting had dawned.
“The much-anticipated city manager’s report with the 2018 budget is next,” Mayor Levsen announced with a trace of resignation. He glanced over at city manager Lynn Lander. “We’ll see if we can appreciate the numbers you came up with.”
Lander took his place in front of a gigantic monitor and an even more gigantic set of notes. For the next 40 marathon minutes, he was in the driver’s seat on a sightseeing tour through the city’s bank account.
“The 2018 sales tax allocation is based upon the actual sales tax revenue collected in 2016, plus a growth factor,” he opened with a flourish.
“There is NO planned interceptor sewer work for 2018,” he emphasized heavily to grab council members’ attention.
“I am recommending adding three new positions to the city workforce: two patrol officers and a marketing concession manager for Wylie Park,” he dropped this major bombshell 20 minutes in.
The minutes slogged by in a dizzying array of pie charts and spreadsheet tables.
“I know I’m going very quickly,” he apologized, perhaps operating under a very different definition of the word “quickly.”
As he crossed the finish line, Lander concluded, “thank you for listening to me. I hope my rambling made sense.”
The mayor took a second to shake off the inertia and reach for his microphone. “Made sense to me!” he quipped cheerfully.
But suddenly, as folks gathered up their papers and rubbed their eyes, one person tossed a wrench into this finely-tuned budgetary machine.
“I have one thing. In the [promotion] fund allocations, we didn’t count the zeros,” Council Member Jennifer Slaight-Hansen thundered. “When you go in counting the zeros, it changes a half dozen of the allocations. I think we need to count the zeroes.”
But Lander raised his hand and politely explained this complex piece of mathematics. “If there wasn’t at least five votes, the zeros really doesn’t matter.”
“It DOES make a difference in that median allocation,” she insisted.
“But,” interjected a confused Council Member Clint Rux, “if you have five people who voted for funding…then…there’s five people who voted for funding. Correct?”
This is why I hate calculus. Aberdeen’s “Zerogate” scandal was spiraling out of control. For the sake of ending the meeting on time, Council Member Slaight-Hansen retreated.
“Karl will send [the spreadsheet] to us and it’ll be more clear,” she sighed.
Final thoughts: I give 10 out of 10 stars to Karl, who was volunteered for spreadsheet duty apparently.
Susan Rae is a brand new Green Party councilor in Edinburgh and she has a terrific sense of humor! The Edinburgh city council had a hiccup after no political party won a majority when the council convened in May–plus, no one wanted to form a coalition until after the surprise election the prime minister called for June. We talked about that sticky wicket, plus all of the traditions of her council.
Q: Can you describe your council chamber?
A: It has beautiful stained glass windows and very old, very large desks. They have lids that open so you can hide everything in there. And large seats–I’m very tiny, only five foot tall. So my feet don’t actually touch the ground. They kind of swing!
Q: What do you hide in your desk?
A: I hide my cigarettes and my lighter and some biscuits in case I get hungry.
Q: The Lord Provost (a.k.a. mayor) makes a grand entrance every meeting: someone announces his arrival, everyone stands, and two other fancily-dressed people in white gloves follow him and put the mace into his high-backed chair. As an American, I’m thinking, there have got to be mayors over here who would LOVE their entrance announced with an entourage. Do you think it’s excessively formal?
A: I don’t feel it’s very necessary but there are traditional elements within the council that do like to keep the tradition of the mace and the sword. I’m very desiring of taking in a lightsaber one day. We [in the Green Party] all have our own! I would probably have to stash it in my desk.
Q: Well, yeah, you’d have to take out the cigarettes and the biscuits to fit it in there probably.
A: [Laughs] The traditional part has a place. It’s all on display, all of the silverware, the keys to the city–
Q: Wait, the keys to the city are just sitting out in the open in the chamber where anyone can take them?
A: We take them to Holyrood Palace and present them to the queen. Then she gives us them back and says, “you’re really good at looking after my city. Keep the keys!” So we did that recently.
Q: Each of the parties has a section of the room where you all sit together. And generally if the Conservatives are all standing to vote, Labour will not be standing. Are you allowed to disagree with your party and be the only person to vote for something?
A: It depends on the party. Some parties have a whip system and you have to follow the whip’s instruction. We tend to agree on things or we vote with our conscience. Labour and SNP operate a whip system and the Conservatives always vote together.
Q: I don’t know what the penalty is…death, maybe, if you don’t vote with them?
A: I don’t think it’s death quite yet. But I think you can be suspended from the group or they don’t let you have biscuits in your desk.
Q: That’s a steep penalty indeed.
A: The role of a councilor is to look after the people in their ward. I would rather people voted for what the people in their constituency want, not for what their party want.
Council Vice President Charlie Luke braced himself for the onslaught.
“We have one public hearing for tonight. The rules of decorum are as follows,” he announced heavily, scanning the room for troublemakers. “We try to make this an inclusive location for people who want to speak. We ask from the audience that there be no cheering, booing, jeering or any other outburst.”
He caught the eye of Council Member Erin Mendenhall and the two exchanged knowing smiles. “That would make it unpleasant for people to speak and to listen,” he added.
Luke glanced down at his notes. “I do not…see…any cards. Um, is anybody here to speak about the zoning map amendments?”
No one stirred in the audience. All that buildup for nothing!
But wait: it was the appointed hour for council members to grill the mayor with questions. Gentlemen, let the jeering begin.
“Mayor Biskupski is on her way,” observed Vice President Luke. He paused before gazing around the dais. “Are there questions for the mayor?” No response.
“I don’t think so,” he murmured.
This council meeting was as quiet as a Mormon Tabernacle singer with laryngitis. However, that all changed as a squadron of public commenters lined up with axes to grind.
“I got a notice regarding my property–stating my xeriscape is not adequate,” a woman brandished a packet of papers while simultaneously introducing me to the term “xeriscape.”
“I’m required to have one-third of the property covered in vegetation. We live in a DESERT,” she protested. “I think my yard is one of the most aesthetically-pleasing in the neighborhood!”
She was promptly replaced by a man with multiple arm tattoos and a furrowed brow.
“As I head to work, there’s a nice lovely billboard that screams that if you support panhandling, you support alcoholism. Anyone panhandling is a violent, thieving drunk.” He reeled back with eyes wide. “Anyone agree with that?!”
“I’ve started a petition to have these billboards removed. I’d rather be doing something else, but until these billboards are removed, I will continue coming here.”
He locked elbows on the podium and seemed at a loss for the proper words to express his exasperation.
“I don’t know what to say…these are…this is…this does not make sense to me.”
But his frustration was positively mild compared to the final commenter: a man with a cigarette tucked behind his ear and a strong distaste for the entire council.
“Can I ask y’all a question before my time starts? I tried to get an answer from the cronies down there,” he gestured dismissively to city employees.
“You have police come usher the homeless away. Then you take their property. You turn around and stab ’em in the back. That’s hippocratic [sic],” he raged.
He proceeded to give council members the kind of roasting the mayor narrowly avoided earlier. “What about the terrorism going on at the homeless place? Some dude got a double lung puncture with a screwdriver. He bled out!”
“We do still, I guess, live in a democracy and not in the communist state like SOME of us would like to see. He shot a dirty look at Council Member Andrew Johnston.
“Why don’t you go to places like France, Germany, some Middle Eastern countries where they ARE progressive and you would fit right in!”
Well, I’m not sure the Middle East is “progressive,” but you can sure as heck xeriscape there.
Summer vacation? We don’t need no stinkin’ summer vacation! There are WAY too many city council meetings to cover and–despite the work of our time travel research team–so little time.
We saw a little girl get stoked to shake hands with every council member, heard about multiple people getting kicked out of council meetings, and experienced our first meeting in another language. If none of that is ringing a bell, go peruse our June Month in Review page.
And if you’re still not convinced that June’s council meetings were all that cool, have I got the picture to prove you DEAD WRONG:
This is our first trip to New Zealand and I could not be more excited! Lianne Dalziel was a longtime member of Parliament before she became mayor of Christchurch, and here she gives wonderful summary of the differences in those meeting styles. We cycled through all of the cool costumes and inventions she has seen in council meetings–including some mythical creatures!
Q: I noticed that you call all of the councilors by their first names in the meetings. Why are you so friendly with your fellow Kiwis? And as a foreigner, am I allowed to call you a Kiwi?
A: Yes, you are allowed to call me a Kiwi. I guess it’s an informality that is pretty Kiwi. I was a member of Parliament for 23 years, so you would never call someone by their first name. Actually, it’s something that I haven’t discussed with my fellow councilors. You’re the first one to raise it. Maybe I better have a conversation with them!
Q: Oh, wow. You’ve gotten to see some pretty cool stuff in your council meetings. You had a demonstration of an electric bicycle. You had someone bring in a model of a cathedral and cranked a pulley to raise the bell. What is the most memorable thing you’ve seen?
A: Well, we did have the faeries come in one day [laughs].
Q: The faeries?
A: They’re just delightful. Faeries that have little wings and wear pretty costumes–
Q: Wait, they live in New Zealand?! Like, Tinkerbells? That’s where they are?
A: Tinkerbells, exactly. They came along and talked about what they did and they go to events and bring joy to children’s lives. That bike that you mentioned was a YikeBike, which was invented here in Christchurch. I don’t know if I’m going to sit on one. They don’t seem to be facing the right way.
Q: Your first council meeting as mayor was also the first-ever council meeting that was streamed online. Were you at all nervous that YOU would be the first Christchurch mayor who, four years later, would have ME scrutinize how you ran a meeting?
A: [Laughs] Michael, I didn’t realize that you would be doing this!
Q: That’s how the dice roll, baby! Were you intimidated by the presence of cameras and microphones?
A: I come from Parliament, and Parliament is live streamed. Sometimes I forget to turn off my mic at the front and I lean over to the chief executive and say, “oh, my goodness!” And she quietly leans forward and switches off the microphone.
Q: Did the councilors adapt to the cameras in a good way? Or was there grandstanding?
A: Grandstanding is inevitable in an environment where you’ve got such an open record of what people did say. But that, in my view, encourages high quality debate. If you’ve got one councilor who gets to his feet and he’s really passionate about a particular subject, I’m thinking that’s good for democracy. It’s good for people to see their own representatives being accountable in that way.
Q: What is the history behind the “tea break” that you take in your council meetings?
A: I don’t know! It’s quite normal to have a tea break during the course of a working day. Now we invite the public to join us.