Interview #139: Homewood, AL Councilor Jennifer Andress (with podcast)

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

There are a handful of quirks to the Homewood council meetings–from the lack of public comment to the mysterious location of the committee meeting minutes. Jennifer Andress explains the council procedures as well as notable meetings about nuisance properties and Bird scooters.

Q: I noticed that Homewood does not stream its committee meetings online, nor does Homewood put the committee meeting minutes online–

A: No, we do put the [minutes of] committee meetings online. As soon as we approve them, they go online. You’re right about the streaming live. A few of us have talked about that. There’s some extra cost involved. There are 11 of us on the council and I’m not sure that there would be 11 votes for that. I would vote for that.

Q: I’m surprised by your contention that the committee meeting minutes are online because I have the minutes from your public safety committee on April 1, 2019. I had to request the minutes from the city because they were not posted. Why do you make it hard for people to see the work of your government?

A: So we don’t put committee meeting minutes online, you are correct. We do put the council meeting minutes online. The committee meeting minutes are different. The reason we don’t is just the enormity of what it would be. What we’ve done is once those minutes are approved at council, that becomes part of the council minutes.

Q: The committee minutes don’t really capture the lead-up to the action. What was the debate? Who asked what questions? What information did you receive? Do you think that barebones action minutes are appropriate considering they are the only record of the committee’s work?

A: Our city clerk takes diligent notes, but you’re correct, that is what the committee meeting minutes look like. Our council meeting minutes are quite detailed and capture every comment that’s made. But I agree with you, committee meeting minutes are bullet pointed and action oriented.

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Homewood, AL Councilor Jennifer Andress

Q: I realized that I was watching a lot of Homewood meetings about the same topic: nuisance properties. How often do you have to decide whether somebody’s house is a nuisance?

A: I would say maybe once a quarter and they usually put them all on the same night. Our city is eight square miles but we typically know right away when something comes before us; we’re familiar with the property. We’ve got the city covered. There’s 11 of us and we’ve traveled these miles a lot.

Q: With 11 councilors in an eight-square-mile city–more than one councilor per square mile–do you ever worry about the consequences of condemning a house in your neighborhood? How do you deal with those relationships?

A: For example, the home that I had known about for 17 years–it was just in awful condition. We gave this guy a million breaks and a million chances. It’s not hard to argue, “hey, there’s animals living in the kitchen sink.” You gotta think about all the other neighbors around that property that want the property gone. Obviously, you’ve got the homeowner, but you’re also representing everybody around them. Neighbor after neighbor comes up and says, “look, this has been going on for 10 years. This is a detriment to our neighborhood and our property values, and our kids’ safety.” A lot of times it comes down to kids’ safety, honestly. I know that sounds cliche, “what about the kids?” But honestly, they can sue the city [if they go on hazardous property].


Follow Councilor Jennifer Andress on Twitter: @andressjen

Month in Review: September 2017

We had a smörgåsbord of “firsts” in September: the first time we saw a husband bring his wife roses at a council meeting. Our first podcast interview with a knight (even though she claims she’s not a knight). And our first “Best Thing, Worst Thing” story that profiles a non-American city.

And hey! We finally marked our territory in one of the three states that City Council Chronicles had not visited: Montana. Now, it’s only Rhode Island and New Mexico that need to get with the program. Check out which states we did profile with our September Month in Review.

And if you haven’t seen the first country music video we’ve encountered that everybody is talking about (well, everybody who watches the Fayetteville, North Carolina city council meetings, that is), plug in your headphones and jam out here:

#131: Mobile, AL 9/19/17

You can’t simply snap your fingers in municipal government and make things happen. But you can sure as heck show up to public comment and TELL people to make things happen.

“It’s really long overdue and it’s something I want to get done,” a woman clad entirely in white ordered Mobile council members. “We need to get this done.” (“This” being renaming Glennon Avenue to “Dr. Yvonne Kennedy Avenue.”)

“I talked with Councilman [Levon] Manzie this morning,” she narrowed her eyes at him. “We’re going to have Dr. Kennedy’s name on the pole?”

“Yes, ma’am,” acknowledged Manzie.

“We’re also going to have Glennon Avenue on the pole?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“We wanna put a permanent plaque and–can I have my way with this? Doing what I want to do?” she inquired.

“No, ma’am!” Manzie exclaimed.

“I love having my way!” she threw up her hands and chuckled.

“I think Councilman Manzie hears you loud and clear,” intervened Council President Gina Gregory as the woman retreated in satisfaction.

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The lady’s got vision!

Success! Could there be anything more slam-dunk than a street named after a scion of the community?

Yes: Christmas.

“I’ve always enjoyed Elfapalooza,” a kindly man in a pink shirt smiled. “I’ve never actually put on my pointed ears and gone down in my tights. And, uh–”

“I’m visualizing that right now,” President Gregory deadpanned, prompting raucous laughter.

“Maybe if you give ’em the $40,000, I’ll do that this year!” the man replied.

“Might be worth it,” Gregory considered with a smirk.

He was, of course, referring to $40,000 proposed to revive the “North Pole Stroll.” It was a hot topic for a cold season, and Council Member John Williams was ready to wrap that present.

“This payment will be for holiday events and decorations,” he cheerfully made the motion.

But just as Christmas needs a Santa Claus, it also needs a fiscally-responsible Grinch.

“We’ve been assured that they’re going to have a robust Christmas celebration in downtown,” Council Member Manzie protested. “We don’t know what those activities will cost, so I’m a little hesitant.”

He added, logically, “if it’s a great success, the expectation will be that we need to continue [payments]. I would hate to start something and not continue in perpetuity.”

Council Member Fredrick Richardson attempted his own Scrooge impersonation. “Sometimes we need to leave well enough alone,” he grumbled.

“I think,” he softened, “we need to go back with the Christmas parade. It brings joy in the hearts of all.”

President Gregory called for a vote. It failed. The man in the pink shirt would not be wearing his elf ears and tights after all (although we can mark that in the “good news” column.)

Yikes. If the Mobile city council said no to Christmas, what would they say “yes” to?

“On Wednesday, I had the honor of being interviewed,” announced Council Member Manzie. “Michael Karlik runs a website and podcast called City Council Chronicles.”

“He came up with some new catchphrases for District Two. I promised I would play it in the meeting, but I can’t get it to function here,” Manzie admitted, trying to recall the catchphrases. “‘District Two: We have a Hardee’s.’ ‘District Two: Walk on the wild side!'”

“Well, Michael,” Gregory mused, “I’m guessing you’re watching….’Seventh Heaven?'” She glanced around as her colleagues giggled at her own district catchphrase.

“‘District Seven…Heaven.’ You gotta rhyme!” she insisted.

Council Member Richardson leaned into his microphone. “Did you get that, Mike?”

Yes, sir!

Interview #64: Mobile, AL Council Member Levon Manzie (with podcast)

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

Levon Manzie is a reverend by day who served on the school board and recently won his second term as the District 2 representative. He shares how he benefits from having prayer in the council meetings, plus his thoughts on rules and compassion. And be sure to listen to the audio–I give him some suggested catchphrases for District 2.

Q: Every Mobile city council meeting opens with a prayer. Whenever you give that prayer, how is it different from the prayer you write for Sunday morning?

A: To be honest, it isn’t that much different because I really don’t write it. When I’m called upon, I seek inspiration. At that moment before a council meeting, I wanted god to bless what we were voting on. What we were deliberating over touches the lives of [thousands of] individuals.

Q: Have you ever watched someone else give the prayer and thought, “oof, that’s a little heavy handed?”

A: That has not happened to my knowledge. The scheduler tries to have a variety of ministers offer the blessing. Now, there have been some I thought were too long!

Q: [Laughs] Would you ever begrudge someone who says, “this is a business meeting. I don’t think it’s appropriate to be praying.”

A: I wouldn’t begrudge someone. But for me, I think prayer is most appropriate. Just last week to the right of us, Hurricane Irma. To the left of us, Hurricane Harvey. So I’m not ashamed about being mindful that we’ve been blessed and it’s most appropriate to acknowledge that. Again, those are my personal views. I believe most persons would pray specific to the city of Mobile or a general prayer asking for guidance in a general sense.

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Mobile, AL Council Member Levon Manzie

Q: You were on the school board before this. Is the difference between school board meetings and council meetings like the difference between the minor leagues and the major leagues? Or between decaf coffee and a shot of espresso? How would you compare them?

A: I think decaf and espresso would probably be the best analogy. On the school board we dealt with one overarching theme, which was providing quality education. Everything was judged off of that standard. Every contract. Every appointment. Every vacancy. Here in the city, it’s not as single-focused.

Q: How would you describe council President Gina Gregory’s style at running meetings?

A: You know, she’s a veteran. She’s compassionate, sometimes allowing individuals to go over the alloted time so they can completely finish their thought. But she’s also orderly. And when people go off topic or when they abuse their time, she knows how to be strict.

Q: So you’re saying that compassion and rule-bending are just as important in some situations as being strict and treating everyone the same in every circumstance.

A: Well, one hundred percent. You have to be as compassionate or as strict as the person will allow you to be. If you’ve got somebody who is causing a ruckus in the meeting, there isn’t any room for compassion. But if you’ve got an individual who is impassioned about changes that are proposed for his or her community and they’re about 90 percent from finishing a complete thought and they’ve followed the rules, it’s incumbent upon you to judiciously allow some rule-bending. And I think she’s mastered that.


Follow Council Member Levon Manzie on Twitter: @lcmanzie06

#94: Montgomery, AL 3/21/17

Mayor Todd Strange smiled patiently as he waited for council members to slowly fill the numerous vacant chairs on the dais.

“Well, obviously Spring Break has taken its toll on certain council people,” Strange quipped, soldiering ahead. Montgomery City Hall was fuller than usual with brightly-dressed dignitaries lining the front rows.

“We have a large crowd visiting Montgomery: 18 or so individuals from faraway Africa! Their purpose is to study the structure of race and social justice and look to our diversity and things that work.”

Um, I get that they’re here to study race relations, but–and don’t take this wrong way, Mr. Mayor–why the h*ck did they choose Alabama?!

“We were notified by Trivago that we were the number one community as a must-see for African-American culture,” he explained. Then he wheeled around to face the audience directly.

“I see you shaking your heads, so you do understand some English. We’re delighted to have you here!”

As the mayor turned back, the visitors exchanged glances and stifled laughter. Granted, his delivery was a little goofy, but I don’t get the joke.

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Is there a lesson about racial justice here somewhere?

With that, the lady in charge of the platoon stepped forward to introduce everybody.

“The delegation this evening, ALL of whom are English speaking and representing 16 different countries in Africa, are emerging leaders.”

Ah. They all speak English. If the mayor realized his faux pas, he shrugged it off in a nanosecond. “We wanna get a group picture!” he gestured excitedly.

“This is why we come to Montgomery,” the woman deadpanned. What followed was a painful butchering of names as the journalists, attorneys, and even members of parliament gathered in front of the dais for what was, I assume, the highlight of their 6,000 mile trip.

Unfortunately, the travelers all journeyed to the exit, heading to their next event. Which meant they missed this slickly-produced audiovisual display:

Coming off the good vibes from the video, the meeting’s smooth flow was suddenly halted by a man so tall that he hunched at the podium to reach the microphone. The subject was a grave one: the city wanted to demolish his dilapidated house.

“You want to talk to us about your appeal?” President Pro Tem Tracy Larkin gently inquired in a voice so smooth you could toss a bowling ball down it.

“Yeah, my dad was fixing on [the house] and he got sick and all,” stammered the man. “I would like to have the opportunity to fix it back up to the code.”

“How much work was done so far?” Larkin murmured.

“Well, you look up on the basement, you can see all the way through,” he replied in his heavily muddled accent. “Then you look in the roof–on the edge it’s rotten. It’s real bad. Then it gotta be rewired.”

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If lullabies were a person

The white-haired, mustachioed housing enforcement officer jumped in. “Mr. President, it would be appropriate for the council NOT to give him any extension,” he asserted.

Oh, no! What kind of heartless bureaucrat would demolish a man’s house?

“We’re not bringing it for demolition. We contend that it’s an unsafe structure at this time,” he clarified.

“You do agree that it is an unsafe structure?” probed one council member.

“Yes,” the tall man leaned into the mic and nodded vigorously.

Well then, no demolition. No controversy. No further discussion. I guess the Africa delegation didn’t miss much after all.

#57: Gadsden, AL 10/4/16

Despite the best efforts of one joker, the Gadsden city council managed to get a thing or two done on Tuesday.

I knew there would be trouble in the chamber when Council President Deverick Williams had his questioning about a run-down property interrupted.

“Brian, there was some discussion about whether or not this was rehab-able. Is there something we’re not seeing with the pictures?”

The city’s chief building officer started to respond. “We looked at all of them and, based on the tax appraisal–”

All of a sudden a newscaster’s distant voice crackled through the room.

“HERE ARE THE FOUR THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT HURRICANE–”

Council Member Ben Reed leapt forward–or, more accurately, took his sweet time in reaching–to silence his cell phone.

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Well, I hope you brought enough to share with the rest of the council, mister.

President Williams froze. Then he turned back to the city employee. “I may need you to repeat that last part.”

The room broke down in laughter. “Sorry, it sounded like my voice changed there,” the man quipped in reply.

From here, the meeting segued nicely into a series of civic announcements.

“People think that First Friday ends in October, but let me stress to you: tell all your friends and your neighbors, we go until December,” the director of Downtown Gadsden pleaded to anyone within earshot. “We got the tractors this First Friday! Kings of Swing will be at Fourth and Broad. They’re always a big crowd favorite.”

But life in Gadsden isn’t all fun and games. Exhibit A: Mayor Sherman Guyton’s full-frontal attack on childhood lackadaisy:

“When kids get home, if they get past seven, eight years old and they can’t read and understand what they read, they start going downhill. They need to do a lot of homework and study when they get home. If they’re settin’ around the house, make ’em go to work.”

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“Homework? UGH, DAD, I HATE YOU.”

Then, at the end of the dais, it was Council Member Reed’s turn to speak. He brought up–what else–his outburst from earlier.

“I’m gonna apologize to the council and to the mayor for my phone going off,” he slowly drawled to chuckles. “But I’m gonna tell y’all–this is a fact–I put it on vibrate. I put it on mute. FYI, when you touch the Weather Channel, that baby’s comin’ on.” Yeah, likely story.

President Williams attempted to divert the council to a more serious matter. “October is also Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Wear as much pink as you got. Some of us got more pink in our closet than others–” he said casually, glancing at Council Member Billy Billingsley.

Council Member Reed, the white-haired class clown, immediately pounced. “I wanna know about the pink clothes in Billy’s closet!”

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“What color underwear ya got on? Twenty bucks says it’s as pink as a baby’s tush.”

After the snickers subsided, the council president patiently responded, “I didn’t say a word. I just looked that way.”

“Oh-kay,” Reed winked at the crowd.

Final thoughts: I give 10 out of 10 stars to Council Member Billy Billingsley. So what if the man has pink clothes? City councils could use more liberated males!