#156: Denison, TX 4/2/18

It was only appropriate that a Texas-sized stemwinder of a prayer kicked off the Denison council meeting.

“Every beginning has its ending and every ending has a new beginning. Help our leaders to know what to cling to, what to preserve, and what to let go of,” a woman in an Easter-Bunny-pink shirt requested from the heavens.

“Empower each one of them to use their unique gifts to create a beautiful life in our community. As they are guided by your holy spirit, our entire community will flourish.”

It was more important than usual that the prayer today be thorough, for the council was facing an issue that might usher in copious amounts of sin:

Whether to give a nightclub an alcohol and live music permit.

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Pray for cheap drinks

“One of the situations in the request is also the operating hours,” a staff member explained. “Proposed operating hours for this are Thursday through Saturday, 8 p.m. to 2 a.m.”

He quickly added, “this is inside the entertainment district. A nightclub use, live music, is appropriate.”

When I think “small-town Texas entertainment district,” I imagine rodeos and gun stores, not live music and dancing. Talk about pushing boundaries!

“We are the owners of the nightclub,” a couple announced at the lectern. “Here for any questions you may have.”

“Is this your first time to operate a nightclub?” Mayor Jared Johnson quizzed them.

“Yes. I’ve worked in nightclubs before off and on throughout the years,” replied the man confidently.

Councilmember J.C. Doty was surprised at how late the nightclub would keep the music cranking. “You’re requesting to be open till 2 a.m. I know some of the other places around close at midnight,” he observed. “Was there a specific reason why you wanted to stay open till 2 a.m.?”

“We’re only gonna be open three nights a week,” countered the owner, much to the chagrin of the Tuesday-night club aficionados. “I believe that’d be very important for our profit margin to have a couple extra hours per night.”

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Who closes at midnight??

“So being in the entertainment district,” the mayor mused aloud, “should there be an event on a Saturday afternoon that they could benefit from being open during that time, what would be the process for allowing them to do that?”

Mayor Pro Tem Kris Spiegel abruptly leaned forward to defend the tiny business from the heavy hand of big government.

“I guess I don’t understand why we’re limiting it to 8 [p.m.] to 2 [a.m.] Whether they open at 5 p.m. or 4 p.m., I don’t know why we care.”

The staff member seemed to back up the libertarian point of view, replying, “I’d have to request the ordinance. I’m not sure that we have to restrict their hours. I believe we request them to give us operating hours.”

The mayor, sensing a compromise between the open-anytime wing of the council and the eight-to-two faction, said, “if it’s the council’s pleasure, what they’re suggesting is to put in a number not to exceed five or six times a year to have different opening hours.”

He glanced to his left. “Mr. Pro Tem, does that make sense?”

Spiegel nodded. “Understood.”

After a moment’s silence, he continued, “does that mean you want me to make a motion?”

“That’d be great,” the mayor deadpanned to laughter, before adding ominously, “don’t mess it up.”

And just as the prayer said: the council knew what to preserve and knew what to let go of.

#154: Monona, WI 3/19/18

What did the city council know and when did they know it?

That was the question one sleuthful citizen had after doing a little amateur detective work on some government documents.

I’m here again to urge the council to reject all of the bids related to the Wyldhaven Park project, a flannel-clad man informed the crowd. The deck is a detriment to the park and serves no practical purpose.

I also have serious concerns regarding procedure. According to meeting minutes–” he continued, hoisting a sheaf of papers in the air as the smoking gun, “there was a committee discussion of a plan for Wyldhaven Park on October 6, 2015. That plan had no deck in it.”

The plot was thick with intrigue. A deck had appeared out of nowhere.  What’s next? A swing? Wind chimes? A grill and some hot dogs? The precedent was dangerous.

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Bag it for evidence

“A number of people I’ve talked to were surprised to hear that there’s gonna be a deck. They said, ‘really? Like, a deck?’” the man recalled, albeit with zero ounce of surprise in his delivery.

“Where did all this detail, including deck, come from? Certainly not in the committee meeting minutes.” He paused before delivering the verdict. “My opinion on this is that the committee must’ve acted on its own!”

Aha! And how did Mayor Mary O’Connor then attempt to shut down the investigation and suppress further testimony?

“If anyone else is here to speak about the Wyldhaven Park project or would like to register, there’s a slip over there to fill out,” she indicated politely.

“We have a deck. We love it,” smiled the next commenter. “The location of the Wyldhaven Park observation deck is one with a spectacular view. You have beautiful sunsets. You have the super moon.”

Having heard from both sides, the mayor wheeled around to a staff member.

“So that was in the minutes?”

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It was there the whole time?

“It’s in the packet,” the employee clarified. “And we approve or recommend approval of all the projects as a whole. Not each individual project.”

Alderperson Doug Wood made it crystal clear that nothing nefarious was afoot. “I think this did go through the normal process, if not maybe a little more so than most capital projects?”

“Correct.”

Well, so much for the secret society theory. Apparently the deck was simply a victim of insufficient bullet-pointing.

But if you thought the council was done with deck-related problems, they weren’t in the clear yet.

“I will move approval but with the requirement that video surveillance be installed,” Alderperson Wood piped up as the council was about to approve an alcohol permit for a Mexican restaurant’s patio.

After several minutes of wrangling, Alderperson Brian Holmquist finally inquired, “Do all our other patios require that you have surveillance?”

The answer was yes–clearing the deck (as it were) for a council thumbs-up.

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No more deck talk

Mayor O’Connor waited until the end of the meeting to air a concern she had been pondering.

“One thing I wondered about: if we want to think about having–” she paused and stared up at the ceiling. “I hate to even bring this up but the way the world is today, some active shooter training for the council might not be a bad idea.”

She indicated to either side of the room. “Frankly, sitting here and seeing these doors, I think it might be a good idea if anybody’s interested.”

Yikes. I guess if Monona keeps having deck problems, it couldn’t hurt.

#139: Madison, WI 10/31/17

It was the final day of October, so you know what that meant:

Council. Meeting. Costumes.

“Mr. Mayor, we have a quorum,” the clerk called out to Mayor Paul Soglin.

“Thank goodness,” murmured the mayor before shooting a bemused glance at council President Marsha Rummel. “What would you like to do?” he inquired warily.

Other council members cackled as Rummel, wearing a lace garment on her head and several buttons on her shirt, flipped on her mic.

“Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living,” she retorted in character as Mary Harris Jones.

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You…you could have bought a wig.

Alder Shiva Bidar-Sielaff, herself in a modest-looking Wonder Woman outfit, used her superpowers for the most mundane of purposes: “On item 56, I requested that it be noted that I’m recusing myself,” she asked politely.

“Anybody else have comments or observations?” Mayor Soglin gazed around the room. He paused and grinned.

“This looks like it’s going to work out quite nicely since it appears that a signficant number of members need to be out on the streets tonight. And Sara is waiting for me at home to watch the last three episodes of ‘Stranger Things’.”

Council members snickered. But they weren’t the only ones taking advantage of the loosened dress code tonight.

“This particular topic sort of touched a nerve,” a public commenter ornately dressed as a hybrid wizard-priest said about a proposed alcohol license. “I would’ve had my pine bough here to bless you with water because god knows we need blessing right now, including on this issue,” he pantomimed spraying water.

“While I’ve got huge issues with this particular co-op choosing to become one more place selling alcohol and eliminating the sanctuary for some sensitive people to shop for healthy food without alcohol…how can we serve the soul?” he asked rhetorically, wearing the perfect attire for his argument.

“So I’ll put my pine bough up here soaked with water,” he again pretended to toss streams of water onto the council. “Bless you and bless the city.”

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Forgive me, public commenter, for I have sinned.

It was corny, but there was no time to savor the moment. For standing at the lectern was the scariest costume of the night: a man dressed as a big, bad developer.

“You can see a variety of housing types–the multifamily and mixed-use as previously located, with the park and the school site located in the center and east portion,” the Dark Lord gestured to his colorful map as a chill swept the room.

Council President Rummel was now in the presiding chair–the mayor having possibly ducked out early to finish “Stranger Things” with his wife as promised. (I think we’ve all struggled to choose between chairing a council meeting and binge-watching TV, so I get it.) She opened the floor to public comment.

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Wait…maybe he really is a developer.

“We would like to have certain conditions placed to make sure the neighborhood stays the good, vibrant neighborhood it is today,” one citizen pleaded.

“Right now during peak hours, that gets backed up past Kwik Trip,” explained another.

“The fix was in,” ranted a third man with a ponytail and faint New Jersey accent. “I’ve never seen a bigger fix. The fix is in. The deal is done. Too bad.”

“The fix” must have been pretty deep, for the entire council voted in favor of the zoning change. Let’s hope it doesn’t “haunt” them.

Final thoughts: Boo!

#123: Goldsboro, NC 8/7/17

If you had asked me to write the plotline for a council meeting in a small southern town, there is no way I would have invented anything as riveting as the actual Goldsboro city council meeting.

“My favorite time of the night: public comment period,” swashbuckling Mayor Chuck Allen boomed as onlookers stirred in their seats. He had barely finished his sentence before an elderly man swaggered to the podium, shouting his name and address.

“How are you, sir?” Council Member Mark Stevens greeted him warmly.

“I’m doing wonderful! Everybody’s bright-eyed and enjoying the meeting,” hollered the man. He planted his entire body in an immobile slouch and made his position crystal clear.

“In behalf of all the fine, clean, Christian people who live in Goldsboro and wanna keep this a safe and clean city,” he thundered, “we the clean, Christian people do hereby OPPOSE Sabbath morning sale of alcoholic beverages.”

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Oh, my god. It’s Footloose.

Heads nodded in the crowd.

“It’s a threat to the church. It’s a disgrace to the community. Thank you for your vote against it.”

In a first for me, he then commenced his own round of applause, which citizens and a few council members joined as he retreated from the microphone.

A petite woman with a shock of white hair took his place. “I attend Adamsville Baptist Church. Serving alcohol at 10 a.m. on Sunday will be a bad influence on the young people.”

She frowned deeply as if looking into the eyes of Satan himself. “If we have our people setting in the bar on a Sunday morning, they are missing an opportunity to attend one of our many churches.”

I should mention, the council was voting today on the “Brunch Bill” to allow alcohol sales starting at 10 a.m. on Sundays. And if you couldn’t tell, there was a teensy bit of opposition from a very specific demographic:

“You have one person–one person ONLY–that is looking at you HARDER than we are,” bellowed a graying church deacon, pointing skyward.  “It’s the man upstairs.”

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People are literally sitting in pews here.

“Amens” flitted across the room. But the president of the downtown merchants’ association strolled to the podium to argue on behalf of the local heretics.

“Seventy-one percent of downtown merchants are in favor of the Brunch Bill. The merchants feel the bill will bring new businesses to Goldsboro,” he countered, rattling off all of the neighboring cities and counties that had Sunday morning sales.

A hostile silence, broken by a single boo, greeted the heathen as he walked off.

Another local bar owner, clad in a neat button-up shirt and a tidy haircut, stared at the mayor and asked a simple question.

“We have alcohol sales starting at 7 a.m. Monday through Saturday. So what’s the difference with Sunday?”

Mayor Allen eyed the gallery as various parishioners muttered, “it’s the lord’s day.”

“The LORD’S day,” the man repeated for emphasis. “THAT’S the difference. So now this is an issue of religion.”

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If I may answer on behalf of the audience: “Yeah…so?”

“There are many sabbaths,” this barkeep-cum-professor lectured the council. “Sunday is not the ONLY sabbath. We’re making laws based on religion. I would refer you to the First Amendment.”

Having heard both sides for almost a half hour, Mayor Allen called for the vote. “All those in favor, raise your right hand.”

He and three council members voted aye. The remaining three voted no. The teetotalers had lost.

Council Member Stevens vented in frustration. “For those who were disappointed in this situation, you know…keep praying. The lord will keep you safe.”

#62: Mission, TX 10/24/16

Way down on the border of Mexico, things got as hot as tamales at the Mission city council meeting.

Standing tall and proud at the podium was the local chamber of commerce rep. And he had incredible news for fans of comically-oversized scissors:

“Last week we were happy to help Ramji & Associates celebrate their new location with a ribbon cutting. Special thanks to the mayor for taking the time to come.”

Nice! Mozel tov. Anything else going on?

“Bert Ogden Kia also celebrated their grand opening with a ribbon cutting.”

Again, very cool. So moving on to other busin–

“We were excited to be part of the Mission EDC’s unveiling and we were even more excited to welcome them with a ribbon cutting.”

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“My wedding was the second-happiest day of my life. The happiest? A ribbon cutting.”

Dude, how much ribbon do you have in this city? Is south Texas where the Strategic Ribbon Reserve is? Anywaaaaaaaay, for the council’s first item of–

“Frontier A/C and Capital Title of Texas also celebrated their chamber membership with a–”

Don’t say ribbon cutting. Don’t say ribbon cutting. Don’t say

“–ribbon cutting. We’ve had a lot lately.”

…No kidding. After Sir Ribbons McCuttington sat down, the council moved on to alcohol permits.

An employee in a blue plaid shirt stepped forward and leaned on the podium.

“This is for a conditional use permit for the consumption of alcoholic beverage.” He lit up the screen behind council members with a picture of the site in question. “Staff is recommending approval.”

Folks, I’ve seen this a dozen times. This’ll be over faster than you can say “Dallas Cowbo–

“I got a question,” slowly rumbled Councilman Ruben Plata. “What about the lighting on the parking lot? I was there two weeks ago and I didn’t see no lights.”

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One camera is usually sufficient.

The employee hunted quickly for an answer. “He put some on the building…”

“On the parking lot?” Plata repeated unsatisfied. “Don’t we require it?”

Mayor Norberto Salinas jumped in. Well, not so much “jumped” as barely lifted his head while speaking sternly. “We’re supposed to have lighting in the parking lot,” he growled.

“Yes, sir,” the man responded nervously.

“You need to find out who developed the place. They need to come back and install those lightings.”

“Yes, sir. We’ll definitely do that. Yes, sir, mayor.” The nervousness was dialed up to 11. Look, I think we can all agree that there needs to be lighting, so let’s just move–

“Why do you bring it to us?” roared Councilman Plata angrily. “To me, this is a project that is not complete! I mean, you don’t have the lights.”

“I understand.”

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You melted him with your questions!

Hey, can we let this die? Anybody? Mr. City Manager?

“Before this building was constructed, one of the requirements should have been lighting in the parking lot,” the city manager piled onto the clearly beleaguered employee.

“Yes, sir.”

“And NOT part of a conditional use permit.”

“Yes, sir. I understand.”

After all that time lambasting the unlucky fellow, city council approved the alcohol permit unanimously. Cold comfort indeed.

Final thoughts: I give 10 out of 10 Advil to the guy who had to stand there and take the council’s wrath. A true patriot.

#44: Hammond, LA 8/23/16

Louisiana! Land of crawdads and Mardi Gras! Laissez les bon temps rouler on the Hammond city council!

“Mr. President,” drawled Councilman Jason Hood, “several weeks ago I saw an article in our local paper about a young man doing a service project for Miss Louise. I don’t do a lot of this, but I wanted to bring him here”–to show him a good time on Bourbon Street?!–“to recognize him for what he has achieved.”

The councilman added, “Kyle, come on up–I’m gonna give the people an example what kind of person gets this [Eagle Scout] badge: nine Medal of Honor winners were Eagle Scouts. One former president, Supreme Court justice, several astronauts, and numerous prominent, successful businessmen.”

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Hey, kid: if you’re not a president, justice, or astronaut, you’ve let Councilman Jason Hood down.

Oh, sure, overlook the serial killers and ne’er-do-wells who also made Eagle Scout. Come on, council. This is Louisiana–let’s hear about debauchery and booze! Like you, the well-dressed man looking for an alcohol permit:

“We ask all applicants of alcohol permits to come before council to make sure you understand the laws,” lectured council President Michael Williams. “Any sale to minors is not going to be tolerated.”

“Yes, sir. I understand that. Yes, sir,” obediently responded the man as he clutched the podium.

Mayor Pete Panepinto came to his defense. “Mr. Richardson runs a clothing store on the corner. So if he runs it anything like he runs that store, it’s gonna be great.”

Suddenly, a movement caught Williams’s eye. “I’m sorry, Miss Louise?”

A woman with short blonde hair and a blue t-shirt rushed forward and planted herself behind Mr. Richardson.

“I’m sure that you’ve checked the proximity to the church that’s right there as to whether there would be any kind of a–”

Several council members gestured in objection. “Further down! Much further down!”

“Thank you,” Miss Louise said politely, returning to her seat. The council approved Mr. Richardson’s alcohol license.

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Miss Louise: friend of Eagle Scouts, protector of churches

Well, I’ll be damned. I’ve seen more drama at a middle school PTA meeting. Surely there must be someone willing to raise a ruckus in this sleepy burb!

“Ordinance to approve request to rezone a lot at 28 South Orange Street,” President Williams read, glancing up just in time to see a towering woman marching deliberately towards the podium.

“I got held up on a case this afternoon, so I missed the opportunity for public comment,” she brushed aside the council. “But Orange Street is my street. And if you’ll entertain me–”

“Sure,” President Williams murmured.

“I drive down that street several times a day. I’m also secretary for the neighborhood association. Our neighbors are cautiously supportive of the rezoning. But in the future, who’s to say what’s gonna happen with that property?”

She dropped her notes on the podium for emphasis. “We’re here to say that we’re supportive of development…just not forget that we’re back there.”

A long pause lingered. Would someone cue The  Breakfast Club theme? Eventually, President Williams mumbled, “so moved.”

It passed unanimously.

Final thoughts: I give 10 out of 10 stars to Miss Louise for vigilantly protecting the Lord’s House from the scourge of alcohol-serving restaurants.