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

#106: North Little Rock, AR 5/22/17

I won’t sugarcoat it: the North Little Rock city council meeting was a riddle wrapped in a mystery and stuck inside one of those Chinese finger traps.

Act I — How Do You Solve a Problem Like 7213 Westwind Drive?

“We have to deal with weeds that are taller than us. We have to deal with gutters coming down, lights coming down,” a woman pounded on the podium in frustration.

“I wish everybody would stand up and show that we’re all here wanting to say: IT IS A MESS. It is a safety hazard.”

Incredibly, virtually the entire audience rose to their feet and stood in solidarity as she pleaded for the city to dynamite that deathtrap.

¡Sí, se puede!

The aldermen stared silently as irate neighbors aired their grievances.

“He’s using his yard for a bathroom,” a man shook his head.

“I have gone to court. I have watched as he has been fined. He just ignores it,” a woman frowned.

“We implore you to put an end to our neighborhood nightmare,” begged another man.

But if the eyewitness testimony didn’t seal the deal, the photos certainly did.

“There’s an air conditioner with an extension cord running through the tub–very unsafe,” a city employee flashed a picture onscreen as the council murmured in disbelief.

“That one scares me to death,” Alderman Debi Ross muttered, staring at an electric water heater without covers.

A future murder scene, probably

The city’s lawyer sighed and waved his hand. “We’ve given this man numerous opportunities. He’s been in jail. I don’t think he’s going to do it.”

“We’re gonna stop that cycle tonight,” Mayor Joe Smith stonily vowed. The council voted to condemn the house.

Act II — The Ghost in the Scrapyard

“A few weeks ago, I heard the noise in Glenview from this plant and they stopped at 11 o’clock at night,” Alderman Linda Robinson shared with the council, referring to a distant scrapyard.

“It’s my understanding that they don’t work late at night. But what I kept hearing–the boom, the boom–I called someone from that area. I said, ‘is this from that scrap metal plant?’ They started laughing and said, ‘yes, it is.'”

“I’m not sure exactly what noise you heard,” a city staffer shrugged and looked perplexed. “They have not been operating at night.”

“This was a few weeks ago and it was from THIS plant,” insisted Alderman Robinson. “We need to send the police out.”

The mayor bit his pen. “Well, I don’t know, Linda. If you heard it…” he trailed off.

At this point, one of the scrapyard’s owners stepped dramatically to the podium.

“We hire the North Little Rock police off-duty to be our night watchmen. So as far as the police on site–they are on site.”

From here, the plot thickened. “I personally approve the time cards,” he said. I haven’t seen anything since January 2015 where we had the crews that were working at night.”

CCTV footage from scrapyard

Mayor Smith pondered hard about how to reconcile Alderman Robinson’s noises with the fact that no human was seemingly on duty.

“Surely you wouldn’t have anybody moonlighting down there that you don’t know [about]?” Smith inquired.

“They better not be because the police would be evicting them from the property and giving them a place to stay for the night,” the man replied with certainty.

Sir, you don’t need the North Little Rock PD at your scrapyard. It sounds like you need an exorcist.

#61: Grand Forks, BC 10/24/16

Yes, two weeks before a presidential election, we visit Canada. You know–to scope out city council meetings (and real estate).

It may be October up there but, folks, the Grand Forks city council was HEATED like a hot tub in Cabo!

“I brought forward for your consideration five properties,” that are “unsightly,” the city’s bylaw officer announced.

This being Canada, Councilor Beverly Tripp politely raised her hand to speak. “I would be wondering about perhaps seeing some visuals of these properties. Would that be possible? I’d be willing to go down to these places and take a look at them.”

“The latter would not be appropriate, to visit the site,” Mayor Frank Konrad gruffly shot her down. Luckily, a field trip would not be necessary: we have pictures. Okay, let’s take a look at this so-called unsight–

“Is it appropriate to show photos when there’s a live stream on the Internet?” Councilor Colleen Ross pointed directly at me through the camera. “That would be my suggestion–turn off the camera. We’re showing people’s personal property.”

The mayor didn’t hesitate. “That’s probably a reasonable request.”



Listening to the bylaw officer narrate the photos, I was f–ing livid. “That is a picture taken through a bramble hedge. There’s three snowmobiles and a pile of other debris. There’s also two other vehicles in the front yard,” he said. I’ll take his word because YOU BLINDED ME.

Suddenly, a giant hand removed the lens cap. Sweet light, we meet again! Just in time for the property owner to make her defense:

“I’ve been out of the country for the last few months. I have come to ask for an extension.” Her tone was more indignant than apologetic. “So, yeah. What can you do for me?”

Mayor Konrad was unimpressed with her unrepentence. “Is the statement that this has been going on for a year affirmative?”

She waved him off. “The vehicles weren’t mine. They were my husband’s. When he passed away, I had no need for this ‘hobby’ he had.”

The mayor paused carefully, not wanting to berate a widow. “If you’re looking for an extension, how long are you looking for?”

“A month. Jetlag was huge,” she chuckled.

On second thought, go back to the lens cap.

Councilor Tripp was oozing  with empathy. “I really fail to see any grossly unsightly premises there. I really do feel it would be appropriate to give her the month leeway to work at getting the vehicles removed.”

“The vehicles for sure. The rest of the stuff I can’t promise because of the way the weather is right now,” the citizen sneakily attempted to weasel out of cleanup duty.

Mayor Konrad desperately tried to sound the alarm that the council was being taken advantage of.

“Next spring is NOT really a viable option,” he glanced around uneasily. But the council had chosen a side–and it wasn’t his.

“She’s been away. She’s only been back a week!” nodded Councilor Christine Thompson sympathetically.

“We would be setting a precedent here–” the mayor tried to argue, before Councilor Ross interrupted him.

“No. That’s the beauty of community action. We can work with individuals based on their needs,” she checkmated him.

With the women of the council united, the mayor folded. Fine, one month it is.

“That is wonderful,” the citizen sighed. “Absolutely!”