Special Feature! “Best Thing, Worst Thing”

In the latest, greatest episode of our “Best Thing, Worst Thing” project, we swing through Western Pennsylvania to visit the famed steel city of Pittsburgh. There may be three rivers and hundreds of bridges, but I take you on a trip to the less obvious places in search of best and worst things: to a machine shop where Chinese students and high school girls are working together; to a Sunday morning church service; and to the “Yugoslav Room” with a local poet.

If you’ve never heard of the project before, catch the previous 11 episodes here. When you are ready to learn about the hardest part of designing a robot, click over to the City Council Chronicles podcast to download this latest episode. Or you can play it below.

Episode 12: Pittsburgh, PA

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Pittsburgh had a reputation as a steel-producing city in Western Pennsylvania and now is known more for its robotics, technology, and medicine. It has a population of 300,000 and is defined by hills, rivers, and bridges. In our visit, we watch a high school team assemble robots with visiting Chinese students; attend a picnic in a park; and experience a Baptist church service. We also hear from a poet, a retired educator, a recently-returned young mother, and a “Girl of Steel.”

#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.”

#104: Columbus, OH 5/15/17

First impressions were VERY strong at the Columbus city council. No sooner had people risen to face the flag than a thundering orchestral rendition of the Star Spangled Banner blasted over the loudspeakers.

Council members stood at attention while the camera panned across the room. As the trumpeting ceased, onlookers were aided in the Pledge of Allegiance by a beautiful tapestry embroidered with the oath.

Talk about class, folks!

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It’s like a g–d– Norman Rockwell painting.

After this patriotic tour de force, Council Member Jaiza Page rattled off her own tour de fitness. “If I’m out there” on Bike to Work Day, she smiled self-deprecatingly, “you’ll probably see me last in line.”

She added, to chuckles, “just don’t run me over!”

More impressively, Councilmember Page revealed that daring Columbusites would soon be allowed to rapel 19 stories off the PNC Building–not for infamy, but rather for a fundraiser for sexual trafficking victims.

“I did go over the edge last year and I was thoroughly frightened for 20 minutes,” she admitted with no trace of anxiety. “But I would encourage those of you who are not interested in rapelling yourself to go out and just cheer the rapellers on.”

Yes, and also be sure to cheer on Page as she bikes, rapels, canoes, bobsleds, and hanglides her way to the title of “Most Adventurous Council Member.”

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“I got to this meeting via luge.”

By all accounts, things were going swimmingly. (Council Member Page will probably be swimming for charity at some point, too.) Suddenly, after Councilmember Michael Stinziano smoothly moved $1.2 million to repair the city’s sewer pipes, President Pro Tem Priscilla Tyson stared down at her paperwork.

“We have several non-agenda speakers that we will take momentarily.” She glanced at the clock. “We will reconvene at 6:30 for zoning.”

With that, the screen faded to black.

A slow horror dawned on me: she had turned off the cameras for public comment.

I wanted to scream, but I realized that even if she were rapelling off the outside of the PNC Building, President Pro Tem Tyson probably would not hear me.

Within seconds, the council chamber faded back in. The time was now 6:30 and the room was substantially emptier.

“Regular meeting number 26 will now come to order,” Tyson cheerfully announced like Richard Nixon after he erased those 18-and-a-half minutes of tape.

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I expected this kind of behavior from Cleveland. But COLUMBUS???

We may never know what was said in public comment that day. All we know is that the zoning hearing was much, much more tedious.

“To grant a variance from the provisions of Sections 3332.039, R-4 residential district; 3321.05(B)(2), vision clearance; 3321.07(B), landscaping; 3332.25(B), maximum side yards required; 3332.26,(C)(3), minimum side yard permitted,” Council Member Page read for nearly a minute off of the numbers-heavy ordinance.

“This is a very interesting situation,” a neatly-dressed white-haired man said as he stood eager to explain the nuances of zoning. “We have a building that covers close to 100 percent of the parcel that doesn’t comply with the zoning district or the university planning overlay.”

Yes, quite thrilling. You know what else would be an interesting situation? SEEING THE PUBLIC COMMENT.

What a shame that a council meeting with such high production quality should fumble this basic feature.

Final thoughts: While the V.I.P. here is clearly Council Member Page for doing “Fear Factor: Columbus,” the capital city’s lack of 100% transparency forces me to give this meeting only 2 out of 5 buckeyes.

Special Feature! “Best Thing, Worst Thing”

Hey, City Councilheads! Today we debut a special, semi-regular feature called “Best Thing, Worst Thing.” (No, it’s not about the election.) For an explanation of the project, check out the page here. If you like storytelling and municipal lore, I think you’ll dig what the chef cooked up.

To dive right in, head over to the City Council Chronicles podcast and download the latest episode. Or you can play it below.

Episode 1: Castle Rock, Colorado

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Source: Town of Castle Rock

Castle Rock is a town of 56,000 people located in Douglas County, 30 miles south of Denver. It is named after a distinct rock formation at the north end of the historic downtown. Outside of downtown, there are also several office parks, subdivisions, and the Outlets retail area. Castle Rock’s population is largely wealthy and white. Historically, Douglas County has been rural–home to ranchers. In the last several decades, it has grown dramatically as a Denver suburb. In this episode, we hear from a businesswoman, a pastor, a former Navy SEAL, and the town’s mayor.

#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.