This Christmas, we are celebrating the third year in a row that City Council Chronicles (and our other project, Tear It Down) has made the ELGL Top 100 Local Government Influencers list! We are very thankful for the award, and you can read more about the other 99 honorees on ELGL.org.
Simultaneously, you can listen to our holiday-themed podcast episode on iTunes, Stitcher, Player FM, and right here:
On this episode, you will hear excerpts from these full interviews:
Christina Romelus is a first-term commissioner and current vice mayor who has experienced pirates in the commission chamber, commentaries on dog poop, and a vote to appoint a new commissioner. But one of the most difficult moments came in response to an idea she raised last year.
Q: On December 5, 2017, you proposed a sanctuary city policy, which basically said that local police will not be enforcing federal immigration law. We have covered sanctuary city debates in other councils. But in the case of Boynton Beach, you all easily had the most boisterous and most raucous public comment of anyplace I’ve seen. How did that make you feel?
A: It reminded me that the First Amendment is alive and well [chuckles]. One of the things that we as America pride ourselves on is being the land of the free and the home of the brave. We provide opportunities. People who come here trying to escape tyranny, they sometimes find worse treatment than they had back home. I’ve never robbed anybody. I’ve never beat up, murdered, stolen anything. Yet when people find out I’m an immigrant or hear the term “immigrant,” that’s what their mind gravitates to.
A: The proposal that I was trying to have that night when it turned into a sanctuary city discussion–which is what I never intended for it to be–it was a fruition of the decree that President Trump was cancelling temporary protected status for individuals from countries like Haiti, Honduras, Venezuela, I believe. Those points of view never even got out of my mouth. The second “sanctuary cities” was blared out, it just became an all-out attack on me.
Q: We heard one man say you should be impeached or removed. That is new for me in a sanctuary city debate. What struck me was how personal it got in Boynton Beach. Why do you think that was the direction it took?
A: Half of the people in that room were not Boynton Beach residents. It literally almost became like a Trump rally in chambers. The entire chambers was filled with people with signs–“build the wall!”
Q: How surprised were you that all of your other commissioners and the mayor rejected your proposal on grounds of “law and order?”
A: Having you replay this is all raw for me all over again. That night was not an easy night for me. I believe in the Constitution. I took an oath as well to protect and defend the Constitution. And I do that. But we have a duty to protect those who can’t protect themselves. When a black person was considered three-fifths of a person, that was in the Constitution. Was it right to uphold that then? That’s political speak, I feel, for cowering away from the conversation. It was the most politically-savvy way to look like “I’m obligated, my hands are tied,” not necessarily because it’s the right thing to do.
Q: There was a recess after this topic and the commission meeting continued. I noticed you were not there for the remainder of the meeting. Why was that?
A: I could not remain in a room filled with that much hate aimed at me. I could not sit on a dais with people who did not even take the time to consider the reasons or to hear out the arguments why I brought up the conversation. I was not in the right state to continue with that meeting. I actually had somebody escort me home from our police department because that’s how unsafe I felt.
Follow Vice Mayor Christina Romelus on Twitter: @romelus_c
Carrie Tergin is famous for her “selfies with the mayor” and is therefore the foremost authority to appraise our International #CityHallSelfie Day Top 10 List. On the podcast, we welcome her back to talk about city hall art, and then discuss one time her own council meeting took a series of unexpected twists.
Q: Mayor, where would you like to start?
A: I have to tell you, these top 10 selfies are just exquisite. We have Waldo, Florida and it was his first selfie! Mayor Louie Davis, to share your very first ever selfie on #CityHallSelfie Day–and he may or may not know this–the requirement is that he’s gonna have to send regular selfies. He can’t just do the one. We wanna see that continue, so don’t disappoint me.
Q: I am inspired that it is never too late to start taking selfies!
A: Absolutely. And the “Where’s Waldo?” I mean, you can do so much with that. Number eight, we have Cary, North Carolina. I have to say, I’m going to give this a number two on Mayor Tergin’s list. Why? Because she has a Snapchat filter. Wow! And a bitmoji on top of it. If you don’t know what either one of those are, you’re gonna have to get with the program!
Q: Has Jeff City ever had a Snapchat filter to your knowledge?
A: Oh, as a matter of fact we have. Shame on me for not taking a selfie with it. Uh-oh. That’s our challenge: figuring out how can we elevate our selfie game? Congrats, Lori. You are my number two choice.
A: This next selfie in Maryland, which is the multi-angle selfie–a selfie within a selfie within a selfie, so basically the “infinity” city hall selfie–that would be my number one. I mean, you can’t hide. When you talk about transparency, when you talk about open government, I don’t know how you can get any more open than that. If you look in there, you’ll just be looking really to infinity to see all of the infinite selfies that are shown in this picture. Really good job on all the action.
Q: I appreciate all of your critiques. I think everyone who entered this competition was a winner, even though they didn’t know I was turning it into a competition! We do have to get back to the serious business of council meetings in Jefferson City. On March 5, I noticed that you could not have a meeting due to the lack of council members. When did you find out that was the situation?
A: Well, sitting there waiting for the council meeting to begin and looking at the clock and starting to say, “where is this councilman and that councilman? Is everybody okay?” And then realizing that “oh, this person did say they were going to be out of town.” At the time I thought, what do you want me to do? You want me to sing? You want me to entertain you? We’ve got everybody here, so how do we have an entertaining time without actually conducting any city business?
A: That particular night, though, we were also waiting on the crew for the U.S.S. Jefferson City. We have a submarine that is named for our city. We had crew members that were in from Hawaii visiting their namesake city. They had planned to stop by that evening. The cool thing was, even though we had no official business, we were able to spend quite a bit of time with the crew members, have them talk about their experiences. We were able to focus that entire time on our military and all they do for our country. In that moment of panic that “we don’t have a quorum and what are we going to do,” it was almost like it was meant to be, really. It was one of those moments that turned out to be one of my favorite council meetings ever.
Darden Rice is the District Four council member in St. Pete and we spent time dissecting her city’s restrictive public comment period. Then we practiced convincing teenagers to come and speak to the council! (BONUS: Info about International #CityHallSelfie Day.)
Q: Council Member, I was angry when I heard that only city residents, owners of property, business owners in the city, or their employees could speak in your meetings–and only on city government issues. Does this mean I am not allowed to come and tell you folks why “Shrek 2” was better than the original “Shrek?”
A: Yeah, there might be some issues if you wanted to speak if you’re not a St. Pete resident. Although you could call your friends, like Council Member Darden Rice, and I could invite you to come talk about “Shrek.”
Q: I do know it’s highly unusual for a council to limit the kinds of people who can speak during a public comment. What would you say to the argument that, as a representative, you are obligated to hear what your people are concerned about? Even if that concern is not, strictly speaking, about city business?
A: I think you’ve got a really good point. I tend to be a little more liberal in the application of what rules we use. But at the end of the day, it is on advice from our legal team that the people that speak–because there’s limited time–that we honor those who are residents.
Q: Practically though, how do you screen out people who don’t meet those criteria?
A: There’s really a trust system involved. It’s so rarely that someone doesn’t meet the criteria.
Q: For the record then: if the Queen of England herself walked into the St. Pete council meeting for open forum and you had your suspicions that she was not a resident, you would still not say, “sorry, Mum, I’ll need to see the address on your driver’s license first?”
A: I would imagine that our chairperson of council would give the courtesy of the Queen to speak at council.
Q: Recently, Council Member Steve Kornell had an idea to ask the ministers you invite to do your invocations to also bring children from their youth groups to speak at council meetings. Can you explain what this procedure is supposed to look like? And please do use words like “dope” or “extra” in your answer.
A: [laughs] I think it has a good intention. I think it would take a lot of work bringing kids and getting them out of school to come and speak to council. I haven’t really thought about whether this is an idea I think is really great or if it’s just gonna make meetings run a lot longer.
Q: Let’s do a role-playing exercise. Let’s pretend you are a minister about to give the invocation–Presbyterian, if you need to get into character. And you are trying to convince me, a moody teenager, to come and speak during the open forum.
A: Hey, Michael. This is Pastor Darden Rice and we are gonna go up and talk to city council today. I’d like you to share some issues you have going on at school and talk about how safe you feel in the neighborhoods or not and just let your elected officials know about what it’s like living in St. Pete. How does that sound?
Q: Ugh, city council? That sounds like old people stuff. You are embarrassing me so hard right now in front of my phone. I will not be on camera without a filter. No way. #noway.
A: Hey, Michael, I think you ought to give this a second thought. When young people show up, we really listen. I think it would be a great learning experience.
Q: It’s not gonna be boring is it? My boyfriend went to an Ed Sheeran concert and said it was super boring and I’m worried this will be like the Ed Sheeran concert.
A: It won’t be boring because you’re just staying for the beginning of it. I promise.
A: Okay, fine. Only if I can text my friends about how I’m at the city council meeting and they’re not so they’re lame.
Follow Council Member Darden Rice on Twitter: @DardenRice
It was awards season in Titusville! I don’t mean the Emmys, the Tonys, or the Fakies, but rather the Titusville Employee of the Month trophies, which went to an impressive roster of innovators, life-savers, and jokesters.
First up, the Water Production Department:
“Back in March, this is where we change our disinfectant byproducts. In previous years, this process has taken about two weeks. John was able to turn it into a two-day process.
Next, the police chief:
“Vinny got involved–all the merchandise back and bad guy goes to jail.”
And closing out the honors, the clerk’s office:
“I probably shouldn’t say this, but the last thing Shane did when he left as an intern–he was doing some of our advertisements. There’s something called alt-text where you can hover over a picture. It was a chili festival or something. A few days after he left, somebody hovered over it and it says, ‘ooh! Hot and saucy!'”
But the next item had potential to get more heated than a four-alam chili: whether to rename South Street after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
“This is important because Dr. King expressed his dream that all minorities would be treated fairly,” an older man in a vest testified. “Renaming the street will emphasize not just the black minority but all minorities–the Asian minority, the Indian minority, Japanese, Chinese, and even the women minority.”
It was a compelling argument. Although to be frank, the reasoning of Vice Mayor Matt Barringer was less about including minorities (even “the women minority”), and more about raw bureaucratic expediency:
“The benefit is that there’s no street addresses, so it becomes much easier.”
The vote to go forward passed unanimously.
Barreling right along like a hurricane up the Florida coast, the council turned to one final teensy, tiny rezoning request for small homes near Park Avenue. Seems like a no-brainer and we can just–
“I’m not an engineer and I’m not fancy with a degree or nothing, but it just doesn’t seem like a practical area to build homes,” a man in a red Polo shirt protested with a swaggering “I’m no big-city lawyer” tone.
That kicked off a cavalcade of concerned residents protesting this wetland building spree.
“You’re talking about homes that are 50 foot long and 20 foot wide. That’s a fishing boat!”
“I believe your intelligence is wrong.”
“If god had made square wetlands, it would’ve been a lot easier. But he didn’t.”
At one point, Mayor Walt Johnson perceived that a commenter was itching to say more after the timer had expired.
“You need some more time, sir?” the mayor gently quizzed.
“Uh,” the man mused, “two minutes. You need uplands for the–”
“One second, please,” the mayor halted him, seeking a motion from council to extend the time. It was a kind and merciful gesture. A one-time exception. Except…
“You need additional time?” Mayor Johnson asked the next woman who ran over. “How much?”
“Two minutes?” she offered hesitantly.
“That’s what I’m looking for,” he grinned. Fine, twice in one meeting is extremely benevolent and certainly not–
“Need more time?” the mayor prompted yet another commenter who ran over.
Finally, the applicant for the housing stepped forward indignantly. “The lady that spoke before had a parade of horribles of things that happen maybe once in a while and acted like they happen all the time! We’re not gonna wipe out the wetlands,” he insisted.
Mayor Johnson frowned. “I’d like to see everybody at least have a shot at talking together and making something better,” he murmured.
And in classic fasion, the council that gave everyone two more minutes gave themselves two more months to figure it out.