Interview #118: Decatur, IL Reporter Tom Lisi (with podcast)

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

Tom Lisi, a reporter with the Herald & Review, has had a literal front row seat to some of the more surprising votes in the Decatur city council–including guidelines for trick-or-treating, a second ambulance license, and a late-game switch for a local golf tournament.

Q: Let’s go to May 7, 2018. What was your council’s beef with professional golf–other than, you know, it’s golf?

A: The tournament is in the Hickory Point Golf Course, which is outside the city of Decatur. It’s in the other side of the tracks–the “good” other side of the tracks–in Forsyth. Usually, in years past, [Decatur] paid the tournament the sponsorship earlier in the year. They held off, so out of frustration, the organizers of the tournament pulled the name [Decatur].

Q: The motion to provide the $20,000 tournament funding failed 3-3 in that council meeting. How shocked were you that the council didn’t break par on that one?

A: Honestly, it was surprising. Part of the reason that that motion failed was the mayor was absent this week. I can feel pretty safely in saying that she would’ve voted for that. If she was there, the motion would’ve passed. But that was one of the shockers of the year, that vote.

Q: And you don’t feel that there was any rigging of the calendar to ensure the mayor would be out of town when this came up?

A: [chuckles] I can’t speculate on that. I guess the bloggers and 4chan commenters out there might have a different theory, but as far as I know she was just on vacation or something.

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Decatur, IL reporter Tom Lisi

Q: Councilman David Horn, with this issue and others I’ve observed, is not shy about offering amendments or compromises. Is he the one who most often brings suggestions to the council floor?

A: Yeah, and he’s definitely gotten blowback from other council members on that. It’s sort of a tactic he’s used from time to time and it does throw other council members off–“we had a plan and now you’re trying to throw something new in.” It is a little strange to walk through that and people getting twisted up in Robert’s Rules stuff.

Q: So their irritation comes not from the fact that he’s refusing to go along with the program, it’s just a last-minute addition to the deal they already thought they had?

A: You know, the way these city manager-council forms of government work is the city manager discusses the agenda with council members individually. He has to go with, “what does the majority of the council seem to want?” Councilman Horn is often not in that majority, so I guess you could say the amendment tactic is a way to say, “I’m not on board with the decision that was made beforehand. So I’m gonna throw my two cents in right now and see if anybody goes along with it.”

Q: I didn’t see a lot of public commenters show up to that vote about pulling the tournament funding. Was that because everyone thought it was a sure deal? Or do they just not care about it?

A: I think it might’ve been a mixture of both. I think the average Decatur resident probably doesn’t care that much about that tournament. Maybe people from other parts of the world–because the LPGA is big in parts of Asia–it puts this focus on Decatur in a way residents that live there don’t even know about. There’s definitely people that were really frustrated by that vote. It’s possible they didn’t show up because they didn’t think it was that controversial.


Follow Tom Lisi on Twitter: @tommylisi

#124: Rockledge, FL 8/16/17

Mayor Thomas Price was all smiles as he kicked off the meeting.

“Can I have the Friends of the Children of Brevard come up?” he announced, glancing coyly at the audience. Surrounded by a clique of three women, he reached underneath the podium.

“You’re gonna get the proceeds from our golf tournament. It’s my pleasure to present you with”–he hoisted a giant novelty check–“a $21,000 check!”

The women’s jaws dropped as the council clapped and hollered. After the ceremonial picture, Mayor Price turned toward them. “Are any of you Rockledge residents?”

“I am,” one of them volunteered.

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My eyes have never worked so hard to watch a council meeting.

The mayor instantly produced a smaller gift (my sources tell me either an energy bar or a piece of candy) and handed it to her as the room erupted in laughter. I can only assume that this is the mayor’s calling card and it’s not the first time he’s passed out snacks here.

Taking his seat on the dais, Mayor Price steered the council through a series of permit fees and zoning ordinances that were heavy on words and light on drama. He paused.

“Folks, we’re not always this boring. We just gotta get through all these ordinances first,” he winked, causing another round of chuckles from the crowd.

Suddenly, the infamous Rockledge Environmental Enforcement Board had a handful of open spots–and controversy flared.

“How many vacancies do we have?” the mayor quizzed the council. “Two. How many people do we have applied? Two.”

He waved his hand. “This is going to be easy.”

“If I may,” interrupted Vice Mayor T. Patrick O’Neill, “my recommendation would be that we only fill one of these vacancies tonight rather than throwing new meat into too many boards at one time.”

“New meat?” It’s an advisory board, not Army boot camp. I think everyone will survive. Nevertheless, under the New Meat Doctrine, the council dutifully filled one seat and left the other languishing.

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Strike it through, boys!

It was at this point the city manager announced another vacancy: hers.

“Tomorrow night, I will be flying out of town. I’ll return Monday morning,” she said. “In my absence, Matthew Trine, our finance director, will be the acting city manager.”

“Are beards allowed for our acting city managers?” teased Mayor Price, shooting a look of feigned skepticism to Trine.

“I’ll have to check the dress code, mayor!” quipped the city manager as the council guffawed.

But one man who wasn’t in a lighthearted mood was Council Member Frank Forester, who gave a pained soliloquy on the deterioration of public protests.

“I’ve been watching the news again. You know how THAT can cause problems these days,” he frowned. “I saw a lot of this back in the day when I was in college. The thing I didn’t see then that I’m seeing now is people wearing masks.”

He leaned back in his chair and searched for words. “I kind of feel like, if you’ve got something to say, let people see who’s saying it. Otherwise, who cares? I might care what a man or a woman has to say, but I don’t care what a mask has to say.”

The city attorney joined the grievance bandwagon as council members listened silently. “Those people who dress like that have nothing to say. They really don’t. What they wanna do is cause a scene.”

Beards, masks…the city manager better take a hard look at the fashion guidelines on her flight out of Rockledge.

#33: Aspen, CO 6/27/16

If you get your jollies from talk of storm water fees or filling potholes, take your filthy mind far away from Aspen. In this luxurious ski hamlet, the city council had only the highest, most sophisticated affairs of state to discuss.

“We have a relatively light schedule tonight–and a relatively light council,” Mayor Steve Skadron waved his hands toward the two lone council members seated to his side.

“[Council members] Adam [Frisch] and Art [Daily] are traveling,” chuckled the mayor, who was sporting the most fashionable head of hair this side of Fabio. Like a true Aspenite, “Adam is golfing in Scotland!”

But this city isn’t all golf junketing and Eurotripping. They also had a very unpopular parking rate increase. Tell ’em how unpopular it was, mayor:

“One of the things we’ve done is used revenue from the parking increase to pay for–” GOLDEN TOILETS IN THE COUNCIL CHAMBERS?!?! –“the Downtowner, which are the electric cars that are driving around.”

Christ, what kind of utopia is this? You, there–shorts-clad citizen waiting to address the council! Surely you must have a complaint about how this city is going to hell in a ski lift!

“I’ve used the Downtowner. It’s a great service,” bragged the bespectacled man. “My dogs really appreciate it.”

Mayor Skadron pumped his fist. “Thank you for being such a cool local!”

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With hair like that, Mayor Steve Skadron is THE arbiter of cool.

Finally, midway through the meeting, there was some drama in paradise. A group of developers was seeking to add on to the Little Nell Hotel–and all three council members had to give the thumbs up. No abstentions. No nays.

All. Three.

“What we’ve tried to do is move away from a straight up solarium and create something that is more in line with the original architecture,” a cheerful young presenter explained.

The mayor swiveled to his right. “Ann, what do you think?”

“Well,” chuckled Council Member (and the local landscape architect) Ann Mullins, “it’s always difficult to add onto a building and have it blend in. This is an improvement over what you showed us originally–”

Would she? Wouldn’t she?!

“–but I don’t think it’s there yet….The amount of fenestration and especially the skylights, the glass ceiling, makes the addition somewhat cheap.”

There was a silence, presumably so people could look up the definition of “fenestration.”

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Barf! You call that a solarium?! My dog has pooped better solaria than that!

“Since there are three of us and it has to be unanimous, you get to have what you asked for,” Council Member Bert Myrin smiled nervously. “It’s okay. I’m comfortable with that.” He sounded anything but comfortable.

Turning to the lone objector, he sighed. “It’s entirely up to you.”

The tension was as thick as a Rocky Mountain blizzard. The developers huddled, frantically searching for a way to appease the Ski Queen.

Finally, they offered that the ordinance could make their building “replicate existing ground floor or second floor window pattern.”

All eyes turned to Mullins.

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Council Member Ann Mullins: the most powerful woman in the Rockies

“Okay,” she caved.

The vote was taken. Everyone was a yes. The developers were all smiles as the meeting graveled to a close.

Final thoughts: For driving a hard bargain, I give Council Member Ann Mullins 10 out of 10 Scottish golfing passes.

#31: Seattle, WA 6/20/16

Seattle’s city council met at two o’clock in the afternoon–yet some council members in this java addicted burg were clearly in need of caffeination. Others, however, came out of the shoot ready to kick ass and read names.

In the latter category, Councilmember Sally Bagshaw hit a one-two punch on a tongue-twister proclamation: “I want to announce that June 20, 2016 is Facioscapulohumeral Muscular Dystrophy Awareness Day,” she said, not even slowing for the monster nine-syllable word.

“The core problem stems from genetic disturbance in the DUX4. DUX4 is a coding protein gene located in the D4/Z4 repeat array in the subtelomeric region of the chromosome 4q.” The brainy councilwoman peered smugly over her notes.

“I know all of you know what that means,” she winked. The room chuckled in bewilderment.

Council President Bruce Harrell had a less mind-numbing award to bestow. “We’re gonna honor the women’s golf team that has brought pride to this state and made national history–” he looked up and saw the University of Washington’s golf coach cradling a massive trophy.

“Wow. Look at that hardware.” The president remained as emotionless as an Easter Island statue, but he couldn’t stop staring at the golden prize…or calling it “hardware.” (“The hardware speaks for itself,” he murmured.)

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Nice hardware! And the trophy ain’t bad either–zing!

The council heard public comment from Tyrone, dressed head to toe in silver and looking like a backup dancer in an ABBA music video. “We have did so many damaging thing to foreigner peoples in other lands. We have took land and stole land,” he read haltingly, perhaps unaware that the city council has tragically little jurisdiction over foreigner peoples.

“You’re not sharing the REAL wealth–” he shouted before something unusual happened: his mic was cut. Not because he said the wrong thing, but because he said too many things and his time was up. Some places talk a mean game about sticking to your time, but the Emerald City actually lays down the law. Kudos!

And the council needed all the time they could get, for some hefty ethics legislation was ready–yes, Councilmember Debora Juarez?

“Correct me if I’m wrong here…I didn’t vote in favor of this,” she confusedly announced.

“Well,” the president mused, “I think you’re wrong. Just kidding!” he teased as the other councilmembers snickered. “Did you attend committee?”

Councilmember Juarez thought for a second. “Yes, but I didn’t vote yes!”

“It’s sort of a moot issue,” President Harrell tried to soothe her. But it backfired.

“Why are you smiling like that, Bruce?!” she cried out.

Councilmember Lorena González jumped in to mediate this weird spat. “Luckily, this is all videotaped, so you can go back and look. My recollection, Councilmember Juarez, is that in the committee, all three voted in favor”–including you, was the subtext.

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Bruce, why are you smiling? Bruce, why are you holding a knife? BRUCE?!

BONUS FEATURE:

I dug through vaults of microfiche to find out what actually happened. Here is the committee transcript:

Harrell: I’m ready to vote unless any of you have heartburn about it.

Juarez:

Harrell: All those in favor say aye.

Juarez: Aye.

Busted! Take a walk, Sister Mary Forgetful! YOU’VE BEEN CHRONICLED!

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Councilmember Juarez voted aye, and to the left; aye, and to the left; aye, and to

Final thoughts: Be ye warned: lapses of memory shall not stand!

#4: Aiken, SC 4/11/16

Why, I do declare! Sip yourself some sweet tea and try not to get the vapors, because we’re in South Carolina for the Aiken city council meetin’. This Palmetto State powwow is built on the three G’s: God, Grits, and Gettin’ down to the People’s Business.

Mayor Rick Osbon, the Aiken dry cleaning mogul, started things off with a down-homey prayer from one of the local men of the cloth.

“Through it all, [God] will be glorified and your name and your kingdom exalted. For this we give you all the praise, all the honor, and all the glory with thanksgiving. In Jesus’s precious name, Amen.”

Amen! I believe it’s a law in South Carolina that you have to start everything in Jesus’s precious name, so just to be safe, let me start this review in His name as well.

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Two minutes in and we’ve already got 18 retinas! Hallelujah!

The first piece of new business was as spicy as a drop of Tabasco: a citizen’s committee to review complaints about the police. This could get explosive–and the village elders certainly didn’t want another Fort Sumter on their hands.

“Five of you would have to vote in favor and council would have to make a finding of exigent circumstances that warrants this,” Councilman Reggie Ebner drawled.

“I don’t know what the definition of exigent is,” he admitted,  folksily. “I looked in the dictionary. It’s ‘something that requires immediate attention.'”

It was awfully diligent–er, sorry, “good job-doing”–of the councilman to do some research. Aikenites, be sure to keep him around. He’s a reader!

“I would definitely deem it exigent,” nodded the mayor, flexing the fancy new word. The council agreed unanimously.

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Mayor Rick Osbon knows two things: how to rock a pocket square and what “exigent” means.

“I’ma go back to our audience,” Mayor Osbon announced, scanning the sparse crowd in the chambers. “Any comments?”

A smart-dressed man strode confidently to the podium.  “Good evening, ya’ll. I have my family back there so excuse them if they start talking with me,” he chuckled. He endorsed the committee, adding “this community is special.”

“Thank you for your comments,” the mayor smiled. “That’s what makes Aiken the special place that it is.” Well, butter my buns and call me a biscuit!

Suddenly, the mayor spotted a target in the audience. “This is Steve Kisner. You may know his son,” pro-golfer Kevin Kisner. “He made us all very proud this past weekend!” The mayor was interrupted by an outbreak of applause. The elder Kisner, himself dressed in a golfy blue Polo and khakis, accepted the applause on his son’s behalf.

“Steve, if he’s in town during a council meeting, bring him around and we’d like to personally recognize him,” Councilwoman Lessie Price promised.

Added Councilwoman Gail Diggs: “Tell him we’ll give him the key to the city. Whatever that is.” Aww, how gracious! (Er, sorry, Councilman Ebner: HOW VERY NICE-THING-TO-DO.)

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Steve Kisner’s son will get the key to the city, whatever that is.

With everyone vibing on Steve’s son, it was time to adjourn. “All those in favor please stand up,” the mayor called, just in time to watch his council make themselves as scarce as a hen’s teeth. In Jesus’s precious name, Amen!

Final thoughts: Because everyone learned the definition of “exigent,” I think we’re all winners. I give this meeting 2 out of 3 mint juleps.