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.
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.
While the Marion city council undoubtedly gets points for its assortment of dais decorations–including flower pots, a wall portrait, and a giant construction-style sign–the real focus was off-camera.
“We have a great big group here tonight,” observed Mayor Anthony Rinella as his eyes darted across the audience, “and we have a spokesman for that group. Would you come forward and tell us what you guys are here for?”
A teenager wearing a baseball cap and camouflage sweatshirt popped up at the microphone. “We’re here for our civics class. We have a service learning project and coming to a meeting like this is one of the requirements.”
“Okay,” responded the mayor. “Who’s your teacher?”
“Coach Martin. How come he’s not here?”
“Good question,” the teenager answered uncomfortably. “I’ll have to ask.”
“Ask him tomorrow. I mean, does he not have to be part of the program?”
Pause. “I guess not.”
“Make him run laps,” insisted the mayor.
Two of the commissioners smiled and glanced at each other. Commissioner Angelo Hightower surveyed the room cautiously. Commissioner John Goss stared blankly at the desk.
“Okay. Our favorite council meeting of the year,” Mayor Rinella announced in monotone. “Guys, this is exciting. We’re gonna go over the city audit.”
A car alarm sounded outside the chamber. “Uh-oh, we gotta leave!” joked the mayor as the car’s owner quickly silenced the horn.
Although it was likely a joke that the audit meeting was the “favorite” of the year, it wasn’t at all a bad thing to hear that money was coming hand over fist into Marion.
“If you look back at 2005, the first year I got here, your total revenue was $15 million,” explained a city employee. “Look at this year. Thirty-three million dollars. That says a lot.”
“So since 2006, our total revenue has more than doubled?” the mayor quizzed incredulously.
Mayor Rinella nodded. “That sends you to bed feeling good about yourselves, guys,” he offered to the commissioners.
He then stared into the crowd at one of the city’s recreation employees. “Favorite part of the night,” he deadpanned by way of summoning the man to the lectern.
“If I may brag a bit on our Marion HUB Manta Rays. I’m sporting a shirt today–” the recreation employee opened his jacket to show off a bright yellow t-shirt emblazoned with a large ray. “They finished fourth out of 15 of the non-home teams.”
After the swim team had received sufficient on-camera promotion, the mayor wrapped up. “Last week we talked about some apps that the city introduced. One was a Facebook page and the other was the Nextdoor app. Well this past week, we had some incidences of vandalism on people’s Christmas ornaments.
“One of the people that was videoing this occurring had the Nextdoor app. So our Nextdoor app, in just one week’s time of people getting on this, is nothing more than the neighborhood watch going high tech.”
He added, “hats off to our IT department.”
He shuffled his papers and remembered that the group of students was still watching him. “You guys got any questions? Did you learn anything?”
A few in the audience mumbled replies.
“You’ve just come to one of our mild, boring meetings how we conduct city business,” Mayor Rinella said matter-of-factly. “I apologize for that.”
Well, at least he is making their teacher run laps. Perhaps that made it all worth it.
This past year, I had an AMAZING experience. I visited 12 cities and towns across North America for the “Best Thing, Worst Thing” project. The idea was simple: see as much of the city as I could, talk to as many people as I could, and ask them all the same two questions.
What is the best thing about this place?
What is the worst thing about this place?
Answering those questions can be surprisingly difficult, but it was important for me to hear about individuals’ values and experiences with their communities. I learned that a small city in conservative western Kansas thinks of itself as “progressive.” I learned that diversity in Toronto is much heralded, but also has a dark side. And I was present for a medical emergency in the desert outside Las Cruces, New Mexico.
The goal was to find out what cities are doing well to make their communities livable for residents. Then, to find out what people want that their cities aren’t providing now.
You can listen to all 12 episodes on the project page. And this week, I bring you the highlights in a special audio episode about the best of the “Best Thing, Worst Thing.” This “best of” is available on iTunes, Stitcher, Player FM and right here:
If you liked what you heard, please give the podcast a five-star rating on iTunes and like our Facebook page. There are other big projects in the works, so keep checking back!
July was noteworthy for two reasons. First: it was Mayor’s Month! That’s right, we talked on the podcast to an unprecedented four mayors from three continents. What we heard was heartwarming in some cases and tear-jerking in others.
Second: this being July, of course we saw fireworks! Mostly they were of the verbal variety. But in one case, someone actually brandished a firework in a council meeting. If you don’t remember that moment, perhaps you should browse our July Month in Review page.
And if you’re still questioning whether July’s council meetings are worth a second look, at least find out why this woman is so g–d– happy:
It’s time for the newest installment of the “Best Thing, Worst Thing” project! You probably have not heard of Lake Forest, Illinois, but it is one of numerous Chicago suburbs along the North Shore of Lake Michigan. If you are a lover of trees, animals, or college towns, this is right up your alley. Oh, and the alleys in Lake Forest are beautiful also, by the way.
For an explanation of the project, check out the page here. If you are ready to pet some horses and reptiles with me, come on down to the City Council Chronicles podcast to download the latest episode. Or you can play it below.
Episode 9: Lake Forest, Illinois
Photo source: Google Street View
Lake Forest is about 30 miles north of Chicago on the shores of Lake Michigan. With a population of 20,000, Lake Forest is very affluent, very tree-lined, and the home of Lake Forest College, a private liberal arts school. We hear from a city councilwoman about the most important location in the city, go pet some reptiles at an animal house, plant trees with college students, and visit a horse-riding academy for kids with disabilities.
It was as if someone had asked, “which do you want first? Good news or bad news?”
The first half of the Batavia city council meeting was OVERFLOWING with civic pride. Here’s a sampling from the municipal smorgasbord:
Mayor Jeffery Schielke swore in a smiling new firefighter/paramedic, who ambitiously vowed to “support the Constitution of the United States.”
There was breaking news that the Downtown Egg Hop (sponsored, naturally, by Chick-fil-A) will feature a visit from the real live Easter Bunny.
Because so many scofflaws had to pay fines for failing Batavia’s tobacco sales compliance checks, the police decided to give $3,000 to the high school’s after-prom party. “The good news is, people have violated our liquor and tobacco ordinance,” the police chief said to laughter as he handed a normal-sized check to the organizers.
Even the seemingly-snoozeworthy item of “Phase I wastewater treatment plant rehabilitation” got juiced by a mayoral shout-out.
“I had the opportunity to spend three hours here with the Batavia Environmental Commission. They had their movie night,” Mayor Schielke explained to his sizeable herd of 14 aldermen. “But before we got into the movie, they had me speak for a moment. So I get up and start talking about this, and everybody starts applauding!”
He waved his hand incredulously. “This room was full! There’s all these people from Yorkville and West Chicago and Aurora and everybody was here because they thought this was a real cool thing.”
Schielke sat back and marveled one last time at the memory. “I mean, I got a thundering round of applause when I talked about removing the phosphorus!”
Hey, now. If a mayor can’t get an ovation for phosphorus, that’s not the country I wanna live in!
But alas, what goes up must come down. We had reached the halfway point–and the tone turned solemn.
“I received a notice from the school district. It’s come to our attention that ‘Touchdown Sports’ has been contacting local businesses to solicit sponsorships,” warned city administrator Laura Newman. “The company sometimes claims that specific coaches ask them to contact the business. By all accounts, this is just a scam.”
She emphasized each word. “Don’t share your credit card information.”
Fittingly, a financial scam at home quickly segued to the financial meltdown in Springfield.
“I think it’s crazy they have not been able to come up with a budget,” sighed Alderman Alan Wolff, clamping his fists together while reporting on the council’s field trip to the state capitol.
“House Leader [Barbara Flynn] Currie’s description was, we’re gonna get what we have now. Basically she thinks that’s their ‘gift’ to us.”
At this point, various other aldermen chimed in with their own recollections and grievances.
“We should be ‘grateful’ for their generosity,” one person spat disgustedly.
“It was all I could do to hold my tongue in that room,” Alderman Wolff flexed his fingers and eyeballed the floor.
Alderman Dan Chanzit stared grief-stricken at the mayor. “I never left a trip feeling so hopeless and in such despair.”
There were sympathetic grimaces around the table as Alderman Chanzit shook his head. “I hear chanting at town hall meetings of our congressmen, ‘you work for us.’ It took a lot for me to not start yelling that.”