#101: Winston-Salem, NC 5/1/17

No flash. No tomfoolery. The Winston-Salem city council meeting was the “salad without dressing” of municipal powwows. There were no detours, no non-sequiturs, and a heavy dosage of the dry stuff.

“The theme for Building Safety Month 2017 encourages all Americans to raise awareness of the importance of building safety,” read the council secretary in a listless monotone. “And to be mindful of fire prevention, disaster mitigation, and backyard safety.”

After checking my backyard for potential hazards, I returned to the proceedings in time for a riveting slide show of the Northwest Winston-Salem Area Plan.

“We’ve had four public meetings, very well attended,” bragged a city employee at the podium. “Overall attendance was 75 people, with about 45 individuals coming to multiple meetings.”

Let the record show: a Trump inauguration-sized crowd of people attended these meetings.

One hour in, we finally saw a spark of passion from these dying embers. Granted, it was an unlikely subject to cause a dustup: a reexamination of the 2017 property tax appraisal process.

Hear me out! It gets interesting!

“To have our properties lowered like they have been lowered,” Mayor Pro Tempore Vivian Burke made sweeping eye contact with every person on the dais, “it must be our challenge that we let [Forsyth County] know that we don’t like what we are receiving.”

She waved her index finger menacingly next to her oversized broach, signaling that she meant business.

Council Member Denise Adams took a less ominous, more philosophical approach. “For the listening audience and others, there’s always an opportunity to change,” she leaned into the microphone and smiled. “Times change. People change.”

Fact check: TRUE–people do change.

For pure pathos, Council Member John Larson channeled the inner frustrations of many Winston-Salemites–er, Winstonian-Salemers? Winstoner-Salemanders?

“Nobody likes to see their property devalued. It’s very demoralizing.” He frowned deeply and scratched his demoralized face. “Their home is one of the most important investments they have. Individuals don’t have the stamina to take it in front of the Board of Adjustments.”

But someone who did have a trainload of stamina was Mayor Pro Tempore Burke. Suddenly no more Ms. Nice Council Member, she used Larson’s comments to light a match on her stick of rhetorical dynamite.

“It is a DISGRACE and a SHAME that we allow investors to come through and assault our neighborhoods like they have,” she thundered.

“I said to the city manager, ‘I just want you to go and look. Look at the joy and pleasure we have in keeping our neighborhoods.’ Homes are simply beautiful. We spend many dollars–mine looks like a golf course.”

She stared daggers. “Stop destroying our dreams.”

Burke: “I buried 15 land mines on my property. I dare you to come destroy my dreams.”

Finishing on a lighter note, the city manager folded his hands politely and smiled. Far from crushing anyone’s hopes, he was instead expanding their horizons.

“You’ve been asking for many years for us to reduce the use of paper. So this is our fist month using iPads for automated agendas so we don’t have to chop down all those trees.”

He paused before teasing a tantalizing piece of news. “And in a few months we’ll actually be voting with our iPads as well.”

Welcome to the future, Winston-Salem. As a great thinker once said, “Times change. People change.”

Final thoughts: I give 10 out of 10 stars to those 45 people who attended multiple zoning meetings. Oy vey, how did you manage?!

Interview #34: Fort Lauderdale, FL City Manager Lee Feldman (with podcast)

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

For two decades, Lee Feldman has been a city manager all around the Florida coast. Currently he is the big cheese in Fort Lauderdale, which has its share of commission meeting drama. We talked about Florida’s causal meeting attire and what council members may really be doing when they’re not looking at public commenters.

Q: You are the city manager of Fort Lauderdale. So, sir, my first question is: how many wet t-shirt contests have you judged?

A: None. Actually, Spring Break–as you may think of–has long gone from Fort Lauderdale. Back in the ’80s, the city fathers felt that Spring Break had gotten a little out of control. They wanted to see the beach evolve to something different, so Spring Break ultimately moved away.

Q: Can you think of anything you’ve done as Fort Lauderdale’s city manager that you think no other city manager in the country might have done?

A: Well, I’ll tell you one. In Florida when you have a quasi-judicial item, you have to be sworn in to give testimony. Our previous process gave you an orange sticker to indicate you were sworn in. I encouraged the clerk to replace that sticker with a sticker that says “I Love Fort Lauderdale.” I’m not sure anybody else in the country has done that.

Q: [Laughs] Yeah, I wouldn’t expect Reno to have stickers that say “I Love Fort Lauderdale!” I noticed in your city commission meetings that some public commenters wear t-shirts, shorts, and baseball caps. Do you find that a little too casual?

A: Over the last 30 years, I’ve seen a general relaxation of meetings. You’ve probably seen some council members that wear t-shirts and ball caps and shorts–

Q: Not yet!

A: You’ll probably find a few, especially in the retirement-oriented communities.

Fort Lauderdale, FL City Manager Lee Feldman

Q: When you were in Palm Bay, there was a contentious city council meeting over the city’s contract with firefighters. Some of them stood up and said, you don’t care about us. Or, cut your pay. What do you want to say to them?

A: We value the work and effort of every employee. Everybody contributes differently. I remember around that time, these anonymous blogs started showing up and somebody blogged that I had gotten a huge raise, which was not the truth. I got a call from my mom–she was yelling at me about “how dare you take a raise when you’re telling others that they need to have changes?”

Q: Some people express concern in public comment that the Fort Lauderdale commissioners aren’t listening to people. I’ve got to say, from watching a few meetings, that seems largely correct.

A: I think our commissioners get a bad rap…we have electronic agendas now. All of our commissioners and myself use our iPads. As people are speaking and referencing things, we will be looking down at the iPad to see what they are talking about.

Q: How can public commenters get your attention and most effectively make their case?

A: The best way to make a case is to know the issue, be able to state the facts, and it’s okay to even get emotional. I’ve seen speakers tear up because the item means so much to them. But the most effective way is to remain civil.

Follow Lee Feldman on Twitter: @leefeldman

Interview #10: Hampton, VA City Council Clerk Katherine Glass

Hampton’s city council clerk had some FUN stories, so let’s get to it! Katherine Glass told me about how to get the key to the city and the time she almost clotheslined President Obama.

Q: You’ve got a city council meeting in 48 hours–what was today like for you?

A: The mayor popped in and saw a group that does youth sports. He suggested that they come to a council meeting, but we already have three groups coming to be recognized. And two more got added. So I’ve got to figure out how we accommodate five groups and make everybody feel welcome, but we still get the business of the city done.

Q: Yeah, I don’t envy you.

A: My workflow is one week I’m getting ready for a meeting–or I’m having a meeting. We’re highly automated. I think Hampton was the second city in the country to go to iPad technology for meetings.

Q: You’re a trendsetter!

A: It came from [former] Mayor Molly Ward. She worked for the Obama administration for a while. I got to go and have lunch at the White House. Like, in the West Wing dining room! Very, very cool.

Q: Did you meet the president?

A: I wouldn’t say MEET him…we almost collided with him.

Q: You gotta tell me what happened.

A: I had just asked Molly, “do you pass Obama in the hall?” She goes, “not really.” I swear to you, not five minutes later, Molly was leading the way, [former city attorney] Cynthia [Hudson] was behind me, and I see all these men in black. And by the time I look back, Cynthia is at the intersection and he [Obama] just about runs into her.

Q: Oh, no.

A: And he says, “Hello!” She goes “Hello!” I was like, “that’s the flipping President of the United States! I could reach out and touch him!”

Hampton, VA city council clerk Katherine Glass

Q: When you look at this city council, do you see any future White House officials? Congresspeople? A president?

A: Not in this group. I think they’re serving out of a love to the city. You’ve got two retirees…Teresa Schmidt is actually a preschool administrator…Billy Hobbs runs an automotive dealership. Everybody knows Billy. He’s just your average guy.

Q: So how do you describe your job?

A: Departments compile their information. They get it to me. I make sure it looks right and I put it in a packet. The packet goes out to council on Friday, so they have a good five days to review everything. My job while I’m at the meeting is to record their votes. I make sure the mayor signs all the new laws. I’m the funnel.

Q: “The funnel,” nice.

A: It’s an interesting job. You get calls from weird reporters that are like, “hey, I’m gonna watch your meeting.”

Q: Ugh, I hate those people.

A : Have you ever heard of Mark Malkoff?

Q: Nope.

A: He called with a bizarre request. He asked me, “what do you have to do to get the key to the city?” I’m like, I don’t know that we really have a key to the city! His thing was to do a road trip across the country and see how many keys to the city he could collect.

Q: Katherine. How does City Council Chronicles get a key to the city?

A: Something terribly creative.

Q: What about…I review your city council meeting and you mention City Council Chronicles DURING the meeting?

A: I can ask the mayor…I’ll see if Donnie can do that in his mayor’s comments.