This past Tuesday was Election Day in the United States, which means there were plenty of city council races to keep track of. We provide you with some updates on a handful of city councils profiled on previous podcast episodes.
A whirlwind of activity has buffeted the Prairie Village council–starting with the onset of live streaming earlier this year and ending in an aborted council meeting earlier this week. Council Member Tucker Poling describes his at-times-incredulous reaction to some of the developments.
Q: I am talking to you in the third week of September, which means you had a council meeting a few days ago. How did that go?
A: It went about as well as council meetings go when nobody shows up!
A: I had a nondiscrimination ordinance on the agenda and suddenly, the few hours before the meeting, we had four council members text or email the city manager and say that they couldn’t make it. Therefore, we did not have a quorum and we could not meet and hilarity did not ensue. I was not happy about it.
Q: You know Prairie Village and you know these council members. I don’t want it to sound like I’m blaming you when I say: should you have known this was coming?
A: I will say no. In my knowledge, it’s never happened before in this way. It’s been very rare we have more than one absence. At the time, I–let’s say I “lost my chill” a little bit, as the younger people say. I had no chill on that evening! [laughs]
Q: [laughs] Well that sounds perfectly “dope” and thank you for not being “extra” despite your lack of “chill.” And–I’m sorry, there’s something else that’s bugging me. Can you explain what was before you council on August 20 of this year?
A: That was Councilman Ron Nelson’s proposal for us to adopt the principles of the convention to end all discrimination against women. All Ron was asking for was a resolution saying that we support equity and equality for women and girls.
Q: On August 20, the first thing that happened was that council members argued against the resolution. How did you feel about what you heard?
A: I felt mind-numbingly confused and disappointed. I was flabbergasted that this was controversial. We had people in an open, public meeting talking about conspiracy theories about the UN [United Nations].
Q: The resolution was not passed and sent back to staff on a vote of 7-5. Of the six council members who canceled at this week’s meeting for your anti-LGBT discrimination proposal, how many of them also voted to shoot down the anti-gender discrimination proposal?
A: All of them.
Q: Some of them were suspicious of the UN, and I guess I get that a little. It does feed into the caricature of middle America. But others were arguing that “all lives matter,” right? That, “why can’t we have a nondiscrimination again men too?” And others seemed to think there was no inequity in Prairie Village. I’m curious, if your council meeting had happened on Monday, would you have expected that same argument to come up about sexual orientation?
A: Yeah, there definitely would have been those same objections. “We don’t have any discrimination in Prairie Village. This is all ‘political.'” Which is just very confusing to me because the idea that the human condition does not apply in Prairie Village and all the flaws that we have as human beings somehow don’t apply in nice, upper class communities like ours–that’s pretty blind in my view.
Q: It occurred to me that people who said, “if we pass this, it’s just an admission that something is wrong here”–ironically, by not passing it, it gathered all this attention and people asking, “what is wrong with the Prairie Village council that they can’t pass this?” It had the opposite effect.
A: That’s exactly right. It’s bizarre that people think that by not acknowledging something, that’s just going to go away. And people are not going to notice that you’ve chosen to not acknowledge that equity issues exist everywhere.
Follow Council Member Tucker Poling on Twitter: @TuckerForPV
A tall, thin young man strolled up to the lectern as council members patiently folded their hands and arms in front of them.
“I am the coordinator for the Libertarian Party of Allen County,” he announced. The introduction was entirely plausible, as his baseball cap and tan shorts were consistent with a minimal government/minimal dress code philosophy.
“Since this is only my second meeting so far, I’m a little lost. What is the purpose of a public hearing?”
Mayor Jonathan Wells leaned forward to help. “Generally, public hearings are to allow the public input on a specific issue–usually on things like budget or whenever we are doing a demolition or condemning a house.”
“I see,” nodded the lanky libertarian, despite this intrusion of Big Government into his comment time. “I would like to start off with reading a bit from the city code.”
He turned to his notes and quoted city policy to the silent council members. “In chapter one, article five: ‘the objective of the investment program shall be to aggressively manage and invest all public monies to relieve demands on the property tax and reduce the cost of public services.'”
He looked up. “I would really like to emphasize the relief on property tax and to reduce the cost of public services. I would appreciate if the council keeps in mind my desire for lower taxes.”
“I’ve seen in the officially-approved minutes of the special meeting on July 16, Council Member…Murick–”
“MYrick,” corrected Eugene Myrick.
“–mentioned a private trash service, to which administrator [Sid] Fleming noted that having heavy trucks on our streets that the government does not control may be more damaging.”
He delivered his bottom line. “As a libertarian, government control of anything is fundamentally and philosophically threatening to me.”
Before the council could thank him for traveling on the fundamentally-threatening government streets to the fundamentally-threatening government building to broadcast his views over fundamentally-threatening government cameras, they leapt ahead to discuss another possible menace: people.
“Do we really need two recreation directors? AND an administrator assistant?” Council Member Myrick quizzed. “I’m not saying, ‘cut ’em. Get rid of ’em.’ But once that position becomes open, can we just not fill that again?”
But Council Member Aaron Franklin pumped the brakes on the HR Express. “I think we’re approaching this from the wrong direction,” he frowned. “We need to focus on staffing the city with the right people in the right places for the right reasons. And not look at this as, ‘we need to cut things across the board.'”
He urged everyone to check their libertarian impulses. “I know that everybody wants to cut. But if we go into a study trying to find the result we’re looking for, we’re gonna have failed before we even start.”
“The intention of this is not to get rid of anybody that is currently employed,” Council President Nancy Ford maintained. “It is just if there is a vacancy, determine whether that needs filled. That shouldn’t upset anyone. If they’ve already all picked up that workload and split it among them, you know, that’s part of having a job!”
That’s true. And if the city ends up being short-staffed, there is at least one person willing to come in and read the city code for free.
“Last week, as you all know, I went to Washington, D.C.,” Mayor Laura Wassmer casually mentioned her Kansas and Nebraska mayors’ powwow at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
“We had quite a dog and pony show,” she continued, gingerly stepping around all of the names she was dropping. “Kellyanne Conway talked a bit about working to help the opioid crisis. Ben Carson talked about affordable housing.”
She paused. “They made the point over and over, there are a lot of great things happening at the White House that is not being reported by the media–and asked that we pass that along.”
Consider it passed! Just think of all the people who haven’t pleaded guilty! Everything’s great!
And you know where else great things were happening? Right there in the Prairie Village council meeting, where it was a very big week for city administrator Wes Jordan.
“Wes, this is a very big week for you!” Mayor Wassmer glanced slyly over to him. “Not only is it your birthday on Thursday, but SOMEBODY has been with Prairie Village for 30 years as of Wednesday.”
“Woo-woo!” came an anonymous catcall as applause broke out.
The mayor went down the line of compliments, from the professional–“I think of how conscientious he is”–to the…intimate.
“There’s the perfect hair. The forever perfect hair,” she observed, although the video quality was not good enough to independently confirm. “We have your favorite ice cream cake in the back. And more importantly–”
Mayor Wassmer disappeared under the desk for a moment, then emerged brandishing a giant, shiny blue object.
“–your own Prairie Village street sign!”
“Speech! Speech! Speech!” yelled Council Member Brooke Morehead.
The only thing standing between the council and ice cream cake was a tiny bit of official business. Namely, a resolution “in support of the principles of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women.” It seemed like the kind of routine measure that would pass without a fight.
But then the fight began.
“I will vote no because I’m not comfortable placing our city under international law when the U.S. Senate refuses to ratify the treaty after nearly 40 years,” announced Council Member Morehead defiantly.
“By passing this resolution, it could be mistaken that we are endorsing its tenets on civil rights, reproductive rights, and gender relations.”
“There are probably places where men are discriminated against, arguably,” Council Member Dan Runion echoed in the vein of “All Lives Matter.” “It’s a feel-good measure. Why pull one group out and treat them differently?”
Council Member Ron Nelson was incredulous at what he was hearing. “There are 189 state-nations that have adopted the Convention. There are seven that have not,” he retorted. “Those are Palau, the Holy See, Iran, Somalia, Sudan, and Tonga. And last and, sadly, least: the United States.”
“It frankly amazes me that we can say highlighting that there should not be discrimination against one class of people minimizes others’.”
Council Member Jori Nelson stared down at her notes. “We’re proclaiming this to be Diaper Week and Electric Car Week. And we’ve done Peanut Butter Week.” She clenched her fist. “It is MY opinion that women’s equal rights is more important and should take precedence over peanut butter, diapers.”
“I’m not sure what–what–if we’re…I’M certainly not trying to equate this resolution with Peanut Butter Week!” shouted Council Member Andrew Wang. “We are creating an enormous act of discrimination by passing this resolution while there has NOT been any shred of evidence that we have a problem.”
“I don’t know why this anxiety exists because a United Nations entity thought that this was important,” pleaded Council Member Chad Herring.
Council Member Morehead reiterated her firm opposition. “I’m a successful business owner. Longtime mom, grandma. I think I’m a pretty good role model.”
She caught the eye of an employee in the back. “Jamie! You, lady, you’re doing a terrific job. And you, little girl back there? Yeah, you’re doing wonderful!” She leaned back. “You are tying yourself to the United Nations. We don’t need it!”
Council Member Jori Nelson’s hand shot up. “When you speak about women as ‘little girls,’ or not addressing the staff as educated and intelligent, I think it’s demeaning.”
She glowered across the dais and pointed angrily at Morehead. “They’re not little girls. They’re women.”
“Make no mistake,” Council Member Ron Nelson interjected softly, “a vote that no, this resolution should not be adopted, is a vote that there should be discrimination against women.” It appeared the council was evenly divided in this standoff. All of a sudden–
“Motion to refer to staff,” Council Member Runion moved to ditch the resolution entirely for the night after a half hour of anguish.
The mayor called for a vote. Seven hands went up in favor. Five against.
It was a disheartening ending to the meeting. And an even more bizarre beginning to Diaper Week.
“If you’re not able to hear or see, there’s another area here you’re welcome to stand,” pointed Mayor Jeff Harrington as he wrangled the packed sea of onlookers.
“Since we have a full council chambers,” the mayor advised potential comment-givers, “keep them short to two or three minutes.”
He didn’t mention anything about keeping it civil. But amazingly, it seems he didn’t need to.
“First of all, thank you. I know you guys are all volunteers,” the first commenter showered praise on the leaders. “I am here to respectfully request another public forum discussing the 1918 Building.”
She continued, “I have an online petition with over 800 signatures. I have handwritten signatures of over 2,000,” a staggering 27 percent of the city’s population.
No wonder the room was overflowing–everyone was three degrees of separation from someone who signed a petition!
Right out of a Jimmy Stewart movie, residents quietly stood up one by one, strode to the microphone, and gave impassioned defenses of the 1918 Building. These included the logical:
The current city hall is in decline. The roof is leaking and documents are being stained and ruined. [The 1918 Building is] the strongest, most well-built building in our city. It has a community identity and represents our heritage.
They included the short-and-sweet:
I agree totally with what has been so gloriously stated!
And they included this heartfelt testimony from a woman who adored the haunted house inside:
“I walk into this building and these people have done nothing but treat me like family. They give me and my husband a place to belong,” she said as her voice shook slightly. “It’s not easy for people to admit that they don’t mesh well with our community. So standing here and saying that in front of a whole entire city’s worth of people is a blow to my ego.”
Council members leaned forward on their elbows. The mayor jotted down a note.
“Even though it’s unconventional and it’s scary–‘ooh, it’s a crazy idea and we scare the children.’ Well, yeah, that’s the purpose of it!” she insisted. “We see little children come through and they’re terrified and I don’t have any problem dropping my character and say, ‘hey, I’m a mommy, too. Touch my face, it’s real!'”
Per the rules, the crowd remained silent, but it was obvious where the popular opinion lay in the room. Mayor Harrington gripped his pen.
“I really want everyone to know how much I appreciate the level of comfort you have speaking to this city council,” he smiled.
But sadly, the council that had been so receptive and attentive would not last to the stroke of midnight.
“It pains me to announce the next item,” winced the mayor, “but item 10 is the consideration of council member resignation for Joe Peterson. So I would entertain a motion.”
There was silence as no one volunteered to make the motion. Once everyone realized what was happening, laughter broke out.
“You’re not getting out of here!” one person shouted to Peterson.
“I will make my motion!” Council Member Peterson hollered.
Council Member Dani Gurley whipped her head around. “Can you do that?!”
“He’s a city councilman, he can do whatever he wants!” observed Council Member Mike Thompson.
But who would take his place, inheriting the massive conundrum of the 1918 Building?
“The precedent has been set many years ago,” Mayor Harrington explained. “We’ve asked applicants to make an application and then we’ve taken those applicants to a board of past mayors to review. They made a suggestion to me. I bring that here.”
Ah, secret society stuff. I love it. Who did the Illuminati endorse this time?
“I’d like to appoint Chris Wood to the vacant Ward 4 position,” he said, gesturing to Wood in the audience. Everyone turned to look.
“I am very proud to be a member of the council,” she called out.
“And you know: new council members bring the cookies,” warned Council Member Thompson.
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!