We have two major pieces of news this week. First, you may listen to the latest podcast episode–a recap of our greatest hits–on iTunes, Stitcher, Player FM, and right here:
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On this episode, you will hear excerpts from these full interviews:
By the way, did you know that one year ago this week is when “Tear It Down” was released? In that time, thousands of people have listened and many have walked away with a newfound appreciation for the functionality of their own local governments. To hear the entire eight-chapter series and its colorful cast of characters, visit www.tearitdownpodcast.com.
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Emily LaDouceur has had a front row seat to several heated skirmishes during her mere four months on the Berea council. From responding to criticism of her attire to pushing an overhaul of the anemic ethics code, she discusses the forces in the community that are making her life difficult.
Q: What happened prior to the April 16, 2019 council meeting that led to your comments about leggings?
A: A man who ran for city council made derogatory comments about me being a big girl and why do I think I can wear yoga leggings? It was posted in a public but membership-only Facebook group. [Another member] posted a picture of me giving a tour of children in city hall. She had put a black smudge over my face and asked “what is this black cloud over Berea?” He made his comments below and it went from there.
Q: Okay, a school group. How many of the parents contacted you after the tour and said, “my child saw female legs today and I had to check him into therapy?”
A: That would be a big, fat zero. None. Nil.
Q: I don’t understand, though, how your tour went from school kids to “I’m getting hate mail for my trousers.” Was it just this one individual who has so much sway over perceptions of you?
A: I wouldn’t say they have huge sway. But hate always has some measure of following. It had nothing to do with my leggings, let’s be real. It’s about politics, where I am left-leaning and they are a very conservative group. And then some good old-fashioned misogyny.
Q: You turned the criticism right back around on your antagonists by posting on Facebook, “the outfit was appropriate….I’ll let you put on the outfit I wore that day…then you can put on the holy, stained T-shirt and oversized jeans worn by some of my colleagues to city council meetings. Report back to us which outfit is more ‘lazy and inappropriate.'” Why bring your fellow councilmen’s choices into this? You could have easily defended yourself without putting them down, yes?
A: Sure. I don’t see it as putting them down as just pointing out the double standard. Women are held to completely different and more stringent standards. I don’t care what they wear as long as they’re getting the work done.
Q: In what way did your council colleagues and the mayor disappoint you here?
A: By not directly calling out the hatefulness. It really is a hate group, and I don’t use that term lightly. There are five council members and the mayor who are members of that group. Progressives in town made a call for them to denounce the behavior of this group and to also exit it. Instead it was a whole lot of false equivalence.
Q: You proposed a new council committee to review your city’s code of ethics. What prompted you to think that Berea could be more ethical?
A: We did have a huge blow-up that made statewide news of one particular councilman. He posted an inappropriate and misogynistic meme on Facebook and it was during the Kavanaugh [confirmation] hearing, speaking about the victim. At the following council meeting, there were I think 16 women and men who spoke and many people really laying their hearts on the table about their trauma. They weren’t asking for him to resign. They wanted reconciliation. They wanted an authentic apology. The problem was that in his apology, instead of really saying sorry, said his wife posted it.
A: All of the council members used their opportunity to respond by saying, “well, we have an outdated ethics code. We should probably revisit that.” When I started digging into the code, it is the bare minimum. It is probably, in the whole state of Kentucky, the most bare, basic, minimum code that is in existence.
Q: Where has the meeting footage of the ethics committee come from?
A: It came from my phone. My Facebook live.
Q: Do I understand that the only reason we know about a massive overhaul of the municipal ethics code is because one council member thought to press record on her phone?
A: Yes. I presented a laundry list of open meetings violations that our current council has been partaking in. There won’t be any discussion in council meetings. Most of the discussion happens in these committee meetings that are very poorly attended. They’re not recorded. Minutes are rarely taken. No one really knows what’s going on. I took it upon myself to bring up those things and some of them have changed. I’ve committed to recording as many of them that I can. I’m trying to record them so the public can see how these things are operating.
David James is a longtime Louisville Metro councilman who became president this year. We talked about an odd twist to the oath of office, how council members spend money in meetings, and about the sexual harassment proceedings against a former councilman.
Q: On January 11 you became the new council president. And I hope you’ll forgive me when I say that the more interesting part of that meeting was when your clerk was sworn in a few minutes later. This was part of the oath:
Do you further solemnly affirm that since the adoption of the present constitution, you have not fought a duel with deadly weapons, nor have you sent or accepted a challenge to fight a duel with deadly weapons, nor have you acted as a second in carrying a challenge?
How big of a problem is dueling in Kentucky that it has to be part of the oath?
A: Apparently back in the day it was a huge problem in the state of Kentucky and they have left that as part of the oath that everybody takes throughout the state, I guess for historical and cultural purposes.
Q: You used to be a police officer. How many times would you break up a duel by saying, “hey. Hey! If you don’t cut it out, you’ll never be sworn in as a municipal officer!”
A: It never happened! I don’t think anybody would listen to me anyway.
Q: We could talk about dueling all day, but this program is about city council meetings. The Louisville Metro council is a smorgasbord of intrigue that makes the Minneapolis city council look like the Branson board of aldermen! Can you explain what “neighborhood development funds” are?
A: Each council member receives $75,000 a year in neighborhood development funds that they get to assign for different purposes. Whether that is to help a nonprofit, or if that’s to put in lighting in a railroad underpass, or if that’s to fund some other organization doing good work in the community.
Q: So if you had an organization that, say, produced quality audio content about city council meetings and they wanted to apply, and there was a council member or even council president who supported that cause, how would I–I mean, that organization, get some of that easy cash–I mean, neighborhood development money?
A: You apply for the grant. You have to list your board members and what you’re going to do with the funding. And it’d be up to the council member to introduce it and council would vote on it yes or no.
Q: In the meetings, when council members distribute money through NDFs, it’s like a slowed-down version of an auction. Is it that spontaneous when it happens in a meeting?
A: People have already signed on for X number of dollars by the time it gets to that point. They come to the council meeting as a last opportunity to join in on that. Once we have voted on it, you can’t add any more money to it. It’s the last opportunity.
Q: It’s like going door to door as a Girl Scout selling cookies, and your mom just gets the rest of the orders at her office that day to backfill it.
A: That’s it. There you go.
Q: There is this overtone of salesmanship in these NDFs and it can take the form of guilting people into spending money.
A: Oh, absolutely.
Q: I get that this is politics and you have to be a bit of a cheerleader, but does any of this seem more theatrical than it needs to be?
A: No, not really. You’re just advocating for the particular cause that you believe in.
It’s a holiday, so enjoy your day off and remember to thank your city council members. We will be back on Wednesday with a new podcast interview. But in the meantime–hey, did you read EVERY council meeting review in December? Including the one with the border wall around the city council?
If not, you can do your part to Make America Great Again by browsing the month in review. And as always, you can listen to the regular and bonus podcast episodes (22 in all) on iTunes, Stitcher, and Player FM.
What do you do when a council meeting is so emotional–so raw–that it makes the winter a little colder, the night a little darker, and the world a little more vulnerable?
The Louisville Metro Council was a sight to behold: 26 people. Young and old. Black and white. Thick Kentucky accents and thicker Kentucky accents. David Yates, the youthful council president with hair slicker than a mint julep at sunrise, stared icily at the overflowing chamber.
“For those that are addressing the landmark designation of Tremont Drive, the council will not accept any further testimony. ANY attempts by ANYONE will be ruled out of order,” he warned with the gravity of a doctor breaking the news about your husband’s coma.
“Mr. Clerk, would you please bring up our first speaker?”
An older man with a white goatee lumbered to the podium. If you took all of my college professors and mashed them into one person, this would be the dude.
“I am new to the city, having moved here a year ago,” he began casually. “Tonight, I urge the council to delay the granting of a demolition permit for the Powell/Smith House for a couple of reasons. Delaying–”
President Yates sharply cut him off.
“Excuse me. Did you–” he sounded incredulous. “I JUST had to read that we are not to address the landmarks decision. We cannot hear ANY information relating to the landmark.”
The man looked hurt. “Can I continue if I do not?”
The president softened. “If you do not.”
The man adjusted his glasses and stared down at his papers. He paused. “Another reason for delaying the decision on the Powell/Smith House is to allow time to fully document–” home boy picked up exactly where he left off!
Two men behind him covered their mouths stifling laughter. Even his own lips creeped upward into a grin as he shamelessly trolled the council.
President Yates was enraged. He slammed the gavel on his desk. The man looked up.
“I’m done?” the man asked innocently.
Yes, yes he was. His heart was in the right place. But his mouth was not.
As the chamber settled down, Council Member Robin Engel took to the microphone with bittersweet news.
“After 27 years of service, Monica Hodge will be retiring from Metro government,” he beamed at the woman standing to his right. He leaned into the podium and suddenly took on the role of emcee in a “This Is Your Life” trip down memory lane. He waved over Kentucky political titan Rebecca Jackson, who strode to the microphone with an air of confidence.
She grasped Hodge’s hand. “If I reached out my hand and said, ‘come pray with me,’ Monica would come pray with me. We saw a lot of those prayers answered, including those prayers for her health and those prayers for our crazy husbands who never knew where we were. Monica, we love you.” The two women embraced and the chamber erupted in applause and laughter.
But the eulogy wasn’t over yet. Council Member Engel gestured to the ample man with the broad shoulders and a bright tie. “Pastor Hodge?”
“Oh, good evening!” the pastor bellowed with a wide grin. “Let’s take up an offering, that’s what I say! Ha ha ha!” The audience went wild.
“I love my wife. And what you see here is what you see at home. I’ve gone through a lot. Open heart surgery. I do dialysis. But–” his voice quaked and he blinked back tears. His voice became high and tiny. “But I stand here today because I have someone who stands with me. An amazing lady. Your loss is my gain.”
All around him, heads nodded like a Sunday sermon. “Thank you.”
Finally, Hodge stepped forward to a 15-second standing ovation. “I want to give thanks first of all to the lord because ten years ago I didn’t know if I would be standing here tonight, struggling to to get through a day of chemo.” Her husband, the pastor, wiped his eyes.
“Enjoy every tomorrow that you’ve got because you don’t know what life is gonna bring you. You’ve all blessed my life in some way. I thank you for that.”
As Hodge and her entourage cleared the chamber, there was one piece of lingering business that, unpleasant as it was, had to be done.
“We are reviewing the landmarks designation,” President Yates announced heavily. “The commission voted to landmark. The committee voted to overturn. The resolution is now before the full council.”
The lone man wishing to speak was Council Member Tom Owens and he had one heartfelt plea: save this house.
“There is a certain innocence, I think, that we all share. And this innocence is that the landmarking process ought to be without rancor. But the truth of the matter is,” he spoke carefully and quietly, like a tired old lawyer begging the jury not to sentence his client to death, “the truth of the matter is when it comes to the old farmhouse in your subdivision, or in your neighborhood, there is going to be some desire to see that old house” saved.
With dark circles under his eyes, he hunched down in his chair. “Our decision to overturn the Landmarks Commission will, in all likelihood, bring the wrecking ball to that” 145-year old house. “Thank you, colleagues.”
No one else came to his defense. Owens and two others voted to save the house. Twenty-two council members voted to destroy it.
In one night, the city lost a valued employee and a valued home. Such is life in the hollers of Kentucky.
During this Labor Day weekend, it’s a good time to remember all of the people who labor hard every week at city council meetings for hours and hours–or, sometimes, for 19 minutes. Catch up on where City Council Chronicles visited in the month of August.
P.S. If you didn’t see our appearance in last week’s Baltimore Sun, don’t worry–my intern spends 23 hours every day reading each newspaper in the country to see who mentions The Chronicles. And he finally found one!
Grab your banjo and hop a freight train with me down to Paducah, Kentucky. Home to Dippin’ Dots, the Paducah International Raceway, and the National Quilt Museum, y’all best mosey on over to city hall, where every Tuesday night Paducah Sun reporter Lauren Duncan watches the city commission meetings.
She talked to me about how everyone always gets along…or do they?
Q: How long have you been covering the city commission?
A: I have been here just two years–and today is my last day.
Q: Oh, no way!
A: I’ve got a city commission meeting tonight and [then] I’ve got a job in Chicago.
Q: Do you think the commissioners are planning a surprise party for you?
A: I don’t, but they have all been very kind to me. Paducah is a pretty small town–I run into them out and about.
Q: When you see them outside of council meetings, is it like when you were in school and you would see your teacher in the grocery store and it would feel super weird?
A: Haha, I get what you’re saying. One of our commissioners, he owns a coffee shop in town and so he is just one of your popular neighborhood guys. But he’s also the commissioner who get the most votes every year. He’s one of those people where if I weren’t a reporter, I’d probably be friends with him, you know?
A: This town is just like a PBS special. Our city commissioner who owns the coffee shop…we’ve got a train down by our river, and they were going to get rid of it because it was falling apart. He went out and painted it all up himself. He spent, like, a month with his wide-brimmed hat out there on top of the train.
Q: So I’m assuming everyone is pretty friendly during city commission meetings?
A: There has not been a single shouting match between the commissioners or the mayor or the city manager. That is mind boggling to me.
Q: It sounds like the “Stepford Wives”–everyone is happy and cookie cutter.
A: A lot of stuff happens behind closed doors. All of our meetings are live broadcast and I think there’s sort of a fear to have frank discussions.
Q: Is that a southern thing? A small city thing?
A: That’s something I’ve never seen before. I think it’s literally just the fact that they’re being televised and they’re nervous about public perception of having a heated debate that people can see.
Q: Suppose you and your best friend sign up for a cooking class, but she gets sick and has to cancel. Which commissioner would you invite to do the cooking class with you?
A: You’re basically asking who’s my favorite!
Q: Sure. Or who makes a great casserole.
A: That’s easy because he’s one of the most personable guys in town: it’s Allan Rhodes, the commissioner who owns the coffee shop and paints the trains.
Q: All around good guy. Regular Mr. Rogers.
A: He was the first guy I talked to here. I was looking for a place to live. Someone said, “talk to Allan Rhodes.” And he gave me all kinds of advice for moving here!
Q: Well, I hope there’s another Allan Rhodes waiting for you in Chicago.