Longtime readers may remember that earlier this year, I reviewed a Richmond, Virginia council meeting and discovered something highly unorthodox: a city council host who did pregame and postgame commentary.
The man is Dick Harman. He has anchored the Richmond council meetings for nearly 30 years (one year down, 29 more to go for me, by the way). Nowhere else have I seen a city council with its own Dick Harman, which came as genuine news to freshman Councilwoman Kristen Larson, who I interviewed on the podcast after her very first meeting in January.
Fast forward to this week. The Richmond city council surprised Dick Harman by naming the media gallery in the council chamber after him!
But it was in Councilwoman Larson’s comments that she recalled her initial realization that a city council host was special and unique to Richmond, and then proceeded to call Dick Harman “special and unique” to Richmond:
Thank you for the shout-out and congratulations to Dick Harman! He is, of course, welcome to come on the podcast anytime and tell me where the skeletons are buried. And other city councils are highly advised to recruit their own council commentators during this Golden Age of Live Streamed Council Meetings in which we are living.
If you saw the Mesa city council meeting review, you’ll recognize Kevin Christopher as the announcer of a HUGE agenda. But did you know he once reported on city council meetings? He did–and he has the stories to prove it!
Q: You were a journalist covering city council meetings in the early 1980s. How were meetings different in the ’80s other than, obviously, uglier eyeglasses?
A: Yeah, and interesting hair and fashion! I think the biggest change is the technology. Nowadays, it’s very easy to find out the agendas.
Q: Were there always a lot of spectators?
A: I think because [Midwesterners] have deep roots, they tend to be a little more passionate about issues. We always had pretty good crowds. Madison had like 20 aldermen–for a population of about 250,000–
Q: Wow! Chicago has 50 alderman, and they certainly have more than double the population of Madison.
A: Even that’s huge. Fifty people! Cincinnati had nine. Mesa has seven.
Q: What do you think is the ideal number of city council members?
A: I think seven or nine is good.
Q: When you started in Cincinnati, Jerry Springer was there. Did he stand out at all during council meetings?
A: He was pretty colorful. He was very charismatic and personable and I think that’s what was very appealing.
Q: You’ve sat through city council meetings in Cincinnati, Madison, and Mesa. Take me down the list–who stuck out?
A: I think the most memorable was a woman in Cincinnati. It wasn’t her real name, but she went by Fifi Taft Rockefeller. She claimed to have affairs with presidents and Winston Churchill. She’d be at city council almost all the time.
A: Generally you put like a three-minute limit on people to speak. And in Madison, they didn’t do that. I’m thinking, “no wonder these meetings go six and seven hours.”
Q: They had no time limits?
A: No! I thought that was insane.
Q: It is! Other than running egregiously long meetings, how did council members treat you in the media?
A: As long as you were fair, they treated you very well. I remember in Cincinnati, they all enjoyed the microphones and cameras. If it wasn’t a particular hot button issue being debated at the time, they would get up in the middle of the meeting and you could go to the back of the room and talk.
Q: For your current job in Mesa, you read the entire agenda–45 items–and it took you eight whole minutes to get through. Do you prepare for that? Do you do vocal warm ups?
A: I look it over. There’s a few tricky–with restaurants and things that are in Spanish. My favorite of all time: a liquor license application for “What the Hell Bar & Grill.”
Q: Are there any memorable moments from Mesa?
A: When I first came to the city, we had one council member, Tom Rawles, who decided back in 2007 he was not going to stand for the Pledge of the Allegiance. So he kind of pulled a Colin Kaepernick. This was a protest against the war in Iraq. All of a sudden we started getting these people showing up at meetings and criticizing him. He actually got police protection for a few days to be safe. I’m not sure what he’s doing now.
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.
We talked about public commenters, regret, and looking good for the cameras.
Q: Despite your thick Portland accent, you grew up somewhere else, right?
A: I was born and raised in England.
Q: Have you ever seen council city meetings over there?
A: No, I’ve watched Parliament but not city councils.
Q: Is Parliament similar to the Portland city council?
A: Not really. There’s no citizen testimony–it’s just all politicians pontificating.
Q: Let’s pretend it’s one hour before the council meeting. What are you doing to get in the zone?
A: We get the agenda the week before. So Friday afternoon and Monday and Tuesday my staff are looking at every single issue that’s going to be coming up. When I get to work at about nine on Wednesday, most of the time I’m just remembering to put my no-shine powder on because of the HDTV, getting my tea, getting breakfast.
Q: Portland’s meetings can be brutal. How do you stay focused?
A: For me, it’s not hard because you’ve got dozens of eyes watching you either in the audience or on television. It’s really important that you recognize you’re onstage. Being onstage constantly for three or four hours knowing that thousands of people may be watching at home is exhausting.
Q: I never thought about it that way! Do you have any training as a stage actor?
A: [Laughs] Only what I did in high school.
Q: Say I’m coming in to testify for three minutes. What do I need to do to impress you?
A: What you should’ve done is send in your comments beforehand.
Q: So…don’t come in? That’s your advice?
A: No, do both! There are very few people who could persuade you in three minutes to completely change your mind. Then it’s basically the rules of advertising: tell them, tell them what you told them, and tell them again. And then get other people to testify.
Q: Is there anything you’ve regretted saying during a city council meeting that has stuck with you?
A: I always go home thinking, “gosh, I should have said this instead of that.” Very rarely do you believe that you’ve completely nailed a speech or a performance. So there’s always that “I could have done this better.”
Q: Portland’s HDTV is really amazing. Were you nervous at first that you would have to spend more time in hair and makeup?
A: Well, my hair doesn’t behave anyway, but it was Laural Porter–who is a TV reporter–it was she who festooned me with powder and explained about the “HD shine.” Ever since then, I’ve been dutifully putting my HD powder on before meetings. I’ve noticed that I don’t shine and the boys do. Either nobody’s told them about the powder or else they think it’s not a manly thing to do.
Q: Have you ever nudged one of them and whispered, “Commissioner, you’re shining right now.”
A: We had a commissioner who had a very bald head which would shine rampantly. I may have mentioned it to him but I don’t think he ever took me up on it.
After last week’s Fort Wayne city council meeting, I had some questions. And who better to ask than the lucky S.O.B. who gets to watch EVERY Fort Wayne city council meeting: Journal Gazette reporter (and high school friend of mine) Dave Gong.
He talked to me about surprises, being fair, and his reaction to a salty-mouthed councilman.
Q: On a scale of “fun” to “extremely fun,” how would you describe the council meetings?
A: Extremely fun…they are the highlight of my week.
Q: Noted! No sarcasm! What are you watching and listening for at these meetings?
A: Pretty much everything. You listen for back-and-forth and pointed arguments and the whole deal. Part of politics is we love a good show. Especially the media–we love a good show.
Q: Are there some councilmen whom you can depend on to say something…”out there?”
A: Well, “out there,” yeah. There are councilmen who are very consistent. Sometimes they’ll surprise you, which is always great. I like to be surprised.
Q: Yeah, that was wacky. Some of them visibly can’t stand each other.
A: They get that way. All city councilmen are like that when you’ve got ideologies–they clash. One guy will be insulting another one week and they’ll be best of friends the next. Fort Wayne, Indiana is one of the most functional cities I’ve ever worked in.
Q: Are they pretty friendly with you?
A: I think they know I can be fair with them. You’ll get reporters and outlets that specific councilmen don’t like. As far as I know, no one has ever told me that they absolutely hate me. Generally if you’re a journalist, someone somewhere hates you.
Q: Did I seem cool in high school?
A: Yeah…as cool as any of the rest of us were in high school. I don’t remember any of us going to a bunch of parties. There was a lot of laser tag.
A: Whatever my judge of “cool” is, it’s probably wrong….But from my standpoint, you were f*cking awesome.
Q: What’s the weirdest thing that you’ve seen happen?
A: That’s a hard one. Ninety percent of them are super mundane. After the election in November, the council was even more Republican. This guy got up and he starts railing about how all the Democrats are socialists and the Republicans should show backbone. And [Councilman] Glynn Hines, through his hands, coughed “BULLSH*T” into his hot mic.
A: In other places–you go to Chicago–you see swearing on the floor. I saw lawmakers, state elected lawmakers hurling insults at each other. But in Fort Wayne, that was unconscionable. It spurred a blog post from me–because I like that sort of crap–caused public apologies, and it was…beautiful, actually.
Q: Do you ever gossip about the councilmen to other reporters?
A: Sometimes. Paul Ensley was wearing a bow tie the other day and kind of looked like Pee-wee Herman.
Q: I saw that! So creepy.
A: He’s a fun one. He beat a 12-year incumbent in the primary.