#159: Scranton, PA 6/11/18

Sometimes it feels like everyone’s a critic. But in the Scranton council chamber, literally everyone who showed up had some beef with the five councilmen.

“I actually have to grab the speaker list,” Council President Pat Rogan admitted with a sly grin, excusing himself from the dais while a dozen pairs of eyes followed him out of the room.

Sitting down with the paper, he brandished it with feigned surprise. “So there’s nobody on the speaker list–” Rogan deadpanned before calling up the first in a series of aggrieved complainants.

Is that Dunder Mifflin paper?

“Comcast, okay? They are a monopoly. In the United States of America, a monopoly is illegal,” ranted a man in a black “Brooklyn” baseball cap and thick New York accent.

“They don’t want to give a senior citizen’s discount! I come from New York City, okay? Five boroughs–not anywhere in the five boroughs will you find that they will not recognize what senior citizens have done for this country,” he pounded on the lectern. “I have five major credit cards! I have seven different department stores!”

He waved his arms. “How can any one of youse here allow this to happen?”

“We don’t set the rates for Comcast,” President Rogan responded plainly. “Comcast is a private corporation.”

“So, no discount?”

The commenter was replaced by another middle aged man with a pair of reading glasses on his nose and sunglasses on his forehead. He emitted a deafening sigh into the microphone.

“I don’t even have a computer and I apparently know more about what’s going on in the city than you five, the mayor’s two hacks, and the mayor.”

Okay, let me stop you there. In the interest of time, let me annotate this testosterone-fueled grudge-fest to just the most cantankerous of grief mongering. The three wordsmiths here are:

-A strident elderly man in a yellow Polo (Y)

-An affable college student with half a mohawk (M)

-A woman with pinkish curly hair (C)

Ready? And go:

Y: You’re an elected official and the forum here is for the issue of debate. And if you can’t answer, then I ask you to resign.

M: The reason that people my age leave this area is because we don’t have faith in you guys.

C: Mr. Donahue, when speakers are up here, you have your head down and you are writing what they are saying? You could look on YouTube.

Y: You are a liar and should have resigned and maybe there’s litigation that will remove you.

M: Two of you keep looking down–aren’t even looking at me.

C: When speakers are speaking, you should–okay, you’re shaking your head.

Y: When I brought up the word “despicable” last week, it was mild terminology for what’s going on here. I’d like to put it in real words, but I might burn this microphone.

C: I’m disappointed. I voted for you.

M: This city council has lacked the competence needed to bring Scranton back on the map like it used to be. (A siren goes by in the background, as if on cue.)

I’m sure the councilmen on the wall had a similar experience.

As yellow-Polo-shirt man walked away from the microphone bellowing for Council Member William Gaughan to “resign, you don’t belong here,” Mr. Brooklyn Hat began yelling from the gallery. That, in turn, prompted others to start yelling.

“You’re both out of order!” pleaded President Rogan.

“This is a sideshow,” murmured the next commenter at the mic.

It was. Although I sense it’s also a regular Monday night in Scranton.

Interview #67: Duluth, MN Councilor Noah Hobbs (with podcast)

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

Noah Hobbs is a first-term councilor in Duluth who has a strong opinion about how his city council should spend its time during meetings. He and I discuss the role of the council president, creative ways to cut off rambling public commenters, and (listen to the audio) I make my best attempt at convincing him to give me the “Distinguished Artist Award.”

Q: Let’s go back to December 2016. The council was considering a resolution to support the Standing Rock Reservation protests against an oil pipeline in North Dakota. You voted for it and seemed to say, “I’m fine with this, but it’s not really our turf.” 

A: Yeah, I think that focusing on core local government issues is where we should spend a large part of our conversation. All the press after that about a resolution that was nonbinding [and] didn’t really affect the day-to-day operations of the city….I do get a little frustrated when we get off-track. I’m not necessarily in the majority on the council with that point of view.

Q: I would point out that for weeks afterward, people came into the council meetings to praise you guys for that vote. Did that make you feel any better about it?

A: Not really. It was an organized effort to make the council–that took a beating from the business community–feel better. It was more a continuation of a story that didn’t have legs, that ended up having legs.

Q: This January, you ran for council president against then-Vice President Joel Sipress. Here is what he said:

What we’re really voting on here is two different understandings of the role of the council president. The argument that Councilor Hobbs has made involves a list of priorities. That’s a traditional role of a council president in large cities like New York or San Francisco where the council president is a power position that drives the agenda.

Duluth, MN Councilor Noah Hobbs

Noah, would your first action as a New York City-style council president have been to declare the areas of the city where–HEY, I’M WALKIN’ HERE!

A: [Laughs] I do think it’s important to have a council agenda. Our core function is pretty much approving the budget for the mayor. You can have nine different councilors doing nine different things and at the end of the year accomplish nothing. Having an agenda is important to show that we do more than approve the budget.

Q: One criticism I do have of President Joel Sipress is that he is way too “Minnesota Nice” when he tries to cut off public commenters who have reached their time limit. If you were president, how would you cut off a time hog?

A: Yeah, as a born-and-raised Minnesotan, I don’t know if I could do much better. Maybe using the gavel to tap once to get attention and say they’ve got ten seconds left. But as a Minnesotan, that is something we struggle with.

Q: Have you ever thought about hiring some muscle to escort people from the podium?

A: I don’t know if the constituents would really enjoy hiring a bodyguard for council chambers. I think we should get a basketball buzzer. Get a shot clock and when it gets to zero, just have the buzzer go….There’s nothing unconstitutional about that.

Follow Councilor Noah Hobbs on Twitter: @Hobbs_Duluth

Interview #26: New York City, NY Council Member Helen Rosenthal (with podcast)

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

Helen Rosenthal represents the Upper West Side on the New York City council and BOY, did she have some fun stories! From the candy in her desk to the Elmo and Batman characters at a council meeting, she gave us a peek inside the City [Council] That Never Sleeps!

Q: With all the different groups on the 51-person city council, do they stick together in the council meetings? Like, do the progressives all wear armbands on one day, or does someone in the women’s caucus hand out candy, or–

A: Well, to be clear: I have the candy drawer. Definitely, I think candy gets you a long way with your colleagues.

Q: What kind of candy do you have in there?

A: Only York Peppermint Patties.

Q: Love those things! How do you decide where to sit?

A: Every two weeks approximately we get together as a chamber of the whole and we have assigned seating. And we have a little nameplate on our desks so we know just where we sit. And that way, again, no one really has access to my candy drawer, which is critical. The seating plan is determined by the speaker of the council. And it tends to be the same seating plan for the entire term of four years. Very rarely would someone’s seat get switched.

Q: Have you ever seen someone’s seat get moved?

A: I have. There were two of my colleagues who were having too good of a time sitting next to each other, so they were split up. So…that happened.

Q: WOW. Who do you sit next to?

A: I’m between Dr. Mathieu Eugene and Council Member Rosie Mendez. And if we went out to a bar and drank heavily for quite some time, I could tell you the reasons why I have that seat. But now, suffice to say, I love where I sit and–


A: That ain’t…that’s under lock and key!

New York City Council Member Helen Rosenthal

Q: Any interesting moments in the council meetings that you can think of?

A: There was one hearing where we were debating a law as it has to do with the costumed characters in Times Square. You have Elmo, you have Minnie Mouse, you have the Naked Cowboy. Indeed, the costumed characters showed up in their full costumed regalia.

Q: Nice!

A: I more found it amusing that someone would come to a city council hearing dressed up as Batman and the person who was the sponsor of the legislation would want their picture next to Batman. I’m very careful not to be standing next to Batman when a picture is taken.

Q: Batman is an American hero, ma’am. What do you have against heroes?

A: Nothing! I was really traumatized by Dukakis’s moment when he put on that helmet and was swallowed up in it. I try not to wear hats.

Q: I should mention that my researchers found a tweet of yours…it’s a picture of you wearing a Big Apple Circus hard hat, and behind you is a clown wearing face paint and very bright overalls.


What do you have to say for yourself?

A: Busted. Busted….I love the Big Apple Circus!

Follow Council Member Helen Rosenthal on Twitter: @HelenRosenthal