Nothing seemed amiss at the start of the Beavercreek council meeting.
“This is the second reading of an ordinance making certain additions, deletions, and changes to various sections of the zoning code,” read the clerk.
“Is there anyone present tonight that would like to address council on this?” Mayor Bob Stone called to the audience as a balding man stepped forward.
“I didn’t catch this until today, but this thing is effective last week,” the man waved his paper in disbelief. “Did you all catch that?”
People on the dais stared down at their copies while he added, “it says this ordinance shall take effect November 1. That’s last week.”
“It’s been a standard practice,” reassured city manager Pete Landrum. “We begin at the beginning of the month.”
“But let’s go by the city charter,” shot back the commenter. “City charter says 30 days after passage. NOT postdated. Change it.”
He again thrust the paper in the air. “This one is showing up as an ’emergency’ ordinance. That’s wrong. It’s not an ’emergency.’ Now let’s get into the meat of it–”
Mayor Stone halted him before the meat. “We’re not showing this as an emergency anywhere.”
The man reached out holding his papers. “Can I approach?”
There was a small conference at the dais. “This is an emergency…effective immediately…” mumbled the mayor as he read off the page.
“That’s from the previous time,” explained the city manager, “but in the current packet–”
“No, that’s what I got off the website,” insisted the man.
More muttering about whose packet said what. Chaos was beginning to unfold. Luckily, the commenter cut off the crosstalk by getting back to his original point: this ordinance is awful.
“We have enough problem with our zoning code. This is a beautiful one,” he said sarcastically, donning his glasses and reading from the passage prohibiting trucks from parking in front of commercial buildings.
“Every business around has a truck! What have we done here?”
“Not at a business. [Parking] at a residence,” interrupted Mayor Stone.
“No, sir. Disagree,” retorted the man.
“Oh…” the mayor whispered as council members gently indicated that he was wrong and the commenter (again) knew the ordinance better than some.
The man closed in the plainest way possible. “This is a disaster waiting to happen. This is too much. Stop this tonight.”
With such an intense airing of grievances, eyes were on the mayor to clear the air and lighten the mood with his report.
“I know everybody else is gonna mention it too and I hope we all repeat it,” he grinned. “The girl’s soccer state champs–”
“And cross country,” interjected Council Member Julie Vann. “State champs! Yaaaay, women!”
“Are we gonna have enough sign space coming into the city” to list the new championships, mused the city manager.
Council Member Vann nodded. “The signs at the entryway of the city that have all the sports winnings on them–when we started that program, we didn’t expect it to be–”
“That good?” chuckled the manager.
“We were gonna post the teams within the last five years,” she explained. “We wanted to celebrate the recent ones but not every single one for eternity!”
“We will have to revisit that,” the city manager agreed, “because when we squeezed the boys’ [championship] the last time, it was like, okay, the next one we’re gonna have to have some decisions!”
I suppose this answers the question: is there such a thing as too much winning? When it comes to sign space, the answer is “yes.”
The atmosphere was pleasantly calm in the Middletown council chamber. Perhaps that had something to do with Mayor Larry Mulligan, Jr.’s preferred icebreaker: “If you’d please stand and join me in a moment of meditation,” he directed, precipitating a hush across the room.
If the vibe wasn’t mellowed enough, they certainly brought in the right person to finish the job: the director of the library.
“Book Mobile hit the road again. First time since 1988,” he announced with the excitement of, well, someone who works at a library. “Regularly stopping around 22 different schools, they’ve seen about 14,000 people on the Book Mobile.”
The first Book Mobile in 30 years? The first since the invention of the World Wide Web? Since Taylor Swift was born? The first since the U.S. and Russia were enemies and–well, okay, the Book Mobile didn’t miss that part. But like any 30-year-old, it can’t live with its parents and needs a place of its own.
“We have a garage project. That will be the permanent home for the Book Mobile,” the director said. “We’ll also have some staff there that can pull in, run in, restock the Book Mobile, and head back out. That’s exciting.”
A resurrected Book Mobile was only part of the reason to celebrate in Middletown. “We actually got compliments on the fireworks!” exclaimed Council Member Ami Vitori. “I think maybe they were a little longer this year. Just long enough to make everyone happy. AND THEN THEY KEPT GOING!” she breathlessly recapped the experience.
“Really enjoyed the activities downtown–First Friday, the ice cream social event,” Mayor Mulligan reminisced. “I heard they gave out over 350 pieces of ice cream. Some of us just stopped at the adult beverages and not the ice cream.”
Mewonders how many adult beverages it takes for someone to call scoops of ice cream “pieces of ice cream.”
But there was a bigger problem confronting Middletown–and it wasn’t the historical lack of book mobiles or compliments for the fireworks.
“Since my involvement with the city back on the financial oversight committee in 2004, you know that’s–man, 14 years ago. Time flies when you’re having fun, I guess,” the mayor deadpanned. “The roads have been a real area of concern.”
He continued on a long monologue with a message of: hey, we need to wake up and smell the asphalt.
“While I’m certainly not a proponent of higher taxes, the financial landscape has changed quite a bit. We need to come up with some creative solutions,” he warned. “While other cities are at a two percent tax or more, we’re still below that. We could really get a lot of paving done, truly extend those deteriorating roads another 25-30 years.”
The clerk read the giant text displayed onscreen. “An ordinance to impose an additional one-quarter percent income tax effective January 1, 2019 for period of ten years to be used solely for the construction, repair, improvement, and maintenance of streets and roads in the city.”
She paused, then added: “We’re not requesting any action until August 7.”
“Be aware,” the mayor mused, glancing around the dais to the three other council members present, “to make our August 8 deadline to get it on the ballot, it will require four votes from council.”
For the sake of the Book Mobile, I hope they have them.
“A council meeting in Brooklyn?” you’re thinking. “Surely it was chock full of complaints about hipsters, the L train, and the smell off the East River.”
Well, I have some bad news for you: this is Brooklyn, Ohio. And the topic today was less about subway delays and more about the equally compelling question of how to spend all this federal money.
“To qualify for this grant funding, cities are required to hold a public session,” boomed President Ron Van Kirk.
“At this time, I would ask members of the audience to come up to the podium if they wish to make a suggestion on ways this funding should be allocated.”
Van Kirk warned the ravenous crowd that they ought to get to the point, and get to it quickly. “Please limit your remarks to five minutes or fewer.”
Not a soul stirred at his invitation.
“All right,” the president murmured, “then there is no one.”
No one has an idea for spending the money?! Repaint the fields at Marquardt Park! Put a streetcar on Biddulph Avenue! Get a better sound system for the council meetings!
This being the first meeting after Memorial Day, the council was obliged to mention the solemn occasion. The perfect spokesperson appeared in the form of Council Member Mary Balbier–the wife of a Vietnam veteran.
“I’m not very fond of the hat he wears–the baseball hat that has the 25th Division and some sort of lightning rod on it,” she admitted with a wave of her hand.
“But I will tell you: everytime we walk through an airport and he’s wearing that, people salute him. People make a comment. And it’s quite heartwarming for him and I think he enjoys it. So I don’t say too much.”
With a slight grin, she let slip her true feelings about her husband’s headgear. “Also, he is TSA approved, so we just walk up and go through the line. I always say to my husband, ‘whatever happens, keep that hat. I may need to wear it!'”
President Van Kirk steered back to council business with an admission of his own. “I wanna let residents know that I will be absent for our next meeting,” he said regretfully.
“Our first meeting in June falls on the same week that our church has their annual youth camp. Seventeen years, and I’ll be serving there once again as a camp counselor.”
(If he runs his youth camp as efficiently as he runs the council meetings, those kids won’t even need the full week–they’ll be outta there in a matter of days!)
The remainder of the meeting was virtually on autopilot, as the building commissioner rattled off the changes–big, small, and alcoholic–happening around town:
“Aldi’s is getting an addition put on there….Hampton Inn, raising the roof on their building….La Casa Tequila just recently opened up behind Cracker Barrel.”
Racing through the final five minutes, the council approved a raft of legislation assembly line-style. This included one agreement for the city to order a whole bunch of salt.
“We could order no more than 3,920 tons.” President Van Kirk paused. “The city has never ordered that much salt in one year.”
Be careful, sir: now that La Casa Tequila is in town, the demand for salted margarita glasses has never been higher.
Hello, councilheads! Next week, City Council Chronicles will be off its hiatus and back with new profiles of city council meetings from around the globe.
But until then, I have gotten many questions about “Tear It Down.” I recommend that if you would like to know about some of the work that went into preparing the story, take a listen to today’s special episode of the City Council Chronicles podcast or click play below:
Amber Bailey contacted me on July 10, 2017 and the story came out on May 10, 2018. So doing the math, that’s ten months. I would say I spent over 1,000 hours on this, which works out to about 25 hours a week. It was a pretty time-intensive hobby.
Probably the biggest single category of work was watching the council meetings. The footage is archived with the local public access entity, which is called ICRC. The very first video is actually from the last meeting in 2014, so there are only 3.5 years of council meetings online. That was still nice, but there are some caveats to that. First, committee meetings did not start to be recorded until the last year or so. And there were several meetings that went untaped.
Watching the meetings, I took detailed notes about what was going on, which included time stamps so I could pull clips to use in the story. (I never counted up how many pages of notes, but my guess is over 200 typed pages just about the council meetings.)
Then probably the second biggest amount of time was spent on transcribing the interviews. I did about 60 hours of interviews and for every hour recorded, I spent maybe two hours transcribing everything. It was very time consuming, but I think it saved me time when writing the story.
On some of the challenges:
One thing I did encounter was that the set of characters in the beginning of the story was somewhat different from the characters who were there at the end. And generally, the people who had a lot to say weren’t around for too long, and the people who were around for long couldn’t remember a lot of things.
The main example of that is in Chapter 4, when the Change*nch co-founder, Nick Link, talks about city administrator Mark Fitzgerald taking him aside and calling him a “puppet master.” In Link’s telling, it was very dramatic and angry. And some people did remember the word “puppet master” being used. But other people could hardly remember what time of year it was or even what year it was. And the only reason I know is because the O’Shea lawsuit mentioned when it happened.
On fact checking:
Fact checking was a big deal for me. I read an article about the fact checker for “S-Town” and how he spent several months verifying the information in that story. One example he quoted was they needed to figure out whether something was “shellacked” or “lacquered” or “expoxied.” And no one could really remember or cared what the distinction was. But he had to eventually call an expert who recommended what word they should use in the story.
And I hold myself to a high standard, but that seemed a little too much for me!
I definitely got corroboration on a whole range of events and assertions. The best sources were obviously the council meeting videos because then I could see for myself what was going on. I did want to be very fair to people. I took out some lines near the end where I just could not get corroboration.
One example that came close to the “S-Town”-style fact checking was that at one point, Al Long in Chapter 7 says that Renee Stiles, when she was on the recreation commission, had a “binder” of plans for community events. I wanted to be accurate and find out if she really did have a binder. So I tried to find out if there was anyone else from 2009 or earlier who remembered this binder. The answer appeared to be no.
So I sent Renee Stiles a Facebook message. And she said months earlier that she was not really interested in speaking to me for the story, but I hoped she might be able to confirm this fact. And sure enough she wrote back and said what she actually had was “file folders” of plans, not a “binder.” So that is why in Chapter 7, you will hear Al Long speaking to the preparation of Renee Stiles in putting on these events, and then I interject to clarify the container in which she kept these plans was file folders.
On the schedule:
It was in early February that I began writing the episodes. That was a hectic time because around then, I set the date of May 10 to release the story. So I needed to write one episode per week beginning in February.
I was aiming for all of the episodes to be between 40 and 50 minutes, which, as you can see, did not happen. I spent a lot of time agonizing over what things to cut, what to include. But at the beginning of April, I had eight scripts that were written out–exactly what my voiceover would be, what the interviews were saying, whatever was in the council meeting clips. And I annotated everything so I knew where to pull the clips from and what part of the interview needed to be pasted into the episode.
In April, I started editing everything together. I finished each episode in about four days, which I consider fast. And again, that’s due to me knowing in advance what day and hour and minute to go to when pulling clips.
The part I hated the most was putting music underneath everything. It is so much pressure to pick the right song! And when you don’t have someone custom composing the music, whatever you choose may be perfect for the first 45 seconds and then it switches to a mood that is entirely different from what the story is trying to communicate.
Or I might have something that’s two minutes long, but I need something for 3.5 minutes. Or there’s the fact that I had a lot of sinister-sounding music and there just weren’t that many different sinister songs to choose from. So that was probably the part I hated the most, even more than transcribing the interviews, was picking the music.
Calling all councilheads! I have a major announcement.
Last summer, a young council member in North College Hill, Ohio contacted me asking for help. I spent the next 10 months chronicling the bizarre situation with her city’s government–where one faction rebelled against the establishment, then began using their power to block, delay, and demolish.
That audio story, based on 200 hours of council meetings, 60 hours of interviews, and many, many documents, is called “Tear It Down.”
You can listen to all eight parts of the series here.