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.
The end of every year is a time for holiday celebrations, reflections, and yes, goodbyes to council members.
“Seth has brought his entertaining style to his term,” Council Member Maureen Stauffer read from an oversize proclamation to retiring Council Member Seth Rodin.
“Thank you, Seth!” she concluded, her voice cracking. The two hugged and everyone in the room applauded.
“I’ll miss you,” added Stauffer quietly.
It was a slightly more touching tribute than the next, administered by Council Member Bill Furey.
“Nobody hates being recognized more than Gary Sorace,” Furey quipped as the council president swayed nervously.
“We would like to give you this gavel as a remembrance of your time as council president,” Furey handed over the diminutive token.
“I do have something else,” suddenly recalled Council Member Stauffer, who strolled over to Council Member Rodin and discreetly handed him a gift. Rodin giggled in embarrassment.
“It’s a picture of ME on socks!” he exclaimed, brandishing a long pair of socks custom-printed with his image. I don’t know if there is an inside joke here or if this was merely a gag, but wow, way to take an undesirable present and turn it into a highly desirable present!
But arguably, the most heartfelt gift was yet to come.
“Isn’t it amazing how god brings the right people into your life at the right time?” a woman wearing a massive pearl necklace asked rhetorically at the lectern. She and another environmental commission member recited a poem, trading off lines and standing shoulder to shoulder.
“We did not just seek. We felt.”
“We did not just hear. We listened.”
“You helped us to achieve our environmental vision. And you inspired us to be what we knew we could be.”
“Thank you Seth!” “Thank you, councilman!” they concluded in not-quite-unison. They looked at each other, laughing. Good vibes were all around.
But enter vibe-crusher Sam Scaffide.
“I would like to make a motion that we repeal section 11.05 of the rules of council,” announced Council Member Scaffide.
“I’d like to amend your motion,” quickly retorted Council Member Furey. “The purpose of taking it out was because the Ward 5 council person would be new. I recommend we put Ward 5 temporarily at the bottom of the list and bump Ward 4, which is Mrs. Stauffer, and Ward 3 up one year.”
Scaffide stared quizzically at this modern-day Machiavelli, calculating how this would affect the line to the council presidency.
“I’m saying take out the 2018 Ward 5,” Furey reiterated. “Make the 2019 Ward 4 the ’18. Take the Ward 2, which is the following year at ’20. Move those up so that the existing council people don’t get moved out of the line of succession.”
Council Member Scaffide frowned deeply. “I don’t think it’s the fair way to do it.”
“Wait,” spat Council Member Furey. “This is six months old, voted on unanimously. ALL this does is keep the same rotation for the two people who are on council already.”
Murmurs of confusion roiled the council.
“Call the roll, please?” Council President Sorace ordered.
“On the amendment?” asked the clerk.
This triggered massive crosstalk and gesticulating in an attempt to divine the right path forward. Eventually, the kerfuffle subsided and the amendment passed unanimously.
Just as quickly as conflict arose, the good vibes returned.
“We’re planing a little holiday gathering on December 12,” the HR director informed everyone. “We bake cookies and here in the lobby, we have cookies and punch. You’re all invited.”
July was noteworthy for two reasons. First: it was Mayor’s Month! That’s right, we talked on the podcast to an unprecedented four mayors from three continents. What we heard was heartwarming in some cases and tear-jerking in others.
Second: this being July, of course we saw fireworks! Mostly they were of the verbal variety. But in one case, someone actually brandished a firework in a council meeting. If you don’t remember that moment, perhaps you should browse our July Month in Review page.
And if you’re still questioning whether July’s council meetings are worth a second look, at least find out why this woman is so g–d– happy:
The mayor was absent from the Cleveland Heights council chamber, but I am positive she will hear about the tense ten minutes that started the meeting.
“I am a rape victim,” said a woman in a pink sweater. She stared down the council, hand on her hip. “I was raped on May 16. What I have gone through with your detectives has been very difficult.”
She looked down at her notes and spoke haltingly. “Sixty-six percent of rapes are not reported. Twenty-three percent do not report because they do not trust their police to believe them.”
“I was told by your detective to ‘be patient,’ as though I was hungry and needed a Snickers,” she continued angrily, bracing herself on the podium. “I identified the rapist that night when five patrol officers showed up and looked at me like a circus exhibit but did nothing. The rapist was my downstairs neighbor.”
Council members sat frozen at their desks as she reached an ominous conclusion. “To be honest, if I could go back I would not have reported it. What I would have done was gotten a video surveillance system and waited for him to do it again. I would have been armed as I am now. We would have been investigating murder by self-defense instead of rape.”
She threw up her hands and inhaled deeply. “Do you have any questions for me?”
Council Member Carol Roe leaned forward. “I don’t have a question. I just want to say, I am really sorry for your pain. I am sure that I speak for my fellow council people–”
“Show me by actions, please,” the woman interrupted. “I go to counseling every Wednesday night. Those are the hardest frickin’ nights of my life. How can we proceed?”
“Well,” Vice Mayor Jason Stein looked to his left helplessly, “I’ll refer to Public Health and Safety Committee to review policies and procedures….”
The city manager gently broke in. The chief, she said, “is here to have that conversation with you.”
“I need to get this on public record as well,” retorted the commenter. “Change the attitude so that people will trust you and will want to come forward without feeling revictimized through you.”
“We are sorry,” the vice mayor reassured her. Then he admitted, “all of us are very moved right now and honestly, we don’t know what to say. But we’re gonna review our policy.”
As the woman sat down, another commenter took her place and stood open-mouthed for a brief moment. “I find myself a bit emotional from hearing the story. We all know that there are much bigger, more important things going on in other people’s lives.”
She slapped the podium to compose herself. “I wish that woman the best of luck,” she sighed, before announcing the Coventry School open house this Friday.
Given the time of month, public safety made one more cameo as Council Member Melissa Yasinow looked directly into the camera and performed the yearly ritual of council members all across America: a plea for people to not be dumb.
“Fireworks are a ton of fun, but unfortunately, you see an increase in emergency services for people who think these explosives are indeed toys. They are not!”
Final thoughts: I give 10 out of 10 stars to everyone for their tact. Let’s get this case closed, folks.
First impressions were VERY strong at the Columbus city council. No sooner had people risen to face the flag than a thundering orchestral rendition of the Star Spangled Banner blasted over the loudspeakers.
Council members stood at attention while the camera panned across the room. As the trumpeting ceased, onlookers were aided in the Pledge of Allegiance by a beautiful tapestry embroidered with the oath.
Talk about class, folks!
After this patriotic tour de force, Council Member Jaiza Page rattled off her own tour de fitness. “If I’m out there” on Bike to Work Day, she smiled self-deprecatingly, “you’ll probably see me last in line.”
She added, to chuckles, “just don’t run me over!”
More impressively, Councilmember Page revealed that daring Columbusites would soon be allowed to rapel 19 stories off the PNC Building–not for infamy, but rather for a fundraiser for sexual trafficking victims.
“I did go over the edge last year and I was thoroughly frightened for 20 minutes,” she admitted with no trace of anxiety. “But I would encourage those of you who are not interested in rapelling yourself to go out and just cheer the rapellers on.”
Yes, and also be sure to cheer on Page as she bikes, rapels, canoes, bobsleds, and hanglides her way to the title of “Most Adventurous Council Member.”
By all accounts, things were going swimmingly. (Council Member Page will probably be swimming for charity at some point, too.) Suddenly, after Councilmember Michael Stinziano smoothly moved $1.2 million to repair the city’s sewer pipes, President Pro Tem Priscilla Tyson stared down at her paperwork.
“We have several non-agenda speakers that we will take momentarily.” She glanced at the clock. “We will reconvene at 6:30 for zoning.”
With that, the screen faded to black.
A slow horror dawned on me: she had turned off the cameras for public comment.
I wanted to scream, but I realized that even if she were rapelling off the outside of the PNC Building, President Pro Tem Tyson probably would not hear me.
Within seconds, the council chamber faded back in. The time was now 6:30 and the room was substantially emptier.
“Regular meeting number 26 will now come to order,” Tyson cheerfully announced like Richard Nixon after he erased those 18-and-a-half minutes of tape.
We may never know what was said in public comment that day. All we know is that the zoning hearing was much, much more tedious.
“To grant a variance from the provisions of Sections 3332.039, R-4 residential district; 3321.05(B)(2), vision clearance; 3321.07(B), landscaping; 3332.25(B), maximum side yards required; 3332.26,(C)(3), minimum side yard permitted,” Council Member Page read for nearly a minute off of the numbers-heavy ordinance.
“This is a very interesting situation,” a neatly-dressed white-haired man said as he stood eager to explain the nuances of zoning. “We have a building that covers close to 100 percent of the parcel that doesn’t comply with the zoning district or the university planning overlay.”
Yes, quite thrilling. You know what else would be an interesting situation? SEEING THE PUBLIC COMMENT.
What a shame that a council meeting with such high production quality should fumble this basic feature.
Final thoughts: While the V.I.P. here is clearly Council Member Page for doing “Fear Factor: Columbus,” the capital city’s lack of 100% transparency forces me to give this meeting only 2 out of 5 buckeyes.
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.