“Tear It Down” — an explanation

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:

(If you have not yet heard the story, all eight parts are at http://www.tearitdownpodcast.com and you can even read along if you’d like. Route Fifty also did a terrific write-up here.)tear-it-down-logo-with-bricks-2


On the amount of time put into the story:

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.

BREAKING NEWS: “Tear It Down” is available

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.

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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.

Please also subscribe on iTunes and leave a rating and review.

You can also join the “Tear It Down” community by following the Twitter account or Facebook page. Spread the word!

Month in Review: November 2017

There was a lot to be thankful for in November. This includes the mundane and noble, such as firefighters battling infernos. Or, in one case, a city council getting rid of jail completely. Just imagine the Thanksgiving dinner conversations that THAT started!

We also had plenty of qualified–and Canadian–guests on the podcast, including the councilor who was slightly irked by his colleagues’ off-camera antics and the mayor whose council reenacted a 100-year-old meeting. Plus, we heard from a regular citizen whose claim to Chronicles fame was coming out as bisexual at one fateful Boise city council meeting.

For all of that and more, check out our November Month in Review.

And if you still are wondering whether you missed out on anything truly surreal this month, I submit to you this UNDOCTORED IMAGE of a councilman’s face on socks:

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#142: Twinsburg, OH 11/28/17

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!

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Where can I get a pair?

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.

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Adorable

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.”

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Is this a coup? It feels like a coup.

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.”

Month in Review: July 2017

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:

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#115: Cleveland Heights, OH 7/3/17

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.”

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Remember: city councils are here to listen.

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.”

Silence.

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.”

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I don’t know what to say either.

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!”

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Okaaaay, mooooooooommmmmm.

Final thoughts: I give 10 out of 10 stars to everyone for their tact. Let’s get this case closed, folks.

#104: Columbus, OH 5/15/17

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!

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It’s like a g–d– Norman Rockwell painting.

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.”

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“I got to this meeting via luge.”

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.

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I expected this kind of behavior from Cleveland. But COLUMBUS???

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.