“I’d like to recognize some students from my district visiting today in the chambers,” announced Council President Darrell Clarke in the normal course of the council meeting getting underway. “They are embarking on a voting project, to get people out and talk about the importance of voting. So I would like to recognize them….”
He scanned the audience expectantly. “And now I’m being told that they’re not here yet!” He looked into the camera and grinned as council members guffawed. “We’ll recognize them when they get here.”
That minor blip was instantly forgotten when Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell issued her own stunner of an announcement.
“We were privileged to be at a wedding last week,” she said. “One of the members is a retired administrator with the Philadelphia School System. She got married and they decided that they would spend their first week visiting us. Could they stand?”
In the audience, the newlyweds rose to be cheered. The bride ceremoniously waved to the council while the groom thrust his palms in the air in a “raise the roof” gesture.
With President Clarke’s band of students still en route, a dozen council members crowded the front dais, with Councilwoman Blackwell taking center stage.
“You know, it’s a special calling when you care enough about people–some very disabled, very ill–to make them feel better and do better because you make them look better,” she praised the man standing next to her, the salon operator at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.
“He gives of his time styling the hair of patients and caregivers–” she read from the proclamation.
“–This offers a much-needed moment of relaxation to those who are continually putting their needs aside for the benefit of their loved ones,” picked up Councilman Allan Domb.
“–He also consults with transgender youth and assists them in creating their new looks,” continued Councilman Al Taubenberger.
“–Which raises morale and instills joy and dignity in those receiving his services,” finished Councilman Derek Green.
The man stepped to the microphone and paused emotionally. “Thank you, everyone,” he smiled as President Clarke declared “council will be at ease” for the official photograph.
“QUIET, PLEASE” came a yell from the rear of the chamber as council un-eased itself.
“Our next order of business is introduction of bills and resolutions,” the president ordered, kicking off an unusual dance of council members handing packets of blue paper to a courier, who then ferried them across the council floor to the clerk for a formal introduction to the body. Other city councils have found more subtle ways to do this, but in Philly, it was perhaps as well-choreographed as that couple’s wedding from earlier.
President Clarke slowly segued into the final portion of the meeting. “Are there any speeches on behalf of the….I’m stalling, waiting for the schoolchildren,” he admitted with a chuckle.
Several council members took the bait, with Councilman Bobby Henan describing his new hate crimes legislation and Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown complimenting diversity in the Pennsylvania attorney general’s office.
There were two minutes left in the meeting and only one item of unfinished business. Fortunately, all systems were go.
“Before we conclude, I would like to recognize our students. I understand they got here just in the nick of time!” President Clarke called out as the three young ladies–no doubt fresh from getting Philadelphians to vote–stood up to end the suspense.
Sometimes you vote the wrong way and need a do-over. Janet Diaz talks about the meeting where she was allowed to re-vote, plus she gives advice on how to handle public commenters who suddenly explode at the council.
Q: Lancaster does not record its council meetings, but there is an individual who runs See-thru City where he live streams all of your meetings. How much of what he was doing contributed to your decision to explore putting cameras in the council chamber?
A: He was the one that actually proposed it. People have made comments that it will be good for them to see it and hear it better. It’s actually the mayor I think that made that decision too.
Q: So it was this citizen-videographer who catalyzed the impending streaming of meetings?
A: Yes. Basically he is videotaping it, so other people are very happy. They appreciate him doing that. What the city wants to do is go further.
Q: Is there a way to incorporate the comments of people watching on Facebook Live into the meetings? Would you support someone representing the Facebook feed being able to come up at the very end of an item and list the comments they got from people watching?
A: Personally, sure. I feel that shouldn’t be a problem. But I can’t make those decisions–it has to be everyone on a whole.
Q: A couple of weeks ago, the council held a special meeting to reconsider a decision to tear down a historic building. Can you think of any vote you’ve made that you would like to cast differently now?
A: The problem on the day that I actually cast my vote–I think it got confusing. There was a person that–the police stopped her and her daughter and there was a yelling and screaming match. I was not thinking completely straight. I was still thinking of the trauma this woman had gone through. I voted incorrectly. I’m honest, I made a mistake. That’s why I called for a special meeting to recant my vote.
Q: Were people pretty understanding of that or do they hold you to a higher standard?
A: I think people understood that there was a lot of chaos. There was actually someone that caused an arson. I don’t see that anybody judged me. I’m just as human as anyone else.
Q: At the May 22 meeting, a woman came in to share her story about her interaction with the Lancaster police. But it escalated into screaming. How should a council president have handled that?
A: I have helped people in the past [as] a sexual assault counselor. Sometimes you just got to let them vent. You have to let them speak and get that out of their system because they’re hurting. You’re not gonna fix a problem if there’s so much chaos.
Q: She kept saying she wanted an apology. How appropriate would it have been for the council president to say, “you know what? You walked away from an interaction with the police feeling violated and betrayed. And that should never happen in our city. We let you down and I apologize.”
A: Yeah, that would be something that could’ve been handled that way. Yes, I agree with you. If there’s an apology to give to a constituent because somewhere along the line the system failed them, why should we feel guilty?
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.
“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.”
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.)
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.
October is an exciting month because you can always count on at least one city council to really get into the Halloween spirit. Sure enough, Wisconsin delivered. But there were plenty of other highlights, including a sudden competition between two cupcakeries and a mayoral field trip that I may have been invited to.
This past year, I had an AMAZING experience. I visited 12 cities and towns across North America for the “Best Thing, Worst Thing” project. The idea was simple: see as much of the city as I could, talk to as many people as I could, and ask them all the same two questions.
What is the best thing about this place?
What is the worst thing about this place?
Answering those questions can be surprisingly difficult, but it was important for me to hear about individuals’ values and experiences with their communities. I learned that a small city in conservative western Kansas thinks of itself as “progressive.” I learned that diversity in Toronto is much heralded, but also has a dark side. And I was present for a medical emergency in the desert outside Las Cruces, New Mexico.
The goal was to find out what cities are doing well to make their communities livable for residents. Then, to find out what people want that their cities aren’t providing now.
You can listen to all 12 episodes on the project page. And this week, I bring you the highlights in a special audio episode about the best of the “Best Thing, Worst Thing.” This “best of” is available on iTunes, Stitcher, Player FM and right here:
If you liked what you heard, please give the podcast a five-star rating on iTunes and like our Facebook page. There are other big projects in the works, so keep checking back!
In the latest, greatest episode of our “Best Thing, Worst Thing” project, we swing through Western Pennsylvania to visit the famed steel city of Pittsburgh. There may be three rivers and hundreds of bridges, but I take you on a trip to the less obvious places in search of best and worst things: to a machine shop where Chinese students and high school girls are working together; to a Sunday morning church service; and to the “Yugoslav Room” with a local poet.
If you’ve never heard of the project before, catch the previous 11 episodes here. When you are ready to learn about the hardest part of designing a robot, click over to the City Council Chronicles podcast to download this latest episode. Or you can play it below.
Episode 12: Pittsburgh, PA
Pittsburgh had a reputation as a steel-producing city in Western Pennsylvania and now is known more for its robotics, technology, and medicine. It has a population of 300,000 and is defined by hills, rivers, and bridges. In our visit, we watch a high school team assemble robots with visiting Chinese students; attend a picnic in a park; and experience a Baptist church service. We also hear from a poet, a retired educator, a recently-returned young mother, and a “Girl of Steel.”