“It’s amazing. You referenced the prophet Isaiah–‘come let us reason together’,” Mayor Steven Benjamin mused after a pastor wrapped up his invocation and the audience lifted their heads.
“We’re gonna move to defer item 41 for two weeks in the interest of everyone talking together again. Let’s see if we can get some good discussion.”
Eying the standing room-only crowd–some wearing color-coordinated t-shirts–the mayor added, “we’re not gonna be voting on the healthcare plan tonight. Some of you obviously have other things that you need to be doing.”
A cacophony of disgruntled murmuring arose as a mob of people lined up for the door. Council members sat stiffly and Mayor Benjamin fingered the gavel just in case.
“Please keep it down just a tad bit!” he hollered.
The crowd may have left, but the fireworks were just getting started.
“Mr. Mayor, I am opposed to this because this is another start of tax breaks for student housing in the city of Columbia,” insisted Councilman Howard Duvall indignantly.
“I respectfully disagree,” Mayor Benjamin replied calmly. “We’re gonna be able to disagree on policy and respectfully disagree.”
For the third time in under a minute, he clarified, respectfully: “But I respect your ability to disagree.”
With that, the fury fizzled. Everyone got on the same page and with rocket speed approved one item after the other–only pausing long enough for Councilman Duvall to exclaim:
“Those were the most detailed plans I’ve ever seen for a bicycle repair rack! About 16 pages!”
All of a sudden, as the clerk prepared to call the roll, Mayor Benjamin stood up and wandered over to Duvall, deliberately switching off the councilman’s microphone and whispering in his ear.
“Mr. Duvall?” the clerk prompted.
With the two men gossiping off mic, Councilwoman Tameika Isaac Devine glanced over. “Howard, say ‘aye’,” she coached.
Duvall whipped around and blinked. “Aye!” he declared, spinning back to continue with the mayor.
Apparently, Mayor Benjamin is a master of keeping secrets. Not five minutes later, he again sprung up to have a side chat with Councilman Edward McDowell, all the while keeping far away from the microphones.
What was he plotting? A surprise party for someone’s birthday? A legislative coup? A strategic ploy to make the front page of City Council Chronicles?
Councilwoman Devine raised her hand. “I would just say, regarding mainly our land use boards, the new members will have to go through training.”
She fired a warning shot to the newest crop of board members. “They are sitting and representing the city. They need to hear people out. They need to be respectful. And they need to follow the law.”
I would add a final commandment: they need to avoid having side chatter in a business meeting. (Not directed to anyone in particular!)
Moving on to public comment, a man with a striped tie sternly informed council members, “I myself on May 27 was the victim of racial profiling. I wasn’t pleased.”
Then, in a possible attempt at intimidation, he cautioned: “I told your chief, once my people come from Seattle, we will be organizing protests.”
It didn’t work on Mayor Benjamin. “They’re welcome to come from Seattle, my friend,” he nodded. “We have porous borders. If you are in the borders of the United States of America, you’re welcome to have your positions heard. Happy to talk with you.”
We had a smörgåsbord of “firsts” in September: the first time we saw a husband bring his wife roses at a council meeting. Our first podcast interview with a knight (even though she claims she’s not a knight). And our first “Best Thing, Worst Thing” story that profiles a non-American city.
And hey! We finally marked our territory in one of the three states that City Council Chronicles had not visited: Montana. Now, it’s only Rhode Island and New Mexico that need to get with the program. Check out which states we did profile with our September Month in Review.
And if you haven’t seen the first country music video we’ve encountered that everybody is talking about (well, everybody who watches the Fayetteville, North Carolina city council meetings, that is), plug in your headphones and jam out here:
There are two things that are universally beloved: cute babies and the fire department. And the Anderson city council meeting had plenty of both.
“I’m gonna ask Chief Bratcher to come up with his wife,” Mayor Terence Roberts beckoned the interim fire chief to the stage.
City staff, meanwhile, wheeled around in front to ogle the talkative toddler bouncing on his dad’s knee.
“Sometimes we get so busy and the chief was doing such a good job being the interim chief, we kind of forgot to recognize him,” the mayor smiled sheepishly.
“I’m going to do the oath of office and I think his wife is going to have a role in this too.”
He looked down at his script and quoted the oath. “I do solemnly swear–”
“I–” began the chief before his quick-thinking wife nudged him to raise his hand. Immediately, he sprung his right arm upward. The mayor was right: she saved the swearing-in!
After accepting his badge and shaking hands with the city council, the chief invited eight of his men to the front for their own promotions. The baby gurgled and cooed while they all stood silently and were pinned with their shimmering badges.
Now came an interesting assembly line: with eight council members plus four city employees, a whopping 96 handshakes were performed in the space of minutes. The microphones picked up a rapid-fire volley of “congratulations, congratulationscongratucongratcongrats.”
If they could handle that onslaught, they can certainly handle a three-alarm blaze.
As the mass of family, friends, and–tragically–the baby mobbed the exit, the police chief strode to the lectern. He had his eyes on a new set of wheels or two.
“The Interceptor is very handy,” he praised his preferred secondhand purchase. “It’s something different from what we already have. That vehicle will be equipped with lights and a siren.”
His other wish list item was a Dodge Ram. “That vehicle will be an unmarked vehicle,” he explained. (Oh, crap–should I have printed that? Forget I said Dodge Ram. It’s…a Suburu Outback. Yeah.)
“The old cars that you put up for auction,” Council Member Beatrice Thompson raised her hands quizzically, “is anybody buying those?”
The chief let out a light chuckle. “Yes, ma’am. I’m really surprised. We had one of the cars and I drove it from the PD on its last journey. I gave it some gas and it coughed.”
Council members laughed. Then the chief hit them with the punch line. “I believe that car sold at auction for $1,300. I was amazed.”
Murmurs of astonishment flitted across the room. I’m surprised as well: a sentient, coughing police car?! I’d empty my savings account for that modern-day Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.
But it was the fire department that had the last word.
“We’ve had interest from citizens about the Veterans Parade,” city manager LindaMcConnell reported to the council. “You will remember the group that normally put on the Veterans Parade was unable to do so last year. Our own Fire Chief Randy Bratcher rallied the troops and the parade went off without a hitch.”
Apparently, all that previous time spent not being sworn in was put to good use because, she disclosed, “Randy and his group are once again spearheading that effort, which is scheduled for Sunday, November 5.”
To reassure citizens, she added, “the chief’s wife is assisting with that as well.”
Summer may be winding down, but the city council meetings are heating up! The biggest news out of August was International City Hall Selfie Day. You can check your social media for the thousands of images generated on the holiest of high holidays or you can peruse my Top 10 list instead. I also invited a top selfie expert on the podcast to pick an ultimate winner.
Of course, we saw our fair share of drama in city council meetings, including two mayors who raised their voices at council members and an entire council meeting that very quickly turned into a bonfire. If you missed that Jerry Springer plotline, go scan the August Month in Review.
And if you don’t know why this man is pointing at heaven…it’s because he’s pointing at heaven. But the reason will blow your heathen mind:
A: This is Cardboard Carrie decked out in the eclipse glasses. Councilman [Rick] Mihalevich, who had to run the meeting in my absence, really got a workout and took several pictures. I’m very impressed with Rick and his form.
Q: Of the top 10 city council selfies, did you have a favorite one?
A: First of all, I loved every single one! This Columbia, South Carolina–the gentleman holding it up, he’s kind of got his mouth open. You can tell it might be his first selfie ever. It makes me think of maybe my dad if my dad were to take a selife! He really made an effort.
I would say my top choice was Madison, Wisconsin. It almost looks like Maurice Cheeks is standing in the center of the world. He has literally put Madison at the center of the world and that would be my top pick.
Q: Maurice Cheeks’s selfie also has excellent product placement–he’s holding a City Hall Selfie Day sticker! But Mayor, if you came into a council meeting and noticed a big stain on the floor and the police chief told you, “that is from our horse that we brought here after hours and he pooped on the floor,” what would your reaction be?
A: I think I may frown on that just a little bit! I mean, hats off to our police officers, our firefighters, and honestly, that includes our police dog, Darco. It includes Mr. Fuzzy Britches the horse. That’s something else I liked about [International City Hall Selfie Day]: when you recognize those who keep our city safe.
Q: Carrie, I heard an anecdote at one of your council meetings that Jefferson City stopped making public commenters give their address because people were getting fan mail from prisoners who were watching. Is that true?
A: [Laughs] A couple of reasons: one is safety. When you’re at a council meeting giving your address, we do stream our meetings live. So, “oh, guess what? So-and-so who lives at XYZ? They’re not home right now!” You don’t want something to happen. And two: we welcome people whether you’re inside city limits or not.
Q: I saw that a Thomas Jefferson reenactor stopped by one of your meetings! How often does he come in?
A: In Jefferson City, we do celebrate as often as possible. The thought was, let’s have a birthday celebration for Thomas Jefferson and why not invite him to a council meeting?
Q: Do you think the next City Hall Selfie Day, you’ll get a picture with Thomas Jefferson?
A: He kind of photobombs a lot of my selfies because he’s on the city seal behind where the mayor sits!
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 layers here are incredible: while a reporter takes a selfie, another audience member takes a picture of the city council taking a selfie. Please tell me there’s a fourth cell phone somewhere so that the selfie chain can be even longer.
It appears that Jeff City’s mayor, Carrie Tergin, stepped away from the council meeting–only to be replaced by a cardboard cutout wearing eclipse glasses! (My sources tell me the cutout also runs a helluva council meeting.) I love the spectrum of emotions from council members; they range from “meh” to “I AM HAVING THE TIME OF MY LIFE!”
There were oodles of voyeuristic pictures featuring people in the process of taking selfies. I like this one for two reasons: first, Columbia has set up their selfie station in advance–major points there. And second, this proves that you can have a good selfie or you can have a good portrait, but it’s hard to have a good portrait of a selfie.
Dallas lands a spot on the list thanks to this fellow gunning it through the city council selfie loophole. Not only is it ingenious to have a chart of all council members’ faces, but do you see that flamingo shirt?! Memorable for sure.
Hats galore! Witches in the back, viking in the front, and the mayor in a top hat inside the council chamber. There aren’t nearly enough props in city government, so nice job raiding the costume store.
Uh, paging all art museums: who wants this masterpiece on their wall?! Seriously, what a trippy and visionary take on a selfie by Alder Maurice Cheeks! I’m getting a bit nauseous, but part of me wants to put on some sitar music and ponder the circular nature of life.
Gaithersburg had all hands on deck. Council Member Ryan Spiegel covered the outside perimeter, Council Member Neil Harris staked out the inside, and Mayor Jud Ashman took the extreeeeeeeeeeeme eastern part of Gaithersburg: Europe! Good teamwork, gentlemen.
“OH, FOR GOD’S SAKE. WHY DIDN’T WE THINK TO USE THE HORSE?!” That’s what I imagine every media person in local government is saying this morning as they bang their head on a desk. Seriously, hats and helmets WAY off to Ocean City for setting next year’s bar at “getting a horse into a council chamber.”
Randal Wallace has been a councilman since 2001–and he’s running for a fifth term as we speak! Normally, I get livid when a city like Myrtle Beach does not video stream its meetings. But I calmed down when he told me he would like to see that happen. Plus, he shared a nice thing his mother does after he has a difficult council meeting.
Q: I went on the city’s website looking to watch the Myrtle Beach council meetings and I became kind of angry when I saw that you do NOT put your meeting videos online.
A: We’re televised and you can go to our public information officer and ask for a copy of the meeting. It’s a little old-school. We hired two new assistant public information folks. They’ve been putting the minutes online, so I think we’re moving toward the twenty-first century. We just got a new Facebook page and Twitter presence and Instagram. So that would be a very good next step, to live stream the meetings. I would certainly be supportive of it.
Q: You are running for reelection, as are two other council members and the mayor. If you came across in these meetings as the voice of reason, the consensus-builder, the guy who treats everyone well–I would think you’d want voters to know that. And if someone is behaving abominably, you’d want voters to know that too. Do you feel the same way?
A: Yeah. The seven members that are currently on council, we’ve gone out of our way to disagree agreeably. We’ve had the same upper management staff for, like, 29 years. So you’re seeing a lot of change happening now and we’re moving out of the status quo.
Q: Your meetings happen at 2 p.m. during the workday. Between that and the lack of streaming, it seems like Myrtle Beach is making it difficult to find out what’s happening in those meetings.
A: Well actually, when I was first elected, the televised meeting was at 7 o’clock on Tuesdays. We moved the 7 p.m. meeting to 2 o’clock. The majority of council–of which I was not one–felt like we were keeping staff there. It had been routine that we had meetings that ran sometimes till midnight, 1 o’clock in the morning, and it would make great television. But the staff was having to be there from 8:30 in the morning till we finished. Then they had to come back.
A: I’m more of a night person. So I understood about people wanting to come later on–they might be a little freer. But I was in the minority.
Q: In 2013, I saw that you tweeted this:
@bsmithnews my mom watches council meetings, she will call me when she gets mad at how people talk to me, public and or other councilmen.
A: She’s had a few distractions, but when I first was on [council], if I got entangled with one of the council members or someone came in really mad at me, as soon as we went off TV my phone would ring. It would be her: “don’t you let him talk to you like that!” So it was good to have a mom in your corner!
Q: That’s sweet of her!
A: Over the years she’s gotten a little thicker skin about it. [Laughs] She still can get a little feisty when she perceives I’m getting treated bad.