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:
Do you recall the fable of “The Tortoise and The Hare?”
Well, Aberdeen’s city council meeting certainly started out as the hare: brash. Bold. Uninhibited.
“Ordinance 17-07-02, revising the city code relating to intersections. Anything new here?” queried Mayor Mike Levsen, pausing ever so briefly to listen for any intake of air or shuffling of seats.
Hearing nothing, a slam-dunk unanimous vote quickly dispatched the ordinance.
“Ordinance 17-07-04, relating to obstructions parked on city streets,” the mayor barreled ahead.
Briefly, the city attorney nudged the brakes.
“We did have one person who was all in favor of that change,” he informed the mayor with a hint of suspense. “A city employee in the public works department!”
Guffaws broke out as the ordinance again passed without dissent.
Rounding the 11-minute mark, the mayor joked: “we’re done early; we can all go home!”
However, he received only a few wary nods–giving me the feeling that the tortoise phase of this meeting had dawned.
“The much-anticipated city manager’s report with the 2018 budget is next,” Mayor Levsen announced with a trace of resignation. He glanced over at city manager Lynn Lander. “We’ll see if we can appreciate the numbers you came up with.”
Lander took his place in front of a gigantic monitor and an even more gigantic set of notes. For the next 40 marathon minutes, he was in the driver’s seat on a sightseeing tour through the city’s bank account.
“The 2018 sales tax allocation is based upon the actual sales tax revenue collected in 2016, plus a growth factor,” he opened with a flourish.
“There is NO planned interceptor sewer work for 2018,” he emphasized heavily to grab council members’ attention.
“I am recommending adding three new positions to the city workforce: two patrol officers and a marketing concession manager for Wylie Park,” he dropped this major bombshell 20 minutes in.
The minutes slogged by in a dizzying array of pie charts and spreadsheet tables.
“I know I’m going very quickly,” he apologized, perhaps operating under a very different definition of the word “quickly.”
As he crossed the finish line, Lander concluded, “thank you for listening to me. I hope my rambling made sense.”
The mayor took a second to shake off the inertia and reach for his microphone. “Made sense to me!” he quipped cheerfully.
But suddenly, as folks gathered up their papers and rubbed their eyes, one person tossed a wrench into this finely-tuned budgetary machine.
“I have one thing. In the [promotion] fund allocations, we didn’t count the zeros,” Council Member Jennifer Slaight-Hansen thundered. “When you go in counting the zeros, it changes a half dozen of the allocations. I think we need to count the zeroes.”
But Lander raised his hand and politely explained this complex piece of mathematics. “If there wasn’t at least five votes, the zeros really doesn’t matter.”
“It DOES make a difference in that median allocation,” she insisted.
“But,” interjected a confused Council Member Clint Rux, “if you have five people who voted for funding…then…there’s five people who voted for funding. Correct?”
This is why I hate calculus. Aberdeen’s “Zerogate” scandal was spiraling out of control. For the sake of ending the meeting on time, Council Member Slaight-Hansen retreated.
“Karl will send [the spreadsheet] to us and it’ll be more clear,” she sighed.
Final thoughts: I give 10 out of 10 stars to Karl, who was volunteered for spreadsheet duty apparently.
When you think of South Dakota, you picture the lineup of four presidents gazing out from a mountainside. But after watching the Sioux Falls city council meeting, I’ll always picture the lineup of provocative public commenters!
“I’m a retired lawyer and full-time writer of nonfiction books,” announced a gray-haired man sporting a white Wilford Brimley moustache. “I want to talk about Senator R.F. Pettigrew. What would he think of his creation today?”
The commenter then traced a mesmerizing biographical journey through the life of Sioux Falls’s version of George Washington.
“He’s one of these people who could sit around a campfire and see a city in the making. He had a funny way of dealing with people standing in the way of progress: they were called ‘kickers’ and ‘croakers.'”
After listing several Sioux Falls mainstays that Pettigrew would’ve admired–schools, small businesses–the man reached an ironclad conclusion:
“One of the things that would make him especially proud is that his city, Sioux Falls, is far, far bigger than Yankton. He didn’t like Yankton.”
“It’s tremendous commentary,” gently interrupted Mayor Mike Huether at the five-minute mark, “but I need you to wrap it up.”
Secretly, however, the mayor no doubt wished for another history lesson. Because the next commenter sauntered to the microphone with an American flag t-shirt and a palpable chip on his shoulder.
“I want to apologize to the people that are watching this city council meeting,” he began, presumably not including me. (But just in case, apology accepted, fam.)
“When people come up to me in the grocery store and they talk to me about issues in this city, I apologize for bringing them up to the city council,” he continued with his arms braced squarely on the podium.
“I always ask ’em, why don’t you come and do it yourself? And they said, no, we watch how people are treated at city council meetings. You’re either chastised during the meeting or chastised at the end of the meeting. That’s true.” He frowned deeply and took his seat.
“Thank you, Tim. Appreciate it,” the mayor viciously chastised him.
Tim was replaced by an even more cocky complainant who aggressively launched into his grievances.
“After last week’s meeting, I sent you all a copy of the First Amendment. I thought maybe you could sharpen up on what it is,” he oozed with contempt.
“Tim said it best: why don’t a lot of people come up here to speak besides us five? Because they’re scared TO DEATH! They’re scared about repercussions. I hear it A LOT!”
He raised his voice an octave in closing. “We get yelled at. We get chewed out for doing what is our constitutional right!”
“Very good, thank you,” Mayor Huether chewed him out.
As councilors returned to the honorable business of legislating, something was clearly bothering Councilor Rex Rolfing.
“I have one observation,” he grimaced with arms folded. “It was sad to see the media leave directly after public input with seemingly no real interest in the real business of the city. It’s revealing to me, and I hope it is to the rest of the city.”
The mayor paused, then gestured to the back of the room. “Scouts, welcome,” he waved at the dozen Boy Scouts who were caught up in the middle of this awkward exchange.
Charles Djou has done it all–Hawaii state legislature, U.S. Congressman, and most importantly, Honolulu city councilman. He got me up to speed on some city council traditions and local island lingo, plus the time a native chief put a curse on the council! Definitely listen to the podcast because there is so much more stuff in there than you’ll read below.
Q: Something I’m curious about is the dress code for the city council meetings. Is it suits and ties or Hawaiian shirts and leis?
A: Yes, so some of the things that are different about the Honolulu city council: the FULL council is in coat and tie. But our committee hearings are done in aloha shirts–
Q: They’re called “aloha” shirts, there? Not Hawaiian shirts?
A: Yes. The other thing that is perhaps a little different is the first city council meeting of the year after an election, everybody wears leis. And everybody gets leis.
Q: What is the lei protocol in Hawaii? Is there any occasion where it’s inappropriate to wear a lei?
A: You know…I wouldn’t say there’s any time where it’s not appropriate. It is relatively common to see people wear a lei if it’s your birthday, if it’s something significant, if you–
Q: Are you wearing a lei now?
A: I am not.
Q: OH, THIS ISN’T SIGNIFICANT FOR YOU?!
Q: Any interesting moments you can remember from the Honolulu city council meetings?
A: By tradition, usually the very first city council meeting, we’ll open it with an oli, which is a native Hawaiian chant and prayer. I imagine maybe some of the city councils in, like, South Dakota or Oklahoma with large Native American populations maybe have some similar tradition.
Q: You’re probably right about tribal involvement. But prayer, especially in the South, is common for kicking off council meetings. When you say “chant,” I think of something rhythmic, like BUM-bum-bum-bum BUM-bum-bum-bum.
A: Yes. It’s in the native Hawaiian language. And then frequently accompanied with hula.
Q: Hula! Does that mean you have bikini-clad women in the council chamber?
A: Uhhhhhh, no. The whole bikini-clad women thing is sort of a 1950s/1960s image people have.
A: I’ll share with you one interesting story. This occurred right before I became a member of the city council. The city council had a relatively controversial issue about condemnation of some native Hawaiian land. I remember a native Hawaiian kapuna (tribal elder) came in and put a curse on the city council members who voted against it.
Q: Wow, a curse! Did you feel worse voting no when there were eight other people you were working with on the council, compared to the state house with 50 other people?
A: No–if anything, on the city council I felt I had a greater voice in being able to dissent.
Q: Now, the listeners will revolt if I don’t ask this: between the Hawaii state house, the U.S. House, and the Honolulu city council, which had the nicest chairs?
A: Oh, the U.S. Congress! [Laughs] They have the nice comfy leather chairs over in Congress.
A: It brought a smile to my face to say the least.
Q: Can you describe what the city council meeting room looks like?
A: We used to meet in this kind of hallway environment. It was about a year ago we switched over to a theater. It seats 400 and thankfully we have not reached capacity yet.
Q: Have you ever had a drama teacher walk in and be like, “we’ve got a rehearsal for ‘The Music Man’ in ten minutes! Everybody out!”
A: We just consider those “communications from the public.”
Q: I’m assuming you became city administrator of Hot Springs after working a couple of desk jobs…you took a year off of college to backpack through Europe…you worked retail for a bit. Then five or six years later you got this job, right?
A: [Laughs] I finished grad school in 2014 and started literally weeks after I finished school.
Q: What?! This was your first job out of college?
A: I’m 26 years old. This is my first job out of school.
Q: Oh, my god.
Q: What have you done as city administrator?
A: We–don’t laugh when I tell these accomplishments–but we completed some audits. We were behind on those. We passed a new personnel policy. New safety policy. Our sales tax revenue has gone up since I’ve been here. I can’t say if that’s because of the work we’ve done–
Q: I’m not a journalist, so I can say it’s because of the work you’ve done.
Q: One thing I heard from another city manager is that when the public had a problem with the city and were criticizing staff at council meetings for not doing anything about it, he wished the city council would defend the staff.
A: We were able to pass a new code of ethics that states if you have direct criticism of an employee, you don’t just lash out or nod your head along in agreement if someone is lambasting a city employee.
Q: Is there anything the council members can do or have done that makes your life difficult?
A: Yes. They can not read their packets! We prepare council packets for them. I’ll do notes on each agenda item and give–at the very most–a four line summary of what the item is.
Q: You’re kind of a professor here. You have a lesson plan. You assign the reading….So can you tell when some people have done the reading, and some people are BS-ing their way through?
A: Yes! Part of my job is to read people. You can certainly tell who is prepared for the game and who is hoping somebody else answers for them.
Q: If you could change one thing about the Hot Springs city council meetings, what would it be?
A: The start time. It’s in our ordinance that we start at 7 p.m. People that work a full eight hours and have to go to the meeting…there’s some fatigue that sets in.
If you thought that South Dakota city council meetings were polite, sleepy little powwows, you’re in for a Mount Rushmore-sized reality check.
Maybe it’s because Mercury is in retrograde, or perhaps because Mayor Cindy Donnell was taking the night off, but city administrator Nolan Schroeder was on the receiving end of some Hot Springs hot rage all night.
A burly man in a t-shirt bulldozed his way to the front of the stage where the aldermen–all but two of whom were technically alderwomen–sat vulnerable.
“Craig Romey,” he announced his presence. “When I was on the council–” Ahhh, a former alderman looking to share the wisdom of his years. How fortunate! Yes, my good man, you have something to say about drug testing of lifeguards?
“You guys aren’t doing it. Nobody is being drug tested are they?” he spoke haltingly, as if his CPU was buffering the words in his head. “I would classify it as life saving…lifeguard. And they’re not being drug tested. I’d like to know why…It’s the law.”
The youthful city administrator drew in a breath. “That’s actually…not factual. [The law] mostly applies to first responders, EMT, firefighters, police.”
“You don’t think a lifeguard is lifesaving?” ex-Alderman Romey demanded.
“That’s not my call. We do follow the law.” Cool and collected until this point, Schroeder showed a hint of disdain for his inquisitor. “YOUR interpretation may be different than what’s required for us to do.”
But Romey admirably–and belligerently–insisted that HE was right. “I was going by what Sheriff Evans told myself–”
“We gave you our best answer, SIR,” snapped the city administrator abruptly.
The aldermen awkwardly averted their eyes. Romey took his seat. The unlucky job of seguing fell to Alderman Timothy Tescher. But there was one small problem.
“We have a small problem. We gather up brush all year long and we don’t have a chipper of our own. And we can’t burn it.” The other aldermen looked on blankly. “The way the air flows through that canyon, people down at the hospital get upset because their air exchangers are sucking our smoke into their hospital.”
He sighed. “We’re just about down to where we have to chip it.”
But a $16,000 wood-chipping extravaganza didn’t sit well with the tall glass of water in a short-sleeved shirt who stood to protest.
“I just can’t believe [the VA home] wouldn’t be interested in the pile if alls they gotta do is pay for the chipping,” he grumbled.
Alderman Tescher shook his head. “They can’t use them.”
“We CAN burn it, Tim,” insisted the man, escalating the situation like a brush fire in South Dakota. “It’s FACTUAL. We CAN burn it. That’s $16,000 you’re playing with!”
“It’s out of consideration to the neighbors we do not burn it,” Schroeder jumped in to remind the man, who apparently did not hear the part about hospitalized people inhaling smoke. “It’s a three-day process–”
“I KNOW how long it is, NOLAN,” he barked. “Take ’em out to the airport. Put ’em down in the pit. Then you could burn them. It wouldn’t bother anyone.”
The city administrator paused, wondering how to safely respond to someone who really, REALLY wants to set things on fire.
“It’s an interesting idea,” he said, completely uninterested.