Interview #48: Dublin, IE Councilor Ciarán Cuffe (with podcast)

This podcast interview is available on iTunesStitcherPlayer FM, and right here:

After last week’s Dublin city council meeting, I talked with Ciarán Cuffe about why his council is so enormous, how the political parties get along without too much fighting, and whether the Lord Mayor does a decent job of keeping things on the rails.

Q: Your city council has 63 members. That is a huge number! Be honest with me: do you know everyone’s name?

A: No, I don’t! Up until three years ago we had 52 members and even that was a bit of a struggle to fit into our chamber, which is in a building 250 years old. It’s a squeeze, and if you want to get out to get a glass of water, you have to hustle past several colleagues.

Q: What made you add 11 people?

A: There was a rebalancing in local government between urban and rural. The situation was that there was a lot more councilors in rural areas than in urban areas. So the then-minister at a national level decided to reduce the level of councilors in rural areas and increase it slightly in urban areas.

Q: I read that you recently decided to let councilors bring their children into the meetings. Is that true?

A: Yeah, there was an issue with one of my colleagues who wanted to bring her child into meetings and was told, that’s not something that really works. So Claire [Byrne] battled that and I’m glad to say that she’s now welcomed into meetings. I don’t think anybody would bat an eyelid if a mom was breastfeeding in a meeting. That’s certainly the norm in other European countries.

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Dublin, IE Councilor Ciarán Cuffe

Q: Let’s get into the meat and potatoes–or, as you say in Ireland, the “potatoes and potatoes.” Your council is divided into political parties, I believe eight in total. Explain how these parties affect everything from who sits where, who is allowed to talk and when, and who gets along with whom.

A: Traditionally, we have two center-right parties in Ireland. But in more recent years, there’s been an explosion of left (a lot more left than Bernie Sanders) left-wing parties. You have People Before Profit, you have the Workers’ Party, the Socialist Workers Party. It gets a bit confusing. We talk about bank bailouts and we still have rows about that, and those rows find their way into council meetings. We tend not to have too many fisticuffs at the meetings, but you can have broad discussions.

Q: How do you rank current Lord Mayor Brendan Carr when it comes to running the meetings?

A: Brendan is trying his best but it’s a bit like trying to organize a roomful of screaming cats. Brendan is as challenged as many of his predecessors. The thing about the mayor in the Irish context is we don’t have a directly-elected mayor who’s there for five years. We don’t have an Ed Koch or a Giuliani. We have a mayor who is in for twelve months and they go out again. So they don’t command as much respect.

Q: After people are done being Lord Mayor, are they more wise or tempered?

A: I think they are. I think there’s a knowing glance amongst people who have been mayor. Though I haven’t been mayor, I have been in the national parliament. You’ve got to carefully understand the mood of the room.


Follow Councilor Ciarán Cuffe on Twitter: @CiaranCuffe

Special Feature! “Best Thing, Worst Thing”

It’s a new year, so we have a new installment of the “Best Thing, Worst Thing” project. Wow, another episode AND Betty White is still alive?! This year isn’t so bad after all! For an explanation of the project, check out the page here. If you like storytelling and municipal lore, consider this your birthday present.

If you’ve got the kids in bed and the bottle of gin opened, head over to the City Council Chronicles podcast and download the latest episode. Or you can play it below.

Episode 3: Rockville, Maryland

 

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Photo source: City of Raymore

Rockville is 16 miles northwest of Washington, D.C. in Montgomery County, Maryland. The population is 64,000. It is the oldest community in this series–first settled around 1750. As the federal government expanded for each world war, the population of Rockville also grew because those workers wanted to live in a closeby suburb. The city is fairly ethnically diverse, with a large number of foreign-born residents. Rockville Town Square is a downtown commercial and retail hub–with an ice skating rink! In this episode, we hear from a political staffer, a scientist, an economic development specialist, and a college student.

#27: Minot, ND 6/6/16

Chronicling the Minot city council was like a chef finally tasting his pièce de résistance. I take full credit for this meeting, which would not be online if I hadn’t talked to one of Minot’s city council members. (Okay, fine, I take partial credit.)

Needless to say, I was amped! It’s the first videotaped council meeting in the history of Minot (rhymes with “Why not!”). Everyone’s gon’ get cray for the camera!

“Ugh,” the kindly old citizen at the podium sighed. “No one can tell me that downtown doesn’t deserve or need traffic lights,” he warily–almost sleepily–said about Minot’s de-stoplighting plan.

“Pedestrian count is way down? Hmm. They took it in February 5, 6, and 7. Do you know what the weather was like on February 5? 23.9 degrees below zero.” Another heavy sigh. “All I can say is, Lance, shame on you. You should be spanked.”

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The Minot city council, in all its low-res glory.

In the no-camera days, Lance may very well have been spanked on the spot. Instead, the city manager had the opposite of a spanking to give: “I’d like to recognize two folks,” he announced, unfolding a fellow Minoter’s letter. “The alley behind my house had been damaged. I had nothing but a big muddy mess,” he read. But “there were two very nice men in the alley this morning. They were nice, pleasant, and hardworking. My alley is beautiful!”

He glanced up. “So what I’d like to do…if you guys would go up there, the president of city council is going to give you a city coin.”

The two heroic employees ascended to the dais amid rapturous applause to receive their lucre.

After the good vibes subsided, the city manager smirked across the room. “The coin rule is: next time you see [council] President Jantzer anyplace, if he doesn’t have HIS coin on him, he owes you an adult beverage of your choice.” The council guffawed.

He added: “I haven’t given him one, so I KNOW he doesn’t have one!” Everyone whooped, but the city manager had one more roast up his sleeve.

“Mr. President, I wanted to show you–because he’s not here–the mayor is going to be in the dunking booth this Friday. So for all of you that wants to partake in this…”

President Mark Jantzer demurred. “It’s very…unexpected news. But we appreciate it!” The other aldermen snickered, no doubt calculating the training regimen needed to sink Hizzoner.

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Woohoo! That’s 56 more people who might show up to dunk the mayor!

Finally, the council called on a sprightly young staffer named Jason to present the flashy new recycling plan. “We’ve got less than 10 years of capacity,” at the Minot landfill, Jason apocalyptically warned. “What we’re proposing is curbside recycling, picked up and emptied by collection vehicles–with mechanical arms to lift the carts, empty the contents in the collection vehicle, and return them to the ground,” he said, describing that newfangled contraption called “a garbage truck.” For any aldermen still confused, he played a video of one doing its duty.

The council, apparently impressed with this 20th-century technology, voted in favor of the recycling plan.

Final thoughts: beautiful. My best work yet. To the city of Minot, may you continue to videotape your council meetings till the landfill runneth over.

#25: Los Angeles, CA 6/3/16

Like most things in Tinseltown, the Los Angeles city council meeting became all about s-e-x.

“Half of black men and a quarter of Latino men who have sex with men are projected to be diagnosed with HIV,” testified Councilwoman Nury Martinez, looking anything but somber in a fiery yellow dress.

“Way back when, in the early 1990s,” she reminisced, “my job was to hand out condoms. Not only to my peers at San Fernando High School, but around small little bars and cantinas.” The sex-positive councilwoman batted her eyes. “I would talk to grown adults and pass out condoms.”

Councilman Paul Krekorian perked up at this risque mention of prophylaxis. “I had no idea about this first job of yours,” he bashfully admitted.

“I’m not gonna tell you who was Condom Man in 1990,” she responded coyly. “I happen to have married him.” Whoa, talk about a power couple!

As the council moved on, Martinez strode back to her seat and, off-mic, breathlessly told Krekorian, “He was Condom Man! We were just so popular in school!”

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Councilwoman Nury Martinez, a.k.a. Mrs. Condom Man

Council President Herb Wesson called for public comment on an affordable housing ordinance. “I want to take up item 3…Mr. Walsh? Mr. Walsh, please come forward.”

A bedraggled man shuffled forward–flannel shirt unbuttoned, yet still wearing a tie. “Tweeting @hollywooddems,” Walsh mumbled by way of introduction. “Under [Mayor Eric] Garcetti, it’s like the mob. Everything  is done like the mob.”

He signed off merely by giving his URL: “hollywoodhighlands.org.”

The next commenter was as cocky as he was efficient with his allotted two minutes. “One minute only, please! One minute,” he yelled out, like some Babe Ruthian showman, calling his home run.

“You never define what ‘affordable is! Are you deciding what’s affordable by district, or what’s affordable for the whole city?!” He clocked in at exactly 58 seconds.

The next several items also required public comment. And the only people signed up to gripe were–I’m sure you can guess–

  • Mr. Walsh (“Blogging at hollywoodhighlands.org or jwalshconfidential.”)
  • Mr. Speedy Gonzalez (“One minute only!”)
  • A lady who held the microphone directly on her lips and thundered “We must vote for Donald J. Trump!”
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John Walsh: blogger, tweeter, person who barely sits down at city council meetings

After their third or fourth appearance, they stopped being polite and started getting real.

One-Minute Guy: “I’m going to be the lead plaintiff in a suit against the city of Los Angeles because–” his voice became sing-songy–“you’re hiding documennnnts councilmemberrrrrrs!”

John Walsh.blogspot/tweets.gov: “There are thousands of blacks and Hispanics who have been murdered and you don’t give a f*cking sh*t about their asses. HOLLYWOODHIGHLANDS.ORG.”

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Mr. One-Minute-Only, as he’s known in city hall and the bedroom

At blessed last, an angelic face stepped up. “To my friend, the Honorable Herb Wesson, Jr., who undoubtedly will be our next mayor–”

Council President Wesson blushed. “Oh, come on, Chuck!”

“To all the agitators who mock, belittle, degrade, or are prejudiced to him, shame on you!” roared Chuck. “Let Herb do his job! Leave him alone and stop picking on him!”

You’re a good man, Chuck. Too bad you’re not the one with the blog.

Final thoughts: Be honest, you’ve already forgotten that Councilwoman Nury Martinez was married to the Condom Man, haven’t you? I give this meeting One Minute! One Minute Only, Please!

#24: Newport, TN 6/2/16

If your underbritches feel bunched, y’all are in good company. At the Newport city council meeting, the People’s Business was as sticky as maple syrup on flypaper.

“I wanna bring everybody up to speed on the situation with the animal shelter,” city administrator James Finchum announced from somewhere behind his extensive mustache.  “They promised they would get us our money. As of today, we’ve received $10,000.”

The bad news: “They still owe us about $60,000.” All right, fellers: time to shake down them dogs and cats! Milk bones and kitty litter gotta be worth something!

“Nobody at the city wants to close that animal shelter,” kindly old Vice Mayor Mike Proffitt warbled. “That’s the furthest thing from our mind.”

One councilman murmured, “Don’t they have some $90,000 in repairs?”

“I’ve never heard that figure,” Finchum recoiled, no doubt contemplating all the gold-plated food dishes 90 grand could buy. “The roof definitely needs repairs.”

At this point, a man in a lime-green Polo stood up–apparently Newport’s roof guru. “When the heat rises and it hits the tin [roof], it causes the metal to sweat and it rains in your attic. Then it ends up in the electrical lights.” Some tar paper would fix the problem, he added. (Again, am I the only one who sees the value of super absorbent kitty litter?!)

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“The itsy bitsy spider went up the water spout. Down came the rain-“

Speaking of snafus, the city attorney had some unwelcome news about 318 White Oak Avenue. There were no other bidding parties at the tax sale.” He tossed up his arms. “Consequently, YOU have ended up with the property.”

Vice Mayor Proffitt immediately complained. “Everything I’ve heard from everybody says, ‘get rid of this! If you get anything, beats nothing, ’cause you’re gonna be holding onto it.'”

Taking the advice of the man with “profit” in his name, the council voted to sell.

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“Get off my lawn!” -this man, to the taxpayers

During citizen comment, Carla had some things to say for the good of the city: “We are hosting a motorcycle fundraiser that will start at the Tanner Building. We’re calling it ‘Kickstands Up for Preservation’,” she announced.

“Maurice, I’ll borrow your motorcycle!” the mayor ribbed the police chief.

Second: “I had asked the council about supporting my transportation program,” Carla gently backed into her sales pitch. “I am still looking for funds for that program other places…but if you could help in any way, I’d appreciate it.”

“How much are you needing for that?” one alderman inquired.

$2,500, she deadpanned.

There was a pause. Vice Mayor Proffitt let her down gently. “I know it’s frustrating to you, but I appreciate what you’re trying to do.” Oh, well. Maybe once the animal shelter pays them back, Carla.

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Carla: “Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?”

Speaking of appreciation, the vice mayor had another uniquely Newportian thank-you to dole out. “Lisa, I’d like to thank you for being up there the other night when the folks [were] gettin’ dog-bit,” he drawled. “And the neighbors tell you ‘they won’t bite you’…and blood’s running down both legs. But I appreciate you being up there at the time to defuse that situation.”

Woof! Methinks they need to get that animal shelter squared away, stat!

Final thoughts: If you ever watch a Tennessee city council meeting, be sure you have a translator. Their accent is thicker than gravy on a biscuit. I give this meeting 7 out of 10 vicious dog bites.

Interview #3: Fort Wayne, IN Reporter Dave Gong

After last week’s Fort Wayne city council meeting, I had some questions. And who better to ask than the lucky S.O.B. who gets to watch EVERY Fort Wayne city council meeting: Journal Gazette reporter (and high school friend of mine) Dave Gong.

He talked to me about surprises, being fair, and his reaction to a salty-mouthed councilman.

Q: On a scale of “fun” to “extremely fun,” how would you describe the council meetings?

A: Extremely fun…they are the highlight of my week.

Q: Noted! No sarcasm! What are you watching and listening for at these meetings?

A: Pretty much everything. You listen for back-and-forth and pointed arguments and the whole deal. Part of politics is we love a good show. Especially the media–we love a good show.

Q: Are there some councilmen whom you can depend on to say something…”out there?”

A: Well, “out there,” yeah. There are councilmen who are very consistent. Sometimes they’ll surprise you, which is always great. I like to be surprised.

Q: How do they generally treat each other?

A: Actually, to be honest–pretty well. I read your thing about Baltimore

Q: Yeah, that was wacky.  Some of them visibly can’t stand each other.

A: They get that way. All city councilmen are like that when you’ve got ideologies–they clash. One guy will be insulting another one week and they’ll be best of friends the next. Fort Wayne, Indiana is one of the most functional cities I’ve ever worked in.

Q: Are they pretty friendly with you?

A: I think they know I can be fair with them. You’ll get reporters and outlets that specific councilmen don’t like. As far as I know, no one has ever told me that they absolutely hate me. Generally if you’re a journalist, someone somewhere hates you.

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Fort Wayne, IN city council reporter Dave Gong

Q: Did I seem cool in high school?

A: Yeah…as cool as any of the rest of us were in high school. I don’t remember any of us going to a bunch of parties. There was a lot of laser tag.

Q: Mmhmm.

A: Whatever my judge of “cool” is, it’s probably wrong….But from my standpoint, you were f*cking awesome.

Q: What’s the weirdest thing that you’ve seen happen?

A: That’s a hard one. Ninety percent of them are super mundane. After the election in November, the council was even more Republican. This guy got up and he starts railing about how all the Democrats are socialists and the Republicans should show backbone.  And [Councilman] Glynn Hines, through his hands, coughed “BULLSH*T” into his hot mic.

Q: Whoa!

A: In other places–you go to Chicago–you see swearing on the floor. I saw lawmakers, state elected lawmakers hurling insults at each other. But in Fort Wayne, that was unconscionable. It spurred a blog post from me–because I like that sort of crap–caused public apologies, and it was…beautiful, actually.

Q: Do you ever gossip about the councilmen to other reporters?

A: Sometimes. Paul Ensley was wearing a bow tie the other day and kind of looked like Pee-wee Herman.

Q: I saw that! So creepy.

A: He’s a fun one. He beat a 12-year incumbent  in the primary.

Q: Are you gonna go to the reunion?

A: I’ve been on that alumni website and–

Q: No one told me about that…

A: …I imagine somebody will call.

Q: …


Follow Dave Gong on Twitter: @DGong89

#22: Fort Wayne, IN 5/24/16

A group of nine men can do two things: (1) field a baseball team or (2) conduct the People’s Business.

Buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack, because this week, the Fort Wayne city council played a double-header–a committee meeting AND council meeting in the same night. Pitching for the home team was Councilman Glynn Hines.

“Is there anyone in the audience that would like to speak in favor of or in opposition to resolution 16-05-04?” he hollered, scanning the bleachers.

“Second call.” (A swing!)

“Third and final call.” (And a miss! No takers.)

Representing the visiting team was a lady from the Ward Corporation. Resolution 16-05-04 was to give her family’s company some tax relief. “We’ve been in business for 52 years,” she explained, brandishing a picture of her relatives.

“Is that Vern?” Councilman Hines squinted. “I played golf with Vern.”

“I actually don’t think that you should have to pay taxes on this property,” Councilman Jason Arp confessed. “I don’t think anybody should have to pay taxes on business personal property.” But before this modern-day Ayn Rand could hit a home run against taxes, he added: “But I’m gonna vote against it because not everyone gets it.”

Despite his “nay,” the rest of the team approved Ward Corp.’s tax relief.

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Your disgruntled libertarian stepdad, Jason Arp

What happened next was truly bizarre: an apology. From the chamber of commerce. For threats. “With regards to the potential intimidation of elected officials, our board was most troubled by this,” their balding representative read from a statement. “If any of you ever felt that there was intimidation, it is no one’s intent. We will at no time use our position as chamber of commerce to threaten electoral retaliation.”

Whose feet did they threaten to put in cement? Whose home did they promise to cut the gas line? “Nice little city council you got here. It’d be a shame if someone were to drag a key across it!”

“I think the conflict was: when you have a project, you’re often very passionate,” Councilman John Crawford murmured carefully. “Some of the advocacy before was like…it was a little too far.”

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Please don’t kill this nice councilman’s puppy.

Heading into Game 2, the councilmen jogged to a new room. Now in the luxurious council chambers, a man in knee-high socks and a yellow “FORT WAYNE” t-shirt stepped to the mic.

“Gentlemen, I’m gonna tell you something: Sunday morning, I felt like dying because the noise was so great. They were shooting fireworks off.

“They’re four men [who] live there, four women that live there, and a whole pack of kids,” he explained. “They’re all Mexicans, as far as I’m concerned.”

Channeling his inner Donald Trump, he concluded, “we don’t need something like this in Fort Wayne. We need to clean up this town. Gentlemen, have a great evening, and the lord bless all of you.”

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This man merely wants peace, quiet, and deportations.

Steering far away from the crucial matter of cleaning up the Mexicans, Council President Thomas Didier gave a mini-pep talk. “Fireworks are gonna start happening. Fireworks for Memorial Day. Fireworks for Fourth of July. It’s all the holidays…New Year’s Eve. I’m just forewarning you now.”

Final thoughts: If you’re going to be in Fort Wayne between Memorial Day and New Year’s Eve, you might want to bring some earplugs. At least, around the Mexicans. 

#21: Raymore, MO 5/23/16

“Size doesn’t matter” was the motto of this week’s Raymore city council meeting. Looking around the chamber, you’d think an F5 had blown away half the council: four people were AWOL, including the mayor.

President Pro Tem Derek Moorhead, himself anything but small, soldiered ahead for the 20,000 souls in Ray-town (not its real nickname). “I have a wonderful proclamation for a wonderful cause: the Missouri Retired Teachers Association,” he boomed, towering over the white-haired woman who came to accept the award.

Can I keep it, she asked after he was done reading.

“That’s yours, absolutely!” President Moorhead exclaimed.

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Wanted, Dead or Alive: Half of the Raymore City Council

Not only was the council a few hands short, the city manager was without his deputy. “She is, as you all know, in Las Vegas with the economic development team and the mayor,” he sighed. “She sent me a picture this afternoon.”

How do you like them apples! She and the mayor are taking selfies with Celine Dion, while everyone else is stuck here talking about…mudjacking?

“We’ve spent just a little over $40,000 for the mudjacker this year,” a staff member told the council. “So right now we have achieved break even.” Three council members applauded vigorously–less for the jacking of mud and more for the saving of dough.

More good news: “Next Monday, May 30, there is no council meeting because it is Memorial Day,” the city manager huzzahed. “I believe it will be the first Monday in five months that you all will have off.” (Well, technically the first Monday those five council members who AREN’T playing craps in Sin City have off.)

Then, a huge piece of news. Groundbreaking. Earth shattering.

“An ordinance,” the clerk read, “authorizing the mayor to enter into an agreement with Kansas City Audiovisual for the purchase and installation of a council chambers video system.”

HALLELUJAH, I screamed through my monitor. In case you haven’t noticed, the cameras the city council is apparently borrowing from the middle school AV department aren’t “showing me” much in the Show-Me State. Everyone voted aye.

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Are they voting yes or stretching? It’s too blurry to tell!

Before long, this cozy council meeting was all wrapped up. President Moorhead had a few heartfelt words in parting. “Having a father as a teacher, I have to say that I don’t even know why we call them ‘retired’ teachers…they’re just teachers with no class in session,” he rhapsodized like a modern-day Langston Hughes.

“I remember [former] Mayor [Pete] Kerckhoff always used to mention the weather and the farmers market. I believe the farmers market officially opens on June 7–”

“June 14!” someone called out.

“June 14,” the president pro tem recovered. “I can’t predict the weather, though. Good luck on that. Hope it doesn’t rain.”

With a shrug, the council eagerly adjourned to enjoy a nice quiet holiday–except for the mayor, who will be doing body shots in the presidential suite of the Bellagio.

Final thoughts: For being the only council so far to upgrade their video quality, I give this meeting the Full Siskel and Ebert: 2 out of 2 thumbs-up!

#20: Chicago, IL 5/18/16

It’s official: I’ve seen the Chicago Marathon.

Not the race–I’m talking about this week’s ungodly three-and-a-half hour council meeting.

I sure hope city clerk Susana Mendoza did major vocal warm ups, because her first task was to read the names of 110 children–for five straight minutes–getting scholarships in Chicago.

“We, the mayor and members of the city council, do hereby congratulate the following students,” she began, before rattling off the list like a pro: rolling her R’s and punching up the vowels in those tricky Latino names.

But this mini-graduation did not stop there. One by one, TWENTY-SEVEN of the city’s aldermen stood up to congratulate each student in their ward–and, more often than not, massacre their names.

Alderman Carrie Austin squinted at her notes. “I know I’m gonna butcher their names,” she muttered. And she did, awkwardly shrugging, “or…sounds something like that.”

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Alderman Carrie Austin is proud of you, whatever your name is.

Finally, after half an hour of speeches…it was time to congratulate MORE students.

“Whereas the Junior Reserve Officer Training Program–” the clerk began.

From the gallery, a protester began screaming. “NO CHECK FOR RENT!” over and over.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel banged his gavel. “Hold on, we’ll start over.”

The man was hauled off and the clerk hit rewind. “Whereas the Junior–”

“NO. CHECK. FOR RENT.” a group of people resumed the chant. One guy began free styling over the chanters: “MONEY FOR SCHOOLS! NOT RICH DEVELOPERS!”

After they were escorted out, the mayor turned to the chamber. “We’re gonna try to do this [resolution] for the kids, but if anyone has another protest, let me know right now.” The aldermen laughed and the city clerk resumed her reading…until for the third time she was forced to stop.

“BACK ROW,” the mayor icily addressed the chatty council members in the rear. “These kids have studied hard. Their parents are here. Their teachers are here. Please just hush your voices.”

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Mayor Rahm Emanuel: “I will murder the next person who talks.”

At blessed last, the clerk finished the resolution. Alderman Austin rose again to speak. “I remember when I was in high school–gosh, that would’ve been a hundred years ago–I wanted to be in the ROTC. One, I wanted the uniform. Two, I wanted to tell people what to do.”

“Well,” cut in Mayor Emanuel, “you’ve mastered one out of two.” The whole chamber erupted in laughter.

An hour of speeches had passed, but, dear reader, don’t think everyone was tired of talking: beloved water commissioner Tom Powers was retiring, which gave all 50 alderman an excuse to slowly eulogize him.

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It’s a war of attrition.

Their remarks included the kind–

(“I’m giving you permission to enjoy yourself!” –Alderman Michelle Harris)

–the creepy–

(“I was the one that he was out seeing at 7:30 on Saturday mornings.” –Alderman Michael Zalewski)

–and the…violent?

(“I would have picked you up by the collar, put you up against the wall, and said you could not go.” –Alderman Pat Dowell)

Luckily, the commissioner took it in stride. “Somebody once told me, you’re gonna miss the circus but you’re not gonna miss the clowns,” he remarked. There was a slow roll of cackling and applause by said clowns. He quickly added, “I am gonna miss all of you.”

Final thoughts: 50 city council members are waaaaay toooooo many. Chicago, I’ll tune in again when you get it below 25.