Step under the mistletoe and get kissed by the FANTASTIC set of council meetings we reviewed in December! The season may have been cheery, but residents of Garner Street certainly were not. Neither were the anti-Interfacility Traffic Area (that’s the last time I will ever type that phrase) activists in Virginia Beach.
When Jennifer Passey became a council member three months ago, she had already witnessed as a citizen the chaos of 2016 when Fairfax’s mayor resigned abruptly. We talked about the reasons for not having a vice mayor as well as the important topic of guns in meetings.
Q: I actually grew up down the street from Fairfax and am HIGHLY familiar with your city. Which means, unfortunately for you, I can play hardball. So get ready to get grilled about the 703. Question numero uno: how’s my dog doing? Is she okay?
A: [Laughs] As far as I know. I haven’t heard anything otherwise.
Q: Oh, thank god. Question numero dos: does Chelsea Licklider still have a crush on me?
A: You know, let me look into that. Isn’t that a good city council answer?!
Q: Yes, very speedy constituent service! Before city council, you were on the planning commission. Was that any less pressure because fewer people were watching?
A: I think the pressure comes from within of wanting to do a good job, for me. It’s a little more public [on council]. Planning commission, it was a little more candid because you knew not a lot of people were watching. People will look at those every once in a while when it was a heated topic.
Q: Being from Virginia, it didn’t come as a surprise to me at your November 7 work session when the city’s lobbyist casually suggested that you join the city of Falls Church in requesting a weapons ban in public buildings from the Virginia legislature. Do you see any harm in tagging along and requesting to keep firearms at least in the parking lot?
A: It’s not an example of something that’s happened where we feel threatened. I’m not really concerned either way. I don’t feel threatened that there are a lot of people that carry guns. But at the same time, you never know what’s happening around the country. We’ve seen it before in city council meetings in other places. I’m torn: I see the issues of infringement, but I’m not sure if I have a full-on stance.
Q: If someone were to carry inside the council meeting and was sitting there politely watching with a gun on their hip, how would that make you feel?
A: I grew up in Minnesota. I don’t want to say people carry guns all the time there, but I guess it depends on whether they come in disgruntled or not.
Q: Would it help to outlaw disgruntlement at city hall instead?
A: Disgruntlement with a weapon!
Q: Well Jennifer, since you’ve only been a council member for three months, we don’t have that much to talk about. So thank you for–HOLD ON, SIT BACK DOWN! Obviously, we need to talk about the hugely controversial Vice Mayor-gate. Last summer, your previous mayor resigned. Fairfax had no vice mayor to take over. What was your take on the problem?
A: Residents and city staff during that time were really angry at [the mayor]. I think a lot of the issue was that city council was figuring out the legalities–from my perception–and we don’t have a spokesperson at city hall. If that’s communicated out, people understand the process. It wouldn’t have looked suspicious or that they were conspiring in the back room with the city attorney.
“I would like to note that our city clerk, Ruth,” Mayor Will Sessoms nodded toward the petite, white-haired woman seated behind stacks of binders, “this will be her last meeting.”
“We love you, we appreciate you, and we will miss you,” he added, leading the entire council in a standing ovation. “Bravo!” someone hollered as Ruth waved politely.
“All right, Ruth,” joked the mayor upon resuming his seat. “Back to work!”
With emphasis on “work”–for not two minutes later, the electronic voting board had a spastic fit and refused to respond to the clerk’s commands.
“It’s not working,” Ruth muttered. “Is everybody aye?”
“Aye,” responded the council in somewhat unison.
“Thank you,” acknowledged Ruth, recording the vote manually. Yikes. With the board on the fritz, can Virginia Beach really afford to lose its clerk now?
But what to my wondering eyes should appear? But old Saint Nicholas–looking very austere.
“Merry Christmas, everybody,” announced a commenter wearing a Santa Claus hat.
“Hi, Santa,” answered council members cheerfully.
“This [item] is about the city manager’s pay, correct?” faux Santa inquired.
“This is extending his contract for the same salary,” corrected Mayor Sessoms.
“I think the city attorney may have a different opinion of that,” Santa gestured to the lawyer, who responded in a quintessentially surgical fashion.
“If you look at the red line, there is an increase. BUT it is an increase that y’all voted on in July. There is no increase in THIS contract,” he clarified.
Santa nodded. “I think these salaries are out of whack with the real world. Go out and look at the free market and see what you can get for a more reasonable amount.”
Methinks the line between Santa and Scrooge is a bit blurry today. The mayor huffed.
“His background at the Army Corps is exceptional and we are thankful for those talents,” he defended the city manager.
But if the man in the Santa hat was miserly with the manager’s pay, he was downright Grinchlike about the controversial–and unceremoniously-named–“Interfacility Traffic Area.”
“I thought I would read you my letter to Santa,” he brandished a red envelope cartoonishly labeled “TO: SANTA, NORTH POLE.”
“Dear Santa: Mom and Dad want to get me a huge ITA for Christmas and I don’t want one! Who wants a bunch of new development, parking garages, a solid waste transfer station, and more debt? Not me, Santa.”
This routine continued for several minutes, with the man addressing Santa Claus in absentia and the audience stone-faced behind him. But remarkably, he planned a phenomenal dismount. He whipped out a wrapped present from his bag and, in mock surprise, opened it theatrically:
Subsequent public commenters were far less operatic, but no less angry about this big, bad ITA. After Council Member Barbara Henley (her name plate read “Council Lady”) pointedly questioned a critic, a diminutive woman stepped to the lectern in disgust.
“Your horns are showing!” she scolded.
Council Member Henley balked. “I’ve listened to so much misinformation, I’m about to explode.”
“Oh, please do! We would enjoy something different for a change,” the woman retorted to further antagonize Henley.
After listening politely, Henley addressed the bloc of opponents in the audience.
“I apologize if I appeared to lose my cool, but I just couldn’t stand another minute. The ITA is not a creation of the city. The Navy was very concerned that there be no more houses in that high-noise zone,” she calmly explained.
“The city became the owner of a lot of those properties by willing sellers asking the city to buy. This plan is NOT saying we should begin development. On these sensitive areas, we should come up with uses…trails. Baseball parks.”
When Henley concluded, the mayor leaned forward. He glanced over at Ruth again. “Would you like to say anything?”
She rose. “Thirty-nine years, one-and-a-half months. You’ve been very gracious. And I’ve been very dedicated. I thank you.”
Longtime readers may remember that earlier this year, I reviewed a Richmond, Virginia council meeting and discovered something highly unorthodox: a city council host who did pregame and postgame commentary.
The man is Dick Harman. He has anchored the Richmond council meetings for nearly 30 years (one year down, 29 more to go for me, by the way). Nowhere else have I seen a city council with its own Dick Harman, which came as genuine news to freshman Councilwoman Kristen Larson, who I interviewed on the podcast after her very first meeting in January.
Fast forward to this week. The Richmond city council surprised Dick Harman by naming the media gallery in the council chamber after him!
But it was in Councilwoman Larson’s comments that she recalled her initial realization that a city council host was special and unique to Richmond, and then proceeded to call Dick Harman “special and unique” to Richmond:
Thank you for the shout-out and congratulations to Dick Harman! He is, of course, welcome to come on the podcast anytime and tell me where the skeletons are buried. And other city councils are highly advised to recruit their own council commentators during this Golden Age of Live Streamed Council Meetings in which we are living.
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:
Benny Zhang graduated from the College of William & Mary last year–then started as a city council member one month later! We talk about his unique first meeting and his pre-council meeting ritual.
Q: Your swearing-in meeting happened a little differently than those of most city council members. You’re packed into the old courthouse and the town crier yells, “god save the king!” What did you think of that?
A: Being a history buff, I think that was entirely cool. Being the first Asian-American elected to that office, I felt a little bit out of place given where my heritage came from.
Q: Being in Williamsburg for college for four years and walking through Colonial Williamsburg, did that make you feel out of place? Or was it just this moment where you thought, “this is too much pageantry for me?”
A: I think it was just that incident. You also have to see the picture: there is a golden mace [and] the reenactor talks about how, in certain southern states, that mace signifies that there’s a session for the government. But also they’d use it as a drinking cup! I was very tempted to drink from that mace with some beer.
Q: You got onto the city council one month after graduating from William & Mary. Were you concerned that becoming a city council member so soon would impact your chances of moving back to your parents’ basement?
A: [Laughs] Not necessarily. My family invested in a home in Williamsburg, which gave me the ability to campaign as, “I am a Williamsburg resident who pays local taxes, receives city services, who also HAPPENS to be a William & Mary student.” I guess technically in this house, I am living in my parents’ basement–
Q: Is that where you’re talking to me from?
A: Yeah, we’re talking from my home base!
Q: I love how millennial-centric this podcast will be!
Do you wish more students would show up at council meetings to rebut the complaints of residents?
A: Sure. Students comprise 43 percent of the city’s population. In public comment, it might seem totally one-sided. But not everyone that you wish was in the room are in the room.
Q: Was there any expectation that you would be the “students’ representative” on the council?
A: For me, definitely. I am that resident in Williamsburg and since I can empathize with other residents, I think they see me as more of a young professional.
Q: Have any of your friends who see you now in council meetings said, “Councilman Benny Zhang is different from the Benny Zhang we knew?”
A: Yeah, I think there is a degree of awe there. I will say, I have not changed my wallpaper on my iPhone–“never forget where you came from.” I’m just the same guy on that dais. I’m a little more serious because I have to. I got involved in city council [by] sitting in on meetings. I would go up the dais and say hi and bye to them. What I do now is I always arrive 30 minutes before a city council meeting and I go up to the audience before the meeting starts and try to shake everyone’s hand. That’s an interaction I wish I had when I was sitting in on council meetings.
This week, we air the newest episode of the “Best Thing, Worst Thing” project featuring a big-name city: Richmond, Virginia. I talked with many different residents about their favorite and least favorite things about Virginia’s capital. Many brought up the city’s ties to the Confederacy and the legacy of segregation. Others talked about the extensive collection of neighborhoods. You’ll come with me to a rally with the mayor, stroll along an island, and visit the pew where Jefferson Davis sat in church.
For an explanation of the project, check out the page here. If you are ready to learn which historical figure had turkey quills shoved up his nose, head to the City Council Chronicles podcast to download the latest episode. Or you can play it below.
Richmond is a city of 220,000 people and the capital of Virginia. It was also the capital of the Confederacy and that legacy still lingers. The James River provides recreational opportunities and the Amtrak station provides a connection to Washington, D.C. and beyond. During our visit, we stand in the middle of the water, attend a rally with the mayor, and visit a restaurant that will be gone in a year. We hear from a real estate agent, some college students, a teacher, a tour guide, people who have moved away and returned, and two political watchdogs.