Interview #43: Martinsville, VA Council Member Jennifer Bowles (with podcast)

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

Jennifer Bowles was 25 years old when she was simultaneously sworn in to the city council AND selected as vice mayor. But more impressively, she and I went to the same university! You’d better believe we talked about that.

Q: Let’s see what University of Virginia traditions you have taken part in. Have you been inside the steam tunnels?

A: Yes, but I don’t actually remember. [Laughs] I was with friends!

Q: Uh…is it fair to say there was some partying beforehand?

A: Yes, there was.

Q: Mmm, okay. Have you run naked across the Lawn?

A: I have not.

Q: You would remember if you did THAT, right?

A: I’d have recalled!

Q: Have you broken into the janitor’s closet in the Rotunda and drank from the human skull inside?

A: No.

Q: Okay. I made that one up, but it sounds like it could be a real tradition! Now, in 2015 you had been on the city council for one month, you had been the vice mayor for one month–but in February, Mayor Danny Turner let you run a city council meeting! What is the trick to running a meeting?

A: A lot of people told me to just take my time. They jokingly said, “the lawyer would help you out with Robert’s Rules!”

Q: It helped that the actual mayor was sitting next to you the entire time.

A: Yeah and I will say, another member of council had previously been the mayor and he was to the left of me. And the mayor was to the right. So I had two individuals who had run the meeting before to help me out.

Q: Oh, my god. You were swimming in mayors! Can you think of anything strange or unusual that’s happened in your city council meetings since you’ve been there?

Martinsville, VA Council Member Jennifer Bowles

A: The biggest thing is the mayor has removed someone from a council meeting–and they’re now a city council member.

Q: Let’s talk about that removal. In 2015, Chad Martin–who is now your vice mayor–asked the mayor for an apology in public comment. The mayor turned him down and someone with Mr. Martin yelled out “pathetic” and “moron.” What was all that about?

A: So there was an issue about how a mural should have been designed. The mural was on a predominantly African-American side of town. Mr. Martin wanted the mural to be by an African-American artist. There was a meeting between myself, the mayor, the city manager [and Martin]. After that conversation, there was some things said between the mayor and Mr. Martin that I’d rather not repeat. I don’t get frustrated. I’m willing to talk to anyone.

Q: Is it true that you stopped televising your council meetings for a while?

A: We stopped televising [public comment] because maybe people were nervous to be on the television who wouldn’t speak up because they knew they would be on TV. So we tried to make it more friendly to those individuals.

Q: So people stopped showing up?

A: Yes. There were some people who never showed up again.

Q: In my mind, those people were showing up because they WANTED to be on TV and get their message out there. 

A: That would be my assumption. They were expressing an opinion so everyone could be informed.

Follow Council Member Jennifer Bowles on Twitter: @ViceMayorBowles


Interview #42: Danville, VA Councilman Lee Vogler (with podcast)

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

Lee Vogler is the youngest councilman elected in Danville. We talk about his emphatic former mayor, what things are really like behind the cameras, and about one distressing council meeting in which he voted to take down a Confederate flag on city property.

Q: Your city council has been on my radar since last year. What stood out to me was Mayor Sherman Saunders reading a proclamation for the Goodyear plant and really emphasizing the word “DANVILLE.”

A: He loves Danville. He loves to make sure there is no question about where he’s talking about!

Q: You are the youngest councilman in Danville. In the council meetings, do you have to explain to the older councilmen certain concepts like “twerking” and “selfies” and “Ariana Grande?”

A: Believe it or not, we’ve got a pretty cool city council. Our current mayor, John Gilstrap–there’s actually a video of him twerking on YouTube if you care to find it–

Q: I do not wish to see THAT, sir! (I’m kidding, I’ll look it up after we’re done.) There is a blog called SouthsideCentral and they released a report card that gave everyone on your city council a grade. It said of Mayor Saunders, “I don’t like the way he tries to keep all the real debate on the issues in the work sessions,” which are off camera. How accurate is this statement?

A: I don’t know if it’s so much a [matter of] cameras being on or off. It’s not more heated or anything in that sense. But it’s a little more informal. We’re all pretty comfortable around one another and we can say what we really feel about things and not offend anyone. These work sessions, they’re not behind closed doors. I’m on Facebook and Twitter and I’m pretty much an open book with how I feel. We’ve had some issues where, in the televised meetings, there’s been back and forth.

Q: If you had to name the one issue that really shook things up in Danville, what would that be?

Danville, VA Councilman Lee Vogler

A: I hesitate to even bring this one up because it wasn’t an issue that stirred up local people as much as it was people from outside of Danville. But when the Confederate flag issue was going on, the chambers were packed.

Q: Yeah. Basically, the city owns the history museum and there was a Confederate flag on the pole. And the question was, should the city allow this? At the August 6, 2015 council meeting, every seat is filled. Some people are waving Confederate flags. Some have Confederate flag ties or t-shirts or patches. How did you feel looking out at that?

A: It was a surreal meeting. What you saw was a fraction of the people there. There was probably another hundred outside.

Q: Almost all of the arguments I heard from the pro-flag people were things such as, “it’s our heritage,” “get over it,” “if you get offended by a flag, you are inadequate,” etc. Frankly, a lot of what was said disturbed me. What kind of threats did you get?

A: There were folks who came by [my workplace] and said, “you need to think long and hard about how you vote on this.” I ran for reelection after that vote and I ended up being the top vote-getter. People have moved on.

Follow Councilman Lee Vogler on Twitter: @LeeVogler

Interview #31: Richmond, VA Councilwoman Kristen Nye Larson (with podcast)

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

We’re doing something different this week: on January 9, four new members of the Richmond, Virginia city council had their first meeting. One of them, Kristen Nye Larson, joined me right before the meeting AND the day afterward to bask in the fresh-council-meeting glow!

January 9, three hours before the meeting

Q: Does it feel like it’s the first day of school?

A: [Laughs] There’s definitely a little anticipation. We have an informal meeting at 4:00 and a formal meeting at 6:00.

Q: Are you worried that the older council members might say to you new people, “just follow our lead. You just got here. We know what we’re doing. Don’t try to rock the boat.”

A: They all seem really receptive. We’ll see how it actually goes. But you’re right. There are a lot of issues out there that we’re [the new council members] definitely going to come in the middle [of].

Q: Mmhmm.

A: We have four new council members. We have a new mayor. And on the school board, which I just rolled off of, there are eight new members out of the nine.

Q: Wow! You’ve been on the school board for four years, so you’ve got procedure down. Do you feel like there ain’t nothing getting past you in there?

A: The thing that is different about the council meetings is that they are televised live. That will be a bit of an adjustment. School board was taped and it would be showed a couple of days later. You definitely have to be conscious of how you look on camera. If somebody says something that you might think is unusual, you don’t need to show “unusual” on your face. You just need to show, “hey, that’s an interesting idea.”

Q: [Laughs] It’s like being at the State of the Union when they cut away to Congress. And if you’re caught falling asleep, your face will be on the Internet! Now, the meeting is at six, which is an awkward time. You’ve got the classic question: do I eat an early dinner, a late dinner, or do I have my food in the meeting and make everyone hate me?

A: Since we have this 4:00 informal meeting, council members have time to eat in between the informal and formal meeting. They sent around a menu–they bring food in for us. I think it’s, like, chicken and vegetables. I’ll take a picture for you.

Q: Please do!

Richmond, VA Councilwoman Kristen Nye Larson

January 10, 18 hours after the meeting

Q: How did it go?

A: It was short. I feel like the next meeting will be a little more robust. This is something that’s interesting: I was on school board and we sat in numeric order [by district]. But with city council, they get to choose their seats. So there was a whole seating chart that went around and phone calls, like, “what seat do you want?” I didn’t know it was such a big deal.

Q: When people were calling around asking for seats, do you know if anyone said, “I’d like to sit next to Kristen Larson!”

A: I have no idea if anybody requested to sit next to me!

Q: During your first-ever comments at the council meeting, you gave out your cell phone number on live TV. That was a bold move! How many hundreds of calls have you gotten since last night?

A: [Laughs] None! At least in Richmond, I think that’s an expectation [that you give out your number]. I think people feel empowered if they just have your number.

Q: One loose end from yesterday is that you guys had dinner delivered. And you thought it would be chicken and vegetables. You texted me a picture:

Photo source: Kristen Nye Larson

A: It was hot! And we had time to sit down and eat it. I know not every night is going to be like that!

Follow Councilwoman Kristen Nye Larson on Twitter: @kristenRVA

#79: Richmond, VA 1/9/17

When I tune in to a city council meeting, I’m expecting to see a dais, a half dozen fuzzy faces, and an oversize seal of the city staring at me.

What I’m not expecting is a TV host.

“Annnnnd this is Gavel to Gavel. I’m Dick Harman. Well, new year, new mayor, four new members on city council,” boomed a silver-maned announcer holding an old-school microphone that he may have bought secondhand off The Match Game.

With the conviction of a Super Bowl pregame commentator, Harman rattled off the stats about who was sitting next to whom on the council. (And coincidentally, I finally realized what my dream job is.)

“Boy, have there been some changes! So let’s get started,” he barked before reading off all 20 agenda items for my enlightenment.

“That’s the way it stands tonight. The new council is officially here. I’m Dick Harman–stay tuned!”

Me in 40…er, 50 years.

The new council was seated, eager, and ready to pounce on the People’s Business. But the real star of the evening was city clerk Jean Capel, who fluttered around her desk in a whirlwind of papers and binder clips, speaking like an auctioneer on stock show day.

“I need a motion for expedited consideration of that paper–Ms. Gray will you make that motion?”

“So moved!” Councilwoman Kimberly Gray jumped in without missing a beat.

“And Ms. Robertson, will you second that? Council is voting on expedited consideration of that resolution as read. Mr. Jones?” The clerk tore through the roll call, dispatching with this item in just under 40 seconds.

The Situation Room

Everything was running quickly and smoothly. But when Councilman Parker Agelasto politely requested that the city attorney share his opinion on controversial bonuses given by Richmond’s outgoing mayor, Councilwoman Reva Trammell poured some gas and lit a match.

“I guess he was sitting in his office with his feet propped up on his desk, smoking a cigar!” she ripped into the mayor. “Because he KNEW he was not going to run again and he KNEW he was probably going to give those four people–he was already thinking how was he going to reward them?”

The councilwoman pulled out the flamethrower and turned it to 11. “Mr. Ex-Mayor in my opinion did not have the right to do this. How can we stop this? The taxpayers are mad as hell!”


Councilman Agelasto swiveled in his seat and hesitated. “All that we’re trying to accomplish right now is to have the city attorney provide the legal opinion pertaining to the bonuses so that we can fix it.”

Council President Chris Hilbert gazed out at the room and issued a warning. “While I think we can all agree that this was unfortunate from a practical standpoint,” he drawled slowly, “we all took an oath last week to uphold the law.”

It wasn’t quite the torches-and-pitchforks response that Trammell was hoping for. But luckily, the meeting ended on a high note as the camera turned to a friendly face.

“Annnnnnd that is it for the night,” our distinguished TV host announced. “Don’t forget, two meetings a month from now till June. For Gavel to Gavel, I’m Dick Harman. Goodnight.”

Final thoughts: It was hard to pick the best part of this mee–I’m kidding, it was totally the host. A solid 10 out of 10 stars to him. I’m so jealous.

Interview #28: Alexandria, VA Councilman John Taylor Chapman (with podcast)

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

John Taylor Chapman is a city councilman in Alexandria–not, as I initially thought, the former child star on Home Improvement. We talked about how he learned to tie a bow tie, the thing that bugs him the most about council meetings, and about a controversial city council meeting in 2016. (You will want to listen to the whole episode because we get pretty in-depth about that incident.)

Q: How did you first learn to tie a bow tie?

A: I hate to say it, but I think it took me about 25 minutes of watching YouTube videos after I bought my first bow tie. I was determined to wear it that day and tie it myself.

Q: There’s no shame in going to YouTube for advice! Forty years from now, we won’t even have parents. Kids will be raised by a series of memes and cat videos.

A: [Laughs] That’s probably true!

Q: Let me run a couple scenarios by you. Say you’re going to a city council meeting and there’s going to be a big hearing about downtown redevelopment. What bow tie do you wear for that?

A: Most likely–I have three different red bow ties. One is a plain, solid red one. That’s my go-to. Then I have one that has polka dots and one that has stripes.

Q: Let’s say that an asteroid has hit Alexandria. The mayor and the other council members are dead. You have to carry on the work of the city council. Oh, and everyone else is a zombie. What bow tie do you wear?

A: I used to have a bow tie with the seal of the city. If that were the case, I would summon my powers to get that one.

Q: Recently, someone in the audience had this to say about you at a council meeting:

Public commenter: Why don’t y’all [council members] get out and see what people are complaining about? Chapman, he come. We went to Goat Hill. And he took care of [the problem].

When someone at a city council meeting calls you out for doing a good job, how important is that to you?

Alexandria, VA Councilman John Taylor Chapman

A: Honestly, I think it’s one of the best feelings that someone on city council can have, whenever you are recognized for work that you’re doing. Especially when it’s not passive work. Getting down and working directly with folks is what I think our job is all about.

Q: What kind of behavior do you see at city council meetings that frustrates you?

A: I know I suffer from this from time to time: we have folks who like to talk. I think stories are good to follow up with points, but I think there can be a point where there’s too much storytelling and not enough direct decision making.

Q: When you hear the mayor say [at a contentious city council meeting] that you should be able to criticize staff in public, what do you think of that?

A: I…I think it brings on a very bad vibe. It leaves your staff feeling dejected because you’ve gone out of your way to embarrass them in public. We’re supposed to be one team. I don’t think we get quality staff–and keep quality staff–if we take on a culture where we are belittling them in public.

Follow Councilman John Taylor Chapman on Twitter: @j_chapman99

Month in Review: August 2016

During this Labor Day weekend, it’s a good time to remember all of the people who labor hard every week at city council meetings for hours and hours–or, sometimes, for 19 minutes. Catch up on where City Council Chronicles visited in the month of August.

P.S. If you didn’t see our appearance in last week’s Baltimore Sun, don’t worry–my intern spends 23 hours every day reading each newspaper in the country to see who mentions The Chronicles. And he finally found one!

Interview #10: Hampton, VA City Council Clerk Katherine Glass

Hampton’s city council clerk had some FUN stories, so let’s get to it! Katherine Glass told me about how to get the key to the city and the time she almost clotheslined President Obama.

Q: You’ve got a city council meeting in 48 hours–what was today like for you?

A: The mayor popped in and saw a group that does youth sports. He suggested that they come to a council meeting, but we already have three groups coming to be recognized. And two more got added. So I’ve got to figure out how we accommodate five groups and make everybody feel welcome, but we still get the business of the city done.

Q: Yeah, I don’t envy you.

A: My workflow is one week I’m getting ready for a meeting–or I’m having a meeting. We’re highly automated. I think Hampton was the second city in the country to go to iPad technology for meetings.

Q: You’re a trendsetter!

A: It came from [former] Mayor Molly Ward. She worked for the Obama administration for a while. I got to go and have lunch at the White House. Like, in the West Wing dining room! Very, very cool.

Q: Did you meet the president?

A: I wouldn’t say MEET him…we almost collided with him.

Q: You gotta tell me what happened.

A: I had just asked Molly, “do you pass Obama in the hall?” She goes, “not really.” I swear to you, not five minutes later, Molly was leading the way, [former city attorney] Cynthia [Hudson] was behind me, and I see all these men in black. And by the time I look back, Cynthia is at the intersection and he [Obama] just about runs into her.

Q: Oh, no.

A: And he says, “Hello!” She goes “Hello!” I was like, “that’s the flipping President of the United States! I could reach out and touch him!”

Hampton, VA city council clerk Katherine Glass

Q: When you look at this city council, do you see any future White House officials? Congresspeople? A president?

A: Not in this group. I think they’re serving out of a love to the city. You’ve got two retirees…Teresa Schmidt is actually a preschool administrator…Billy Hobbs runs an automotive dealership. Everybody knows Billy. He’s just your average guy.

Q: So how do you describe your job?

A: Departments compile their information. They get it to me. I make sure it looks right and I put it in a packet. The packet goes out to council on Friday, so they have a good five days to review everything. My job while I’m at the meeting is to record their votes. I make sure the mayor signs all the new laws. I’m the funnel.

Q: “The funnel,” nice.

A: It’s an interesting job. You get calls from weird reporters that are like, “hey, I’m gonna watch your meeting.”

Q: Ugh, I hate those people.

A : Have you ever heard of Mark Malkoff?

Q: Nope.

A: He called with a bizarre request. He asked me, “what do you have to do to get the key to the city?” I’m like, I don’t know that we really have a key to the city! His thing was to do a road trip across the country and see how many keys to the city he could collect.

Q: Katherine. How does City Council Chronicles get a key to the city?

A: Something terribly creative.

Q: What about…I review your city council meeting and you mention City Council Chronicles DURING the meeting?

A: I can ask the mayor…I’ll see if Donnie can do that in his mayor’s comments.


Shout-out #2: Hampton, VA

Way back in July, the mayor of London, Ohio mentioned City Council Chronicles at an actual city council meeting, calling it “pretty interesting.” That was one of the proudest moments in my life as a journalist–second only to the moment when I started calling myself a journalist.

I then named London a “Friend of the Chronicles” and encouraged everyone to visit such attractions as Los Mariachis restaurant and the Rib and Jazz Fest.

Well, imagine my surprise when, during the final 30 seconds of last week’s Hampton, Virginia city council meeting, I watched Mayor Donnie Tuck say this:

Mayor: There’s one last mention I’d like to make–and I apologize for missing this earlier–and that is of a young man who visited Hampton earlier this week. His name is Michael Karlik of the And he was visiting Hampton and learning more about our city council meeting’s work–how they work. And I understand he’s watching us online tonight during our live stream and so welcome, Michael.


Well, knock me down with a dandelion! Out of ALL of the websites out there dedicated to reviewing city council meetings, the mayor chose to mention ours!

I wish I had something to give His Honor in return. Unfortunately, all of my gold medals are tied down in Rio, so what I have left in the warehouse is this priceless mug:


With this shout-out, I am officially naming Hampton, Virginia a “Friend of the Chronicles,” which gives them the right to take the lunch money of any smaller, nerdier city. Also, I would encourage readers that the next time you visit Hampton, find Mayor Tuck and buy him a pint at the local St. George Brewing Company. And after you get nice and buzzed on Imperial Stout, remember to stand up on a bar stool and scream at the top of your lungs, “YOU’VE BEEN CHRONICLED!”

P.S. Check back on Monday to see how this shout-out came to be!

#42: Hampton, VA 8/10/16

Major–MAJOR–bombshell at the Hampton city council meeting.

“Before we begin, I’d like to deviate from our normal agenda,” Mayor Donnie Tuck abruptly announced. “Vice Mayor, would you please read?”

“A motion to deviate from the order of business to evaluate the benefits of moving the public comment,” read Vice Mayor Linda Curtis from her notes.

Move the public comment? To where, North Carolina?! Please explain, Your Honor!

“We’ve looked at how we’ve done our public comment section in the past. There’s been a time when it was before the meeting started, then it was moved to the end of the meeting.” The mayor folded his hands.

“What we’ve decided to do was to move it to a point in our meeting where we have our public hearings–following THAT we will have public comments.”

This is madness. Insanity. I’ve never felt more scared…AND MORE ALIVE.

Mayor Tuck is SO BUZZED from moving the public comment.

Now the fun part: “Would the representatives of the Bay River Rumble 12-and-Under Grey Softball Team please come forward?” the mayor asked as the young athletes marched down the aisle.

“These ladies recently returned from Buffalo, where they won the NSA World Series Championship for girls fast-pitch softball.” He grinned from ear to ear. “We have some backpacks for you.”

After passing out the souvenirs, the mayor again broke into a smile so contagious that Olympic athletes aren’t allowed near it. “I hope my fellow council members will pardon my exuberance but I invited another group to come down”–a summer camp for English language learners.

“We had a wonderful time,” the camp’s director told the council, surrounded by her campers. “Mayor Tuck, I just want to thank you again for inviting us–” she looked to the dais, but His Honor was already sneaking up behind her. “Here you are!” she laughed as he ambushed them with more gift bags.

Watch out! He’s behind you! BEHIND YOU!

Finally, time for high-risk, high-reward: public comment…IN THE MIDDLE.

Guinea pig #1 was an older man who slid on his glasses and opened a red folder. “I wanna congratulate Mayor Tuck on his sex–successful election,” the commenter complimented the new mayor–and the mayor’s wife, apparently.

He took aim at, surprisingly, the public comment period itself. “I feel speakers should be heard at the beginning of the meeting. Also, they should be allowed five minutes to speak because at times you have got more to say and three minutes is not enough.” Ironically, this was not one of those times–he finished in well under three minutes.

Next up was a beefy guy who skipped congratulating the mayor for his sex and went for the jugular. “I’m in agreement with the public comments back to the beginning and I’ll tell you why. You got families with kids, you got elderly people, and you have handicapped people. To put them through two or three hours to save them for the end is just wrong. It’s ‘we the people,’ not ‘we the Hampton city council.'”

(It’s true. I’ve read the Constitution and nowhere does it mention the Hampton city council.)


This Sage of Southeast Virginia left the council with a final deep thought: “the bricks out front, you need to regrout ’em.”

Final thoughts: I give 10 out of 10 stars to anybody who pays attention to the grout at their city hall.