This week, we take a listen back to some of the spiciest, most compelling, and most art-filled interview segments in the past several months. If you have a friend who you’ve been dying to introduce to the magic of city council meetings, sit ’em down and have them listen to this!
This past year, I had an AMAZING experience. I visited 12 cities and towns across North America for the “Best Thing, Worst Thing” project. The idea was simple: see as much of the city as I could, talk to as many people as I could, and ask them all the same two questions.
What is the best thing about this place?
What is the worst thing about this place?
Answering those questions can be surprisingly difficult, but it was important for me to hear about individuals’ values and experiences with their communities. I learned that a small city in conservative western Kansas thinks of itself as “progressive.” I learned that diversity in Toronto is much heralded, but also has a dark side. And I was present for a medical emergency in the desert outside Las Cruces, New Mexico.
The goal was to find out what cities are doing well to make their communities livable for residents. Then, to find out what people want that their cities aren’t providing now.
You can listen to all 12 episodes on the project page. And this week, I bring you the highlights in a special audio episode about the best of the “Best Thing, Worst Thing.” This “best of” is available on iTunes, Stitcher, Player FM and right here:
If you liked what you heard, please give the podcast a five-star rating on iTunes and like our Facebook page. There are other big projects in the works, so keep checking back!
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:
Marian Orr is the new mayor of Cheyenne and from what I can tell, she learned how to run an efficient council meeting in practically no time. She shares her secret study tool with us and also reveals the one physiological liability that she has to keep in check. If you enjoy procedures, you’ll love this!
Q: You don’t preside over a city council–you preside over a “governing body.” Why is Cheyenne TOO GOOD for a city council?!
A: We have a strong mayor form of government. When council meets during their Committee of the Whole, THAT is a city council meeting. But when they add me, it becomes a meeting of the governing body.
Q: I’ve heard you are an honest poker player, which is generally not a good thing in poker! Would you say that being a bad poker player is a disadvantage to running a governing body meeting?
A: I don’t have much of a poker face and I don’t know if that serves me well. People really know what it is I’m thinking and–I’ve always had this since being a kid–when things get heated, so does my neck. Even staff can tell when I’m a little on edge because my neck gets really red.
Q: That’s your tell!
A: I have a tell.
Q: Do the other councilors know about this or is it something you’ve kept with your close friends?
A: I believe it is so obvious that if they haven’t paid attention, they must be sleeping.
Q: How did you prepare for running a meeting before you were sworn in?
A: I spent about half a day with our city clerk who is the queen of Robert’s Rues of Order. She was kind enough–people probably don’t know this, so I’m giving the secret away–she wrote a script for me that I was able to pretty closely read from. I’d say it took the first two months to feel like I can run a meeting without a cheat sheet.
Q: I will be filing a Freedom of Information Act request to get that script, so prepare yourself. Did she give you stage directions, like, “say this (inquisitively) or say this (angrily)?”
A: Boy, I think that now she regrets not putting in stage directions! It was, “if this happens, say this.” She would leave a blank as far as “Mr. _______” and I could write in “Johnson” made the motion. But, oh! There were colors. If a motion passes, it was green. If a motion fails, she would have it in red. It was very helpful.
Q: You have begun to crack down on people who don’t ask or answer questions by first saying “through the mayor.” Why do they need to do that?
A: We have had some meetings where city council has had multiple questions of staff. I believe it’s a better way to keep hold of the meetings. [Staff] feel they are being “put upon the stand” for questioning and it is a way to slow down and temper some of the discussion.
Q: Some councilors have seemed resentful when you reminded them of this rule. Did you perceive that?
A: I did feel that. There is heated debate and we end up leaving the dais shaking hands. Individually, I’ve got a great rapport with every member of council.
It was a sleepy Tuesday evening at Laramie City Hall. Frankly, hibernating bears see more action than we did at this council meeting.
The audience was pared down to Laramie’s hale and hearty: the man scrolling on his phone in a camouflage jacket (this is Wyoming), the guy wearing a dress shirt and stylish vest (this is…Wyoming?), and the cub scout fidgeting next to his mom in the back row.
“I move to approve ordinance 1961–is that the correct item?” Councilor Vicki Henry inquired, glancing over at the mayor for a supportive nod.
A city employee ambled to the podium and shuffled his papers. “Honorable mayor and city council, this is mostly to correct typographical errors and other small errors we found in the code,” he explained.
Typos! That explains why Laramie has no dog park, but lots of dog pork (which, honestly, the dogs enjoy more).
But one hawk-eyed councilor noticed something potentially disturbing in this so-called typo ordinance.
“I love my bicycle. I have a very nice bicycle. I paid a lot for it,” Councilor Bryan Shuster narrowed his eyes. “I see here a bicycle parking requirement shall apply to all uses except single family detached or duplex. So if somebody builds a fourplex, they have to put in bicycle racks?”
“Honorable mayor and Councilor Shuster, that is correct,” acknowledged the employee. That was apparently music to Shuster’s ears. He leaned back and nodded, dreaming of his two-wheeled companion.
But now it was Councilor Henry’s turn to pick a bone.
“If I can find it,” she muttered, searching her packet. “It was something about the outdoor storage and the fences and the things that you’re storing cannot exceed the height of the fence?”
“Honorable mayor and Councilor Henry,” the staffer robotically prefaced again, “it’s actually item B on page 9–”
He drew his pen across the page. “Wait a second. Nope that’s not it.” He paused but kept his composure. “Oh, yeah, it’s the very last sentence….”
He trailed off. “Let’s see,” he scanned his papers as the council waited with folded arms.
“The very first line,” jumped in Councilor Henry, “says ‘each outdoor storage area shall be screened from view’–oh, that’s not the one. Sorry.”
Confusion reigned. Tensions flared. The cub scout yawned.
“It’s B!” hissed multiple councilors, referring to the slippery section B that was the focus of Henry’s white-hot rage.
She locked onto her target. “It says ‘materials may not be stored higher than the height of the primary structure.'”
But without warning, Councilor Shuster body-slammed her interpretation. “In my mind the way it’s stated–it says we have a maximum height on the fence but we don’t have a maximum height on the structure.”
“Well, I know of SEVERAL places where the things that are being stored are higher than the primary structure,” shot back Henry. “And I would love to see this enforced.”
There were uneasy glances. Mayor Andi Summerville shifted, then pressed on with the meeting. Shuster again raised his hand to get her attention.
“Mayor? Please announce that the ribbon cutting for the Harney Street overpass has been canceled.” He paused for suspense. “Because they’re afraid of losing people to the wind.”
With that, everyone chuckled and relaxed. The cub scout yawned.
What’s this? Another installment of the semi-regular “Best Thing, Worst Thing” podcast series? Why, I do believe it is! For an explanation of the project, check out the page here. If you like storytelling and municipal lore, I think you’ll enjoy what the cat dragged in.
If you’ve got the kids already gathered around the fireplace, head over to the City Council Chronicles podcast and download the latest episode. Or you can play it below.
Episode 2: Cheyenne, Wyoming
Photo source: Greater Cheyenne Chamber of Commerce
Cheyenne is the capital of Wyoming, population 63,000. It is located in the southeast corner of the state just eight miles from the Colorado border. It exists thanks to the builders of the Transcontinental Railroad. Downtown is fairly compact, with the capitol building at the north end and the historic train station at the south. Government buildings are prevalent and some of the historic homes are quite nice. Although it is the largest city in Wyoming, the population has risen slowly and steadily. In this episode, we hear from a business owner, a firearms instructor, two Chamber of Commerce employees, and a former mayoral candidate.
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!
Wyoming may be the Wild West, but this week’s Riverton city council meeting was anything but rowdy. It was downright calm. Sedate.
Even–as you’ll see–sad.
There was a glimmer of drama at the top of the hour, as some dum-dum booked the city council meeting AND the Finance Committee meeting for the same time. Great, now everyone has to wait on some loooooong, booooooring committee. Grab a pillow!
“I would move for claims to be paid in the amount of $189,402.59,” Council Member Martin Cannan began.
“I’ll second it,” responded Council Member Holly Jibben–coincidentally the second and only other person on the Finance Committee. “All in favor say aye.”
Two ayes–one bass, one soprano. “Meeting adjourned,” Council Member Jibben leaned back as the meeting fizzled after 55 seconds.
The camera zoomed out to reveal Mayor John “Lars” Baker with shirt sleeves rolled up. He tapped his pen impatiently as the first public commenter approached–a man with a bushy mustache and a shirt as red as the Wyoming sunset.
“My wife and I, we have a, uh,” the man started, suddenly bracing himself against the podium, his voice cracking. “Excuse me…two-year-old German Shepherd. My wife caught the dog eating a piece of tar paper in our backyard. There’s tar paper, fiber glass insulation, home insulation” from a nearby construction project.
“May 3, our dog had a seizure. Up to this date he’s had nine seizures.” The man clutched his mouth and fought back tears.
“They’ve got all kinds of stuff stacked–it gets shredded in the wind and blows right into our yard. I would hope something can be done. We had to put a dog down two years ago,” he broke down once more at the memory, “and I don’t wanna do it again.”
Mayor Baker uncomfortably attempted to play grief counselor. “Well, this has certainly been quite an ordeal for you,” he winced.
A staff member jumped in: “We do quite often talk to [construction crews] about a lot of that. But obviously we need to do it more,” she looked into the citizen’s tearful eyes sympathetically.
“We’ll keep plugging away,” the mayor mumbled, staring blankly at the man with the sick dog. “Okay? Thank you.”
His Honor didn’t exactly radiate empathy. But here’s the thing: Mayor Baker does not show any emotion. Calling him “low energy” vastly exaggerates the amount of energy he has. The man could put a case of Red Bull to sleep.
Look no further than his reaction to news that the airport just added a flight. “We need to encourage people to use the airport,” the city administrator cheerfully explained. “Many of us attended the ribbon cutting ceremony. I think we put five passengers on there and they all felt like celebrities!”
Terrific story, yes, your honor?
“We’re excited about this airplane and, uh…boy, I just hope that people will fly,” the mayor sighed, sounding neither excited nor hopeful. “If people respond to that and fly Riverton, we will be in the airline business again.” I cannot convey how truly funereal Riverton’s mayor sounded. Except to tell you–I’m not exaggerating–that he barely paused before adding:
“The other thing today…we had a funeral for Dianne Tippets.”