Good times: the City Council Chronicles
He had me at “flaming barrel.” Not long ago, the mayor of London, Ohio, stood before his city council, educating the village elders on important matters: the city’s new website, the drug sweep last week, the Fourth of July celebration. He looked down at his notes and paused dramatically.
“Now, time for the fun fact. I was able to light a 55-gallon metal barrel on fire in the middle of downtown, which was awesome.”
My life is now full of moments like these. For the past several months, I have been writing the City Council Chronicles, a project with a mind-numbingly simple premise: I watch random city council meetings from across the country. And I write reviews of them. For fun. So far, I have chronicled 44 cities in 33 states. From the heavy hitters — Los Angeles, Seattle, Phoenix — to the more rustic, like Troup, Texas (population 1,904).
Some meetings are in grandly adorned chambers, while others look like they are renting out a conference room at the Days Inn.
Some city councils use hi-def cameras with slick AV systems and crystal-clear audio. Other councils appear to record their meetings on my dad’s old 1993 Sony camcorder, making it agonizing to tell which fuzzy peach face is which.
And at some meetings, dozens of eager citizens sit in to see the democratic process unfold. For others, council members talk to rows of empty chairs.
Well, empty chairs and me, watching from afar.
Why exactly do I spend my time viewing city council meetings in places I don’t live? Great question, Mom.
For starters, no two are alike. Each council has a different mix of personalities and plot lines. Imagine a TV show with totally different characters for each episode. (Luckily, I don’t have attachment issues.)
Second, I don’t get in over my head. WhenIwatch a city council meeting, I don’t research their budget for the past 10 years. I don’t memorize the biographies of each council member. I simply observe how these people interact with each other and the public over the course of an hour or two, or — God forbid — three.
Finally, there absolutely are fun moments in every city council meeting. They’re just not always as graphic as a mayor lighting a barrel on fire (which was for a movie, by the way).
In Danville, Va., the mayor shouted his city’s name while reading a proclamation. “I, Sherman M. Saunders, mayor, city of DANVILLE do hereby commend Goodyear-DANVILLE on its 50th anniversary in DANVILLE.” While other people in the room stifled laughter, his honor was defiant. “Yeah, I’m proud to say ‘DANVILLE.’ That’s right!”
In San Francisco, a man wearing an “in due time, Christ died for the unholy” T-shirt informed the council that “the times of the gentiles has ended.” Oy vey.
In Baltimore, the council president ranted to the cameras for five minutes. “I’m not frustrated,” he added, in the way everyone’s mom says she’s not disappointed when clearly she is disappointed.
Sometimes I take a dive behind the dais, interviewing the people who make these things run — like the clerk in Ohio who told me that being a bartender was perfect preparation for sitting through city council meetings. Or the reporter who recalled a costumed performer showing up to sway a crucial vote. Or the councilwoman who was inspired by this project to videostream her city council’s meeting for the first time in its history.
While some people may never appreciate the concept of willingly watching multiple city council meetings, there are plenty of avid Chronicleheads. As a regular reader told me, “there are only so many episodes of ‘Spin City’ or ‘Parks and Rec.’ ”
Luckily for us, city council meetings are the show that never ends.