Good times: the City Coun­cil Chron­i­cles

Baltimore Sun - - COMMENTARY - By Michael Kar­lik Michael Kar­lik is a co­me­dian and writer who lives part time in Denver and New York City; Twit­ter: @michaelka­r­lik. He started City Coun­cil Chron­i­cles (www.coun­cilchron­i­cles.com) in the spring of 2016 be­cause ... some­one’s gotta do it.

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.

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