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From the publisher: Expect the unexpected at city hall

February 23, 2011

With only a handful of exceptions during the past decade, I have spent at least a couple of evenings every month attending regular and special meetings of some elected government body or another. Some months, particularly when I was a fledgling cub reporter covering anything and everything that came my way, I toted a notepad and pen into a couple of meetings every week.
That’s a lot of meetings, and among them, there is a pretty healthy mix of the mundane and the borderline insane. There are meetings that last minutes and others that run-on like marathons. These government gatherings are often filled with levity and laughter, not to mention the serious consideration demanded when decisions relate to the investment of tax dollars or rules of living in a community.
That said, looking back over the past 10 years, not much is certain about public gatherings that bring elected governments together to uphold their sworn duties except this: you can almost always expect the unexpected.
I have been to meetings with name-calling and finger-pointing between citizens and elected representatives, and even between government officials and their fellow board members. The meetings where a council member insults one of his elected peers are among my favorites — nothing like showing your fellow board members a little disrespect in the public eye. There have even been a couple of meetings when I was sure city council combatants would come to blows — I’ve seen counselors walk out, mid-meeting.
At most meetings, one board member usually spends at least a few minutes spewing tangential hot air about topics unrelated to the discussion at-hand. I love it when an elected official confirms the quality of their intelligence and character by opening their mouth and removing all doubt. On more than one occasion a board member has evoked Smokey Robinson —”I second that emotion.” That’s certainly a Motown twist to Robert’s Rules of Order.
This week, I even attended an open meeting where a council member owned up to the likelihood that elected officials enjoy special privileges, like leniency for friends when the code enforcement police comes a-calling. Really? You mean elected officials and their friends don’t have to follow the same rules as everyone else? I’m glad I was present for that public confession.
Meetings where members of the public create a spectacle are just as good. In one lower Alabama town I’ve covered, one citizen was so skeptical of his elected representatives that he recorded every meeting minute with a camcorder and voiced belligerent objections to every action. After this citizen had the mayor arrested for some trumped up crime, Capt. Camcorder got himself elected mayor, fired the entire city staff (three people), and was later arrested himself. When you see a sheriff’s deputy sitting outside the meeting place, you can pretty much bet the night’s order of events is going to be wild. Admittedly, I was always excited when I saw this little town’s meeting on my coverage calendar — I could never predict what might happen, and if I missed the meeting, sure enough, something big would “go down.”
In another small Alabama town all the council members sat around a big table, picnic style, and conducted city business among Mayor Joe, “Big” Charles, “Little” Charles and a couple of other folks. The room and the table were so small that only the council members and another person or two could attend — it was a pretty tight squeeze for “Big" Charles. In fact there was usually only one vacant chair reserved for every meeting. If I was lucky, nobody else wanted to use it, so I could sit. Of course, since the city clerk of that town was later charged with embezzling about $375,000 from the town, it is no surprise that the budget only had room for one metal folding chair.
Fortunately, citizens rarely filled the audience in that little town, and in fact, for most of the meetings I attended, the only attendees were city staff and members of the media.
Of course you can’t rely on the attendance make-up either. If the topic of a dog kennel, or anything dealing with pets, property or alcohol is on an agenda, you can pretty safely bet there will be a crowd on hand for the meeting. There’s nothing wrong with that — people can usually find time to make their voices and complaints heard when their lives are affected.
Still, by and large, unless an elected board has an agenda item that affects your own little universe, chances are you probably aren’t going to show up for a government meeting. And that’s a shame, especially when so much nuttiness is liable to occur.
Sure, there are some meetings that are about as entertaining as watching paint dry. Still, there are others that beat the best prime-time programming the television networks can offer. And regardless of the entertainment quality, all of the public meetings of elected bodies are filled with information about the cities and counties that we all call home. That alone should be enough to bring citizens to these meetings.
If not, just remember the next meeting of your city council, county commission or school board could be the one when a debate comes to blows, a citizen shouts profanity or somebody brings their pet rattlesnake to town (yes, I’ve been in a meeting where that occurred, too). If something like that happens — something unexpected — I promise, you won’t want to miss it.

Michael Willard is the publisher of The Observer News Enterprise. His column appears in the weekend edition of The O-N-E.

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