Sunday, March 29, 2009

Before You Get Your Dander Up

A city commission meeting offers as much in the way of cheap entertainment as a cost-cutting couple out on a date night could want. Comfy seats? Check. Comedy? Check. Drama? Check. Interesting people watching? You betcha. If the city put in a coat check room and a bar, the room at the top of the stairs in city hall would be packed every month.

Even without liquid refreshment, these meetings should be full to bursting. With the threats to end curbside recycling, the backtracking on red light cameras and the various nicks and dings in public safety budgets, one would assume every meeting would be packed with as much dander as a herd of feral cats. Instead, each meeting draws citizens with specific items on the agenda and maybe a few other spectators.

No one expects to drop into the middle of American Idol or Top Chef or any other reality show and have any connection to the contestants. A dedicated viewer watches from the beginning, getting to know all the characters: who is this season’s guy-next-door? Who will be the new airhead? Who has a future, who has plans, who looks like they could really do something and who looks like they are just in it for show? There’s an unspoken agreement among reality show junkies that detailed knowledge of show trivia buys credibility in the obsessive fan circles.

Imagine if local citizens followed the city or county commission meetings with the deranged enthusiasm of online Idol forum members with names like “vot4jus10.” Commissioners like Milton Slack or Bill Fricks may be taken aback, but I think it could work well for some of their colleagues. Someone could print shirts with slogans like “Team Kim” or “Team Evie,” or “Garry’s Driving Club.” Someone could print translations guides for some of the more mumbly or inarticulate commissioners. There would be that nerd in the room who knows more about Robert’s Rules of Order than any self-sufficient member of society should, the citizen who raises his hand and tries to correct the commission when one of them misstates a notion or a second. Area news organizations could shift their focus from straight news to performance reviews of each contestant, I mean, commissioner. The public broadcast ratings on Channel 4 would go through the roof.

Recently, the city commission meetings enjoyed a bit of a ratings uptick over the Etowah Terrace skirmish. The government arm of South Rome would like to build a big brick rectangle over that way for some poor and/or old people; the neighbors would rather they not. The entire picture involves lots more acronyms, name-calling and a catalogue of past wrongs. It is quality drama.

Of course, for the citizens involved it does not feel like must-see-TV. It involves serious issues like property values and quality of life and other big platitudes that make for a good letter to the editor. Watching some of these dandered-up speakers at a recent meeting, I realized that much of their anger has roots in coming to the game late. For some, this is their first dust up with their local elected officials, and they are incensed, outraged, livid, at the audacity of the government to even consider a proposal that would be so outside the wishes of the local citizens. They want copies of letters, meeting minutes, emails, birth certificates, Kroger cards; they want documentation that would help explain and illuminate the puzzling behavior of their leaders. In short, they want to understand just what the hell is going on here.

But it isn’t puzzling behavior. Anyone who follows local government on a regular basis understands that these men and women are not out to get one group or another; they aren’t vindictive or even particularly sneaky. One can trust a government body like the commissions to be exactly what they are: a group of regular folks elected to do the best they can. On occasion, we can trust them to be sleepy or confused, kinda like Paula Abdul but without all the dancing. We can trust them to screw it all up and we can trust them to try to fix it and we can certainly trust them to get it very, very right almost as often as they get it very, very wrong.

Beyond the Etowah Terrace brouhaha, there will be another local melee about something or other; perhaps next it will be the pillage of the land across from Ridge Ferry park by the Vikingesque Ledbetters. Put a commission meeting on the calendar; tune in now when the season starts, rather than trying to pick up the storyline in the middle. It really is the best cheap date night in town.


  1. Hahaha. I think your idea has merit. Some serious marketing, snacks and drinks, some "Want to vote for Mayor? Call 1-800-you-can't" t-shirts ; this could be a new source of city revenue.