At an Atlanta City Council meeting two weeks ago, after an hour of ceremony that included the swearing in of new police chief and fire chief, Matthew Cardinale stepped up to the microphone.
The second hour of a council meeting is usually dedicated to the public comment section. And so for the next 60 minutes, a dedicated cadre of regular "gadflies" challenged the council, for the pleasure of the viewing public, with their comments, delivered with passion, venom, thoughtful soliloquies, comedy and -- yes – song.
“Felicia Moore wanted some oversight/But y'all didn't think that that would be right, mm-hmm,” Cardinale sang to the tune of Whitney Houston’s “I Have Nothing.”
Half of the council ignored him. The other half watched with a mixture of amazement and horror.
City Council President Ceasar Mitchell stared blankly. It became apparent Cardinale was making a plea for senior housing.
“We see through right to the heart of the problem/Y'all don't give a darn about low-income folks, mm-hmm!/I never knew a Council so worthless until you,” Cardinale sang.
Then Mitchell smiled.
Cardinale is one of about a dozen regulars who have an ongoing love-hate relationship with the council and city hall. Cardinale, Cary Duncan, Ron Shakir, Anthoney Muhammad, Ben Howard and, the dean of them all, Dave Walker are just as much fixtures at 55 Trinity Street as any elected official.
“People like Ben Howard, they don’t just come and rabble-rouse. They come and discuss specific issues,” Mitchell said afterwards. “When you talk about citizen advocates, it is always good to know that people want to be involved and their voices are going to be heard.”
On most days, some kind of meeting is going on at city hall. Monday is the regularly scheduled full city council meeting, followed by several sub-committee and work sessions later this week. Next week, there are seven full committee meetings and all of them allow some form of public comment.
“It has been my experience that the Atlanta City Council is the most accessible governing body I have ever heard of,” veteran council member Howard Shook said. “But I am ambivalent. We are open and transparent, but on the other hand, sometimes you think, ‘What is this person talking about?’ I will honestly say that there are some people who do it because they have become addicted to the attention. If there were no TV cameras, I have to wonder if things would be different.”
How citizens say things and how long they get to say it has been a growing debate. Cardinale, who is also the news editor for the Atlanta Progressive News, has filed a lawsuit against the council about a proposed move to limit the amount of time that citizens can speak at committee meetings.
Aside from the two-minute limit at full council meetings enforced by Mitchell, there is no standard set of rules at committee meetings. Council member Joyce Sheperd has instituted a five-minute limit at Community Development/Human Resources committee meetings, but each committee chair uses his or her discretion on time.
At a retreat earlier this year, the council informally voted 8-7 against enforcing standard time rules.
“I am one who would like to see everyone with time limits,” Shook said. “I have always thought the best way to be fair is to treat everybody the same. It is unfair that certain people get to talk longer than others. ”
Cardinale’s suit aims to get the full results of the vote. But he contends that five minutes is generally not enough time to make a presentation.
“Sometimes you need nine minutes or 15 even minutes,” Cardinale said. “If we weren’t there speaking up and showing them that we are watching what they are doing, their behavior, which is already an atrocity, would in fact be so much worse. Joyce is arbitrarily cutting off the ability of the public to bring pertaining info and analysis before her committee.”
Sheperd said that while she appreciates what the public has to say, her meetings are designed to listen to them and get actual work done. She said she instituted her time rules after conferring with other elected officials around the country and learning how they handled public comment.
But there is also a practical purpose. Her committee meets at 12:30 p.m. on Tuesdays, between city utilities at 10 a.m. and public safety at 3 p.m.
Not only is the same room often used for those meetings, but many of the council members serve on multiple committees. Longer meetings decrease the chances of any meeting having a voting quorum, she said.
"People should be able to discuss anything they need to discuss in five minutes," Sheperd said. "Mr. Cardinale and Mr. Howard want to talk as long as they want to talk. What we have put in has worked very well. And at the end of the day, I do not feel like we are stifling the voice of the people."
Men like Howard, who is 77, and Duncan, who is 71, represent an old guard.
Cardinale, 29, with his media savvy, represents the new. He has sung or rapped five times at meetings. All of the performances are now featured on his Facebook page and on YouTube.
“When I did the first song, the council kind of enjoyed it,” Cardinale said. “In May, I filed my lawsuit. Ever since then, the council members haven’t enjoyed my songs.”
Last Thursday, the city hosted a health fair in the city hall atrium. While dozens of people bustled about, having their blood pressure taken or getting a massage, Walker stood on the second floor balcony taking it all in. Of all the gadflies, he is the undisputed king.
Just don’t call him a gadfly.
“Gadfly is a bad term. It depicts citizens as something other than what we are,” Walker said. “We are citizens. We are taxpayers.”
Since Andrew Young's first term, Walker has been a constant figure at city hall. A two-time candidate for mayor himself, Walker said he relishes the assumption that some people thought he was insane.
But the street vendor and self-titled “street preacher” is everything but. During his presentations, he is forceful, theatrical, acerbic, funny, prepared, well-read, succinct and sometimes brilliant.
“Everyone knows Dave Walker is no fool,” Mitchell said. “He may have radical issues, but everyone knows he is very smart. He is fine as long as he is respectful of the rules of decorum. Invariably, he will say something that will be of use to us.”
Dressed in his customary hospital scrubs, Walker’s appearance Thursday was a bit rare. For the last few months, he has been an infrequent figure around city hall.
He still contends that while he “is not in love with Mary Norwood,” Kasim Reed stole the mayoral election from her. He also said that he was disappointed that councilman C.T. Martin, “a champion of city workers,” went along with Reed’s budget plans to give pay raises to the police officers and fire fighters, while granting a one-time bonus to other city workers.
“So I have taken a leave of absence,” said Walker, noting that his leaving creates a void for those willing to address those types of issues. “Citizens tell me that all the time. I am considering what they say, but at the same time, I needed to take a leave of absence and see the picture more clearly. But the pull to come back is on me every committee cycle, every full council meeting."