(Note: Where I do not have my own photos, I have decided to experiment with gifs and memes online. Please let me know if you prefer no images at all to cliches.)
It’s a regular occurrence in the newsroom that we reporters speak in code.
If you visit, you’ll hear things about slug lines, ledes, nut graphs and so on, but those are the easier code words to learn. They are basically constant. There are other phrases that just happen around the news reporter that are less constant, ever changing. And that is the jargon that happens in city council chambers.
I go to regular local government meetings, some for work, some for the fire department. The Backus City Council meets the first Monday of the month, the Jenkins council meets the second, I miss that one because of fire training. The second Tuesday of the month I sit in on the Pine River Council meeting and the third Monday is the Pine River-Backus School Board. The last monday of the month is always a business meeting for the Backus Fire Department.
In addition to these, I cover East Gull Lake, Emily, and Jenkins city councils using their minutes and draft minutes.
All of these councils have their very own issues, often very different. They share some of the same jargon, issues and abbreviations that would be nonsense to the uninitiated. TIFs, ERCs, Oxford Oaks, Artisan’s Corner, these phrases all come out at a city council meeting in rapid succession.
Unless you were there the very first time that they ever came up for your specific council, chances are you missed the first and last time they will ever be defined. Luckily for your council members, they have documents defining these phrases, but to save paper, they rarely print enough copies for the audience.
At the council meetings I am able to attend, I am pretty familiar with the goings on. When the Pine River council members start speaking in code and ask “How’s that Oxford Oaks thing coming along?” Pretty nonspecific right?
What seems like code is perfectly understandable to me. I understand that Oxford Oaks is an area with a cul-de-sac. One man has purchased property and wants to run city electric and water to his property here. One man owns the property along the route, meaning the other man required an easement, but the other man refused to respond to correspondence. So, instead of saying. “How’s that land dispute where the one guy refuses to tell the other guy if he can have sewer and electric through his property that he is trying to develop and add new buildings to?” they say, “How’s that Oxford Oaks thing going?”
To someone who does not regularly attend, it might seem like these city council members are being evasive and hiding some sinister plans behind code. Alas, more often than not they are talking about something pretty boring. However, I still need to investigate whenever this code appears in council minute drafts. Here’s an excerpt from a recent council draft minutes. “made the motion to direct the city attorney to execute civil enforcement in the Weber and Winter violations.” Sounds juicy doesn’t it? Well, it’s all about poo.
That’s right, that long complex issue is all to say “Asked the attorney to start the legal process to get two property owners to follow city ordinances pertaining to septic tanks.” Yup. That’s it.
I can’t tell you how often it is that I research something ambiguous from a city council meeting only to find that it is something utterly boring, no matter how it sounded when they talk about it. Worse yet is how often it turns out to be about poo. Admittedly, all the really lively councils are covered by my fellow writers at the paper. I’m pretty spoiled.
The biggest issue is that these things take time to figure out. If you are present at the city council meeting, you can easily just wait around and say “Hey, what is that?” When it is from a copy of the minutes, that’s a different story. Sometimes the clerk is in, sometimes not. The last of these is the worst, because trying to write a story without knowing the code can be like diffusing a bomb made up of frustrated and disappointed city officials, residents and editors. And that’s never a pretty site.