I met with Ankeny Mayor Steve Van Oort on January 19, with reason to be optimistic for three reasons.

  1. He does professional voice talent work, meaning that he should have a better-than-average grasp of the power of public perception.
  2. He once owned a radio station, and those guys are generally as promotion and event minded as anybody you’ll ever find.
  3. He’s an elected official. Hopefully meaning that he will be working for voters, not the bureaucracy.

The reason for concern is that he also has a reputation for being very thin skinned and for nurturing a rather large ego. A bad combination, meaning that if he perceives that you’re not on his side or disrespecting him in any way, he can be very vindictive and will never forget. So a lot of sucking up was in order, made easier by the fact that I liked the guy. (At the time, at least. He has since told several straight-faced lies -- including here and here -- and I'm just not a fan of that.)

It helps to understand that when a city gets out of control there is a fundamental shift in the minds of the administrators that is totally out of touch with American values. If something affects “the City of Ankeny,” most Americans know we’re talking about the people of Ankeny. Not so in a city out of control. When the Ankeny city manager's office and administrators hear the words “City of Ankeny,” they think you’re talking about them. After all, they’re the ones in charge – of the “city” and in charge of you.

So I was a little disappointed early in our meeting that the Mayor seemed determined to defend the way things had gone and showed more than a little of that mindset. Suggesting, for example, that I should be happy that “we didn’t tell you that you couldn’t do it,” as if I needed their permission.

I also mentioned that I had entertained sending out a news release that included the certified letter, a broadcase quality video of the display, and a story entitled "The City That Stole Christmas” after receiving the certified letter. Which really made him bristle with irritation.

Mayor: “That sounds like a threat.”
Me: “No more of a threat than the certified letter.”
Mayor: “Well it’s a good thing you didn’t do that!”

It was a very awkward and surprising (to me) moment. And, as I said, I liked the guy, so I finally asked him.

Me: “Help me understand – what about that strikes you as so terribly unfair?”
Mayor: “We’re not against Christmas lights, we’re against traffic.”

He seemed to think that "we're just enforcing an existing ordinance" would solve any negative perception of the public. I mentioned that wasn't necessarily the case. For example, if they had an ordinance that prohibited residents from having their mother visit their house, "we're just enforcing the code" isn't going to to make people just say, "Oh, well, why didn't you just say so." But I think he missed the point.

I was also disturbed by the fact that he couldn’t imagine why I had a problem that their solution to the one call they got was to immediately shut me down. “You got to run your lights more than 90 percent of the time.”

Which is kind of like telling a battered spouse that you don’t see why she’s complaining since 90 percent of the time she has the house to herself and the guy’s not beating her.

On the bright side, he did seem to grasp a couple of things that I had thought about following my experience. First was that Ankeny was a destination for people viewing Christmas lights already, in large part because of the outstanding neighborhood efforts in the SE part of town. And I know that many of those people were from out of town, because I heard from them. And that they were spending money in town on food and even Christmas shopping. In fact, I know that there were people in Ames renting buses to come to Ankeny to look at lights and shopping while in town.

The other thing I became painfully aware of was that every media outlet spends the month of December trying to tell their listeners, viewers, or readers where to go to see the best displays. I know because I was hiding from them due to the city’s vague threat hanging over my head, a very surreal thing for a guy of my background to do. Definitely the kind of media coverage you couldn’t afford to buy, that they’re trying to give you for free.

My ultimate point being, that while this is about the only pure thing I do and I don’t want it to turn into a commercial project for me, I’m happy if the city and our merchants can benefit. The huge, easy opportunity that exists is simply to embrace what is already happening rather than fighting it. Become “Ankeny, The City of Lights” for the month of December. It takes nothing more than a couple of press releases and phone calls.

The Mayor suggested that the way to get things to work even better for next year is for me to talk to the Ankeny Chamber of Commerce and to make a brief presentation to the Ankeny City Council, which, of course, I did.