Interview #107: Tempe, AZ Reporter (with podcast)

This podcast interview is available on iTunesStitcherPlayer FM, and right here:

Jerod MacDonald-Evoy is a reporter with The Arizona Republic who had a front-row seat to many hot-button debates of the Tempe council. From the border wall to a car wash, he explains how things got heated in the desert. Plus, we talk city council fashion!

Q: Can you please explain what the “Tempe Tie” is?

A: So when I was covering Tempe, I found that Tempe has an online store where you can buy all sorts of interesting little merchandise like a city of Tempe pen or a mug. I noticed they also had this tie. One of those fatter-style ties. It had a bunch of Tempe themes on it. I jokingly tweeted [that] if it got 100 retweets, I would wear it to the next council meeting.

Q: And…?

A: And as I should’ve known, you don’t challenge the Internet to those sorts of things. It quickly got over 100 retweets. I bought the tie and ended up wearing it to a few council meetings. I made some other people realize that they wanted that tie and they ended up selling out of them on the store!

Q: Let’s get into the council meetings. In January of this year, the Tempe council was considering a resolution to oppose a wall on the border with Mexico. There were some reasoned arguments about it, and those reasoned arguments lasted until one lady began yelling her comments from the back, which flustered your mayor into opening public comment. Were you expecting him to do that–and do you think that was a good idea?

A: I was expecting him to tell them, “you can have public comment at the end.” I’ve never seen the council open an item that was closed to public hearing. I was very nervous when he decided to do that because some of the women that were there had also been outside and were pretty vocally protesting this border wall resolution. I had a feeling it would only go downhill from there.

Q: Your nervous instincts were correct. Do you get the sense that council members were expecting the comments that ensued–the Trump defenders, the race war advocates, and the references to immigrants as rapists and murders?

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Tempe, AZ reporter Jerod MacDonald-Evoy

A: I don’t think they were expecting it to the extent that it came. A lot of the people weren’t actually from Tempe. A lot of them drove up from the border to talk about this. The resolution they were trying to pass actually was a more gutted version of a resolution that was being pushed nationwide by a lot of cities that would say they wouldn’t do business with companies that work on the border wall. Well, one of the main companies that’s doing the prototypes is a Tempe company. When it didn’t pass, I was very surprised. It seemed very odd that they would give in to–I don’t know if they were giving in to these people exactly, but giving in to that idea that they shouldn’t be doing it.

Q: Do you think the public comment ended up making a difference for any of those council members?

A: I think it could’ve. I think there were a few that were already a little wary because of that idea of the city intruding into federal matters. Having those people show up was enough of a push to get them to not vote that way. It was during an election cycle. They decided they didn’t want to push the controversy and have the attack ad against them say they opposed the border wall and the president.


Follow Jerod MacDonald-Evoy on Twitter: @JerodMacEvoy

#171: Bellflower, CA 10/8/18

Like a well-choreographed symposium, Bellflower council members took turns sounding off on the events of the week, with everyone sharing an equal–and equally pleasant–slice of Bellflower life.

“The mayor’s prayer breakfast will be held Tuesday, October 9, at 7 a.m. to 8:30 a.m.” said Mayor Ray Dunton (naturally).

“Nominations for the 2019 BRAVO Awards open today,” chimed in Council Member Dan Koops. “Jim Abbott, a Major League pitcher, will serve as our special keynote speaker. Jim Abbott was that pitcher born with one hand.”

“The chamber of commerce will host the tenth annual Trick-or-Treat on the Boulevard on Friday, October 26,” finished off Council Member Ron Schnablegger, who even received a slight assist when Koops reached over and subtly switched on the microphone.

At this point, city manager Jeffrey Stewart piled on. “I wanted to ask the council if they would indulge us in a small presentation by the folks from Liberty Utilities.”

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Small but mighty

A man and woman strolled to the microphone with a message which–while not quite as important as the trick-or-treat–did catch the attention of one council member.

“I wanted to announce a free workshop on Saturday, October 27. It’s a drought tolerant plant landscape class,” the woman said. “We did set up for our customer service representatives to be available the second and fourth Friday of each month.”

“So how would a customer who’s not watching us here tonight know your available times?” Council Member Juan Garza pressed.

“We have a mailer that we sent,” was the answer.

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Psst. They just found out about it here!

It didn’t matter that the announcements ran long, since there was a lack of residents interested in commenting on any of the business the council raced through. At one point, Mayor Dunton joked about the light turnout.

“We got some quiet people tonight. That’s not a good state of the city, huh?” he chuckled.

But when the subject changed to RV permit fees, the heat turned up from “room temperature water” to “warm oatmeal.”

“What we’re seeking direction on are two questions,” said a staff member after outlining the brand new online permit store. “Whether the city will be absorbing any of the processing costs or passing them along to the customer. Secondly, whether the city will be absorbing the credit card transaction fee or passing it along to the customer.”

“I don’t think we’re talking a lot of money here,” the mayor muttered, glancing through the sub-$5 charges proposed on the screen.

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Speak for yourself

Council Member Koops scratched his chin. “I’m just concerned once we start things like this, it’s hard for us to revoke it. Do we look at everybody’s ability to pay? Or do we say, ‘we’re all in this together. We need to keep it equal for everyone?’ That’s what I’m struggling with.”

“I was on the fence myself,” agreed the mayor.

“This is about convenience,” the city manager argued. “The person doesn’t want to come into city hall.”

“So then should they pay for that convenience?” countered Koops.

“It’s not a lot of money either way,” reiterated the mayor.

“But once you start it–”

“You can’t turn it around,” finished the mayor.

There was a pause. Council Member Koops suddenly had an idea. “Why don’t we give it a year’s try and see how it goes?”

That was the magic compromise everyone had been looking for. With the stalemate resolved, the council adjourned eager for the next day’s prayer breakfast.

Interview #106: Milpitas, CA Mayor Rich Tran (with podcast)

This podcast interview is available on iTunesStitcherPlayer FM, and right here:

Rich Tran had no political experience before being elected as Milpitas’s mayor two years ago. His first term has had some rough spots, and we explore how he has adapted to the job.

Q: At the April 4 meeting in 2017, what were you trying to accomplish by saying you wanted your city manager’s performance review to be put on the public meeting agenda?

A: I can’t say too much about it because there’s current litigation. If you look at what happened there on the dais, it is really a policy battle that’s happening when you’re listening to myself and the city attorney. It’s like a rugby match and I’m in a scrum with the city attorney. I got so much love for Chris Diaz, our city attorney. He might be listening to this–

Q: Hello, Chris Diaz, Esquire!

A: Yeah! I’m scoring my freedom of speech and my democratic rights to place an item on the city council agenda. I’m definitely following the rules and doing things appropriately. I was looking to do a performance evaluation of our former city manager.

Q: I get that, but your line of inquiry made the city attorney visibly anxious. He’s saying, “as a council you can do whatever you want. I’m just saying as your attorney, I think it’s a terrible idea legally.” What about that was unconvincing to you?

A: I felt like I wasn’t getting the truth so much as I deserved it. I wasn’t looking to discuss anybody’s performance in public.

Q: What’s the distinction between that and placing the performance review on the agenda though?

A: I want the item on the agenda so we can decide if we’re gonna do the performance evaluation or not. That’s it.

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Milpitas, CA Mayor Rich Tran

Q: On October 3 of last year, your council was considering a censure policy for council members. When Councilmember Bob Nuñez said that he had concerns about people following the rules–and singling you out specifically–how did you feel about that?

A: We never had a censure policy here in my city. Not in its 64 years. Councilman Nuñez wanted to bring one about so that in the event that I screwed up or something, he can censure me. Everybody has concerns about me, Michael. They call me the “outspoken mayor.”

Q: What does that mean?

A: Because I talk about things. I don’t accept things that shouldn’t be accepted. Councilman Nuñez was concerned that I was communicating with the community too much. The funny thing is, no one’s ever been censured. It’s like he’s waiting for me to slip somehow.

Q: It’s interesting because they did have the opportunity to, but they instead chose to send you a letter of disapproval chastising you for your conduct outside of the meetings–and that was all four council members. You said, “that goes to show Milpitas has the dirtiest petty politics in all of Santa Clara County.” What, from your point of view, is the root of the problem?

A: It’s an election year. I’m an independent leader. It’s definitely sad. You read the rebuke that was sent my way–the residents are pissed off that the city council’s playing these silly games.

Q: I get that they may not like you because of who you are. Can you think of some mistake you made as mayor that you would be willing to say is a mistake?

A: Definitely. I don’t have a great background in politics. It was only four years ago that I moved back to my hometown from Manhattan. I was going to NYU for my master’s degree. I had no job, no car, I was living out of the back of my uncle’s house–

Q: Sorry, are these all the mistakes?

A: No, I’m just telling you the lead-up. Getting into politics, I didn’t really know much. You asked me what my mistake was: I think to be misunderstood.


Follow Mayor Rich Tran on Twitter: @mayor_richtran

#170: Albemarle, NC 10/1/18

If there was any concern about the Albemarle city council’s attention to detail, their extensive combing of last meeting’s minutes laid those doubts to rest.

“Where it’s talking about the boarding kennel–it says boarding kennels are currently ‘now allowed’ in downtown,” Councilmember Chris Whitley read from the draft minutes. “Are they ‘now allowed’ or ‘not allowed’?”

“It should be ‘not allowed,'” replied city manager Michael Ferris.

Whitley nodded. He added, somewhat apologetically, “I promise I’m not going to nitpick in these things–”

“One other little correction,” interjected Councilmember Dexter Townsend. “Although I do concur with her comments, I think it was Councilmember Hall that congratulated Colleen Conroy on her win for ‘Dancing With the Stars’ instead of me.”

“And while you’re doing that,” Mayor Pro Tem Martha Sue Hall jumped into the fray of picked nits, “I congratulated Lisa on the play at Central School. It doesn’t make any difference to me but….” She trailed off, suggesting that it really would be nice to credit her for the item after all.

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Credit where it’s due

Mayor G.R. “Ronnie” Michael glanced down at the public comment list. He called the name of the only man signed up, who slowly approached the podium.

“I believe you have pictures before you concerning the condition of trees on Richardson Street,” he began. “I’m scared to walk down through there. I don’t need a rainforest and that’s what it looks like to me.”

“Looking at this first picture,” the mayor interjected, “there’s a utility pole–

“Yeah, there is,” muttered Mayor Pro Tem Hall.

“–there’s a wire going across from right to left. Y’all have been fortunate not to have some ‘other’ things occur.”

The city manager attempted to reassure everyone that a live electrical wire was not booby trapping Richardson Street. “I’d bet that’s not a primary electric line or else you’d have outages,” he speculated.

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Oh good, just a secondary electric line

“We wanna clean the street up but we don’t wanna put our lives in jeopardy either,” the man shrugged.

“Did they ever pick up the mattresses down there?” Councilmember Townsend wondered.

“That’s another problem,” sighed the commenter. “With all that overgrowth, people feel like they’re at the city dump.”

Council members nodded, thanked him for coming, and promised that someone would do something about the rainforest and mattress repository.

Mayor Michael flipped the page to an agreement with Pfeiffer University. “Council, we have a section in our agreement with them that talks about reversion. The request is we approve allowing staff to remove the reversion agreement.”

Councilmember Chris Bramlett gave his best shot at making that motion. “I move that we assign our whoever-it-is to remove whatever-it-is.”

Other council members snickered as the mayor patiently reworded the statement into something more proper.

“Allow staff to work with the economic development attorney that drew the agreement to remove the reversion,” he elaborated.

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Thanks, Mayor Whoever-You-Are

It wasn’t the last clarification he would have to make. Minutes later, Mayor Pro Tem Hall asked if she could table the business park design contract until their next meeting.

“Council, do you have any problem with tabling it?” Mayor Michael asked, receiving no reply. “Okay, we’ll table it.”

“Is there a reason?” Bramlett exclaimed, holding his hands palm-up in an exaggerated shrug.

“Council usually gives a gentleman’s agreement to allow a council member to ask for a continuance,” the mayor revealed.

Bramlett flashed a gentlemanly thumbs up and a smile. “Still learning!”

Interview #105: Fremont, CA Councilmember Raj Salwan (with podcast)

This podcast interview is available on iTunesStitcherPlayer FM, and right here:

Raj Salwan has attempted to establish some order in Fremont’s sometimes-fluid appointment procedures for council members. He talked about how things could be better, and also about one contentious development that led to a raucous council meeting.

Q: You were appointed to the Fremont council in 2013. There are also three other current council members who went through this appointment process–meaning that four out of the five of you at one point sat for an interview to be on council. Is that a coincidence or is this truly a shortcut to winning elections that people ought to know about?

A: There’s two types of candidates that apply for these appointments. One is the planning commissioners. The other are people who just ran in the last election. One of the things in Fremont is that if you came in third place in an election, you usually don’t get the appointment. The critics will often say that because you weren’t elected, the voters didn’t choose you. So it’s not really fair but that’s just how it has been.

Q: In 2017, there was another vacancy. And the odd thing to me is that you spent the first ten minutes not sure how things would go. Why did you not have the rules solidified?

A: A lot of times the process is whatever the mayor wants to make it. In the past appointments, some of the council members had said, “hey, I was confused about the process.” We were trying to find what the expectation was so we knew exactly what was gonna happen.

Q: Correct me if I’m wrong, but your new mayor at the time, Lily Mei, had never participated in this appointment process as either a candidate or as someone interviewing candidates.

A: That’s true. It was a new job for her and the first thing she had to do was try to replace her own position [as a council member]. So it got very–well, it was a difficult process.

Q: Ah. If I may point out another area of improvement: the questions you asked of these candidates, if I’m being honest, were pretty basic. “Tell us about yourself.” “How did you get involved in politics?” I think you need to kick it up a notch. Ask them questions like, “if this room caught on fire and you could only save two council members, who would they be?”

A: That’s definitely very critical thinking! In the past, some people had accused council members of asking pointed questions or questions that they felt made them look bad. This was the process the city clerk came up with to give softball questions so nobody could say, “I got this question because somebody didn’t like me.” But I hear you. I like tough, pointed questions.

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Fremont, CA Councilmember Raj Salwan

Q: After your appointment in 2013, you did not win your election in 2014. But you did win in 2016. However, after the election but before your swearing in, the council voted on something called the Walnut Residences. In this case, the development was a huge lightning rod. Is that your memory?

A: This is the biggest fight in the Bay Area. Everybody complains about the cost of housing, but they always oppose housing when it’s near them. This became the flash point for this last election.

Q: In this meeting, Councilmember Lily Mei–who just defeated the incumbent mayor–said they should postpone the vote until you joined the council. I think she expected the vote to be different with you there. Do you think they should have waited?

A: No, I have to respect the decision of the council at the time. I wasn’t there and it’s not fair for me to comment or criticize.

Q: Did you see this at all as an attempt to speed things up like we’ve seen on the federal level–to take advantage of the partisan situation? Or do you buy the explanation that it’s been in front of the council for a really long time and it’s just time to get it done?

A: It’s a complicated thing. It’s been upcoming for several years. The applicant just wanted to get a decision. The council just wanted to take it on. It’s a great election issue for candidates who want to stop all growth. They point to [this].


Follow Councilmember Raj Salwan on Twitter: @RajSalwan

#169: Van Buren, AR 9/24/18

Mayor Bob Freeman swung around to the front of the council dais and glanced down at his notes momentarily before turning to the two women at his side.

“In July of this year–make sure I’ve got this correct,” he instructed them, “–in July of this year, y’all had gone to a movie?”

“Yes,” replied each woman in turn.

“When you came outside, you noticed there was a gentleman–or, you noticed there was a truck that the engine was revving?” the mayor continued.

“Yes, sir.”

“Yes.”

“So you went to the truck–”

“We actually went around the truck,” one woman jumped in to steer the story in the correct direction. “I looked over because it was revving up so much. The gentleman had slumped over and I knocked on the window trying to see if he could hear me. He was unresponsive.”

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(S)heroes!

She indicated to the good Samaritan next to her. “I had her go get somebody to help. I went around to the driver’s side. Luckily it was unlocked. I pulled him out. She helped me with CPR.”

“You applied CPR,” Mayor Freeman picked up again now that the details were ironed out. “Revived him. Between your actions, you saved his life.”

After the photos and as the mayor plopped down in his seat, he remembered one other brave soul in the room.

“Alderman Swaim had knee replacement one week ago today and he’s here tonight. That’s why he did not stand for our pledge and we’ll say that’s okay!”

Alderman Alan Swaim raised a ringer and quipped: “I did not kneel either!”

That prompted a huge laugh from the room–perhaps from the topical humor and perhaps a window into Swaim’s own views on kneelers.

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Truly presidential

There was something eating at Mayor Freeman. He started off inauspiciously enough by describing a meeting with the county sheriff’s department.

“Last Monday night, [I] went to the Facilities Commmitee meeting because they were discussing the rates that they charge municipal governments for inmates,” he explained. “Our rate has been $10 a meal. We haven’t actually paid $10 a meal until the last year and a half because we haven’t had inmates in the jail.”

He continued, “they are looking at raising that rate. I asked for an opportunity to see the numbers. We sat there through the committee meeting and we left and were later informed that they had gone ahead with an ordinance to raise the rate to $50 a day.”

The mayor frowned deeply. “What disappoints me is the fact that I asked to see the number and that was just ignored. There’s a piece of me that feels I’m being taken advantage of because I am a lame duck. ‘We can do it because the mayor’s leaving anyway.'”

“I’m not!” piped up Alderman Jim Petty to reassure the mayor whose team he was on.

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Stick together!

After Mayor Freeman had vented, it reminded Alderman Darral Sparkman of something.

“Chief, I just wish you’d tell your officers–those deputies or whoever it is run up and down this highway do not turn on their lights, and they drive at light speed!” he railed. “We have been hit nearly three times!”

“Are you talking about our officers?” Mayor Freeman quizzed.

“No, the sheriff!” Sparkman exclaimed. “These guys never turn the lights on!”

It seems like the bad blood with the sheriff’s office runs deep in Van Buren. Let’s hope they clean up their act in time for the next mayor.

Interview #104: Prairie Village, KS Council Member Tucker Poling (with podcast)

This podcast interview is available on iTunesStitcherPlayer FM, and right here:

A whirlwind of activity has buffeted the Prairie Village council–starting with the onset of live streaming earlier this year and ending in an aborted council meeting earlier this week. Council Member Tucker Poling describes his at-times-incredulous reaction to some of the developments.

Q: I am talking to you in the third week of September, which means you had a council meeting a few days ago. How did that go?

A: It went about as well as council meetings go when nobody shows up!

Q: What?!

A: I had a nondiscrimination ordinance on the agenda and suddenly, the few hours before the meeting, we had four council members text or email the city manager and say that they couldn’t make it. Therefore, we did not have a quorum and we could not meet and hilarity did not ensue. I was not happy about it.

Q: You know Prairie Village and you know these council members. I don’t want it to sound like I’m blaming you when I say: should you have known this was coming?

A: I will say no. In my knowledge, it’s never happened before in this way. It’s been very rare we have more than one absence. At the time, I–let’s say I “lost my chill” a little bit, as the younger people say. I had no chill on that evening! [laughs]

Q: [laughs] Well that sounds perfectly “dope” and thank you for not being “extra” despite your lack of “chill.” And–I’m sorry, there’s something else that’s bugging me. Can you explain what was before you council on August 20 of this year?

A: That was Councilman Ron Nelson’s proposal for us to adopt the principles of the convention to end all discrimination against women. All Ron was asking for was a resolution saying that we support equity and equality for women and girls.

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Prairie Village, KS Council Member Tucker Poling

Q: On August 20, the first thing that happened was that council members argued against the resolution. How did you feel about what you heard?

A: I felt mind-numbingly confused and disappointed. I was flabbergasted that this was controversial. We had people in an open, public meeting talking about conspiracy theories about the UN [United Nations].

Q: The resolution was not passed and sent back to staff on a vote of 7-5. Of the six council members who canceled at this week’s meeting for your anti-LGBT discrimination proposal, how many of them also voted to shoot down the anti-gender discrimination proposal?

A: All of them.

Q: Some of them were suspicious of the UN, and I guess I get that a little. It does feed into the caricature of middle America. But others were arguing that “all lives matter,” right? That, “why can’t we have a nondiscrimination again men too?” And others seemed to think there was no inequity in Prairie Village. I’m curious, if your council meeting had happened on Monday, would you have expected that same argument to come up about sexual orientation?

A: Yeah, there definitely would have been those same objections. “We don’t have any discrimination in Prairie Village. This is all ‘political.'” Which is just very confusing to me because the idea that the human condition does not apply in Prairie Village and all the flaws that we have as human beings somehow don’t apply in nice, upper class communities like ours–that’s pretty blind in my view.

Q: It occurred to me that people who said, “if we pass this, it’s just an admission that something is wrong here”–ironically, by not passing it, it gathered all this attention and people asking, “what is wrong with the Prairie Village council that they can’t pass this?” It had the opposite effect.

A: That’s exactly right. It’s bizarre that people think that by not acknowledging something, that’s just going to go away. And people are not going to notice that you’ve chosen to not acknowledge that equity issues exist everywhere.


Follow Council Member Tucker Poling on Twitter: @TuckerForPV