Plus, you can listen to a segment of “Tear It Down,” an eight-chapter audio series about a small town whose government became wildly dysfunctional when political insurgent group formed seeking revenge: www.tearitdownpodcast.com.
As always, City Council Chronicles’ sponsor is Dig Deep Research. They assist local governments in obtaining grant money and are eager to hear from potential new clients. Find out how they can help you today:
Kate Stewart oversaw a tough series of council meetings last year in which crowds showed up to protest a tiny retail development. She explains why she wanted to hear suggestions instead of resistance and why abandoning the project would also have been unfair.
Q: In the first half of 2018, your council received substantial heat from residents opposed to Takoma Junction–a 1.4-acre parking lot next to the grocery co-op that was intended for future retail stores. How hard was it to remember that this is a city of 18,000 people and you are hearing on a given night from not even 100 of them? So really, what seems like life or death in the council chamber is not the end of the world for thousands of others.
A: That’s correct. We had online comments. We held a number of open houses. We also did a day on the actual lot–we sketched the outside of what the development may look like. People could come, stand, and be like, “okay, this is how far it is from the street” to get a sense of it. The important thing to remember is that the opportunity to provide public comment at a city council meeting is just one way that people express their views.
Q: At one point in a meeting, a woman started to read off a list of opponents and went well over her time. She turned away from the microphone and continued to yell, and you called a recess. Did that get the meeting back on track or was there another way you could have handled that?
A: I think it’s really important that people stick to the three minute comment period. We had people who had been there waiting their turns who needed to get home to children. The reason I called for a recess was because the energy in the room was getting so antagonistic, particularly the folks who opposed the development. The way that they were heckling and saying things was really not conducive to a good public meeting.
Q: The racial equity statement in the development ordinance asked several questions about the development, without providing any policy predictions. Do you think the people who questioned the racial equity implications were right to demand better?
A: I think it’s always important to demand better. When I asked the resident activists who criticized us for this to provide us with ideas, their ideas were basically, “we just don’t like the project!” I think if you’re going to be pushing your local government to do something, not just being critical, but actually coming with ideas. Local government is set up as this antagonistic relationship between government and residents–it’s one that truly bothers me. To do the job well, I rely on residents to push us but also to come to us with ideas.
Q: A lot of the people complaining about racial equity were older white people. Don’t get me wrong, those are the ones who you want to care about racial equity. How did it feel to watch a room of liberal white people yell at each other over how to save a food co-op and black and brown people?
A: I think Takoma Park is not unique. When it comes to any type of change, there are very strong feelings. I was talking to somebody the other day–the person told me that this urban planner, when they do meetings regarding development projects, their first rule is to start with the youngest person in the room to have them talk about what they want. When you’re talking about a development project, you’re probably talking about something that’s going to be there for 30-40 years. So starting with somebody in their twenties, that’s the person for whom you’re creating this space.
Q: There were two arguments that I heard repeatedly from the opponents. One was that they weren’t opposed to development; they were just opposed to this development. And the second was how divisive all of this was. They’re saying, “it’s on you, the council, to unify the community,” by which they meant giving them what they wanted. Were you in any mood to unify the community given that some of them were now trying to recall you?
A: My concern for folks who wanted to delay the project or have us hit the restart button is that would make some people happy, but the folks who wanted the project, that would make them unhappy! That wasn’t a compromise! For them, that would be stopping a project they like. I did not see that as a way to bring the community together.
Barbara Simpson is the Telegraph-Journal‘s municipal affairs reporter who had a front row seat to an array of quintessentially Canadian policy debates in Saint John, including what to do with the emboldened deer population and whether to retaliate against outsiders using the city’s ice rinks.
Q: Back in January, you tweeted this:
I can almost reach my hand out from the media desk and touch the Leamans. City staff reserved two seats for them in the front row with name tags.
Who are the Leamans and why do they get the V.I.P. treatment at the council meetings?
A: The Leamans are my kind of people because they are dedicated council watchers. If you cover municipal politics, you know that it’s very rare to have ordinary citizens come out on an issue that isn’t a hot-button issue. But the Leamans come to every single meeting, except I think they go away for a little bit in the winter. They bring their books and they read before the meeting, so they’re very civically engaged.
Q: What do they do in the winter? Drive down to Florida and sit in on their council meetings?
A: I don’t think so, but that would be fantastic!
Q: What was the problem that the Saint John council was having with deer earlier this year?
A: Most of our province is beautiful, natural habitat. But in this one particular area [of the city], we have a high density of deer. They cause all sorts of problems. They chew on people’s shrubs. The deer spread Lyme disease. This is how brazen the deer are in Saint John: I have a photograph of the deer at Halloween time and they’re eating a pumpkin off of someone’s front porch. To remedy this issue, the city is moving forward with a deer cull. Each property owner could apply to the province to bring a hunter in to bag one deer per defined hunting season.
Q: Before Saint Johners could hunt the deer, there had to be a prohibition on feeding deer. How was the city planning to capture physical evidence of deer feeding?
A: There’s some recognition that this is going to be pretty difficult to enforce. I can’t imagine–we’re all good Canadians here–that neighbors are going to be taking photos of each other in the act of feeding deer.
Q: Deputy Mayor Shirley McAlary was concerned about people wandering around with bows and arrows like something out of The Hunger Games. Was she the only one?
A: Yes. If you listen further, I believe Councillor Gary Sullivan makes that point that if you call the police and said there’s someone running around with a weapon, the police would respond relatively quickly.
Q: In America, when someone wanders around with a weapon, it’s called concealed carry and it’s, like, half the country. So I’m glad you have a distinction.
In November of last year, Mayor Don Darling suggested that if there could not be some fair, regional way to pay for use of Saint John’s ice rinks, drastic measures may be on the way, like closing down the rinks entirely. How serious is this sentiment in Saint John that outsiders are using the rinks and not paying for it?
A: It’s incredibly serious. Over the last few months, Saint John and the surrounding communities have been trying to negotiate a deal because the cost of arenas–the operating costs, the city argues–isn’t being fairly shared across the region. The city is in a very difficult financial situation. The city took a provincial bailout of up to $22.8 million over the next three years. They’re trying to find new revenue. On the opposing side of that, the communities surrounding us say, “this is Saint John’s problem. Why should we be contributing more?”
Q: Hockey is obviously sacred to you all. Is that why the council seemed a bit touchier than if it were other types of facilities that were abused by non-residents?
A: No, I think why they’re so touchy is it speaks to a bigger issue in Saint John. We are a city of 67,000 people. The greater region is 125,000 people. There’s some sentiment that people drive into the city from these outlying communities, use our arenas and other services, and don’t pay their fair share. But the arenas is the touchpoint for this.
Samba Baldeh is the District 17 alder who remembers quite clearly a fraught council meeting about funding for Southeast Asian mental health services. He also discusses his exchange with the police chief from three years ago after the chief’s accusatory blog post put Madison’s common council in the crosshairs.
Q: I’ve heard of aldermen and alderwomen and even alderpersons, but Madison is the only city I have found whose council members are called “alder.” What do you know about why Madison uses that term?
A: I think Madison is just trying to be politically correct. We can be a female, male, transgender, or people who may identify however they want to identify. I think that is the reason why. A lot of people are confused when you tell them, “I’m an alderperson.” They generally don’t know what that means.
Q: On the night of February 26, there were $115,000 that the council had to direct toward mental health services for Hmong elders. Had you ever experienced this combination of fear and anger before, like what you were hearing from the Hmong community?
A: I do remember this meeting very vividly. Apart from the anger, just the sadness of the event. The community became divided as to who should actually provide these services. Who do we give the money to? That is where the meeting became very deeply personal.
Q: During the public’s testimony, Alder Barbara McKinney raised a point of order about the neutrality of the translation services. Do you know where the concern about the accuracy of translation was coming from?
A: She was sitting next to the interpreters and the people giving testimonies. I think what she observed was people were talking to each other, whispering to each other to an extent where she felt like the interpretation was not neutral. The mayor interjected and said we are doing our best. Even the interpreter did say that it’s difficult to interpret the Hmong language.
Q: The provision of health service was getting wrapped up in race and cultural competency. Do you think this was a healthy debate or was there unnecessary vilification taking place?
A: I do think we shouldn’t have gotten here. I spoke to some of the leaders in the community and let them know that it is important that some of these issues be resolved outside of the public domain. We could have had a better discussion around the money part and how we allocate it. I didn’t think there was a need to vilify each other to the extent we did. The best way was to find a way to resolve the cultural or the societal issues outside of the council. Once it came to council, it basically was difficult to control.
Q: You mentioned the virtue of resolving conflict before it reaches the council meeting where you don’t have a control over the arguments or what people say, and then it can look messy to the public. There was a similar incident in June 2016 that falls in that category. Your council was about to vote on an additional $350,000 to have a consultant examine the practices of the police department. Your police chief, Michael Koval, has a blog. On the evening of June 5, he published a piece about this report where he started out with “bring it on,” saying the police have nothing to hide. But suddenly, the six paragraphs that followed included this language: “to the Common Council: you are being watched….this is a pre-emptive first strike from me to you.” What was your reaction to his accusations that your council was letting him and his officers down?
A: I think the police chief really was not being very fair in his assessment of why morale was down with his police force. Almost every item that came to council with regards to police funding was approved. That is the first thing we can do to show support for the police department. All the events that they invite us, leadership was part of it. Other council members who could be part of it also took part. I think it was an ill-informed assessment. I also do not believe police leadership should come to council or use their electronic access, like a blog, and threaten community leaders.
Q: I’m sure he would agree with you that the council has given his department money, but that’s not his complaint. What he’s saying is, when people come into this meeting and they talk smack about my department and my officers, a defense from the council is nowhere to be found. So yes, you’re giving us money, but it’s almost like you’re paying us off to sit back and take all this abuse. I really need you, the council, to push back, on this vilification of us that’s happening right in front of you.
A: If people from the community come to testify, they can say whatever they feel about the police. How does that bring credibility to the people of the city if we’ve just been called all these names, and now we have to sit there and defend the person who’s calling us all these names? It’s our responsibility to educate people about the police work and make them feel good about their police force, but it’s also the responsibility of the person who leads that police force to make sure the community have a good view of the department.
Eva Murray is a first-term Labour councillor in Glasgow who seems to know all of the names of her 84 colleagues (no small feat!). She discusses the the cycle of partisan blame that emerges in the debates and how that can be frustrating for a new councillor. Plus, she explains why young people appear to take interest in attending the Glasgow meetings.
Q: Am I reading correctly that you are one of 85 city councillors in Glasgow?
A: That’s absolutely correct.
Q: Wow, 85! Be honest with me, madam: do you know everybody’s name?
A: I think I do. I mean, two years on I hope I would. There’s still a few that I struggle with. We’ve got three Councillor Morgans. I still get them confused a little bit!
Q: I noticed something unusual that someone tweeted at you:
Excited to attend @GlasgowCC full council meeting today. Thanks a bunch to the amazing @EvaCMurray for getting me a ticket.
Do you need tickets to watch your council meetings? And follow-up: do you ever go on tour?
A: People can tune in online, but there’s a very limited amount of tickets to watch it from the gallery. You have to contact your local councillor and hopefully you can get them. You have to be quick. I think there’s only 12 to 14 spaces in the gallery. As for going on tour, that could be an interesting summer trip but at the moment, no. We could get some merchandise, put all the dates on the back, and just tour Scotland.
Q: Do I take it to mean that you have a full gallery most of the time if the tickets are in such demand?
A: We do most times, especially if there’s a controversial motion. Or some people have just never been to a council meeting. We’ve seen a lot of younger people take up the opportunity to come and watch.
Q: What is in the magic sauce of the Glasgow council that makes young people interested in showing up to watch? Is it the historic nature of the place? The topics you consider? Or with 85 councillors, everyone has a friend on city council and they’re showing up to support their buddies?
A: Maybe it’s a bit of everything. Two years ago was the first time 16-year-olds could vote in a council election. We’ve seen younger people become more involved in politics.
Q: Something that is noticeably different from most American and Canadian councils is the time in Glasgow’s council meetings dedicated to questions. Who decides which councillors get to question, and what is the purpose of asking those questions?
A: They’ve in the last couple of meetings changed how questions are done. Before it could genuinely take up a full meeting just full of questions. What they’ve done now is, say the Labour Party would put in six or seven questions. Four of them will get picked and the other three will get a written response. Some people use it to make noise about an ongoing issue, to take a hit at the leader of the council. Other people will use it to highlight a local issue. If you get a good hit on a question, you can make not just your local paper, but maybe the Glasgow citywide paper.
Q: A lot of what I hear in debates goes along the lines of “Labour did this five years ago.” “Well, the Tories did that 10 years ago.” “Oh, where was the SNP when this and that was happening?” It appears like you are settling a score. How much accuracy is there to that?
A: I think you’re right in that a lot of people like to play the blame game. It’s frustrating for me as someone who’s only in the city chambers two years–who wasn’t there when other decisions were made–and to have to take that. I’m trying my best to be the new generation of councillor, but you’re still tarred with the decisions made a long time ago.
Q: So you’re speaking to a culture where new councillors get saddled with their party’s baggage to the point that when they are the seasoned councillor, the expectation is that they will saddle new incoming councillors of the opposition party with the bad decisions of their predecessors?
A: Absolutely. You try and get away from that. People outside, like constituents, they’re willing to listen and see that you are the new face. But there’s a lot of people in the chamber—that is their rhetoric. If they can’t properly answer a question, they’ll say, “what did Labour do?” Or “what did the Tories do?”
Ahmad Zahra’s first major decision as a council member was to figure out how to fill a vacant council seat. The debate consumed many hours of meeting time, and he describes his thinking while navigating the city through an unprecedented scenario.
Q: You won election to the Fullerton city council last year. Am I correct that your occupation at the time was a film producer?!
A: That is correct. I’ve been an independent film producer for the past 20 years. It was my lifelong dream to make movies.
Q: Wow. That is quite something and I–wait, what’s this here? This is…oh, my goodness. My acting resume! How did this get on the table? Normally I keep it sitting on your side of the desk, so I’ll just slide it down that way–
A: I’ve heard this so many times before! Take a number!
Q: [laughs] Before your oath of office, what kind of role did you envision for yourself in the screenplay that is the Fullerton city council? Were you a Mr. Smith Goes to Washington? A Hannibal Lecter? Or Shrek?
A: All great characters. We all have a part of Hannibal Lecter and a part of Shrek and a part of Mr. Smith in us. I can relate to all of them at any given time: the shrewdness of Hannibal Lecter. That comes in handy every now and then. The naïveté of Shrek and then the tenacity of Mr. Smith.
Q: I agree. Thank you for giving that answer instead of one which involved eating people. At the same time that you were elected, Council Member Jesus Silva was elected to a district seat from an at-large seat, meaning his at-large seat was vacant. At the December 18 meeting, it was up to your council to decide whether to fill the seat through an appointment or a special election. You and Council Member Bruce Whitaker advocated for a special election, so why did you see the open seat differently than the other two people on council?
A: The motion I made was a special election by mail. For me, there was no particular clear way of actually conducting the interviews or the appointment. We had no process. The other thing is: we were given information that ended up being incorrect, that the city had the option for an all-mail-in ballot election [for] half the cost of a full election and would’ve been sooner. For me that was the middle ground.
Q: You may have seen a middle ground in the method, but to other people this was more about intent. Some of the commenters you heard characterized the appointment as a betrayal. Was there something in particular that they were worried about?
A: Throughout time, politicians always have developed fans and people who don’t like them. People who come and participate, they also have their favorites and the ones that they don’t like. We all have biases. You just have to listen to everybody and then make a decision not just based on who’s coming to the city council. For me, it was about making sure we were setting proper policy because it’s going to affect people for the next 50 years.
Q: At the January 29 meeting when your council was actually taking interviews, you referred to this as a “series of unfortunate events.” What did you mean?
A: It was a multitude of factors. State laws recently had changed and they set certain dates for special elections, which ended up pushing our special election date so far out that we would’ve had almost a whole year of a dysfunctional government. The other issue was the county did not adopt another state law that would’ve allowed cities to do all-mail-in ballots. The third thing is in our original ordinance, the appointment process was not included. On the night of the election in 2018, the night I won, there was a city council meeting in which the ordinance was revised to include an option for appointment, but they never discussed a process. Then there was people jumping the gun–candidates, applicants.
Q: What do you say to the criticism that you “sold out” by switching from supporting an election to supporting an appointment?
A: I did my best at pushing for a process that I felt was extremely open and transparent. My conscience is clear. We came to the right decision. We saved the city a lot of money which we actually invested in some lifesaving equipment for our paramedics, which we would not have had if we spent the money on an election.
Follow Council Member Ahmad Zahra on Twitter: @AhmadZahra
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As always, City Council Chronicles’ sponsor is Dig Deep Research. They assist local governments in obtaining grant money and are eager to hear from potential new clients. Find out how they can help you today: