Interview #48: Dublin, IE Councilor Ciarán Cuffe (with podcast)

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

After last week’s Dublin city council meeting, I talked with Ciarán Cuffe about why his council is so enormous, how the political parties get along without too much fighting, and whether the Lord Mayor does a decent job of keeping things on the rails.

Q: Your city council has 63 members. That is a huge number! Be honest with me: do you know everyone’s name?

A: No, I don’t! Up until three years ago we had 52 members and even that was a bit of a struggle to fit into our chamber, which is in a building 250 years old. It’s a squeeze, and if you want to get out to get a glass of water, you have to hustle past several colleagues.

Q: What made you add 11 people?

A: There was a rebalancing in local government between urban and rural. The situation was that there was a lot more councilors in rural areas than in urban areas. So the then-minister at a national level decided to reduce the level of councilors in rural areas and increase it slightly in urban areas.

Q: I read that you recently decided to let councilors bring their children into the meetings. Is that true?

A: Yeah, there was an issue with one of my colleagues who wanted to bring her child into meetings and was told, that’s not something that really works. So Claire [Byrne] battled that and I’m glad to say that she’s now welcomed into meetings. I don’t think anybody would bat an eyelid if a mom was breastfeeding in a meeting. That’s certainly the norm in other European countries.

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Dublin, IE Councilor Ciarán Cuffe

Q: Let’s get into the meat and potatoes–or, as you say in Ireland, the “potatoes and potatoes.” Your council is divided into political parties, I believe eight in total. Explain how these parties affect everything from who sits where, who is allowed to talk and when, and who gets along with whom.

A: Traditionally, we have two center-right parties in Ireland. But in more recent years, there’s been an explosion of left (a lot more left than Bernie Sanders) left-wing parties. You have People Before Profit, you have the Workers’ Party, the Socialist Workers Party. It gets a bit confusing. We talk about bank bailouts and we still have rows about that, and those rows find their way into council meetings. We tend not to have too many fisticuffs at the meetings, but you can have broad discussions.

Q: How do you rank current Lord Mayor Brendan Carr when it comes to running the meetings?

A: Brendan is trying his best but it’s a bit like trying to organize a roomful of screaming cats. Brendan is as challenged as many of his predecessors. The thing about the mayor in the Irish context is we don’t have a directly-elected mayor who’s there for five years. We don’t have an Ed Koch or a Giuliani. We have a mayor who is in for twelve months and they go out again. So they don’t command as much respect.

Q: After people are done being Lord Mayor, are they more wise or tempered?

A: I think they are. I think there’s a knowing glance amongst people who have been mayor. Though I haven’t been mayor, I have been in the national parliament. You’ve got to carefully understand the mood of the room.


Follow Councilor Ciarán Cuffe on Twitter: @CiaranCuffe

#105: Madison, IN 5/16/17

You would think that after 104 city council meetings, I’d have seen pretty much everything.

You would be wrong.

“Six students from Mr. Barger’s government class have been with council members today,” Mayor Damon Welch explained to onlookers curious about the half-dozen teens occupying the dais. “Tonight they will be participating in our council meeting.”

His young shadow mayor stood awkwardly beside him. “Whereas, seniors from Madison Consolidated High School–and actually one junior, by the way–” Mayor Welch bragged, jabbing a thumb toward his own protégé, “–learned about local government, I proclaim today Student Government Day.”

Like a driver’s ed instructor passing the keys, Welch then said, “without further ado, I’ll turn over the meeting to our Student Mayor, Clate Winters.”

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Buckle up, folks

Clate flipped over his notes and fidgeted with the microphone. Mayor Welch pointed with his pencil and whispered something.

“Mr. Clerk Treasurer, would you please call the roll?” inquired the Student Mayor hesitantly.

One by one, council members yelled “here!” from the wall behind their normal seats.

“Have you had the opportunity to review the minutes?” Clate read from his script, so nervous that he pronounced “minutes” as min-OOTS. “Is there a motion to approve the minutes?”

A great deal of whispering commenced at the dais. “Say aye!” council members hissed to their fill-ins.  With some giggling, the minutes were approved.

The Student Mayor gestured to Student Council Member Casey Williams. “Thank you, Mr. Mayor,” Casey smoothly transitioned. “July 8 shall be known as Student Day. High school and college students will be given free admission to Crystal Beach Swimming Pool.”

“Nyla, you did speak a lot this afternoon about this,” eagerly interjected Mayor Welch. “Share some thoughts.”

The girl on the end chuckled anxiously. “We wanted the students to have…something to do, I guess!” She looked around for help.

Casey picked up the mic and launched into a confident explanation. “We wanted to present an opportunity that kept the student body active, but allowed them to exist outside.”

Nice job on the assist, Council Member Williams.

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Little crowded

The Student Mayor flipped over his notes again. “Is there a motion to applause?” Welch tapped him on the shoulder. “Approve!” he corrected himself.

The audience was already applauding good-naturedly. But Clate recovered and casually threw Welch under the bus: “The mayor’s handwriting’s not that good!”

Everyone, including the mayor, roared with laughter.

As this boisterous meeting wobbled to the finish line, Mayor Welch asked the kids to explain the vast knowledge they had amassed as council understudies.

“I attended the Chamber of Commerce meeting,” Student Mayor Clate volunteered. “A lot went over my head because, yeah–I’m not used to the business jargon.”

He reflected. “I didn’t understand a lot of it!”

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Hey, even the adults don’t understand a lot of it.

Council Member Laura Hodges introduced her shadow student, Taylor, who promptly took the microphone and described their visit to the sewage treatment plant: “we got to smell a lot of things.”

Council President Darrell Henderson was paired with Casey. “He’s the student rep on the school board,” Henderson explained, “so he thinks this is really an easy meeting.”

“Well, he’s not wrong,” Casey deadpanned to chuckles. At least we know now where he gets that boatload of confidence!

Like a practiced politician, he added that council members “know more in 1/16th of their brain than I have known in my entire 17 years of living thus far.”

Hmm. Casey, howzabout you come back next meeting?

#104: Columbus, OH 5/15/17

First impressions were VERY strong at the Columbus city council. No sooner had people risen to face the flag than a thundering orchestral rendition of the Star Spangled Banner blasted over the loudspeakers.

Council members stood at attention while the camera panned across the room. As the trumpeting ceased, onlookers were aided in the Pledge of Allegiance by a beautiful tapestry embroidered with the oath.

Talk about class, folks!

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It’s like a g–d– Norman Rockwell painting.

After this patriotic tour de force, Council Member Jaiza Page rattled off her own tour de fitness. “If I’m out there” on Bike to Work Day, she smiled self-deprecatingly, “you’ll probably see me last in line.”

She added, to chuckles, “just don’t run me over!”

More impressively, Councilmember Page revealed that daring Columbusites would soon be allowed to rapel 19 stories off the PNC Building–not for infamy, but rather for a fundraiser for sexual trafficking victims.

“I did go over the edge last year and I was thoroughly frightened for 20 minutes,” she admitted with no trace of anxiety. “But I would encourage those of you who are not interested in rapelling yourself to go out and just cheer the rapellers on.”

Yes, and also be sure to cheer on Page as she bikes, rapels, canoes, bobsleds, and hanglides her way to the title of “Most Adventurous Council Member.”

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“I got to this meeting via luge.”

By all accounts, things were going swimmingly. (Council Member Page will probably be swimming for charity at some point, too.) Suddenly, after Councilmember Michael Stinziano smoothly moved $1.2 million to repair the city’s sewer pipes, President Pro Tem Priscilla Tyson stared down at her paperwork.

“We have several non-agenda speakers that we will take momentarily.” She glanced at the clock. “We will reconvene at 6:30 for zoning.”

With that, the screen faded to black.

A slow horror dawned on me: she had turned off the cameras for public comment.

I wanted to scream, but I realized that even if she were rapelling off the outside of the PNC Building, President Pro Tem Tyson probably would not hear me.

Within seconds, the council chamber faded back in. The time was now 6:30 and the room was substantially emptier.

“Regular meeting number 26 will now come to order,” Tyson cheerfully announced like Richard Nixon after he erased those 18-and-a-half minutes of tape.

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I expected this kind of behavior from Cleveland. But COLUMBUS???

We may never know what was said in public comment that day. All we know is that the zoning hearing was much, much more tedious.

“To grant a variance from the provisions of Sections 3332.039, R-4 residential district; 3321.05(B)(2), vision clearance; 3321.07(B), landscaping; 3332.25(B), maximum side yards required; 3332.26,(C)(3), minimum side yard permitted,” Council Member Page read for nearly a minute off of the numbers-heavy ordinance.

“This is a very interesting situation,” a neatly-dressed white-haired man said as he stood eager to explain the nuances of zoning. “We have a building that covers close to 100 percent of the parcel that doesn’t comply with the zoning district or the university planning overlay.”

Yes, quite thrilling. You know what else would be an interesting situation? SEEING THE PUBLIC COMMENT.

What a shame that a council meeting with such high production quality should fumble this basic feature.

Final thoughts: While the V.I.P. here is clearly Council Member Page for doing “Fear Factor: Columbus,” the capital city’s lack of 100% transparency forces me to give this meeting only 2 out of 5 buckeyes.

Interview #47: Crystal, MN Council Member Nancy LaRoche (with podcast)

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

Nancy LaRoche may be a new council member in Crystal, but she has been observing the meetings for quite some time. She told me that after the council changed its rules, meetings have gotten much friendlier. Plus, all of you animal lovers will hear about the council’s tiny unofficial mascot!

Q: You are in your fifth month of city council meetings and the one thing the people want to know: WHO is Bart?!

A: Bart is a box elder bug that I named and gave a title to! My first night, Bart made his presence known on the dais. I watched him walk from one end to the other towards me and I went, “what a curious little fellow.”

Q: Ha! Would you call Bart a regular council attendee?

A: Yes. As a matter of fact, he seemed to favor [city manager Anne Norris] because one meeting he landed on her face, hung out on her cheek for a little bit, and then made his way down and hung out on her hand.

Q: Ick.

A: She was trying to get my attention but I was so engrossed being a new council member that I didn’t notice him with her.

Q: Does your accepting–and some would say cavalier–attitude about Bart send a message to any citizen that they can bring their box elder bug into the council meetings?

A: [Laughs] Well, they might be subject to one council member’s extreme disdain for box elder bugs. I heard a few slams on the counter. So, fair warning.

Q: Who is this Butcher of Crystal to whom you’re referring?

A: That was our Council Member Jeff Kolb.

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Crystal, MN Council Member Nancy LaRoche

Q: You mentioned that the previous council members changed some rules about how the meetings operate. Why did they do that?

A: If you go back to council meetings prior to 2015, you will see the tenor and the tone quite changed from the way it is now. I think that was the decisive reason why those things were done. When a citizen is watching these meetings, it seems more of a personality conflict. Winning was more important than carrying on with the city’s business.

Q: So it’s not just that you got two new council members this year and everything was resolved. The old council said, “our procedures are making us not get along.”

A: The procedures back then left it wide open. I remember sitting in one meeting where they kept arguing about moving an agenda item–and it was because they could. It was more to antagonize either the mayor or the other council members. I believe they had a mediator come in because things were getting so difficult.

Q: Wow.

A: If you come back to now, it’s much more professional. Things are moving smoothly.

Q: Did more people show up to watch back then in case something wild happened?

A: I believe attendance is probably the same. But that lack of attendance might be speaking to the fact that overall, people are pleased with the level of services. Also, people are busy, so they watch us online. Our streamed meetings get quite a lot of views.

Q: Well, most of those views were from me. I’m sorry for goosing your numbers this week!


Follow Council Member Nancy LaRoche on Twitter: @nwlaroche

#103: Dublin, IE 5/8/17

Councilors were packed tighter than marshmallows in a Lucky Charms box at the Dublin city council chamber. And as with any group of Irishmen this size, things quickly got heated.

The subject was innocent enough: a tame discussion about the maternity hospital. But suddenly, Councilor Paddy Bourke stared down Lord Mayor Brendan Carr.

“On a point of order, I think it would be safer if the members of the board left the room–and that includes yourself,” he demanded.

Lord Mayor Carr, a member of the hospital’s board, pointed his pen defensively. “There’s a lot of us on different boards around the city. And no one’s ever asked to leave the chamber.”

But he dialed back his annoyance and gestured around the room. “I’ll leave that up to the council to make the decision.”

“I don’t think we should create a precedent of the people who are best informed having to leave,” argued Councilor Rebecca Moynihan in disbelief. “Otherwise, we should resign from all the boards. I don’t think that you should leave, Lord Mayor.”

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Will he or won’t he?

Another councilor began yelling for a point of order. Carr glared at him, warning, “there’s another councilor before you.”

As the belligerent councilor persisted, the Lord Mayor sharply cut him off. “I chair the meeting!”

At this point, the clearly un-amused Councilor Daithí Doolan was all but ready to smother this ruckus and head to the pub.

“There’s certain elements in this chamber tonight trying to gag ourselves and straightjacket ourselves. It’s ridiculous,” he groused. “We’re adults. If people want to leave the chamber, feel free to leave. I trust councilors to make the right decision.”

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“I will not be straightjacketed. In fact, I will barely be jacketed.”

Having gauged the temperature of the room and the purity of his intentions, the Lord Mayor reached his decision. “I have absolutely no conflict of interest. I don’t intend to leave the chamber.”

After this wee bit o’ discord, I reasoned that the meeting would be smoother than a field of four-leaf clovers from here on out.

I thought wrong.

“There was a challenge that came in from a member of the public,” Carr announced three hours into the meeting, referring to a citizen complaint, “and we have to try to resolve it.”

He glanced up at the clock. “We’re now agreeing to suspend the meeting and I’ll ask everyone who’s a member of the Protocol [Committee] to meet and come back.”

THAT sent councilors into a frenzy.

“Point of order! Are YOU telling ME we’re about to break up this meeting,” Councilor Kieran Binchy hollered into the microphone, his voice rising throughout the rant, “in order to hold a separate meeting so the Protocol Committee can make decisions in PRIVATE?!”

Other councilors nodded and grunted in support. Now I know where the term “Fightin’ Irish” comes from.

“You cannot convene a meeting right now!” Binchy exclaimed with wild eyes.

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“This is TOO MANY MEETINGS!”

“There was an issue that came in from the public,” the Lord Mayor patiently explained. “We were then given legal advice that the Protocol Committee should meet–please sit in your seats.”

Carr held up his hand while pleading for councilors to listen–with some difficulty. “Someone show a bit of respect somewhere!”

“This is ridiculous,” Councilor Binchy wailed as Carr opened the voting machine. “This isn’t the way to do business!”

Unfortunately for him, three-quarters of councilors sided with their Lord Mayor. The meeting was recessed.

Interview #46: Paterson, NJ Councilman Andre Sayegh (with podcast)

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

I was SO excited to talk to a councilman from New Jersey. Why? Well, as you could tell from our Hackensack dramatic reading, council meetings in Jersey can easily go haywire. We discussed whether anyone has punched each other in his council meetings (good news: they haven’t) and why things can get aggressive in the Garden State.

Q: I want to play a clip from Paterson’s former city council president, Aslon Goow, Sr. Here he is during an interview:

Goow: There’s nothing hostile about our council environment. We’ve never hit each other. We might yell sometimes. You might have to.

Is it true that no one has hit each other at your council meetings?

A: I can confirm that no one has been physically assaulted since I’ve been on the city council. There have been instances BEFORE I got on of shoving matches. There have been a lot of shouting matches. But it’s not like a session of the Japanese parliament where you got people kicking each other. And it pales in comparison to the British House of Commons where they’re resorting to not only name calling, but profanity!

Q: Is there any actual harm to the city when councilmen verbally fight in the meetings?

A: No, not at all. It’s just the perception. They’ll say we’re a dysfunctional unit and they’ll dismiss us. When I say, “they,” it could be people outside of Paterson and viewers who are tuning in.

Q: A word about the viewers–the clips I found were on YouTube and they were only the negative stuff. That’s because I couldn’t find videos of your council meetings. I’m sure that if you televised the whole meetings, people might see that you threatened your fellow council members only HALF of the time–

A: Not even half of the time! Paterson has to get into the twenty-first century as far as live streaming. For the sake of transparency, you’re right. If we’re gonna debunk that notion that all we do is fight each other as opposed to fight FOR our constituents, that would be beneficial.

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Paterson, NJ Councilman Andre Sayegh

Q: Are all council members different off camera than when they are in the meeting and it’s go-time?

A: There are council people [who] when the camera is off they are Type B personalities. But when it’s 7 o’clock on a Tuesday night, they become Type A.

Q: It’s funny you mention Type A. I have seen similar behavior in other New Jersey council meetings. Everything I know about Jersey comes from Bruce Springsteen songs, so why is the state in perpetual DEFCON 2?

A: Think about it. We’re overcrowded. We’re a small state, but we’re densely populated. So every now and then, you’re gonna have people step on each other’s toes.

Q: So people just annoy each other more in New Jersey because you can’t escape them!

A: Yes! Mike, I hope you see some merit to what I said!

Q: I’m curious, when is the last time you walked away from a council meeting and felt good about what happened?

A: …Mike, you ready for this?

Q: Oh, my god.

A: You sitting down?

Q: I am LYING down. TELL ME.

A: Late February, we adopted a budget that did NOT call for a tax increase. That made me feel better than any other meeting.


Follow Councilman Andre Sayegh on Twitter: @andresayegh

Special Feature! “Best Thing, Worst Thing”

This episode of the “Best Thing, Worst Thing” project has it all: drama. Suspense. My wife’s grandmother. Not only do we visit this far southern city, but we walk down an empty Main Street, ride into the mountains, and catch ourselves running through the desert in a panic.

For an explanation of the project, check out the page here. If you’re ready to hear a group of folks talk about the best and worst things about where they live–and what adventures I got into along the way–head over to the City Council Chronicles podcast to download the latest episode. Or you can play it below.

Episode 7: Las Cruces, New Mexico

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Las Cruces is just one hour north of El Paso and the Mexican border in the hot desert of Doña Ana County, New Mexico. The population is 57 percent Latino. In this episode, we will watch a dust storm roll through the city, go on a nature hike in the Organ Mountains, and even get caught up in a medical emergency. We hear from a city councilor, a union president, a Belgian sailor, a classroom of college students, and my grandmother-in-law (who, by the way, makes a special request at the end of the episode).