Scott Neal is a fun guy to talk to. Not only has he been the city manager of multiple cities around the Midwest, but he’s a bit of a YouTube star for his “On the Job” video series. We talked about what he learned from British city councils and how public commenters affect how he thinks about the city.
Q: I want to start 4,000 miles away from Edina in England. You were there for ten days in 2005 and you met a queen’s dozen of local councilors. Did you learn anything about city council meetings over there–other than, obviously, their meetings are on the opposite side of the dais?
A: It was a lot of fun. We learned that most of the cities we dropped in on had a huge number of council members compared to the U.S.
Q: What number are we talking?
A: Two dozen, sometimes more. They were amazed that we could get work done with five council members. They had in their mind a link between the number of elected officials and the effectiveness of the organization.
Q: Have you ever gotten sad when a city council member retires or leaves?
A: I’ve had that a number of times over my career. The one that comes to mind most recently is a council member in Edina named Ann Swenson. She was part of the council that hired me. She was clear in what she wanted, which made her an easy person to work for.
Q: At her last council meeting, she said that you put your pen in the air when you want to speak, so she gave you a pen that lights up! Do you use that sparkle pen in meetings?
A: I don’t use it in council meetings. I do use it around my office, yeah!
Q: In Edina, you’ve had a couple of council meetings that stretched on for petty long because you had a bunch of public commenters. You sent out this tweet at a meeting:
Is that a frequent occurrence?
A: No! I started in this line of work prior to city councils having their meetings shown on local access. I remember when we were making those decisions, city officials worried about that very thing happening: what if we’re having a public hearing and somebody watches it on TV and they decide to just come down and join in? I used to think that was unnecessary to worry about. [This] was the first time in my career it’s ever happened! I’m glad he put on his pants and came here–
Q: Wait, you assume they’re not wearing pants at home?!
A: It’s their privilege. It’s a free country.
Q: Amen to that. There was one contentious public comment back in October. A black man was recorded on video being handled roughly by an Edina police officer. At the next council meeting, for three hours people came up to the podium and they were outraged. When that many concerned people show up, do you think that means the city has failed?
A: I do not. Not necessarily. Doesn’t mean it [hasn’t]. I have had in my career a couple of council meetings that reached that level of anger. They haven’t come around very often, but it certainly makes you sit up and take notice.
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