Raquel Castañeda-López grew up in Detroit and now she is on the city council, dealing with some truly vexing problems people bring to her: decay, violence, neglect. We talked about challenges from the public, challenges with fellow council members, and the challenges of eating during council meetings.
Q: I came across something disturbing in your background that frankly your constituents ought to know about. You posted this on your Facebook page:
Tell me about the kinds of things you eat in the city council meetings.
A: I switched to smoothies mostly in the meetings. We will share kale chips or salted seaweed sometimes. Nuts, granola…things you can eat pretty quickly and not make too much of a mess.
Q: I noticed that your council meetings can go pretty long. Recently, the council president added a rule limiting statements by council members to two minutes–
A: Well, the rule has always existed. Unfortunately, it is difficult to enforce it amongst the council members, as we are all prone to talking quite a bit. The reminders come when it’s kind of getting out of control. Meetings, honestly, have been longer than five or six hours sometimes.
Q: If I were going on for too long, how would you politely tell me to shut up?
A: Depending on the content–if you’re talking about something that’s not related to the agenda item, you could say “point of order.” You could “call the question” on a vote to end debate. You could also accuse someone of being out of order. I’ve definitely had people call “out of order” on me, whether justified or not!
Q: Not only do you have your regular meetings downtown, you guys hold meetings around the city at night. They can start off at times like pep rallies, but then they usually turn into extended pleas for help. Do you get anxious before the meetings because you know what’s coming?
A: No. I think there is some mental preparation but it’s our job. You have to be compassionate. The frustrations and suffering that we heard in the comments is very valid. Having been born and raised here, I understand not having very good city services at times and feeling afraid and forgotten. I think the frustrating piece is that sometimes as a council, we don’t have the power that people think we do have. It really lies with the mayor’s office. So trying to explain that to people without them feeling brushed off [is hard].
Q: Well, I get all of my news from the president’s Twitter account, so I know things in Detroit are going “so badly.” What are the three issues that come up most often in your council meetings?
A: I think it’s city services in the neighborhoods. Really. It’s about people having basic quality of life needs met. Safety is always a major concern.
Q: One more thing about public comment: it’s common for council members to respond to people right after they talk to you. Do you know other councils don’t do it that way?
A: There’s pros and cons. It’s weird to come and talk in a meeting and there’s just no response at all. It’s nice to answer the person right then and there if you can.
Follow Council Raquel Castañeda-López on Twitter: @Raquel4Detroit