This podcast interview is available on iTunes, Stitcher, Player FM, and right here:
Few people have had as eventful a three years on their city council as Justin Outling has had in Greensboro. From the infamous transgender bathroom bill to screening police body camera footage in a meeting, we relived some of the most contentious moments in his council chamber.
Q: I noticed that every council meeting, you bring in a “courier.” Is this a position of honor or does it go to the city employee who’s about to be fired or what?
A: I think definitely more of the former than the latter! Greensboro city council has had a courier for quite some time now and that person’s task is to provide council with notes either from staff or from persons in the gallery. It’s traditionally a city employee from one of the many departments who has the pleasure of spending four or five hours with us on a Tuesday. “Human conveyor belt” is probably an apt description.
Q: But if they drop a bunch of files on the floor, they’re not gonna walk in and be fired the next morning in the Parks and Rec department, right?
A: If the call were mine, they would not be fired. But that’s really the city manager’s call. So all couriers in Greensboro, beware: don’t drop the papers!
Q: At one meeting, your Republican state representative came to defend the controversial North Carolina transgender bathroom bill. Do you as council members have to watch what you say about higher level politicians in meetings to avoid them retaliating against you?
A: I think there is a lot of strategy that one has to undertake in moving the ball forward and working with state legislators who do have the power to make your life difficult and act against the interests of the city. There are definitely occasions where you have to exercise restraint and do what you think is best for the city, not necessarily what’s best for your sanity.
Q: In the summer of 2016, there was an incident involving a white police officer who used excessive force against a black man and it was captured on body camera footage. Your council decided not only to release that video, but to do it at a council meeting, on camera, with a full room of onlookers. I can imagine council members in other cities going, “what? Why would you ever do such an emotionally-charged, embarrassing, or uncomfortable thing in a council meeting?”
A: Allowing the citizens to actually see what happened and giving them an opportunity to express their frustration, their disappointment, and their hopes for the future–through that incident, it helped bring some members of the community closer together. It perhaps wasn’t the best for council members’ egos in terms of hearing a lot of unpleasant things from members of our community who were hurting like we were.
Q: As the footage was playing in that council chamber, I’m not sure what you were expecting to happen, but did it happen?
A: Yeah, I was expecting to see a lot of hurt on people’s faces, and that’s exactly what I saw. And it’s the same images I saw on the faces of my colleagues the first time we saw it in a closed session.
Q: Do you see a divide on your council between people who consistently think about what the proper role is for council members, and then others who are better at reacting to the mood of the room?
A: I think there is a divide. I would not characterize it as being better to reacting to the mood of the room. I think some people are much more willing to tell folks what they want to hear, notwithstanding the merit. The reality is that I’m an elected member of Greensboro city council. It is not about me feeling good about what I say and what I do.
Follow Council Member Justin Outling on Twitter: @JustinOutling
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