San José City Council Special UpDiep

This audio episode is available on iTunesStitcherPlayer FM, and right here:

When I saw that half of the San José city council was wearing Star Trek uniforms at last week’s council meeting, my first thought was, “sounds about right.” My second thought was, “get [Councilmember] Lan [Diep] on the line!”

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Q: Thank you for joining me on the holiest of high holidays: Silicon Valley Comic Con. What do you have planned?

A: I have the Great American Litter Pickup in the morning.

Q: Uh, I’m sorry, the “litter pickup?” Is that from the Marvel Universe or the DC Universe?

A: I think it’s one of the independent ones!

Q: Okay, on April 18 I had some downtime between watching the Milwaukee city council meeting and the Tallahasse city council meeting. So, like usual, I flipped over to San José and I saw you say this:

LD: Thank you, captain. Government: a fickle frontier. These are the voyages of the Starship San José. Its four year mission–possibly extendable to eight–to explore wonderful new policies. To seek out better quality of life…to boldy innovate where no municipality has innovated before!

Q: Uh, okay, “Starfleet Commander,” what was all that about?

A: Prior to that meeting, Councilmember Dev Davis hosted a flag-raising for the Silicon Valley Comic Con. We created our own flag for it. I’m not sure if the city did it or Councilmember Davis did or the Comic Con did. She invited Steve Wozniak and she got the entire city council involved to dress up in Star Trek uniforms. So we were there and Steve Wozniak was there and a bunch of Star Wars and other cosplayers showed up. Fun was had. We presented a commendation to Steve Wozniak for being a great ambassador for the city of San José. Councilmember Davis and myself and a few other people showed up wearing our Star Trek uniforms from the previous event.

Q: I noticed there were some different colors going on. Some people wore gold, others wore red or blue. What was the logic behind that?

A: My understanding is that red are the engineers. They get things done. The blue is the science group and the gold is the command group. A lot of us wore gold–we did not coordinate that!

Q: You and the mayor were both wearing gold. So if a disaster were to befall San José, would you two be on the same team?

A: I mean, everyone assumes that I was trying to be Kirk. But maybe I was just playing a type and being Sulu, the Asian on the Star Trek fleet!

Interview #44: Mercer Island, WA City Manager Julie Underwood (with podcast)

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

Julie Underwood has worked in three cities in the past five years–so she’s noooooooo stranger to city council meetings! We talked about what happens when you bring your kids to a meeting, why she chose to sit far away from the mayor, and one pet peeve of hers.

Q: When you got sworn in as Mercer Island city manager, your sons were standing there with you. Your youngest was seemingly doing a Spiderman impression while you were talking about upholding the Constitution…has your family been to any other council meetings?

A: They have not. I generally do not have them attend council meetings for obvious reasons–the Spiderman and the…oh, my gosh! Wanting to take the mic and wanting to get my attention when I need to focus on what’s happening with the council. Many of us are working parents. I’ve had to pick up my kids towards the end of the day and run back to the office where I’ve said, “sit in my office. I’ve got a meeting. Do your homework.”

Q: I noticed that for your first couple of Mercer Island meetings, you sat next to the mayor and other council members. But by the third meeting, you were not up there on the dais! Does Mayor Bruce Bassett smell bad?

A: [Laughs] No, he doesn’t smell bad. They’re the legislative branch. If I were just observing the council meeting, I wouldn’t know exactly what is this person doing up there? Those folks are all elected by the people and I’m appointed. I really wanted to understand, is there a reason city managers sat up there? Are [council members] really wedded to this idea? As it turned out, none of them were.

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Mercer Island, WA city manager Julie Underwood

Q: Are there things you have seen council members do or say in the meetings that you really wish they wouldn’t? What habits grind your gears?

A: I’m certainly sensitive when I might hear a council member use the term “my constituents.” Once you get elected, you work for all residents at that point. Every city I’ve worked for, every one of the elected positions were at-large [elected citywide]. So I just thought that was odd to say “my constituents.”

Q: Yeah, everyone has the same constituents. It might just be something they assume they have to say when they become a politician. It makes you sound like Ted Kennedy or something.

A: Maybe,  yeah.

Q: Have city council members ever surprised you by telling you behind closed doors that some project or idea is perfectly reasonable, but once they get in the council meeting, they slam it left and right?

A: Yeah, I’ve had council members tell me in private where they’re going and then on the dais do the opposite. That is their prerogative. There is a certain amount of uncertainty that is not fun. I’ve also seen where they see testimony in public comment and councils just go in a different direction based on that testimony. I will say this: when I do experience that, it gives me pause and I say, okay, this is a case where I do have to be okay with the uncertainty of a particular person. I just don’t know if what they’re saying is going to be what they do.


Follow City Manager Julie Underwood on Twitter: @UnderwoodJulie

#100: Arvada, CO 4/17/17

It was breathtaking how quickly the good news kept rolling in to the Arvada city council chamber. But the best news was arguably reserved for the man who was nowhere in sight.

“[Councilmember John] Marriott is on a well-deserved vacation,” Mayor Marc Williams informed the unlucky working stiffs left on the dais. He added somewhat disdainfully, “South Padre Island.”

Nevertheless, Councilmember Nancy Ford beamed proudly at the Girl Scout named Emma who was standing expectantly at the podium. “Only three percent of Girl Scouts ever earn this,” she said, referring to the elusive Gold Award.

Excitedly, Ford grabbed Emma’s shoulders and spun her around, displaying a vest chock full of badges.

“Look at this!” exclaimed Ford.

Mayor Williams whistled. “Wow! You want to get a picture of that?!” The ladies mugged for the camera as people applauded the impressive garment.

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Mount Patchmore

Wardrobes dramatically shifted as Councilmember Mark McGoff congratulated the VERY casually dressed high school swimmers who took Emma’s place. “The JeffCo Hurricanes have won the 2017 Speedo Four Corners Sectional Meet in Lewisville, Texas,” he read.

“We work very hard as a team in the pool every night,” said their spokesperson, the most formally attired of the teens in a t-shirt and jeans. Another of their crew was in tie-dye and shorts–but the most questionable fashion choice was the standoffish young lad in a sleeveless hooded sweatshirt.

(I’m sure the dress code is considerably looser on South Padre Island. But even there, I doubt that sleeveless hoodies are couture.)

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Thank you for not wearing your Speedos, I guess.

From sports to entertainment: a new movie theater was coming to town–but the president of Harkins Theaters knew there was only one way to make the announcement even sweeter.

“This is our senior vice president–also a Gold Award Girl Scout winner,” he gestured to the lady next to him.

“I was hoping to tell Emma congratulations, but she left!” the VP threw up her arms in mild dismay as the council guffawed.

The pair of Hollywood hot shots launched into a slide show of the finest, most luxurious theater Metro Denver would ever see.

“We’ll bring in local breweries. We have a new concession stand with hot food offerings and all-laser projection,” bragged the president. “The top picture is the recliner seats,” he nodded to the tantalizing stock photo of a family enveloped in cushioned bliss.

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“So help me, god, people will be smiling.”

But while the theater reps were pumping the butter, Councilmember Ford pumped the brakes. “I did a little research on the cinema industry and I found conflicting reports,” she clasped her hands. “How do you see it performing in the future?”

“I’d say that reports of our demise have been greatly exaggerated,” the movie prez reassured her.

With that, Mayor Williams dramatically flourished a sheaf of papers. “I will now sign the contracts!” he boomed, sealing the theater deal.

Councilmember Bob Fifer politely interjected. “I just wanted to share: tomorrow I’ll be flying down to Arizona to speak about broadband. I gotta be at the airport by six in the morning. I was trying to tell the mayor I need to be done by 7:02,” he glanced at the clock.

“Mr. Fifer,” the mayor retorted, “I’ve seen a picture of you at the age of 24. I don’t think beauty rest is going to do you any good!” The mayor and a handful of audience members cackled as Fifer shook his head ruefully.

#99: Medicine Hat, AB 4/17/17

From inside the gigantic semi-circle of the Medicine Hat city council, an equally gigantic subject emerged: how much reading do councilors REALLY want?

“I always wondered whether we needed more reporting, not less,” Councilor Les Pearson fired a shot across the bow of the anti-report lobby. “I’m wondering if council can be advised in a briefer form in a more frequent basis.

“It’s draining, I guess, on some people–on me in particular,” Pearson admitted with the exasperation of someone who had just forced an Encyclopedia-length government report past his eyeballs. “I guess I would like smaller bites along the way.”

“The intent,” Chief Administrative Officer Merete Heggelund replied, “is that you should be able to get the gist of it from the top” pages. She held her thumb and index finger less than an inch apart, measuring out 20 to 30 sheets of paper max. “It’s not that we expect council to have read 500 pages of financial information.”

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Pearson: “NOW you’re telling me?!”

“This is good, spirited conversation,” said Councilor Robert Dumanowski without a hint of enthusiasm–but also without irony.

“Quarterly reports are indicative of the industry and market world, etc.,” he launched into an exhaustive stem-winder that made my skull numb for a solid two-and-a-half minutes. I regained lucidity during his closing argument.

“I could go on and on and on, but the reports will only be bumped a single month. It’ll still be, I’m sure, an award-winning financial report,” Dumanowski reassured fellow Hatters.

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Trust me: this man DID read all 500 pages.

At this point, the meeting was more than three-quarters of the way over and the council was galloping through the budget like a Mountie on horseback. Prospects for a record-scratch, edge-of-our-seats moment were dim.

But dimness? Thy name is Councilor Bill Cocks.

“I can recall–and he shall remain nameless–a former councilor who voted in favor of the budget but NEVER voted in favor of the tax increases to support,” Councilor Cocks glared out from over his bow tie into the camera. “You can’t have your cake and eat it too.”

Yikes. While this was more “passive” than “aggressive,” the T-word touched off a nerve.

“I’m not happy we’re having a tax increase,” Councilor Julie Friesen hunched over and grimaced. “We don’t have a choice. We have to do this.”

You could almost see the Stockholm Syndrome set in. “I’ll support this, but, you know–who wants to? We don’t want to do it!”

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Friesen: “Oh, god. The taxes…they’re waiting for me outside!”

She turned to Heggelund for backup. “You might just explain to people what it would mean if we didn’t do this.”

The Chief Administrative Officer rubbed her chin and said without emotion, “we would have to find the money elsewhere. And we’re running out of places to find that money.”

What a doom-and-gloom way to end a meeting. Heck, even the Civic Recognition Awards were dogged by a rain cloud.

“I’m just a little disappointed that we had no recommendations–NOBODY was nominated for community inclusion or sports and recreation,” Councilor Pearson waved his fist in disdain.

“It’s really too bad that those people were not being recognized. I know there are people who made major contributions to sports and recreation and community inclusion.”

Final thoughts: For those of us who need a picker-upper, here it goes: the City Council Chronicles Sports and Recreation Civic Recognition Award goes to…Councilor Les Pearson! Hooray for closure!

Interview #29*: Miami, FL City Manager Daniel Alfonso (with podcast)

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

Daniel Alfonso is a longtime government employee and Army sergeant. But amazingly, he is also a survivor of Miami’s city commission meetings. What does that mean? Listen to the incredible story.

Q: Is it a different experience being in the council meeting room–or is basically what you see on TV what it’s like in real life?

A: When I’m sitting on that dais, you actually see the faces of all the elected officials. You see the reactions. You see the public because your peripheral vision sees the entire room. When you’re looking at it on TV, you’re only capturing the images of the camera at that particular moment.

Q: Last April, I saw a wild thing at your city commission meeting: the commissioners tried to fire you! I know this is Florida and the threshold for something being shocking is fairly high…how shocked were you?

A: I was a little surprised but I wouldn’t say “shocked.” The meeting that took place that day was a difficult one. What led up to it was that I had terminated an employee who I believed had done something wrong. That employee had some ties to the community and there was a number of people that came out in support. I never [publicly] disclosed the reasoning for the termination because I didn’t need to add insult to injury.

Q: While this is going on, you are staring straight ahead. But behind you is this striking scene of two dozen city employees standing silently behind you. Did you notice what was going on with them?

A: Initially I did not. That day, [my wife] was watching that portion and she sent me a text. She just said to me, “why don’t you get up and come home?”

Q: Mmm.

A: I took a moment to look around and I realized that I had pretty much my entire senior staff–even the police union president–was standing next to me. And he’s a person we definitely have had differences with. I felt pretty good about that. So I responded to my wife, “look at all these people standing behind me. I can’t.”

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Miami, FL City Manager Daniel Alfonso

Q: At this point, the mayor comes into the room. He is not amused. Basically, he said, “if you fire Danny, I’ll veto it. If you override me, I’ll just hire him again.” Were you thinking, “god bless this man for sticking up for me?”

A: That was an incredible moment as well. The mayor really came out and supported the job I’ve been doing and supported me tremendously that day. I was actually impressed by how strongly he felt about keeping me for the rest of his term.

Q: At the end of this ordeal, Commissioner Ken Russell said, “this is your come-to-Jesus moment with the commission.” Danny, did you find Jesus in that commission meeting?

A: [Laughs] I’m a religious person and I found Jesus long before that day!

Q: Ha! Do you think that the commission handled this in the best way–in a public meeting?

A: That’s what we in our position expose ourself to. Would I prefer to have a private discussion with each commissioner individually? Yes. But this is the way our elected officials decided to have this discussion.


Follow City Manager Daniel Alfonso on Twitter: @DJA1968

*Due to a typo, there was not previously an interview 29. While this is technically our forty-third interview, we will number it 29 to get back on track.

#98: Slidell, LA 4/11/17

“Mr. President,” drawled Councilman Glynn Pichon, “I’d like to remove 3288 Effie Street from the condemnation list and assign it to the city attorney’s office.”

Barely two minutes after roll call, this verbal hand grenade was tossed into the Slidell city council meeting. Well-dressed men in the audience frantically hunted through stacks of paperwork as city attorney Bryan Haggerty rubbed his tired eyes at the podium.

“The homeowner did demolish the property; the cleanup has not been completed,” Haggerty said with a frown, compulsively uncapping and recapping his pen.

“If I may, Mr. President, if anyone’s here that has any interest in the property, would you please come forward?” Haggerty wheeled around and scanned the chamber.

“Let the record reflect: no one appeared.”

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“Let the record also show: this man is looking at FarmersOnly.com.”

Whew. Turned out this grenade was a dud. However, as soon as Council President Jay Newcomb flipped the page, calling out the name of 321 Cousin Street, the rumpled attorney rose again with an even more troubled look.

“Mr. France,” Haggerty summoned forth the shaggy, gray-haired building safety director as his first witness, “I know you’ve participated in some of the meetings. Would you provide the council an update?”

“Mr. Stanley proposed a plan to replace the electrical wiring and making that safe,” France slowly testified, bracing himself on the podium. “As well as the exterior of the building being brought up to 100 percent compliance.”

From memory, he impressively rattled off everything that the owner, this mysterious Mr. Stanley, had to fix: “All the rotten materials, the broken materials. The porch. The columns. The exterior doors. That does not include the heating, cooling, ventilation, and/or any plumbing deficiencies.”

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Oh, is that all?

Haggerty stood and cut to the chase. “These would be the three options. The first one: Mr. Stanley would have to appear tomorrow with his contractor. If he would fail to appear, we’re gonna ask the council to order all utilities be disconnected, and this matter be set in two weeks for condemnation.”

He wiped his nose. “The second option would be that Mr. Stanley work out a building permit with a schedule–it’s a schedule we are VERY strict about.”

France stood impassively as council members leaned in for the remaining ultimatum. “The third option would be that the permit would be issued, but if the work stopped or ceased for whatever reason, we would immediately cut off all utilities.”

All heads swiveled to the right end of the dais. Councilman Pichon knew this case inside and out–the final judgment was his.

“I’m gonna use the second option here to require Mr. Stanley to meet with Joe France tomorrow to submit a plan. Because of the public safety concern, which is a real threat,” Pichon clasped his hands and stared grimly at the lawyer, “if Mr. Stanley failed to meet with Joe France, the city is authorized to disconnect utilities by the close of business tomorrow.”

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Noooooo! Mercy! Have mercy!

To administer the sentence, Haggerty beckoned Stanley forward. The man planted himself glumly at the podium and stared at the floor.

“I want to make sure you understood. You’re in agreement with that?”

“I am,” he responded.

“Okay,” Haggerty gestured to the audience. “Make sure you meet with Mr. France to set a time for tomorrow.”

“Ten-thirty. My office,” France ordered.

Stanley nodded. “That’s fine.”

Final thoughts: I give 10 out of 10 stars to swift Southern justice.

#97: Caribou, ME 4/10/17

“Before we start, I just wanna announce: a public hearing on marijuana usage was scheduled for tonight. That won’t be tonight–it wasn’t in the paper, I guess,” a contrite Mayor Gary Aiken warned as councilors stared stone-faced (no pun intended) ahead.

And thus, the Caribou city council meeting started off innocently–and amusingly–enough. However, as citizens lined up to speak, the meeting slowly morphed into an increasingly depressing debtors court.

“We’ve had back taxes for quite some time since my dad took ill. He’s been a couple years passed away,” a man admitted earnestly off-camera. One councilor leaned back. Another crossed his arms.

“So are you prepared to pay the $11,960.76?” the mayor quizzed him.

“Today? No,” the man flatly replied.

Councilor Joan Theriault scrutinized his case file like a sympathetic magistrate judge. “In 2018, you would get a $20,000 homestead exemption,” she finally looked up to inform him. “Make sure you apply.”

“It’s been on my mind for quite some time now. But…I can only do what I can only do,” he inexplicably shrugged off her advice.

As he left the podium, another citizen in dire straits took his place. The mayor massaged his forehead as the desperate plea began.

“We have approximately $2,000 to give,” the man sniffed. “My family’s gonna help us to clear that bill up.”

His wife chimed in unprompted. “You know what my grandmother used to say? ‘Experience is good if you don’t pay too dearly for it.'”

The panel of councilors remained expressionless.

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The people’s court

She continued, “You guys have been really, really good and leaned over backwards for him–”

“I’m glad you understand that because I don’t think he understands that,” Mayor Aiken sharply retorted.

Her husband shot back, “I understand that.”

The mayor ignored him. “As of right now, the property is gonna go up for sale–”

“PLEASE take that out of the equation,” interjected the man acidly.

“Take what out of the equation?” the mayor leaned forward, genuinely confused.

“What you just said,” he spat. “Don’t say that to me.”

His wife was horrified.  “Knock it off. KNOCK. IT. OFF.”

As her husband protested, councilors sat motionless with their hands clamped in their laps. Picking a fight in front of the people who might sell your house is probably not in “The Art of the Deal.”

“So, it’s part of the equation,” the mayor repeated. Husband and wife did not reply. The council dictated the terms: the man would pay $500 in the next 21 days, plus another $350 by May 5.

There was an uncomfortable pause as councilors watched the feuding spouses shuffle out of the room.

A third man stepped forward to spin a long story about dutifully paying his taxes–sighing the whole time.

“Do you have your receipts?” Councilor Theriault peered over her glasses.

“No,” he breathed another baritone sigh. “I wasn’t very good at keeping receipts. My father’s name is the same, so things kinda get opened that shouldn’t. Uh, it’s hard to explain when you live with the same name.”

Councilor Philip McDonough was done with excuses. “Every time the situation comes up, it’s a different subject for each person! You bring in what you owe and we’ll turn your deed back to you.”

He slapped the table angrily. “Yes, it’s hard to sit here and say that. And it’s hard listening to them.  But the rest of our citizens have an obligation and they all meet it.”

Sighing Man turned away disgustedly. “I’m sorry, but you’ve offended me, sir.” He stepped out the door, closing it behind him.

The council stared silently.