Interview #73: Bristol, UK Lord Mayor Lesley Alexander (with podcast)

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

We have a highly prestigious episode this week: Lesley Alexander has been a Conservative Party councilor in Bristol since 2003 and is the current Lord Mayor–a.k.a. chair of the council meetings and the ceremonial “first citizen.” She revealed a fun piece of trivia about the council chamber and recalled a scary moment from a council meeting.

Q: Bristol has had a lord mayor or a mayor for 801 years. That is a lot of mayors! So for the next ten hours or so, we’ll go through each of those guys and you tell me how they did at running a council meeting. Thomas Beaupeny, 1384: do you give him a thumbs up, thumbs down, or in the middle?

A: [Laughs] I have no idea! One thing that you may not know: we have quite an adversarial form of council chamber. It’s made out in the same way as Parliament. The distance between the two rows facing each other is two sword-lengths. So nobody can stick their sword into the opposition.

Q: Oh, that’s amazing! As an American, I would never think to measure things in swords. Maybe bullet trajectory, but not swords. Bristol is on its second elected mayor, and he has to stand for you when you enter, just like everyone else. Do you technically outrank the mayor?

A: It’s difficult to say. We’re two different jobs. I chair the full council meetings. He’s got the checkbook. He runs the city. But he’s got the aggravation. I have the chain and the mansion and I have all the fun.

Q: [Laughs]

A: We’re two different roles. One is the civic role–that’s mine. Then there’s his role, which is running the city. The two shouldn’t cross over. The mayor has the power to ignore what any of the councilors say, except the budget. He needs the councilors to pass the budget.

Q: I noticed that when you announce whether a motion is passed or failed, you don’t announce the vote split. Why is that?

A: You can do that, I suppose. If you’re watching on the webcast, you should be able to see [how people voted].

Q: No, you can’t.

A: Okay, well that is something I will take on board and make that comment in the future.

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Bristol, UK Lord Mayor Lesley Alexander

Q: During your March 2016 meeting, there was a moment where the council was taking a vote. But you were not present because Councilor Mark Weston said that your car was apparently vandalized. Is that true?

A: Yes, it was. Because the council house was closed for renovations, we had a meeting at the cricket club. We had a, well, I would say a “rent-a-mob” sort of person, rather than somebody with real political convictions. When I tried to go in, he stopped the car and was kicking at it.

Q: Oh, wow. You were sitting in the car while this man was kicking at you?

A: It was quite frightening because he was bouncing up and down with his hands on the car. There was a bit of a baying crowd.

Q: Is he in jail currently?

A: No, he’s not. I think security would have liked us to take it a lot further. But the comment from our legal department was, well, it’s all going to be over now and he’ll go away. And he did.


Follow Lord Mayor Lesley Alexander on Twitter: @brislordmayor

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Interview #72: Hamilton, ON Councilor Matthew Green (with podcast)

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

Even though he’s only in his first term, Matthew Green has very sophisticated views on the mechanics of city council meetings. We explore his strong pro-video streaming beliefs and the plague of long-windedness.

Q: You sometimes Facebook Live stream your speeches from the dais. You talk a fair amount at council meetings, so how do you decide what moments are worthy of Facebook Live?

A: When I started, the old-school model was councilors would give inside information to mainstream media in exchange for favorable coverage. I found that in not doing that, my positions at council were miscommunicated or misrepresented. I remember getting upset about it. I had a media expert, she said to me, “don’t get mad at the media. Become the media.”

Q: Hmm.

A: Facebook is a hyper local medium and so I choose Facebook to communicate to my residents.

Q: Have you ever watched a Hamilton council meeting online through the city’s website?

A: It is horrible.

Q: Right?!

A: It is terrible. An incident happened in council chambers and I wanted to open an investigation. In doing so, I looked at our live stream and realized our live stream did not cover major sections of the whole chamber. So I had to [freedom of information request] my own city to get the security footage to provide me with the incident I believed I saw. We’re very fortunate [to have] an independent journalist. He runs a live stream called “The Public Record.”

Q: Yeah.

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Hamilton, ON Councilor Matthew Green

A: He has built a reputation for himself in capturing the circus that is often city hall: the inappropriate comments, the workplace toxicity, or some of the decorum issues. He creates a prism in that people are aware that he’s there and sometimes, I think, it raises the decorum and the level of discourse because they know they’re being recorded. When there’s no media present, we sometimes say the zaniest things.

Q: It’s curious you mention decorum because on everything I’ve seen, the Hamilton city council behaves relatively well. Again, maybe it’s because he’s there recording, but what are some of the issues you’re referencing?

A: One of the governance challenges we have, in my opinion, is that we don’t have a strong chair role. We rotate the chair, which allows councilors from month to month to use that position as a bully pulpit. It provides a situation where chairs will allow councilors to speak at length or speak in very harsh and personal terms to staff, which should be shut down.

Q: Are you ever worried when you become the chair that people will have similar reservations about the job you’re doing?

A: I’m actually comfortable chairing meetings. We’re not THAT bad. It’s really a conversation around time. We’ll have four or five of us who monopolize all of the time. In the technology of our microphones, they’re supposed to shut down after five minutes.

Q: Mmmhmm.

A: The idea is that if I’m the chair, I don’t want to shut you down at five minutes. So I let you just go! I do that with the understanding that sooner or later you’re going to be the chair and I’m going to have an issue that I want to go on. It’s a bit of nudge-nudge, wink-wink that I think is problematic. But we’re all guilty of it.


Follow Councilor Matthew Green on Twitter: @MGreenWard3 

Interview #71: Port Moody, BC Mayor Mike Clay (with podcast)

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

We covered a lot of ground in this interview with Port Moody’s Mike Clay. For instance, where does the mayoral title “Your Worship” come from and does he like to be called that? We also listen to some beautiful music and time travel back to 1913 to reenact a city council meeting.

Q: In Canada, people refer to mayors as “Your Worship.” Where does this term come from?

A: I don’t know. It must come from Old English somewhere. It was probably from the House of Lords or something. I don’t like the term. I don’t like people referring to me that way. The funniest thing that ever happened was I had a conversation with the archbishop one time and he asked how he was supposed to refer to me. I said, “well, you’re supposed to refer to me as Your Worship, but I don’t think we’re going to ask you to do that!”

Q: [Laughs] Is there a more secular term you’d want to be called?

A: In council, I prefer Mr. Mayor or Mayor Clay. Something much simpler and less snooty.

Q: Port Moody started video streaming council meetings while you were mayor. Do you since have any regrets about what you’ve said live on TV?

A: The good thing about capturing people in the moment is it’s raw. It might be emotional but you read council minutes [and] the legislative diaries and stuff, you don’t get any sense for what’s really going on. Without the video in the past, my interactions with different politicians–people say, “I was really fighting for that!” And I think, “I was there. I don’t think you really were.” So it might be interesting for people to say, “yeah, you know what? They really were fighting for it. I watched that on live stream.”

Q: Yeah.

A: I have WARDROBE regrets, but other than that….

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Port Moody, BC Mayor Mike Clay

Q: [Laughs] What do you think about where council meeting technology is headed?

A: I think there’s opportunities to throw certain things up to a public vote, a mini-referendum. If it’s issues that aren’t life or death–if somebody said, “I think we should paint it blue,” and someone else said, “I think it should be green,” why don’t we throw that out for a public discussion and a vote right there online while we’re doing it? It might not be serious engagement, but if they joined in for that part of the conversation, maybe they’ll hang around for other parts as well.

Q: You do remember our election in 2016 where there was some MINOR propaganda by a FEW million Russian Twitter and Facebook bots. Are you worried the Russians could also hack your insta-polls?

A: Well, for now until we know that we have locked down security, [we’d be] taking it for opinion polling.

Q: Here is something weird I found: in 2013, the centennial of Port Moody, you reenacted the first-ever council meeting from 1913. Whose idea was that?!

A: Wow, I don’t know whose idea it was. I think it was a great idea. It got so funny during the meeting I could barely contain myself from breaking up laughing! It turned out we had some impromptu comedians on our council. How much of it was made-up? Most of it. But it was reflective of the way people think things were in those days.


Follow Mayor Mike Clay on Twitter: @MikeEClay

Interview #66: Ottawa, ON Councilor Michael Qaqish (with podcast)

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

Michael Qaqish is in his first term on the Ottawa city council and we had a lot to talk about: his appearances on the “Man Panel” and “Fun Friday,” but also his thoughts on bilingualism, distractions, and protesters in the council chamber.

Q: Do you know when you are on camera in the meetings and think about how to come across best on TV?

A: Yeah, it’s funny because I sit on the left side of the table. The camera is usually in my left corner so I never get picked up. I don’t get much on the camera, but we’re all sort of aware. I’ve also had photos snapped of me at committee or council where I didn’t realize they were, so sometimes we’re not necessarily staring at the media.

Q: In the U.S. there are certainly politicians who are obsessed with their image, watching hours of cable news while sitting in the White House (not naming names). Do you ever go back and look at council meeting videos or media coverage of yourself?

A: I want to learn from what I see: am I doing it right? Do I look okay? Do I speak fast, slow? So whenever I do an interview I try to catch it and improve. Do I watch council videos? No, I don’t! [Laughs]

Q: What behavior do you sometimes see in council meetings that grinds your gears?

A: One of the things I don’t like is when people around the table or in the audience start talking and–especially when somebody says something and they don’t agree with it–they start, “ugh!” or making noises and starting to have side conversations. Whenever I have an opportunity to raise it with a chair of a committee or someone else, I do take the opportunity to raise that.

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Ottawa, ON Councilor Michael Qaqish

Q: I noticed something that disturbed me: your councilors sometimes speak in English one minute and then in French the next. Please explain to me–IN FRENCH–why you guys can’t pick a language!

A: [Laughs] Well, my French is not as advanced as some of my other colleagues. We have a couple of Franco-Ontario colleagues. I was taking French classes and I took a break in the summer. Bilingualism is part of our culture.

Q: Do you think the councilors who switch to French know they’re doing that? Does it serve a purpose?

A: Some of the councilors are French. Councilor [Mathieu] Fleury has a lot of [constituents] whose first language would be French. For some of them it’s a personal thing because they want to maintain the langauge. But for some of them it’s to let their residents know–who are predominantly French–that they are asking questions in French as well.

Q: In the meeting of April 13, 2016, there was a lengthy discussion about how to regulate Uber. But one angry taxi driver stood up and yelled at you all for nearly two minutes. Do you guys have security there?

A: We do have security. Those situations are always tricky because on the one hand, you don’t want to create a scene. But give them a couple of minutes to vent and it’s done. He wanted to get something off his chest and he did. I think it’s okay for people to vent. We didn’t need security–the people around him were telling him to calm down.


Follow Councilor Michael Qaqish on Twitter: @QaqishPolitico

Interview #65: London, UK Assembly Chair Jennette Arnold, OBE (with podcast)

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

Jennette Arnold is a Labour Party Assembly Member who has been chair for several terms. We discussed how London Assembly meetings are radically different from U.S. city council meetings–plus some juicy stories about former Mayor Boris Johnson.

Q: Madam Chair, I see you are an Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire. 

A: I am.

Q: So, “Most Excellent Order”…are you a knight?

A: [Laughs] Only an American would ask that question! Knights are men and the equivalent of a knight would be a baroness and I’m not that. I’m just straightforward Jennette Arnold, OBE.

Q: Gotcha. In the U.S., most city council meetings cover things like zoning, passing laws, and honoring groups in the community. What is the primary function of your assembly meetings?

A: Our governmental structures are very different. The main power that we have is whatever the mayor does, we have the power to call him in front of us so that he can give an account to Londoners through our questioning….Scrutiny is relevant, it’s informed, and you can bring it alive by using case study and evidence from Londoners.

Q: What do assembly members get out of the questioning and what does the mayor get out of it?

A: I think there is something about the political exchange that is adversarial. I’m sitting in the chair aways thinking, “is this member going too far?” That’s in terms of inappropriate language, going outside the mayoral remit, getting personal. My job is to always be monitoring and when I see a member has just about reached the line, to come in and remind that member he has now stepped over the line.

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London, UK Assembly Chair Jennette Arnold, OBE

Q: You had some tough questioning of previous Conservative Mayor Boris Johnson. But if a Conservative assembly member grilled your Labour Mayor, Sadiq Khan, and the crowd was cheering that member on, would you shut down that applause?

A: No, I wouldn’t. My job isn’t to stifle the feeling of the meeting. If you’re chairing a charged meeting, you have to be very careful in terms of the interventions. I don’t see it as my job to stop what I call that “energy,” which is a reflection of people’s feelings.

Q: Has a constituent ever come up to you after a meeting and said, “I saw what you did there and I like that you gave the mayor the business?”

A: I can refer you back to the applause in the chamber with the questioning I carried out of Boris Johnson. I remember a school closure. What this school was looking for was for their mayor to hear their case. A cross-section of the school came and I was speaking on their behalf. And I didn’t know that they brought a cake. [Johnson] was not listening. He was not making the proper responses for the young people.

Q: Hmm.

A: I said, “oh, come along. They brought a cake for you! Don’t be so mean!” Everybody laughed and he laughed and it took the heat out of the room. At the end of the meeting, I met the young people downstairs and he just happened to be passing. It was lovely to see the young people surrounded him and there was no getting away from them!


Follow Assembly Chair Jennette Arnold on Twitter: @JennetteArnold

Special Feature! “Best Thing, Worst Thing”

HUGE NEWS: this is our first international episode of the “Best Thing, Worst Thing” project! And the Canadians I talked to could not have been nicer: you’ll hear from senior citizens playing lawn bowling in the suburbs. You’ll sit on the sidewalk as a blues guitarist serenades us. And most climactic of all, you’ll observe a butter tart bake-off at a fancy hotel, listening to judges and pastry chefs alike. (I’ve been told that this is a HIGHLY Canadian thing to do.)

If you’ve never heard of the project before, check out the page here. When you are mentally prepared to discover who won the Great Canadian Butter Tart Battle, click to the City Council Chronicles podcast to download the latest episode. Or you can play it below.

Episode 11: Toronto, Ontario

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Toronto is the most populous city in Canada and one of the most multicultural places in the world. It was amalgamated in 1998 from several smaller cities and is crisscrossed by streetcars and subways–although those are often a target of Torontonians’ frustrations. We will learn about lawn bowling from a senior citizens’ league, sample the merchandise in a sex shop, and experience a play-by-play of the Great Canadian Butter Tart Battle. Along the way, we will hear from an immigrant, a city councilor, pastry chefs, a musician, and an educator.

Interview #58: Edinburgh, SCT Councilor Susan Rae (with podcast)

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

Susan Rae is a brand new Green Party councilor in Edinburgh and she has a terrific sense of humor! The Edinburgh city council had a hiccup after no political party won a majority when the council convened in May–plus, no one wanted to form a coalition until after the surprise election the prime minister called for June. We talked about that sticky wicket, plus all of the traditions of her council.

Q: Can you describe your council chamber?

A: It has beautiful stained glass windows and very old, very large desks. They have lids that open so you can hide everything in there. And large seats–I’m very tiny, only five foot tall. So my feet don’t actually touch the ground. They kind of swing!

Q: What do you hide in your desk?

A: I hide my cigarettes and my lighter and some biscuits in case I get hungry.

Q: The Lord Provost (a.k.a. mayor) makes a grand entrance every meeting: someone announces his arrival, everyone stands, and two other fancily-dressed people in white gloves follow him and put the mace into his high-backed chair. As an American, I’m thinking, there have got to be mayors over here who would LOVE their entrance announced with an entourage. Do you think it’s excessively formal?

A: I don’t feel it’s very necessary but there are traditional elements within the council that do like to keep the tradition of the mace and the sword. I’m very desiring of taking in a lightsaber one day. We [in the Green Party] all have our own! I would probably have to stash it in my desk.

Q: Well, yeah, you’d have to take out the cigarettes and the biscuits to fit it in there probably.

A: [Laughs] The traditional part has a place. It’s all on display, all of the silverware, the keys to the city–

Q: Wait, the keys to the city are just sitting out in the open in the chamber where anyone can take them?

A: We take them to Holyrood Palace and present them to the queen. Then she gives us them back and says, “you’re really good at looking after my city. Keep the keys!” So we did that recently.

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Edinburgh, Scotland Councilor Susan Rae (and the keys to the city)

Q: Each of the parties has a section of the room where you all sit together. And generally if the Conservatives are all standing to vote, Labour will not be standing. Are you allowed to disagree with your party and be the only person to vote for something?

A: It depends on the party. Some parties have a whip system and you have to follow the whip’s instruction. We tend to agree on things or we vote with our conscience. Labour and SNP operate a whip system and the Conservatives always vote together.

Q: I don’t know what the penalty is…death, maybe, if you don’t vote with them?

A: I don’t think it’s death quite yet. But I think you can be suspended from the group or they don’t let you have biscuits in your desk.

Q: That’s a steep penalty indeed.

A: The role of a councilor is to look after the people in their ward. I would rather people voted for what the people in their constituency want, not for what their party want.


Follow Councilor Susan Rae on Twitter: @susan4leithwalk