Interview #48: Dublin, IE Councilor Ciarán Cuffe (with podcast)

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

After last week’s Dublin city council meeting, I talked with Ciarán Cuffe about why his council is so enormous, how the political parties get along without too much fighting, and whether the Lord Mayor does a decent job of keeping things on the rails.

Q: Your city council has 63 members. That is a huge number! Be honest with me: do you know everyone’s name?

A: No, I don’t! Up until three years ago we had 52 members and even that was a bit of a struggle to fit into our chamber, which is in a building 250 years old. It’s a squeeze, and if you want to get out to get a glass of water, you have to hustle past several colleagues.

Q: What made you add 11 people?

A: There was a rebalancing in local government between urban and rural. The situation was that there was a lot more councilors in rural areas than in urban areas. So the then-minister at a national level decided to reduce the level of councilors in rural areas and increase it slightly in urban areas.

Q: I read that you recently decided to let councilors bring their children into the meetings. Is that true?

A: Yeah, there was an issue with one of my colleagues who wanted to bring her child into meetings and was told, that’s not something that really works. So Claire [Byrne] battled that and I’m glad to say that she’s now welcomed into meetings. I don’t think anybody would bat an eyelid if a mom was breastfeeding in a meeting. That’s certainly the norm in other European countries.

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Dublin, IE Councilor Ciarán Cuffe

Q: Let’s get into the meat and potatoes–or, as you say in Ireland, the “potatoes and potatoes.” Your council is divided into political parties, I believe eight in total. Explain how these parties affect everything from who sits where, who is allowed to talk and when, and who gets along with whom.

A: Traditionally, we have two center-right parties in Ireland. But in more recent years, there’s been an explosion of left (a lot more left than Bernie Sanders) left-wing parties. You have People Before Profit, you have the Workers’ Party, the Socialist Workers Party. It gets a bit confusing. We talk about bank bailouts and we still have rows about that, and those rows find their way into council meetings. We tend not to have too many fisticuffs at the meetings, but you can have broad discussions.

Q: How do you rank current Lord Mayor Brendan Carr when it comes to running the meetings?

A: Brendan is trying his best but it’s a bit like trying to organize a roomful of screaming cats. Brendan is as challenged as many of his predecessors. The thing about the mayor in the Irish context is we don’t have a directly-elected mayor who’s there for five years. We don’t have an Ed Koch or a Giuliani. We have a mayor who is in for twelve months and they go out again. So they don’t command as much respect.

Q: After people are done being Lord Mayor, are they more wise or tempered?

A: I think they are. I think there’s a knowing glance amongst people who have been mayor. Though I haven’t been mayor, I have been in the national parliament. You’ve got to carefully understand the mood of the room.


Follow Councilor Ciarán Cuffe on Twitter: @CiaranCuffe

#103: Dublin, IE 5/8/17

Councilors were packed tighter than marshmallows in a Lucky Charms box at the Dublin city council chamber. And as with any group of Irishmen this size, things quickly got heated.

The subject was innocent enough: a tame discussion about the maternity hospital. But suddenly, Councilor Paddy Bourke stared down Lord Mayor Brendan Carr.

“On a point of order, I think it would be safer if the members of the board left the room–and that includes yourself,” he demanded.

Lord Mayor Carr, a member of the hospital’s board, pointed his pen defensively. “There’s a lot of us on different boards around the city. And no one’s ever asked to leave the chamber.”

But he dialed back his annoyance and gestured around the room. “I’ll leave that up to the council to make the decision.”

“I don’t think we should create a precedent of the people who are best informed having to leave,” argued Councilor Rebecca Moynihan in disbelief. “Otherwise, we should resign from all the boards. I don’t think that you should leave, Lord Mayor.”

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Will he or won’t he?

Another councilor began yelling for a point of order. Carr glared at him, warning, “there’s another councilor before you.”

As the belligerent councilor persisted, the Lord Mayor sharply cut him off. “I chair the meeting!”

At this point, the clearly un-amused Councilor Daithí Doolan was all but ready to smother this ruckus and head to the pub.

“There’s certain elements in this chamber tonight trying to gag ourselves and straightjacket ourselves. It’s ridiculous,” he groused. “We’re adults. If people want to leave the chamber, feel free to leave. I trust councilors to make the right decision.”

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“I will not be straightjacketed. In fact, I will barely be jacketed.”

Having gauged the temperature of the room and the purity of his intentions, the Lord Mayor reached his decision. “I have absolutely no conflict of interest. I don’t intend to leave the chamber.”

After this wee bit o’ discord, I reasoned that the meeting would be smoother than a field of four-leaf clovers from here on out.

I thought wrong.

“There was a challenge that came in from a member of the public,” Carr announced three hours into the meeting, referring to a citizen complaint, “and we have to try to resolve it.”

He glanced up at the clock. “We’re now agreeing to suspend the meeting and I’ll ask everyone who’s a member of the Protocol [Committee] to meet and come back.”

THAT sent councilors into a frenzy.

“Point of order! Are YOU telling ME we’re about to break up this meeting,” Councilor Kieran Binchy hollered into the microphone, his voice rising throughout the rant, “in order to hold a separate meeting so the Protocol Committee can make decisions in PRIVATE?!”

Other councilors nodded and grunted in support. Now I know where the term “Fightin’ Irish” comes from.

“You cannot convene a meeting right now!” Binchy exclaimed with wild eyes.

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“This is TOO MANY MEETINGS!”

“There was an issue that came in from the public,” the Lord Mayor patiently explained. “We were then given legal advice that the Protocol Committee should meet–please sit in your seats.”

Carr held up his hand while pleading for councilors to listen–with some difficulty. “Someone show a bit of respect somewhere!”

“This is ridiculous,” Councilor Binchy wailed as Carr opened the voting machine. “This isn’t the way to do business!”

Unfortunately for him, three-quarters of councilors sided with their Lord Mayor. The meeting was recessed.

Interview #45: City of Sydney, NSW Councilor Christine Forster (with podcast)

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

Folks, this is a first: we have an Australian city councilor–and a good one at that! Christine Forster is a Liberal Party councilor who also ran for Lord Mayor (which is Australian for “mayor”) last year. We got outraged at what I was seeing–or not seeing–in her council meetings.

Q: Where I am, it is Sunday. But where you are, it is Monday. So you are IN THE FUTURE! I think it would be fun if you told the audience what I am going to say next. I’ll put my fingers in my ears.

A: Well I’m pretty sure you’re going to ask me how the City of Sydney council operates.

Q: [Taking fingers out of ears] Okay, great. I want to start by talking about your dog. I know you’re a big animal lover and–wait a minute. I bet that’s EXACTLY what you thought I’d say. Nice try! Let’s talk instead about your council meetings. I could not find a scrap of video footage anywhere. What’s going on? Did a dingo eat your cameras?

A: [Laughs] It wasn’t a dingo and it wasn’t even my pug, Audrey Pugburn! It’s a sad fact that unfortunately there is no video or audio record because our Lord Mayor–she’s been in charge of the show since 2004–resolutely refuses to broadcast or televise our meetings. It has been something I’ve been pushing for several years now. But the Lord Mayor, Clover Moore, is intransigent.

Q: In July 2014, the council decides to do the live streaming. That passes on a 5-4 vote. What happened next?

A: It passed on a 5-4 vote because the Lord Mayor’s numbers were down. Somebody was away on sick leave. The motion was rescinded at the next meeting by the Lord Mayor when she had the numbers again.

Q: How long have the debates been on this and what was the tone?

A: There was no debate, really. As soon as the new council was [sworn in for 2016], I spoke very robustly in favor of it. And the Lord Mayor and her team simply voted it down.

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City of Sydney, NSW Councilor Christine Forster

Q: This is frustrating to me. Clearly it’s frustrating to you because you’re living through it. Are regular people as angry about this as you are?

A: People want this. There are councils around the world that have been doing this since the 1980s. It’s beyond frustrating, frankly. I have no problem with anyone photographing or recording anything I say or do. I’m happy to open myself to that level of scrutiny.

Q: I did contact the Lord Mayor’s office and asked for an answer about why she refuses to allow the rest of us to see what’s happening. I received no response. Quite frankly, I am outraged that Clover Moore thinks the people’s business should be done on HER terms. However, being fair here, can you think of any time that you or your fellow councilors used a meeting to grandstand, take a shot at the mayor, or create a distraction?

A: Absolutely not. This is not about us trying to score political points. This is an administration that will countenance no variation, no opposition, that is entirely about control.

Q: Couldn’t you hold up your cell phone and Facebook Live stream it?

A: It might well end up that somebody does that. It won’t be me!


Follow Councilor Christine Forster on Twitter: @resourcefultype

#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!

#96: Burnaby, BC 4/3/17

It’s springtime in Canada, which means everything is coming up roses.

That certainly was the case at this week’s Burnaby city council meeting, where even the stickiest of wickets had a silver lining.

“A good friend of mine has Parkinson’s,” revealed a silver-maned man who, being the near-perfect vocal doppelgänger of Mister Rogers, sat politely in front of the councilors.

“He needs to use an electric wheelchair to get around. To come to my house for a coffee has become kind of a problem. To get to that ramp, he would have to put his wheelchair onto the roadway.”

Mayor Derek Corrigan broke in apologetically. “Let me say to you that, uh, the city of Burnaby takes this issue very seriously.”

“I realize that, Your Worship,” the commenter responded in that kindly Fred Rogers deadpan. “I’m a boomer. As we age, mobility will become more of an issue. We’re getting older every day.”

At this point, someone to his left yelled out, “Mature!”

“Mature, yes! More mature,” the man chuckled. “And better looking, I might add.”

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Better looking? Is that possible?

Speaking of older and better looking–

“The report that’s before us is naming the 2016 Outstanding Citizen of the Year,” Councilor Dan Johnston announced. “This year we actually are naming a couple: Jim and Lindy McQueen.”

Johnston rattled off all their volunteer work that made the McQueens mc-qualified for this honor:

  • Classic Car Show
  • Festival of Lights
  • Burnaby Seniors Games
  • Edmonds Bike Fair
  • Foster parents to 15 moose
  • Poutine taste testers

“I think I would call them the lovebirds of the community,” Councilor Anne Kang smiled. “They come out in a pair, they come out as–I don’t want to say this but, Mr. and Mrs. Claus!”

“There is no public event in Burnaby where you don’t find Jim and Lindy. They’re everywhere,” Councilor Pietro Calendino said as a compliment (or perhaps a warning…).

“It’s incredible that two senior citizens–almost as young as I am,” he gestured to his own white hair and beard, “can dedicate so much time to the community.”

Mayor Corrigan subtly nodded. “It’s not often that the award is given to a couple. But in this case, I don’t think you can separate the two.”

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“Believe me, I’ve tried.”

Well, the clock is ticking. It’s time to make one more person happy. We’ve got five councilors left, so who’s it going to be?

“I’m just very pleased to see that we’re purchasing $120,000 worth of shade structures for parks for the summer!” Councilor Colleen Jordan eagerly read off the dollar amount with a huge grin. “One of my pet peeves is providing enough shade.”

Not one to sit on good news, Councilor Jordan looked out to the audience and gasped excitedly.

“Especially since one of our members of our Heritage Commission is in the audience, we got a $57,000 grant for our–yes!” she pumped a thumbs up.

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No caption needed

“I think that because it was such short notice there might not have been many applicants. But whatever the reason, we doubled the amount of money to celebrate our 125th birthday!”

“It’s like having Christmas,” Mayor Corrigan observed.

“It’s very happy Christmas for everyone!” Jordan threw up her hands and laughed.

Final thoughts: After consulting with the judges, I give Jim and Lindy  McQueen 13.41 Canadian stars, which is 10 American. I don’t usually give stars to a couple, but in this case you can’t separate the two.

Interview #39: Montreal, QC Councilor Mary Deros (with podcast)

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

Montreal city council meetings run a liitttttttle bit differently than anything else we at the Chronicles have seen. So naturally, I wanted to get an explanation from longtime councilor and deputy mayor Mary Deros. We dove deep into public commenters, language differences–and even shared a musical interlude!

Q: Councilor, unfortunately my translator canceled at the last minute, so I’ll have to use a French-English dictionary. Bear with me…ahem. Merci madame de parler…avec moi…sur le podcast

A: Michael, I speak English.

Q: Oh! Thank god. Well, your council meetings are conducted primarily in French. Is there a stigma against speaking English at the meetings?

A: No, they can address us in English or in French and the members can respond in either English or French.

Q: You have 65 councilors, which is the largest city council I’ve seen so far. And you also have political parties! Talk about how those two things affect how the meetings are run.

A: There’s the administration, which is a party of the mayor. Then you have the first opposition, then the second opposition. The standing committee members–made up of all parties–all sit together. We debate, we come to a consensus, and recommendations are prepared which are deposited at the following council meeting.

Q: One observation about your city council is that you do have your share of lawyers, business owners, and civic activists. But you have one councilor who is a singer, one who is a pianist, and your council president, Frantz Benjamin, is a poet. Is it easier for creative people to get elected in Montreal?

A: Frantz Benjamin is not just a poet–that is one of his many talents. You know, I like to sing as well. I’m not a professional singer, but that’s a hobby of mine.

Q: Will you sing with me?

A: Of course!

[Editor’s note: We then sang “O Canada.”]

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Montreal, QC Councilor Mary Deros

Q: A big part of your city council meeting is “questions from citizens.” A person comes up, they can ask a question of any councilor, then the councilor responds. Where does this concept come from in Montreal?

A: It’s to be more democratic. Officially, a citizen can ask a question on whatever irks them, whatever they need answers to–or they’re frustrated.

Q: Some councilors field a lot more questions than others. Do you know beforehand if you’re getting a question?

A: Not necessarily. We receive the questions and the list of citizens just as we enter the council room. Most of the questions are asked to the mayor and the mayor has the right to redirect the questions to the members who hold the file [are in charge of the issue].

Q: I’ve gotta tell you, watching questions from the public is infuriating to me because it seems like so many people would rather make a point than ask a question. And they get belligerent when called out on it.

A: There are some citizens who are there several times and it’s always the same question. When they have the microphone, some citizens take advantage. If each citizen took more time than allotted, then they’re taking time away from others who are waiting in line. If it’s a first-time comer who’s not sure how to go about it, [Council President Frantz Benjamin] will help them along.


Follow Councilor Mary Deros on Twitter: @maryderos

Interview #38: Edmonton, AB Councilor Bev Esslinger (with podcast)

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

It’s our first dip into the waters of Alberta and boy, what a fun time it was! I talked to Bev Esslinger, a councilor in Edmonton. We addressed accusations that the Edmonton council meetings are a “man cave,” and also discussed the seemingly-unrelated subjects of prayer and city hall security.

Q: Something caught my eye on the CBC. This is a story from January:

mancave

Do you agree with this characterization of your city council meetings as an “upscale man cave?”

A: I wouldn’t call it a man cave. The last time, we didn’t have that many women running for council. We’ve been really working on that in Edmonton to improve that. We’ve changed some of our policies to be more family friendly–it’s good for everyone if meetings end at 5:30 rather than going into the evening after a full day of debate. No one’s at their best when the meeting goes past that time.

Q: Something that was big at your city council was the 2015 Supreme Court decision saying that prayer at government meetings was not allowed. You didn’t seem to like this, but looking back at almost two and a half years without prayer, is it still a disappointment?

A: Absolutely. We used to start our meeting with a prayer from a different interfaith group each time. It was always a very nice part of the day. I thought it reflected the diversity we have.

Q: City council meetings are a business meeting, ceremony, and public forum rolled into one. Did it help you do your job to have someone give a prayer right before you heard about things like zoning?

A: It was a moment of pause to reflect on our community’s diversity. It was a moment where people got to wish us their best. Hey, we can all use more prayer!

Q: I’ll give that an amen. But one of the suggestions to replace the prayer was to have a “moment of reflection” when citizens would say what it meant to them to be an Edmontonian through a poem or a song. You were against it. Why?

A: It went from a prayer to something that could be very broad.  I didn’t think it was the same thing at all.

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Edmonton, AB Councilor Bev Esslinger

Q: Perhaps you haven’t heard a poem about Edmonton that truly blew your socks off. May I read my poem?

A: Why not!

Q: Okay:

Saskatchewan River–
Cold waters as sharp
As Gretzky’s skates.
Light rail
Now going to Century Park.
What’s that?
That’s the Royal Alberta Museum.
History!…Mmm so thirsty;
Better go to the waterpark
At the West Edmonton Mall.
Splash
Into Alberta!

When I visit Edmonton, can I read that at a council meeting?

A: No.

Q: …Okay, let’s change the subject. On September 22, 2015, a group of cab drivers protested during a meeting when you were deciding whether to allow Uber in Edmonton. Have you ever been concerned about your safety at a council meeting?

A: Not really. It’s disruptive–you can’t conduct a meeting. We don’t try to get into it with people. In this case, this large a group of people reacting…you can’t continue your meeting.

Q: You decided to beef up your security with metal detectors and a glass wall. Wouldn’t it be cheaper if the councilors carried guns?

A: That would not be Canadian.


Follow Councilor Bev Esslinger on Twitter: @bevesslinger