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

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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

Interview #57: Christchurch, NZ Mayor Lianne Dalziel (with podcast)

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

This is our first trip to New Zealand and I could not be more excited! Lianne Dalziel was a longtime member of Parliament before she became mayor of Christchurch, and here she gives wonderful summary of the differences in those meeting styles. We cycled through all of the cool costumes and inventions she has seen in council meetings–including some mythical creatures!

Q: I noticed that you call all of the councilors by their first names in the meetings. Why are you so friendly with your fellow Kiwis? And as a foreigner, am I allowed to call you a Kiwi?

A: Yes, you are allowed to call me a Kiwi. I guess it’s an informality that is pretty Kiwi. I was a member of Parliament for 23 years, so you would never call someone by their first name. Actually, it’s something that I haven’t discussed with my fellow councilors. You’re the first one to raise it. Maybe I better have a conversation with them!

Q: Oh, wow. You’ve gotten to see some pretty cool stuff in your council meetings. You had a demonstration of an electric bicycle. You had someone bring in a model of a cathedral and cranked a pulley to raise the bell. What is the most memorable thing you’ve seen?

A: Well, we did have the faeries come in one day [laughs].

Q: The faeries?

A: They’re just delightful. Faeries that have little wings and wear pretty costumes–

Q: Wait, they live in New Zealand?! Like, Tinkerbells? That’s where they are?

A: Tinkerbells, exactly. They came along and talked about what they did and they go to events and bring joy to children’s lives. That bike that you mentioned was a YikeBike, which was invented here in Christchurch. I don’t know if I’m going to sit on one. They don’t seem to be facing the right way.

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Christchurch, NZ Mayor Lianne Dalziel

Q: Your first council meeting as mayor was also the first-ever council meeting that was streamed online. Were you at all nervous that YOU would be the first Christchurch mayor who, four years later, would have ME scrutinize how you ran a meeting?

A: [Laughs] Michael, I didn’t realize that you would be doing this!

Q: That’s how the dice roll, baby! Were you intimidated by the presence of cameras and microphones?

A: I come from Parliament, and Parliament is live streamed. Sometimes I forget to turn off my mic at the front and I lean over to the chief executive and say, “oh, my goodness!” And she quietly leans forward and switches off the microphone.

Q: Did the councilors adapt to the cameras in a good way? Or was there grandstanding?

A: Grandstanding is inevitable in an environment where you’ve got such an open record of what people did say. But that, in my view, encourages high quality debate. If you’ve got one councilor who gets to his feet and he’s really passionate about a particular subject, I’m thinking that’s good for democracy. It’s good for people to see their own representatives being accountable in that way.

Q: What is the history behind the “tea break” that you take in your council  meetings?

A: I don’t know! It’s quite normal to have a tea break during the course of a working day. Now we invite the public to join us.


Follow Mayor Lianne Dalziel on Twitter: @LianneDalziel

#118: Rural City of Wangaratta, VIC 7/18/17

Hold your e-mails, Councilheads! I am aware that the Rural City of Wangaratta is not a city. Of course, the actual city is called Wangaratta. But Wangaratta has no council. So the Rural City of Wangaratta council is the city’s council.

I’m glad we cleared that up.

The meeting started off smoothly enough: Mayor Ken Clarke solemnly acknowledged the “traditional owners” of the land and their elders. A new conflict-of-interest policy for councilors was given a round of nods without comment.

Even the messiest subject you could think of–toilets–got a clean airing.

“Last year we conducted an assessment of all buildings, including the toilets,” a staffer explained to the council. “We want our toilets to be at their best. One of the findings is that we want to upgrade all of those toilets. The recommendation is that the council develops a public toilet improvement action plan.”

As requested, councilors dutifully approved the potty proposal. However, I would be remiss if I didn’t thank the unsung hero who had to “assess” all of the toilets. That person’s nose–and possibly other body parts–is quite brave.

At this point, my heartbeat quickened as I realized I would witness “public question time,” an extraordinary opportunity for regular Rural City of Wangarattans (that can’t possibly be right…right?) to grill their elected leaders mano a (it was all men) mano.

“My question’s about the multi-deck car park. I’d like council to investigate how we can get out of the contract of the ongoing debt that’s going to be incurred by ratepayers,” a man in a maroon shirt beseeched councilors. “Also, whether council can find another purpose for the building.”

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Can we get the toilet man to assess the car park too?

“We have a project to do a review of parking which will look at paid versus free parking, appropriate amounts of various time limits of parking,” the chief executive started to explain.

“Why do we need a review on parking? We know where everyone parks,” sharply retorted the commenter. “See whether the state government can get out of this contract or have an inquiry into why it happened.”

The chief executive remained measured. “Yes, and the review is really about whether we’ve got enough one-hour parking, enough all-day parking.” As for getting out of contracts, “it’s not for the state government to be making decisions about those arrangements,” he noted.

At this point, Mayor Clarke, sensing an intractable argument was nigh, stepped in.

“Malcolm, I think you’ve got to realize that the multi-deck car park [decision] was made by the previous council,” he flatly informed the inquisitor. “We would need to find a lot of money to get out of it at this stage.”

“Well, the state government should–”

“The state government will not fund it!” the mayor curtly cut him off.

The commenter barely paused before picking up his rhetorical sword and charging forward.

“So you’re saying the ratepayers are going to continue to be burned for the next seven or eight years? That’s just a waste of money.”

Mayor Clarke was becoming exasperated. “It’s NOT a waste of money if people use the car park.”

The reply was immediate and brief: “But they’re not.”

A long, uncomfortable pause set in. Councilors exchanged glances.

“Maybe all the councilors should have to park there,” he suggested bitingly. “Maybe you should make it that every council worker park there.”

One quick-thinking council staffer at the dais raised her hand. “My car’s there right now!” she revealed. As chuckles broke out, the tension evaporated.

Interview #56: Cork, IE Lord Mayor Tony Fitzgerald (with podcast)

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

Cork is a very old city and by my cursory count, Tony Fitzgerald may well be the six-hundredth-or-so mayor to lead the council! He has been a councilor since 2004 and I was curious to know where he stood on putting cameras in the council chamber. He has an open mind and wants to do his research, but also says that the rules are a firm “no” on the issue.

Q: I noticed that the Cork City Council does not live stream its meetings. In fact, in 2014 the council voted against live streaming by a margin of 22-6. Which side were you on?

A: My understanding was that we didn’t have the proper procedures. I mean, it’s important to make the meetings interesting to the public and it’s important to keep the focus on the issues of the city rather than, you know, making political speeches. So I would have an open mind to that. If I do recall it now, it wasn’t really very well thought out.

Q: I’ve said this before on the program: if people can’t see the entire meeting, all they know is the sensational stuff that gets tweeted out or the protest videos on YouTube. That also skews people’s perceptions of your council meetings.

A: Yes, yes. I think as well that in 2014, budgets were quite limited. I think spending money to video record council meetings…that money would have been much wiser spent in housing or roads. You have to be prudent in terms of what is the best way to spend public money.

Q: I do have a suggestion for you. Cork has, I think, 125,000 people. In an American city of that size, you might have five to seven city council members. Cork has 31. And I would argue that a small council where you can see what they’re doing is MORE democratic than a large council where you cannot. So what do you think of finding the money in that way?

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Cork, IE Lord Mayor Tony Fitzgerald

A: Well, at the moment there is a report due on the representation of the number of elected members to the city council. All of that is up for review at the moment. But I would think that it’s good to have a strong interface with the public. I think it’s good to have as many voices as possible. It gives you wide political perspective.

Q: Do you have a smart phone, sir?

A: I do.

Q: Would you commit to doing a Facebook Live video of council meetings on your phone–for free–before you leave office?

A: That’s something I haven’t considered. It’s not as easy for me to say that today. I’m more of a practical representative in doing my research. That would have to be considered by the party leaders, the party whips, in conjunction with the administration. I mean, we have to stick to the rules of the council. But I have a very open mind on a lot of issues.

Q: Well, you have 31 councilors. You can have 31 potential Facebook Live videos, each streaming out to their hundreds or thousands of followers and you could cover a pretty good size of Cork that way.

A: Yeah, yeah. But we have to look at the practicalities of that too. But that’s something that could be considered.

Q: Okay. Well, keep me posted.


Follow Lord Mayor Tony Fitzgerald on Twitter: @Tfitzgeraldcork