Interview #116: Richmond, BC Councillor Alexa Loo (with podcast)

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

Alexa Loo is a former Olympic athlete and current city councillor who has witnessed a pull-and-tug over the maximum size of houses on Richmond farmland. She explains what the root of the issue appears to have been for some people.

Q: I must congratulate you on being newly inaugurated to a second council term. Whose idea was it for the men and the women to take separate oaths of office?

A: What ended up happening is the men ended up sitting on the one side of the room and the women sat on the other side. It just worked out that way. On the women’s side, we even sit in alphabetical order. And that wasn’t planned either.

Q: So is this going to be like a seventh grade dance with the boys on one side and the girls on the other for the next four years?

A: Yes! It is what it is.

Q: On your island, you have something called the agricultural land reserve. About 39 percent of Richmond is farmland. Why were some councillors concerned about how long that would last?

A: There had never been a cap or a limit on the size of house that you could have on agricultural land. House sizes started to get bigger. There were starting to become applications for things as big as 40,000 square feet. You can put a skating rink in 40,000 square feet.

Q: In a meeting, your council decided to put a cap on the size of a house on farmland to around 11,000 square feet. I don’t know a lot about farming, but I’m assuming that with my bedroom, my children’s bedroom, my tractor’s bedroom, my wheat thresher’s bedroom, and the bedroom for my livestock–even with bunk beds I’d be pushing it with 11,000 square feet.

A: Well, a wheat thresher is so big, you can’t even drive it on a standard road, so–

Q: I would need a really big bedroom is what you’re saying?

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Richmond, BC Councillor Alexa Loo

A: You would. There’s a whole bunch of rules that still protect the farmland, so at some point, does it matter if they have a three-car garage or a four-car garage? Does it matter if you have six bedrooms or five bedrooms? Why is it anybody else’s business what they’re doing?

Q: The fact is some people were unhappy with the limit. They thought 11,000 square feet were way too many–

A: And there’s a lot of people that don’t want a proliferation of South Asian people living on farmland.

Q: Their outrage was specifically aimed at limiting a racial or ethnic group from building these houses?

A: Typically those are the people building it. It’s easy to go after the size and shape of things if you know it’s gonna stick it to that group, I think.

Q: You referred in council meetings to the “good old boys” and fairness. Why in the meeting did you couch your language like that?

A: Because standing up at a council meeting and calling other people racist is a bold and dangerous move. Throwing names around like that–we’re not allowed to call people names.

Q: Were there any other councillors who felt the way you did about the racial aspect?

A: Oh, everybody’s well aware of it. The 23,000 square foot house that had been built, it had been built by a Caucasian person in Richmond. And he had a bowling alley in it. So when people are like, “what do you need a big house for?” He needs a bowling alley, apparently. But nobody seemed to have a big problem with it. They were more in awe at the time. But now if somebody else builds one, there’s a problem around it.


Follow Councillor Alexa Loo on Twitter: @alexaloo

Interview #114: Toronto, ON Former Councillor Joe Mihevc (with podcast)

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

Joe Mihevc was a councillor for over 20 years when Ontario’s premier suddenly announced in the middle of this year’s election that he was cutting the size of Toronto’s city council from 47 wards to 25. This prompted several chaotic council meetings and even more chaotic provincial legislative sessions.

Q: Where were you on the night of July 26, 2018?

A: All councillors were in council session. That’s when we heard rumor on the second floor during the council meeting that something big was happening. We very quickly understood that the premier was going to be making an announcement the very next day that he was going to reduce our council.

Q: You said the word “premier.” For our American listeners, you’ll have to explain what that is. I’m assuming the premier is some sort of demigod? An authoritative mystic with the magic of Dumbledore and the charisma of Barack Obama?

A: Well, the equivalent to premier is “governor.” Here if you win the premiership, you also run the political party that has charge of the legislature. So it’s a pretty neat gig if you can get it.

Q: Councillor Paula Fletcher used the term “Trump tactics” to describe Premier Doug Ford’s council cuts. Do you agree with her description?

A: Absolutely. When we use those words in Canada, in this context it meant that the premier was acting in an authoritarian way. He was not consulting the folks that were impacted. It basically came from his head and he felt he needed to act, which is our perception of how things flow these days at the presidential level.

Q: During the July 27 meeting, you took a dinner break. And after councillors came back, the tone was completely different and more confrontational. What changed during that break?

A: As the day went on it became clear that the threat was real. I would suggest that what Doug–a part of him wanted us to fight it out. He actually provoked a “Hunger Games” at the city. Forty-four councillors recognized that if we did go to 25, there would be a fight for many a seat. Every councillor positioned himself to be active on the issue partly to show the community how strong they were going to be opposing Doug Ford.

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Toronto, ON former Councillor Joe Mihevc

Q: Help me understand the types of councillors who were in favor of the province’s action. You mentioned there were Doug Ford’s allies, but were there also people who really could not stand the way your council operates?

A: I think the people who were supportive of Doug Ford’s actions–all of them were on the right-wing side of council.

Q: What do you make of the notion that as a councillor, you don’t have to have 12-hour days and do everything for everyone. With fewer councillors, your focus should be on taking votes in meetings, legislating, and not micromanaging everything that goes on in your neighborhoods?

A: That’s a very good point. It depends on your philosophy. If you want to put it on a spectrum, you can say on one side you are the board members of this $12 billion corporation called the city of Toronto and you are there to make decisions. That’s your job and that’s it. Others feel–and I would be one of them–that you have face time with residents. To double the size [of wards] means to get half the amount of face time.

Q: You knew Doug Ford when he was a city councillor. I take it he was a stickler for efficiency, effective governance, and moral rectitude?

A: [chuckles] Doug Ford was a stickler for trying to grab the limelight and score political points on how he hated all government. The word “dysfunction” that Doug Ford labeled city council–it was dysfunctional for many years when he and his brother [Rob Ford] were here. He was willing to go up into the audience. There was once when he was taunting them to come down and take him on. I remember those times as really tumultuous. Once they left, guess what? A new calm. I would suggest right now that provincial parliament is highly dysfunctional, and he’s at the center of that dysfunction.


Follow former Councillor Joe Mihevc on Twitter: @joemihevc

Interview #110: Montpelier, VT Mayor Anne Watson (with podcast)

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

Anne Watson is a high school teacher and first-term mayor who made a few tweaks to the council meetings when she took the gavel this year. She explains why high school students come into the council chamber regularly and we discuss a contentious meeting about a vacancy this spring.

Q: I noticed that your council does not say the Pledge of Allegiance in your meetings. Mayor Watson, simple question: how dare you?

A: You know, I think it’s sort of assumed that we’re all on board with loving America. So we just use our time well and want to just keep moving forward!

Q: Please tell me that you at least have Judeo-Christian prayer before the meetings.

A: No, we don’t pray before the meetings either!

Q: Oh, my god. If the French Canadians want to invade you people, I could care less at this point. I notice that you have been cursed with a finicky sound system. What is the problem with the microphones in your council chamber?

A: The microphones were a little bit far away from the edge of the desks and so for a long time, we had to lean over the desks to get close enough to actually be heard. We could look into getting some better mics that might actually pick us up, but they were just recently moved to be closer. And actually, since that meeting happened, we’ve had some better sound.

Q: I want to talk about some of the aspects of the meetings that changed since you became mayor earlier this year. Do I understand that you instituted a two-minute limit on public comment?

A: That’s correct. We actually have a card that one of our councilors holds up. The one side says you’ve got one minute left and the other side says you’ve got to stop.

Q: I love low-tech solutions. Perhaps for the sound system you could just roll up a piece of paper and talk through it like a megaphone instead!

A: There we go!

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Montpelier, VT Mayor Anne Watson

Q: Is there now in your council chamber a white board with future agenda items?

A: There is an agenda board and that was something that I asked for. I think it’s really helpful for planning our time. When we’re in the council meetings and we’re thinking about if we are going to table this topic or somebody raises an issue that’s worth talking about further, then we can right there have a visual representation of when it might fit in our future agendas.

Q: Tell me about the kids who come into your meetings to drop policy on you.

A: So every year, there’s a class at the high school that does a project around civics and whatever topics are going on in the city. They come to the council and make a pitch. There was one we had about possibly banning plastic bags in the city of Montpelier. We have an item on the ballot on November 6 coming up as to whether we should be asking the legislature for permission to enact some kind of ban on plastic bags. The kids were definitely a part of that.

Q: You are actually a teacher at the high school there. If a student said to you, “Ms. Watson, I didn’t do my homework for your class because I was working on my policy project for the city council,” would you be mad?

A: Oh, of course I would! Well, I probably wouldn’t be mad, but I would probably say something like, “listen, you need to manage your time.”


Follow Mayor Anne Watson on Twitter: @anneofvermont

Interview #109: Calgary, AB Councillor Jyoti Gondek (with podcast)

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

Jyoti Gondek is a first-term councillor in Calgary, where the discussion has recently turned to council transparency. She explains how it is sometimes necessary to go into closed-door meetings, and responds to the accusation that bullying is occurring therein.

Q: What is your position on city councillors’ attendance?

A: We had one of our fellow councillors raise the point that we should be better documenting when council members are present for a vote or for a meeting. I don’t disagree that it is important that your elected official is weighing in on your behalf. But the way that it was being proposed–through a roll call–to me was a bit ridiculous. There was an article written in a local newspaper about it and it called me out for being terribly nasty and not in favor of transparency. So I took a lighthearted approach and wrote a little something myself about what an “awful person” I was for not wanting transparency! It was a bit of a parody, but it was asking people to think about: do you just want a roll call? Or do you really want to know what kind of job your elected official is doing?

Q: I’m between your position and the more transparent position on attendance. Say you are able to keep track of councillors who wander out of a meeting, who are not there for votes, and who are strategic about when they are in their chairs. What am I supposed to do with that information? I’m not saying, “who cares about attendance?” But if I did care, is this a problem that’s actually affecting things?

A: Attendance has been exceptionally high. We have not seen council members who are trying to use the system and leave for a contentious vote. I don’t think the system is being gamed.

Q: Your council has had some drama about what happens behind closed doors generally. On April 3, Councillor Jeromy Farkas tweeted out:

Of the charges in that tweet, what percentage are true? What percentage are false? And what percentage are maybe just misinterpretations of people’s intentions?

A: I think it was an interesting thing to post on Twitter rather than bringing it up in a council meeting or to the integrity commissioner or to the mayor. Intimidation is a very big reach. I’ve never felt that way. This idea of secret meetings–or the “chamber of secrets” as it’s been dubbed by Councillor Farkas–perhaps he is learning the ropes. Sometimes a council has to take things offline because there’s confidential information.

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Calgary, AB Councillor Jyoti Gondek

Q: On April 5, there was a motion to study the amount of time Calgary spends on closed session meetings. But all of a sudden, Councillor Jeff Davison stood up and expressed his displeasure at those tweets, then apologized for any offense he may have caused. When that happened, did you think, “oh, good! This will clear everything up!”

A: [laughs] No, I did not. Before we go in [to the closed meetings], it’s clearly identified what we are going to talk about. This idea of saying we’re going in camera [closed session] to insult a colleague or intimidate them, it’s not a fact. Now you’ve got a council that’s second guessing, “did we ever say anything that may have been construed in a manner other than what we intended?” If this is a big gang of bullies ganging up on one person, I think you would’ve seen more people actively doing something a lot less public, but we’re not. I think we were caught by surprise. I never expected him to say something about intimidating and bullying because I haven’t observed it.


Follow Councillor Jyoti Gondek on Twitter: @JyotiGondek

#172: Weyburn, SK 10/22/18

The camera zoomed out from the golden falcon resting on the table next to Mayor Marcel Roy. Its wings were raised, anticipating a takeoff. It was a spot-on mascot for a city council meeting, even if the agenda tonight was less than explosive.

“In 2018 September in comparison to 2017, the crimes against persons had decreased by one. Crimes against property has decreased by 14,” Councillor Mel Van Betuw read in a monotone from the police commission’s meeting minutes.

“At the end of September there were five dogs and 20 cats at the shelter, none fostered.”

All of a sudden, this routine report on cats and dogs pivoted to the major national event of the week with the drop of a single word.

“The board discussed the timeframe between recreational cannabis usage by police and reporting for duty,” Van Betuw announced. “The mayor suggested it be the same as in the military, which is 24 hours.”

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You let your military do the dew?!

He continued, “the board instructed the chief to advise his members that they require all police officers to go at least 24 hours from the time of cannabis usage before reporting for duty.”

Twenty-four hours? It’s hard to call it “recreational” cannabis when you have to plan it a day in advance. Mayor Roy chimed in with an explanation.

“With all this recreational marijuana going forward, there’s a lot of different issues. Calgary has issued a 28-day no-use of recreational marijuana, which basically gets down to null and void. The military has two [policies]: eight hours if you’re doing paperwork and 24 hours if you’re doing vehicles or weapons.”

He added, somewhat unnecessarily, “once the officer is on duty, there should be no use of recreational marijuana.”

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Only medicinal

From there, it was time to hear from the youth council mayor. Unsurprisingly, the city’s youth had also heard about their friend Mary Jane moving to town.

“Some business that was discussed included cannabis legalization and the impact on the youth,” the youth mayor said. “We also talked about a youth council social media strategy. We will make an Instagram page. We will continue to discuss ways to engage the youth in Weyburn and provide entertainment for young people as well.”

Non-drug-related entertainment was the subtext–although it’s nice that the youth now have options.

“The youth council made a motion to recommend that council appoints Lincoln Alexander to fill the last vacant seat on the youth council.” The youth mayor pointed out, “Lincoln is present tonight.”

“Welcome, my friend!” exclaimed Councillor Dick Michel as he made that very motion.

“Lincoln?” Mayor Roy nodded toward the audience. “Step up, if you would please.”

The new councillor joined the mayor for a picture, jokingly adjusting his shirt to pantomime the mayor buttoning his suit jacket. Both of them grinned.

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Good improv

Rounding out the day’s youth news, Councillor Michel performed his civic duty by bragging about the city’s sports teams.

“On Friday, the Weyburn Bantam Young Fellow Falcons captured the league title in football!” he proclaimed. “Weyburn defeated the Moose Jaw Razorbacks in Moose Jaw to claim this title. Gentlemen: a job well done.”

“I am going to the mayors’ caucus and administrators’ meeting on Thursday,” Mayor Roy remarked. “I will make note to the mayor of Moose Jaw that we beat them there. We will make sure that this well known at the mayors’ caucus.”

I’m happy to do my part here!

Interview #97: London, ON Councilor Virginia Ridley (with podcast)

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

How much time should city councils put between heated debates? First-term Councilor Virginia Ridley has some suggestions. Plus, on the podcast we discuss bullying, meeting schedules, and affairs.

Q: I want to go to October 27, 2015. Not to get too specific with the listeners, but there was a report from the city administration about arts funding that the council asked for earlier that year. And Councilors Jesse Helmer and Mohamed Salih did not feel city staff had given you what you requested. So they made a motion to refer the report back to the administration. How often does council vote on something in a meeting and then people don’t follow it?

A: At the beginning of our term, I think it happened more frequently than it should. We had a relatively new council. We had a number of bumps in the road and maybe council’s direction was misunderstood.

Q: So after a bit of debate here, you stood up and offered a motion to reconsider. The council voted on the Helmer-Salih motion, which was defeated, so they moved on to your reconsideration motion. However, the mayor suddenly told you that you were ineligible to make that motion because you were absent from the original meeting. How were you feeling at that moment?

A: Oh, I was angry. We had already established that if we vote no to the motion on the floor, we could do reconsideration right next. You see there was no pause. Within three seconds, it’s, “oh, no, you actually can’t make that motion.” It certainly angered me quite a bit.

Q: Right, one vote can certainly affect a subsequent vote in council. And it did seem a bit suspect that the mayor did not have this information on the screen before he, I guess, clicked “end” on the voting and announced the result. But I’m sure he did the best he could…except for the fact that you learned MINUTES AFTER that vote that you ACTUALLY WERE in attendance and could make the motion! Did you have a realization of, “oh, god. If that was incorrect, what else in our records is inaccurate?”

A: I knew all along I was correct. It was one of those, in the moment, not having the proof at my fingertips. I would agree with you. What other errors could potentially happen here?

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London, ON Councilor Virginia Ridley

Q: At this point, the city manager stands up. He responds to the initial complaint that this report is not what the council ordered by stridently defending the staff. How justified was his pushback?

A: I don’t know if I could say that absolutely he was in the right. That statement probably escalated things more than they needed to. The way our council works is the night before, we would’ve had a committee meeting. That would’ve been Monday night. On Tuesday night, council would confirm and re-debate all of the committees that had happened. We were having the same debates the second time.

Q: I mean, doesn’t that open itself up to the situation we just witnessed? That if you didn’t win the argument on your first night, you get to re-litigate the argument on the second night?

A: The fact that we do it one day apart, people haven’t had the opportunity to reflect. If we’re there until midnight on Monday and we’re back 16 hours later, people haven’t had time to walk away from the situation, think about it, talk to their constituents.


Follow Councilor Virginia Ridley on Twitter: @virginia_ridley

Interview #84: Vancouver, BC Councilor Andrea Reimer (with podcast)

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

Andrea Reimer has been a councilor since 2008 and has witnessed a significant rise in points of order at her council meetings. We talk about why that is, as well as why some speakers acknowledge indigenous territory.

Q: In the Vancouver council meetings, I noticed a lot of people acknowledge that you are on native territory. Are you obligated to do that?

A: We have a formal protocol that the chair of the meeting needs to acknowledge we are on the unseated homelands. But it’s up to each speaker to decide how they want to engage with that. It would be a rule for the mayor or myself when I’m chairing. For Vancouverites, though, who come to speak to council, it’s totally up to them. Many people do make that acknowledgement.

Q: You posted this last year:

sugar

Is blood sugar any different now than it was when you got on council in 2008?

A: The main goal of the chair is to get people out of that room by 3:30 in the afternoon. If they don’t, we hit the low blood sugar zone. We do have a brand new council member who just joined us in October who has introduced some activities such as slapping desks. We see that in our parliament–I don’t know if you guys do that in your national government. But we generally don’t do that at municipal council because we’re sitting maybe ten feet away from each other at most. We don’t really need to slap tables to signal that we’re happy or unhappy with something!

Q: I have not seen a city council raise the volume of points of order that I see in Vancouver. Why do you think that is?

A: On my first term of office, 2008-2011, I think we might have had one point of order in the entire three-year period. Then one of the individuals was elected and suddenly we skyrocketed up in number. And then another one, Councilor [Melissa] De Genova, got elected in 2014 and she can do that many before lunch in some meetings. So I think it’s just, different councilors have different styles. Your president’s really into Twitter. We have a councilor who’s really into points of order.

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Vancouver, BC Councilor Andrea Reimer

Q: I heard that last year, a lady fainted in your public comment. Is that true?

A: Oh, yeah. We’ve had a few. We’ve had fainting. We had a medical emergency. We had a fire once while I was chairing. I was the only one who didn’t notice it because it was happening behind me!

Q: Has anyone called point of order on that fire?

A: You know, it’s funny. Those were never points of order! We actually completed the council meeting outside. I’m such a stickler for rules because I’d hate for all of the decisions to be overthrown because some procedural breach happens. I made us go outside and formally adjourn the meeting correctly.

Q: During a public hearing about a proposed development in Chinatown, I heard there was some poor behavior. What did you see that concerned you?

A: It sounds like there was some attempts to intimidate [speakers] either verbally or in one case, physically. We definitely heard booing. Probably the most difficult moment for me was we had two members of the Musqueam nation, one of the three indigenous nations, who came up to the microphone to speak and they were booed by a crowd that had used indigenous issues to try and justify their case. It had such a deep-seated disrespect for the issue. I talked to the organizers and they’ve since reached out to the individuals involved on the Musqueam and I understand there has been reparations made. They’ve apologized.


Follow Councilor Andrea Reimer on Twitter: @andreareimer