Interview #138: Saint John, NB Reporter Barbara Simpson (with podcast)

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

Barbara Simpson is the Telegraph-Journal‘s municipal affairs reporter who had a front row seat to an array of quintessentially Canadian policy debates in Saint John, including what to do with the emboldened deer population and whether to retaliate against outsiders using the city’s ice rinks.

Q: Back in January, you tweeted this:

Who are the Leamans and why do they get the V.I.P. treatment at the council meetings?

A: The Leamans are my kind of people because they are dedicated council watchers. If you cover municipal politics, you know that it’s very rare to have ordinary citizens come out on an issue that isn’t a hot-button issue. But the Leamans come to every single meeting, except I think they go away for a little bit in the winter. They bring their books and they read before the meeting, so they’re very civically engaged.

Q: What do they do in the winter? Drive down to Florida and sit in on their council meetings?

A: I don’t think so, but that would be fantastic!

Q: What was the problem that the Saint John council was having with deer earlier this year?

A: Most of our province is beautiful, natural habitat. But in this one particular area [of the city], we have a high density of deer. They cause all sorts of problems. They chew on people’s shrubs. The deer spread Lyme disease. This is how brazen the deer are in Saint John: I have a photograph of the deer at Halloween time and they’re eating a pumpkin off of someone’s front porch. To remedy this issue, the city is moving forward with a deer cull. Each property owner could apply to the province to bring a hunter in to bag one deer per defined hunting season.

Q: Before Saint Johners could hunt the deer, there had to be a prohibition on feeding deer. How was the city planning to capture physical evidence of deer feeding?

A: There’s some recognition that this is going to be pretty difficult to enforce. I can’t imagine–we’re all good Canadians here–that neighbors are going to be taking photos of each other in the act of feeding deer.

Q: Deputy Mayor Shirley McAlary was concerned about people wandering around with bows and arrows like something out of The Hunger Games. Was she the only one?

A: Yes. If you listen further, I believe Councillor Gary Sullivan makes that point that if you call the police and said there’s someone running around with a weapon, the police would respond relatively quickly.

Q: In America, when someone wanders around with a weapon, it’s called concealed carry and it’s, like, half the country. So I’m glad you have a distinction.

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Saint John, NB reporter Barbara Simpson

In November of last year, Mayor Don Darling suggested that if there could not be some fair, regional way to pay for use of Saint John’s ice rinks, drastic measures may be on the way, like closing down the rinks entirely. How serious is this sentiment in Saint John that outsiders are using the rinks and not paying for it?

A: It’s incredibly serious. Over the last few months, Saint John and the surrounding communities have been trying to negotiate a deal because the cost of arenas–the operating costs, the city argues–isn’t being fairly shared across the region. The city is in a very difficult financial situation. The city took a provincial bailout of up to $22.8 million over the next three years. They’re trying to find new revenue. On the opposing side of that, the communities surrounding us say, “this is Saint John’s problem. Why should we be contributing more?”

Q: Hockey is obviously sacred to you all. Is that why the council seemed a bit touchier than if it were other types of facilities that were abused by non-residents?

A: No, I think why they’re so touchy is it speaks to a bigger issue in Saint John. We are a city of 67,000 people. The greater region is 125,000 people. There’s some sentiment that people drive into the city from these outlying communities, use our arenas and other services, and don’t pay their fair share. But the arenas is the touchpoint for this.


Follow Barbara Simpson on Twitter: @JournoBarb

Interview #136: Glasgow, SCT Councillor Eva Murray (with podcast)

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

Eva Murray is a first-term Labour councillor in Glasgow who seems to know all of the names of her 84 colleagues (no small feat!). She discusses the the cycle of partisan blame that emerges in the debates and how that can be frustrating for a new councillor. Plus, she explains why young people appear to take interest in attending the Glasgow meetings.

Q: Am I reading correctly that you are one of 85 city councillors in Glasgow?

A: That’s absolutely correct. 

Q: Wow, 85! Be honest with me, madam: do you know everybody’s name?

A: I think I do. I mean, two years on I hope I would. There’s still a few that I struggle with. We’ve got three Councillor Morgans. I still get them confused a little bit!

Q: I noticed something unusual that someone tweeted at you:

Do you need tickets to watch your council meetings? And follow-up: do you ever go on tour?

A: People can tune in online, but there’s a very limited amount of tickets to watch it from the gallery. You have to contact your local councillor and hopefully you can get them. You have to be quick. I think there’s only 12 to 14 spaces in the gallery. As for going on tour, that could be an interesting summer trip but at the moment, no. We could get some merchandise, put all the dates on the back, and just tour Scotland. 

Q: Do I take it to mean that you have a full gallery most of the time if the tickets are in such demand?

A: We do most times, especially if there’s a controversial motion. Or some people have just never been to a council meeting. We’ve seen a lot of younger people take up the opportunity to come and watch.

Q: What is in the magic sauce of the Glasgow council that makes young people interested in showing up to watch? Is it the historic nature of the place? The topics you consider? Or with 85 councillors, everyone has a friend on city council and they’re showing up to support their buddies?

A: Maybe it’s a bit of everything. Two years ago was the first time 16-year-olds could vote in a council election. We’ve seen younger people become more involved in politics.

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Glasgow, SCT Councillor Eva Murray

Q: Something that is noticeably different from most American and Canadian councils is the time in Glasgow’s council meetings dedicated to questions. Who decides which councillors get to question, and what is the purpose of asking those questions?

A: They’ve in the last couple of meetings changed how questions are done. Before it could genuinely take up a full meeting just full of questions. What they’ve done now is, say the Labour Party would put in six or seven questions. Four of them will get picked and the other three will get a written response. Some people use it to make noise about an ongoing issue, to take a hit at the leader of the council. Other people will use it to highlight a local issue. If you get a good hit on a question, you can make not just your local paper, but maybe the Glasgow citywide paper.

Q: A lot of what I hear in debates goes along the lines of “Labour did this five years ago.” “Well, the Tories did that 10 years ago.” “Oh, where was the SNP when this and that was happening?” It appears like you are settling a score. How much accuracy is there to that?

A: I think you’re right in that a lot of people like to play the blame game. It’s frustrating for me as someone who’s only in the city chambers two years–who wasn’t there when other decisions were made–and to have to take that. I’m trying my best to be the new generation of councillor, but you’re still tarred with the decisions made a long time ago.

Q: So you’re speaking to a culture where new councillors get saddled with their party’s baggage to the point that when they are the seasoned councillor, the expectation is that they will saddle new incoming councillors of the opposition party with the bad decisions of their predecessors?

A: Absolutely. You try and get away from that. People outside, like constituents, they’re willing to listen and see that you are the new face. But there’s a lot of people in the chamber—that is their rhetoric. If they can’t properly answer a question, they’ll say, “what did Labour do?” Or “what did the Tories do?” 


Follow Councillor Eva Murray on Twitter: @EvaCMurray

State of the City Council Meetings Address 2019

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FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE–For the third year in a row, Michael Karlik appeared before a joint session of Congress for the greatest honor any person can imagine, other than meeting Cher: he delivered the State of the City Council Meetings address. The standing ovations were numerous. The viewership was huge. And almost no one requested a refund afterward. Below is a transcript and audio of the entire speech, sponsored by Dig Deep Research, which is also available on iTunesStitcher, and Player FM:

Madame Speaker, Madame Tussaud, Mesdames and Messieurs: because of the solemn duty conferred upon me by the Constitution, and because there is no one else out there crazy enough to do this, I am here tonight to remark upon the city council meetings of the world. And I want to assure all of you that despite what you may hear from the fake, failing, or–if they’re nice to me–the perfectly fine news media, the state of our city council meetings is…can you scroll the teleprompter please? Strong. [applause]

Tonight, I will share with you stories of city council tests and city council triumphs. Although the tests are a lot more fun, you know what I’m saying? You know what I’m saying? [laughter]

Sitting in the gallery next to the First Lady is the mayor of Lakewood, Colorado, Adam Paul. [applause] Okay, he’s my guest, so next time please wait until I give you permission to clap, capiche? Last year, the Lakewood council had a crisis on its hands. What has a long tail, beady eyes, and a reputation for causing bubonic plagues? Rats. The pigeons of the ground. I actually brought a couple here tonight in this cage and oh, the cage is empty. Uh, that’s not good.

All right, here’s what I’ll do. I’ll release the rattlesnakes also to catch them and–okay, I’m seeing everyone shake their head no, so let’s put a pin in that. Anyway, the Lakewood city council had to act fast to keep the rats from multiplying. Here is their story.

***

Thank you for your response, Mayor. Please clap. [applause] But city councils don’t just respond to problems. They sometimes create their own. And when the Independence, Missouri city council voted to fire people in the Power & Light department, accusations started flying. Agnes, could you roll my interview with Independence Mayor Eileen Weir?

***

Okay, quick update. We found the rats. [applause] Yes, finding rats in the United States Congress is like trying to find a needle in a needle stack, am I right? [laughter and applause] All right, good night, everybody. Goodnight–what’s that? I’m contractually obligated for another 15 minutes? Okay.

Why don’t we check in on Canada? Someone has to, for security. Earlier this year, I became aware of a bizarre story out of Kingston, Ontario. A couple of councillors protested the council proceedings not with their words, not with their votes, but with their feet. Agnes?

***

You know, I always struggle with how to end these things. On the one hand, I want to stay and talk to you forever. On the other hand, I just got a foosball table delivered at home. Choices, choices. You know, I have some thoughts about illegal immigration and abortion that I’d like to get out there. It is terrible that–wait a minute. Callaway?

Hillsboro, Oregon Mayor Steve Callaway?! [applause] I can’t believe they let you past security! Mostly because I told them not to. But folks, during his state of the city address in January, Mayor Callaway gave a very important shout out that I noticed right away.

Yeah, you can clap for that. You can clap for that. In fact, I once interviewed Hillsboro’s city manager, Michael Brown, and we discussed how Hillsboro’s state of the city addresses are always the greatest show on earth.

***

Thank you. God bless you. And god bless city council meetings.

Interview #119: Kingston, ON Councillor Mary Rita Holland (with podcast)

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

Mary Rita Holland is in her second term as Kingston District 7 councillor and she describes the training that new councillors just received, accommodations for children in the meetings, and the choice she regrets from her first term.

Q: The Kingston city council recently started a new four-year term and one of your brand-new councillors, Robert Kiley, wrote in the Kingstonist, “Speaking of meetings, that’s how we finished our orientation: in a mock meeting, with funny motions, like establishing a public kale bar, which articulated step by step what happens around the Horseshoe.” Were you at that practice council meeting?

A: I was. We focused on introducing some new food options, including real dairy products, at our council meetings. Currently we use powdered coffee whitener for members of the public and for staff and councillors. One of the motions for debate was whether we should move toward real dairy.

Q: What was the final outcome of that debate?

A: We voted in favor of real dairy products in our council meetings and I think we also voted in favor of the recommendation for a kale quinoa bar. That was a little less contentious. We do want to see more people come to our meetings, so the better quality the coffee and milk, hopefully the better the attendance!

Q: On April 7, 2015, you proposed having childcare for certain public meetings. What is this revolutionary, socialist utopian idea of yours?

A: I am a single parent, but I was aware of the fact that I was probably the first member of council in a situation like this–where if our meetings went really late and I had a babysitter, that was a problem for me. So it seems like there are a number of barriers for younger members of the public to participate in our democracy. I thought by introducing childcare at meetings, it might mean that for those families who wanted to get out and participate, they could do that and they could feel very comforted that their children were having a good time in the room next-door.

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Kingston, ON Councillor Mary Rita Holland

Q: I want to take the listeners to June 13, 2017. This was the start of what ended up being a 10-hour meeting over two days about a “third crossing”–a third bridge over the Cataraqui River. Right up top, Councillor Peter Stroud attempted to curtail that by moving that the staff presentations get cut so the question time could start sooner. The council defeated that idea. I understand that Councillor Stroud stepped out. Would you describe to me what you recall?

A: He stepped out of the room. I stepped out at the same time, although that was not coordinated in advance. But we had the same rationale for getting rid of that briefing: we’d already heard the information more than once. We thought the time would be better spent hearing from the public. In a bit of an act of protest, we both left the council chamber.

Q: What did you do?

A: I found Councillor Stroud standing at the front entryway. The two of us stood there at the door and complained a bit about the motion losing. We were frustrated with how the entire vote and decision had been proceeding all along. We were talking about it in the entryway. That didn’t seem wise and we don’t really have a private room for our own discussions at city hall. He said, maybe we should go across the street to the pub and chat a bit more.

Q: Did anyone come up to you while you were in the pub and say, “hey, wait. There’s a council meeting and you’re councillors, so…what?!”

A: No. Of course I had it in the back of my mind that it wasn’t wise to be leaving the building, but I guess given the fact that I knew I had to go back to that meeting and be composed, I thought it made a bit of sense to go and calm myself down a bit. It turns out there were members of the media in the pub. When I went back to my seat in the council chamber, there was a tweet going around about the fact that we had left.

Q: Reflecting on that tweet, do you think that take of “walking out on the job” was an accurate one?

A: Yeah, and I’m laughing about it a little bit today but that turned out to be a very difficult time. I care a lot about public engagement and the public trust and I want people to not be cynical. When I realized that this would make people cynical about politics, that it was a bigger deal than getting out for a breath of air, I felt really awful about it. I should have stayed.


Follow Councillor Mary Rita Holland on Twitter: @MaryRitaHolland

Interview #117: Boynton Beach, FL Vice Mayor Christina Romelus (with podcast)

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

Christina Romelus is a first-term commissioner and current vice mayor who has experienced pirates in the commission chamber, commentaries on dog poop, and a vote to appoint a new commissioner. But one of the most difficult moments came in response to an idea she raised last year.

Q: On December 5, 2017, you proposed a sanctuary city policy, which basically said that local police will not be enforcing federal immigration law. We have covered sanctuary city debates in other councils. But in the case of Boynton Beach, you all easily had the most boisterous and most raucous public comment of anyplace I’ve seen. How did that make you feel?

A: It reminded me that the First Amendment is alive and well [chuckles]. One of the things that we as America pride ourselves on is being the land of the free and the home of the brave. We provide opportunities. People who come here trying to escape tyranny, they sometimes find worse treatment than they had back home. I’ve never robbed anybody. I’ve never beat up, murdered, stolen anything. Yet when people find out I’m an immigrant or hear the term “immigrant,” that’s what their mind gravitates to.

Q: Mmhmm.

A: The proposal that I was trying to have that night when it turned into a sanctuary city discussion–which is what I never intended for it to be–it was a fruition of the decree that President Trump was cancelling temporary protected status for individuals from countries like Haiti, Honduras, Venezuela, I believe. Those points of view never even got out of my mouth. The second “sanctuary cities” was blared out, it just became an all-out attack on me.

Q: We heard one man say you should be impeached or removed. That is new for me in a sanctuary city debate. What struck me was how personal it got in Boynton Beach. Why do you think that was the direction it took?

A: Half of the people in that room were not Boynton Beach residents. It literally almost became like a Trump rally in chambers. The entire chambers was filled with people with signs–“build the wall!”

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Boynton Beach, FL Vice Mayor Christina Romelus

Q: How surprised were you that all of your other commissioners and the mayor rejected your proposal on grounds of “law and order?”

A: Having you replay this is all raw for me all over again. That night was not an easy night for me. I believe in the Constitution. I took an oath as well to protect and defend the Constitution. And I do that. But we have a duty to protect those who can’t protect themselves. When a black person was considered three-fifths of a person, that was in the Constitution. Was it right to uphold that then? That’s political speak, I feel, for cowering away from the conversation. It was the most politically-savvy way to look like “I’m obligated, my hands are tied,” not necessarily because it’s the right thing to do.

Q: There was a recess after this topic and the commission meeting continued. I noticed you were not there for the remainder of the meeting. Why was that?

A: I could not remain in a room filled with that much hate aimed at me. I could not sit on a dais with people who did not even take the time to consider the reasons or to hear out the arguments why I brought up the conversation. I was not in the right state to continue with that meeting. I actually had somebody escort me home from our police department because that’s how unsafe I felt.


Follow Vice Mayor Christina Romelus on Twitter: @romelus_c

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