Interview #99: St. Petersburg, FL Council Member Darden Rice (with podcast)

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

Darden Rice is the District Four council member in St. Pete and we spent time dissecting her city’s restrictive public comment period. Then we practiced convincing teenagers to come and speak to the council! (BONUS: Info about International #CityHallSelfie Day.)

Q: Council Member, I was angry when I heard that only city residents, owners of property, business owners in the city, or their employees could speak in your meetings–and only on city government issues. Does this mean I am not allowed to come and tell you folks why “Shrek 2” was better than the original “Shrek?”

A: Yeah, there might be some issues if you wanted to speak if you’re not a St. Pete resident. Although you could call your friends, like Council Member Darden Rice, and I could invite you to come talk about “Shrek.”

Q: I do know it’s highly unusual for a council to limit the kinds of people who can speak during a public comment. What would you say to the argument that, as a representative, you are obligated to hear what your people are concerned about? Even if that concern is not, strictly speaking, about city business?

A: I think you’ve got a really good point. I tend to be a little more liberal in the application of what rules we use. But at the end of the day, it is on advice from our legal team that the people that speak–because there’s limited time–that we honor those who are residents.

Q: Practically though, how do you screen out people who don’t meet those criteria?

A: There’s really a trust system involved. It’s so rarely that someone doesn’t meet the criteria.

Q: For the record then: if the Queen of England herself walked into the St. Pete council meeting for open forum and you had your suspicions that she was not a resident, you would still not say, “sorry, Mum, I’ll need to see the address on your driver’s license first?”

A: I would imagine that our chairperson of council would give the courtesy of the Queen to speak at council.

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St. Petersburg, FL Council Member Darden Rice

Q: Recently, Council Member Steve Kornell had an idea to ask the ministers you invite to do your invocations to also bring children from their youth groups to speak at council meetings. Can you explain what this procedure is supposed to look like? And please do use words like “dope” or “extra” in your answer.

A: [laughs] I think it has a good intention. I think it would take a lot of work bringing kids and getting them out of school to come and speak to council. I haven’t really thought about whether this is an idea I think is really great or if it’s just gonna make meetings run a lot longer.

Q: Let’s do a role-playing exercise. Let’s pretend you are a minister about to give the invocation–Presbyterian, if you need to get into character. And you are trying to convince me, a moody teenager, to come and speak during the open forum.

A: Hey, Michael. This is Pastor Darden Rice and we are gonna go up and talk to city council today. I’d like you to share some issues you have going on at school and talk about how safe you feel in the neighborhoods or not and just let your elected officials know about what it’s like living in St. Pete. How does that sound?

Q: Ugh, city council? That sounds like old people stuff. You are embarrassing me so hard right now in front of my phone. I will not be on camera without a filter. No way. #noway.

A: Hey, Michael, I think you ought to give this a second thought. When young people show up, we really listen. I think it would be a great learning experience.

Q: It’s not gonna be boring is it? My boyfriend went to an Ed Sheeran concert and said it was super boring and I’m worried this will be like the Ed Sheeran concert.

A: It won’t be boring because you’re just staying for the beginning of it. I promise.

A: Okay, fine. Only if I can text my friends about how I’m at the city council meeting and they’re not so they’re lame.


Follow Council Member Darden Rice on Twitter: @DardenRice

Interview #98: Newport, OR Public Works Director Tim Gross (with podcast)

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

Tim Gross is the first public works director to appear on the program! We spoke about how he prepares the councilors to decide on technical issues and what he learned as an actor that applies to the meetings.

Q: How do you feel about the fact that you have to sit at the dais with your councilors during every meeting?

A: Well, there’s a lot of business that takes place at a council meeting that is not public works-related. I wish that I was at the beginning of the meeting instead of at the end [laughs].

Q: What do you do when you’re sitting through that copious downtime?

A: The council meetings honestly are the longest period of uninterrupted time I have for doing work that I have otherwise not had the time to do. It’s a great opportunity for me to get some correspondence done. I’ll keep an ear out for what’s happening in the meeting.

Q: So a public council meeting for you is a better work environment than your actual work environment?

A: Yes, absolutely!

Q: You obviously have a specialized field of knowledge. How frustrated do you get when there is a technical concept that they are voting on and they don’t seem to be getting it?

A: I’m gonna actually turn that on ear a little bit. More often what I get is people coming in from the public who have a solution to whatever problem they’ve identified. It’s not necessarily a good solution. It’s my opportunity and responsibility to–I hate to say the word “educate”–educate the council on how public works operates. I usually make sure that I don’t necessarily get in a battle of wits with somebody who comes into the council chambers.

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Newport, OR Public Works Director Tim Gross

Q: Tim, I’m surprised you don’t like to engage in battles of the wits because is it true that you once acted in “Schoolhouse Rock Live!?”

A: [laughs] Yes, that’s one of the shows I’ve been in. I was the teacher in that musical.

Q: Did you learn anything from working with children that was beneficial to you in the city council meetings?

A: I mean, a city is made up of people. What I like about acting in musicals is you’re working with a bunch of people from a huge variety of backgrounds. I enjoy that.

Q: Most of the meeting is not, unfortunately, public works-related. Because you are a department head–because you are sitting at the dais with everyone else–if there is an issue before council, do you automatically feel that it’s partly your responsibility? Or do you think, “good luck with that, but it’s not really my area?”

A: I have a motto: “if I have the ability, I have the responsibility.” If the council doesn’t get back on point and discuss the issue at hand, it’s my responsibility to be able to make sure they are factual in what they’re deciding. Sometimes they just figure it out on their own.

Q: One time a county commissioner candidate came into a meeting and complained about how the commissioners specialize on issues and aren’t able to speak to everything. Does that happen with the Newport council?

A: It depends. To have everybody do everything is not possible. The candidate was pretty spot-on in that the county commission, because there’s only three of them, have become very specialized. Oftentimes the other commissioners won’t comment at all on some of the special interests. But I have not seen that with the city council.

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:

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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 

Interview #83: Grande Prairie, AB Councilor Dylan Bressey (with podcast)

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

Dylan Bressey is in his first term on the Grande Prairie city council and he came to my attention for obvious reasons. We talked about all the work he puts into his council meeting recaps, plus he gives prospective council commenters some advice on how to keep things relevant.

Q: I noticed that during your swearing in, unlike other councilors you did not say, “so help me, god” nor did you put your hand on a religious text. So, sir, are you excited that you are going to hell?

A: [Laughs] You know, it’s actually quite the opposite. I’m a member of the clergy and something that I’m very conscious of is I’m very uncomfortable with religious politics. I really intentionally asked not to take my oath on a Bible, taking seriously Jesus’s words not to do that.

Q: Interesting. That hasn’t brought you any bad luck or hellfire since then, has it?

A: Well, it hasn’t yet, but we’ll see what my eternal destiny might hold because of it.

Q: On February 10, someone tweeted at you

To which you responded, “I disagree about the hashtag, but council feels a lot like school, so I could get behind #bresseyforvaledictorian.” In what way does your council feel a lot like school?

A: Every week it feels like I’m getting hundreds of pages of documents that our administration is asking us to read. I’m digging through online databases. And I’m even writing a lot of papers. I do a lot of blogging. So I really am treating this like school.

Q: On your website, you really set the bar high for what city council members can do to explain everything about their jobs to their constituents. This thing is an encyclopedia for what, why, and how the city council does its business. How long does it take you to write up a summary of a given council meeting?

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Grande Prairie, AB Councilor Dylan Bressey

A: As I’m processing it, I’d say it takes me probably an hour and a half to just do the writing. And then I get somebody to proofread it, I tweak it, I post it on the website.

Q: Some council members tweet out their feelings about council meetings. Others put it on video. I’m sure there’s at least one guy in Vermont who uses puppets or something. What is the advantage in writing out, beat by beat, the proceedings of a council meeting from your point of view?

A: I really don’t like this thing we have going on today where we seem to talk about less and less information more and more passionately whenever we talk about government. It really helps me learn the materials. There’s been quite a few times where I’m writing a blog post and I get halfway through and I realize as I struggle to explain it that I don’t really understand what I just wrote. So I have to study again, call, ask a few questions.

Q: Part of your website is the FAQ. You offer to give people tips on preparing a presentation for council. Let’s say I’m a homeowner in Grande Prairie and my problem is–this being Canada–my neighbors are playing Celine Dion loudly at 4 a.m. and throwing empty maple syrup bottles on my lawn. I want the city to fine them. How do I convince the council to take this problem seriously?

A: Well, I think you’ve already got a good start there. You’ve got a clear problem and you’ve even got a solution you’re suggesting to us. Something we struggle with is sometimes people aren’t able to clearly frame their concern and how they’d like the city to act on it. And that’s hard for us to take a cue from. So coming in with specifics is good.


Follow Councilor Dylan Bressey on Twitter: @DylanBressey 

Interview #81: Middlesex Centre, ON Councilor Derek Silva (with podcast)

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

Derek Silva is in his second year as the Ward 4 councilor in Middlesex Centre and is a staunch advocate for video streaming his council meetings. He is leading the charge to get it done this year! Plus, we discuss whether his meeting time of 4 p.m. is a deterrent for potential councilors.

Q: Derek, you listen to the podcast so you are well aware that there is one HUGE problem with Middlesex Centre council meetings that I’ve talked about on here many, many times. And that problem is, say it with me–

(unison) Q: –video streaming. A: The Ward 3 Strangler.

Q: Wait, sorry, did you say the “Ward 3 Strangler?”

A: I said video streaming. What’s the Ward 3 Strangler?

Q: Uh, sorry, I misheard you. But yeah, video streaming. There is no audio visual evidence of your council meetings. What are your views on this travesty?

A: Part of the issue has been cultural. We do get a few folks at council meetings, but certainly past councils didn’t see it as a priority. I’m happy to report that in our search for new digital agenda software, staff is also using that opportunity to look into video streaming. I’m confident that for the next council session starting in December, live streaming will be there, maybe sooner.

Q: That is fantastic. Normally when I ask people that question, they’re like, oh it’s important…and I never hear from them again. But you’re saying you have a time! When you campaigned in 2014, you mentioned that streaming could be done at a cost under $1,000. How did you arrive at that figure?

A: I arrived at that $1,000 figure understanding that we are a small municipality. For the prices at the time, I didn’t see the need to invest a whole ton of money in getting a camera and start live streaming to YouTube. My direct comparison was to the city of London [Ontario], which bought multiple cameras which would automatically pan and tilt and zoom to the person speaking. And they were paying a private company to host the server. You keep adding all these extra layers and you realize this costs $40,000-$50,000. My point was, something is better than nothing, so let’s do something.

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Middlesex Centre, ON Councilor Derek Silva

Q: In November, Deputy Mayor Aina DeViet asked for a list of start times of other municipalities in Ontario. Why did she want this? Are you guys having problems with your meeting start times?

A: Aina said that she had multiple people express an interest in running in the election this year. Which is great because in 2014, the only contests that Middlesex Centre had were in Ward 4 and for the school board trustees. Aina had been hearing from people who said, I’d love to run for council but Wednesday at 4 p.m.? Not gonna happen. I get that. Not exactly the most convenient time.

Q: Do you think there’s anything else scaring people away other than the meeting start time?

A: I think it’s a variety of reasons. If it was just attending meetings, I imagine lots of people would’ve run for office. But there are lots of people who aren’t built for a very customer service-type role in a lot of ways. It’s been said a lot lately, but there is definitely this misperception about what level of influence municipal politics has over your life. Municipal government has a much, much bigger influence and yet gets far less [of] pretty much everything.


Follow Councilor Derek Silva on Twitter: @DerekSilva 

#149: Grande Prairie, AB 1/29/18

After a series of critical motions at the Grande Prairie council meeting, everyone became more relaxed with–what else?–shareholder approval for interim financing for the Wembley water line.

“In light of my opposition to the past motion, I wanted to not just vote yes, but express my ENTHUSIASTIC yes!” Councilor Dylan Bressey grinned.

“Thanks very much,” Mayor Bill Given chuckled at Bressey’s amusement with such a dry item. “The motions here are basically telling me what to do as a shareholder. It’s a weird process, just to clarify for the hundreds of people that might be watching.”

Several councilors heckled him facetiously. “Oh, thousands!” he corrected himself.

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That’s a Given

“That’ll take us to council member reports,” the mayor glanced down the dais to Councilor Kevin O’Toole. “We’ll start with the Combative Sports Commission.”

Councilor O’Toole explained in a highly non-combative monotone, “we had a meeting last month and review of the event held on December 15: Festival of Fists 2.”

Hearing giggles, he added, “I don’t name these things, guys, so don’t be looking at me! I’m just the middleman here.”

All right, people. Get your laughter out now. There were serious proposals from the Commission that deserve our attention. Go ahead.

“We’re gonna come back with some medical requirements–the Hepatitis B antigen and also the dilated ophthalmic examination,” O’Toole pronounced flawlessly.  “The promoter renewed his license. The name of the event will be called Brawls Deep and that will be–hey!”

More snickering commenced. “I had nothing to do with this!” Councilor O’Toole pleaded.

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Heck, I’ll take credit for “Brawls Deep.” That is an awesome name.

When it came time for Councilor Chris Thiessen to speak, not only did he 100 percent own his red blazer and substantial mutton chops, but he stood behind his remarks unapologetically. (And for a Canadian, being unapologetic is quite rare indeed.)

“Council and the chamber of commerce sat down for a lunch discussion,” recalled Councilor Thiessen. “The mayor was away on business, but Councilor [Jackie] Clayton did a very fine job as deputy mayor. In fact, Councilor [Wade] Pilat afterward said, ‘you’re so quiet in this meeting. I thought you’d talk more.’

“I said, ‘I was in awe.’ No, wait. I was in AHHHHHHH–” Thiessen posed his hand aloft and raised his voice to a falsetto, singing out the note “–of how much of a boss Jackie Clayton is, not only as a chair but as deputy mayor.”

He gave her a sheepish smile. “It took me five years to finally realize how great you are!”

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Voice of an angel

To recap: the combative sports names were weird. And the compliment to the vice mayor was sweet. But how about something weird and sweet at the same time?

“I watched the Center for Creative Arts. I’d never been there before,” Councilor Bressey announced excitedly. “An offer from the executive director: she said if we want a bonding activity, she will teach us a pottery class! I think we should!”

He was amped and practically itching to mold clay right then and there. “It’d be fun to do together! We REALLY need to do some clay pot making. Bicycling that wheel around together!”

Mayor Given smirked and raised his eyebrow. “For people of a certain age, that makes you think of the movie Ghost. And it makes me think that I probably WON’T be doing any clay pot making with you, Councilor Bressey.”

The entire room exploded in laughter as I wondered whether the mayor believed he or Councilor Bressey would be the shirtless Patrick Swayze in this scenario.

“Everybody thought it!” the mayor added, with apparent accuracy.