Interview #91: Littleton, CO Council Member Kyle Schlachter (with podcast)

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

With a new council and new snack bar, the tone of Littleton city council meetings has changed since Kyle Schlachter was sworn in last year. We talked about one major loss of power for the council members and the potential for a council chamber sleepover.

Q: Littleton is a bit unique in that I have actually been inside your council chamber in real life. Granted, it was before you were elected, so is the chocolate fountain next to the Skee-Ball machine still there?

A: It’s still there, yeah. We just hang out there all night. Actually, your appearance at Littleton city council was my introduction to City Council Chronicles.

Q: When I was giving public comment–which was promoting International City Hall Selfie Day–the clock underneath the mayor was alternately counting up time and counting down time. That was a bit distracting.

A: I think that was done on purpose. We had a professional in there, so we try to throw them off your game.

Q: I pinpointed the low moment from your council meetings when, on January 16, council repealed an ordinance that would’ve allowed you to be police officers for no pay. Before they made you turn in your badge and your gun, how close were you to solving all those cold case homicides?

A: We were very close, but unfortunately we had to pull the rug out from under ourselves. Actually, my wife sent me an email from the charter with that little mention of city council members being police officers. I followed up with the city attorney and he said, “yeah, that’s in there. We should probably get rid of that.” It was a little disappointing that I am no longer a “police officer.”

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Littleton, CO Council Member Kyle Schlachter

Q: Is there any rule in the charter as it pertains to the council meetings that you’ve now experienced that you would like to change or get rid of?

A: Not that I can think of. I do like the one change that I noticed: Mayor [Debbie] Brinkman added refreshments to the meetings. In previous councils, there were no refreshments. I find that very nice not only for us council members, but for the audience. I like to see people out there eating their cookies, spilling crumbs on the floor and everything.

Q: Is the food and drink for everyone, or is it to keep the council’s blood sugar up as you go into the second or third hour of a meeting?

A: It’s for everyone. There’s cookies and brownies and drinks for everyone to have. Gotta keep them happy so they don’t come over and attack us even more viciously than has happened.

Q: One of your regular commenters brought up the fact that Littleton used to allow 10-minute presentations by residents in the past. Why do you as a council not want a longer public comment?

A: It sounds like she would prefer a 20 or 30 minute comment, so I could pick up and move my family and go live in the council chambers and just have people come 24/7 and speak to me. That might be a better approach.

Q: You know, after the food and drink, a sleepover seems like the next logical step. I don’t think you’re making this less appealing to the citizens of Littleton, Kyle!

A: [laughs] There’s plenty of opportunities for the citizens to get in touch with council. Three minutes is plenty of time. Most people don’t use their full three minutes. I don’t think more time does anything.


Follow Council Member Kyle Schlachter on Twitter: @Kyle4Littleton

Interview #90: Norman, OK Councilmember Breea Clark (with podcast)

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

Who would have thought that Oklahoma would be such an emotional hotbed for council meetings? In Norman, first-term council member Breea Clark has seen tensions run high over an obscure procedure, a street with an offensive name, and even a minor cultural proclamation.

Q: What is the Norman city council “rule of three?”

A: [sigh] Oh, the rule of three. It’s when three council members can choose an issue and force it on the agenda.

Q: Council members have some differing opinions on whether it is a good thing or, as someone else put it, a “bastardized” procedure.

A: I think you use the rule of three when you reach out to fellow council members and say, “hey, let’s talk about this” and they all tell you “no.” Having seen that process and the lack of communication when [other council members] used the rule, I personally will do everything in my power to never use that rule because it is so divisive.

Q: When I say the name “Edwin DeBarr,” what can you tell me about him?

A: I can tell you that he was one of the first four professors at the University of Oklahoma. He was a very knowledgeable man who spoke many languages. And I can then tell you that he went on to be a grand dragon of the Oklahoma KKK at the height of the brutality.

Q: People started showing up in your meetings and told council, “we have a street named after Edwin DeBarr and that is racist. Please change the street name.” The fact that it wasn’t happening immediately rubbed a lot of people the wrong way. At the October 24, 2017 meeting, the mood was tense. You’re sitting up there as a white woman with an all-white council–there was some shaming going on. How did you sense that the others felt when people were accusing you of being tone-deaf white people?

A: I don’t think any of my colleagues intended to be tone deaf, but it was uncomfortable. I think those comments hurt a lot of feelings, but they shouldn’t have.

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Norman, OK Councilmember Breea Clark

Q: Some of the commenters called you out in a complimentary way to thank you for being a leader on the name change. Did any other council members come up to you and say, “I didn’t appreciate being called racist. I wish you might have told people to tone it down.” Did anyone lay that at your feet?

A: They did not lay that at my feet directly. I don’t think it’s my position to be the tone police. But how that all went down has created some very tense relationships with some of my colleagues. It changed everything. I will always regret the outcome of that. How they got a little beat up on the dais–I am the face of blame for that. We do not have the same relationship that we had before.

Q: Does that bother you?

A: Of course it does.

Q: Before you were a council member, there was a meeting the night of September 28, 2010. The council was considering a proclamation for GLBT history month. Have you ever listened to that meeting before?

A: I will be honest and say no, because I know what happened. I have seen pieces of the ugliness of our community since then and I couldn’t bring myself to listen to it.

Q: A week after that meeting, a 19-year-old gay man who had been in the audience and heard some of the anti-GLBT comments killed himself. Do you feel that the council, by allowing hate speech, might bear some responsibility?

A: [pause] That is a slippery slope. I wasn’t there that night. I’m glad I wasn’t there that night. But I wish somebody would’ve spoken up.


Follow Councilmember Breea Clark on Twitter: @clarkfornorman

“Tear It Down” — an explanation

Hello, councilheads! Next week, City Council Chronicles will be off its hiatus and back with new profiles of city council meetings from around the globe.

But until then, I have gotten many questions about “Tear It Down.” I recommend that if you would like to know about some of the work that went into preparing the story, take a listen to today’s special episode of the City Council Chronicles podcast or click play below:

(If you have not yet heard the story, all eight parts are at http://www.tearitdownpodcast.com and you can even read along if you’d like. Route Fifty also did a terrific write-up here.)tear-it-down-logo-with-bricks-2


On the amount of time put into the story:

Amber Bailey contacted me on July 10, 2017 and the story came out on May 10, 2018. So doing the math, that’s ten months. I would say I spent over 1,000 hours on this, which works out to about 25 hours a week. It was a pretty time-intensive hobby.

Probably the biggest single category of work was watching the council meetings. The footage is archived with the local public access entity, which is called ICRC. The very first video is actually from the last meeting in 2014, so there are only 3.5 years of council meetings online. That was still nice, but there are some caveats to that. First, committee meetings did not start to be recorded until the last year or so. And there were several meetings that went untaped.

Watching the meetings, I took detailed notes about what was going on, which included time stamps so I could pull clips to use in the story. (I never counted up how many pages of notes, but my guess is over 200 typed pages just about the council meetings.)

Then probably the second biggest amount of time was spent on transcribing the interviews. I did about 60 hours of interviews and for every hour recorded, I spent maybe two hours transcribing everything. It was very time consuming, but I think it saved me time when writing the story.

On some of the challenges:

One thing I did encounter was that the set of characters in the beginning of the story was somewhat different from the characters who were there at the end. And generally, the people who had a lot to say weren’t around for too long, and the people who were around for long couldn’t remember a lot of things.

The main example of that is in Chapter 4, when the Change*nch co-founder, Nick Link, talks about city administrator Mark Fitzgerald taking him aside and calling him a “puppet master.” In Link’s telling, it was very dramatic and angry. And some people did remember the word “puppet master” being used. But other people could hardly remember what time of year it was or even what year it was. And the only reason I know is because the O’Shea lawsuit mentioned when it happened.

On fact checking:

Fact checking was a big deal for me. I read an article about the fact checker for “S-Town” and how he spent several months verifying the information in that story. One example he quoted was they needed to figure out whether something was “shellacked” or “lacquered” or “expoxied.” And no one could really remember or cared what the distinction was. But he had to eventually call an expert who recommended what word they should use in the story.

And I hold myself to a high standard, but that seemed a little too much for me!

I definitely got corroboration on a whole range of events and assertions. The best sources were obviously the council meeting videos because then I could see for myself what was going on. I did want to be very fair to people. I took out some lines near the end where I just could not get corroboration.

One example that came close to the “S-Town”-style fact checking was that at one point, Al Long in Chapter 7 says that Renee Stiles, when she was on the recreation commission, had a “binder” of plans for community events. I wanted to be accurate and find out if she really did have a binder. So I tried to find out if there was anyone else from 2009 or earlier who remembered this binder. The answer appeared to be no.

So I sent Renee Stiles a Facebook message. And she said months earlier that she was not really interested in speaking to me for the story, but I hoped she might be able to confirm this fact. And sure enough she wrote back and said what she actually had was “file folders” of plans, not a “binder.” So that is why in Chapter 7, you will hear Al Long speaking to the preparation of Renee Stiles in putting on these events, and then I interject to clarify the container in which she kept these plans was file folders.

On the schedule:

It was in early February that I began writing the episodes. That was a hectic time because around then, I set the date of May 10 to release the story. So I needed to write one episode per week beginning in February.

I was aiming for all of the episodes to be between 40 and 50 minutes, which, as you can see, did not happen. I spent a lot of time agonizing over what things to cut, what to include. But at the beginning of April, I had eight scripts that were written out–exactly what my voiceover would be, what the interviews were saying, whatever was in the council meeting clips. And I annotated everything so I knew where to pull the clips from and what part of the interview needed to be pasted into the episode.

In April, I started editing everything together. I finished each episode in about four days, which I consider fast. And again, that’s due to me knowing in advance what day and hour and minute to go to when pulling clips.

The part I hated the most was putting music underneath everything. It is so much pressure to pick the right song! And when you don’t have someone custom composing the music, whatever you choose may be perfect for the first 45 seconds and then it switches to a mood that is entirely different from what the story is trying to communicate.

Or I might have something that’s two minutes long, but I need something for 3.5 minutes. Or there’s the fact that I had a lot of sinister-sounding music and there just weren’t that many different sinister songs to choose from. So that was probably the part I hated the most, even more than transcribing the interviews, was picking the music.

Interview #89: Santa Ana, CA Mayor Pro Tem Michele Martinez (with podcast)

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

Michele Martinez has been on the Santa Ana council for 12 years and is the current mayor pro tem. That means she runs the meetings when the mayor is gone, and it turns out that she has a significant philosophical difference on how to do things. We talk about her approach to public comment and the linguistic changes that have happened in her council chamber.

Q: You were first elected in 2006, which was also the year I created my first municipal affairs program, the “Planning and Zoning Commission Chronicles.” In retrospect, it was terrible. But can you think of any changes that have happened to the Santa Ana council meetings during these 12 years?

A: One of the first things that my colleagues and myself did was to get translation services for those that wished to come and speak before the council. Before that, our mayor would translate for those that would come and speak Spanish. We just thought that was kind of unfair.

Q: Was translation something he wanted to do or was he given that task?

A: Well by default, he knows Spanish fluently and as the mayor he would just do it because we had no one, nor did we ever dedicate the funding to pay for someone. If he weren’t there and there isn’t someone else to translate, a staff member or someone else in the public would translate on behalf of that person.

Q: One time, you and Mayor Miguel Pulido were absent and the other council members excused you but refused to excuse him. What does that mean–does an unexcused absence go on the mayor’s permanent record?

A: Obviously, he won’t get paid for that council meeting.

Q: Ah. Is the mayor frequently gone for important votes?

A: True. There are times where he doesn’t want to take action on certain items, so he won’t attend. I always give ample notice and I inform everyone why I can’t attend. The mayor chooses not to do that. He’ll contact the clerk very last minute and never give his rationale. The mayor doesn’t like controversy and I think everyone knows that about him.

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Santa Ana, CA Mayor Pro Tem Michele Martinez

Q: Well, I don’t like controversy either so–I’m kidding, I love controversy. That’s why I’ll bring up this: in December 2016 there was a meeting of four council members, including you and the mayor. The other three council members were absent. The subject of the meeting was disciplining the city manager. You needed four votes to put him on administrative leave and you coincidentally had those four votes. Were you sensitive to the perception that this meeting was about power and not process?

A: The mayor in this case doesn’t need four members of the council. He can do a special meeting at any given time without consent of the council. So the mayor chose to have that meeting. There’s been inconsistencies as it pertains to the process. We need to have some kind of protocol so there is no blame game and we’re consistent.

Q: Can you speculate why the decision to discipline the city manager could not have waited until a meeting with all seven council members?

A: Obviously it could. Yeah. The mayor chose to do it at that specific time because it benefited him.

Q: I just realized that when the mayor leaves early from meetings, he doesn’t hear all the public comments that he pushed to the end. Did you realize that?

A: Oh, yes. I realize it every single time. He does leave most times before public comment and I believe that’s wrong. We should all be able to listen, including the mayor.


Follow Mayor Pro Tem Michele Martinez on Twitter: @Michele714

RECAP: Best of Podcast Interviews

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This week, we take a listen back to some of the spiciest, most compelling, and most art-filled interview segments in the past several months. If you have a friend who you’ve been dying to introduce to the magic of city council meetings, sit ’em down and have them listen to this!

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

This includes excerpts from:

Interview #72: Hamilton, ON Councilor Matthew Green (with podcast)

Interview #85: Aurora, CO Council Member Allison Hiltz (with podcast)

Interview #54: Cheyenne, WY Mayor Marian Orr (with podcast)

Interview #87: Pullman, WA Councilmember C. Brandon Chapman (with podcast)

Interview #82: Syracuse, NY Councilor Khalid Bey (with podcast)

Interview #88: Greensboro, NC Council Member Justin Outling (with podcast)

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

Few people have had as eventful a three years on their city council as Justin Outling has had in Greensboro. From the infamous transgender bathroom bill to screening police body camera footage in a meeting, we relived some of the most contentious moments in his council chamber.

Q: I noticed that every council meeting, you bring in a courier. Is this a position of honor or does it go to the city employee who’s about to be fired or what?

A: I think definitely more of the former than the latter! Greensboro city council has had a courier for quite some time now and that person’s task is to provide council with notes either from staff or from persons in the gallery. It’s traditionally a city employee from one of the many departments who has the pleasure of spending four or five hours with us on a Tuesday. Human conveyor belt is probably an apt description.

Q: But if they drop a bunch of files on the floor, they’re not gonna walk in and be fired the next morning in the Parks and Rec department, right?

A: If the call were mine, they would not be fired. But that’s really the city manager’s call. So all couriers in Greensboro, beware: don’t drop the papers!

Q: At one meeting, your Republican state representative came to defend the controversial North Carolina transgender bathroom bill. Do you as council members have to watch what you say about higher level politicians in meetings to avoid them retaliating against you?

A: I think there is a lot of strategy that one has to undertake in moving the ball forward and working with state legislators who do have the power to make your life difficult and act against the interests of the city. There are definitely occasions where you have to exercise restraint and do what you think is best for the city, not necessarily what’s best for your sanity.

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Greensboro, NC Council Member Justin Outling

Q: In the summer of 2016, there was an incident involving a white police officer who used excessive force against a black man and it was captured on body camera footage. Your council decided not only to release that video, but to do it at a council meeting, on camera, with a full room of onlookers. I can imagine council members in other cities going, “what? Why would you ever do such an emotionally-charged, embarrassing, or uncomfortable thing in a council meeting?” 

A: Allowing the citizens to actually see what happened and giving them an opportunity to express their frustration, their disappointment, and their hopes for the future–through that incident, it helped bring some members of the community closer together. It perhaps wasn’t the best for council members’ egos in terms of hearing a lot of unpleasant things from members of our community who were hurting like we were.

Q: As the footage was playing in that council chamber, I’m not sure what you were expecting to happen, but did it happen?

A: Yeah, I was expecting to see a lot of hurt on people’s faces, and that’s exactly what I saw. And it’s the same images I saw on the faces of my colleagues the first time we saw it in a closed session.

Q: Do you see a divide on your council between people who consistently think about what the proper role is for council members, and then others who are better at reacting to the mood of the room?

A: I think there is a divide. I would not characterize it as being better to reacting to the mood of the room. I think some people are much more willing to tell folks what they want to hear, notwithstanding the merit. The reality is that I’m an elected member of Greensboro city council. It is not about me feeling good about what I say and what I do.


Follow Council Member Justin Outling on Twitter: @JustinOutling

Interview #87: Pullman, WA Councilmember C. Brandon Chapman (with podcast)

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

Brandon Chapman is a first-term council member and (apparently) a seasoned art critic. We explored his opinions on utility box paintings and discussed what he is still getting used to in the council meetings.

Q: Brandon, from what I understand, you are a longtime listener of the podcast, including before you ran for city council. Is that right?

A: That is correct. I’ve always had this interest in all things municipal. I don’t even know what I googled or what I put into the iTunes search. So I started listening and I thought, he’s bringing the humor, which is important. And of course, really good interviews. Plus me! It’s truly comforting to realize that my city is not nearly as dysfunctional as some other ones.

Q: I wouldn’t call any city dysfunctional. They are all like my children in that I would give them all up for adoption if I could. But what has City Council Chronicles meant to you as a council member? And I’d ask that if you are going to cry, please do it directly into the microphone.

A: Right. You’re listening to them and they’re coming up with the same kind of issues that maybe your city is facing, but they’re tackling it from a different way. And you hear something and you’re like, “oh, I’m not sure I ever thought about that. But maybe that’s a possible solution!” So for me, it is a huge educational opportunity. You could even call it a professional development opportunity for city council members.

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Pullman, WA Councilmember C. Brandon Chapman

Q: Recently in a meeting, you guys selected artwork to go on utility boxes. Is that normal city council business in Pullman?

A: Yeah, I wasn’t expecting to become an art expert overnight! It was a crash course. And I think I’ve learned quite a bit.  We got to move toward even evaluating the art–that was a real shock to me. We only have one utility box that’s wrapped. It was decided that they looked ugly. It looked better than just the metallic, just the gray. But it was also, you know, very lifeless, I thought. And so this call was put out [to artists] and I was fully expecting that there would just be a presentation, but they asked the council’s opinion.

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Q: For this first painting, “Woman Who Travels,” you said it would make a nice mural. Do you still believe that?

A: Yeah, in order to understand this, you need to see every part of this painting, of this drawing. And if you wrap it around a utility box, I don’t think it’s going to leave the viewer with enough to come up with their own definition of what it means to them. To me, I started looking at this thinking, a recognition that I’m still growing. Have to understand things like white privilege and male dominance and patriarchy.

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Q: The painting most council members seemed to approve of was “Starry Lentils.” First of all, I thought “Starry Lentils” was another porn star who had an affair with the president. But it is this landscape of Eastern Washington. It is super colorful!

A: It’s obvious artistry that’s borrowed from Vincent Van Gogh, from Starry Night. Van Gogh painted from behind the window of this asylum and that almost alluded to a detachment or a loneliness. There’s a world out there, but it’s untouchable. And the starry lentils would be, it’s in the open. There’s nothing holding you back. The world is for your taking.

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Q: Were there any council members who gave their opinions on the art and you were like, “ew, is that your taste? I’m never going with you to pick out wallpaper!” 

A: Well actually, I think most of the council members had the same opinion. So they’re a bunch of copycats! I started it! I was the first one.


Follow Councilmember Brandon Chapman on Twitter: @cbrandonchapman