Interview #48: Dublin, IE Councilor Ciarán Cuffe (with podcast)

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

After last week’s Dublin city council meeting, I talked with Ciarán Cuffe about why his council is so enormous, how the political parties get along without too much fighting, and whether the Lord Mayor does a decent job of keeping things on the rails.

Q: Your city council has 63 members. That is a huge number! Be honest with me: do you know everyone’s name?

A: No, I don’t! Up until three years ago we had 52 members and even that was a bit of a struggle to fit into our chamber, which is in a building 250 years old. It’s a squeeze, and if you want to get out to get a glass of water, you have to hustle past several colleagues.

Q: What made you add 11 people?

A: There was a rebalancing in local government between urban and rural. The situation was that there was a lot more councilors in rural areas than in urban areas. So the then-minister at a national level decided to reduce the level of councilors in rural areas and increase it slightly in urban areas.

Q: I read that you recently decided to let councilors bring their children into the meetings. Is that true?

A: Yeah, there was an issue with one of my colleagues who wanted to bring her child into meetings and was told, that’s not something that really works. So Claire [Byrne] battled that and I’m glad to say that she’s now welcomed into meetings. I don’t think anybody would bat an eyelid if a mom was breastfeeding in a meeting. That’s certainly the norm in other European countries.

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Dublin, IE Councilor Ciarán Cuffe

Q: Let’s get into the meat and potatoes–or, as you say in Ireland, the “potatoes and potatoes.” Your council is divided into political parties, I believe eight in total. Explain how these parties affect everything from who sits where, who is allowed to talk and when, and who gets along with whom.

A: Traditionally, we have two center-right parties in Ireland. But in more recent years, there’s been an explosion of left (a lot more left than Bernie Sanders) left-wing parties. You have People Before Profit, you have the Workers’ Party, the Socialist Workers Party. It gets a bit confusing. We talk about bank bailouts and we still have rows about that, and those rows find their way into council meetings. We tend not to have too many fisticuffs at the meetings, but you can have broad discussions.

Q: How do you rank current Lord Mayor Brendan Carr when it comes to running the meetings?

A: Brendan is trying his best but it’s a bit like trying to organize a roomful of screaming cats. Brendan is as challenged as many of his predecessors. The thing about the mayor in the Irish context is we don’t have a directly-elected mayor who’s there for five years. We don’t have an Ed Koch or a Giuliani. We have a mayor who is in for twelve months and they go out again. So they don’t command as much respect.

Q: After people are done being Lord Mayor, are they more wise or tempered?

A: I think they are. I think there’s a knowing glance amongst people who have been mayor. Though I haven’t been mayor, I have been in the national parliament. You’ve got to carefully understand the mood of the room.


Follow Councilor Ciarán Cuffe on Twitter: @CiaranCuffe

Interview #47: Crystal, MN Council Member Nancy LaRoche (with podcast)

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

Nancy LaRoche may be a new council member in Crystal, but she has been observing the meetings for quite some time. She told me that after the council changed its rules, meetings have gotten much friendlier. Plus, all of you animal lovers will hear about the council’s tiny unofficial mascot!

Q: You are in your fifth month of city council meetings and the one thing the people want to know: WHO is Bart?!

A: Bart is a box elder bug that I named and gave a title to! My first night, Bart made his presence known on the dais. I watched him walk from one end to the other towards me and I went, “what a curious little fellow.”

Q: Ha! Would you call Bart a regular council attendee?

A: Yes. As a matter of fact, he seemed to favor [city manager Anne Norris] because one meeting he landed on her face, hung out on her cheek for a little bit, and then made his way down and hung out on her hand.

Q: Ick.

A: She was trying to get my attention but I was so engrossed being a new council member that I didn’t notice him with her.

Q: Does your accepting–and some would say cavalier–attitude about Bart send a message to any citizen that they can bring their box elder bug into the council meetings?

A: [Laughs] Well, they might be subject to one council member’s extreme disdain for box elder bugs. I heard a few slams on the counter. So, fair warning.

Q: Who is this Butcher of Crystal to whom you’re referring?

A: That was our Council Member Jeff Kolb.

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Crystal, MN Council Member Nancy LaRoche

Q: You mentioned that the previous council members changed some rules about how the meetings operate. Why did they do that?

A: If you go back to council meetings prior to 2015, you will see the tenor and the tone quite changed from the way it is now. I think that was the decisive reason why those things were done. When a citizen is watching these meetings, it seems more of a personality conflict. Winning was more important than carrying on with the city’s business.

Q: So it’s not just that you got two new council members this year and everything was resolved. The old council said, “our procedures are making us not get along.”

A: The procedures back then left it wide open. I remember sitting in one meeting where they kept arguing about moving an agenda item–and it was because they could. It was more to antagonize either the mayor or the other council members. I believe they had a mediator come in because things were getting so difficult.

Q: Wow.

A: If you come back to now, it’s much more professional. Things are moving smoothly.

Q: Did more people show up to watch back then in case something wild happened?

A: I believe attendance is probably the same. But that lack of attendance might be speaking to the fact that overall, people are pleased with the level of services. Also, people are busy, so they watch us online. Our streamed meetings get quite a lot of views.

Q: Well, most of those views were from me. I’m sorry for goosing your numbers this week!


Follow Council Member Nancy LaRoche on Twitter: @nwlaroche

Interview #46: Paterson, NJ Councilman Andre Sayegh (with podcast)

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

I was SO excited to talk to a councilman from New Jersey. Why? Well, as you could tell from our Hackensack dramatic reading, council meetings in Jersey can easily go haywire. We discussed whether anyone has punched each other in his council meetings (good news: they haven’t) and why things can get aggressive in the Garden State.

Q: I want to play a clip from Paterson’s former city council president, Aslon Goow, Sr. Here he is during an interview:

Goow: There’s nothing hostile about our council environment. We’ve never hit each other. We might yell sometimes. You might have to.

Is it true that no one has hit each other at your council meetings?

A: I can confirm that no one has been physically assaulted since I’ve been on the city council. There have been instances BEFORE I got on of shoving matches. There have been a lot of shouting matches. But it’s not like a session of the Japanese parliament where you got people kicking each other. And it pales in comparison to the British House of Commons where they’re resorting to not only name calling, but profanity!

Q: Is there any actual harm to the city when councilmen verbally fight in the meetings?

A: No, not at all. It’s just the perception. They’ll say we’re a dysfunctional unit and they’ll dismiss us. When I say, “they,” it could be people outside of Paterson and viewers who are tuning in.

Q: A word about the viewers–the clips I found were on YouTube and they were only the negative stuff. That’s because I couldn’t find videos of your council meetings. I’m sure that if you televised the whole meetings, people might see that you threatened your fellow council members only HALF of the time–

A: Not even half of the time! Paterson has to get into the twenty-first century as far as live streaming. For the sake of transparency, you’re right. If we’re gonna debunk that notion that all we do is fight each other as opposed to fight FOR our constituents, that would be beneficial.

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Paterson, NJ Councilman Andre Sayegh

Q: Are all council members different off camera than when they are in the meeting and it’s go-time?

A: There are council people [who] when the camera is off they are Type B personalities. But when it’s 7 o’clock on a Tuesday night, they become Type A.

Q: It’s funny you mention Type A. I have seen similar behavior in other New Jersey council meetings. Everything I know about Jersey comes from Bruce Springsteen songs, so why is the state in perpetual DEFCON 2?

A: Think about it. We’re overcrowded. We’re a small state, but we’re densely populated. So every now and then, you’re gonna have people step on each other’s toes.

Q: So people just annoy each other more in New Jersey because you can’t escape them!

A: Yes! Mike, I hope you see some merit to what I said!

Q: I’m curious, when is the last time you walked away from a council meeting and felt good about what happened?

A: …Mike, you ready for this?

Q: Oh, my god.

A: You sitting down?

Q: I am LYING down. TELL ME.

A: Late February, we adopted a budget that did NOT call for a tax increase. That made me feel better than any other meeting.


Follow Councilman Andre Sayegh on Twitter: @andresayegh

Interview #45: City of Sydney, NSW Councilor Christine Forster (with podcast)

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

Folks, this is a first: we have an Australian city councilor–and a good one at that! Christine Forster is a Liberal Party councilor who also ran for Lord Mayor (which is Australian for “mayor”) last year. We got outraged at what I was seeing–or not seeing–in her council meetings.

Q: Where I am, it is Sunday. But where you are, it is Monday. So you are IN THE FUTURE! I think it would be fun if you told the audience what I am going to say next. I’ll put my fingers in my ears.

A: Well I’m pretty sure you’re going to ask me how the City of Sydney council operates.

Q: [Taking fingers out of ears] Okay, great. I want to start by talking about your dog. I know you’re a big animal lover and–wait a minute. I bet that’s EXACTLY what you thought I’d say. Nice try! Let’s talk instead about your council meetings. I could not find a scrap of video footage anywhere. What’s going on? Did a dingo eat your cameras?

A: [Laughs] It wasn’t a dingo and it wasn’t even my pug, Audrey Pugburn! It’s a sad fact that unfortunately there is no video or audio record because our Lord Mayor–she’s been in charge of the show since 2004–resolutely refuses to broadcast or televise our meetings. It has been something I’ve been pushing for several years now. But the Lord Mayor, Clover Moore, is intransigent.

Q: In July 2014, the council decides to do the live streaming. That passes on a 5-4 vote. What happened next?

A: It passed on a 5-4 vote because the Lord Mayor’s numbers were down. Somebody was away on sick leave. The motion was rescinded at the next meeting by the Lord Mayor when she had the numbers again.

Q: How long have the debates been on this and what was the tone?

A: There was no debate, really. As soon as the new council was [sworn in for 2016], I spoke very robustly in favor of it. And the Lord Mayor and her team simply voted it down.

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City of Sydney, NSW Councilor Christine Forster

Q: This is frustrating to me. Clearly it’s frustrating to you because you’re living through it. Are regular people as angry about this as you are?

A: People want this. There are councils around the world that have been doing this since the 1980s. It’s beyond frustrating, frankly. I have no problem with anyone photographing or recording anything I say or do. I’m happy to open myself to that level of scrutiny.

Q: I did contact the Lord Mayor’s office and asked for an answer about why she refuses to allow the rest of us to see what’s happening. I received no response. Quite frankly, I am outraged that Clover Moore thinks the people’s business should be done on HER terms. However, being fair here, can you think of any time that you or your fellow councilors used a meeting to grandstand, take a shot at the mayor, or create a distraction?

A: Absolutely not. This is not about us trying to score political points. This is an administration that will countenance no variation, no opposition, that is entirely about control.

Q: Couldn’t you hold up your cell phone and Facebook Live stream it?

A: It might well end up that somebody does that. It won’t be me!


Follow Councilor Christine Forster on Twitter: @resourcefultype

San José City Council Special UpDiep

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

When I saw that half of the San José city council was wearing Star Trek uniforms at last week’s council meeting, my first thought was, “sounds about right.” My second thought was, “get [Councilmember] Lan [Diep] on the line!”

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Q: Thank you for joining me on the holiest of high holidays: Silicon Valley Comic Con. What do you have planned?

A: I have the Great American Litter Pickup in the morning.

Q: Uh, I’m sorry, the “litter pickup?” Is that from the Marvel Universe or the DC Universe?

A: I think it’s one of the independent ones!

Q: Okay, on April 18 I had some downtime between watching the Milwaukee city council meeting and the Tallahasse city council meeting. So, like usual, I flipped over to San José and I saw you say this:

LD: Thank you, captain. Government: a fickle frontier. These are the voyages of the Starship San José. Its four year mission–possibly extendable to eight–to explore wonderful new policies. To seek out better quality of life…to boldy innovate where no municipality has innovated before!

Q: Uh, okay, “Starfleet Commander,” what was all that about?

A: Prior to that meeting, Councilmember Dev Davis hosted a flag-raising for the Silicon Valley Comic Con. We created our own flag for it. I’m not sure if the city did it or Councilmember Davis did or the Comic Con did. She invited Steve Wozniak and she got the entire city council involved to dress up in Star Trek uniforms. So we were there and Steve Wozniak was there and a bunch of Star Wars and other cosplayers showed up. Fun was had. We presented a commendation to Steve Wozniak for being a great ambassador for the city of San José. Councilmember Davis and myself and a few other people showed up wearing our Star Trek uniforms from the previous event.

Q: I noticed there were some different colors going on. Some people wore gold, others wore red or blue. What was the logic behind that?

A: My understanding is that red are the engineers. They get things done. The blue is the science group and the gold is the command group. A lot of us wore gold–we did not coordinate that!

Q: You and the mayor were both wearing gold. So if a disaster were to befall San José, would you two be on the same team?

A: I mean, everyone assumes that I was trying to be Kirk. But maybe I was just playing a type and being Sulu, the Asian on the Star Trek fleet!

Interview #44: Mercer Island, WA City Manager Julie Underwood (with podcast)

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

Julie Underwood has worked in three cities in the past five years–so she’s noooooooo stranger to city council meetings! We talked about what happens when you bring your kids to a meeting, why she chose to sit far away from the mayor, and one pet peeve of hers.

Q: When you got sworn in as Mercer Island city manager, your sons were standing there with you. Your youngest was seemingly doing a Spiderman impression while you were talking about upholding the Constitution…has your family been to any other council meetings?

A: They have not. I generally do not have them attend council meetings for obvious reasons–the Spiderman and the…oh, my gosh! Wanting to take the mic and wanting to get my attention when I need to focus on what’s happening with the council. Many of us are working parents. I’ve had to pick up my kids towards the end of the day and run back to the office where I’ve said, “sit in my office. I’ve got a meeting. Do your homework.”

Q: I noticed that for your first couple of Mercer Island meetings, you sat next to the mayor and other council members. But by the third meeting, you were not up there on the dais! Does Mayor Bruce Bassett smell bad?

A: [Laughs] No, he doesn’t smell bad. They’re the legislative branch. If I were just observing the council meeting, I wouldn’t know exactly what is this person doing up there? Those folks are all elected by the people and I’m appointed. I really wanted to understand, is there a reason city managers sat up there? Are [council members] really wedded to this idea? As it turned out, none of them were.

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Mercer Island, WA city manager Julie Underwood

Q: Are there things you have seen council members do or say in the meetings that you really wish they wouldn’t? What habits grind your gears?

A: I’m certainly sensitive when I might hear a council member use the term “my constituents.” Once you get elected, you work for all residents at that point. Every city I’ve worked for, every one of the elected positions were at-large [elected citywide]. So I just thought that was odd to say “my constituents.”

Q: Yeah, everyone has the same constituents. It might just be something they assume they have to say when they become a politician. It makes you sound like Ted Kennedy or something.

A: Maybe,  yeah.

Q: Have city council members ever surprised you by telling you behind closed doors that some project or idea is perfectly reasonable, but once they get in the council meeting, they slam it left and right?

A: Yeah, I’ve had council members tell me in private where they’re going and then on the dais do the opposite. That is their prerogative. There is a certain amount of uncertainty that is not fun. I’ve also seen where they see testimony in public comment and councils just go in a different direction based on that testimony. I will say this: when I do experience that, it gives me pause and I say, okay, this is a case where I do have to be okay with the uncertainty of a particular person. I just don’t know if what they’re saying is going to be what they do.


Follow City Manager Julie Underwood on Twitter: @UnderwoodJulie

Interview #29*: Miami, FL City Manager Daniel Alfonso (with podcast)

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

Daniel Alfonso is a longtime government employee and Army sergeant. But amazingly, he is also a survivor of Miami’s city commission meetings. What does that mean? Listen to the incredible story.

Q: Is it a different experience being in the council meeting room–or is basically what you see on TV what it’s like in real life?

A: When I’m sitting on that dais, you actually see the faces of all the elected officials. You see the reactions. You see the public because your peripheral vision sees the entire room. When you’re looking at it on TV, you’re only capturing the images of the camera at that particular moment.

Q: Last April, I saw a wild thing at your city commission meeting: the commissioners tried to fire you! I know this is Florida and the threshold for something being shocking is fairly high…how shocked were you?

A: I was a little surprised but I wouldn’t say “shocked.” The meeting that took place that day was a difficult one. What led up to it was that I had terminated an employee who I believed had done something wrong. That employee had some ties to the community and there was a number of people that came out in support. I never [publicly] disclosed the reasoning for the termination because I didn’t need to add insult to injury.

Q: While this is going on, you are staring straight ahead. But behind you is this striking scene of two dozen city employees standing silently behind you. Did you notice what was going on with them?

A: Initially I did not. That day, [my wife] was watching that portion and she sent me a text. She just said to me, “why don’t you get up and come home?”

Q: Mmm.

A: I took a moment to look around and I realized that I had pretty much my entire senior staff–even the police union president–was standing next to me. And he’s a person we definitely have had differences with. I felt pretty good about that. So I responded to my wife, “look at all these people standing behind me. I can’t.”

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Miami, FL City Manager Daniel Alfonso

Q: At this point, the mayor comes into the room. He is not amused. Basically, he said, “if you fire Danny, I’ll veto it. If you override me, I’ll just hire him again.” Were you thinking, “god bless this man for sticking up for me?”

A: That was an incredible moment as well. The mayor really came out and supported the job I’ve been doing and supported me tremendously that day. I was actually impressed by how strongly he felt about keeping me for the rest of his term.

Q: At the end of this ordeal, Commissioner Ken Russell said, “this is your come-to-Jesus moment with the commission.” Danny, did you find Jesus in that commission meeting?

A: [Laughs] I’m a religious person and I found Jesus long before that day!

Q: Ha! Do you think that the commission handled this in the best way–in a public meeting?

A: That’s what we in our position expose ourself to. Would I prefer to have a private discussion with each commissioner individually? Yes. But this is the way our elected officials decided to have this discussion.


Follow City Manager Daniel Alfonso on Twitter: @DJA1968

*Due to a typo, there was not previously an interview 29. While this is technically our forty-third interview, we will number it 29 to get back on track.