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

Podcast Recap: Heated Meetings

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

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During these hot summer months, why not make it even hotter by listening to some of the most contentious city council meetings featured on the City Council Chronicles podcast?

This week, we revisit:

  1. The takedown of a racist street sign–with Norman, Oklahoma Council Member Breea Clark
  2. A woman who had a traumatic encounter with the Lancaster, Pennsylvania police–with Councilwoman Janet Diaz
  3. Whether to fly the confederate flag on city property–with Danville, Virginia Councilman Lee Vogler
  4. Why the Greensboro, North Carolina city council decided to screen footage of police brutality in a crowded council meeting–with Council Member Justin Outling

Oh, and we did cover one feel-good moment in this episode: the award we recently won! Hooray!

Interview #96: Charlotte, MI Councilman Branden Dyer (with podcast)

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

Branden Dyer spent 2011-2015 on the Charlotte (rhymes with “car lot”) city council, was defeated for reelection, but was appointed back on the council this March. The difference in tone between 2015 and 2018 is night and day.

Q: In your final meeting during 2015, you said you felt that the “negative campaign” against you was a distraction. Your city is only 9,000 people; don’t take this the wrong way, but what was there to be negative about in Charlotte?

A: A group of individuals who were not happy with the situation made an effort to remove me and other individuals from council. You kind of expect it in national elections, but there was a lot of rumors, a lot of negative Facebook comments and attacks.

Q: Some meetings, commenters seemed to imply the council was a rubber stamp for the city manager. Was that part of the tonal shift in Charlotte politics?

A: Yes. Their intention was to get rid of the city manger. When they made a move to not renew the city manager’s contract, there was a significant community uproar and they eventually backed down.

Q: Did you ever feel any pressure on council to go out of your way to question or oppose the city manager’s recommendations because you had this accusation of a rubber stamp being hurled at you?

A: No, I had no qualms with disagreeing with the city manager. But also, the city manager has a PhD literally in city management and I do not! In this age of complex government regulations and techniques, I think it’s best to defer to the expertise.

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Charlotte, MI Councilman Branden Dyer

Q: Well, I have a PhD in making quality municipal affairs audio content (obviously from the University of Phoenix), but it is 100 percent impossible to look at any of your council meetings from 2015 without noticing a young man named Zachary who was a candidate for mayor and an unrelenting critic of your government. What was his deal?

A: [He] was a disgruntled citizen that definitely exercised his five minute public comment limit down to the second at every chance he got. I tried to get him involved on a city committee but he never responded to my offer. After losing the mayor race, apparently his concerns were satisfied or he just kind of disappeared.

Q: He was pretty much in there nonstop to troll you guys and, I’m assuming, get free video of his speeches for his campaign. How did you respond to being baited?

A: Zach never really came after me personally. [The mayor] did not choose to run for reelection. Her term as mayor was difficult on her. Zach routinely attacked her and the city manager personally. The environment and vibe on council was a lot different than when I first went on council and my current term on council. “Toxic” is not really the word I want to use, but I think that’s kind of the best way to describe it.

Q: Was part of the reason you wanted these meetings videotaped and put online so that people who were not the attackers could look at what you were encountering and kind of sympathize with the situation?

A: I don’t think I was necessarily looking for sympathy, but you want everybody to be informed. The group that came against me and other council members were very savvy at using social media. They could get their view out there, and I wanted to be sure there was an official record so that if individuals chose to, they had the ability to see what actually happened instead of taking one viewpoint from one group in town. I wanted to make sure things weren’t skewed.

Interview #95: Hillsboro, OR City Manager Michael Brown (with podcast)

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

The thing you need to know about Hillsboro is: they have fun. Whether it’s art in the council meetings or elaborate comedy routines at the state of the city, creativity abounds in the Hillsboro council chamber. City manager Michael Brown elaborates on why that is.

Q: I am impressed by the range of creative expression that gets showcased in Hillsboro. Just in the past six months, you had artists, you had high school performers, and–my favorite–you had second and third graders dressed up as historical figures from Hillsboro. Is there any segment of society or culture that you would like to be featured in your council meetings?

A: Anything. We view our council meetings as basically a community gathering where half of it is creating performances and different ways to connect with the community. And the second half’s a business meeting. The ones that stand out to me are musicals. Those are really, really fun.

Q: Do those ever make you wish you were on the opposite side of the dais entertaining the audience?

A: No, not anymore. I tried to do acting when I was in high school and the acting director pulled me aside and said, “you know, I think you’d be better as a stagehand.” I worked in the back of the stage, not the front.

Q: Is that a good philosophy for a city manager? Be the stagehand, not the leading lady?

A: [laughs] There’s different expectations council has for you, whether you’re out in front or behind. I like being in the background with charismatic, smart, intelligent leaders out in front of me.

Q: Something completely unexpected to me was watching your state of the city address. Normally across cities, these things are pretty uneventful. The mayor gets up there; rattles off statistics about how well the city is doing; people applaud; and an hour later it’s done. But in Hillsboro, the state of the city is not just a speech. It’s a production. In the 2017 state of the city, for instance, Mayor Steve Callaway had the audience do a text message poll. How does the state of the city come together?

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Hillsboro, Oregon city manager Michael Brown

A: Over the course of maybe six months in advance of the performance, we have a group of people that are laying it out and planning it. We sit around, talk about what things might be interesting. In the case of the last mayor and Mayor Steve Callaway, they’re really funny. They really enjoy the opportunity to engage the audience and not get up and give a big speech and have everybody clap. They recognize the value of humor and wit. It is a performance. We view it as a performance.

Q: Your mayor is probably one of the best deliverers of this highly specific kind of entertainment. And speaking of deliver, this year’s state of the city featured former Mayor Jerry Willey walking in as a pizza delivery guy. Did any of the other cities you worked for come close to this kind of choreography?

A: This is a unique place! They enjoy poking fun at each other in a positive way and if you knew Jerry Willey, having him in a pizza uniform is the last thing you think he would do.

Q: One thing that’s not exactly entertaining, but it’s certainly unorthodox for any state of the city address, is that Mayor Callaway actually gives up the microphone midway through and lets councilors have their own time to speak. Why would the mayor give up precious camera time to the hoi polloi on the council?

A: Because it’s a council and the mayor is part of the council. While he’s the political head of government–the person people look to–he wanted to create the space for them to be up there and have the group be together and say, “we view it as a team.” He cares a lot about that.

Interview #94: McDonough, GA Councilwoman Sandra Vincent (with podcast)

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

Sandra Vincent has been on the McDonough city council for over a decade and only recently experienced her first meeting about tattoos and piercings. We also covered her frustration over a park and what that meant for a business owner who wanted to comment upon it.

Q: Last year, there was one part of the city employee handbook that bothered you–the council was trying to limit tattoos and piercings. Was this the first time in your more than a decade on the city council that this subject came up?

A: There have been other times we discussed dress code. I don’t recall there being another time when we specifically were creating policy that descriptive around tattoos. Tattoos, even though I don’t have a tattoo and don’t particularly like them, culturally there are more young people who are into tattoo wearing. To say that we’re not going to hire individuals with tattoos above the neck is to limit ourselves.

Q: How surprised were you that the others did not see it your way?

A: I was extremely. I think I had a weeklong debate with my four daughters. What was even more odd is that there were people presenting in the audience that evening who represented the local chamber [of commerce], one of which had tattoos and a mouth piercing!

Q: No way!

A: I was sitting there thinking, this is a professional woman that has just presented this amazing piece to us. She has tattoos and piercings and we’re saying that if you exemplify those characteristics, that’s not considered professional. I almost felt like I had been propelled back about 20 years.

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McDonough, GA Councilwoman Sandra Vincent

Q: At the meeting on April 18, 2016, you moved to add a discussion of the Overlook subdivision park to the agenda. But other council members said they had already told people that there would be no discussion and therefore it should stay off the agenda. How sympathetic were you to that reasoning?

A: I wasn’t. Initially, the Overlook discussion was on the agenda. In that chamber were somewhere between 50 and 75 individuals from the Overlook community who had come out. Somebody took it off [the agenda].

Q: After you gave a presentation despite the mayor trying to gavel you down, the audience applauded and you left the chamber. Do you remember where you went?

A: I walked outside of chambers through the back door to try and capture myself. I went out and did have a conversation because those are people that I represent. I think the most heartbreaking thing was an elderly gentlemen–he just kind of looked at me and said, “Ms. Vincent, what do we do now?”

Q: When you came back in the room, you and a public commenter had an exchange in which you wanted her to state that she did not live in the city, despite owning a business there. Did you have a history with that person?

A: The commenter had concerns regarding the park. My response concerning whether or not the individual lived in McDonough was germane to the fact that there were almost 75 individuals who live in the city that were refused an opportunity to speak. We’re talking about specific issues for a particular geographic area and this business is across town. I don’t see how it’s fair to not disclose the fact that the person is not a resident.


Follow Councilwoman Sandra Vincent on Twitter: @sandravincent