Interview #137: Madison, WI Alder Samba Baldeh (with podcast)

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

Samba Baldeh is the District 17 alder who remembers quite clearly a fraught council meeting about funding for Southeast Asian mental health services. He also discusses his exchange with the police chief from three years ago after the chief’s accusatory blog post put Madison’s common council in the crosshairs.

Q: I’ve heard of aldermen and alderwomen and even alderpersons, but Madison is the only city I have found whose council members are called “alder.” What do you know about why Madison uses that term?

A: I think Madison is just trying to be politically correct. We can be a female, male, transgender, or people who may identify however they want to identify. I think that is the reason why. A lot of people are confused when you tell them, “I’m an alderperson.” They generally don’t know what that means.

Q: On the night of February 26, there were $115,000 that the council had to direct toward mental health services for Hmong elders. Had you ever experienced this combination of fear and anger before, like what you were hearing from the Hmong community?

A: I do remember this meeting very vividly. Apart from the anger, just the sadness of the event. The community became divided as to who should actually provide these services. Who do we give the money to? That is where the meeting became very deeply personal.

Q: During the public’s testimony, Alder Barbara McKinney raised a point of order about the neutrality of the translation services. Do you know where the concern about the accuracy of translation was coming from?

A: She was sitting next to the interpreters and the people giving testimonies. I think what she observed was people were talking to each other, whispering to each other to an extent where she felt like the interpretation was not neutral. The mayor interjected and said we are doing our best. Even the interpreter did say that it’s difficult to interpret the Hmong language.

Q: The provision of health service was getting wrapped up in race and cultural competency. Do you think this was a healthy debate or was there unnecessary vilification taking place?

A: I do think we shouldn’t have gotten here. I spoke to some of the leaders in the community and let them know that it is important that some of these issues be resolved outside of the public domain. We could have had a better discussion around the money part and how we allocate it. I didn’t think there was a need to vilify each other to the extent we did. The best way was to find a way to resolve the cultural or the societal issues outside of the council. Once it came to council, it basically was difficult to control.

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Madison, WI Alder Samba Baldeh

Q: You mentioned the virtue of resolving conflict before it reaches the council meeting where you don’t have a control over the arguments or what people say, and then it can look messy to the public. There was a similar incident in June 2016 that falls in that category. Your council was about to vote on an additional $350,000 to have a consultant examine the practices of the police department. Your police chief, Michael Koval, has a blog. On the evening of June 5, he published a piece about this report where he started out with “bring it on,” saying the police have nothing to hide. But suddenly, the six paragraphs that followed included this language: “to the Common Council: you are being watched….this is a pre-emptive first strike from me to you.” What was your reaction to his accusations that your council was letting him and his officers down?

A: I think the police chief really was not being very fair in his assessment of why morale was down with his police force. Almost every item that came to council with regards to police funding was approved. That is the first thing we can do to show support for the police department. All the events that they invite us, leadership was part of it. Other council members who could be part of it also took part. I think it was an ill-informed assessment. I also do not believe police leadership should come to council or use their electronic access, like a blog, and threaten community leaders.

Q: I’m sure he would agree with you that the council has given his department money, but that’s not his complaint. What he’s saying is, when people come into this meeting and they talk smack about my department and my officers, a defense from the council is nowhere to be found. So yes, you’re giving us money, but it’s almost like you’re paying us off to sit back and take all this abuse. I really need you, the council, to push back, on this vilification of us that’s happening right in front of you.

A: If people from the community come to testify, they can say whatever they feel about the police. How does that bring credibility to the people of the city if we’ve just been called all these names, and now we have to sit there and defend the person who’s calling us all these names? It’s our responsibility to educate people about the police work and make them feel good about their police force, but it’s also the responsibility of the person who leads that police force to make sure the community have a good view of the department.


Follow Alder Samba Baldeh on Twitter: @aldersamba

Interview #132: Troy, MI Mayor Pro Tem Ethan Baker (with podcast)

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

When the city manager of Troy was arrested in 2018, it was the latest in a series of events that forced the city council into some tough decisions. Ethan Baker describes his points of view at various times in the multiyear saga and what that has done to his council relationships.

Q: On March 11, 2018, your council met in a special Sunday session to fire city manager Brian Kischnick. What had happened in the last 24 hours to necessitate that firing?

A: It had actually been about 48 hours. That Friday evening, the former city manager had gone out to a restaurant in a neighboring city with his girlfriend–who we didn’t know was his girlfriend but happened to also be his assistant. They apparently had too much to drink and he physically assaulted her. He got arrested and was in lockup that weekend. We met on a Sunday and we terminated him for cause.

Q: There is more: in the summer of 2016 the council commissioned a report on the city manager’s conduct. It came to you confidential in July of that year and at the August 8 meeting, your council decided whether to release that report to the public. This vote was 4-3 with you in the majority against the release, and you said to the city manager, “we are watching everything that happens in city administration at this point.” After that vote, how did you notice the city manager’s behavior change based upon your observations? 

A: It did change initially. We met with Brian Kischnick quite a bit in closed sessions. As time progressed, it seemed that he went kind of back to not being as communicative with us. Things snowballed and he got indicted after he was terminated.

Q: After you made your statement about “we’re watching you,” the city manager continued to solicit bribes, extorted money from a contractor, lived rent-free in a fully-furnished apartment, and bullied his employees.

A: One thing that the public has to understand a little bit is city council members are not full-time employees. We are rarely at city hall. A lot of information didn’t come to us. It’s one of the shortfalls of this style of government, a council-manager form of government, where you have a city manager who runs the show. That form of government works great in communities throughout the country. The only problem with it is when you have the person at the top, the city manager, who is the problem.

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Troy, MI Mayor Pro Tem Ethan Baker

Q: What did it say about your council that city workers did not feel comfortable coming to you for their problems with your employee, the city manager?

A: There’s not supposed to be a lot of interaction between city council members and city employees. By edict of the city manager, everything was to be funneled through him, which became a problem. But because of the 4-3 vote in the summer of 2016 saying we’re not going to release the report, I think some city staff felt that Brian Kischnick’s protected. I’ve since learned that’s what Brian Kischnick was telling people. The employees felt fruitless–why bother if there’s only gonna be a minority of council members who might do something? Had I heard something more from any employee, I would’ve been the first to say [to Kischnick], “I’m sorry, we gave you another chance. You blew it.”

Q: After Brian Kischnick’s arrest and firing in early 2018, there was again a demand for you to release that report. On April 9, three council members wanted to publish the report and three did not. Which meant that you were the decisive vote. Did you walk into that meeting knowing that you were willing to release the whole thing?

A: I don’t know if I was 100 percent sure that I was willing to do it. What you can’t hear in the audio is that there were at least 100 people sitting in our chamber. It was standing-room only. When they heard that I was going to release the full report, there was a lot of relief in that chamber. I am so happy and thankful that I did make that vote. I think it’s done a lot of good for our community.

Q: You speak of relief. People in Troy vilified you for your 2016 vote. But now, you kind of redeemed yourself. What’s your thought on that?

A: “Redemption” is funny. You’re only one vote away from having somebody not like you. Things change and it goes back and forth all the time.


Follow Mayor Pro Tem Ethan Baker on Twitter: @EthanBakerMI

Interview #128: Dubuque, IA Council Member Luis Del Toro (with podcast)

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

Luis Del Toro entered the Dubuque council in 2016 and explains how he became a bit of an iconoclast, not shying away from dissent or from pushing policy changes. Plus, he clarified why council members seemed so critical of the renters and landlords who came before the council to ask for a ruling.

Q: I noticed a little over a year ago that people started coming into the council meetings to speak about source-of-income discrimination. How did Dubuque get roped into the fight for economic justice?

A: When it came to housing choice vouchers, the city got themselves in a little bit of hot water with [the Department of Housing and Urban Development]. We had some ways that we were trying to divvy those out, and that was seen as discriminatory by HUD. We had to come up with a plan, but we had citizens petition us to make the acceptance of those vouchers mandatory. We’ve opted to not get to that step yet.

Q: Right, the more moderate solutions were what your council voted on in early 2017. However, all of a sudden, Council Member Kevin Lynch broadsided the commenters in the room, scolding them for not working cohesively. How did you feel about that?

A: What he’s referencing is we had a source-of-income committee that was a combination of organizations within our city as well as the landlords that were supposedly trying to come up with a plan for us. What seemed to come out of that was more of an us-versus-them them perspective. They weren’t listening to each other. They couldn’t agree upon what presentation they wanted to bring before council.

Q: The council members seemed to be saying, “you all should have agreed on your own rather than come to us to decide for you.” That took me aback because that is what the government does all the time: it resolves policy disagreements by deciding what is the law. Were these council members offended that they had to make a decision on something?

A: I wouldn’t necessarily say that. I think it was the expectation of having a lot of smart people in the room and a lot of individuals that are very capable of coming up with a solution that actually showed some partnership between the two groups.

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Dubuque, IA Council Member Luis Del Toro

Q: I get the impulse to chastise the two sides, but isn’t it a bit naive to think that two groups of people with very different economic interests will find the common ground that you think they have? Was this a small town expectation of civility that you were projecting onto them?

A: It could be viewed that way. We are a little bit smaller and we’ve always prided ourselves in being able to find answers to problems that seem a little bigger than we are.

Q: On February 18 this year, you proposed an emergency cancellation policy for city council meetings in cases of inclement weather. I assume this covers blizzards, floods, and deluges of presidential candidates?

A: Well, apparently yes! We did vote later that evening to change our upcoming meeting next year due to the caucusing here in Iowa. But right now, our only provision within our city code is we can make adjustments to our meeting date and time 30 days in advance. Obviously, a lot of things can happen in 30 days. This year, we had wind chills that were 60 below. Travel wasn’t advised. We had no provision in place that gave us the opportunity to delay our council meeting to possibly the next evening.

Q: Do you think the criticism from other council members and the mayor that “the council meeting must go on and we’ve managed in bad weather before” is a healthy attitude to have?

A: No, not at all. I respectfully disagree. It should come down to valuing the safety of our citizens as well as ourselves and city staff in trying to get to these meetings. There was a no-tow ban put in place. If you were out on that road and you went into a ditch trying to navigate our icy streets, no help was coming for you. With frostbite that could occur in five to ten minutes, those are dangerous conditions to expect individuals to attend a meeting.

Interview #125: Bloomington, IN City Clerk Nicole Bolden (with podcast)

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

Nicole Bolden is a longtime employee of the Bloomington clerk’s office and is in her first term as the elected clerk. She reminisces about weaponry in the council chamber, her attempt at live tweeting the meetings, and a parking garage debate that stood out.

Q: You have been the clerk for almost four years and before that, I know you worked for the city clerk, sometimes being the fill-in person at the council meetings. How have the meetings changed in the ten years that you’ve been working for the city?

A: I don’t think the meetings have changed dramatically. In some respects they have calmed down. We used to have some citizens who were very active and engaged in the meetings, sometimes to comic effect. Most of our council members are pretty long serving, so they know what they’re doing. They have an established routine.

Q: What is some of the comic relief that we’re missing out on nowadays that you used to see at the microphone way back when?

A: We used to have citizens who would come in and talk about various things that concerned them, but they would also record themselves while standing at the podium. You would see people who were filming things for their own YouTube broadcast or podcast. There were people who would show up with hatchets. There were people who would show up with costumes.

Q: You had me at “hatchet.” Was this a prop hatchet or was this a threat?

A: Neither, it was just a hatchet that our citizen was carrying with him. He still comes to meetings occasionally. He sometimes comes with things that may cause a bit of concern, but that is what he is allowed to do.

Q: Indiana is a wild and lawless place, I love it.

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Bloomington, IN City Clerk Nicole Bolden

I noticed that last fall you live tweeted the council proceedings for one or two meetings and then you stopped. Why did you give up on such riveting tweets as

A: You know, there just didn’t seem to be a huge appetite for that type of tweeting. It’s something that we’ve discussed returning to, but for the moment it is one more thing to juggle during an already busy meeting. I have to be honest, I’m not great at tweeting. I feel a little old sometimes because I don’t know all the abbreviations people use!

Q: In the December 12, 2018 meeting, Council Member Allison Chopra complained about how meetings go way too late. If the council members have to stay late, you have to stay late. What are your thoughts on the duration of the meetings?

A: When I decided to run for city clerk, my family laughed at me. They said, “how on Earth are you going to be able to handle those meetings that go past your bedtime?” When I started, our council meetings used to start at 7:30 p.m., not 6:30. So that was one change that Allison successfully spearheaded through, which was getting the meetings started earlier in the hopes that when we did have longer meetings, people wouldn’t be leaving at 11:30 or 12 at night.

Q: During a contentious debate last year about whether to construct new parking garages, I noticed something unusual in the public comment. One of your employees in the clerk’s office spoke to the council on the topic. What have you told your employees about getting involved in council meetings?

A: I have told them that they are welcome to express their opinions to the council at any given time. I have also asked them that when they are speaking to the council, to make it clear they are speaking for themselves and not on behalf of the office.

Q: Is that a luxury that employees of other departments have? Or because you’re an elected official, do you have more freedom to tell your employees, “if you want to get a little political, have at it”?

A: I’m a separately-elected branch, so I don’t have the same chain of command that other departments have who all ultimately respond to the mayor. I don’t know of anybody who’s ever been told to not speak at a council meeting, but I know there are some people who may think twice.


Follow Nicole Bolden on Twitter: @ClerkNicoleB

Interview #124: Independence, MO Mayor Eileen Weir (with podcast)

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

On the podcast, Mayor Eileen Weir shares the logic behind the Independence council’s brand new public comment policy. Plus, we walk through one controversial week in summer 2018 in which people’s jobs were on the line and the charter’s rules were under scrutiny.

Q: You announced a new public comment policy at the January 22, 2019 meeting that eliminates advance sign-ups. Why the change?

A: The policy that we had in the past was the agenda comes out on Thursday and by noon on Friday, you needed to contact the city clerk if you wanted to speak to the council. If the agenda was late getting out or people couldn’t meet that deadline, they were not allowed to speak to the council unless they contacted a council member and asked to speak. The council member could request at the council meeting that we suspend the rules of order to allow somebody to speak.

Q: Wow.

A: Most people when they come to speak want to talk about something that the council’s gonna be voting on that night. We always have our citizen comments at the end of the meeting. If somebody wanted to speak on something that we were voting on that night, we would also need to suspend the rules of order to change that around. It seemed like we were making a lot of exceptions all the time. We hope that it’s gonna encourage some more citizen participation in our council discussions.

Q: I want to take us to June 18, 2018. Midway through the meeting, Councilmember Curt Dougherty announces seemingly out of nowhere that he wants to eliminate six positions from the Independence Power & Light utility. What was going through your mind?

A: It was a surprise to me. I didn’t know that motion was going to be made. People were caught very much off guard. It is in the authority of the city council to amend the budget, which was what the motion was. It’s not within the authority of the city council to do any personnel changes.

Q: The council voted 4-3 to save $1 million by getting rid of seven people’s jobs. A week later, the director of Independence Power & Light came to the meeting and criticized that vote. Where is the line for you between standing up for your employees and respecting the chain of command?

A: I think it’s naive to think that a city employee can stand up and be representing himself or herself as a citizen. We don’t get to take off those hats when we assume positions as city employees or as elected officials. I’m the mayor of the city 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The director subsequently resigned from the position. He clearly had that in mind when he chose to come and speak as a “citizen” to the council without the knowledge of the city manager.

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Independence, MO Mayor Eileen Weir

Q: And you think it was a resignation? Not something to send a message to other department heads that “if you show up and question council’s motives, this will happen to you, too”?

A: No, I don’t think it was that. I think he was clearly dismayed, and understandably so. But I don’t think that a city employee or elected official can come to a council meeting and speak and say, “I’m not here in my professional capacity. I’m here as a citizen.”

Q: At that meeting, Councilmember Karen DeLuccie made a serious charge that the council violated the charter with its vote the previous week. Here is section 2.15:

Councilmembers shall not direct the appointment of any person to, or their removal from, office or employment by the city manager or by any other authority, or, except as provided in this charter, participate in any manner in the appointment or removal of officers and employees….

Your reaction is what?

A: I voted against the motion. I voted for the reversal of that motion. Clearly I feel it is outside the council’s authority to decide what the positions should be or who should hold them. That said, the motion was to amend the budget. It really did fall into a gray area.

Q: There’s actually more to that paragraph because it goes on to say:

If any councilmember violates any provision of this section, said councilmember shall be guilty of a misdemeanor, and upon conviction thereof, shall be punished by a fine of not less than twenty-five (25) dollars nor more than five hundred (500) dollars. Any such conviction of any councilmember shall be cause for removal from office, and such councilmember shall be automatically removed by the said conviction….

Wow. Obviously, whoever wrote that was pretty damn serious about council members not hiring or firing people on their own. You can probably imagine scenarios from the past that might have prompted this severe reaction. Did your council’s vote a week prior trigger this provision?

A: It didn’t. No charges were ever brought forward regarding that. You’re correct that when the charter was established, it was following a period of a lot of patronage. The charter commission took it very seriously about the council’s authority over personnel matters.


Follow Mayor Eileen Weir on Twitter: @weirIndep4

Interview #120: Clawson, MI Councilmember Susan Moffitt (with podcast)

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

Susan Moffitt experienced an eventful first year on council in which chickens took center stage! She discusses how people’s backyard pets made the news and how the city is casual in some ways about its procedures.

Q: There is a majorly important subject that exploded in your council’s face last year. I’m talking about backyard chickens. Walk me through how Clawson pecked its way into the spotlight on the chicken issue.

A: Historically, although the city had ordinances that prevented having backyard chickens, the practice was sort of allowed. Citizens told stories of neighbors reporting them and the ordinance enforcer going, “yeah, it’s okay that we have chickens.” Someone in the city had a rooster and that led to some complaints. There was a directive to take care of the rooster, which was misinterpreted to mean, “let’s start enforcing the chicken ordinance.” Chickens used to be a barnyard animal. Now they’re kind of pets. So when letters went out saying you’ve got 90 days to get rid of your chicken, they interpreted it as: “you have 90 days to get rid of your pet.”

Q: Were you angry that you had to resolve a crisis that seemed to be created by previous councils and current city employees deciding to have zero tolerance all of a sudden?

A: I don’t think angry is the right word. Never should our citizens be blindsided; but having had that happen, we had a bunch of citizens engaged. It was great that so many people came out.

Q: You seemed to be very pro-chicken from the start. Other council members over the course of multiple meetings said, “well, at first I thought no on the chickens, but now I’m a maybe, and actually now I’m a yes.” Why do you think they ended up joining you? Did it have anything to do with the fact that people showing up to defend their chickens were normal people who looked and sounded like you all and used their chickens for companionship in a very relatable way?

A: I think that had a lot to do with it. People had those personal connections. Ninety-five percent of the people want chickens and five percent don’t want the chickens. The people that don’t want it, they don’t want it on principle. We’ve been able to refute all of their arguments. If you don’t want chickens, don’t have them. But you can’t reach into your neighbor’s yard and decide whether they’re gonna have them.

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Clawson, MI Councilmember Susan Moffitt

Q: I’m sure you recall your recent meeting of January 2 when Councilmember Paula Millan objected to a vote to confirm the mayor’s appointees because the charter said the council was supposed to receive their resumes–and you did not receive them. How blindsided did you feel?

A: Not only was I blindsided, but the mayor was blindsided. What I don’t understand is if she felt she should have received something prior to the meeting, why she waited until five minutes before the meeting started to request it.

Q: How worried do you get about the city’s image and the confidence people have in the government when one council member waltzes in, pulls out their phone, and reads the section of the charter that you all are not following?

A: That’s one piece in all of the activities that we do. If they’re upset about it, they have the opportunity to talk to us. There’s a lot of pieces of our charter that are old or outdated. I always have concerns about following a law for the law’s sake. One of the things about our city that’s unique is that we have a sense of moving forward without being overly concerned about the laws on a regular basis–evidenced by the fact that we had a chicken ordinance that was prohibiting chickens and it wasn’t enforced for years and years. That’s how Clawson has been governed for a long time for good or for ill. The citizens seem to not be upset by those kinds of things.


Follow Councilmember Susan Moffitt on Twitter: @Moffitt4Clawson

Interview #118: Decatur, IL Reporter Tom Lisi (with podcast)

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

Tom Lisi, a reporter with the Herald & Review, has had a literal front row seat to some of the more surprising votes in the Decatur city council–including guidelines for trick-or-treating, a second ambulance license, and a late-game switch for a local golf tournament.

Q: Let’s go to May 7, 2018. What was your council’s beef with professional golf–other than, you know, it’s golf?

A: The tournament is in the Hickory Point Golf Course, which is outside the city of Decatur. It’s in the other side of the tracks–the “good” other side of the tracks–in Forsyth. Usually, in years past, [Decatur] paid the tournament the sponsorship earlier in the year. They held off, so out of frustration, the organizers of the tournament pulled the name [Decatur].

Q: The motion to provide the $20,000 tournament funding failed 3-3 in that council meeting. How shocked were you that the council didn’t break par on that one?

A: Honestly, it was surprising. Part of the reason that that motion failed was the mayor was absent this week. I can feel pretty safely in saying that she would’ve voted for that. If she was there, the motion would’ve passed. But that was one of the shockers of the year, that vote.

Q: And you don’t feel that there was any rigging of the calendar to ensure the mayor would be out of town when this came up?

A: [chuckles] I can’t speculate on that. I guess the bloggers and 4chan commenters out there might have a different theory, but as far as I know she was just on vacation or something.

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Decatur, IL reporter Tom Lisi

Q: Councilman David Horn, with this issue and others I’ve observed, is not shy about offering amendments or compromises. Is he the one who most often brings suggestions to the council floor?

A: Yeah, and he’s definitely gotten blowback from other council members on that. It’s sort of a tactic he’s used from time to time and it does throw other council members off–“we had a plan and now you’re trying to throw something new in.” It is a little strange to walk through that and people getting twisted up in Robert’s Rules stuff.

Q: So their irritation comes not from the fact that he’s refusing to go along with the program, it’s just a last-minute addition to the deal they already thought they had?

A: You know, the way these city manager-council forms of government work is the city manager discusses the agenda with council members individually. He has to go with, “what does the majority of the council seem to want?” Councilman Horn is often not in that majority, so I guess you could say the amendment tactic is a way to say, “I’m not on board with the decision that was made beforehand. So I’m gonna throw my two cents in right now and see if anybody goes along with it.”

Q: I didn’t see a lot of public commenters show up to that vote about pulling the tournament funding. Was that because everyone thought it was a sure deal? Or do they just not care about it?

A: I think it might’ve been a mixture of both. I think the average Decatur resident probably doesn’t care that much about that tournament. Maybe people from other parts of the world–because the LPGA is big in parts of Asia–it puts this focus on Decatur in a way residents that live there don’t even know about. There’s definitely people that were really frustrated by that vote. It’s possible they didn’t show up because they didn’t think it was that controversial.


Follow Tom Lisi on Twitter: @tommylisi