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

#179: Clawson, MI 12/18/18

It was the type of announcement that separates the city councils who take the winter holidays seriously from those who are, well, Scrooges.

“Every year we have beautification awards,” explained a representative from the Parks and Recreation Department. “People can call in houses they see around town that they really like the way they’re decorated.”

She added, “our Parks and Rec Advisory Board also goes out and are each assigned a section of town. They kind of score all the houses. The top five point-getters were the ones we give awards to tonight.”

With that, the five chosen families strolled to the front of the chamber for a photo. Many of them sported some type of seasonal attire–from the more discreet Santa pin and St. Nick hat to the more flashy necklace of Christmas lights and festive sweaters.

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The decorators

If you were expecting this Yuletide cheer to be followed by three French hens, two turtle doves, or even six geese a-laying, city attorney Jon Kingsepp disappointed you–but only slightly–by talking instead about backyard chickens.

“Fifty years ago, they were barnyard animals. Dinner table items. That’s no longer the case,” he explained.

“Chickens are great in most cases, unless you’re a neighbor that doesn’t want chickens next door to you,” Mayor Debbie Wooley observed dryly.

Kingsepp sighed. “There are two ways to look at that. There’s one that can say, ‘I don’t like chickens next to me because they’re loud and they’re gonna attract vermin.’ The other approach is, ‘if you like cats and dogs next door, then what is the difference with chickens?’ The noise level of a chicken is extremely low.”

“I want zero” chickens, shot back Council Member Paula Millan. “Not because I don’t like people’s chickens but because I don’t want them in my backyard. I just don’t.”

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Beware the Butcher of Clawson

She paused. Although her reaction was intense, it was not, in fact, poultryphobic. “I don’t think it’s the animal that’s really the problem,” she admitted. “I would assume it’s most likely the owner. If you have a neighbor that cares only about themselves and not the people around them, there’s an issue.”

A woman in the front row seized on a lull in the discussion and launched into a tutorial on chicken care. Rather than cut her off, surprisingly, the mayor allowed a microphone to be passed down.

“Great pets,” she boasted of her own chickens. “No one ever knew we had ’em. My aviary was spotless. The rats cannot get into it.

“There are rats in our neighborhood. A lot of ’em. But they never came for my chickens.”

A posse of women from the earlier home decorating contest were sitting two rows back in their Christmas sweaters nodding vigorously.

“My grandchildren–24 grandchildren–played with those chickens like a puppy. They were very sweet,” she argued, while one of those 24 grandchildren slumped in his chair next to her asleep.

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Dreaming of poultry playtime at grandma’s

Chickens may have been quiet and kind. Heck, they could have been the cure to cancer. But Council Member Millan was immovable.

“Some of my neighbors have been on our block since they built their homes in 1967. They don’t want chickens in their backyard,” she insisted. “Their perception is not that they are pets.

“It’s not against the animal. It’s about, ‘I moved to a city. Didn’t move to a farm. Where’s it gonna end?'”

She shrugged. “We have to address the ‘where’s it gonna end’ thing.”

Perhaps next year, Clawsonians can decorate an aviary and win the beautification contest. Then people might realize that chickens can be family, not food.

#178: Marion, IL 12/10/18

While the Marion city council undoubtedly gets points for its assortment of dais decorations–including flower pots, a wall portrait, and a giant construction-style sign–the real focus was off-camera.

“We have a great big group here tonight,” observed Mayor Anthony Rinella as his eyes darted across the audience, “and we have a spokesman for that group. Would you come forward and tell us what you guys are here for?”

A teenager wearing a baseball cap and camouflage sweatshirt popped up at the microphone. “We’re here for our civics class. We have a service learning project and coming to a meeting like this is one of the requirements.”

“Okay,” responded the mayor. “Who’s your teacher?”

“Mr. Martin.”

“Coach Martin. How come he’s not here?”

“Good question,” the teenager answered uncomfortably. “I’ll have to ask.”

“Ask him tomorrow. I mean, does he not have to be part of the program?”

Pause. “I guess not.”

“Make him run laps,” insisted the mayor.

Two of the commissioners smiled and glanced at each other. Commissioner Angelo Hightower surveyed the room cautiously. Commissioner John Goss stared blankly at the desk.

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Was it an excused absence?

“Okay. Our favorite council meeting of the year,” Mayor Rinella announced in monotone. “Guys, this is exciting. We’re gonna go over the city audit.”

A car alarm sounded outside the chamber. “Uh-oh, we gotta leave!” joked the mayor as the car’s owner quickly silenced the horn.

Although it was likely a joke that the audit meeting was the “favorite” of the year, it wasn’t at all a bad thing to hear that money was coming hand over fist into Marion.

“If you look back at 2005, the first year I got here, your total revenue was $15 million,” explained a city employee. “Look at this year. Thirty-three million dollars. That says a lot.”

“So since 2006, our total revenue has more than doubled?” the mayor quizzed incredulously.

“It has.”

Mayor Rinella nodded. “That sends you to bed feeling good about yourselves, guys,” he offered to the commissioners.

He then stared into the crowd at one of the city’s recreation employees. “Favorite part of the night,” he deadpanned by way of summoning the man to the lectern.

“If I may brag a bit on our Marion HUB Manta Rays. I’m sporting a shirt today–” the recreation employee opened his jacket to show off a bright yellow t-shirt emblazoned with a large ray. “They finished fourth out of 15 of the non-home teams.”

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Smells like team spirit

After the swim team had received sufficient on-camera promotion, the mayor wrapped up. “Last week we talked about some apps that the city introduced. One was a Facebook page and the other was the Nextdoor app. Well this past week, we had some incidences of vandalism on people’s Christmas ornaments.

“One of the people that was videoing this occurring had the Nextdoor app. So our Nextdoor app, in just one week’s time of people getting on this, is nothing more than the neighborhood watch going high tech.”

He added, “hats off to our IT department.”

He shuffled his papers and remembered that the group of students was still watching him. “You guys got any questions? Did you learn anything?”

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I learned that there is a “Governor’s Hometown Award.”

A few in the audience mumbled replies.

“You’ve just come to one of our mild, boring meetings how we conduct city business,” Mayor Rinella said matter-of-factly. “I apologize for that.”

Well, at least he is making their teacher run laps. Perhaps that made it all worth it.

#177: Cadillac, MI 12/3/18

“My law partners and I own a building,” announced a well-dressed gentleman resting his forearms on the public’s lectern and peering through his glasses. “I’ve been meaning to come and thank you for a year now for the Cadillac Commons. I can’t tell you how nice it is, no matter how stressful the day, to walk out of my office at noon and hear all the laughing and screaming and fun going on at the splash pad.”

He concluded with a simple, “it’s wonderful.”

Starting a meeting with a heartfelt thank-you is rare. And of course, short lived.

“The Cadillac community has an ongoing hunger problem,” reported the next man at the microphone. “Our children are going to bed tonight hungry, crying. Where’s Robin Hood today? High taxes. High cost of living.”

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We need a hero.

His Robin Hood may have just entered the council chamber in an unexpected form:

“I am a certified grant administrator,” a woman explained to the council. “We’re requesting $970,100 [from the federal government]. The grant funds will be used for demolition to remove two blighted buildings. The national objective supported by this project is the elimination of blight.”

But this was not what the man had in mind.

“No public tax dollars for private business!” he railed. “No public tax dollars should be used for any corporation to become wealthier on grant money. If you can’t build it on an entrepreneurial business venture, then we shouldn’t build it.”

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Mom-and-pop demolition companies only, please.

Technically, the city wasn’t “building” anything. They were tearing down. But he had a point: if Apple can get rich selling phones and Nike can get rich selling shoes, why can’t some entrepreneur turn a profit on–what exactly?

“The entire roof on both buildings has asbestos. There is also several areas of asbestos floor tile. So there’s a lot of asbestos,” a staff member explained with a grimace. “There is some lead. There is also soil contamination. And under the clock tower area, there is a lot of rubble down there–we’re not positive what it is.”

I see. Rebuttal?

“I just want to reiterate: we have children going to bed hungry,” the man returned to insist. “Developers are becoming more wealthy in Cadillac on our dime. It’s corporate welfare at its best. I could be wrong.”

City manager Marcus Peccia quickly refocused the meeting onto something highly unrelated to corporate profits: Christmas decorations.

“The city is playing some seasonal music down in the plaza on a timer, when the timer works,” he chuckled. “You can really only hear it if you’re down in front of the Christmas tree or on the synthetic ice rink.”

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Turn it up to 11.

“We have a wonderful community. It looks so great,” bragged Council Member Tiyi Schippers. “I love coming home when it’s dark and driving around, taking a long way with the kids.”

The city manager nodded. “Over the years, we added more trees to the lakefront, especially along Chestnut Street. At the same time, the donations of the lights and whatnot had not increased.”

He leaned back and pondered. “What we might look at doing next year is relocating some of the singular strands of lights along several trees to a more focused area within Cadillac Commons and create more of a spectacular light display versus having–”

“One string of lights a block away?” finished Council Member Schippers.

“Either that or we need more lights!”

Yet another cause in search of a Robin Hood.

Interview #112: Minneapolis, MN Council Vice President Andrea Jenkins (with podcast)

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

The Minneapolis council has been proactive about addressing racial inequity, despite outside events making it a challenge. Andrea Jenkins describes how she felt about council members’ reactions to an equity training earlier this year.

Q: On August 1 of this year, there was a committee of the whole meeting in which you all sat through a racial equity training. Would you be surprised if I told you that I’ve been hosting this program for two years and this is the first racial equity training I’ve seen a city council do?

A: Yes, I thought every city council in America was doing racial equity training. That’s not true?

Q: No! I hate to let you down because that is wildly off-base, but what did you hope to accomplish with this training?

A: Well, we’re trying to get the council members woke. The main thing we wanted to accomplish was to have a common understanding and common language that everybody can start with. It dispels the opportunities for people to come in with their own perspective. If we can lay the groundwork for one common understanding, that was the purpose.

Q: I’m glad you brought that up because that was actually the part of the training that hit a roadblock. Council President Lisa Bender said she was uncomfortable participating in an exercise in which council members’ discussions about their early experiences with race would be televised. What did you make of that?

A: Boy, I was really–I was disappointed. We ask people to support us in being representatives. And then we are not willing to share details about our own experiences, our own lives, that could help bring understanding to why we make some of the decisions we make. I know that council President Bender is very open about some really vulnerable parts of her life. It would be really eye opening and compelling for people to understand some of her experiences around race. It wasn’t just council President Bender–I mean, if you watched the meeting, there were a number of council members who were reluctant to share that information. Sometimes there’s really powerful strength in being vulnerable.

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Minneapolis, MN Council Vice President Andrea Jenkins

Q: There is another event we need to discuss that happened before the racial equity training. Can you explain what precipitated your June 27 committee of the whole meeting?

A: A week prior to that meeting, there had been a police-involved shooting of a young, black man who–it was under dispute whether or not he was armed, whether or not he was fleeing and was shot in the back. And so tensions in our community was really, really, really high.

Q: In that meeting, Council Member Cam Gordon wondered whether the city council needed more of a role in the police department. He proceeded to draft that exact charter amendment–which did not sit well with a number of people, including the public safety committee chair, Alondra Cano, who said she was “disgusted by the privilege” of the motion. What did you make of that?

A: I interpreted her use of the term “privilege” to suggest that it would’ve potentially been more appropriate for her to have made that–or someone who had those kinds of experiences–as opposed to Mr. Gordon, who has not lived those kinds of experiences.

Q: So speaking with terms of racial equity, it’s easier for someone who has benefited from the system to look at it and say, “something’s wrong. We need to fix it,” and to have people listen to him, than it might be for someone who belongs to a historically-oppressed group to say the same thing and perhaps get ignored when they say it.

A: I think that is absolutely true. Yes, I agree with that.


Follow Council Vice President Andrea Jenkins on Twitter: @annapoetic