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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Norman, OK Councilmember Breea Clark

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

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

Q: Does that bother you?

A: Of course it does.

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

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

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

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


Follow Councilmember Breea Clark on Twitter: @clarkfornorman

BREAKING NEWS: “Tear It Down” is available

Calling all councilheads! I have a major announcement.

Last summer, a young council member in North College Hill, Ohio contacted me asking for help. I spent the next 10 months chronicling the bizarre situation with her city’s government–where one faction rebelled against the establishment, then began using their power to block, delay, and demolish.

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That audio story, based on 200 hours of council meetings, 60 hours of interviews, and many, many documents, is called “Tear It Down.”

You can listen to all eight parts of the series here.

Please also subscribe on iTunes and leave a rating and review.

You can also join the “Tear It Down” community by following the Twitter account or Facebook page. Spread the word!

#155: Richfield, MN 3/27/18

When the sheriff shows up in cowboy movies, it’s a sure sign the bad guy is going down.

“To make sure he got here in time, [he] hustled the vice president out of town so he wouldn’t be late,” joked Richfield Mayor Pat Elliott, welcoming the top cop to apparently the second-most important event of his day.

The sheriff stared down his nemesis: a slide show on the computer. “Which do you think it is? Arrow to the right?” he mused aloud. “Up-down?”

Everyone waited patiently while he solved the mystery of the puzzling PowerPoint. “Help,” the lawman murmured, proving that sometimes even heroes need heroes.

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I believe in you.

Finally he got the hang of it and opened with a bit of trivia.

“I will not ask you, Mr. Mayor, what are the names of the three rivers that flow through Hennepin County. But I know you know the Crow, the Mississippi, and–what’s that last one?” he stumped himself.

“Minnesota,” Mayor Elliott replied, acing the rivers pop quiz.

But between those rivers lay a festering problem, and the sheriff turned on the rhetorical lights and sirens for his nearly 200 opioid overdoses.

“If I had 162 homicides in Hennepin County last year, I’d bet that it’d be in the front page of the Star Tribune or on the 4, 5, 9, 10, 11–all news channels in between. But it’s not.”

As frustrated as he was by the drug deaths, the sheriff was also irritated at himself for the crime of third-degree long-windedness.

“I promised you, Mr. Mayor and council members, eight to ten minutes. I took eight minutes and 35 seconds. I went a little bit over.”

As he surrendered the lectern, Mayor Elliott welcomed a former mayor who had since risen to the ranks of the elite.

“Commissioner [Debbie] Goettel, it is good to see you! You’re back in your stomping grounds,” he gushed. “I hope you have some words of wisdom for us yourself.”

“There are some pretty startling facts that he didn’t share with you,” she countered, dodging any happy wisdom and instead beelining to the opioid wisdom.

“They are disproportionately affecting our younger folks. Anywhere from the age of 15 to about 45.”

After waiting a beat to digest the news, Council Member Edwina Garcia confessed, “we still miss you.”

“I beg your pardon!” exclaimed the current occupant of the mayor’s seat.

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Mayor brawl!

“I mean we,” Garcia quickly clarified, referring to the royal “we.” “Not necessarily sitting right here,” she jabbed at the mayor.

I don’t know who would win in the battle of the mayors. But I will admit: the high point of the meeting was when Mayor Elliott revealed the catchy slogan for “council member announcements.”

“On to ‘Hats Off to Hometown Hits,’” he said.

In his Hometown Hit, the mayor offered the most striking analogy of the day. “Anytime you get a special verdict form that comes back that’s in your favor–this is gonna sound a little strange,” he admitted, holding up an official document. “But when I get one like this, it’s akin to the birth of a child. We got one this past week.”

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Boy or girl?

But Council Member Maria Regan Gonzalez used her Hometown Hit to once again ground her colleagues. “This morning we met with our congressman, Congressman Ellison. The opioid crisis, we did talk about that.”

Well, I think we know what Richfield Public Enemy Number One is. Citizens, let’s run these opioids out of town like they are the vice president.

#154: Monona, WI 3/19/18

What did the city council know and when did they know it?

That was the question one sleuthful citizen had after doing a little amateur detective work on some government documents.

I’m here again to urge the council to reject all of the bids related to the Wyldhaven Park project, a flannel-clad man informed the crowd. The deck is a detriment to the park and serves no practical purpose.

I also have serious concerns regarding procedure. According to meeting minutes–” he continued, hoisting a sheaf of papers in the air as the smoking gun, “there was a committee discussion of a plan for Wyldhaven Park on October 6, 2015. That plan had no deck in it.”

The plot was thick with intrigue. A deck had appeared out of nowhere.  What’s next? A swing? Wind chimes? A grill and some hot dogs? The precedent was dangerous.

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Bag it for evidence

“A number of people I’ve talked to were surprised to hear that there’s gonna be a deck. They said, ‘really? Like, a deck?’” the man recalled, albeit with zero ounce of surprise in his delivery.

“Where did all this detail, including deck, come from? Certainly not in the committee meeting minutes.” He paused before delivering the verdict. “My opinion on this is that the committee must’ve acted on its own!”

Aha! And how did Mayor Mary O’Connor then attempt to shut down the investigation and suppress further testimony?

“If anyone else is here to speak about the Wyldhaven Park project or would like to register, there’s a slip over there to fill out,” she indicated politely.

“We have a deck. We love it,” smiled the next commenter. “The location of the Wyldhaven Park observation deck is one with a spectacular view. You have beautiful sunsets. You have the super moon.”

Having heard from both sides, the mayor wheeled around to a staff member.

“So that was in the minutes?”

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It was there the whole time?

“It’s in the packet,” the employee clarified. “And we approve or recommend approval of all the projects as a whole. Not each individual project.”

Alderperson Doug Wood made it crystal clear that nothing nefarious was afoot. “I think this did go through the normal process, if not maybe a little more so than most capital projects?”

“Correct.”

Well, so much for the secret society theory. Apparently the deck was simply a victim of insufficient bullet-pointing.

But if you thought the council was done with deck-related problems, they weren’t in the clear yet.

“I will move approval but with the requirement that video surveillance be installed,” Alderperson Wood piped up as the council was about to approve an alcohol permit for a Mexican restaurant’s patio.

After several minutes of wrangling, Alderperson Brian Holmquist finally inquired, “Do all our other patios require that you have surveillance?”

The answer was yes–clearing the deck (as it were) for a council thumbs-up.

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No more deck talk

Mayor O’Connor waited until the end of the meeting to air a concern she had been pondering.

“One thing I wondered about: if we want to think about having–” she paused and stared up at the ceiling. “I hate to even bring this up but the way the world is today, some active shooter training for the council might not be a bad idea.”

She indicated to either side of the room. “Frankly, sitting here and seeing these doors, I think it might be a good idea if anybody’s interested.”

Yikes. I guess if Monona keeps having deck problems, it couldn’t hurt.

Interview #86: Indianapolis, IN Councilor Michael McQuillen (with podcast)

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

Michael McQuillen is the Republican District 4 councilor and minority leader on the Indianapolis-Marion County city-county council. Despite his council’s long name, he tries to make quick decisions on votes, including the difficult ones involving unseating the council president. We talk about those occasions, his perfect attendance, and more.

Q: I hope it is not too late in the year to congratulate you for winning a perfect meeting-attendance award in 2017. Why does the Indianapolis council prefer to honor people who attend all of the meetings instead of my preferred method of shaming people who miss any meetings?

A: That’s actually my crowning achievement for 2017, so we can’t take that too lightly. But seriously, I think it’s something that’s been done for 40, 45 years and I’m just caught up in the minutiae of it now.

Q: You’ve been on the council for ten years. How many of those years have you had perfect attendance?

A: I’m probably about a 50-50 hit or miss. But I generally hit all the council meetings, occasionally will miss a committee meeting here and there.

Q: Okay, gotcha. Well it actually was five out of the ten, and I appreciate you pretending like you didn’t have that memorized. Very convincing! In your second year on council, Republican Council President Bob Cockrum decided to alternate the adjournment between his vice president and the minority leader, rather than have the minority leader do it always. How strongly do you feel about being in charge of that part of the meeting?

A: Being the minority leader, there are very few bells and whistles that that person gets to use. The reading of the memoriams at the end of the meeting is one of the very few. As you point out, that has been my responsibility for the last several years now on council. I don’t know where it would rank in the hierarchy of importance in the council meetings, but I do enjoy brushing up on tricky last names sometimes when I’m on camera.

Q: Sure. I mean it’s ceremonial akin to the invocation and the Pledge of Allegiance. So would you be pretty protective if someone tried to take that away from you?

A: I guess I probably would. Again, it’s one of the few things that puts the spotlight on the minority party for just a very few minutes at the end of the meeting.

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Indianapolis, IN Councilor Michael McQuillen

Q: Earlier this year when the council was choosing whether to retain the council president or elect a challenger, the vote stayed open for a really long time. Do you recall what was going on that took people that long to decide?

A: I’ve never understood in the ten years that I’ve been on the council why some councilors, especially if they know how they’re going to vote on an issue, sit there and wait to hit the button and be perhaps the last person. That’s great if you want to be on the news as the councilor that “made the decision” on how the vote goes. It’s not really true that that’s the way it works, but sometimes that’s how it’s perceived. My personal philosophy has always been to hit that red or green button immediately and move on.

Q: Is that something you’re obligated to do as the leader of the caucus? Or might that be why you’re the leader of the caucus: because you’re so darn decisive?

A: Good point. I do try to throw the button down fairly early for that reason. But also again, I just don’t want to be the last man standing. A few years ago there was a vote on overriding the former mayor’s veto. I was the only person to hit a red button that night. It was 24-1. But it was kind of lonely sitting there at the end of the 60 seconds the board was open and having one lonely, little red button up there.


Follow Councilor Michael McQuillen on Twitter: @mike_mcquillen 

#151: Indianapolis, IN 2/19/18

The meeting of the City-County Council of Indianapolis-Marion County (a.k.a. the “Most Hyphenated Council” in the country) began in the most democratic of fashions: with applause for pretty much everybody.

“I’d like to introduce an Orange Township resident, active guy in the community, good friend,” Councilor Michael McQuillen announced, leading the claps for his man in the audience.

Taking a step up from “active guy,” Councilor Scott Kreider introduced two firefighters. Claps.

Not to be outdone, Councilor McQuillen grabbed the mic again. “We have a former city-county council member in the audience.” More claps.

“I want to acknowledge this month being Black History Month,” cut in Councilor LaKeisha Jackson, “and that we give a round of applause for Black History Month.” Raucous claps.

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I like this warm-up!

With no one being able to top Black History Month, the councilors settled in for the business portion of the meeting. But suddenly, Council President Stephen Clay dropped a bomb so large it could have leveled a less-emotionally prepared council chamber.

“In an effort to preserve this institution and advance the people’s agenda, Councilor [Vop] Osili and I have agreed to the orderly transfer of power,” Clay read emotionlessly from his prepared statement.

“My letter of resignation from the office of the president will be presented tonight. I will call upon Democrats and Republicans to support this transition,” he warned sternly, “thus averting any political filibustering.”

Picking up the gavel in preparation to slam it, Clay noted, “I give the gavel to the parliamentarian.” The chamber applauded one last time as Clay stood up, shook hands, and departed for greener pastures–or whatever you’d call the place where the rest of the councilors sit.

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I hardly knew you.

But even this orderly transfer was thrown into momentary disorder when Councilor Leroy Robinson raised his eyebrows and his hand. “Shouldn’t the vice president receive the gavel as opposed to the parliamentarian?” he quizzed.

A constitutional crisis was averted as the parliamentarian calmly agreed. Vice President Zach Adamson hustled over to the chair and opened the floor for presidential nominations.

“I nominate Councilor Vop Osili,” announced Councilor Maggie Lewis.

“Are there any other nominations?” asked the parliamentarian to silence. “The effect of closing nominations with only one candidate will have the effect of electing Councilor Osili as president.”

With no one disputing the outcome, it was official. The new president strode to his seat and with a reassuring smile, delivered a message best characterized as: “there’s a new sheriff in town.”

“Our council has shaken the confidence of our constituents.” He paused. “But that was yesterday. It is time for us to get back to business. And we will start with the next item on the agenda.”

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Crack. The. Whip.

With a calm, steady hand steering the ship, the rest of the meeting proceeded with only minor hiccups.

“Madam Clerk, can you set the, uh…?” Osili backtracked after forgetting to open the voting machine. “All right, let’s go!”

A few minutes later, “proposals numbers 56 and 57 were referred to the Metropolitan Economic Development Committee,” Osili read, glancing up from his notes to the chair of the committee.

She was nowhere in sight.

The council patiently waited while someone rushed to fetch Councilor Jackson. Within minutes, she reappeared, power walking back to her seat.

“I apologize Mr. President,” Jackson blurted.  While the old president might have chewed her out six ways from Sunday, President Osili remained serene. As he might say, some councilors shake the confidence of their constituents.

But that was yesterday.

#150: Bonner Springs, KS 2/12/18

“If you’re not able to hear or see, there’s another area here you’re welcome to stand,” pointed Mayor Jeff Harrington as he wrangled the packed sea of onlookers.

“Since we have a full council chambers,” the mayor advised potential comment-givers, “keep them short to two or three minutes.”

He didn’t mention anything about keeping it civil. But amazingly, it seems he didn’t need to.

“First of all, thank you. I know you guys are all volunteers,” the first commenter showered praise on the leaders. “I am here to respectfully request another public forum discussing the 1918 Building.”

She continued, “I have an online petition with over 800 signatures. I have handwritten signatures of over 2,000,” a staggering 27 percent of the city’s population.

No wonder the room was overflowing–everyone was three degrees of separation from someone who signed a petition!

Right out of a Jimmy Stewart movie, residents quietly stood up one by one, strode to the microphone, and gave impassioned defenses of the 1918 Building. These included the logical:

The current city hall is in decline. The roof is leaking and documents are being stained and ruined. [The 1918 Building is] the strongest, most well-built building in our city. It has a community identity and represents our heritage.

They included the short-and-sweet:

I agree totally with what has been so gloriously stated!

And they included this heartfelt testimony from a woman who adored the haunted house inside:

“I walk into this building and these people have done nothing but treat me like family. They give me and my husband a place to belong,” she said as her voice shook slightly. “It’s not easy for people to admit that they don’t mesh well with our community. So standing here and saying that in front of a whole entire city’s worth of people is a blow to my ego.”

Council members leaned forward on their elbows. The mayor jotted down a note.

“Even though it’s unconventional and it’s scary–‘ooh, it’s a crazy idea and we scare the children.’ Well, yeah, that’s the purpose of it!” she insisted.  “We see little children come through and they’re terrified and I don’t have any problem dropping my character and say, ‘hey, I’m a mommy, too. Touch my face, it’s real!'”

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If it gives kids nightmares, it’s worth saving in my book.

Per the rules, the crowd remained silent, but it was obvious where the popular opinion lay in the room. Mayor Harrington gripped his pen.

“I really want everyone to know how much I appreciate the level of comfort you have speaking to this city council,” he smiled.

But sadly, the council that had been so receptive and attentive would not last to the stroke of midnight.

“It pains me to announce the next item,” winced the mayor, “but item 10 is the consideration of council member resignation for Joe Peterson. So I would entertain a motion.”

There was silence as no one volunteered to make the motion. Once everyone realized what was happening, laughter broke out.

“You’re not getting out of here!” one person shouted to Peterson.

I will make my motion!” Council Member Peterson hollered.

Council Member Dani Gurley whipped her head around. “Can you do that?!”

“He’s a city councilman, he can do whatever he wants!” observed Council Member Mike Thompson.

But who would take his place, inheriting the massive conundrum of the 1918 Building?

“The precedent has been set many years ago,” Mayor Harrington explained. “We’ve asked applicants to make an application and then we’ve taken those applicants to a board of past mayors to review. They made a suggestion to me. I bring that here.”

Ah, secret society stuff. I love it. Who did the Illuminati endorse this time?

“I’d like to appoint Chris Wood to the vacant Ward 4 position,” he said, gesturing to Wood in the audience. Everyone turned to look.

“I am very proud to be a member of the council,” she called out.

“And you know: new council members bring the cookies,” warned Council Member Thompson.

Strictly enforced, I’m sure.