Interview #130: Linden, NJ Councilwoman Rhashonna Cosby (with podcast)

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

Rhashonna Cosby is a longtime councilwoman (and newly-minted podcaster) who is none too happy with the drama and conflict that unfold in many Linden council meetings. She discusses her interpretations of new council rules and advises fellow council members on how to receive a little less heat from commenters.

Q: To the extent that there is discord or dysfunction in your council meetings, what do you feel causes it?

A: There’s a power struggle in my opinion. It’s not about anybody having a great idea or someone doing something detrimental to the community. It’s clearly and only about power–who controls what. For so many years, we had a good council. It wasn’t as bad as it is now.

Q: What was the turning point do you think?

A: The turning point was the election in 2014. I ran for mayor and after that election, two of my council colleagues were no longer colleagues. They were more like adversaries. I couldn’t understand why. For whatever reason, they are now aligned with the current mayor who won that primary.

Q: I notice that you abstain on council votes more often than your other colleagues. What is your personal policy on whether you will abstain?

A: If it’s a personnel matter, I will abstain so that I won’t get a violation filed against me by an employee. In our city, if you vote no against an employee, they tend to take it personally and then they want to file an ethics complaint or some kind of legal complaint. It’s less time and less drama if I just abstain.

Q: Can you explain a little more about what hypothetically you might be asked to vote on that is a personnel issue where you want to vote no, but out of caution you abstain?

A: There’s an employee who I filed a complaint against and that employee, who had an open complaint, was put up for promotion. I definitely wanted to vote no and the attorney said to me, “Rhashonna, it’s probably best if you abstain to avoid any conflicts.” So I abstained. Again, I don’t even vote anymore on personnel because they’re not hiring according to the policies that we should be. It’s not fair. It’s not transparent.

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Linden, NJ Councilwoman Rhashonna Cosby

Q: Your council instituted a new five-minute limit on the commentary that each council member is allowed during the meetings. Did you see that as being aimed at you?

A: Absolutely.

Q: In what way?

A: My reports are usually the longest. My reports were always thorough. I would give my reports on my committees and I would lead into my community reports and initiatives. I think my longest council report may have been, like, 12 minutes. The complaint was, “the meetings run too long.” That’s not my fault. If the people actually gave real reports, they would probably be longer than they are. But they want to go back and forth and arguing, making comments about what someone else said instead of giving a report on their initiatives.

Q: Linden has monthly meetings that go on for three, four hours each. Do you see any merit to making the meetings weekly or twice monthly so that they will be shorter?

A: I recommended four years ago that we have our meetings [work session and council meeting] a week apart. Once we adopt our agenda, we can publicize the proposed resolutions and ordinances. If people have a question during that week, they can make a call to city hall and get those answers. So the meeting would be shorter because it’s less time with providing those explanations.

Q: Okay, so separating the work sessions from the council meetings more than the, I believe day–or 24 hours–that they currently are.

A: Right.

Q: It seems as if people bring into the council chamber all of the emotional and political baggage that they are experiencing outside of the meetings. There should be a middle ground between a council member having to sit quietly and ignore the abuse they are receiving for their job, and yelling at their antagonist. Where do you come down on that?

A: When the person comes up, they’re not necessarily attacking us individually so much as they are making public some of their dissatisfaction with their representation. You have community meetings where they come and have that forum. So I have community meetings every three months and the people come if they have issues. That’s the place for that.


Follow Councilwoman Rhashonna Cosby on Twitter: @Rhashonna10

Interview #129: Portsmouth, NH Councilor Nancy Pearson (with podcast)

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

The Portsmouth council has pioneered a “public dialogue” session at some of their council meetings in lieu of public comment. Nancy Pearson discusses why it is an attractive option, why many residents initially opposed it, and why it’s unconcerning that the public dialogue remains untelevised. Plus, on the podcast you will hear about one former council member’s crusade against closed-door meetings.

Q: At the February 4 council meeting, I heard Mayor Jack Blalock say that Portsmouth council members only get paid for 20 of the 22 meetings every year. Are you being forced to work without pay during those other two?

A: It’s a tricky thing in New Hampshire. Not all of our municipal duties are paid assignments. We all have day jobs that actually pay the bills and we are given a stipend for each of our council meetings with the exception of the last four meetings of the year. We are capped at $1,500 a year. One of our council members, Josh Denton, was bringing to the attention of the council that we might look at lifting the cap so we can be compensated for each and every council meeting.

Q: How do you feel about this?

A: I think he brings up a good point. If you can compensate the volunteers [council members] for each and every meeting, that might go a little bit more toward leveling the playing field. For example, one of the council members said he uses the stipend to buy attire to wear to council meetings, as he is a contractor and doesn’t necessarily have a closet full of suits and ties. I understand his point. I think it’s fair.

Q: At the Portsmouth city council’s retreat in 2017, you graded your council a “C” on the effectiveness of public comment. Look, normally I only invite on guests who have a “B” average or higher, so you’d better be killing it in biology and calculus for this interview to continue. What should your council have been doing better?

A: Up until that point, we had an antiquated system for public engagement. We came up with [an alternative to] every single meeting having a 45-minute public comment session. It doesn’t allow the opportunity for us to answer questions or engage in conversation or alleviate concerns. One of the things we’ve done now going on two years is public dialogue. We do these every other meeting. It happens before the city council meeting. If there’s a large crowd, we break up into two groups, the city council does. But we sit in an equal circle. The public has an opportunity to ask us questions and we can answer them either ourselves or the city staff is all there.

Q: Okay.

A: I was also finding that during public comment, people were saying things, making things up. Things are being put into public record that are not based in reality. That bothers me a little bit. I didn’t want to let the opportunity go by where we couldn’t correct some things or provide the right information.

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Portsmouth, NH Councilor Nancy Pearson

Q: You sound an optimistic tone now, but originally the public commenters were hostile to the idea of putting public dialogue where public comment normally is. Do you not televise the public dialogue?

A: That is correct. If we break up into two sessions, that would be very challenging to televise. The community often has a reaction to change like that. They don’t understand it. Portsmouth has a long history of resistance to change. We’re called “Granite Staters” for a reason–we’re very rock solid in our beliefs.

Q: It strikes me that one of the benefits you listed of public dialogue was correcting misinformation that circulates in public. By not televising public dialogue, are you not missing the opportunity to correct it and broadcast it to the whole city?

A: We do keep minutes and we do an oral debrief of public dialogue at the city council meeting directly following.

Q: If you have all of the councilors in a room–or five out of the nine, which is a quorum–are you running into any ethical or perhaps legal trouble by not televising what is perhaps a meeting of the council?

A: No because televising a council meeting is not a mandatory exercise. As long as we are taking meeting minutes, which happens at each table by our city clerk, that suffices every legal obligation we have.

Q: But you would concede that while you are doing what’s required, you could also be doing more?

A: Well, one of the things that we discovered and one of the reasons we moved toward public dialogue is because while there are many people who enjoy coming to the podium, speaking their mind, and having that televised, there are an equal amount of people that are reluctant to come and speak to council because it is televised. In the spirit of egalitarianism, the public dialogue is attractive to those people who are intimidated to come to the podium to speak in public.


Follow Councilor Nancy Pearson on Twitter: @Nancy_Pearson20

Interview #127: Baltimore, MD Councilman Kristerfer Burnett (with podcast)

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

Kristerfer Burnett was in the large freshman class of 2016 on the Baltimore city council and does not shy away from the role that guns, violence, and policing play in the council’s business. He discusses a contentious hearing about mandatory minimum sentences and a bizarre inquiry into whether the fire department threatened bike advocates.

Q: Councilman Brandon Scott does something small but noteworthy each meeting. At the end, when your council holds a moment of silence, he asks the council vice president to announce the homicide total to date. My first thought upon hearing this was, “why would anyone advertise their city’s worst attribute repeatedly in a public council meeting?” So why would you?

A: I think it’s something that we have to own. The violence in Baltimore is unbelievable. It is debilitating to our city. As policymakers, we have a responsibility to address that. We’ve also started to add the victims of the opioid crisis for the same reason. We had over 700 opioid-related deaths last year. That needs to be the headline. I’m not one that feels like cities should try to always put their best foot forward, an image or façade that things are okay.

Q: On July 3, 2018, the judiciary committee held a hearing about the fire department. Councilman Ryan Dorsey read a letter that you all received from an advocate of bike lanes accusing the fire department of parking a ladder truck in front of her house as a threat. What was being alleged here and why were you, the council, involved?

A: There’s been a lot of resistance from the fire department to the construction of bicycle infrastructure. The argument they were trying to make, albeit poorly, was an attempt to basically argue that by narrowing the roads with bicycle infrastructure, it would make it more difficult to navigate. Some streets are very narrow and their equipment is pretty large. What I didn’t quite understand was, it looks like they got the ladder truck up to me [in a video from the fire department]. The council got involved because there was an attempt by Council Member Dorsey to strike out of the fire code these guidelines that would have prohibited the construction of bike infrastructure due to roadway widths.

Q: Yeah.

A: On a lighter note, when we received that video the day before the hearing, Council Member Dorsey and I–I hope I don’t get in trouble for saying this–we’re two millennial legislators. We’re like, “what do we do with the DVD? I don’t even know where to put this!” I literally had no way to watch it for several hours because my laptop didn’t have a DVD player.

Q: [laughs] 

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Baltimore, MD Councilman Kristerfer Burnett

The overriding concern was why the fire department filmed their video outside the home of one of their opponents. How satisfactory did you find the fire chief’s response that it was not intentional?

A: That particular roadway is a very long one. That bike lane is also one of the longest in the city. If they needed to prove a point on that particular street, they could have done it pretty easily without being in front of the house. I was extremely disappointed in the fire chief on that one and told him so.

Q: That was about accountability for the fire department, so let’s shift to accountability in policing. In the judiciary committee on July 25, 2017, there was legislation which would have established a punishment of one year’s incarceration for anyone who carried a firearm within 100 feet [yards] of a place of public assembly. Right away, multiple council members offered stories of their experiences with gun violence. Is it fair to say that most if not all Baltimore council members have a direct connection to the escalating homicide numbers that we hear at every meeting?

A: That is correct. One of my high school teammates on the football team lost his life to gun violence in 2017. It’s very much something that has hit almost all of us, if not all of us, at some point.

Q: Councilman Scott argued at the hearing that it’s easier for people in black areas of Baltimore to be in violation of this proposed law. There wasn’t really a racial divide that I noticed at the meeting. There were a bunch of people for and against it. Did you see the proposal as fundamentally racist?

A: Yes and here’s why. A lot of my colleagues were very well-intentioned in their support. They felt this is an answer to a problem that we all agree is a problem. You do see patterns of over-policing in black communities without this law. Some of my colleagues were not thinking about that part of it. I represent some of the most dangerous neighborhoods in Baltimore. There is a knee-jerk reaction to say, “we need more cops.” I don’t think their support was because they want to lock up more black people, but I think the unintended consequence would have been that.


Follow Councilman Kristerfer Burnett on Twitter: @CouncilmanKB

Interview #123: Philadelphia, PA Councilman Derek Green (with podcast)

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

Derek Green is a former city council employee and a current at-large Philadelphia councilman. We explore some of the quirky council traditions and the more heated public comments of the last year.

Q: I am shocked to learn that for Philadelphia city council members, attendance is not mandatory. People can vote on bills and resolutions despite having left a meeting. How do you feel about this practice?

A: That is something that’s been allowed over the years in order to record your vote on a matter. I think it gives an opportunity for someone to leave their vote based on the fact they reviewed what’s coming up for a vote and they support the issue and feel comfortable in letting their vote be reflected on the record.

Q: What if someone amends a bill midway through the meeting? Are absentees obligated to vote yes on that, even if it’s a terrible idea?

A: If they leave their vote as aye on all bills and resolutions, that is their vote. If they have a concern, that is something that more likely than not, they will not record their vote in that regard. I think once you become an elected official, your vote is one of your most important things. You need to be judicious in how you give your vote on matters.

Q: Because of the way the chamber is set up, council members have their desks facing away from the lectern for public comment. And I have seen instances where council members are either not in their seats or are facing away from the speaker. I have not personally seen you ignoring commenters, but in general, do you think this behavior is disrespectful? And if so, do I need to come in there and start confiscating cell phones?

A: Whenever we go to public comment, I always turn my chair toward the speaker. I think it’s important to listen to what people have to say. There are times when you are in a session, sometimes you may have a relative or family member contact you with an emergency. Or there can be times you’re trying to deal with some legislation and getting information. I don’t know what my colleagues may be looking at on their phones, so I can’t speak for them.

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Philadelphia, PA Councilman Derek Green

Q: I want to highlight one oddity of the Philadelphia council proceedings. To introduce legislation, the clerk physically unrolls printed legislation after a courier walks it from a council member’s desk to the front. I think I speak for everyone when I say: do you guys not have e-mail?

A: Yes, we do have e-mail. However, there are certain things that are done ritualistically. This is a practice that has occurred over the years. In years past, a resolution or a bill that was being circulated to other members of council used to be delivered to that office. Over time that moved from being done physically to being done electronically. But part of the dynamics of city council has been the process where the document that actually has the written language is presented from the sergeant at arms to the chief clerk.

Q: This past fall, you and other council members sponsored a resolution to name a street after former Mayor Wilson Goode. However, Mayor Goode had one major blemish on his record: in May 1985, a bomb was dropped during a police operation to remove a militant group S.W.A.T.-style. Several people were incredulous that a street would have Wilson Goode’s name on it. How extensively had you considered this reaction before it hit the council floor?

A: We have a number of prominent people in the history of this country that–we’re having this debate right now. Woodrow Wilson with the League of Nations, which became the United Nations, has done a lot to promote peace. But also, he had very strong racial views. These historical figures had perspectives, have taken measures and done things to demonstrate leadership, but have also done other things that causes concern.

Q: The difference between the Wilson Goode street naming and the others you mentioned is that the debate in the other cases is whether to remove names from public structures where the people have not lived up to our modern expectations of what morality and racial justice are. In your case, you were reverse engineering it. You were taking someone with an imperfect record and then elevating them.

A: You also have those who say we should not remove other people who have been elevated because the full context of what they’ve done has not been debated. You have some who are adamant in saying, “this is part of our history and we cannot remove our history.”


Follow Councilman Derek Green on Twitter: @CouncilmanDerek

#175: Beavercreek, OH 11/12/18

Nothing seemed amiss at the start of the Beavercreek council meeting.

“This is the second reading of an ordinance making certain additions, deletions, and changes to various sections of the zoning code,” read the clerk.

“Is there anyone present tonight that would like to address council on this?” Mayor Bob Stone called to the audience as a balding man stepped forward.

“I didn’t catch this until today, but this thing is effective last week,” the man waved his paper in disbelief. “Did you all catch that?”

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Super sleuth

People on the dais stared down at their copies while he added, “it says this ordinance shall take effect November 1. That’s last week.”

“It’s been a standard practice,” reassured city manager Pete Landrum. “We begin at the beginning of the month.”

“But let’s go by the city charter,” shot back the commenter. “City charter says 30 days after passage. NOT postdated. Change it.”

He again thrust the paper in the air. “This one is showing up as an ’emergency’ ordinance. That’s wrong. It’s not an ’emergency.’ Now let’s get into the meat of it–”

Mayor Stone halted him before the meat. “We’re not showing this as an emergency anywhere.”

The man reached out holding his papers. “Can I approach?”

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The prosecution came prepared

There was a small conference at the dais. “This is an emergency…effective immediately…” mumbled the mayor as he read off the page.

“That’s from the previous time,” explained the city manager, “but in the current packet–”

“No, that’s what I got off the website,” insisted the man.

More muttering about whose packet said what. Chaos was beginning to unfold. Luckily, the commenter cut off the crosstalk by getting back to his original point: this ordinance is awful.

“We have enough problem with our zoning code. This is a beautiful one,” he said sarcastically, donning his glasses and reading from the passage prohibiting trucks from parking in front of commercial buildings.

“Every business around has a truck! What have we done here?”

“Not at a business. [Parking] at a residence,” interrupted Mayor Stone.

“No, sir. Disagree,” retorted the man.

“Oh…” the mayor whispered as council members gently indicated that he was wrong and the commenter (again) knew the ordinance better than some.

The man closed in the plainest way possible. “This is a disaster waiting to happen. This is too much. Stop this tonight.”

With such an intense airing of grievances, eyes were on the mayor to clear the air and lighten the mood with his report.

“I know everybody else is gonna mention it too and I hope we all repeat it,” he grinned. “The girl’s soccer state champs–”

“And cross country,” interjected Council Member Julie Vann. “State champs! Yaaaay, women!”

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Let’s-go la-dies. Clap. Clap. Clap-clap-clap.

“Are we gonna have enough sign space coming into the city” to list the new championships, mused the city manager.

Council Member Vann nodded. “The signs at the entryway of the city that have all the sports winnings on them–when we started that program, we didn’t expect it to be–”

“That good?” chuckled the manager.

“We were gonna post the teams within the last five years,” she explained. “We wanted to celebrate the recent ones but not every single one for eternity!”

“We will have to revisit that,” the city manager agreed, “because when we squeezed the boys’ [championship] the last time, it was like, okay, the next one we’re gonna have to have some decisions!”

I suppose this answers the question: is there such a thing as too much winning? When it comes to sign space, the answer is “yes.”

Interview #110: Montpelier, VT Mayor Anne Watson (with podcast)

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

Anne Watson is a high school teacher and first-term mayor who made a few tweaks to the council meetings when she took the gavel this year. She explains why high school students come into the council chamber regularly and we discuss a contentious meeting about a vacancy this spring.

Q: I noticed that your council does not say the Pledge of Allegiance in your meetings. Mayor Watson, simple question: how dare you?

A: You know, I think it’s sort of assumed that we’re all on board with loving America. So we just use our time well and want to just keep moving forward!

Q: Please tell me that you at least have Judeo-Christian prayer before the meetings.

A: No, we don’t pray before the meetings either!

Q: Oh, my god. If the French Canadians want to invade you people, I could care less at this point. I notice that you have been cursed with a finicky sound system. What is the problem with the microphones in your council chamber?

A: The microphones were a little bit far away from the edge of the desks and so for a long time, we had to lean over the desks to get close enough to actually be heard. We could look into getting some better mics that might actually pick us up, but they were just recently moved to be closer. And actually, since that meeting happened, we’ve had some better sound.

Q: I want to talk about some of the aspects of the meetings that changed since you became mayor earlier this year. Do I understand that you instituted a two-minute limit on public comment?

A: That’s correct. We actually have a card that one of our councilors holds up. The one side says you’ve got one minute left and the other side says you’ve got to stop.

Q: I love low-tech solutions. Perhaps for the sound system you could just roll up a piece of paper and talk through it like a megaphone instead!

A: There we go!

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Montpelier, VT Mayor Anne Watson

Q: Is there now in your council chamber a white board with future agenda items?

A: There is an agenda board and that was something that I asked for. I think it’s really helpful for planning our time. When we’re in the council meetings and we’re thinking about if we are going to table this topic or somebody raises an issue that’s worth talking about further, then we can right there have a visual representation of when it might fit in our future agendas.

Q: Tell me about the kids who come into your meetings to drop policy on you.

A: So every year, there’s a class at the high school that does a project around civics and whatever topics are going on in the city. They come to the council and make a pitch. There was one we had about possibly banning plastic bags in the city of Montpelier. We have an item on the ballot on November 6 coming up as to whether we should be asking the legislature for permission to enact some kind of ban on plastic bags. The kids were definitely a part of that.

Q: You are actually a teacher at the high school there. If a student said to you, “Ms. Watson, I didn’t do my homework for your class because I was working on my policy project for the city council,” would you be mad?

A: Oh, of course I would! Well, I probably wouldn’t be mad, but I would probably say something like, “listen, you need to manage your time.”


Follow Mayor Anne Watson on Twitter: @anneofvermont

#173: Philadelphia, PA 11/1/18

“I’d like to recognize some students from my district visiting today in the chambers,” announced Council President Darrell Clarke in the normal course of the council meeting getting underway. “They are embarking on a voting project, to get people out and talk about the importance of voting. So I would like to recognize them….”

He scanned the audience expectantly. “And now I’m being told that they’re not here yet!” He looked into the camera and grinned as council members guffawed. “We’ll recognize them when they get here.”

That minor blip was instantly forgotten when Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell issued her own stunner of an announcement.

“We were privileged to be at a wedding last week,” she said. “One of the members is a retired administrator with the Philadelphia School System. She got married and they decided that they would spend their first week visiting us. Could they stand?”

In the audience, the newlyweds rose to be cheered. The bride ceremoniously waved to the council while the groom thrust his palms in the air in a “raise the roof” gesture.

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He’s got the right idea!

With President Clarke’s band of students still en route, a dozen council members crowded the front dais, with Councilwoman Blackwell taking center stage.

“You know, it’s a special calling when you care enough about people–some very disabled, very ill–to make them feel better and do better because you make them look better,” she praised the man standing next to her, the salon operator at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

“He gives of his time styling the hair of patients and caregivers–” she read from the proclamation.

“–This offers a much-needed moment of relaxation to those who are continually putting their needs aside for the benefit of their loved ones,” picked up Councilman Allan Domb.

“–He also consults with transgender youth and assists them in creating their new looks,” continued Councilman Al Taubenberger.

“–Which raises morale and instills joy and dignity in those receiving his services,” finished Councilman Derek Green.

The man stepped to the microphone and paused emotionally. “Thank you, everyone,” he smiled as President Clarke declared “council will be at ease” for the official photograph.

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This is what “at ease” looks like.

“QUIET, PLEASE” came a yell from the rear of the chamber as council un-eased itself.

“Our next order of business is introduction of bills and resolutions,” the president ordered, kicking off an unusual dance of council members handing packets of blue paper to a courier, who then ferried them across the council floor to the clerk for a formal introduction to the body. Other city councils have found more subtle ways to do this, but in Philly, it was perhaps as well-choreographed as that couple’s wedding from earlier.

President Clarke slowly segued into the final portion of the meeting. “Are there any speeches on behalf of the….I’m stalling, waiting for the schoolchildren,” he admitted with a chuckle.

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FILIBUSTER

Several council members took the bait, with Councilman Bobby Henan describing his new hate crimes legislation and Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown complimenting diversity in the Pennsylvania attorney general’s office.

There were two minutes left in the meeting and only one item of unfinished business. Fortunately, all systems were go.

“Before we conclude, I would like to recognize our students. I understand they got here just in the nick of time!” President Clarke called out as the three young ladies–no doubt fresh from getting Philadelphians to vote–stood up to end the suspense.