Interview #93: Meriden, CT Councilor Miguel Castro (with podcast)

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

The Meriden city council is not short on bad behavior–including comments that skirt the border of sexual harassment, multiple censures against councilors, and an effort to delete council meeting footage by this week’s guest, Miguel Castro.

Q: On December 18 of last year, the council was discussing whether to fire your city manager. People brought up his performance and the performance of other city employees. But Councilor Bob Williams, Jr. said:

We have some department heads that you gotta handle with kid gloves. Some people you can have an honest conversation….There’s some people you can’t. You gotta basically pat ’em on the ass a little bit.

I realize Councilor Williams was probably just using some locker room talk, which is completely acceptable in the year 2018. Unless, of course, you’re a female comedian. How did you feel?

A: For anyone to go on the council floor and make a statement like this is really unfortunate. It’s a complete insult. It is unnecessary. It’s uncalled for. The department heads deserve a public apology. People are referring to this as “locker room talk.” Nonsense. I’ve been in many locker rooms and my friends in the locker room do not talk like that.

Q: Here at the City Council Chronicles studio, no one is allowed to talk in our locker room. And it really starts the day off on the right note for me. The next month, there was a resolution to censure Councilor Williams. The mayor ruled you could not vote on the resolution. So who then polices your council, Miguel?

A: It certainly deserves serious discussion and conversations that talk like this should not be allowed anywhere. It should be subject to a much further discussion which should start within our city leaders.

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Meriden, CT councilor Miguel Castro

Q: Coincidentally at that same meeting, there was a censure against you that called you out for political retaliation against your former election opponent. And the mayor again ruled you cannot vote on it. You just said these issues should be discussed openly, so were you disappointed that the mayor denied a vote on both of these resolutions?

A: Well, I appreciate your thoughts but the comparison–it’s not a fair comparison. With regards to the manner you have brought now to our discussion, [it] was something that was referred to a confidential process.

Q: On March 29, there was a finance committee meeting. Apparently there were some councilors having a side conversation near you because the chair told them to be quiet. After that meeting, you contacted the video recording company for the city and asked if that exchange could be deleted from the footage. Did you at all think that a mere inquiry about deleting footage would be construed as a request to delete footage and therefore be records tampering?

A: Well, I appreciate your thoughts on the matter. My approach was posing a question whether that portion of the meeting could have been edited. That was the end of it. I did not wake up one morning to purposely commit something nefarious. If for some reason, for lack of information, I have brought a small level of disruption that could create that kind of perception, I personally apologize. I am sorry for how I approached it. Could I have known there was a right way or a different way to address my concern, I would have relied on that.

Editor’s note: After publication, Councilor Castro sent multiple messages to City Council Chronicles asking for this interview to be deleted. It is not the policy of City Council Chronicles to acquiesce to the pressure of elected officials seeking to set the terms of their own coverage. Councilor Castro was given the opportunity to request correction of any factual errors he found in the interview. He provided none.
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Interview #92: Lancaster, PA Councilwoman Janet Diaz (with podcast)

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

Sometimes you vote the wrong way and need a do-over. Janet Diaz talks about the meeting where she was allowed to re-vote, plus she gives advice on how to handle public commenters who suddenly explode at the council.

Q: Lancaster does not record its council meetings, but there is an individual who runs See-thru City where he live streams all of your meetings. How much of what he was doing contributed to your decision to explore putting cameras in the council chamber?

A: He was the one that actually proposed it. People have made comments that it will be good for them to see it and hear it better. It’s actually the mayor I think that made that decision too.

Q: So it was this citizen-videographer who catalyzed the impending streaming of meetings?

A: Yes. Basically he is videotaping it, so other people are very happy. They appreciate him doing that. What the city wants to do is go further.

Q: Is there a way to incorporate the comments of people watching on Facebook Live into the meetings? Would you support someone representing the Facebook feed being able to come up at the very end of an item and list the comments they got from people watching?

A: Personally, sure. I feel that shouldn’t be a problem. But I can’t make those decisions–it has to be everyone on a whole.

Q: A couple of weeks ago, the council held a special meeting to reconsider a decision to tear down a historic building. Can you think of any vote you’ve made that you would like to cast differently now?

A: The problem on the day that I actually cast my vote–I think it got confusing. There was a person that–the police stopped her and her daughter and there was a yelling and screaming match. I was not thinking completely straight. I was still thinking of the trauma this woman had gone through. I voted incorrectly. I’m honest, I made a mistake. That’s why I called for a special meeting to recant my vote.

Q: Were people pretty understanding of that or do they hold you to a higher standard?

A: I think people understood that there was a lot of chaos. There was actually someone that caused an arson. I don’t see that anybody judged me. I’m just as human as anyone else.

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Lancaster, PA Councilwoman Janet Diaz

Q: At the May 22 meeting, a woman came in to share her story about her interaction with the Lancaster police. But it escalated into screaming. How should a council president have handled that?

A: I have helped people in the past [as] a sexual assault counselor. Sometimes you just got to let them vent. You have to let them speak and get that out of their system because they’re hurting. You’re not gonna fix a problem if there’s so much chaos.

Q: She kept saying she wanted an apology. How appropriate would it have been for the council president to say, “you know what? You walked away from an interaction with the police feeling violated and betrayed. And that should never happen in our city. We let you down and I apologize.”

A: Yeah, that would be something that could’ve been handled that way. Yes, I agree with you. If there’s an apology to give to a constituent because somewhere along the line the system failed them, why should we feel guilty?


Follow Councilwoman Janet Diaz on Twitter: @JanetDiaz1966

#159: Scranton, PA 6/11/18

Sometimes it feels like everyone’s a critic. But in the Scranton council chamber, literally everyone who showed up had some beef with the five councilmen.

“I actually have to grab the speaker list,” Council President Pat Rogan admitted with a sly grin, excusing himself from the dais while a dozen pairs of eyes followed him out of the room.

Sitting down with the paper, he brandished it with feigned surprise. “So there’s nobody on the speaker list–” Rogan deadpanned before calling up the first in a series of aggrieved complainants.

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Is that Dunder Mifflin paper?

“Comcast, okay? They are a monopoly. In the United States of America, a monopoly is illegal,” ranted a man in a black “Brooklyn” baseball cap and thick New York accent.

“They don’t want to give a senior citizen’s discount! I come from New York City, okay? Five boroughs–not anywhere in the five boroughs will you find that they will not recognize what senior citizens have done for this country,” he pounded on the lectern. “I have five major credit cards! I have seven different department stores!”

He waved his arms. “How can any one of youse here allow this to happen?”

“We don’t set the rates for Comcast,” President Rogan responded plainly. “Comcast is a private corporation.”

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“So, no discount?”

The commenter was replaced by another middle aged man with a pair of reading glasses on his nose and sunglasses on his forehead. He emitted a deafening sigh into the microphone.

“I don’t even have a computer and I apparently know more about what’s going on in the city than you five, the mayor’s two hacks, and the mayor.”

Okay, let me stop you there. In the interest of time, let me annotate this testosterone-fueled grudge-fest to just the most cantankerous of grief mongering. The three wordsmiths here are:

-A strident elderly man in a yellow Polo (Y)

-An affable college student with half a mohawk (M)

-A woman with pinkish curly hair (C)

Ready? And go:

Y: You’re an elected official and the forum here is for the issue of debate. And if you can’t answer, then I ask you to resign.

M: The reason that people my age leave this area is because we don’t have faith in you guys.

C: Mr. Donahue, when speakers are up here, you have your head down and you are writing what they are saying? You could look on YouTube.

Y: You are a liar and should have resigned and maybe there’s litigation that will remove you.

M: Two of you keep looking down–aren’t even looking at me.

C: When speakers are speaking, you should–okay, you’re shaking your head.

Y: When I brought up the word “despicable” last week, it was mild terminology for what’s going on here. I’d like to put it in real words, but I might burn this microphone.

C: I’m disappointed. I voted for you.

M: This city council has lacked the competence needed to bring Scranton back on the map like it used to be. (A siren goes by in the background, as if on cue.)

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I’m sure the councilmen on the wall had a similar experience.

As yellow-Polo-shirt man walked away from the microphone bellowing for Council Member William Gaughan to “resign, you don’t belong here,” Mr. Brooklyn Hat began yelling from the gallery. That, in turn, prompted others to start yelling.

“You’re both out of order!” pleaded President Rogan.

“This is a sideshow,” murmured the next commenter at the mic.

It was. Although I sense it’s also a regular Monday night in Scranton.

#157: Brooklyn, OH 5/29/18

“A council meeting in Brooklyn?” you’re thinking. “Surely it was chock full of complaints about hipsters, the L train, and the smell off the East River.”

Well, I have some bad news for you: this is Brooklyn, Ohio. And the topic today was less about subway delays and more about the equally compelling question of how to spend all this federal money.

“To qualify for this grant funding, cities are required to hold a public session,” boomed President Ron Van Kirk.

“At this time, I would ask members of the audience to come up to the podium if they wish to make a suggestion on ways this funding should be allocated.”

Van Kirk warned the ravenous crowd that they ought to get to the point, and get to it quickly. “Please limit your remarks to five minutes or fewer.”

Not a soul stirred at his invitation.

“All right,” the president murmured, “then there is no one.”

No one has an idea for spending the money?! Repaint the fields at Marquardt Park! Put a streetcar on Biddulph Avenue! Get a better sound system for the council meetings!

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Maybe fix up that tattered George Washington portrait?

This being the first meeting after Memorial Day, the council was obliged to mention the solemn occasion. The perfect spokesperson appeared in the form of Council Member Mary Balbier–the wife of a Vietnam veteran.

“I’m not very fond of the hat he wears–the baseball hat that has the 25th Division and some sort of lightning rod on it,” she admitted with a wave of her hand.

“But I will tell you: everytime we walk through an airport and he’s wearing that, people salute him. People make a comment. And it’s quite heartwarming for him and I think he enjoys it. So I don’t say too much.”

With a slight grin, she let slip her true feelings about her husband’s headgear. “Also, he is TSA approved, so we just walk up and go through the line. I always say to my husband, ‘whatever happens, keep that hat. I may need to wear it!'”

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The master strategist

President Van Kirk steered back to council business with an admission of his own. “I wanna let residents know that I will be absent for our next meeting,” he said regretfully.

“Our first meeting in June falls on the same week that our church has their annual youth camp. Seventeen years, and I’ll be serving there once again as a camp counselor.”

(If he runs his youth camp as efficiently as he runs the council meetings, those kids won’t even need the full week–they’ll be outta there in a matter of days!)

The remainder of the meeting was virtually on autopilot, as the building commissioner rattled off the changes–big, small, and alcoholic–happening around town:

“Aldi’s is getting an addition put on there….Hampton Inn, raising the roof on their building….La Casa Tequila just recently opened up behind Cracker Barrel.”

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Casa Tequila AND Cracker Barrel? Maybe the U.S. and Mexico CAN work things out.

Racing through the final five minutes, the council approved a raft of legislation assembly line-style. This included one agreement for the city to order a whole bunch of salt.

“We could order no more than 3,920 tons.” President Van Kirk paused. “The city has never ordered that much salt in one year.”

Be careful, sir: now that La Casa Tequila is in town, the demand for salted margarita glasses has never been higher.

“Tear It Down” — an explanation

Hello, councilheads! Next week, City Council Chronicles will be off its hiatus and back with new profiles of city council meetings from around the globe.

But until then, I have gotten many questions about “Tear It Down.” I recommend that if you would like to know about some of the work that went into preparing the story, take a listen to today’s special episode of the City Council Chronicles podcast or click play below:

(If you have not yet heard the story, all eight parts are at http://www.tearitdownpodcast.com and you can even read along if you’d like. Route Fifty also did a terrific write-up here.)tear-it-down-logo-with-bricks-2


On the amount of time put into the story:

Amber Bailey contacted me on July 10, 2017 and the story came out on May 10, 2018. So doing the math, that’s ten months. I would say I spent over 1,000 hours on this, which works out to about 25 hours a week. It was a pretty time-intensive hobby.

Probably the biggest single category of work was watching the council meetings. The footage is archived with the local public access entity, which is called ICRC. The very first video is actually from the last meeting in 2014, so there are only 3.5 years of council meetings online. That was still nice, but there are some caveats to that. First, committee meetings did not start to be recorded until the last year or so. And there were several meetings that went untaped.

Watching the meetings, I took detailed notes about what was going on, which included time stamps so I could pull clips to use in the story. (I never counted up how many pages of notes, but my guess is over 200 typed pages just about the council meetings.)

Then probably the second biggest amount of time was spent on transcribing the interviews. I did about 60 hours of interviews and for every hour recorded, I spent maybe two hours transcribing everything. It was very time consuming, but I think it saved me time when writing the story.

On some of the challenges:

One thing I did encounter was that the set of characters in the beginning of the story was somewhat different from the characters who were there at the end. And generally, the people who had a lot to say weren’t around for too long, and the people who were around for long couldn’t remember a lot of things.

The main example of that is in Chapter 4, when the Change*nch co-founder, Nick Link, talks about city administrator Mark Fitzgerald taking him aside and calling him a “puppet master.” In Link’s telling, it was very dramatic and angry. And some people did remember the word “puppet master” being used. But other people could hardly remember what time of year it was or even what year it was. And the only reason I know is because the O’Shea lawsuit mentioned when it happened.

On fact checking:

Fact checking was a big deal for me. I read an article about the fact checker for “S-Town” and how he spent several months verifying the information in that story. One example he quoted was they needed to figure out whether something was “shellacked” or “lacquered” or “expoxied.” And no one could really remember or cared what the distinction was. But he had to eventually call an expert who recommended what word they should use in the story.

And I hold myself to a high standard, but that seemed a little too much for me!

I definitely got corroboration on a whole range of events and assertions. The best sources were obviously the council meeting videos because then I could see for myself what was going on. I did want to be very fair to people. I took out some lines near the end where I just could not get corroboration.

One example that came close to the “S-Town”-style fact checking was that at one point, Al Long in Chapter 7 says that Renee Stiles, when she was on the recreation commission, had a “binder” of plans for community events. I wanted to be accurate and find out if she really did have a binder. So I tried to find out if there was anyone else from 2009 or earlier who remembered this binder. The answer appeared to be no.

So I sent Renee Stiles a Facebook message. And she said months earlier that she was not really interested in speaking to me for the story, but I hoped she might be able to confirm this fact. And sure enough she wrote back and said what she actually had was “file folders” of plans, not a “binder.” So that is why in Chapter 7, you will hear Al Long speaking to the preparation of Renee Stiles in putting on these events, and then I interject to clarify the container in which she kept these plans was file folders.

On the schedule:

It was in early February that I began writing the episodes. That was a hectic time because around then, I set the date of May 10 to release the story. So I needed to write one episode per week beginning in February.

I was aiming for all of the episodes to be between 40 and 50 minutes, which, as you can see, did not happen. I spent a lot of time agonizing over what things to cut, what to include. But at the beginning of April, I had eight scripts that were written out–exactly what my voiceover would be, what the interviews were saying, whatever was in the council meeting clips. And I annotated everything so I knew where to pull the clips from and what part of the interview needed to be pasted into the episode.

In April, I started editing everything together. I finished each episode in about four days, which I consider fast. And again, that’s due to me knowing in advance what day and hour and minute to go to when pulling clips.

The part I hated the most was putting music underneath everything. It is so much pressure to pick the right song! And when you don’t have someone custom composing the music, whatever you choose may be perfect for the first 45 seconds and then it switches to a mood that is entirely different from what the story is trying to communicate.

Or I might have something that’s two minutes long, but I need something for 3.5 minutes. Or there’s the fact that I had a lot of sinister-sounding music and there just weren’t that many different sinister songs to choose from. So that was probably the part I hated the most, even more than transcribing the interviews, was picking the music.

Interview #82: Syracuse, NY Councilor Khalid Bey (with podcast)

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

Khalid Bey is dissatisfied in many ways with how the Syracuse Common Council operates. It is not transparent to the public and even he gets little notice about what transpires in the council chamber. We discussed the parts that are getting better, but also the parts that aren’t going to change anytime soon.

Q: Councilor, I want to read you this tweet:

How accurate is that observation?

A: I think unfortunately it may be pretty accurate. One of the concerns I’ve expressed in the past relative to council meetings is there is more politics involved and not as much good government. I always make the statement that politics disturbs good government. I’ve also made an effort to push for a charter review to reduce some of the ambiguity. There’s just some things that I think need to be made black and white so that the people understand the discussion that is going on in the chambers.

Q: If the Syracuse Common Council meetings were a board game, which would they be?

A. Monopoly

B. Jenga

C. Hungry, Hungry Hippos

A: I would probably say Jenga.

Q: So you have to be really careful because at some point it could all come tumbling down?

A: That’s right!

Q: Not only does Syracuse not video stream its meetings, but I did not see your meeting minutes online either. When I called the clerk’s office, they told me those documents are only available in their office in a physical book of council minutes. Why has the common council allowed this situation to continue?

A: Well, it’s interesting because I’d be surprised if most of the councilors even know that. Because I didn’t know that. I think oftentimes what you’re dealing with is certainly the city being a little behind the times. And we’re talking from a technological perspective. But also, established custom gets mistaken for rule. And sometimes these established customs have to be brought to the attention of the council and others for them to change. So I appreciate you bringing that to my attention because I will tell you: I did not know that.

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Syracuse, NY Councilor Khalid Bey

Q: How often are you surprised about what you’re asked to vote on in a council meeting?

A: We get the agenda book less than 24 hours before we’re obligated to come and discuss it intelligently. This is an unfair advantage to the council. This council takes a beating from the media and the public because it often appears ill-equipped–which it most certainly is–having to speak intelligently on something that it just received less than 24 hours. In comparison to somebody from the administration who may have had it for weeks and months.

Q: Do you think the news coverage of the common council has to be thorough precisely because there is so little official documentation of what happens?

A: I think so. Certainly one of the things that people talk about is when they go live stream, the behavior of some of the councilors will change. That is true. That is an unforutnate thing because I need them to see the behavior they don’t know about.

Q: What behavior do you wish or hope will go away once there are cameras in the meetings?

A: I’ll speak for me. When I push legislation, they respond sometimes as if they’re doing me a favor. So I always try to make the case to them, listen: if you have a distaste for me, fine. But it’s not about me. You’re doing work for the people. And sometimes the responses sound as if you’re doing favors for me. If you watch them, that’s exactly what it looks like.


Follow Councilor Khalid Bey on Twitter: @khalidbey

#146: New Bedford, MA 1/1/18

“Cozy” is how I would describe the New Bedford city council chamber–with curtains decorating the window and an angel topping a Christmas tree in the corner. It could have been someone’s living room. But, you know, with cameras.

The women occupied the front row; men took up the rear. Councilors sat in high-backed reclining chairs, each with his or her own personal desk.

Today there would be no long debates or drawn-out votes on new ordinances. Instead, “Councilors, I’ll open the floor for nominations of council president pro tem,” announced city clerk Dennis Farias.

“I move to nominate Councilor-elect Joseph Lopes,” declared Councilor Linda Morad.

Farias nodded. “Would Councilors-elect [Debora] Coelho and [Ian] Abreu please escort Councilor Lopes to the podium?” As the trio crossed the floor, a smattering of applause greeted Lopes when he took his seat.

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Long live the king, and his glowing lampshades

The adulation was short-lived.

“We are adjourned,” he slammed a gavel on the wooden desk. While it was only five minutes into the meeting–and would have been a contender for shortest meeting on the books–this was actually a pause to swear in councilors elsewhere.

I can only imagine the pomp and pageantry that took place off camera, for two hours elapsed before Councilor Lopes smashed the gavel again to reconvene.

As it turned out, it would be his final gavel to smash.

“I would like to nominate Linda Morad” for council president, Councilor Coehlo stood to deliver a glowing portrait of her nominee.

“She is a lifelong resident of New Bedford. She dearly loves her family. She attended local public schools,” Coehlo rhapsodized as Morad stared stiffly with her hands clasped.

Councilor Dana Rebeiro suddenly shot her arm in the air. “May I–?” she began.

“We’re only having one person speak,” Councilor Lopes rebuffed her. Rebeiro hunched over in disappointment.

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It’s like a Rockwell painting

The vote was unanimous in Morad’s favor, and amidst polite applause she wended her way to the podium, giving hugs and shaking hands along the perimeter of the room.

Standing with her palms flat on the desk, President Morad gave a steady but intense pep talk to her councilors.

“We are the seventh-largest city in Massachusetts. Being a city councilor in New Bedford is a big deal. YOU are the face of government here.”

She reached for a political cliché. “Just like a family, which we are, we won’t always agree. But hopefully we can work together.”

Then, she turned to her right. “I have a couple more pages of my speech. Were you able to get those?” The clerk pushed a hefty stack of papers toward her and Morad thumped them loudly on the desk for effect.

Councilors cackled at the joke.

“Just a few more words if you don’t mind,” she deadpanned.

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Read it! Read it all!

“Madam President,” the clerk segued, “the next item is the drawing of seats.”

A seating chart lottery?! What a rare event to witness. I always wonder how a council seating chart gets birthed and I’ve never seen an actual random assignment. My curiosity will finally be satiated!

“Colleagues, I communicated with you today that Councilor [Hugh] Dunn is not with us tonight,” Morad explained. “Councilor Dunn is interested in moving his seat, so I respectfully ask that we consider tabling this item until our meeting on January 11.”

What?! No, I won’t be watching then!

“The ayes have it,” Morad announced as the deferment passed.

Sigh. I came so close.