Interview #61: Spokane, WA Council Member Amber Waldref (with podcast)

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

Amber Waldref and I had a very deep discussion about the regular public commenters (there are tons) at her meetings, an incident involving a presidential walk-out, and her approach to getting the audience on her side.

Q: How would you describe council President Ben Stuckart’s style of running your meetings?

A: It’s easy to criticize, but if you had to do it yourself–because I’ve had to–it is difficult. You have to have a strong constitution and you can’t be afraid of calling people out. I take a little bit softer approach than council President Stuckart does. I don’t know if that helps or hurts me.

Q: When you run the meetings, how do you handle it?

A: It’s all about preparation. Usually you’re given at least a couple days notice so you can get your head in order and research agenda items–make sure you understand where things might go astray and check in with council members to make sure no one’s going to throw in a crazy motion at the last minute.

Q: When you said you take a “softer” approach, that word, when you connote it with being a woman, it’s like, you’re a better listener, you’re more “motherly”–or whatever it conjures up. Is that what you meant?

A: I think it’s just the tone of your voice and the sincerity of your statements. If someone comes up and gives a comment, [say] “thank you” instead of giving a sarcastic, “NEXT!” They may be a difficult person to listen to. They may have something they’ve said a thousand times and you’ve heard it. But you just smile and in the tone of your voice, sincerely say, “thank you for your comment.”

Q: Mmhmm.

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Spokane, WA Council Member Amber Waldref

A: You still need to be firm. I think it’s how the tone of the meeting can be set by just making a joke at the beginning or making light of something–getting the crowd to chuckle and getting them on your side. Those are some tricks I use.

Q: What are we talking about here? Knock-knocks? Limericks?

A: I usually use self-deprecating humor. Or, “oh, since council President Stuckart is out, I’m going to be nice to all of you. Haha!”

Q: [Laughs] So, is what you’re talking about not so much “kindness” but “acting?”

A: No, I think it’s about a state of mind. It’s probably easier for me because I don’t have to chair [the meeting] every week. If you were president every week, it’s hard to have that approach. I think you’re at an advantage if you’re only doing it every three months. People maybe have a different perspective on you.

Q: It’s like a substitute teacher: you might think you could get away with things or you might wish you had that teacher all that time.

A: Yeah, I want to be the cool substitute teacher.

Q: [Laughs] One of these meetings you should just put on the Minions movie and forget about the agenda! Are things any different in the small conference room that your meetings are in now versus your old council chamber?

A: It’s a more intimate space. We’re on the same level as the people speaking to us. Which I appreciate. It creates a more casual atmosphere. I think that’s why people are speaking out of turn. There’s plusses and minuses.


Follow Council Member Amber Waldref on Twitter: @amberwaldref

#122: Poulsbo, WA 8/2/17

There was no shortage of eyebrow-raising announcements in Poulsbo.

Mayor Becky Erickson set the bar ever-so-slightly off the ground with her unorthodox but low-key warning that “after we leave here, we’re gonna go to the third floor. A conference room setting is a little more conducive to an active conversation.”

Fair enough. A change of venue is good for the circulatory system. But the good vibes instantly dissipated as Council Member Gary Nystul flagrantly stoked an intra-governmental rivalry.

“It’s my privilege once a year to point out to my two Navy associates–Warrant Officer [Council Member Jim] Henry and Commander [Council Member Kenneth] Thomas–that August 4 is the Coast Guard birthday.”

He smirked and prepared to rub in his superiority. “Occasionally the Navy doesn’t follow our directions. One day in Hawaii they didn’t follow our directions right out of the shipyard. They put it into a reef!”

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Who among us hasn’t crashed a battleship into a reef?

The mayor quickly interjected. “You’re walking on dangerous ground, Mr. Nystul! Very dangerous ground.”

“Choppy waters” would have been the more appropriate image, but point taken.

Speaking of danger, quick: cue the Musgrove!

“When an earthquake or something happens is NOT the time to figure out: where do I get food for Fluffy?” Council Member David Musgrove insisted. He gestured to an emergency-preparedness handout decorated with a pensive-looking cat.

“It’s like taking care of an elderly parent. You need to do the same stuff.” (Note to self: stock up on cat food for grandma.)

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Cat sold separately

But if residents didn’t have time to prepare themselves for a disaster, Council Member Musgrove offered a logical alternative. “Tomorrow, 10:30 a.m., there’s a walk-through of the Poulsbo cemetery.”

Council Member Connie Lord struck a compromise between death and doomsday prep. “The mayor has opened up city hall as a cooling station,” she announced helpfully.

Mayor Erickson nodded. “The council chamber’s open. There’s bottled water in the fridge.” After thinking a second, she added, “bring a book. There’s nothing particularly exciting going on in here.”

However, the mayor was having a hard time keeping her story straight. Because not two minutes later, she revealed this HIGHLY exciting event:

“This coming Tuesday, I’m having ‘kitty hall’ here,” she bragged. “The Kitsap Humane Society and I are going to have a whole bunch of kitties/kittens/cats for adoption. So if you’re interested in a new feline furry friend, we’ll be out there.”

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When you pick up your cat, get enough food to last through the earthquake.

The final news item came from Council Member Ed Henry and it was a whopper.

“In our codes, self-storage and mini-storage is allowed in the commercial zone,” he informed the council solemnly. “Is the council interested in putting self-storage in those other zones?”

He glanced around. “It is a timely matter.”

“We appear to be having a LOT of interest about putting self-storage along [highway] 305,” the mayor acknowledged.

“We have very limited space if we want to keep Poulsbo Pouslbo,” Henry fretted. “Tight and constricted.”

Mayor Erickson agreed to look into it. But immediately, she worriedly turned to the clerk as she remembered that everyone needed to trek to the upstairs conference room.

“Rhiannon, how are we going to do this? We haven’t done this before.”

The clerk promptly replied, “I see us going upstairs and continue our audio recording up there.”

With that, the cameras went dark and the citizens who came for the cooling station pulled out their books.

Interview #55: Idaho Falls, ID Mayor Rebecca Casper (with podcast)

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

Rebecca Casper thought that her city council meetings were “conventional” and that we wouldn’t have a lot to talk about. I’m happy to report: we had a LOT to talk about. At the end, she shared a candid reflection about how her first two years as mayor affected her friendship with another councilwoman. I cannot recommend it highly enough–go listen.

Q: When it comes to running the council meetings, which of the following best describes your style?

A. Iron-fisted tyrant

B. Lead-fisted tyrant

C. Bronze-fisted tyrant

A: [Laughs] I think it depends on who you’re talking to. I’m sure I’ll have an opponent in the election who will tell you that I am lead or iron!

Q: I consider you a very active mayor–and I don’t mean you’re running marathons. I mean that you explain very thoroughly for city council novices what is happening in the meeting. Why do you do that?

A: I attended my share of meetings as a candidate, watching and observing. It did sometimes seem as though they were performing steps to a dance I didn’t quite understand. So I wanted to make sure that when I had that opportunity to lead, I would make it clear to the public what was happening in their meeting. Because it really is their meeting, not ours.

Q: What procedures did you change when you became mayor?

A: Uh, not that I want to open up a can of worms…but the thing that has been the most procedurally difficult for everybody is the agenda-setting process. It can be quite the “power move” in some people’s minds. I don’t see it that way. I’ve had a couple council members who would like to just be able to order up a discussion. I’ve had a rule of thumb: either a [department] director has to request the agenda item or the council president does.

Q: Mmm.

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Idaho Falls, ID Mayor Rebecca Casper

A: If a council member wants to talk about something, the president can be the one who can tell that council member, “you know what? That’s a crazy idea.” Or “that’s a great idea.” Or “that’s kind of an interesting idea. Have you done the research?” And that council president can mentor the council member. I’ve had that little screening process and it hasn’t sat well with a couple council members.

Q: In your absence, does Council President Tom Hally do anything differently when presiding that you wish you did?

A: I think there’s plenty of cringe-worthiness no matter who’s running the meeting. I’m a little more rigid. Councilman Hally is a little more laid-back. I’m sure people appreciate that from time to time. Having a bossy mom figure all the time can’t be fun, and so–

Q: Is that how you see yourself?

A: That’s how I hear myself when I go back and listen. Especially as you’re playing all these clips now. I’m kind of uncomfortable!

Q: Oh, I don’t mean to make you uncomfortable! I have to listen to my voice all the time for this and there are things I can’t stand and that I do work to fix. What is a similar tic of yours?

A: I would love to be able to be a little more lean with my language. Normally, I fill the awkward pause with blather. Gotta work on that.


Follow Mayor Rebecca Casper on Twitter: @CasperForMayor

Interview #54: Cheyenne, WY Mayor Marian Orr (with podcast)

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

Marian Orr is the new mayor of Cheyenne and from what I can tell, she learned how to run an efficient council meeting in practically no time. She shares her secret study tool with us and also reveals the one physiological liability that she has to keep in check. If you enjoy procedures, you’ll love this!

Q: You don’t preside over a city council–you preside over a “governing body.” Why is Cheyenne TOO GOOD for a city council?!

A: We have a strong mayor form of government. When council meets during their Committee of the Whole, THAT is a city council meeting. But when they add me, it becomes a meeting of the governing body.

Q: I’ve heard you are an honest poker player, which is generally not a good thing in poker! Would you say that being a bad poker player is a disadvantage to running a governing body meeting?

A: I don’t have much of a poker face and I don’t know if that serves me well. People really know what it is I’m thinking and–I’ve always had this since being a kid–when things get heated, so does my neck. Even staff can tell when I’m a little on edge because my neck gets really red.

Q: That’s your tell!

A: I have a tell.

Q: Do the other councilors know about this or is it something you’ve kept with your close friends?

A: I believe it is so obvious that if they haven’t paid attention, they must be sleeping.

Q: How did you prepare for running a meeting before you were sworn in?

A: I spent about half a day with our city clerk who is the queen of Robert’s Rues of Order. She was kind enough–people probably don’t know this, so I’m giving the secret away–she wrote a script for me that I was able to pretty closely read from. I’d say it took the first two months to feel like I can run a meeting without a cheat sheet.

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Cheyenne, WY Mayor Marian Orr

Q: I will be filing a Freedom of Information Act request to get that script, so prepare yourself. Did she give you stage directions, like, “say this (inquisitively) or say this (angrily)?”

A: Boy, I think that now she regrets not putting in stage directions! It was, “if this happens, say this.” She would leave a blank as far as “Mr. _______” and I could write in “Johnson” made the motion. But, oh! There were colors. If a motion passes, it was green. If a motion fails, she would have it in red. It was very helpful.

Q: You have begun to crack down on people who don’t ask or answer questions by first saying “through the mayor.” Why do they need to do that?

A: We have had some meetings where city council has had multiple questions of staff. I believe it’s a better way to keep hold of the meetings. [Staff] feel they are being “put upon the stand” for questioning and it is a way to slow down and temper some of the discussion.

Q: Some councilors have seemed resentful when you reminded them of this rule. Did you perceive that?

A: I did feel that. There is heated debate and we end up leaving the dais shaking hands. Individually, I’ve got a great rapport with every member of council.


Follow Mayor Marian Orr on Twitter: @gofishwyo

#112: Auburn, WA 6/19/17

As council members idly chatted while awaiting the mayor’s arrival, a little girl shuffled quietly to the middle of the chamber.

She planted herself in front of the dais and wiped her nose on a flowing blue skirt. After several moments of silent staring, she caught the attention of Councilmember Yolanda Trout-Manuel.

“Come on up,” Trout-Manuel called, waving to the staircase beside her.

The little girl bolted away wide-eyed. “Mommy!” she yelled. Then she whirled around and sprinted to the staircase. “I’mbusy!I’mbusy!I’mbusy!” she chanted, scaling the steps to the dais.

“DESTINY ROSE!” bellowed the mother as her daughter marched around the desk shaking hands with council members. “Come on,” she hissed angrily as the girl jumped into her front row seat and began kicking excitedly.

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WARNING: Do not try to invite yourself onto a dais if you are not a cute little girl.

Mayor Nancy Backus gaveled open the meeting and the girl’s mother immediately slid behind the podium.

“My main concern is with the sex offender registry. Level 2 and Level 3 are required to give notifications. Why not Level 1?” she quizzed the council. “Someone I know is on that registry before I even knew he had contact with my daughter.”

The police commander reassured her: “all registered sex offenders are supposed to be on the King County website.”

She frowned. “He is not there.”

The cop kept his poker face and steady tone. “When we get done here, I’d be happy to speak with you.”

No sooner was that matter resolved than a soft-spoken older woman approached the microphone.

“I’d like to say thanks for the quick follow-up on my concerns from last time,” she smiled shyly. “Also, um, I baked some cookies for you guys. They’re gluten free.”

Mayor Backus nodded approvingly. “That is very, very sweet of you, Mary.”

Wow, talk about going above and beyond the call of duty in Auburn! If the commander sorts out that sex offender issue in time, he could be on the receiving end of a box of Tagalongs next meeting.

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But seriously: you couldn’t have left a little gluten in there?

“On Saturday, the Valley Civil Disturbance Unit was held at Renton city hall,” Mayor Backus updated council members. She added with a chuckle, “we were made aware of how elected officials can get in the way of law enforcement in a civil disturbance.”

I presumed she wasn’t talking about chaining herself to a bulldozer, which she confirmed by rattling off all of the situations where council members need to duck and cover: “sit-ins, protests, protesters locked in ‘Sleeping Dragon,’ use of lethal munitions….”

Sleeping Dragon? That sounds more like a yoga pose than a restraint technique. Either way, I’d want to be far, far away when the dragon wakes up.

“Let law enforcement do their job,” she warned her colleagues.

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“I did learn some SWAT techniques if we’re rushed by little girls again.”

“One final thing,” the mayor added. “Last month there were some comments made at the study session about actions taken to exclude council members from meetings and events.”

She gazed out sternly while addressing no one in particular. “Our staff goes above and beyond for EVERYONE. There is NO place in this council chambers for campaigning and I hope we can focus on the work of the city.”

With that cryptic message, the meeting ended. Hopefully, the offending party knows to stay in line–or else they might end up in Sleeping Dragon position.

Interview #44: Mercer Island, WA City Manager Julie Underwood (with podcast)

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

Julie Underwood has worked in three cities in the past five years–so she’s noooooooo stranger to city council meetings! We talked about what happens when you bring your kids to a meeting, why she chose to sit far away from the mayor, and one pet peeve of hers.

Q: When you got sworn in as Mercer Island city manager, your sons were standing there with you. Your youngest was seemingly doing a Spiderman impression while you were talking about upholding the Constitution…has your family been to any other council meetings?

A: They have not. I generally do not have them attend council meetings for obvious reasons–the Spiderman and the…oh, my gosh! Wanting to take the mic and wanting to get my attention when I need to focus on what’s happening with the council. Many of us are working parents. I’ve had to pick up my kids towards the end of the day and run back to the office where I’ve said, “sit in my office. I’ve got a meeting. Do your homework.”

Q: I noticed that for your first couple of Mercer Island meetings, you sat next to the mayor and other council members. But by the third meeting, you were not up there on the dais! Does Mayor Bruce Bassett smell bad?

A: [Laughs] No, he doesn’t smell bad. They’re the legislative branch. If I were just observing the council meeting, I wouldn’t know exactly what is this person doing up there? Those folks are all elected by the people and I’m appointed. I really wanted to understand, is there a reason city managers sat up there? Are [council members] really wedded to this idea? As it turned out, none of them were.

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Mercer Island, WA city manager Julie Underwood

Q: Are there things you have seen council members do or say in the meetings that you really wish they wouldn’t? What habits grind your gears?

A: I’m certainly sensitive when I might hear a council member use the term “my constituents.” Once you get elected, you work for all residents at that point. Every city I’ve worked for, every one of the elected positions were at-large [elected citywide]. So I just thought that was odd to say “my constituents.”

Q: Yeah, everyone has the same constituents. It might just be something they assume they have to say when they become a politician. It makes you sound like Ted Kennedy or something.

A: Maybe,  yeah.

Q: Have city council members ever surprised you by telling you behind closed doors that some project or idea is perfectly reasonable, but once they get in the council meeting, they slam it left and right?

A: Yeah, I’ve had council members tell me in private where they’re going and then on the dais do the opposite. That is their prerogative. There is a certain amount of uncertainty that is not fun. I’ve also seen where they see testimony in public comment and councils just go in a different direction based on that testimony. I will say this: when I do experience that, it gives me pause and I say, okay, this is a case where I do have to be okay with the uncertainty of a particular person. I just don’t know if what they’re saying is going to be what they do.


Follow City Manager Julie Underwood on Twitter: @UnderwoodJulie

#95: Renton, WA 3/27/17

Often, city council members are the stars of their meetings.

But sometimes, they get upstaged by more intriguing characters.

“Whereas women need to be inspired by female leaders…and women need to document and highlight their triumphs and accomplishments, I do hereby proclaim March 2017 to be Women’s History Month,” deputy city clerk Megan Gregor read the proclamation inside a council chamber whose male-to-female ratio was higher than the Space Needle.

A woman led her infant daughter to the podium. “I think your helper’s gonna get that,” observed Mayor Denis Law. The council smiled at the little girl–until Gregor handed her the paper and she promptly tossed it on the floor.

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What a great moment for wome–annnnd now it’s dirty.

From here on out, the center of gravity shifted to the clerk’s desk, where Gregor plowed through a long string of numbers without breaking a sweat.

“The Finance Committee approves claims vouchers 354750 through 354751, 354754 through 354767, 354793 through 355173, 5325 through 5335, and 1006, and three wire transfers and two payroll runs,” she rattled off flawlessly.

However, the dismount was a struggle.

“With benefit withholding payments totaling four million and four hundred dollars, and–no, sorry. Let me go over that again.” She took a deep breath. “Four million, four hundred and sixty-nine…dollars, eight hundred and four….”

She wheeled around and stared bewildered at Councilmember Ed Prince. “Sorry, I’m reading it all wrong.”

“You did great,” Prince reassured her.

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Even the clock has way too many digits!

But as any stage performer knows, it’s hard to get your groove back if you’re rattled.

“The downtown utility improvements project phase one in the amount of five thousand and seventeen…five hundred thousand, seventeen dollars–no,” Gregor shot a frustrated glance down the dais.

Suddenly, she threw a Hail Mary that even Russell Wilson could admire. “Five, one, seven, two, two, eight,” she laughed, simply reading off each number like a boss.

That slick move apparently infused some much-needed mojo. “An ordinance granting unto Puget Sound Energy, Inc. the franchise to construct, operate, set, erect, support, attach, connect, maintain, repair, replace, enlarge, and use facilities–” she bulldozed forward, “–for power, heat, and light in, upon, over, under, along, across, and through the area.”

BOOM! Talk about nailing one of the ugliest, most convoluted paragraphs ever to rear its head at a city council meeting! I was overjoyed, ecstatic, elated, enchanted, jubilant, joyful, and–uh, feeling…good…times.

But in the home stretch of this well-oiled machine, one council member accidentally chucked a wrench into the works.

“The item I have is a travel authorization and expense report for me to attend the Smart Cities Conference in Santa Ana,” Councilmember Carol Ann Witschi announced. “The total cost is $2,030. I need to submit this to the council tonight for approval.”

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All I see is a floating head in a maroon chair.

Silence.

Mayor Law glanced around. “Okay, uh….”

“Our first one!” blurted Councilmember Randy Corman. “What’s the protocol here?”

Uh-oh. How ironic that the smallest dollar amount of the night caused the biggest snafu.

“Any recommendation from the city attorney?” the mayor glanced playfully down the dais. Other council members chuckled as the city attorney threw up his hands.

It was a lock. The council unanimously voted to send Councilmember Witschi to Santa Ana–all expenses paid.

Final thoughts: The MVP was clearly Renton’s resilient deputy clerk. I give her performance a final score of five hundred six and–no, wait. Fifty and…sorry. Five or–