Interview #74: Juneau, AK Assembly Member Jesse Kiehl (with podcast)

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

Jesse Kiehl works for the Alaska legislature by day and serves on the Juneau assembly by night. On the podcast, he promises that the era of live-streamed meetings is dawning, explains a few uniquely-Alaska issues, and recounts a disturbing incident that happened mere feet from an assembly meeting.

Q: Jesse, I don’t care if you do live in Alaska and I don’t care if you can see Russia from your house. I–well, actually, CAN you see Russia from your house? That would be pretty boss.

A: We’re a little too far away.

Q: Oh. Well, ahem, I don’t care if you CAN’T see Russia from your house. Why can I not go online and see the Juneau assembly meetings?

A: Because we’re cheap! There is an individual who has been voluntarily putting those up online now for about eight, nine months. He is a businessman and is interested in competing for a contract to do that. I agree with you, Michael. It’s time.

Q: Do you have any idea when is the earliest we could see the new video system? 2018? 2019?

A: It wouldn’t surprise me if we got started in the early summer.

Q: Well, you’ve got to get your beach body in shape. Does that scare you?

A: I do not have–nor will I ever have–a “beach body.”

Q: Fair enough. This being Alaska, I want to talk about the Alaska-specific things people might find in your assembly meetings. For example, in your September 2017 meeting, a bunch of people showed up angry about a bear who was shot by police. How often do issues like this come up–that city councils in the lower 48 probably are not dealing with?

A: Most of the issues really are the same. I suppose people who have raccoons get in their garbage are a little more worried about rabies from a bite instead of mauling. But otherwise, it’s about the same.

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Juneau, AK Assembly Member Jesse Kiehl

Q: At the June 6 meeting, apparently there was some shouting outside the chamber and the mayor called a recess to have people investigate it. I think you were one of those who walked out of the room. Do you remember what happened?

A: There’s a public restroom on the other side of the chamber and there was a domestic violence incident–ah, let’s call it what it was: a guy beat up his girlfriend just outside the restrooms. There was shouting and thumping. We jumped up and the only person who got up faster than me was [Assembly Member] Jerry [Nankervis, a former police officer]. Unfortunately, she was not interested in police protection or a ride to our domestic violence shelter and that’s really hard. You intervene in hopes that people will get the help they need. But that time, they didn’t.

Q: When you’re sitting there in the meetings, you’ve got 33,000 people that you want to make life better for. But when it’s just one person who is not susceptible to persuasion or to you as an authority, I’m sure it’s quite a contrast and made you feel somewhat helpless.

A: [Sigh] Seeing and hearing something like that during a meeting sure keeps you grounded. It keeps you focused on the ways we make life better–or fail to–and the impacts those have on people who don’t have the level of comfort that all of us on the assembly do.


Follow Assembly Member Jesse Kiehl on Twitter: @JesseKiehl

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“A Higher Expectation”: The Council Meeting and the Confession (with podcast)

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

Last month, I interviewed Boise, Idaho Council Member Lauren McLean and we covered one unusual council meeting from November 13, 2012. At the Idaho state capitol, a crowded room watched the Boise city council take testimony on an LGBT nondiscrimination ordinance.

But in the fourth hour, Tabitha Osteen stepped to the microphone. In this interview, I asked her about why that council meeting was a turning point in her life.

Q: Before November 13, had you seen an entire city council meeting?

A: No, I had not.

Q: So what was your mental image of what the council meeting would be like? Did you picture protesters? Did you picture an open bar? Did you imagine the mayor would enter through a smokescreen Michael Jackson-style?

A: Really, it didn’t fall too far from what I had imagined. What I was surprised–really pleasantly surprised–by was the sheer amount of people. I was with my then-partner and our child. It felt important for me to bring my family, my representation of love.

Q: About four and a half hours into the meeting, it was your turn to speak. Have you ever listened to what you said?

A: I have not.

Q: Let’s play the clip:

I was not planning on speaking because until this moment, I was not out. I can’t remember who it was who spoke earlier with Harvey Milk’s call to come out. It’s been on my mind for years. I fall into the B and the Q portion [of LBGTQ] and it’s been really easy to hide….I brought [my son] here because I wanted him to understand that a group of people can be strong and do the right thing and protect people who need it. He has no idea that I’m one of those.

Tabitha

A: Honestly, I have a huge grin on my face and a little bit of watery eyes. It’s really encouraging to hear that and to bear witness to how much has changed….I just kept wondering if there were other people like me. There’s a lot of power and a lot of strength and a lot of calm that comes after that part’s done–from getting to live life out in the open more authentically.

Q: Do you think you would have said anything if your partner and son hadn’t gone home?

A: Oh, that’s a great question. Uh…yes, with much more trepidation! My ex-partner was intensely private and I am pretty intensely transparent. I don’t know that I would have changed my choice. I did feel called forth.

Q: I’ve seen council meetings where I would not call it a warm environment in which to come out. I would like to think that most councils want their meetings to be a welcoming place, but it sounds like if the environment was different, you would not have said anything.

A: Yeah, absolutely. It wasn’t a premeditated coming-out. It was a movement within myself by what was in the room. It was a response.

Q: Has this changed your expectations about what a city council meeting is like?

A: I think a demonstration of leadership like that always sparks a higher expectation of leadership. Not just in city council meetings; from everything. Something that’s so powerful about that city council environment: city councils are a representation of many aspects of a community coming together. It’s a weaving of different threads that wouldn’t necessarily see each other. In that environment, everything gets elevated.

Interview #68: Boise, ID Council Member Lauren McLean (with podcast)

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

In a first for City Council Chronicles, this week’s podcast guest gets her own piece of artwork to hang at city hall! I talk to Boise’s Lauren McLean about how her past as a dancer prepared her for council meetings. Plus, we spend a good while reliving the crowded council meeting from 2012 about an LGBT nondiscrimination ordinance with a surprise ending.

Q: I heard that you did competitive Scottish Highland dancing until you were 20 years old. What are the similarities between Scottish Highland dancing and the Boise city council meetings?

A: Oh, good question! Let’s see…you have to be super nimble, have lots of energy, a good sense of timing…

Q: Mmhmm.

A: …and want to win.

Q: Nice. Has someone asked you that question before?! That was remarkably fast.

A: No! I just made it up right now.

Q: [Laughs] I love it! Your council has met in several places. What has been your favorite?

A: I really love our current chambers. We have this great piece of local art behind us that is an artist’s version of what Boise is to her. I love looking at the piece, turning around and looking at it occasionally when we’re in longer hearing nights. At one point, it disappeared for about a week. That’s when I realized how much our council members really liked the piece because we got it back right away.

Q: If I were to draw something inspired by this interview, would you hang that up?

A: Um, I might hang it up in my cubby at city hall. I’m so excited to see what I’m going to have up in my cubby/cubicle!

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Hang it!

Q: On November 13, 2012 you were over at the state capitol. You had hundreds of people there to speak on a non-discrimination ordinance based on sexual orientation. For the first hour-and-a-half, this massive room, plus overflow, had to sit through a mundane set of hearings about planning and zoning. If you could do it again, would you get to the juicy stuff right away?

A: Actually, I’m going to say [pause], I think we would make them sit through it again! It’s the only time we can get an audience that big that sees all the things we deal with.

Q: Most people outside Idaho think of it as a place with potatoes and people who don’t like gay people. Were you worried that by having a hearing on television about this topic, the image viewers would see is one anti-LGBT person after another? Or, even worse, one gay-hating potato after another?

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Boise, ID Council Member Lauren McLean

A: I wasn’t worried at all. I know our city. The image many people outside of the state have of Idaho is very different from the reality. Really progressive, vibrant, fast-growing cities and universities.

Q: Yeah, and the mood at times was actually pretty light. The mayor didn’t allow clapping, but he did let people do “spirit fingers.” Did the spirit fingers last beyond that one meeting?

A: They did! You don’t see them in council meetings, but when the proponents of the measure came back after the ordinance was passed, [the spirit fingers] came up again. It’s something that I see often in Boise now amongst council members and others–it’s lived on.


Follow Council Member Lauren McLean on Twitter: @laurenmclean

#130: Florence, OR 9/18/17

Warning: if you are easily triggered by unrelenting happiness and optimism, proceed with caution.

“Wendy, thank you for 15 years of service,” city manager Erin Reynolds smiled warmly at the planning director while brandishing an award.

“Her husband is here tonight,” Reynolds stared out to the audience as a man lumbered forth. There were light giggles as he proceeded to pull the master-of-all husband moves: he stood beside her holding a bouquet of roses.

“He does the recording of our city council meetings, but he’s also her husband,” the city manager explained as councilors clumped together for a photo. Ah, yes: it’s fitting that the man thoughtful enough to bring flowers is also the unsung caretaker of the council feed.

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SMOOOOOOOTH

As the husband took his place behind the camera (“nice flowers” someone grunted), he swung it to the projector screen on the wall.

“We’re about 500 people away from 5,000” likes on Facebook announced Reynolds, proudly scrolling through the city’s carefully-curated page.

“I’ve got a couple fun swag items for the 5,000th person,” she teased.

Folks, THIS IS NOT A DRILL. Get over here and claim. the. swag. Also, Florence? If this review gets you to 5,000, I expect commission. Just a water bottle, t-shirt, or a street named after me. Something easy.

But the fun didn’t stop there: Miller Park is getting a facelift and the public works director was positively stoked.

“Miller Park’s a great facility. It just needs to be amped up.” He went all-in on the sell. “It’s a HUGE community destination. Regional draw!”

With glittering scenes of an urban utopia on the screen, he revealed the pièce de résistance. “With this new concession stand, if a group wants to come in and have a movie night, there’s a popcorn machine, soda machine.”

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I now want my commission to be a popcorn machine. Love you, Florence.

After the whirlwind tour of Miller Park 2.0, the meeting turned to what could have been a sticky topic: the performance review of the municipal judge.

“How does it feel down there?” Reynolds joked as the judge slid behind a low table. He chuckled nervously in response. But it quickly became apparent that His Honor had zilch to worry about.

“It’s the recommendation,” disclosed Mayor Joe Henry, “to implement an increase to the monthly retainer of 2.8 percent.”

The pay raise sailed through. But just as quickly, another employee landed in the hot seat.

“We’ve heard a lot from Mike tonight,” Reynolds glanced at the public works director. “He has the challenge of being in the public eye. He does end up taking some heat that he doesn’t enjoy.”

There was nervous fidgeting. Where was she heading with this?

“I think you can all trust in the work that he does,” she pivoted. “So with that, happy birthday, Mike!”

There were several “ahhs” and boisterous applause as the tension dissipated.

“He didn’t know I was going to do that!” boasted Reynolds.

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Quick, bring the roses!

From beneath her desk, she produced not a cake, but a hunk of wood in the shape of Oregon gifted to the city. She thrust it into the hands of Mayor Henry for a picture.

“If you crop it like this, you can get the detail,” Councilor Joshua Greene leaned over and gestured. Inspired, he jumped in front of the dais and held up his phone.

“There you go,” he clicked blissfully away. “One more.”

Flowers, a pay raise, birthday wishes, and the perfect picture. What more could you want from a city council meeting?*


*My swag

#128: Whitefish, MT 9/5/17

There are a handful of things in this world that regularly get people’s blood pressure up. Fidget spinners. Avocado toast. Anything surnamed “Kardashian.”

But in Whitefish, the trigger word was “water.”

A citizen in a plaid shirt planted herself at the podium and gazed steely eyed at Public Works Director Craig Workman. “Are you thinking about implementing any of the new technology in wastewater treatment?” she inquired.

“Yes, we are,” he replied. “We’ve begun the design of the wastewater treatment plant upgrades.”

“Including metals and microbes?” she pressed the witness.

“Yeah, metals are one of the parameters–”

“Is that being inspected now?”

“Yes–”

“Are you adding more sensitivity?” she interrupted.

“Well, the detection is done at the laboratory–”

“Which is here?”

“It’s in Kalispell.”

She collected her notes and concluded the interrogation. “Thank you…for now.”

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The prosecution rests

The mayor and council sat quietly during this aggressive questioning. A cheerful and somewhat nervous new resident smiled from behind the microphone.

“I’m a single mom of a three-year-old boy,” she greeted the council. “My first month, the water bill was fairly low. In June, my water bill was $100. In July, my water bill was $437.”

She turned to Workman and wondered, “do we really need all of these enhancements going into a water treatment plant?”

“I’ll allow this question,” Mayor John Muhlfeld firmly interjected. “Just for the audience, this isn’t an opportunity for Q&A between the public and our staff.”

Well, well, what a fine time to start enforcing the rules!

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If you’re going to ask questions, go for the jugular right away.

A man in a t-shirt and shorts took his turn at the mic. In a slight British accent, he winced while calling attention to his casual attire. “I just want to apologize for my lack of professionalism.”

“I’m $200,” he referred to his own water bill. “I just can’t keep up. I don’t want to sound like a whiner, but my family is hurting. I have a family of five who shower once a day and I put pressure on the boys to take short showers.”

He grimaced deeply while staring down the bridge of his nose through glasses. “My lawn is brown. When I water the fruit trees, I feel guilty because I see money running into the ground. I’m hurting.”

Councilor Richard Hildner, himself touting a large family, smiled faintly. “I don’t know how you get around that other than you turn off the hot water and they get a cold shower!”

He added, as a glimpse into his own parenting style, “having had three teenagers at home all at once, I know what you’re up against.”

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The hot water czar

At this point, Councilor Andy Feury glanced up from his computer. “I’ll save you a trip to visit Craig,” he hollered to the single mom who had spoken earlier.

“Your usage in June was 6,000 gallons. You used 32,000 gallons in July. And you don’t have a sprinkling meter, so you paid sewage charge on an additional 26,000 gallons of water. That’s why you went from $100 to $400.”

Wow, that was some speedy research! Now do me! How many gallons did I use?!

“I would like to see,” plaid-shirt-lady announced during a reappearance at the podium, “some pencil-and-erasure math on the operating costs. It’s the one area where maybe there could be some tightening of the margins.”

If by “tightening the margins” you mean “policing teenagers’ shower length”–tighten away.

And that really was all…for now.

#126: Salem, OR 8/28/17

Any regular announcements at the top of Salem’s city council meeting were “eclipsed” (MAJOR PUN ALERT) by a single event.

“I want to say to the staff that you did a fantastic job with the eclipse,” Councilor Tom Andersen crossed his arms and beamed. “I pushed back a little bit several months ago–and I see the city manager is nodding his head!–about what should have been done. This may be the first time I ever say this, but he was right and I was wrong!”

There were guffaws from the gallery. That noise was quickly replaced by Councilor Sally Cook signaling for the mayor’s attention.

“I just wanted to ask everybody a quick question: do you know your blood type?”

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Asking for a friend

Sporting a gigantic “I Made A Difference” sticker, she put in a gigantic plug for getting one’s blood drawn.

“I donated today. I had my first ‘Power Red’ donation. Very exciting. Very strange,” she mused. Noticing raised eyebrows, Councilor Cook added, “it means my blood is SO special, I get extra credit.”

Other councilors groaned, causing Cook to grin innocently. “It means they take your platelets and also the plasma. And that has a longer shelf life. I just encourage you to visit your friendly vampire.”

While this doesn’t give me extra motivation to donate blood, it does make me wonder about the shelf life of my own platelets.

But there was no time to dwell on my hypothetical blood. At this point, a deeply distressed public commenter stepped forward to talk about actual bloodshed.

“Car had to be going 60-70 mph down Fisher Road,” the man held up a graphic photo of a car crash’s aftermath.

“Five days later, this young lady,” he shakily displayed a picture of his wife, “was hit getting her mail out of the mailbox and killed right there.”

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😥

He lowered his gaze and continued in a gravelly voice. “Fisher Road just became a speedway. Something needs to be done. It’s just too bad my wife lost her life out there.”

Councilor Chris Hoy braced himself on the desk and looked the man in the eye. “I sat at your dining room table with you and your wife a few weeks before this horrible event. I have not forgotten that–and never will forget.”

It was an uneasy segue, but the council had no choice but to move on to what should have been a less emotional topic: amendments to the sign code.

Councilor Andersen leaned forward and frowned. “I’d like to make a substitute motion that we postpone deliberation on the sign code and have a work session.”

This touched off a nerve for Mayor Chuck Bennett, who lashed out without warning at the suggestion.

“I’ll tell ya: you knew you had two weeks. Not ONE PERSON followed up during the two weeks to talk with anyone about this,” he snapped at the stunned councilors. “I would hope you’ll ACTUALLY put your nose to the grindstone and do some work.”

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“Your mother and I aren’t mad. We’re just disappointed.”

Councilor Cara Kaser bristled at the mayor’s insinuation of laziness. “The two weeks were punctuated by a celestial event that will never happen again in our lifetime,” she protested. “We’re volunteer councilors. We work 40 or more hours a week.”

“Yeah, I also work 40-hour-plus weeks,” retorted the mayor icily. “I don’t mean to be nannyish, but maybe this time folks will step up and do the work.”

Against the mayor’s scolding, the council voted to give themselves more time for their homework.

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