Interview #120: Clawson, MI Councilmember Susan Moffitt (with podcast)

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

Susan Moffitt experienced an eventful first year on council in which chickens took center stage! She discusses how people’s backyard pets made the news and how the city is casual in some ways about its procedures.

Q: There is a majorly important subject that exploded in your council’s face last year. I’m talking about backyard chickens. Walk me through how Clawson pecked its way into the spotlight on the chicken issue.

A: Historically, although the city had ordinances that prevented having backyard chickens, the practice was sort of allowed. Citizens told stories of neighbors reporting them and the ordinance enforcer going, “yeah, it’s okay that we have chickens.” Someone in the city had a rooster and that led to some complaints. There was a directive to take care of the rooster, which was misinterpreted to mean, “let’s start enforcing the chicken ordinance.” Chickens used to be a barnyard animal. Now they’re kind of pets. So when letters went out saying you’ve got 90 days to get rid of your chicken, they interpreted it as: “you have 90 days to get rid of your pet.”

Q: Were you angry that you had to resolve a crisis that seemed to be created by previous councils and current city employees deciding to have zero tolerance all of a sudden?

A: I don’t think angry is the right word. Never should our citizens be blindsided; but having had that happen, we had a bunch of citizens engaged. It was great that so many people came out.

Q: You seemed to be very pro-chicken from the start. Other council members over the course of multiple meetings said, “well, at first I thought no on the chickens, but now I’m a maybe, and actually now I’m a yes.” Why do you think they ended up joining you? Did it have anything to do with the fact that people showing up to defend their chickens were normal people who looked and sounded like you all and used their chickens for companionship in a very relatable way?

A: I think that had a lot to do with it. People had those personal connections. Ninety-five percent of the people want chickens and five percent don’t want the chickens. The people that don’t want it, they don’t want it on principle. We’ve been able to refute all of their arguments. If you don’t want chickens, don’t have them. But you can’t reach into your neighbor’s yard and decide whether they’re gonna have them.

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Clawson, MI Councilmember Susan Moffitt

Q: I’m sure you recall your recent meeting of January 2 when Councilmember Paula Millan objected to a vote to confirm the mayor’s appointees because the charter said the council was supposed to receive their resumes–and you did not receive them. How blindsided did you feel?

A: Not only was I blindsided, but the mayor was blindsided. What I don’t understand is if she felt she should have received something prior to the meeting, why she waited until five minutes before the meeting started to request it.

Q: How worried do you get about the city’s image and the confidence people have in the government when one council member waltzes in, pulls out their phone, and reads the section of the charter that you all are not following?

A: That’s one piece in all of the activities that we do. If they’re upset about it, they have the opportunity to talk to us. There’s a lot of pieces of our charter that are old or outdated. I always have concerns about following a law for the law’s sake. One of the things about our city that’s unique is that we have a sense of moving forward without being overly concerned about the laws on a regular basis–evidenced by the fact that we had a chicken ordinance that was prohibiting chickens and it wasn’t enforced for years and years. That’s how Clawson has been governed for a long time for good or for ill. The citizens seem to not be upset by those kinds of things.


Follow Councilmember Susan Moffitt on Twitter: @Moffitt4Clawson

Interview #119: Kingston, ON Councillor Mary Rita Holland (with podcast)

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

Mary Rita Holland is in her second term as Kingston District 7 councillor and she describes the training that new councillors just received, accommodations for children in the meetings, and the choice she regrets from her first term.

Q: The Kingston city council recently started a new four-year term and one of your brand-new councillors, Robert Kiley, wrote in the Kingstonist, “Speaking of meetings, that’s how we finished our orientation: in a mock meeting, with funny motions, like establishing a public kale bar, which articulated step by step what happens around the Horseshoe.” Were you at that practice council meeting?

A: I was. We focused on introducing some new food options, including real dairy products, at our council meetings. Currently we use powdered coffee whitener for members of the public and for staff and councillors. One of the motions for debate was whether we should move toward real dairy.

Q: What was the final outcome of that debate?

A: We voted in favor of real dairy products in our council meetings and I think we also voted in favor of the recommendation for a kale quinoa bar. That was a little less contentious. We do want to see more people come to our meetings, so the better quality the coffee and milk, hopefully the better the attendance!

Q: On April 7, 2015, you proposed having childcare for certain public meetings. What is this revolutionary, socialist utopian idea of yours?

A: I am a single parent, but I was aware of the fact that I was probably the first member of council in a situation like this–where if our meetings went really late and I had a babysitter, that was a problem for me. So it seems like there are a number of barriers for younger members of the public to participate in our democracy. I thought by introducing childcare at meetings, it might mean that for those families who wanted to get out and participate, they could do that and they could feel very comforted that their children were having a good time in the room next-door.

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Kingston, ON Councillor Mary Rita Holland

Q: I want to take the listeners to June 13, 2017. This was the start of what ended up being a 10-hour meeting over two days about a “third crossing”–a third bridge over the Cataraqui River. Right up top, Councillor Peter Stroud attempted to curtail that by moving that the staff presentations get cut so the question time could start sooner. The council defeated that idea. I understand that Councillor Stroud stepped out. Would you describe to me what you recall?

A: He stepped out of the room. I stepped out at the same time, although that was not coordinated in advance. But we had the same rationale for getting rid of that briefing: we’d already heard the information more than once. We thought the time would be better spent hearing from the public. In a bit of an act of protest, we both left the council chamber.

Q: What did you do?

A: I found Councillor Stroud standing at the front entryway. The two of us stood there at the door and complained a bit about the motion losing. We were frustrated with how the entire vote and decision had been proceeding all along. We were talking about it in the entryway. That didn’t seem wise and we don’t really have a private room for our own discussions at city hall. He said, maybe we should go across the street to the pub and chat a bit more.

Q: Did anyone come up to you while you were in the pub and say, “hey, wait. There’s a council meeting and you’re councillors, so…what?!”

A: No. Of course I had it in the back of my mind that it wasn’t wise to be leaving the building, but I guess given the fact that I knew I had to go back to that meeting and be composed, I thought it made a bit of sense to go and calm myself down a bit. It turns out there were members of the media in the pub. When I went back to my seat in the council chamber, there was a tweet going around about the fact that we had left.

Q: Reflecting on that tweet, do you think that take of “walking out on the job” was an accurate one?

A: Yeah, and I’m laughing about it a little bit today but that turned out to be a very difficult time. I care a lot about public engagement and the public trust and I want people to not be cynical. When I realized that this would make people cynical about politics, that it was a bigger deal than getting out for a breath of air, I felt really awful about it. I should have stayed.


Follow Councillor Mary Rita Holland on Twitter: @MaryRitaHolland

Interview #118: Decatur, IL Reporter Tom Lisi (with podcast)

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

Tom Lisi, a reporter with the Herald & Review, has had a literal front row seat to some of the more surprising votes in the Decatur city council–including guidelines for trick-or-treating, a second ambulance license, and a late-game switch for a local golf tournament.

Q: Let’s go to May 7, 2018. What was your council’s beef with professional golf–other than, you know, it’s golf?

A: The tournament is in the Hickory Point Golf Course, which is outside the city of Decatur. It’s in the other side of the tracks–the “good” other side of the tracks–in Forsyth. Usually, in years past, [Decatur] paid the tournament the sponsorship earlier in the year. They held off, so out of frustration, the organizers of the tournament pulled the name [Decatur].

Q: The motion to provide the $20,000 tournament funding failed 3-3 in that council meeting. How shocked were you that the council didn’t break par on that one?

A: Honestly, it was surprising. Part of the reason that that motion failed was the mayor was absent this week. I can feel pretty safely in saying that she would’ve voted for that. If she was there, the motion would’ve passed. But that was one of the shockers of the year, that vote.

Q: And you don’t feel that there was any rigging of the calendar to ensure the mayor would be out of town when this came up?

A: [chuckles] I can’t speculate on that. I guess the bloggers and 4chan commenters out there might have a different theory, but as far as I know she was just on vacation or something.

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Decatur, IL reporter Tom Lisi

Q: Councilman David Horn, with this issue and others I’ve observed, is not shy about offering amendments or compromises. Is he the one who most often brings suggestions to the council floor?

A: Yeah, and he’s definitely gotten blowback from other council members on that. It’s sort of a tactic he’s used from time to time and it does throw other council members off–“we had a plan and now you’re trying to throw something new in.” It is a little strange to walk through that and people getting twisted up in Robert’s Rules stuff.

Q: So their irritation comes not from the fact that he’s refusing to go along with the program, it’s just a last-minute addition to the deal they already thought they had?

A: You know, the way these city manager-council forms of government work is the city manager discusses the agenda with council members individually. He has to go with, “what does the majority of the council seem to want?” Councilman Horn is often not in that majority, so I guess you could say the amendment tactic is a way to say, “I’m not on board with the decision that was made beforehand. So I’m gonna throw my two cents in right now and see if anybody goes along with it.”

Q: I didn’t see a lot of public commenters show up to that vote about pulling the tournament funding. Was that because everyone thought it was a sure deal? Or do they just not care about it?

A: I think it might’ve been a mixture of both. I think the average Decatur resident probably doesn’t care that much about that tournament. Maybe people from other parts of the world–because the LPGA is big in parts of Asia–it puts this focus on Decatur in a way residents that live there don’t even know about. There’s definitely people that were really frustrated by that vote. It’s possible they didn’t show up because they didn’t think it was that controversial.


Follow Tom Lisi on Twitter: @tommylisi

Podcast Recap: A Council Christmas Carol

This Christmas, we are celebrating the third year in a row that City Council Chronicles (and our other project, Tear It Down) has made the ELGL Top 100 Local Government Influencers list! We are very thankful for the award, and you can read more about the other 99 honorees on ELGL.org.

Simultaneously, you can listen to our holiday-themed podcast episode on iTunesStitcherPlayer FM, and right here:

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On this episode, you will hear excerpts from these full interviews:

1. Interview #109: Calgary, AB Councillor Jyoti Gondek (with podcast)

2. Interview #114: Toronto, ON Former Councillor Joe Mihevc (with podcast)

3. Interview #112: Minneapolis, MN Council Vice President Andrea Jenkins (with podcast)

4. Interview #117: Boynton Beach, FL Vice Mayor Christina Romelus (with podcast)

As always, the podcast’s sponsor is Dig Deep Research. They assist local governments in obtaining grant money and are eager to hear from potential new clients. Find out how they can help you today:

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Interview #117: Boynton Beach, FL Vice Mayor Christina Romelus (with podcast)

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

Christina Romelus is a first-term commissioner and current vice mayor who has experienced pirates in the commission chamber, commentaries on dog poop, and a vote to appoint a new commissioner. But one of the most difficult moments came in response to an idea she raised last year.

Q: On December 5, 2017, you proposed a sanctuary city policy, which basically said that local police will not be enforcing federal immigration law. We have covered sanctuary city debates in other councils. But in the case of Boynton Beach, you all easily had the most boisterous and most raucous public comment of anyplace I’ve seen. How did that make you feel?

A: It reminded me that the First Amendment is alive and well [chuckles]. One of the things that we as America pride ourselves on is being the land of the free and the home of the brave. We provide opportunities. People who come here trying to escape tyranny, they sometimes find worse treatment than they had back home. I’ve never robbed anybody. I’ve never beat up, murdered, stolen anything. Yet when people find out I’m an immigrant or hear the term “immigrant,” that’s what their mind gravitates to.

Q: Mmhmm.

A: The proposal that I was trying to have that night when it turned into a sanctuary city discussion–which is what I never intended for it to be–it was a fruition of the decree that President Trump was cancelling temporary protected status for individuals from countries like Haiti, Honduras, Venezuela, I believe. Those points of view never even got out of my mouth. The second “sanctuary cities” was blared out, it just became an all-out attack on me.

Q: We heard one man say you should be impeached or removed. That is new for me in a sanctuary city debate. What struck me was how personal it got in Boynton Beach. Why do you think that was the direction it took?

A: Half of the people in that room were not Boynton Beach residents. It literally almost became like a Trump rally in chambers. The entire chambers was filled with people with signs–“build the wall!”

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Boynton Beach, FL Vice Mayor Christina Romelus

Q: How surprised were you that all of your other commissioners and the mayor rejected your proposal on grounds of “law and order?”

A: Having you replay this is all raw for me all over again. That night was not an easy night for me. I believe in the Constitution. I took an oath as well to protect and defend the Constitution. And I do that. But we have a duty to protect those who can’t protect themselves. When a black person was considered three-fifths of a person, that was in the Constitution. Was it right to uphold that then? That’s political speak, I feel, for cowering away from the conversation. It was the most politically-savvy way to look like “I’m obligated, my hands are tied,” not necessarily because it’s the right thing to do.

Q: There was a recess after this topic and the commission meeting continued. I noticed you were not there for the remainder of the meeting. Why was that?

A: I could not remain in a room filled with that much hate aimed at me. I could not sit on a dais with people who did not even take the time to consider the reasons or to hear out the arguments why I brought up the conversation. I was not in the right state to continue with that meeting. I actually had somebody escort me home from our police department because that’s how unsafe I felt.


Follow Vice Mayor Christina Romelus on Twitter: @romelus_c

Interview #116: Richmond, BC Councillor Alexa Loo (with podcast)

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

Alexa Loo is a former Olympic athlete and current city councillor who has witnessed a pull-and-tug over the maximum size of houses on Richmond farmland. She explains what the root of the issue appears to have been for some people.

Q: I must congratulate you on being newly inaugurated to a second council term. Whose idea was it for the men and the women to take separate oaths of office?

A: What ended up happening is the men ended up sitting on the one side of the room and the women sat on the other side. It just worked out that way. On the women’s side, we even sit in alphabetical order. And that wasn’t planned either.

Q: So is this going to be like a seventh grade dance with the boys on one side and the girls on the other for the next four years?

A: Yes! It is what it is.

Q: On your island, you have something called the agricultural land reserve. About 39 percent of Richmond is farmland. Why were some councillors concerned about how long that would last?

A: There had never been a cap or a limit on the size of house that you could have on agricultural land. House sizes started to get bigger. There were starting to become applications for things as big as 40,000 square feet. You can put a skating rink in 40,000 square feet.

Q: In a meeting, your council decided to put a cap on the size of a house on farmland to around 11,000 square feet. I don’t know a lot about farming, but I’m assuming that with my bedroom, my children’s bedroom, my tractor’s bedroom, my wheat thresher’s bedroom, and the bedroom for my livestock–even with bunk beds I’d be pushing it with 11,000 square feet.

A: Well, a wheat thresher is so big, you can’t even drive it on a standard road, so–

Q: I would need a really big bedroom is what you’re saying?

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Richmond, BC Councillor Alexa Loo

A: You would. There’s a whole bunch of rules that still protect the farmland, so at some point, does it matter if they have a three-car garage or a four-car garage? Does it matter if you have six bedrooms or five bedrooms? Why is it anybody else’s business what they’re doing?

Q: The fact is some people were unhappy with the limit. They thought 11,000 square feet were way too many–

A: And there’s a lot of people that don’t want a proliferation of South Asian people living on farmland.

Q: Their outrage was specifically aimed at limiting a racial or ethnic group from building these houses?

A: Typically those are the people building it. It’s easy to go after the size and shape of things if you know it’s gonna stick it to that group, I think.

Q: You referred in council meetings to the “good old boys” and fairness. Why in the meeting did you couch your language like that?

A: Because standing up at a council meeting and calling other people racist is a bold and dangerous move. Throwing names around like that–we’re not allowed to call people names.

Q: Were there any other councillors who felt the way you did about the racial aspect?

A: Oh, everybody’s well aware of it. The 23,000 square foot house that had been built, it had been built by a Caucasian person in Richmond. And he had a bowling alley in it. So when people are like, “what do you need a big house for?” He needs a bowling alley, apparently. But nobody seemed to have a big problem with it. They were more in awe at the time. But now if somebody else builds one, there’s a problem around it.


Follow Councillor Alexa Loo on Twitter: @alexaloo

Interview #114: Toronto, ON Former Councillor Joe Mihevc (with podcast)

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

Joe Mihevc was a councillor for over 20 years when Ontario’s premier suddenly announced in the middle of this year’s election that he was cutting the size of Toronto’s city council from 47 wards to 25. This prompted several chaotic council meetings and even more chaotic provincial legislative sessions.

Q: Where were you on the night of July 26, 2018?

A: All councillors were in council session. That’s when we heard rumor on the second floor during the council meeting that something big was happening. We very quickly understood that the premier was going to be making an announcement the very next day that he was going to reduce our council.

Q: You said the word “premier.” For our American listeners, you’ll have to explain what that is. I’m assuming the premier is some sort of demigod? An authoritative mystic with the magic of Dumbledore and the charisma of Barack Obama?

A: Well, the equivalent to premier is “governor.” Here if you win the premiership, you also run the political party that has charge of the legislature. So it’s a pretty neat gig if you can get it.

Q: Councillor Paula Fletcher used the term “Trump tactics” to describe Premier Doug Ford’s council cuts. Do you agree with her description?

A: Absolutely. When we use those words in Canada, in this context it meant that the premier was acting in an authoritarian way. He was not consulting the folks that were impacted. It basically came from his head and he felt he needed to act, which is our perception of how things flow these days at the presidential level.

Q: During the July 27 meeting, you took a dinner break. And after councillors came back, the tone was completely different and more confrontational. What changed during that break?

A: As the day went on it became clear that the threat was real. I would suggest that what Doug–a part of him wanted us to fight it out. He actually provoked a “Hunger Games” at the city. Forty-four councillors recognized that if we did go to 25, there would be a fight for many a seat. Every councillor positioned himself to be active on the issue partly to show the community how strong they were going to be opposing Doug Ford.

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Toronto, ON former Councillor Joe Mihevc

Q: Help me understand the types of councillors who were in favor of the province’s action. You mentioned there were Doug Ford’s allies, but were there also people who really could not stand the way your council operates?

A: I think the people who were supportive of Doug Ford’s actions–all of them were on the right-wing side of council.

Q: What do you make of the notion that as a councillor, you don’t have to have 12-hour days and do everything for everyone. With fewer councillors, your focus should be on taking votes in meetings, legislating, and not micromanaging everything that goes on in your neighborhoods?

A: That’s a very good point. It depends on your philosophy. If you want to put it on a spectrum, you can say on one side you are the board members of this $12 billion corporation called the city of Toronto and you are there to make decisions. That’s your job and that’s it. Others feel–and I would be one of them–that you have face time with residents. To double the size [of wards] means to get half the amount of face time.

Q: You knew Doug Ford when he was a city councillor. I take it he was a stickler for efficiency, effective governance, and moral rectitude?

A: [chuckles] Doug Ford was a stickler for trying to grab the limelight and score political points on how he hated all government. The word “dysfunction” that Doug Ford labeled city council–it was dysfunctional for many years when he and his brother [Rob Ford] were here. He was willing to go up into the audience. There was once when he was taunting them to come down and take him on. I remember those times as really tumultuous. Once they left, guess what? A new calm. I would suggest right now that provincial parliament is highly dysfunctional, and he’s at the center of that dysfunction.


Follow former Councillor Joe Mihevc on Twitter: @joemihevc