Interview #135: Fullerton, CA Council Member Ahmad Zahra (with podcast)

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

Ahmad Zahra’s first major decision as a council member was to figure out how to fill a vacant council seat. The debate consumed many hours of meeting time, and he describes his thinking while navigating the city through an unprecedented scenario.

Q: You won election to the Fullerton city council last year. Am I correct that your occupation at the time was a film producer?!

A: That is correct. I’ve been an independent film producer for the past 20 years. It was my lifelong dream to make movies.

Q: Wow. That is quite something and I–wait, what’s this here? This is…oh, my goodness. My acting resume! How did this get on the table? Normally I keep it sitting on your side of the desk, so I’ll just slide it down that way–

A: I’ve heard this so many times before! Take a number!

Q: [laughs] Before your oath of office, what kind of role did you envision for yourself in the screenplay that is the Fullerton city council? Were you a Mr. Smith Goes to Washington? A Hannibal Lecter? Or Shrek?

A: All great characters. We all have a part of Hannibal Lecter and a part of Shrek and a part of Mr. Smith in us. I can relate to all of them at any given time: the shrewdness of Hannibal Lecter. That comes in handy every now and then. The naïveté of Shrek and then the tenacity of Mr. Smith.

Q: I agree. Thank you for giving that answer instead of one which involved eating people. At the same time that you were elected, Council Member Jesus Silva was elected to a district seat from an at-large seat, meaning his at-large seat was vacant. At the December 18 meeting, it was up to your council to decide whether to fill the seat through an appointment or a special election. You and Council Member Bruce Whitaker advocated for a special election, so why did you see the open seat differently than the other two people on council?

A: The motion I made was a special election by mail. For me, there was no particular clear way of actually conducting the interviews or the appointment. We had no process. The other thing is: we were given information that ended up being incorrect, that the city had the option for an all-mail-in ballot election [for] half the cost of a full election and would’ve been sooner. For me that was the middle ground.

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Fullerton, CA Council Member Ahmad Zahra

Q: You may have seen a middle ground in the method, but to other people this was more about intent. Some of the commenters you heard characterized the appointment as a betrayal. Was there something in particular that they were worried about?

A: Throughout time, politicians always have developed fans and people who don’t like them. People who come and participate, they also have their favorites and the ones that they don’t like. We all have biases. You just have to listen to everybody and then make a decision not just based on who’s coming to the city council. For me, it was about making sure we were setting proper policy because it’s going to affect people for the next 50 years.

Q: At the January 29 meeting when your council was actually taking interviews, you referred to this as a “series of unfortunate events.” What did you mean?

A: It was a multitude of factors. State laws recently had changed and they set certain dates for special elections, which ended up pushing our special election date so far out that we would’ve had almost a whole year of a dysfunctional government. The other issue was the county did not adopt another state law that would’ve allowed cities to do all-mail-in ballots. The third thing is in our original ordinance, the appointment process was not included. On the night of the election in 2018, the night I won, there was a city council meeting in which the ordinance was revised to include an option for appointment, but they never discussed a process. Then there was people jumping the gun–candidates, applicants.

Q: What do you say to the criticism that you “sold out” by switching from supporting an election to supporting an appointment?

A: I did my best at pushing for a process that I felt was extremely open and transparent. My conscience is clear. We came to the right decision. We saved the city a lot of money which we actually invested in some lifesaving equipment for our paramedics, which we would not have had if we spent the money on an election.


Follow Council Member Ahmad Zahra on Twitter: @AhmadZahra

Podcast Recap and Listener Survey

We have two major pieces of news this week. First, you may listen to the latest podcast episode–a recap of our greatest hits–on iTunesStitcherPlayer FM, and right here:

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Second, we are launching our first-ever listener survey! What do you like about the podcast? What do you dislike? Please be gentle. But also, please fill it out: visit www.councilchronicles.com/survey and answer a few simple questions. Plus, tell us anything you think we should know about why you listen and what you want from the program.

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

1. Interview #132: Troy, MI Mayor Pro Tem Ethan Baker (with podcast)

2. Interview #134: Berea, KY Councilwoman Emily LaDouceur (with podcast)

3. Interview #69: Daly City, CA City Manager Pat Martel (with podcast)

By the way, did you know that one year ago this week is when “Tear It Down” was released? In that time, thousands of people have listened and many have walked away with a newfound appreciation for the functionality of their own local governments. To hear the entire eight-chapter series and its colorful cast of characters, visit www.tearitdownpodcast.com.

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As always, City Council Chronicles’ 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 #134: Berea, KY Councilwoman Emily LaDouceur (with podcast)

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

Emily LaDouceur has had a front row seat to several heated skirmishes during her mere four months on the Berea council. From responding to criticism of her attire to pushing an overhaul of the anemic ethics code, she discusses the forces in the community that are making her life difficult.

Q: What happened prior to the April 16, 2019 council meeting that led to your comments about leggings?

A: A man who ran for city council made derogatory comments about me being a big girl and why do I think I can wear yoga leggings? It was posted in a public but membership-only Facebook group. [Another member] posted a picture of me giving a tour of children in city hall. She had put a black smudge over my face and asked “what is this black cloud over Berea?” He made his comments below and it went from there.

Q: Okay, a school group. How many of the parents contacted you after the tour and said, “my child saw female legs today and I had to check him into therapy?”

A: That would be a big, fat zero. None. Nil.

Q: I don’t understand, though, how your tour went from school kids to “I’m getting hate mail for my trousers.” Was it just this one individual who has so much sway over perceptions of you?

A: I wouldn’t say they have huge sway. But hate always has some measure of following. It had nothing to do with my leggings, let’s be real. It’s about politics, where I am left-leaning and they are a very conservative group. And then some good old-fashioned misogyny.

Q: You turned the criticism right back around on your antagonists by posting on Facebook, “the outfit was appropriate….I’ll let you put on the outfit I wore that day…then you can put on the holy, stained T-shirt and oversized jeans worn by some of my colleagues to city council meetings. Report back to us which outfit is more ‘lazy and inappropriate.'” Why bring your fellow councilmen’s choices into this? You could have easily defended yourself without putting them down, yes?

A: Sure. I don’t see it as putting them down as just pointing out the double standard. Women are held to completely different and more stringent standards. I don’t care what they wear as long as they’re getting the work done.

Q: In what way did your council colleagues and the mayor disappoint you here?

A: By not directly calling out the hatefulness. It really is a hate group, and I don’t use that term lightly. There are five council members and the mayor who are members of that group. Progressives in town made a call for them to denounce the behavior of this group and to also exit it. Instead it was a whole lot of false equivalence.

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Berea, KY Councilwoman Emily LaDouceur

Q: You proposed a new council committee to review your city’s code of ethics. What prompted you to think that Berea could be more ethical?

A: We did have a huge blow-up that made statewide news of one particular councilman. He posted an inappropriate and misogynistic meme on Facebook and it was during the Kavanaugh [confirmation] hearing, speaking about the victim. At the following council meeting, there were I think 16 women and men who spoke and many people really laying their hearts on the table about their trauma. They weren’t asking for him to resign. They wanted reconciliation. They wanted an authentic apology. The problem was that in his apology, instead of really saying sorry, said his wife posted it.

Q: Mmmhmm.

A: All of the council members used their opportunity to respond by saying, “well, we have an outdated ethics code. We should probably revisit that.” When I started digging into the code, it is the bare minimum. It is probably, in the whole state of Kentucky, the most bare, basic, minimum code that is in existence.

Q: Where has the meeting footage of the ethics committee come from?

A: It came from my phone. My Facebook live.

Q: Do I understand that the only reason we know about a massive overhaul of the municipal ethics code is because one council member thought to press record on her phone?

A: Yes. I presented a laundry list of open meetings violations that our current council has been partaking in. There won’t be any discussion in council meetings. Most of the discussion happens in these committee meetings that are very poorly attended. They’re not recorded. Minutes are rarely taken. No one really knows what’s going on. I took it upon myself to bring up those things and some of them have changed. I’ve committed to recording as many of them that I can. I’m trying to record them so the public can see how these things are operating.


Follow Councilwoman Emily LaDouceur on Twitter: @EmilyForBerea

Interview #133: Bothell, WA Deputy Mayor Davina Duerr (with podcast)

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

Davina Duerr joined the Bothell council in 2016 and within a few months became part of a controversial firing of the city manager. She explains why things seemed to happen rapidly and without the transparency that some residents called for. Plus, what is a “council conversation” in Bothell and what do people converse about?

Q: What is Bothell’s “council conversation?”

A: Council conversation was put on the agenda because in Washington state we have something called the Open Public Meetings Act. We cannot have conversations beyond three people that aren’t in public or recorded. We were finding that there were a lot of things we thought we should be notifying other council members of–topics that perhaps one council member knew a lot about but wanted everyone to be aware of. But there wasn’t really a forum to do that. We all aren’t at the same events and getting the same communications from members of the community.

Q: These seem like announcements that you could make at any meeting–holidays, meetings in the community. I mean, do council members really need a separate, blocked-off section of some meetings to get all of that out there?

A: I believe we do. We’ve only had a couple of these council conversations. In our first conversation we talked about something new that we were trying, which was having a liaison to each of our city boards and commissions. Those are the kinds of conversations that we wouldn’t normally have.

Q: In January 2016, you were among the new council members. Both Andy Rheaume and you were elected by your fellow council members as mayor and deputy mayor, respectively, by a 4-3 vote in that very first meeting. Was there a philosophical division on your council?

A: Yeah, the election of Andy Rheaume, James McNeal, and myself flipped the council majority. Some of the things that we ran for were transparency, saving Wayne Golf Course, more thoughtful development, listening to the community–things we thought weren’t happening with the current council. When we ran on those things, I’m sure the council majority took that to be running against them.

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Bothell, WA Deputy Mayor Davina Duerr

Q: On May 3, 2016, midway through there was a motion to go into executive session and when you came out, the proposal was to fire the city manager that night, when he was on vacation. Wasn’t it a bit ruthless to dismiss the city manager when he wasn’t in the room to defend himself?

A: I guess it depends on your point of view. There was some thought that it would be face-saving for him not to have to deal with that in the room. Once a decision’s made to fire someone, what are the odds you’re going to change their minds? We did take a lot of flak for that, but I don’t know if I’d want to be in the room and have a recorded meeting when I’m being fired. I don’t know that that was necessarily a bad thing. I could see it both ways.

Q: What do you say about your duty to the public to provide notice of a major change like this?

A: I think as a council member, you’re in a unique position where you’re working with that individual. That’s the one individual in city government that we hire and fire. I don’t believe having a long, protracted community discussion about the pros and cons of someone would be beneficial to the community. I don’t even know if that would be something that the individual being fired would want.

Q: Have you ever looked back on your campaign pledge for transparency and community engagement and thought about how it was nice to campaign on, but when you’re governing and you’re thrust into a situation like this, people can rightly criticize you for seeming to backtrack on that?

A: The reality is you can only be so transparent. Unfortunately, when you’re in this role, there are things you know you can’t share. And it’s frustrating for all of us. My job is to defend the city and make sure the city is in good shape, not to defend myself. Those are some of the hardest lessons I’ve learned from being on council when it comes to transparency.


Follow Deputy Mayor Davina Duerr on Twitter: @Davina4Bothell

Interview #132: Troy, MI Mayor Pro Tem Ethan Baker (with podcast)

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

When the city manager of Troy was arrested in 2018, it was the latest in a series of events that forced the city council into some tough decisions. Ethan Baker describes his points of view at various times in the multiyear saga and what that has done to his council relationships.

Q: On March 11, 2018, your council met in a special Sunday session to fire city manager Brian Kischnick. What had happened in the last 24 hours to necessitate that firing?

A: It had actually been about 48 hours. That Friday evening, the former city manager had gone out to a restaurant in a neighboring city with his girlfriend–who we didn’t know was his girlfriend but happened to also be his assistant. They apparently had too much to drink and he physically assaulted her. He got arrested and was in lockup that weekend. We met on a Sunday and we terminated him for cause.

Q: There is more: in the summer of 2016 the council commissioned a report on the city manager’s conduct. It came to you confidential in July of that year and at the August 8 meeting, your council decided whether to release that report to the public. This vote was 4-3 with you in the majority against the release, and you said to the city manager, “we are watching everything that happens in city administration at this point.” After that vote, how did you notice the city manager’s behavior change based upon your observations? 

A: It did change initially. We met with Brian Kischnick quite a bit in closed sessions. As time progressed, it seemed that he went kind of back to not being as communicative with us. Things snowballed and he got indicted after he was terminated.

Q: After you made your statement about “we’re watching you,” the city manager continued to solicit bribes, extorted money from a contractor, lived rent-free in a fully-furnished apartment, and bullied his employees.

A: One thing that the public has to understand a little bit is city council members are not full-time employees. We are rarely at city hall. A lot of information didn’t come to us. It’s one of the shortfalls of this style of government, a council-manager form of government, where you have a city manager who runs the show. That form of government works great in communities throughout the country. The only problem with it is when you have the person at the top, the city manager, who is the problem.

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Troy, MI Mayor Pro Tem Ethan Baker

Q: What did it say about your council that city workers did not feel comfortable coming to you for their problems with your employee, the city manager?

A: There’s not supposed to be a lot of interaction between city council members and city employees. By edict of the city manager, everything was to be funneled through him, which became a problem. But because of the 4-3 vote in the summer of 2016 saying we’re not going to release the report, I think some city staff felt that Brian Kischnick’s protected. I’ve since learned that’s what Brian Kischnick was telling people. The employees felt fruitless–why bother if there’s only gonna be a minority of council members who might do something? Had I heard something more from any employee, I would’ve been the first to say [to Kischnick], “I’m sorry, we gave you another chance. You blew it.”

Q: After Brian Kischnick’s arrest and firing in early 2018, there was again a demand for you to release that report. On April 9, three council members wanted to publish the report and three did not. Which meant that you were the decisive vote. Did you walk into that meeting knowing that you were willing to release the whole thing?

A: I don’t know if I was 100 percent sure that I was willing to do it. What you can’t hear in the audio is that there were at least 100 people sitting in our chamber. It was standing-room only. When they heard that I was going to release the full report, there was a lot of relief in that chamber. I am so happy and thankful that I did make that vote. I think it’s done a lot of good for our community.

Q: You speak of relief. People in Troy vilified you for your 2016 vote. But now, you kind of redeemed yourself. What’s your thought on that?

A: “Redemption” is funny. You’re only one vote away from having somebody not like you. Things change and it goes back and forth all the time.


Follow Mayor Pro Tem Ethan Baker on Twitter: @EthanBakerMI

Interview #131: Durham, NC Council Member DeDreana Freeman (with podcast)

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

DeDreana Freeman describes Durham’s procedure for providing translation services at council meetings, plus a handful of contentious issues that turned out large numbers of emotional commenters: including alleged anti-Semitism and a planned railyard close to an elementary school in a wealthy neighborhood.

Q: Durham’s population is, I believe, about 15 percent Hispanic. Occasionally you do have Spanish speakers come in to comment to your council. I was a bit surprised at the March 4 meeting this year to hear a woman give her remarks in Spanish and no translation for her was present. One commenter even criticized the city for it. Why was that unavailable here?

A: If it’s not requested in advance, no one’s made available to do translation. Same thing for sign language or disability. The plan is to try and make it more visible how to make that request. I think it was a well-timed smack on the wrist. “You guys need to be paying attention to this.” I appreciated it.

Q: When Durham was firing on all cylinders, you had a robust method of handling translation. In January 2018, you had a vacancy on the council and the other council members had to fill that spot. It’s my understanding that there was English-to-Spanish translation in the room for people who picked up headsets from the city. How much effort did that take to coordinate the realtime translation?

A: There are service providers in the city who offer this service. All we do is make a phone call. It’s not difficult, it’s just a matter of being aware.

Q: In April 2018, there was a meeting that touched upon human rights, race, and institutionalized discrimination. If I gave the listeners ten guesses, they probably wouldn’t come close to knowing what you spent two hours of that meeting talking about. Why was Durham, North Carolina concerned about…Israel?

A: I don’t think the concern was around Israel. I think it was specific to the claims that our police were engaging in militarized training.

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Durham, NC Council Member DeDreana Freeman

Q: Who was making those allegations?

A: There were a number of groups making those allegations. Apparently there was a pamphlet from the Israeli military police that presented that Durham was one of their clients.

Q: At this meeting, the council was voting on adopting a statement that Mayor Steve Schewel wrote whose message was: Durham will not adopt military-style training for its police force, mainly because that exacerbates the problem of racial profiling. However, there was this introductory paragraph of the letter:

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It turns out that mentioning Israel and police training in the same thought was enough to cause some people–and by “some” I mean 50 public commenters–to put the gas pedal to the floor on accusations of anti-Semitism. Did you sense whether Mayor Schewel, who is Jewish himself, felt bad that he inadvertently dragged your council into an accusatory environment? Or did he appear, as I would have, that “I don’t understand what you’re mad about?”

A: I’m not sure. I know that we all stood firm behind the chief’s response to the accusation that we were doing militarized police training. Folks can be offended, but it doesn’t mean that the offense was intentional. It’s okay to hear back that you are offended.

Q: Almost a year later, have you studied up on anti-Semitism and now feel that “yes, I see where they are coming from”? Or are you still mind-boggled that the mere mention of Israel for some people is like using the N-word?

A: I think I understood it then, it was just more important to make clear that we were not engaged [in militarized training]. I’ve had plenty of conversations to hear perspectives that are different from mine. I can completely be empathetic to the feeling of the sentiment that was received.

Q: So if you truly felt you were being anti-Semitic with this statement, you would’ve owned that? You would’ve avoided it in the future?

A: Of course. If I thought it was the case, I would. I’ve encouraged everyone who’s had anything to say about this situation to say what you need to say. It is when you speak for yourself that you get what you need out of it.


Follow Council Member DeDreana Freeman on Twitter: @Freeman4Durham

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

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

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

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

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

Q: What was the turning point do you think?

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

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

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

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

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

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Linden, NJ Councilwoman Rhashonna Cosby

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

A: Absolutely.

Q: In what way?

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

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

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

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

A: Right.

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

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


Follow Councilwoman Rhashonna Cosby on Twitter: @Rhashonna10