Interview #53: Liverpool, NSW Councilor Charishma Kaliyanda (with podcast)

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

Charishma Kaliyanda is in her first year on the Liverpool city council–a council which was rocked by threats, discord, and the potential for dissolution. However, things have calmed down considerably. We talk about how state governments can investigate what happens in city council meetings in Australia, plus she gave me a macabre piece of kangaroo trivia.

Q: Liverpool councilors also have full-time jobs, I’m assuming because the crocodiles aren’t going to hunt themselves down there. But you go to your job, then you show up for a council meeting for a few hours–do people get irritable the longer the meeting goes on?

A: Absolutely. Tiredness can result in people getting a bit crabby, but we’re also lucky that we’re fed before council meetings.

Q: They give you food!

A: Yeah! They figured out very early that if you feed the councilors, the likelihood of them getting grouchy can be staved off for a while.

Q: What grade of kangaroo meat do they feed you?

A: Well, we have a couple of vegetarians, so I think they’re avoiding the kangaroos. But it’s the good stuff. We don’t just pick it up off the road and throw it on the barbecue and serve it!

Q: [Laughs] That is everyone’s impression of Australians up here, by the way!

A: If you’ve ever been to the Australian Outback, you’ll find a lot of dead kangaroos on the road. They seem to get into lots of accidents with large vehicles.

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Liverpool, NSW Councilor Charishma Kaliyanda

Q: The year before you were elected, the Liverpool City Council was in chaos. But one thing that threw me for a loop was learning that New South Wales Local Government Minister Paul Toole–which we don’t have an equivalent for in the U.S.–sent someone to sit in the council meetings to monitor misconduct. And even WILDER, he was deciding whether to disband the city council entirely! He can do that in Australia?!

A: Yes. It’s happened very recently to a different council. That’s what happened in this situation: the councilor would have put in a complaint claiming what happened was not in keeping with the code of conduct. That’s when a representative from the Minister of Local Government would have investigated. That seems like it was a pretty horrible situation to be a part of. The toxicity must have been building up and people went, “I’ve had enough.”

Q: Did Paul Toole send anyone to watch your early council meetings just to see if everything was okay?

A: Not that I can recall. It’s usually at the request of a councilor or the mayor or someone in staff because they have a concern about something.

Q: At the November 2016 meeting, there was a motion to drug test all the councilors and the mayor. Do you know what that was about?

A: Right before the election there was discussion around having an ice [methamphetamine] injecting room. [The motion was] a gesture about how anti-drug councilors are…we should submit ourselves to testing.

Q: During this interview, you have been very articulate and knowledgeable, so I’m curious: did you take any performance-enhancing drugs before we started talking?

A: Does coffee count?

Q: Well, it’s legal here but I don’t know what goes down in Australia. Is it legal there?

A: Yes, but I would classify it as a performance-enhancing drug! [Laughs]


Follow Councilor Charishma Kaliyanda on Twitter: @Ckaliyanda

Interview #52: Raleigh, NC Councilor Corey Branch (with podcast)

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

Corey Branch is in his first term on the Raleigh city council and there is one simple thing that he’d like to receive at a council meeting. (Much to my chagrin, it’s not a flamethrower.) Plus, we talk about how you have to acknowledge criticism from citizens and move past it.

Q: Other than grievances, what have people given you at council meetings?

A: Handouts, shirts, mugs are the main things we’ve seen. Little pinwheels we’ve received for child abuse prevention. Those–

Q: I don’t see the connection there.

A: Yeah, they’re pink pinwheels. It’s a symbol for that. I couldn’t tell you how it started.

Q: Well, obviously you remember what the pinwheel was for, so it did its job. But if you could receive anything for free at a council meeting, what would you want it to be?

A: A thank-you. That for me, honestly, means so much because I know the time that me and my peers put in to serve. Sometimes it’s just good to hear that it’s appreciated because we hear a lot of what we’re doing wrong. It’s just good to hear someone say thank you.

Q: Mmm. I would have chosen those novelty glasses that you put on and it looks like your eyes are open but secretly you can sleep behind them, you know?

A: I know exactly the ones you’re talking about!

Q: Yeah, well that’s what I would have chosen anyway. That or a flamethrower.

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Raleigh, NC Councilor Corey Branch

When public commenters bring up the issue of race or refer to the other council members as “white folks,” do you feel they are excluding you? Or are they not speaking so much about “black v. white,” but really “citizens v. people in power?”

A: I think it’s a mix of both. People’s experiences play a major role in how they interact and how they may see things or express things. As for me, do I feel they’re talking to me or excluding me? I can’t speak for them. I just know every day for the last 39.5 years when I wake up, I’ve been a man of color.

Q: I don’t want to be the white guy who does this, but I watched an episode of Blackish recently, and–

A: [Chuckles]

Q: I know how this is coming across right now! But the father explains to the son about “the nod,” where if two black men walk past each other, they nod in acknowledgment. Do you get the sense that when people speak to the council, they telegraph to you, “hey, YOU should at least be on my side?”

A: Um, yes. I have to look at the situation, what’s going on. I’m fortunate that I can bring in some experiences that other council members have not [had]. If I feel there is a lack of equity, I need to be a voice. Speaking out may not be directly from that table. It may be a sidebar conversation.

Q: If someone was criticizing me because I was “white folks” or…or anything, “young people,” “left-handed people,” I would get defensive and tune them out.

A: I hear it and acknowledge it. We have to act like adults. That’s why earlier when you asked me what I wanted, I said a thank-you for these very reasons we’re talking about here.


Follow Councilor Corey Branch on Twitter: @Corey4DistrictC

Interview #51: East Point, GA Council Member Alexander Gothard (with podcast)

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

East Point’s council meetings are a roller coaster on top of a rocket ship on top of a volcano. Alexander Gothard has been a head-down, studious council member, but even he has earned the ire of mayors in those meetings. All I will say is: listen to the whole interview.

Q: I get the impression from your council meetings that Mayor Jannquell Peters gets impatient with you all because she wants to do things quickly. Is that why there is so much tension?

A: I wouldn’t say that. I would say just a difference of opinion on issues–that’s what made [things] divisive. The mayor wanted to get it done and the council members wanted to say, “wait, let’s look at this. Let’s make sure it’s as efficient as possible.” The mayor didn’t like that. We definitely respect each other and we have a good time.

Q: Well, it appears that the council members get along fine, but collectively, you don’t like the mayor. So it’s teams of 8 v. 1. Am I wrong here?

A: That’s interesting you should see it that way as an observer. The mayor is strong-willed. I do think that the city has a better image since she has been mayor. Yes, she tries to run an efficient meeting. But council members aren’t always going to agree with the way she runs it. In terms of the animosity, I don’t think it’s anything personal. I think it’s healthy to have disagreements.

Q: If you think it’s healthy to disagree, you’ll REALLY like what we’re going to talk about next, which is Earnestine Pittman, your former mayor. I saw something that blew my mind: on August 5, 2013, you were in your second year on the city council. About two hours in, you made a motion. The mayor immediately went on a rant about how it was a terrible idea. When you tried to argue, she threw you out of the meeting. What did you do after you left the chamber?

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East Point, GA Council Member Alexander Gothard

A: I honestly went to get a drink. I remember that very well. It was surrounding Center Park repair. There was no way that I was going to sit there and just let that item be skipped over. It was unfortunate, it really was.

Q: Do you wish the other council members had come to your defense?

A: No, they didn’t have to. When I was removed, I thought she was totally wrong. But being about the people–because that happened, the Center Park residents the very next meeting, I think eight residents came out to speak on behalf of that park. So despite me being kicked out, it was beneficial to the cause I was advocating for.

Q: Did Mayor Pittman ever apologize to you?

A: No. I told her how upset I was. She didn’t apologize and I didn’t expect her to.

Q: Did she at least understand your side of things?

A: No.

Q: Mmm. If there’s one thing you could change about your council meetings, what would that be?

A: I’ll tell you something interesting: the new city of South Fulton, for anything to go on the agenda, the mayor has to approve it. I’m glad we do not have that in East Point.

Q: So you wouldn’t do anything that gives the mayor more control?

A: I would not.


Follow Council Member Alexander Gothard on Twitter: @CouncilmanAG

Interview #50: Tucson, AZ Vice Mayor Regina Romero (with podcast)

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

Regina Romero has been on the Tucson city council for nearly ten years, and things are a little different down near the border. This being Arizona, naturally we talked about guns. But Satanism also has been rearing its head at council meetings across the Grand Canyon State! Take a listen!

Q: I’m looking at this picture. What are these things?

A: Those are lock boxes for people’s guns. Arizona is an open-carry state and governments have the choice, at least for now, to not permit guns inside of their buildings. So city council has a rule of no guns inside of our buildings. As you enter, there’s boxes that people have to put their guns in, lock them up, and enter our meeting rooms.

Q: Uh…if I can’t bring my gun into a city council meeting, what’s the point of owning a gun?

A: [Laughs] Um, we’ve had incidents in Tucson. [Former Congresswoman] Gabby Giffords was shot. Also in Phoenix, an individual walked into a Board of Supervisors meeting and shot a former member of the Board in Maricopa County. To be honest, it’s been a contention: state legislature is a Republican-controlled body, so we have different views on guns.

Q: Do you ever carry a weapon to the council meetings?

A: No.

Q: I’m not sure if you’re aware, but the only way to stop a bad council member with a gun is a good council member with a gun. I don’t usually do this, but out of respect for the rules of Tucson, I will disassemble my rifle here. And I’ll take off the Glock in my side holster. And I’ll EVEN PUT AWAY the Colt .45 in my ankle holster.

A: Oh, my lord! Thank god we are Skyping for this interview.

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Tucson, AZ Vice Mayor Regina Romero

Q: In the past year, the Satanic Temple has been trying to get permission to do its own invocation at city council meetings in Arizona. When asked about whether they should be allowed to in Tucson, you said, “I believe in the Constitution 100 percent.” Simple question: why would your city council meetings benefit from the blessing of the Dark Lord, Lucifer?

A: Uh, I don’t think we’ve ever received any request from Satanists to speak. To be honest, it cuts both ways. I would much rather do away with the invocation at the beginning. I am a religious person and I understand why atheists and others would say we shouldn’t be doing that. I enjoy the invocation; not everybody does.

Q: Mmhmm.

A: So if you ask me, “do you want to hear a Satanist at your council meeting,” of course I would say no. If you ask me, “do they have the right to practice Satanism,” sure.

Q: Can you think of the weirdest thing you have seen at your city council meetings?

A: [Pause] Not off the bat. There’s been some rowdiness to the point of shouting by an individual, a citizen. The mayor has had to call police officers. That’s always kind of hard to watch. Other than that, things in all of the council chambers around the country are very simple, really!

Q: Okay, well once you let in the guns and let in the Satanists, please come back on the program and tell me how it goes.


Follow Vice Mayor Regina Romero on Twitter: @TucsonRomero

Special Feature! “Best Thing, Worst Thing”

On this newest “Best Thing, Worst Thing” episode, you’ll experience more parts of Des Moines in an hour than most people do in a lifetime! Plus, you don’t have to go anywhere–you’ll listen to me do all the walking. I was surprised by what some people said (or didn’t say) about their home, and learned about how having big ideas in a small city can be a double-edged sword. (I was also surprised to end my night on the top of a parking garage, but you’ll have to listen to find out why.)

For an explanation of the project, check out the page here. If you’re ready to take a behind-the-scenes, after-hours peek at Iowa’s main metropolis, click over to the City Council Chronicles podcast to download the latest episode. Or you can play it below.

Episode 8: Des Moines, Iowa

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Photo source: City of Des Moines

Des Moines–population 210,000–is the capital of Iowa. We hear from several residents about how Des Moines is on fire culturally. First, we visit a free art museum and then talk to a worldly t-shirt mogul with a Trump connection. Afterward, we go behind the scenes at the state capitol. We head into the afternoon with the grand opening of a community center, and end up in a dive bar by nightfall. Plus, you’ll see which attraction in Des Moines completely fascinated me!

Interview #49: Johannesburg, ZA-GT Councilor Michael Sun (with podcast)

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

This is very exciting: our first visit to Africa! Michael Sun is one of 270 councilors in Johannesburg. We talk about how the meetings have changed since the 2016 election, the importance of singing and dancing, and the time tragedy struck.

Q: Before the 2016 election when one political party, the African National Congress, had a majority, did council meetings go smoothly?

A: I would say it ran fairly smoothly and [there] probably was very little disruption from the opposition parties. I think the biggest disruption we’ve ever seen was a walk-out from council chambers. Other than that, we have not seen any violence as we have been seeing very recently.

Q: I do read the South African news and see stories about protesters, intimidation, and threats at the Johannesburg council meetings. Have you ever been threatened?

A: It’s very unfortunate that some groups of protesters would choose council to stage their protest. Our Constitution protects one’s right to protest. Some of them go as extreme as ending up in fistfights. It’s something that we are not accustomed to–something that we certainly condemn.

Q: I do have to be thorough because you are in Africa: has a group of elephants ever stampeded your chamber, sir?

A: [Laughs] Michael, we are a little far away from the Bushveld!

Q: Ah. Do councilors trust each other?

A: I trust my fellow councilors. Our position is that there’s no reason why we shouldn’t trust each other. But when doubts are being brought to the fore [about corruption], one needs to exercise discretion.

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Johannesburg, ZA-GT Councilor Michael Sun

Q: I noticed that in your first council meeting after the election, a group of EFF councilors started singing and dancing. And at one point, most of the room was dancing! Does music have a role in your council meetings?

A: Oh, absolutely! Singing and dancing is part of our culture. Whether there are happy moments, we sing. Or sad moments, we sing. So political parties in a way of celebration or to express sorrow will break out into song. Often if you’re not exposed to this kind of display of culture, one would feel offended by the noise and gesture. But if you have an understanding of where the country comes from, you would appreciate the display.

Q: Mmhmm.

A: Sometimes we get up and sing at the top of our voices. Some of them don’t know all the words but we try our best!

Q: Going back to that first council meeting, one of the councilors collapsed. And a little while later, she died. I mean, you had singing, dancing, allegations of corruption, and now a death. 

A: This is the first time that a councilor passed on in a council meeting. We would never wish for any councilor to suffer that fate. We understood afterward she had been ill. But because of the volatility of the contestation of the mayorship and the speakership, it was a very sad day for all of us.

Q: Is there any racial tension in your meetings?

A: I think as a country, we’ve really come a long way. Once you have so many ethic groups in one pot, it’s bound to spark. It’s also from the spark we will learn from each other. We know to respect each other. So racial issues has never really been a problem for me.


Follow Councilor Michael Sun on Twitter: @MichaelSun168

Interview #48: Dublin, IE Councilor Ciarán Cuffe (with podcast)

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

After last week’s Dublin city council meeting, I talked with Ciarán Cuffe about why his council is so enormous, how the political parties get along without too much fighting, and whether the Lord Mayor does a decent job of keeping things on the rails.

Q: Your city council has 63 members. That is a huge number! Be honest with me: do you know everyone’s name?

A: No, I don’t! Up until three years ago we had 52 members and even that was a bit of a struggle to fit into our chamber, which is in a building 250 years old. It’s a squeeze, and if you want to get out to get a glass of water, you have to hustle past several colleagues.

Q: What made you add 11 people?

A: There was a rebalancing in local government between urban and rural. The situation was that there was a lot more councilors in rural areas than in urban areas. So the then-minister at a national level decided to reduce the level of councilors in rural areas and increase it slightly in urban areas.

Q: I read that you recently decided to let councilors bring their children into the meetings. Is that true?

A: Yeah, there was an issue with one of my colleagues who wanted to bring her child into meetings and was told, that’s not something that really works. So Claire [Byrne] battled that and I’m glad to say that she’s now welcomed into meetings. I don’t think anybody would bat an eyelid if a mom was breastfeeding in a meeting. That’s certainly the norm in other European countries.

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Dublin, IE Councilor Ciarán Cuffe

Q: Let’s get into the meat and potatoes–or, as you say in Ireland, the “potatoes and potatoes.” Your council is divided into political parties, I believe eight in total. Explain how these parties affect everything from who sits where, who is allowed to talk and when, and who gets along with whom.

A: Traditionally, we have two center-right parties in Ireland. But in more recent years, there’s been an explosion of left (a lot more left than Bernie Sanders) left-wing parties. You have People Before Profit, you have the Workers’ Party, the Socialist Workers Party. It gets a bit confusing. We talk about bank bailouts and we still have rows about that, and those rows find their way into council meetings. We tend not to have too many fisticuffs at the meetings, but you can have broad discussions.

Q: How do you rank current Lord Mayor Brendan Carr when it comes to running the meetings?

A: Brendan is trying his best but it’s a bit like trying to organize a roomful of screaming cats. Brendan is as challenged as many of his predecessors. The thing about the mayor in the Irish context is we don’t have a directly-elected mayor who’s there for five years. We don’t have an Ed Koch or a Giuliani. We have a mayor who is in for twelve months and they go out again. So they don’t command as much respect.

Q: After people are done being Lord Mayor, are they more wise or tempered?

A: I think they are. I think there’s a knowing glance amongst people who have been mayor. Though I haven’t been mayor, I have been in the national parliament. You’ve got to carefully understand the mood of the room.


Follow Councilor Ciarán Cuffe on Twitter: @CiaranCuffe