This past Tuesday was Election Day in the United States, which means there were plenty of city council races to keep track of. We provide you with some updates on a handful of city councils profiled on previous podcast episodes.
Jyoti Gondek is a first-term councillor in Calgary, where the discussion has recently turned to council transparency. She explains how it is sometimes necessary to go into closed-door meetings, and responds to the accusation that bullying is occurring therein.
Q: What is your position on city councillors’ attendance?
A: We had one of our fellow councillors raise the point that we should be better documenting when council members are present for a vote or for a meeting. I don’t disagree that it is important that your elected official is weighing in on your behalf. But the way that it was being proposed–through a roll call–to me was a bit ridiculous. There was an article written in a local newspaper about it and it called me out for being terribly nasty and not in favor of transparency. So I took a lighthearted approach and wrote a little something myself about what an “awful person” I was for not wanting transparency! It was a bit of a parody, but it was asking people to think about: do you just want a roll call? Or do you really want to know what kind of job your elected official is doing?
Q: I’m between your position and the more transparent position on attendance. Say you are able to keep track of councillors who wander out of a meeting, who are not there for votes, and who are strategic about when they are in their chairs. What am I supposed to do with that information? I’m not saying, “who cares about attendance?” But if I did care, is this a problem that’s actually affecting things?
A: Attendance has been exceptionally high. We have not seen council members who are trying to use the system and leave for a contentious vote. I don’t think the system is being gamed.
Q: Your council has had some drama about what happens behind closed doors generally. On April 3, Councillor Jeromy Farkas tweeted out:
While sometimes they are warranted, these secret meetings have also been abused and misused to instill fear, intimidate, and shut down new ideas. I am very pleased that Councillor @peterdemong is helping to tackle this issue. #yyccc 2/
Of the charges in that tweet, what percentage are true? What percentage are false? And what percentage are maybe just misinterpretations of people’s intentions?
A: I think it was an interesting thing to post on Twitter rather than bringing it up in a council meeting or to the integrity commissioner or to the mayor. Intimidation is a very big reach. I’ve never felt that way. This idea of secret meetings–or the “chamber of secrets” as it’s been dubbed by Councillor Farkas–perhaps he is learning the ropes. Sometimes a council has to take things offline because there’s confidential information.
Q: On April 5, there was a motion to study the amount of time Calgary spends on closed session meetings. But all of a sudden, Councillor Jeff Davison stood up and expressed his displeasure at those tweets, then apologized for any offense he may have caused. When that happened, did you think, “oh, good! This will clear everything up!”
A: [laughs] No, I did not. Before we go in [to the closed meetings], it’s clearly identified what we are going to talk about. This idea of saying we’re going in camera [closed session] to insult a colleague or intimidate them, it’s not a fact. Now you’ve got a council that’s second guessing, “did we ever say anything that may have been construed in a manner other than what we intended?” If this is a big gang of bullies ganging up on one person, I think you would’ve seen more people actively doing something a lot less public, but we’re not. I think we were caught by surprise. I never expected him to say something about intimidating and bullying because I haven’t observed it.
Even though Thornton gets rid of its council meeting videos (boo), there was still a lot of ground to cover with two-term Mayor Heidi Williams. She discussed difficult public hearings, titular protocol, and her frequent public commenters.
Q: Your Honor, the city of Thornton video streams its council meetings–which is good! And they are even in high definition with remarkable sound quality. So that is even better. The problem is: you only have videos posted for the last year. And I was told that Thornton takes down and destroys videos older than one year! Now look, we all made questionable fashion choices in the mid 2010s. Short shorts. Mom jeans. White people dreadlocks. So if that’s what this is about, I’m empathetic. But Mayor, when it comes to those videos, how do you defend what I am calling the Great Thornton Purge?
A: Well, I have to be honest: this is the first time I’ve heard of that. I did not realize that we took those videos down and destroyed them. So I will be getting to the bottom of that. I really thought that you could go back and watch videos a long time back.
Q: I am glad you are on the case. I take it from your answer that you don’t often watch videos of the council meetings after they happen. Is that accurate?
A: Oftentimes, I don’t want to actually relive it. The times that I’ve gone back and watched a portion of a meeting is because I thought maybe I said something really stupid. And generally I find that I either did or it wasn’t as bad as I thought. I think it’s a little narcissistic–again, I’m already there. But having said that, I understand how a lot of people aren’t there. And constituents are like, “oh, we watch you on channel 8 or we watch you online!” And I’m like, “you do?!” It’s always surprising to me that people do.
Q: Well, it’s all the more frustrating to me that I can only watch 52 weeks’ worth of meetings! I noticed that you don’t often miss meetings, which is admirable. But whenever you are gone and the mayor pro tem is in charge, everyone calls the mayor pro tem “Your Honor.” That title is reserved for you! Have you ever told your mayors pro tem to get back in their place–or do you want me to do that for you right now?
A: In Thornton, all the elected officials are considered “The Honorable.” So actually, everybody that serves on council with me is “Your Honor.” I only missed two meetings the first six years. But the city manager called the mayor pro tem at the time “mayor” and somebody texted me right away. Apparently, that’s what they used to do. They don’t do that anymore, but they will say “Your Honor.”
Q: On March 20, there was an extended stay hotel proposed in Thornton. This council meeting was to approve it or reject it. Hearing people in the public hearing talk about “this type” of hotel and how “no college educated” people would stay there, and talking about how transient families would send their kids to school and “use our resources,” I felt uncomfortable with how people were resorting to elitist arguments when they really didn’t have to. Did that cross your mind at the time?
A: Sure, it’s always tough when a developer wants to put something in that people don’t want–the NIMBY effect. I’ve heard probably worse than that. That was a difficult hearing.
Q: You also had crowded meetings about marijuana stores, and I’m sure people were making arguments about destroying the city or letting in the “wrong type” of people or threatening children. Does it concern you when people make it seem that with one vote, your council will do all of those things to the city?
A: Yeah, and the longer I’m the mayor, I’ve just seen so much of that. That would probably be one of my most frustrating things. Everybody’s like, “not in my backyard.” As a society, we have to start being more thoughtful and less hateful. And try to talk to our council members about what we want and don’t want, but in a way that’s not demeaning or hateful. I’ve just seen in the last couple of years a lot more hateful stuff being said. Not tons, but a lot more than I did.
Jerod MacDonald-Evoy is a reporter with The Arizona Republic who had a front-row seat to many hot-button debates of the Tempe council. From the border wall to a car wash, he explains how things got heated in the desert. Plus, we talk city council fashion!
Q: Can you please explain what the “Tempe Tie” is?
A: So when I was covering Tempe, I found that Tempe has an online store where you can buy all sorts of interesting little merchandise like a city of Tempe pen or a mug. I noticed they also had this tie. One of those fatter-style ties. It had a bunch of Tempe themes on it. I jokingly tweeted [that] if it got 100 retweets, I would wear it to the next council meeting.
A: And as I should’ve known, you don’t challenge the Internet to those sorts of things. It quickly got over 100 retweets. I bought the tie and ended up wearing it to a few council meetings. I made some other people realize that they wanted that tie and they ended up selling out of them on the store!
Q: Let’s get into the council meetings. In January of this year, the Tempe council was considering a resolution to oppose a wall on the border with Mexico. There were some reasoned arguments about it, and those reasoned arguments lasted until one lady began yelling her comments from the back, which flustered your mayor into opening public comment. Were you expecting him to do that–and do you think that was a good idea?
A: I was expecting him to tell them, “you can have public comment at the end.” I’ve never seen the council open an item that was closed to public hearing. I was very nervous when he decided to do that because some of the women that were there had also been outside and were pretty vocally protesting this border wall resolution. I had a feeling it would only go downhill from there.
Q: Your nervous instincts were correct. Do you get the sense that council members were expecting the comments that ensued–the Trump defenders, the race war advocates, and the references to immigrants as rapists and murders?
A: I don’t think they were expecting it to the extent that it came. A lot of the people weren’t actually from Tempe. A lot of them drove up from the border to talk about this. The resolution they were trying to pass actually was a more gutted version of a resolution that was being pushed nationwide by a lot of cities that would say they wouldn’t do business with companies that work on the border wall. Well, one of the main companies that’s doing the prototypes is a Tempe company. When it didn’t pass, I was very surprised. It seemed very odd that they would give in to–I don’t know if they were giving in to these people exactly, but giving in to that idea that they shouldn’t be doing it.
Q: Do you think the public comment ended up making a difference for any of those council members?
A: I think it could’ve. I think there were a few that were already a little wary because of that idea of the city intruding into federal matters. Having those people show up was enough of a push to get them to not vote that way. It was during an election cycle. They decided they didn’t want to push the controversy and have the attack ad against them say they opposed the border wall and the president.
Rich Tran had no political experience before being elected as Milpitas’s mayor two years ago. His first term has had some rough spots, and we explore how he has adapted to the job.
Q: At the April 4 meeting in 2017, what were you trying to accomplish by saying you wanted your city manager’s performance review to be put on the public meeting agenda?
A: I can’t say too much about it because there’s current litigation. If you look at what happened there on the dais, it is really a policy battle that’s happening when you’re listening to myself and the city attorney. It’s like a rugby match and I’m in a scrum with the city attorney. I got so much love for Chris Diaz, our city attorney. He might be listening to this–
Q: Hello, Chris Diaz, Esquire!
A: Yeah! I’m scoring my freedom of speech and my democratic rights to place an item on the city council agenda. I’m definitely following the rules and doing things appropriately. I was looking to do a performance evaluation of our former city manager.
Q: I get that, but your line of inquiry made the city attorney visibly anxious. He’s saying, “as a council you can do whatever you want. I’m just saying as your attorney, I think it’s a terrible idea legally.” What about that was unconvincing to you?
A: I felt like I wasn’t getting the truth so much as I deserved it. I wasn’t looking to discuss anybody’s performance in public.
Q: What’s the distinction between that and placing the performance review on the agenda though?
A: I want the item on the agenda so we can decide if we’re gonna do the performance evaluation or not. That’s it.
Q: On October 3 of last year, your council was considering a censure policy for council members. When Councilmember Bob Nuñez said that he had concerns about people following the rules–and singling you out specifically–how did you feel about that?
A: We never had a censure policy here in my city. Not in its 64 years. Councilman Nuñez wanted to bring one about so that in the event that I screwed up or something, he can censure me. Everybody has concerns about me, Michael. They call me the “outspoken mayor.”
Q: What does that mean?
A: Because I talk about things. I don’t accept things that shouldn’t be accepted. Councilman Nuñez was concerned that I was communicating with the community too much. The funny thing is, no one’s ever been censured. It’s like he’s waiting for me to slip somehow.
Q: It’s interesting because they did have the opportunity to, but they instead chose to send you a letter of disapproval chastising you for your conduct outside of the meetings–and that was all four council members. You said, “that goes to show Milpitas has the dirtiest petty politics in all of Santa Clara County.” What, from your point of view, is the root of the problem?
A: It’s an election year. I’m an independent leader. It’s definitely sad. You read the rebuke that was sent my way–the residents are pissed off that the city council’s playing these silly games.
Q: I get that they may not like you because of who you are. Can you think of some mistake you made as mayor that you would be willing to say is a mistake?
A: Definitely. I don’t have a great background in politics. It was only four years ago that I moved back to my hometown from Manhattan. I was going to NYU for my master’s degree. I had no job, no car, I was living out of the back of my uncle’s house–
Q: Sorry, are these all the mistakes?
A: No, I’m just telling you the lead-up. Getting into politics, I didn’t really know much. You asked me what my mistake was: I think to be misunderstood.
Raj Salwan has attempted to establish some order in Fremont’s sometimes-fluid appointment procedures for council members. He talked about how things could be better, and also about one contentious development that led to a raucous council meeting.
Q: You were appointed to the Fremont council in 2013. There are also three other current council members who went through this appointment process–meaning that four out of the five of you at one point sat for an interview to be on council. Is that a coincidence or is this truly a shortcut to winning elections that people ought to know about?
A: There’s two types of candidates that apply for these appointments. One is the planning commissioners. The other are people who just ran in the last election. One of the things in Fremont is that if you came in third place in an election, you usually don’t get the appointment. The critics will often say that because you weren’t elected, the voters didn’t choose you. So it’s not really fair but that’s just how it has been.
Q: In 2017, there was another vacancy. And the odd thing to me is that you spent the first ten minutes not sure how things would go. Why did you not have the rules solidified?
A: A lot of times the process is whatever the mayor wants to make it. In the past appointments, some of the council members had said, “hey, I was confused about the process.” We were trying to find what the expectation was so we knew exactly what was gonna happen.
Q: Correct me if I’m wrong, but your new mayor at the time, Lily Mei, had never participated in this appointment process as either a candidate or as someone interviewing candidates.
A: That’s true. It was a new job for her and the first thing she had to do was try to replace her own position [as a council member]. So it got very–well, it was a difficult process.
Q: Ah. If I may point out another area of improvement: the questions you asked of these candidates, if I’m being honest, were pretty basic. “Tell us about yourself.” “How did you get involved in politics?” I think you need to kick it up a notch. Ask them questions like, “if this room caught on fire and you could only save two council members, who would they be?”
A: That’s definitely very critical thinking! In the past, some people had accused council members of asking pointed questions or questions that they felt made them look bad. This was the process the city clerk came up with to give softball questions so nobody could say, “I got this question because somebody didn’t like me.” But I hear you. I like tough, pointed questions.
Q: After your appointment in 2013, you did not win your election in 2014. But you did win in 2016. However, after the election but before your swearing in, the council voted on something called the Walnut Residences. In this case, the development was a huge lightning rod. Is that your memory?
A: This is the biggest fight in the Bay Area. Everybody complains about the cost of housing, but they always oppose housing when it’s near them. This became the flash point for this last election.
Q: In this meeting, Councilmember Lily Mei–who just defeated the incumbent mayor–said they should postpone the vote until you joined the council. I think she expected the vote to be different with you there. Do you think they should have waited?
A: No, I have to respect the decision of the council at the time. I wasn’t there and it’s not fair for me to comment or criticize.
Q: Did you see this at all as an attempt to speed things up like we’ve seen on the federal level–to take advantage of the partisan situation? Or do you buy the explanation that it’s been in front of the council for a really long time and it’s just time to get it done?
A: It’s a complicated thing. It’s been upcoming for several years. The applicant just wanted to get a decision. The council just wanted to take it on. It’s a great election issue for candidates who want to stop all growth. They point to [this].
Follow Councilmember Raj Salwan on Twitter: @RajSalwan
A whirlwind of activity has buffeted the Prairie Village council–starting with the onset of live streaming earlier this year and ending in an aborted council meeting earlier this week. Council Member Tucker Poling describes his at-times-incredulous reaction to some of the developments.
Q: I am talking to you in the third week of September, which means you had a council meeting a few days ago. How did that go?
A: It went about as well as council meetings go when nobody shows up!
A: I had a nondiscrimination ordinance on the agenda and suddenly, the few hours before the meeting, we had four council members text or email the city manager and say that they couldn’t make it. Therefore, we did not have a quorum and we could not meet and hilarity did not ensue. I was not happy about it.
Q: You know Prairie Village and you know these council members. I don’t want it to sound like I’m blaming you when I say: should you have known this was coming?
A: I will say no. In my knowledge, it’s never happened before in this way. It’s been very rare we have more than one absence. At the time, I–let’s say I “lost my chill” a little bit, as the younger people say. I had no chill on that evening! [laughs]
Q: [laughs] Well that sounds perfectly “dope” and thank you for not being “extra” despite your lack of “chill.” And–I’m sorry, there’s something else that’s bugging me. Can you explain what was before you council on August 20 of this year?
A: That was Councilman Ron Nelson’s proposal for us to adopt the principles of the convention to end all discrimination against women. All Ron was asking for was a resolution saying that we support equity and equality for women and girls.
Q: On August 20, the first thing that happened was that council members argued against the resolution. How did you feel about what you heard?
A: I felt mind-numbingly confused and disappointed. I was flabbergasted that this was controversial. We had people in an open, public meeting talking about conspiracy theories about the UN [United Nations].
Q: The resolution was not passed and sent back to staff on a vote of 7-5. Of the six council members who canceled at this week’s meeting for your anti-LGBT discrimination proposal, how many of them also voted to shoot down the anti-gender discrimination proposal?
A: All of them.
Q: Some of them were suspicious of the UN, and I guess I get that a little. It does feed into the caricature of middle America. But others were arguing that “all lives matter,” right? That, “why can’t we have a nondiscrimination again men too?” And others seemed to think there was no inequity in Prairie Village. I’m curious, if your council meeting had happened on Monday, would you have expected that same argument to come up about sexual orientation?
A: Yeah, there definitely would have been those same objections. “We don’t have any discrimination in Prairie Village. This is all ‘political.'” Which is just very confusing to me because the idea that the human condition does not apply in Prairie Village and all the flaws that we have as human beings somehow don’t apply in nice, upper class communities like ours–that’s pretty blind in my view.
Q: It occurred to me that people who said, “if we pass this, it’s just an admission that something is wrong here”–ironically, by not passing it, it gathered all this attention and people asking, “what is wrong with the Prairie Village council that they can’t pass this?” It had the opposite effect.
A: That’s exactly right. It’s bizarre that people think that by not acknowledging something, that’s just going to go away. And people are not going to notice that you’ve chosen to not acknowledge that equity issues exist everywhere.
Follow Council Member Tucker Poling on Twitter: @TuckerForPV