The Portsmouth council has pioneered a “public dialogue” session at some of their council meetings in lieu of public comment. Nancy Pearson discusses why it is an attractive option, why many residents initially opposed it, and why it’s unconcerning that the public dialogue remains untelevised. Plus, on the podcast you will hear about one former council member’s crusade against closed-door meetings.
Q: At the February 4 council meeting, I heard Mayor Jack Blalock say that Portsmouth council members only get paid for 20 of the 22 meetings every year. Are you being forced to work without pay during those other two?
A: It’s a tricky thing in New Hampshire. Not all of our municipal duties are paid assignments. We all have day jobs that actually pay the bills and we are given a stipend for each of our council meetings with the exception of the last four meetings of the year. We are capped at $1,500 a year. One of our council members, Josh Denton, was bringing to the attention of the council that we might look at lifting the cap so we can be compensated for each and every council meeting.
Q: How do you feel about this?
A: I think he brings up a good point. If you can compensate the volunteers [council members] for each and every meeting, that might go a little bit more toward leveling the playing field. For example, one of the council members said he uses the stipend to buy attire to wear to council meetings, as he is a contractor and doesn’t necessarily have a closet full of suits and ties. I understand his point. I think it’s fair.
Q: At the Portsmouth city council’s retreat in 2017, you graded your council a “C” on the effectiveness of public comment. Look, normally I only invite on guests who have a “B” average or higher, so you’d better be killing it in biology and calculus for this interview to continue. What should your council have been doing better?
A: Up until that point, we had an antiquated system for public engagement. We came up with [an alternative to] every single meeting having a 45-minute public comment session. It doesn’t allow the opportunity for us to answer questions or engage in conversation or alleviate concerns. One of the things we’ve done now going on two years is public dialogue. We do these every other meeting. It happens before the city council meeting. If there’s a large crowd, we break up into two groups, the city council does. But we sit in an equal circle. The public has an opportunity to ask us questions and we can answer them either ourselves or the city staff is all there.
A: I was also finding that during public comment, people were saying things, making things up. Things are being put into public record that are not based in reality. That bothers me a little bit. I didn’t want to let the opportunity go by where we couldn’t correct some things or provide the right information.
Q: You sound an optimistic tone now, but originally the public commenters were hostile to the idea of putting public dialogue where public comment normally is. Do you not televise the public dialogue?
A: That is correct. If we break up into two sessions, that would be very challenging to televise. The community often has a reaction to change like that. They don’t understand it. Portsmouth has a long history of resistance to change. We’re called “Granite Staters” for a reason–we’re very rock solid in our beliefs.
Q: It strikes me that one of the benefits you listed of public dialogue was correcting misinformation that circulates in public. By not televising public dialogue, are you not missing the opportunity to correct it and broadcast it to the whole city?
A: We do keep minutes and we do an oral debrief of public dialogue at the city council meeting directly following.
Q: If you have all of the councilors in a room–or five out of the nine, which is a quorum–are you running into any ethical or perhaps legal trouble by not televising what is perhaps a meeting of the council?
A: No because televising a council meeting is not a mandatory exercise. As long as we are taking meeting minutes, which happens at each table by our city clerk, that suffices every legal obligation we have.
Q: But you would concede that while you are doing what’s required, you could also be doing more?
A: Well, one of the things that we discovered and one of the reasons we moved toward public dialogue is because while there are many people who enjoy coming to the podium, speaking their mind, and having that televised, there are an equal amount of people that are reluctant to come and speak to council because it is televised. In the spirit of egalitarianism, the public dialogue is attractive to those people who are intimidated to come to the podium to speak in public.
Luis Del Toro entered the Dubuque council in 2016 and explains how he became a bit of an iconoclast, not shying away from dissent or from pushing policy changes. Plus, he clarified why council members seemed so critical of the renters and landlords who came before the council to ask for a ruling.
Q: I noticed a little over a year ago that people started coming into the council meetings to speak about source-of-income discrimination. How did Dubuque get roped into the fight for economic justice?
A: When it came to housing choice vouchers, the city got themselves in a little bit of hot water with [the Department of Housing and Urban Development]. We had some ways that we were trying to divvy those out, and that was seen as discriminatory by HUD. We had to come up with a plan, but we had citizens petition us to make the acceptance of those vouchers mandatory. We’ve opted to not get to that step yet.
Q: Right, the more moderate solutions were what your council voted on in early 2017. However, all of a sudden, Council Member Kevin Lynch broadsided the commenters in the room, scolding them for not working cohesively. How did you feel about that?
A: What he’s referencing is we had a source-of-income committee that was a combination of organizations within our city as well as the landlords that were supposedly trying to come up with a plan for us. What seemed to come out of that was more of an us-versus-them them perspective. They weren’t listening to each other. They couldn’t agree upon what presentation they wanted to bring before council.
Q: The council members seemed to be saying, “you all should have agreed on your own rather than come to us to decide for you.” That took me aback because that is what the government does all the time: it resolves policy disagreements by deciding what is the law. Were these council members offended that they had to make a decision on something?
A: I wouldn’t necessarily say that. I think it was the expectation of having a lot of smart people in the room and a lot of individuals that are very capable of coming up with a solution that actually showed some partnership between the two groups.
Q: I get the impulse to chastise the two sides, but isn’t it a bit naive to think that two groups of people with very different economic interests will find the common ground that you think they have? Was this a small town expectation of civility that you were projecting onto them?
A: It could be viewed that way. We are a little bit smaller and we’ve always prided ourselves in being able to find answers to problems that seem a little bigger than we are.
Q: On February 18 this year, you proposed an emergency cancellation policy for city council meetings in cases of inclement weather. I assume this covers blizzards, floods, and deluges of presidential candidates?
A: Well, apparently yes! We did vote later that evening to change our upcoming meeting next year due to the caucusing here in Iowa. But right now, our only provision within our city code is we can make adjustments to our meeting date and time 30 days in advance. Obviously, a lot of things can happen in 30 days. This year, we had wind chills that were 60 below. Travel wasn’t advised. We had no provision in place that gave us the opportunity to delay our council meeting to possibly the next evening.
Q: Do you think the criticism from other council members and the mayor that “the council meeting must go on and we’ve managed in bad weather before” is a healthy attitude to have?
A: No, not at all. I respectfully disagree. It should come down to valuing the safety of our citizens as well as ourselves and city staff in trying to get to these meetings. There was a no-tow ban put in place. If you were out on that road and you went into a ditch trying to navigate our icy streets, no help was coming for you. With frostbite that could occur in five to ten minutes, those are dangerous conditions to expect individuals to attend a meeting.
Kristerfer Burnett was in the large freshman class of 2016 on the Baltimore city council and does not shy away from the role that guns, violence, and policing play in the council’s business. He discusses a contentious hearing about mandatory minimum sentences and a bizarre inquiry into whether the fire department threatened bike advocates.
Q: Councilman Brandon Scott does something small but noteworthy each meeting. At the end, when your council holds a moment of silence, he asks the council vice president to announce the homicide total to date. My first thought upon hearing this was, “why would anyone advertise their city’s worst attribute repeatedly in a public council meeting?” So why would you?
A: I think it’s something that we have to own. The violence in Baltimore is unbelievable. It is debilitating to our city. As policymakers, we have a responsibility to address that. We’ve also started to add the victims of the opioid crisis for the same reason. We had over 700 opioid-related deaths last year. That needs to be the headline. I’m not one that feels like cities should try to always put their best foot forward, an image or façade that things are okay.
Q: On July 3, 2018, the judiciary committee held a hearing about the fire department. Councilman Ryan Dorsey read a letter that you all received from an advocate of bike lanes accusing the fire department of parking a ladder truck in front of her house as a threat. What was being alleged here and why were you, the council, involved?
A: There’s been a lot of resistance from the fire department to the construction of bicycle infrastructure. The argument they were trying to make, albeit poorly, was an attempt to basically argue that by narrowing the roads with bicycle infrastructure, it would make it more difficult to navigate. Some streets are very narrow and their equipment is pretty large. What I didn’t quite understand was, it looks like they got the ladder truck up to me [in a video from the fire department]. The council got involved because there was an attempt by Council Member Dorsey to strike out of the fire code these guidelines that would have prohibited the construction of bike infrastructure due to roadway widths.
A: On a lighter note, when we received that video the day before the hearing, Council Member Dorsey and I–I hope I don’t get in trouble for saying this–we’re two millennial legislators. We’re like, “what do we do with the DVD? I don’t even know where to put this!” I literally had no way to watch it for several hours because my laptop didn’t have a DVD player.
The overriding concern was why the fire department filmed their video outside the home of one of their opponents. How satisfactory did you find the fire chief’s response that it was not intentional?
A: That particular roadway is a very long one. That bike lane is also one of the longest in the city. If they needed to prove a point on that particular street, they could have done it pretty easily without being in front of the house. I was extremely disappointed in the fire chief on that one and told him so.
Q: That was about accountability for the fire department, so let’s shift to accountability in policing. In the judiciary committee on July 25, 2017, there was legislation which would have established a punishment of one year’s incarceration for anyone who carried a firearm within 100 feet [yards] of a place of public assembly. Right away, multiple council members offered stories of their experiences with gun violence. Is it fair to say that most if not all Baltimore council members have a direct connection to the escalating homicide numbers that we hear at every meeting?
A: That is correct. One of my high school teammates on the football team lost his life to gun violence in 2017. It’s very much something that has hit almost all of us, if not all of us, at some point.
Q: Councilman Scott argued at the hearing that it’s easier for people in black areas of Baltimore to be in violation of this proposed law. There wasn’t really a racial divide that I noticed at the meeting. There were a bunch of people for and against it. Did you see the proposal as fundamentally racist?
A: Yes and here’s why. A lot of my colleagues were very well-intentioned in their support. They felt this is an answer to a problem that we all agree is a problem. You do see patterns of over-policing in black communities without this law. Some of my colleagues were not thinking about that part of it. I represent some of the most dangerous neighborhoods in Baltimore. There is a knee-jerk reaction to say, “we need more cops.” I don’t think their support was because they want to lock up more black people, but I think the unintended consequence would have been that.
Adam Adkisson has been a council member in the small city of Coalinga for less than a year, but he already has a restraining order against a public commenter and is collecting screenshots of online tormentors. What is transpiring in Central California?
Q: Your recent mayor, Nathan Vosburg, had a consistent grievance during his time in the mayor’s seat. How much did you agree with his complaints about negativity and non-participation by the residents of Coalinga?
A: We have a lot of issues with people getting on Facebook and spreading all kinds of lies and rumors about the city. People just take it and run with it. I understand where he’s coming from. I don’t know if I would’ve said it exactly the same way, but I share some of his sentiments.
Q: Normally we think of mayors as cheerleaders for their communities. Did it grate on you to have the mayor in public, on television, saying, “I’m sick and tired of the attitude around here”?
A: No! Sometimes we need someone to say it. People like honesty, so that’s what he gave them.
Q: At your first meeting in November as an elected council member, you said this in nominating Council Member Ron Lander to be the new mayor: “we need a mayor who will lay down the law….We need to quit having these outbursts. You have kids come in here and they have to listen to people throw around F-bombs.” Tell me more.
A: We have an issue with a few citizens who come to the council meeting and they think that certain chairs belong to them and they’ll start a fight just to prove it. We get people who come up–mainly two people–who come up to the lectern and start cussing and yelling. It just got out of control. The mayor now is gonna put an end to it and people need to act appropriately.
Q: On August 2, 2018, your council removed from the agenda a discussion about whether to allow drug testing and background checks of city council members because the city attorney advised that legally, you could not do that. This upset one commenter, who implied that he wanted to fight you.
A: He loves me. He was wanting me to go outside. He doesn’t even live in Coalinga. His mom accused me of being on drugs one time and I said that if she wanted to pay for my drug test, she could do it. If I passed, which I would, she would have to give an apology. That’s all I said.
Q: By day, you are a bounty hunter. How surprising is it that you come into contact with more people wanting to fight you as a city council member than as a bounty hunter?
A: [laughs] That’s absolutely true. It’s crazy! I never thought it would be like this but you just gotta power through it.
Q: Is this affecting the city to have people bad mouthing each other and then bringing it to the council meeting?
A: Yes, it’s definitely affected us. It needs to stop and it has for the last couple meetings. I have a restraining order and everything is going a lot more smoothly now and we hope to keep it that way. The people of Coalinga should not be afraid to come to meetings. They should not have to listen to this kind of behavior.
Q: Have you considered pulling back from Facebook to avoid the confrontations that germinate there?
A: Absolutely. I’ve pulled back quite a bit. It hasn’t really changed anything. I probably have about 400 screenshots of lies that people have said about me. It comes with the territory.
Q: Uh, yes, to a certain extent all council members have to deal with that. But you’ve been on council for less than a year and you’re already collecting screenshots of lies? That seems unhealthy!
A: They’re sent to me, so I put it in a little folder that me and my friends can laugh at. I have to have some outlet. That’s my outlet.
Nicole Bolden is a longtime employee of the Bloomington clerk’s office and is in her first term as the elected clerk. She reminisces about weaponry in the council chamber, her attempt at live tweeting the meetings, and a parking garage debate that stood out.
Q: You have been the clerk for almost four years and before that, I know you worked for the city clerk, sometimes being the fill-in person at the council meetings. How have the meetings changed in the ten years that you’ve been working for the city?
A: I don’t think the meetings have changed dramatically. In some respects they have calmed down. We used to have some citizens who were very active and engaged in the meetings, sometimes to comic effect. Most of our council members are pretty long serving, so they know what they’re doing. They have an established routine.
Q: What is some of the comic relief that we’re missing out on nowadays that you used to see at the microphone way back when?
A: We used to have citizens who would come in and talk about various things that concerned them, but they would also record themselves while standing at the podium. You would see people who were filming things for their own YouTube broadcast or podcast. There were people who would show up with hatchets. There were people who would show up with costumes.
Q: You had me at “hatchet.” Was this a prop hatchet or was this a threat?
A: Neither, it was just a hatchet that our citizen was carrying with him. He still comes to meetings occasionally. He sometimes comes with things that may cause a bit of concern, but that is what he is allowed to do.
Q: Indiana is a wild and lawless place, I love it.
I noticed that last fall you live tweeted the council proceedings for one or two meetings and then you stopped. Why did you give up on such riveting tweets as
A: You know, there just didn’t seem to be a huge appetite for that type of tweeting. It’s something that we’ve discussed returning to, but for the moment it is one more thing to juggle during an already busy meeting. I have to be honest, I’m not great at tweeting. I feel a little old sometimes because I don’t know all the abbreviations people use!
Q: In the December 12, 2018 meeting, Council Member Allison Chopra complained about how meetings go way too late. If the council members have to stay late, you have to stay late. What are your thoughts on the duration of the meetings?
A: When I decided to run for city clerk, my family laughed at me. They said, “how on Earth are you going to be able to handle those meetings that go past your bedtime?” When I started, our council meetings used to start at 7:30 p.m., not 6:30. So that was one change that Allison successfully spearheaded through, which was getting the meetings started earlier in the hopes that when we did have longer meetings, people wouldn’t be leaving at 11:30 or 12 at night.
Q: During a contentious debate last year about whether to construct new parking garages, I noticed something unusual in the public comment. One of your employees in the clerk’s office spoke to the council on the topic. What have you told your employees about getting involved in council meetings?
A: I have told them that they are welcome to express their opinions to the council at any given time. I have also asked them that when they are speaking to the council, to make it clear they are speaking for themselves and not on behalf of the office.
Q: Is that a luxury that employees of other departments have? Or because you’re an elected official, do you have more freedom to tell your employees, “if you want to get a little political, have at it”?
A: I’m a separately-elected branch, so I don’t have the same chain of command that other departments have who all ultimately respond to the mayor. I don’t know of anybody who’s ever been told to not speak at a council meeting, but I know there are some people who may think twice.
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE–For the third year in a row, Michael Karlik appeared before a joint session of Congress for the greatest honor any person can imagine, other than meeting Cher: he delivered the State of the City Council Meetings address. The standing ovations were numerous. The viewership was huge. And almost no one requested a refund afterward. Below is a transcript and audio of the entire speech, sponsored by Dig Deep Research, which is also available on iTunes, Stitcher, and Player FM:
Madame Speaker, Madame Tussaud, Mesdames and Messieurs: because of the solemn duty conferred upon me by the Constitution, and because there is no one else out there crazy enough to do this, I am here tonight to remark upon the city council meetings of the world. And I want to assure all of you that despite what you may hear from the fake, failing, or–if they’re nice to me–the perfectly fine news media, the state of our city council meetings is…can you scroll the teleprompter please? Strong. [applause]
Tonight, I will share with you stories of city council tests and city council triumphs. Although the tests are a lot more fun, you know what I’m saying? You know what I’m saying? [laughter]
Sitting in the gallery next to the First Lady is the mayor of Lakewood, Colorado, Adam Paul. [applause] Okay, he’s my guest, so next time please wait until I give you permission to clap, capiche? Last year, the Lakewood council had a crisis on its hands. What has a long tail, beady eyes, and a reputation for causing bubonic plagues? Rats. The pigeons of the ground. I actually brought a couple here tonight in this cage and oh, the cage is empty. Uh, that’s not good.
All right, here’s what I’ll do. I’ll release the rattlesnakes also to catch them and–okay, I’m seeing everyone shake their head no, so let’s put a pin in that. Anyway, the Lakewood city council had to act fast to keep the rats from multiplying. Here is their story.
Thank you for your response, Mayor. Please clap. [applause] But city councils don’t just respond to problems. They sometimes create their own. And when the Independence, Missouri city council voted to fire people in the Power & Light department, accusations started flying. Agnes, could you roll my interview with Independence Mayor Eileen Weir?
Okay, quick update. We found the rats. [applause] Yes, finding rats in the United States Congress is like trying to find a needle in a needle stack, am I right? [laughter and applause] All right, good night, everybody. Goodnight–what’s that? I’m contractually obligated for another 15 minutes? Okay.
Why don’t we check in on Canada? Someone has to, for security. Earlier this year, I became aware of a bizarre story out of Kingston, Ontario. A couple of councillors protested the council proceedings not with their words, not with their votes, but with their feet. Agnes?
You know, I always struggle with how to end these things. On the one hand, I want to stay and talk to you forever. On the other hand, I just got a foosball table delivered at home. Choices, choices. You know, I have some thoughts about illegal immigration and abortion that I’d like to get out there. It is terrible that–wait a minute. Callaway?
Hillsboro, Oregon Mayor Steve Callaway?! [applause] I can’t believe they let you past security! Mostly because I told them not to. But folks, during his state of the city address in January, Mayor Callaway gave a very important shout out that I noticed right away.
Yeah, you can clap for that. You can clap for that. In fact, I once interviewed Hillsboro’s city manager, Michael Brown, and we discussed how Hillsboro’s state of the city addresses are always the greatest show on earth.
Thank you. God bless you. And god bless city council meetings.