Interview #99: St. Petersburg, FL Council Member Darden Rice (with podcast)

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

Darden Rice is the District Four council member in St. Pete and we spent time dissecting her city’s restrictive public comment period. Then we practiced convincing teenagers to come and speak to the council! (BONUS: Info about International #CityHallSelfie Day.)

Q: Council Member, I was angry when I heard that only city residents, owners of property, business owners in the city, or their employees could speak in your meetings–and only on city government issues. Does this mean I am not allowed to come and tell you folks why “Shrek 2” was better than the original “Shrek?”

A: Yeah, there might be some issues if you wanted to speak if you’re not a St. Pete resident. Although you could call your friends, like Council Member Darden Rice, and I could invite you to come talk about “Shrek.”

Q: I do know it’s highly unusual for a council to limit the kinds of people who can speak during a public comment. What would you say to the argument that, as a representative, you are obligated to hear what your people are concerned about? Even if that concern is not, strictly speaking, about city business?

A: I think you’ve got a really good point. I tend to be a little more liberal in the application of what rules we use. But at the end of the day, it is on advice from our legal team that the people that speak–because there’s limited time–that we honor those who are residents.

Q: Practically though, how do you screen out people who don’t meet those criteria?

A: There’s really a trust system involved. It’s so rarely that someone doesn’t meet the criteria.

Q: For the record then: if the Queen of England herself walked into the St. Pete council meeting for open forum and you had your suspicions that she was not a resident, you would still not say, “sorry, Mum, I’ll need to see the address on your driver’s license first?”

A: I would imagine that our chairperson of council would give the courtesy of the Queen to speak at council.

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St. Petersburg, FL Council Member Darden Rice

Q: Recently, Council Member Steve Kornell had an idea to ask the ministers you invite to do your invocations to also bring children from their youth groups to speak at council meetings. Can you explain what this procedure is supposed to look like? And please do use words like “dope” or “extra” in your answer.

A: [laughs] I think it has a good intention. I think it would take a lot of work bringing kids and getting them out of school to come and speak to council. I haven’t really thought about whether this is an idea I think is really great or if it’s just gonna make meetings run a lot longer.

Q: Let’s do a role-playing exercise. Let’s pretend you are a minister about to give the invocation–Presbyterian, if you need to get into character. And you are trying to convince me, a moody teenager, to come and speak during the open forum.

A: Hey, Michael. This is Pastor Darden Rice and we are gonna go up and talk to city council today. I’d like you to share some issues you have going on at school and talk about how safe you feel in the neighborhoods or not and just let your elected officials know about what it’s like living in St. Pete. How does that sound?

Q: Ugh, city council? That sounds like old people stuff. You are embarrassing me so hard right now in front of my phone. I will not be on camera without a filter. No way. #noway.

A: Hey, Michael, I think you ought to give this a second thought. When young people show up, we really listen. I think it would be a great learning experience.

Q: It’s not gonna be boring is it? My boyfriend went to an Ed Sheeran concert and said it was super boring and I’m worried this will be like the Ed Sheeran concert.

A: It won’t be boring because you’re just staying for the beginning of it. I promise.

A: Okay, fine. Only if I can text my friends about how I’m at the city council meeting and they’re not so they’re lame.


Follow Council Member Darden Rice on Twitter: @DardenRice

#164: Titusville, FL 7/24/18

It was awards season in Titusville! I don’t mean the Emmys, the Tonys, or the Fakies, but rather the Titusville Employee of the Month trophies, which went to an impressive roster of innovators, life-savers, and jokesters.

First up, the Water Production Department:

“Back in March, this is where we change our disinfectant byproducts. In previous years, this process has taken about two weeks. John was able to turn it into a two-day process.

Next, the police chief:

“Vinny got involved–all the merchandise back and bad guy goes to jail.”

And closing out the honors, the clerk’s office:

“I probably shouldn’t say this, but the last thing Shane did when he left as an intern–he was doing some of our advertisements. There’s something called alt-text where you can hover over a picture. It was a chili festival or something. A few days after he left, somebody hovered over it and it says, ‘ooh! Hot and saucy!'”

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Quick, someone check Titusville.com for alt-text

But the next item had potential to get more heated than a four-alam chili: whether to rename South Street after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

“This is important because Dr. King expressed his dream that all minorities would be treated fairly,” an older man in a vest testified. “Renaming the street will emphasize not just the black minority but all minorities–the Asian minority, the Indian minority, Japanese, Chinese, and even the women minority.”

It was a compelling argument. Although to be frank, the reasoning of Vice Mayor Matt Barringer was less about including minorities (even “the women minority”), and more about raw bureaucratic expediency:

“The benefit is that there’s no street addresses, so it becomes much easier.”

The vote to go forward passed unanimously.

Barreling right along like a hurricane up the Florida coast, the council turned to one final teensy, tiny rezoning request for small homes near Park Avenue. Seems like a no-brainer and we can just–

“I’m not an engineer and I’m not fancy with a degree or nothing, but it just doesn’t seem like a practical area to build homes,” a man in a red Polo shirt protested with a swaggering “I’m no big-city lawyer” tone.

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Ooh, hot and saucyDAMN IT, SHANE!

That kicked off a cavalcade of concerned residents protesting this wetland building spree.

  • “You’re talking about homes that are 50 foot long and 20 foot wide. That’s a fishing boat!”
  • “I believe your intelligence is wrong.”
  • “If god had made square wetlands, it would’ve been a lot easier. But he didn’t.”

At one point, Mayor Walt Johnson perceived that a commenter was itching to say more after the timer had expired.

“You need some more time, sir?” the mayor gently quizzed.

“Uh,” the man mused, “two minutes. You need uplands for the–”

“One second, please,” the mayor halted him, seeking a motion from council to extend the time. It was a kind and merciful gesture. A one-time exception. Except…

“You need additional time?” Mayor Johnson asked the next woman who ran over. “How much?”

“Two minutes?” she offered hesitantly.

“That’s what I’m looking for,” he grinned. Fine, twice in one meeting is extremely benevolent and certainly not–

“Need more time?” the mayor prompted yet another commenter who ran over.

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Would someone get a whip for the mayor to crack??

Finally, the applicant for the housing stepped forward indignantly. “The lady that spoke before had a parade of horribles of things that happen maybe once in a while and acted like they happen all the time! We’re not gonna wipe out the wetlands,” he insisted.

Mayor Johnson frowned. “I’d like to see everybody at least have a shot at talking together and making something better,” he murmured.

And in classic fasion, the council that gave everyone two more minutes gave themselves two more months to figure it out.

Interview #94: McDonough, GA Councilwoman Sandra Vincent (with podcast)

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

Sandra Vincent has been on the McDonough city council for over a decade and only recently experienced her first meeting about tattoos and piercings. We also covered her frustration over a park and what that meant for a business owner who wanted to comment upon it.

Q: Last year, there was one part of the city employee handbook that bothered you–the council was trying to limit tattoos and piercings. Was this the first time in your more than a decade on the city council that this subject came up?

A: There have been other times we discussed dress code. I don’t recall there being another time when we specifically were creating policy that descriptive around tattoos. Tattoos, even though I don’t have a tattoo and don’t particularly like them, culturally there are more young people who are into tattoo wearing. To say that we’re not going to hire individuals with tattoos above the neck is to limit ourselves.

Q: How surprised were you that the others did not see it your way?

A: I was extremely. I think I had a weeklong debate with my four daughters. What was even more odd is that there were people presenting in the audience that evening who represented the local chamber [of commerce], one of which had tattoos and a mouth piercing!

Q: No way!

A: I was sitting there thinking, this is a professional woman that has just presented this amazing piece to us. She has tattoos and piercings and we’re saying that if you exemplify those characteristics, that’s not considered professional. I almost felt like I had been propelled back about 20 years.

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McDonough, GA Councilwoman Sandra Vincent

Q: At the meeting on April 18, 2016, you moved to add a discussion of the Overlook subdivision park to the agenda. But other council members said they had already told people that there would be no discussion and therefore it should stay off the agenda. How sympathetic were you to that reasoning?

A: I wasn’t. Initially, the Overlook discussion was on the agenda. In that chamber were somewhere between 50 and 75 individuals from the Overlook community who had come out. Somebody took it off [the agenda].

Q: After you gave a presentation despite the mayor trying to gavel you down, the audience applauded and you left the chamber. Do you remember where you went?

A: I walked outside of chambers through the back door to try and capture myself. I went out and did have a conversation because those are people that I represent. I think the most heartbreaking thing was an elderly gentlemen–he just kind of looked at me and said, “Ms. Vincent, what do we do now?”

Q: When you came back in the room, you and a public commenter had an exchange in which you wanted her to state that she did not live in the city, despite owning a business there. Did you have a history with that person?

A: The commenter had concerns regarding the park. My response concerning whether or not the individual lived in McDonough was germane to the fact that there were almost 75 individuals who live in the city that were refused an opportunity to speak. We’re talking about specific issues for a particular geographic area and this business is across town. I don’t see how it’s fair to not disclose the fact that the person is not a resident.


Follow Councilwoman Sandra Vincent on Twitter: @sandravincent

#158: Columbia, SC 6/5/18

“It’s amazing. You referenced the prophet Isaiah–‘come let us reason together’,” Mayor Steven Benjamin mused after a pastor wrapped up his invocation and the audience lifted their heads.

“We’re gonna move to defer item 41 for two weeks in the interest of everyone talking together again. Let’s see if we can get some good discussion.”

Eying the standing room-only crowd–some wearing color-coordinated t-shirts–the mayor added, “we’re not gonna be voting on the healthcare plan tonight. Some of you obviously have other things that you need to be doing.”

A cacophony of disgruntled murmuring arose as a mob of people lined up for the door. Council members sat stiffly and Mayor Benjamin fingered the gavel just in case.

“Please keep it down just a tad bit!” he hollered.

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“See you in two weeks, everyone!”

The crowd may have left, but the fireworks were just getting started.

“Mr. Mayor, I am opposed to this because this is another start of tax breaks for student housing in the city of Columbia,” insisted Councilman Howard Duvall indignantly.

“I respectfully disagree,” Mayor Benjamin replied calmly. “We’re gonna be able to disagree on policy and respectfully disagree.”

For the third time in under a minute, he clarified, respectfully: “But I respect your ability to disagree.”

With that, the fury fizzled. Everyone got on the same page and with rocket speed approved one item after the other–only pausing long enough for Councilman Duvall to exclaim:

“Those were the most detailed plans I’ve ever seen for a bicycle repair rack! About 16 pages!”

All of a sudden, as the clerk prepared to call the roll, Mayor Benjamin stood up and wandered over to Duvall, deliberately switching off the councilman’s microphone and whispering in his ear.

“Mr. Duvall?” the clerk prompted.

With the two men gossiping off mic, Councilwoman Tameika Isaac Devine glanced over. “Howard, say ‘aye’,” she coached.

Duvall whipped around and blinked. “Aye!” he declared, spinning back to continue with the mayor.

Apparently, Mayor Benjamin is a master of keeping secrets. Not five minutes later, he again sprung up to have a side chat with Councilman Edward McDowell, all the while keeping far away from the microphones.

What was he plotting? A surprise party for someone’s birthday? A legislative coup? A strategic ploy to make the front page of City Council Chronicles?

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Mission accomplished, chief.

Councilwoman Devine raised her hand. “I would just say, regarding mainly our land use boards, the new members will have to go through training.”

She fired a warning shot to the newest crop of board members. “They are sitting and representing the city. They need to hear people out. They need to be respectful. And they need to follow the law.”

I would add a final commandment: they need to avoid having side chatter in a business meeting. (Not directed to anyone in particular!)

Moving on to public comment, a man with a striped tie sternly informed council members, “I myself on May 27 was the victim of racial profiling. I wasn’t pleased.”

Then, in a possible attempt at intimidation, he cautioned: “I told your chief, once my people come from Seattle, we will be organizing protests.”

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Seattle knows how to protest, Your Honor.

It didn’t work on Mayor Benjamin. “They’re welcome to come from Seattle, my friend,” he nodded. “We have porous borders. If you are in the borders of the United States of America, you’re welcome to have your positions heard. Happy to talk with you.”

We know you are, Mayor. We know.

Interview #88: Greensboro, NC Council Member Justin Outling (with podcast)

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

Few people have had as eventful a three years on their city council as Justin Outling has had in Greensboro. From the infamous transgender bathroom bill to screening police body camera footage in a meeting, we relived some of the most contentious moments in his council chamber.

Q: I noticed that every council meeting, you bring in a courier. Is this a position of honor or does it go to the city employee who’s about to be fired or what?

A: I think definitely more of the former than the latter! Greensboro city council has had a courier for quite some time now and that person’s task is to provide council with notes either from staff or from persons in the gallery. It’s traditionally a city employee from one of the many departments who has the pleasure of spending four or five hours with us on a Tuesday. Human conveyor belt is probably an apt description.

Q: But if they drop a bunch of files on the floor, they’re not gonna walk in and be fired the next morning in the Parks and Rec department, right?

A: If the call were mine, they would not be fired. But that’s really the city manager’s call. So all couriers in Greensboro, beware: don’t drop the papers!

Q: At one meeting, your Republican state representative came to defend the controversial North Carolina transgender bathroom bill. Do you as council members have to watch what you say about higher level politicians in meetings to avoid them retaliating against you?

A: I think there is a lot of strategy that one has to undertake in moving the ball forward and working with state legislators who do have the power to make your life difficult and act against the interests of the city. There are definitely occasions where you have to exercise restraint and do what you think is best for the city, not necessarily what’s best for your sanity.

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Greensboro, NC Council Member Justin Outling

Q: In the summer of 2016, there was an incident involving a white police officer who used excessive force against a black man and it was captured on body camera footage. Your council decided not only to release that video, but to do it at a council meeting, on camera, with a full room of onlookers. I can imagine council members in other cities going, “what? Why would you ever do such an emotionally-charged, embarrassing, or uncomfortable thing in a council meeting?” 

A: Allowing the citizens to actually see what happened and giving them an opportunity to express their frustration, their disappointment, and their hopes for the future–through that incident, it helped bring some members of the community closer together. It perhaps wasn’t the best for council members’ egos in terms of hearing a lot of unpleasant things from members of our community who were hurting like we were.

Q: As the footage was playing in that council chamber, I’m not sure what you were expecting to happen, but did it happen?

A: Yeah, I was expecting to see a lot of hurt on people’s faces, and that’s exactly what I saw. And it’s the same images I saw on the faces of my colleagues the first time we saw it in a closed session.

Q: Do you see a divide on your council between people who consistently think about what the proper role is for council members, and then others who are better at reacting to the mood of the room?

A: I think there is a divide. I would not characterize it as being better to reacting to the mood of the room. I think some people are much more willing to tell folks what they want to hear, notwithstanding the merit. The reality is that I’m an elected member of Greensboro city council. It is not about me feeling good about what I say and what I do.


Follow Council Member Justin Outling on Twitter: @JustinOutling

Interview #80: Peachtree City, GA Mayor Vanessa Fleisch (with podcast)

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

If you were riding on Peachtree City’s 100 miles of golf cart paths this week, you might have noticed Mayor Vanessa Fleisch and I talking about her council meetings. We discussed the one thing her council does extremely well, but also her tumultuous years of meetings as a council member alongside a controversial former mayor.

Q: I do have to compliment Peachtree City for having a surprisingly detailed set of minutes from all of your meetings. Not only are they detailed, you have the minutes going all the way back to 1959! Do you think your council has primarily focused on the minutes instead of the video?

A: Oh, without a doubt because according to the state of Georgia, the minutes are actually the legal part of it. The video and the audio are extra and something we do try to provide. Unfortunately, yes, we’ve run into glitches with some of the video and getting it right with our contractor. By law, it’s the minutes that are the important part.

Q: Hmm, I see. By the way, one of the things the city council did at its first meeting in 1959? Have the mayor call the post office and say, “hey, we exist now.”

A: [Laughs] Well that’s good because we still don’t have a postmaster and it’s been almost 60 years! So maybe you can help us with that.

Q: We might as well get to the stuff that the mainstream city council meeting podcasts are not talking about. How would you describe relations on the council under former Mayor Don Haddix?

A: I think it was a rather strange relationship, particularly during the council meetings. That is something that I think we’ve come a long way and are far more efficient with our meetings now.

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Peachtree City, GA Mayor Vanessa Fleisch

Q: At the July 21 meeting in 2011, there was a resolution for the censure of Mayor Haddix. That included a vote of no confidence and a request for his resignation. The mayor’s complaint was the censure had been added the night before and he hadn’t had appropriate time to write a rebuttal. Do you recall if he was blindsided with that and if that was kind of the point?

A: I do not recall that specifically. I do know by law, when we do make changes to the agenda, it has to be done 24 hours in advance. I can’t imagine he was totally blindsided. We move far more professionally now. That was a difficult period for the city.

Q: How much of the censure was about protecting the city’s image and then how much was it about your professional discomfort with a coworker?

A: There was a concern that we were continually on the front page of the paper with some of the issues at our meetings. It’s very difficult to get things done when you have continual upheaval at your council meetings. A lot of it was to protect the city in general because there’s a lot of consequences to the public airing of discord at these meetings, when there’s a lack of professionalism. It was more about the city–34,000 people is what I think about every day.

Q: You were not really inside the “ring of fire” in those meetings. Was your experience different from those of the other council members?

A: There were a lot of fireworks at the meetings and I didn’t think it was very productive to have just one more person entering into the fray. So yes, I stayed out of a lot of it.


Follow Mayor Vanessa Fleisch on Twitter: @vanessafleisch

Interview #78: Nashville, TN Councilman Colby Sledge (with podcast)

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

Colby Sledge is the District 17 councilman and a former reporter on the Nashville Metro Council. There is a smorgasbord of procedural features in the Music City that you won’t find in most American city councils–primarily because of the size. Plus, we talk about the many ways in which Nashville’s council exercises politeness.

Q: Most city councils have seven members, nine members–but Nashville has 40 council members. And you all sit at individual desks on the chamber floor. The Tennessee state senate has 33 people, so you have more members than half of your state’s legislature! What are the advantage and disadvantage of having that many council members?

A: Yeah, it’s always a fun thing to throw out whenever we’re at conferences or speaking with lawmakers in other cities, to get “that look” when we tell them we have 40 members. It is a product of when the city and county merged more than 50 years ago. Everybody got to keep their jobs!

Q: Sure.

A: We have the third-largest municipal council in the country behind New York and Chicago. I think the advantage is definitely constituent service. You are expected, as a council member, to know pretty much everyone in your district. Disadvantage is, as you imagine, it can get unwieldy sometimes.

Q: You have a lot of public hearings. You don’t take public comment in the meetings, but you have hearings where people raise their hands in the gallery if they are in favor of or opposed to a bill. I haven’t seen this hand-raising thing before. What are you looking for, exactly?

A: We’re primarily looking for folks who are opposed. Because there are so many zoning bills that we handle, we’re trying to get a sense if there is still dissent within the community. It encourages council members to have meetings before it comes to public hearing. The worst-case scenario is you have a lot of people who are opposed; it kind of reflects poorly on the council member because he or she may have not done all the prep work.

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Nashville, TN Councilman Colby Sledge

Q: I have heard of the concept of “councilmanic courtesy” in Nashville. Essentially, it’s “I’ve got something in my district that I’d like approved. Please do it for me and I’ll vote for the next thing YOU need in your district.” How many times since you’ve been on council have you received councilmanic courtesy?

A: That’s a good question. I think it’s a product of our size. The vast majority of zoning bills–I can’t even think of one that I didn’t [receive courtesy]. If I made a compelling case for a rezoning, most of the time, council members were for it. There’s no written rule that says we’re supposed to be offering this. But when you have a legislative body that’s this large dealing with land-use issues, it tends to be the unwritten rule. I try to think about how it’s going to affect my constituents. If there’s little to no effect, I feel comfortable supporting it.

Q: There is no such thing as councilwomanic courtesy because you don’t have councilwomen in Nashville. You have “council ladies.” What kind of “Gone With the Wind” tradition is that?!

A: [Laughs] I will say that my predecessor in District 17 was a woman and I probably almost always called her “council lady.” It’s really up to each member’s preference.


Follow Councilman Colby Sledge on Twitter: @Sledgefor17