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.

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?

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

#106: North Little Rock, AR 5/22/17

I won’t sugarcoat it: the North Little Rock city council meeting was a riddle wrapped in a mystery and stuck inside one of those Chinese finger traps.

Act I — How Do You Solve a Problem Like 7213 Westwind Drive?

“We have to deal with weeds that are taller than us. We have to deal with gutters coming down, lights coming down,” a woman pounded on the podium in frustration.

“I wish everybody would stand up and show that we’re all here wanting to say: IT IS A MESS. It is a safety hazard.”

Incredibly, virtually the entire audience rose to their feet and stood in solidarity as she pleaded for the city to dynamite that deathtrap.

¡Sí, se puede!

The aldermen stared silently as irate neighbors aired their grievances.

“He’s using his yard for a bathroom,” a man shook his head.

“I have gone to court. I have watched as he has been fined. He just ignores it,” a woman frowned.

“We implore you to put an end to our neighborhood nightmare,” begged another man.

But if the eyewitness testimony didn’t seal the deal, the photos certainly did.

“There’s an air conditioner with an extension cord running through the tub–very unsafe,” a city employee flashed a picture onscreen as the council murmured in disbelief.

“That one scares me to death,” Alderman Debi Ross muttered, staring at an electric water heater without covers.

A future murder scene, probably

The city’s lawyer sighed and waved his hand. “We’ve given this man numerous opportunities. He’s been in jail. I don’t think he’s going to do it.”

“We’re gonna stop that cycle tonight,” Mayor Joe Smith stonily vowed. The council voted to condemn the house.

Act II — The Ghost in the Scrapyard

“A few weeks ago, I heard the noise in Glenview from this plant and they stopped at 11 o’clock at night,” Alderman Linda Robinson shared with the council, referring to a distant scrapyard.

“It’s my understanding that they don’t work late at night. But what I kept hearing–the boom, the boom–I called someone from that area. I said, ‘is this from that scrap metal plant?’ They started laughing and said, ‘yes, it is.'”

“I’m not sure exactly what noise you heard,” a city staffer shrugged and looked perplexed. “They have not been operating at night.”

“This was a few weeks ago and it was from THIS plant,” insisted Alderman Robinson. “We need to send the police out.”

The mayor bit his pen. “Well, I don’t know, Linda. If you heard it…” he trailed off.

At this point, one of the scrapyard’s owners stepped dramatically to the podium.

“We hire the North Little Rock police off-duty to be our night watchmen. So as far as the police on site–they are on site.”

From here, the plot thickened. “I personally approve the time cards,” he said. I haven’t seen anything since January 2015 where we had the crews that were working at night.”

CCTV footage from scrapyard

Mayor Smith pondered hard about how to reconcile Alderman Robinson’s noises with the fact that no human was seemingly on duty.

“Surely you wouldn’t have anybody moonlighting down there that you don’t know [about]?” Smith inquired.

“They better not be because the police would be evicting them from the property and giving them a place to stay for the night,” the man replied with certainty.

Sir, you don’t need the North Little Rock PD at your scrapyard. It sounds like you need an exorcist.

#101: Winston-Salem, NC 5/1/17

No flash. No tomfoolery. The Winston-Salem city council meeting was the “salad without dressing” of municipal powwows. There were no detours, no non-sequiturs, and a heavy dosage of the dry stuff.

“The theme for Building Safety Month 2017 encourages all Americans to raise awareness of the importance of building safety,” read the council secretary in a listless monotone. “And to be mindful of fire prevention, disaster mitigation, and backyard safety.”

After checking my backyard for potential hazards, I returned to the proceedings in time for a riveting slide show of the Northwest Winston-Salem Area Plan.

“We’ve had four public meetings, very well attended,” bragged a city employee at the podium. “Overall attendance was 75 people, with about 45 individuals coming to multiple meetings.”

Let the record show: a Trump inauguration-sized crowd of people attended these meetings.

One hour in, we finally saw a spark of passion from these dying embers. Granted, it was an unlikely subject to cause a dustup: a reexamination of the 2017 property tax appraisal process.

Hear me out! It gets interesting!

“To have our properties lowered like they have been lowered,” Mayor Pro Tempore Vivian Burke made sweeping eye contact with every person on the dais, “it must be our challenge that we let [Forsyth County] know that we don’t like what we are receiving.”

She waved her index finger menacingly next to her oversized broach, signaling that she meant business.

Council Member Denise Adams took a less ominous, more philosophical approach. “For the listening audience and others, there’s always an opportunity to change,” she leaned into the microphone and smiled. “Times change. People change.”

Fact check: TRUE–people do change.

For pure pathos, Council Member John Larson channeled the inner frustrations of many Winston-Salemites–er, Winstonian-Salemers? Winstoner-Salemanders?

“Nobody likes to see their property devalued. It’s very demoralizing.” He frowned deeply and scratched his demoralized face. “Their home is one of the most important investments they have. Individuals don’t have the stamina to take it in front of the Board of Adjustments.”

But someone who did have a trainload of stamina was Mayor Pro Tempore Burke. Suddenly no more Ms. Nice Council Member, she used Larson’s comments to light a match on her stick of rhetorical dynamite.

“It is a DISGRACE and a SHAME that we allow investors to come through and assault our neighborhoods like they have,” she thundered.

“I said to the city manager, ‘I just want you to go and look. Look at the joy and pleasure we have in keeping our neighborhoods.’ Homes are simply beautiful. We spend many dollars–mine looks like a golf course.”

She stared daggers. “Stop destroying our dreams.”

Burke: “I buried 15 land mines on my property. I dare you to come destroy my dreams.”

Finishing on a lighter note, the city manager folded his hands politely and smiled. Far from crushing anyone’s hopes, he was instead expanding their horizons.

“You’ve been asking for many years for us to reduce the use of paper. So this is our fist month using iPads for automated agendas so we don’t have to chop down all those trees.”

He paused before teasing a tantalizing piece of news. “And in a few months we’ll actually be voting with our iPads as well.”

Welcome to the future, Winston-Salem. As a great thinker once said, “Times change. People change.”

Final thoughts: I give 10 out of 10 stars to those 45 people who attended multiple zoning meetings. Oy vey, how did you manage?!

Interview #29*: Miami, FL City Manager Daniel Alfonso (with podcast)

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

Daniel Alfonso is a longtime government employee and Army sergeant. But amazingly, he is also a survivor of Miami’s city commission meetings. What does that mean? Listen to the incredible story.

Q: Is it a different experience being in the council meeting room–or is basically what you see on TV what it’s like in real life?

A: When I’m sitting on that dais, you actually see the faces of all the elected officials. You see the reactions. You see the public because your peripheral vision sees the entire room. When you’re looking at it on TV, you’re only capturing the images of the camera at that particular moment.

Q: Last April, I saw a wild thing at your city commission meeting: the commissioners tried to fire you! I know this is Florida and the threshold for something being shocking is fairly high…how shocked were you?

A: I was a little surprised but I wouldn’t say “shocked.” The meeting that took place that day was a difficult one. What led up to it was that I had terminated an employee who I believed had done something wrong. That employee had some ties to the community and there was a number of people that came out in support. I never [publicly] disclosed the reasoning for the termination because I didn’t need to add insult to injury.

Q: While this is going on, you are staring straight ahead. But behind you is this striking scene of two dozen city employees standing silently behind you. Did you notice what was going on with them?

A: Initially I did not. That day, [my wife] was watching that portion and she sent me a text. She just said to me, “why don’t you get up and come home?”

Q: Mmm.

A: I took a moment to look around and I realized that I had pretty much my entire senior staff–even the police union president–was standing next to me. And he’s a person we definitely have had differences with. I felt pretty good about that. So I responded to my wife, “look at all these people standing behind me. I can’t.”

Miami, FL City Manager Daniel Alfonso

Q: At this point, the mayor comes into the room. He is not amused. Basically, he said, “if you fire Danny, I’ll veto it. If you override me, I’ll just hire him again.” Were you thinking, “god bless this man for sticking up for me?”

A: That was an incredible moment as well. The mayor really came out and supported the job I’ve been doing and supported me tremendously that day. I was actually impressed by how strongly he felt about keeping me for the rest of his term.

Q: At the end of this ordeal, Commissioner Ken Russell said, “this is your come-to-Jesus moment with the commission.” Danny, did you find Jesus in that commission meeting?

A: [Laughs] I’m a religious person and I found Jesus long before that day!

Q: Ha! Do you think that the commission handled this in the best way–in a public meeting?

A: That’s what we in our position expose ourself to. Would I prefer to have a private discussion with each commissioner individually? Yes. But this is the way our elected officials decided to have this discussion.

Follow City Manager Daniel Alfonso on Twitter: @DJA1968

*Due to a typo, there was not previously an interview 29. While this is technically our forty-third interview, we will number it 29 to get back on track.

#98: Slidell, LA 4/11/17

“Mr. President,” drawled Councilman Glynn Pichon, “I’d like to remove 3288 Effie Street from the condemnation list and assign it to the city attorney’s office.”

Barely two minutes after roll call, this verbal hand grenade was tossed into the Slidell city council meeting. Well-dressed men in the audience frantically hunted through stacks of paperwork as city attorney Bryan Haggerty rubbed his tired eyes at the podium.

“The homeowner did demolish the property; the cleanup has not been completed,” Haggerty said with a frown, compulsively uncapping and recapping his pen.

“If I may, Mr. President, if anyone’s here that has any interest in the property, would you please come forward?” Haggerty wheeled around and scanned the chamber.

“Let the record reflect: no one appeared.”

“Let the record also show: this man is looking at”

Whew. Turned out this grenade was a dud. However, as soon as Council President Jay Newcomb flipped the page, calling out the name of 321 Cousin Street, the rumpled attorney rose again with an even more troubled look.

“Mr. France,” Haggerty summoned forth the shaggy, gray-haired building safety director as his first witness, “I know you’ve participated in some of the meetings. Would you provide the council an update?”

“Mr. Stanley proposed a plan to replace the electrical wiring and making that safe,” France slowly testified, bracing himself on the podium. “As well as the exterior of the building being brought up to 100 percent compliance.”

From memory, he impressively rattled off everything that the owner, this mysterious Mr. Stanley, had to fix: “All the rotten materials, the broken materials. The porch. The columns. The exterior doors. That does not include the heating, cooling, ventilation, and/or any plumbing deficiencies.”

Oh, is that all?

Haggerty stood and cut to the chase. “These would be the three options. The first one: Mr. Stanley would have to appear tomorrow with his contractor. If he would fail to appear, we’re gonna ask the council to order all utilities be disconnected, and this matter be set in two weeks for condemnation.”

He wiped his nose. “The second option would be that Mr. Stanley work out a building permit with a schedule–it’s a schedule we are VERY strict about.”

France stood impassively as council members leaned in for the remaining ultimatum. “The third option would be that the permit would be issued, but if the work stopped or ceased for whatever reason, we would immediately cut off all utilities.”

All heads swiveled to the right end of the dais. Councilman Pichon knew this case inside and out–the final judgment was his.

“I’m gonna use the second option here to require Mr. Stanley to meet with Joe France tomorrow to submit a plan. Because of the public safety concern, which is a real threat,” Pichon clasped his hands and stared grimly at the lawyer, “if Mr. Stanley failed to meet with Joe France, the city is authorized to disconnect utilities by the close of business tomorrow.”

Noooooo! Mercy! Have mercy!

To administer the sentence, Haggerty beckoned Stanley forward. The man planted himself glumly at the podium and stared at the floor.

“I want to make sure you understood. You’re in agreement with that?”

“I am,” he responded.

“Okay,” Haggerty gestured to the audience. “Make sure you meet with Mr. France to set a time for tomorrow.”

“Ten-thirty. My office,” France ordered.

Stanley nodded. “That’s fine.”

Final thoughts: I give 10 out of 10 stars to swift Southern justice.

Interview #43: Martinsville, VA Council Member Jennifer Bowles (with podcast)

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

Jennifer Bowles was 25 years old when she was simultaneously sworn in to the city council AND selected as vice mayor. But more impressively, she and I went to the same university! You’d better believe we talked about that.

Q: Let’s see what University of Virginia traditions you have taken part in. Have you been inside the steam tunnels?

A: Yes, but I don’t actually remember. [Laughs] I was with friends!

Q: Uh…is it fair to say there was some partying beforehand?

A: Yes, there was.

Q: Mmm, okay. Have you run naked across the Lawn?

A: I have not.

Q: You would remember if you did THAT, right?

A: I’d have recalled!

Q: Have you broken into the janitor’s closet in the Rotunda and drank from the human skull inside?

A: No.

Q: Okay. I made that one up, but it sounds like it could be a real tradition! Now, in 2015 you had been on the city council for one month, you had been the vice mayor for one month–but in February, Mayor Danny Turner let you run a city council meeting! What is the trick to running a meeting?

A: A lot of people told me to just take my time. They jokingly said, “the lawyer would help you out with Robert’s Rules!”

Q: It helped that the actual mayor was sitting next to you the entire time.

A: Yeah and I will say, another member of council had previously been the mayor and he was to the left of me. And the mayor was to the right. So I had two individuals who had run the meeting before to help me out.

Q: Oh, my god. You were swimming in mayors! Can you think of anything strange or unusual that’s happened in your city council meetings since you’ve been there?

Martinsville, VA Council Member Jennifer Bowles

A: The biggest thing is the mayor has removed someone from a council meeting–and they’re now a city council member.

Q: Let’s talk about that removal. In 2015, Chad Martin–who is now your vice mayor–asked the mayor for an apology in public comment. The mayor turned him down and someone with Mr. Martin yelled out “pathetic” and “moron.” What was all that about?

A: So there was an issue about how a mural should have been designed. The mural was on a predominantly African-American side of town. Mr. Martin wanted the mural to be by an African-American artist. There was a meeting between myself, the mayor, the city manager [and Martin]. After that conversation, there was some things said between the mayor and Mr. Martin that I’d rather not repeat. I don’t get frustrated. I’m willing to talk to anyone.

Q: Is it true that you stopped televising your council meetings for a while?

A: We stopped televising [public comment] because maybe people were nervous to be on the television who wouldn’t speak up because they knew they would be on TV. So we tried to make it more friendly to those individuals.

Q: So people stopped showing up?

A: Yes. There were some people who never showed up again.

Q: In my mind, those people were showing up because they WANTED to be on TV and get their message out there. 

A: That would be my assumption. They were expressing an opinion so everyone could be informed.

Follow Council Member Jennifer Bowles on Twitter: @ViceMayorBowles