Interview #139: Homewood, AL Councilor Jennifer Andress (with podcast)

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

There are a handful of quirks to the Homewood council meetings–from the lack of public comment to the mysterious location of the committee meeting minutes. Jennifer Andress explains the council procedures as well as notable meetings about nuisance properties and Bird scooters.

Q: I noticed that Homewood does not stream its committee meetings online, nor does Homewood put the committee meeting minutes online–

A: No, we do put the [minutes of] committee meetings online. As soon as we approve them, they go online. You’re right about the streaming live. A few of us have talked about that. There’s some extra cost involved. There are 11 of us on the council and I’m not sure that there would be 11 votes for that. I would vote for that.

Q: I’m surprised by your contention that the committee meeting minutes are online because I have the minutes from your public safety committee on April 1, 2019. I had to request the minutes from the city because they were not posted. Why do you make it hard for people to see the work of your government?

A: So we don’t put committee meeting minutes online, you are correct. We do put the council meeting minutes online. The committee meeting minutes are different. The reason we don’t is just the enormity of what it would be. What we’ve done is once those minutes are approved at council, that becomes part of the council minutes.

Q: The committee minutes don’t really capture the lead-up to the action. What was the debate? Who asked what questions? What information did you receive? Do you think that barebones action minutes are appropriate considering they are the only record of the committee’s work?

A: Our city clerk takes diligent notes, but you’re correct, that is what the committee meeting minutes look like. Our council meeting minutes are quite detailed and capture every comment that’s made. But I agree with you, committee meeting minutes are bullet pointed and action oriented.

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Homewood, AL Councilor Jennifer Andress

Q: I realized that I was watching a lot of Homewood meetings about the same topic: nuisance properties. How often do you have to decide whether somebody’s house is a nuisance?

A: I would say maybe once a quarter and they usually put them all on the same night. Our city is eight square miles but we typically know right away when something comes before us; we’re familiar with the property. We’ve got the city covered. There’s 11 of us and we’ve traveled these miles a lot.

Q: With 11 councilors in an eight-square-mile city–more than one councilor per square mile–do you ever worry about the consequences of condemning a house in your neighborhood? How do you deal with those relationships?

A: For example, the home that I had known about for 17 years–it was just in awful condition. We gave this guy a million breaks and a million chances. It’s not hard to argue, “hey, there’s animals living in the kitchen sink.” You gotta think about all the other neighbors around that property that want the property gone. Obviously, you’ve got the homeowner, but you’re also representing everybody around them. Neighbor after neighbor comes up and says, “look, this has been going on for 10 years. This is a detriment to our neighborhood and our property values, and our kids’ safety.” A lot of times it comes down to kids’ safety, honestly. I know that sounds cliche, “what about the kids?” But honestly, they can sue the city [if they go on hazardous property].


Follow Councilor Jennifer Andress on Twitter: @andressjen

Interview #111*: Doraville, GA Council Member Joseph Geierman (with podcast)

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

Joseph Geierman is the first-term District 2 council member who saw his city’s non-discrimination ordinance get held up in brief confusion at a council meeting last year. He explains why it was important to pass the legislation right away and the merits of speeding up council action generally.

Q: On November 5, 2018, the Doraville council was to vote on a non-discrimination ordinance. However, Council Member Pam Fleming wanted it to be a resolution and apply to businesses as well as individuals. What do you believe she was getting at there?

A: I think that Council Member Fleming maybe believed that we were trying to legislate morality by passing a non-discrimination ordinance. Really we were concerned about everyone in our city being treated equally. While I don’t think that she wants people to be treated unfairly, I think that she just had a concern with the concept of a non-discrimination ordinance.

Q: Procedurally, you would need to vote unanimously to waive the first reading and, if successful, would proceed to the final reading that night to pass it on a majority vote. But two council members said, “no, we don’t want to pass it tonight.” Other people responded, “well, we need a special meeting because this is pretty damn important.” Did you feel it was important enough to pass P.D.Q? You know your community; how much discrimination could there have been in the month between council meetings?

A: For us, the bigger impetus was we had been talking about it a lot. I think we were generating buzz in other cities. Since we passed it, several other cities in the area have passed it. Before we did it, no other city in Georgia besides Atlanta had passed a non-discrimination ordinance, and theirs had passed 20 years ago. We really wanted to make a statement with this and we didn’t want it to be pushed and maybe have other cities get ahead of us.

Q: We heard Council Member Fleming’s confusion about what the council had voted on and she moved to switch her vote. Were you surprised that she was surprised about what the council was doing?

A: I think she didn’t want to go to a special called meeting and she decided to go along with waiving the first read. She knew it was gonna pass. Why not go along and get it over with?

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Doraville, GA Council Member Joseph Geierman

Q: This kind of fake-out did surface again in January when your council held a public hearing for whether to allow a telemedicine services clinic in the city. Council Member M.D. Naser was the only one to vote against waiving the first reading. And again, someone attempted to call a special council meeting and the holdout council member caved in and changed his vote. Do you think there is any merit to changing the requirement of unanimity to waive the first reading?

A: I am certainly open to looking at that. The challenge is if we are only meeting on a particular day in a month and the next date is a month later, that’s a long time for a business to wait for their license just because someone feels like we should hear this all again and then vote yes. We should be looking at changing that because it’s a problem.

Q: I get that people have business before the council and it’s a bummer to make them wait for an additional month. But it also benefits the residents to have more than one occasion to give their opinion and it also benefits you all to reflect on what you’ve learned from meeting to meeting. Does the Doraville council prioritize speed over reflection?

A: I’m sure a lot of business owners would feel like they wished we were a little speedier! If there is serious legislation or a change in our rules or something that really would require a lot of public input, I do think that there probably should be a little more discussion about whether we should waive the first reading.


Follow Council Member Joseph Geierman on Twitter: @geierman

*Interview 111 was previously omitted in the numbering order.

Interview #134: Berea, KY Councilwoman Emily LaDouceur (with podcast)

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

Emily LaDouceur has had a front row seat to several heated skirmishes during her mere four months on the Berea council. From responding to criticism of her attire to pushing an overhaul of the anemic ethics code, she discusses the forces in the community that are making her life difficult.

Q: What happened prior to the April 16, 2019 council meeting that led to your comments about leggings?

A: A man who ran for city council made derogatory comments about me being a big girl and why do I think I can wear yoga leggings? It was posted in a public but membership-only Facebook group. [Another member] posted a picture of me giving a tour of children in city hall. She had put a black smudge over my face and asked “what is this black cloud over Berea?” He made his comments below and it went from there.

Q: Okay, a school group. How many of the parents contacted you after the tour and said, “my child saw female legs today and I had to check him into therapy?”

A: That would be a big, fat zero. None. Nil.

Q: I don’t understand, though, how your tour went from school kids to “I’m getting hate mail for my trousers.” Was it just this one individual who has so much sway over perceptions of you?

A: I wouldn’t say they have huge sway. But hate always has some measure of following. It had nothing to do with my leggings, let’s be real. It’s about politics, where I am left-leaning and they are a very conservative group. And then some good old-fashioned misogyny.

Q: You turned the criticism right back around on your antagonists by posting on Facebook, “the outfit was appropriate….I’ll let you put on the outfit I wore that day…then you can put on the holy, stained T-shirt and oversized jeans worn by some of my colleagues to city council meetings. Report back to us which outfit is more ‘lazy and inappropriate.'” Why bring your fellow councilmen’s choices into this? You could have easily defended yourself without putting them down, yes?

A: Sure. I don’t see it as putting them down as just pointing out the double standard. Women are held to completely different and more stringent standards. I don’t care what they wear as long as they’re getting the work done.

Q: In what way did your council colleagues and the mayor disappoint you here?

A: By not directly calling out the hatefulness. It really is a hate group, and I don’t use that term lightly. There are five council members and the mayor who are members of that group. Progressives in town made a call for them to denounce the behavior of this group and to also exit it. Instead it was a whole lot of false equivalence.

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Berea, KY Councilwoman Emily LaDouceur

Q: You proposed a new council committee to review your city’s code of ethics. What prompted you to think that Berea could be more ethical?

A: We did have a huge blow-up that made statewide news of one particular councilman. He posted an inappropriate and misogynistic meme on Facebook and it was during the Kavanaugh [confirmation] hearing, speaking about the victim. At the following council meeting, there were I think 16 women and men who spoke and many people really laying their hearts on the table about their trauma. They weren’t asking for him to resign. They wanted reconciliation. They wanted an authentic apology. The problem was that in his apology, instead of really saying sorry, said his wife posted it.

Q: Mmmhmm.

A: All of the council members used their opportunity to respond by saying, “well, we have an outdated ethics code. We should probably revisit that.” When I started digging into the code, it is the bare minimum. It is probably, in the whole state of Kentucky, the most bare, basic, minimum code that is in existence.

Q: Where has the meeting footage of the ethics committee come from?

A: It came from my phone. My Facebook live.

Q: Do I understand that the only reason we know about a massive overhaul of the municipal ethics code is because one council member thought to press record on her phone?

A: Yes. I presented a laundry list of open meetings violations that our current council has been partaking in. There won’t be any discussion in council meetings. Most of the discussion happens in these committee meetings that are very poorly attended. They’re not recorded. Minutes are rarely taken. No one really knows what’s going on. I took it upon myself to bring up those things and some of them have changed. I’ve committed to recording as many of them that I can. I’m trying to record them so the public can see how these things are operating.


Follow Councilwoman Emily LaDouceur on Twitter: @EmilyForBerea

Interview #131: Durham, NC Council Member DeDreana Freeman (with podcast)

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

DeDreana Freeman describes Durham’s procedure for providing translation services at council meetings, plus a handful of contentious issues that turned out large numbers of emotional commenters: including alleged anti-Semitism and a planned railyard close to an elementary school in a wealthy neighborhood.

Q: Durham’s population is, I believe, about 15 percent Hispanic. Occasionally you do have Spanish speakers come in to comment to your council. I was a bit surprised at the March 4 meeting this year to hear a woman give her remarks in Spanish and no translation for her was present. One commenter even criticized the city for it. Why was that unavailable here?

A: If it’s not requested in advance, no one’s made available to do translation. Same thing for sign language or disability. The plan is to try and make it more visible how to make that request. I think it was a well-timed smack on the wrist. “You guys need to be paying attention to this.” I appreciated it.

Q: When Durham was firing on all cylinders, you had a robust method of handling translation. In January 2018, you had a vacancy on the council and the other council members had to fill that spot. It’s my understanding that there was English-to-Spanish translation in the room for people who picked up headsets from the city. How much effort did that take to coordinate the realtime translation?

A: There are service providers in the city who offer this service. All we do is make a phone call. It’s not difficult, it’s just a matter of being aware.

Q: In April 2018, there was a meeting that touched upon human rights, race, and institutionalized discrimination. If I gave the listeners ten guesses, they probably wouldn’t come close to knowing what you spent two hours of that meeting talking about. Why was Durham, North Carolina concerned about…Israel?

A: I don’t think the concern was around Israel. I think it was specific to the claims that our police were engaging in militarized training.

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Durham, NC Council Member DeDreana Freeman

Q: Who was making those allegations?

A: There were a number of groups making those allegations. Apparently there was a pamphlet from the Israeli military police that presented that Durham was one of their clients.

Q: At this meeting, the council was voting on adopting a statement that Mayor Steve Schewel wrote whose message was: Durham will not adopt military-style training for its police force, mainly because that exacerbates the problem of racial profiling. However, there was this introductory paragraph of the letter:

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It turns out that mentioning Israel and police training in the same thought was enough to cause some people–and by “some” I mean 50 public commenters–to put the gas pedal to the floor on accusations of anti-Semitism. Did you sense whether Mayor Schewel, who is Jewish himself, felt bad that he inadvertently dragged your council into an accusatory environment? Or did he appear, as I would have, that “I don’t understand what you’re mad about?”

A: I’m not sure. I know that we all stood firm behind the chief’s response to the accusation that we were doing militarized police training. Folks can be offended, but it doesn’t mean that the offense was intentional. It’s okay to hear back that you are offended.

Q: Almost a year later, have you studied up on anti-Semitism and now feel that “yes, I see where they are coming from”? Or are you still mind-boggled that the mere mention of Israel for some people is like using the N-word?

A: I think I understood it then, it was just more important to make clear that we were not engaged [in militarized training]. I’ve had plenty of conversations to hear perspectives that are different from mine. I can completely be empathetic to the feeling of the sentiment that was received.

Q: So if you truly felt you were being anti-Semitic with this statement, you would’ve owned that? You would’ve avoided it in the future?

A: Of course. If I thought it was the case, I would. I’ve encouraged everyone who’s had anything to say about this situation to say what you need to say. It is when you speak for yourself that you get what you need out of it.


Follow Council Member DeDreana Freeman on Twitter: @Freeman4Durham

Interview #117: Boynton Beach, FL Vice Mayor Christina Romelus (with podcast)

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

Christina Romelus is a first-term commissioner and current vice mayor who has experienced pirates in the commission chamber, commentaries on dog poop, and a vote to appoint a new commissioner. But one of the most difficult moments came in response to an idea she raised last year.

Q: On December 5, 2017, you proposed a sanctuary city policy, which basically said that local police will not be enforcing federal immigration law. We have covered sanctuary city debates in other councils. But in the case of Boynton Beach, you all easily had the most boisterous and most raucous public comment of anyplace I’ve seen. How did that make you feel?

A: It reminded me that the First Amendment is alive and well [chuckles]. One of the things that we as America pride ourselves on is being the land of the free and the home of the brave. We provide opportunities. People who come here trying to escape tyranny, they sometimes find worse treatment than they had back home. I’ve never robbed anybody. I’ve never beat up, murdered, stolen anything. Yet when people find out I’m an immigrant or hear the term “immigrant,” that’s what their mind gravitates to.

Q: Mmhmm.

A: The proposal that I was trying to have that night when it turned into a sanctuary city discussion–which is what I never intended for it to be–it was a fruition of the decree that President Trump was cancelling temporary protected status for individuals from countries like Haiti, Honduras, Venezuela, I believe. Those points of view never even got out of my mouth. The second “sanctuary cities” was blared out, it just became an all-out attack on me.

Q: We heard one man say you should be impeached or removed. That is new for me in a sanctuary city debate. What struck me was how personal it got in Boynton Beach. Why do you think that was the direction it took?

A: Half of the people in that room were not Boynton Beach residents. It literally almost became like a Trump rally in chambers. The entire chambers was filled with people with signs–“build the wall!”

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Boynton Beach, FL Vice Mayor Christina Romelus

Q: How surprised were you that all of your other commissioners and the mayor rejected your proposal on grounds of “law and order?”

A: Having you replay this is all raw for me all over again. That night was not an easy night for me. I believe in the Constitution. I took an oath as well to protect and defend the Constitution. And I do that. But we have a duty to protect those who can’t protect themselves. When a black person was considered three-fifths of a person, that was in the Constitution. Was it right to uphold that then? That’s political speak, I feel, for cowering away from the conversation. It was the most politically-savvy way to look like “I’m obligated, my hands are tied,” not necessarily because it’s the right thing to do.

Q: There was a recess after this topic and the commission meeting continued. I noticed you were not there for the remainder of the meeting. Why was that?

A: I could not remain in a room filled with that much hate aimed at me. I could not sit on a dais with people who did not even take the time to consider the reasons or to hear out the arguments why I brought up the conversation. I was not in the right state to continue with that meeting. I actually had somebody escort me home from our police department because that’s how unsafe I felt.


Follow Vice Mayor Christina Romelus on Twitter: @romelus_c

#174: Monroe, NC 11/6/18

Things were looking optimistic for the developers of the quaintly-named Veronica Springs subdivision.

“I’m that odd-shaped square in the middle of this project,” the pastor of the Community Church of the Nazarene announced at the lectern while looking very pastoral in glasses and a sweater vest. “At first I wasn’t sure that I wanted 200 homes built around us like that.”

However, he continued, “we’re in support of it. We decided that it was a good thing for this community. Affordable housing is something we need, and we’ll try to be a good neighbor.”

It was a compelling endorsement to have the lord’s representative on the project’s side. But I wonder, could god possibly send a mixed message through another messenger?

“I ran across an interesting article on Cain and Abel,” began a white-haired man now standing at the microphone. “The practice in ancient time was the father left everything to the oldest son. The reason for that? So it didn’t constantly get subdivided. It would get to the point where people couldn’t sustain themselves on that little land. I think that’s a real important point to consider.”

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Amen

It would be an important point if the future homeowners were grazing cattle and not driving down the road to the Walmart Supercenter for groceries. But there was a more insidious, moral implication to the subdivision.

“We have moved from a predominantly rural to a predominantly urban society,” he continued. “Like with the Tower of Babel, people were supposed to disperse and multiply and they tried to exalt themselves with the tower.”

“Well, there is the war, and the good and evil is done by self-centeredness. That’s what takes us away from god. Urban settings tend to push people toward the self-centeredness–”

“Thank you. We’re gonna stay on track with the public hearing,” Mayor Bobby Kilgore gently nudged the speaker away from the microphone at the end of his three rambling minutes. With no further communications from god, the council moved on.

“Here comes ducky,” council members heckled an employee as he approached the lectern. “Quack, quack!”

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Is this hazing?

The man grinned at the apparent inside joke and proceeded. “We request that the industrial parks owned and developed by the city of Monroe be exempt from the ‘naming of public facilities and lands in recognition of individuals’ policy.”

He added, “the industrial park’s name is significant and needs to be really a brand, not attached to a person.”

“I don’t think it’s good to exclude us from naming,” countered Council Member Surluta Anthony.

“It’s not excluding you. You’re the naming entity.”

“We just don’t have a part in giving the suggestion of names?” she asked.

“You can,” was the reply. “The name can be whatever city council decides.”

Council Member Lynn Keziah was satisfied with this names-but-not-names suggestion. “Motion to approve the amendment to exempt city-owned industrial parks from the naming policy.”

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“City Council Chronicles Industrial Park” is still on the table.

“This is only going to be for industrial parks?” Anthony clarified.

“What I just read,” Keziah replied resolutely.

In case anyone was not 100 percent clear on the new policy, they would have to figure it out on their own time because the council promptly approved it and breezed on to more important matters.

“Thanksgiving is coming up. We give our employees Thursday and Friday,” pointed out Keziah. “I think we should give them Wednesday. Traveling time to get to where they’re going.”

“They’re already smiling in the audience!” Mayor Kilgore exclaimed. The employees had good reason to, for the council voted to make the five-day weekend a reality.

#170: Albemarle, NC 10/1/18

If there was any concern about the Albemarle city council’s attention to detail, their extensive combing of last meeting’s minutes laid those doubts to rest.

“Where it’s talking about the boarding kennel–it says boarding kennels are currently ‘now allowed’ in downtown,” Councilmember Chris Whitley read from the draft minutes. “Are they ‘now allowed’ or ‘not allowed’?”

“It should be ‘not allowed,'” replied city manager Michael Ferris.

Whitley nodded. He added, somewhat apologetically, “I promise I’m not going to nitpick in these things–”

“One other little correction,” interjected Councilmember Dexter Townsend. “Although I do concur with her comments, I think it was Councilmember Hall that congratulated Colleen Conroy on her win for ‘Dancing With the Stars’ instead of me.”

“And while you’re doing that,” Mayor Pro Tem Martha Sue Hall jumped into the fray of picked nits, “I congratulated Lisa on the play at Central School. It doesn’t make any difference to me but….” She trailed off, suggesting that it really would be nice to credit her for the item after all.

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Credit where it’s due

Mayor G.R. “Ronnie” Michael glanced down at the public comment list. He called the name of the only man signed up, who slowly approached the podium.

“I believe you have pictures before you concerning the condition of trees on Richardson Street,” he began. “I’m scared to walk down through there. I don’t need a rainforest and that’s what it looks like to me.”

“Looking at this first picture,” the mayor interjected, “there’s a utility pole–

“Yeah, there is,” muttered Mayor Pro Tem Hall.

“–there’s a wire going across from right to left. Y’all have been fortunate not to have some ‘other’ things occur.”

The city manager attempted to reassure everyone that a live electrical wire was not booby trapping Richardson Street. “I’d bet that’s not a primary electric line or else you’d have outages,” he speculated.

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Oh good, just a secondary electric line

“We wanna clean the street up but we don’t wanna put our lives in jeopardy either,” the man shrugged.

“Did they ever pick up the mattresses down there?” Councilmember Townsend wondered.

“That’s another problem,” sighed the commenter. “With all that overgrowth, people feel like they’re at the city dump.”

Council members nodded, thanked him for coming, and promised that someone would do something about the rainforest and mattress repository.

Mayor Michael flipped the page to an agreement with Pfeiffer University. “Council, we have a section in our agreement with them that talks about reversion. The request is we approve allowing staff to remove the reversion agreement.”

Councilmember Chris Bramlett gave his best shot at making that motion. “I move that we assign our whoever-it-is to remove whatever-it-is.”

Other council members snickered as the mayor patiently reworded the statement into something more proper.

“Allow staff to work with the economic development attorney that drew the agreement to remove the reversion,” he elaborated.

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Thanks, Mayor Whoever-You-Are

It wasn’t the last clarification he would have to make. Minutes later, Mayor Pro Tem Hall asked if she could table the business park design contract until their next meeting.

“Council, do you have any problem with tabling it?” Mayor Michael asked, receiving no reply. “Okay, we’ll table it.”

“Is there a reason?” Bramlett exclaimed, holding his hands palm-up in an exaggerated shrug.

“Council usually gives a gentleman’s agreement to allow a council member to ask for a continuance,” the mayor revealed.

Bramlett flashed a gentlemanly thumbs up and a smile. “Still learning!”