Interview #89: Santa Ana, CA Mayor Pro Tem Michele Martinez (with podcast)

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

Michele Martinez has been on the Santa Ana council for 12 years and is the current mayor pro tem. That means she runs the meetings when the mayor is gone, and it turns out that she has a significant philosophical difference on how to do things. We talk about her approach to public comment and the linguistic changes that have happened in her council chamber.

Q: You were first elected in 2006, which was also the year I created my first municipal affairs program, the “Planning and Zoning Commission Chronicles.” In retrospect, it was terrible. But can you think of any changes that have happened to the Santa Ana council meetings during these 12 years?

A: One of the first things that my colleagues and myself did was to get translation services for those that wished to come and speak before the council. Before that, our mayor would translate for those that would come and speak Spanish. We just thought that was kind of unfair.

Q: Was translation something he wanted to do or was he given that task?

A: Well by default, he knows Spanish fluently and as the mayor he would just do it because we had no one, nor did we ever dedicate the funding to pay for someone. If he weren’t there and there isn’t someone else to translate, a staff member or someone else in the public would translate on behalf of that person.

Q: One time, you and Mayor Miguel Pulido were absent and the other council members excused you but refused to excuse him. What does that mean–does an unexcused absence go on the mayor’s permanent record?

A: Obviously, he won’t get paid for that council meeting.

Q: Ah. Is the mayor frequently gone for important votes?

A: True. There are times where he doesn’t want to take action on certain items, so he won’t attend. I always give ample notice and I inform everyone why I can’t attend. The mayor chooses not to do that. He’ll contact the clerk very last minute and never give his rationale. The mayor doesn’t like controversy and I think everyone knows that about him.

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Santa Ana, CA Mayor Pro Tem Michele Martinez

Q: Well, I don’t like controversy either so–I’m kidding, I love controversy. That’s why I’ll bring up this: in December 2016 there was a meeting of four council members, including you and the mayor. The other three council members were absent. The subject of the meeting was disciplining the city manager. You needed four votes to put him on administrative leave and you coincidentally had those four votes. Were you sensitive to the perception that this meeting was about power and not process?

A: The mayor in this case doesn’t need four members of the council. He can do a special meeting at any given time without consent of the council. So the mayor chose to have that meeting. There’s been inconsistencies as it pertains to the process. We need to have some kind of protocol so there is no blame game and we’re consistent.

Q: Can you speculate why the decision to discipline the city manager could not have waited until a meeting with all seven council members?

A: Obviously it could. Yeah. The mayor chose to do it at that specific time because it benefited him.

Q: I just realized that when the mayor leaves early from meetings, he doesn’t hear all the public comments that he pushed to the end. Did you realize that?

A: Oh, yes. I realize it every single time. He does leave most times before public comment and I believe that’s wrong. We should all be able to listen, including the mayor.


Follow Mayor Pro Tem Michele Martinez on Twitter: @Michele714

#156: Denison, TX 4/2/18

It was only appropriate that a Texas-sized stemwinder of a prayer kicked off the Denison council meeting.

“Every beginning has its ending and every ending has a new beginning. Help our leaders to know what to cling to, what to preserve, and what to let go of,” a woman in an Easter-Bunny-pink shirt requested from the heavens.

“Empower each one of them to use their unique gifts to create a beautiful life in our community. As they are guided by your holy spirit, our entire community will flourish.”

It was more important than usual that the prayer today be thorough, for the council was facing an issue that might usher in copious amounts of sin:

Whether to give a nightclub an alcohol and live music permit.

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Pray for cheap drinks

“One of the situations in the request is also the operating hours,” a staff member explained. “Proposed operating hours for this are Thursday through Saturday, 8 p.m. to 2 a.m.”

He quickly added, “this is inside the entertainment district. A nightclub use, live music, is appropriate.”

When I think “small-town Texas entertainment district,” I imagine rodeos and gun stores, not live music and dancing. Talk about pushing boundaries!

“We are the owners of the nightclub,” a couple announced at the lectern. “Here for any questions you may have.”

“Is this your first time to operate a nightclub?” Mayor Jared Johnson quizzed them.

“Yes. I’ve worked in nightclubs before off and on throughout the years,” replied the man confidently.

Councilmember J.C. Doty was surprised at how late the nightclub would keep the music cranking. “You’re requesting to be open till 2 a.m. I know some of the other places around close at midnight,” he observed. “Was there a specific reason why you wanted to stay open till 2 a.m.?”

“We’re only gonna be open three nights a week,” countered the owner, much to the chagrin of the Tuesday-night club aficionados. “I believe that’d be very important for our profit margin to have a couple extra hours per night.”

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Who closes at midnight??

“So being in the entertainment district,” the mayor mused aloud, “should there be an event on a Saturday afternoon that they could benefit from being open during that time, what would be the process for allowing them to do that?”

Mayor Pro Tem Kris Spiegel abruptly leaned forward to defend the tiny business from the heavy hand of big government.

“I guess I don’t understand why we’re limiting it to 8 [p.m.] to 2 [a.m.] Whether they open at 5 p.m. or 4 p.m., I don’t know why we care.”

The staff member seemed to back up the libertarian point of view, replying, “I’d have to request the ordinance. I’m not sure that we have to restrict their hours. I believe we request them to give us operating hours.”

The mayor, sensing a compromise between the open-anytime wing of the council and the eight-to-two faction, said, “if it’s the council’s pleasure, what they’re suggesting is to put in a number not to exceed five or six times a year to have different opening hours.”

He glanced to his left. “Mr. Pro Tem, does that make sense?”

Spiegel nodded. “Understood.”

After a moment’s silence, he continued, “does that mean you want me to make a motion?”

“That’d be great,” the mayor deadpanned to laughter, before adding ominously, “don’t mess it up.”

And just as the prayer said: the council knew what to preserve and knew what to let go of.

Interview #85: Aurora, CO Council Member Allison Hiltz (with podcast)

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

First-term council member Allison Hiltz has already seen a ton in her first three months: a bicycle shop in distress, sexual harassment training on the rocks, and an uproar involving the Girl Scouts. Listen for all the details!

Q: There’s this image of city council meetings that they are the place you go if your back is up against a wall and you need to plead your case to somebody. On February 5, there were over half a dozen people who came to beg that your city council save the Second Chance Bicycle Shop, which was about to be evicted.  Were they correct to come to you in a meeting to ask for help?

A: Yeah. I think it’s always correct to come and talk about the community at council meetings. That’s what city councils should be. That’s our job to know what’s happening in the community and to help.

Q: Do you get the urge to drop everything and figure out how to help these folks out?

A: I always want to drop everything and fix everything but then I have to stop, take a breath, and just work on getting the right people on it.

Q: Right, you’ve got to pace yourself. You’ve got a four-year term! I heard you are a lifelong Girl Scout. Is that correct?

A: Yes!

Q: Nice, nice. Same here. What was the idea that the Girl Scouts had for the Aurora city council?

A: It was to protect the health and safety of minors who are in cars with people who are smoking.

Q: This proposed ordinance came up at the January 22 meeting. At one point, Council Member Bob LeGare said the ordinance was trying to “legislate the action of stupid people.” You took offense to his use of the word “stupid.” How do you respond to the argument that Bob LeGare may simply have been “telling it like it is” while you were being “politically correct?”

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Aurora, CO Council Member Allison Hiltz

A: You know, I still stand by that comment. I understand that we live in a political world where you can just say whatever you want and call people the names that you want. I do think that as an elected official, you’re held to a higher standard. It is up to us to maintain a level of professionalism. I think once you start calling names over one action, why not start calling everyone else a name for whatever action they have?

Q: Was it the word that bothered you or was it the judgment behind that word being leveled upon people for some behavior?

A: It’s the judgment. No one’s saying that smoking in a car with children is a good idea. But it’s also not our job as council members to start judging the individual actions of people. Once you start passing judgment on people, it just goes into a whole different way of legislating that is not my preferred way.

Q: How surprised were you that between the first meeting with the Girl Scouts’ ordinance and the second meeting, the rhetoric had shifted to opposition?

A: I think it was easy for some to forget that these are 12-year-old girls. There was a lot of conversation about some things that I think maybe were not necessary to have said so vehemently and sternly in a public setting to 12-year-old girls. I would have much preferred those concerns to have been made to those Girl Scouts in a one-on-one context. It’s easy to forget sometimes that the people you’re talking about are real human beings and also 12.


Follow Council Member Allison Hiltz on Twitter: @AllisonHiltz 

State of the City Council Meetings Address 2018

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FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE–This evening, City Council Chronicles Editor Michael Karlik gave the second annual State of the City Council Meetings address to a joint session of Congress. Reports are that nearly all senators stayed awake and a stunning nine of ten House members did not walk out. By any measure, it was a success. Below is a rush transcript and audio of the entire speech, which is also available on iTunesStitcher, and Player FM:

Mr. Speaker, mayors, council members, Mom: ever since this project began in April 2016, we have chronicled the city council meetings of over 200 cities on four continents in eight countries. And none of them were sh*tholes.

Now, some have questioned my ability to chronicle that many city councils. But I assure you, as someone who is 6’3″ and 239 pounds–239? Is that what we’re going with, Doc? Great–and 239 pounds, I am in perfect health. I could easily do this for another four to eight weeks before I get bored and start reviewing Star Wars instead or something.

But I do not keep watch over the world’s city council meetings by myself. My team of unpaid interns with questionable citizenship status work 18 hours a day reviewing footage, checking Robert’s Rules of Order, and not finding out what OSHA is. And—do not clap for them! Justice Breyer, DO. NOT. Anyway, I am thankful for my interns and as soon as I find out what college credit is, I will consider giving it to them.

Speaking of being thankful, tonight we have some esteemed guests in the gallery. Sitting next to the First Lady is past podcast guest Andy Richardson, city councilman in Charleston, West Virginia, who has since announced that he is running for mayor. Good luck, Councilman. And remember, you’ll always be the mayor of my heart.

Next to him is Lauren McLean, council member in Boise, Idaho who, surprisingly, was elected her council’s president this year. Council Member McLean was a former Scottish Highland dancer, so she’s no stranger to unusual moves.

And finally, we have Fresno, California Council Member Esmeralda Soria, who appeared on the podcast back in December as council vice president, but totally and expectedly became council president this month. But get this: outgoing President Clint Olivier tried to pull a fast one on her by simply not handing over the gavel until she called him out.

When Council Member Soria appeared on the podcast, we talked about her council’s tradition of giving a parting gift to the outgoing president.

***

In case you were wondering, Clint Olivier received a watch and a Captain America portrait. And because he made it into this speech, I am also sending him a check for $10,000–what’s that? My horse lost at the track? Okay, scratch that. I am instead sending him, uh, let’s see…these, oh, these note cards that I am reading off of. So yeah, collectors items. Please clap.

Ladies and gentlemen, one brand new feature we rolled out this past year on the podcast was the Listener’s List–where anyone anyplace in the world could send me hot tips on city council hanky panky. We receive dozens of calls on the hotline each minute, so if you can’t get through, send your scoop to presssecretary@whitehouse.gov or through the City Council Chronicles Facebook page. One Listener’s List item became its own podcast episode last year, and it involved a marriage proposal in Flower Mound, Texas.

***

Thank you, Jimmy. And thank you, Mr. Mayor, for keeping my secret. You know, the one involving, uh, herpes. The State of the City Council Meetings address is typically a time for good news. But because I am standing in Congress, where you cannot swing a dead cat without hitting someone with the competence of a dead cat, let’s get into that weird sh*t. Huh?! Senator McCain, you know what I’m talking about!

I spoke with recently retired Councilor Alberto Garcia of Westminster, Colorado about a bizarre month-and-a-half his city council spent dealing with one colleague who had a score to settle.

***

I meant every word of that. Stand back! I’m soaked in deer urine. I don’t get much out of it, but it’s fun for the deer. Folks, normally the biggest threat a council member has to deal with is being yelled at by an angry public commenter. Oh, and bees. Bees are the silent killer. But in December, Lord Mayor Lesley Alexander of the city of Bristol walked me through a terrifying encounter she once had with a council saboteur.

***

That is why I never travel anywhere without my team of snipers. Plus, my own Colt .45. Stand back! It is loaded and soaked in deer urine. The deer was a little nervous but the gun enjoys it.

Well, I see the hour is getting late and half of the South Carolina delegation is falling asleep–and not the good half. I’m kidding; there is no good half. Let me finish this address by reminding everyone that city councils are human. They cannot solve all problems, and that limitation can be frustrating and depressing. Nowhere was that better illustrated than in Juneau, Alaska, when I talked with Assembly Member Jesse Kiehl. I leave you, the nation, and the world with this story of when councils fall short.

Interview #79: Amarillo, TX Councilmember Elaine Hays (with podcast)

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

Elaine Hays is a freshman council member–as is everyone else on the Amarillo city council. We talked about the changes they made, the coaching they are receiving, and what she is still getting used to.

Q: At your swearing-in on May 16, 2017, I noticed two things. First, were you aware that your son was standing behind you during this, the most important moment of your life, CHEWING GUM?!

A: No, I was not aware of that. I know that his posture made him look more like a security guard, that his siblings certainly gave him a hard time about!

Q: Mmhmm. The other thing I noticed was that Amarillo’s city council has five members, including the mayor. On May 16, how many of you were sworn in for your first council term ever?

A: All five of us.

Q: That’s right, Amarilloans wanted to drain the sw–hold on. Are you in a swamp?

A: We are dry. We are more of a desert area. So draining the swamp, we would take some extra water.

Q: Well, Amarilloans wanted to drain the des–okay, let’s put a pin in that metaphor. Is there anything that was really surprising to you about the way your council does things?

A: One of the things that surprised me was just the record keeping and the documents that–I’m sitting right now looking at this pile of material that stretches across my office that I’m required to keep for a certain time. If I make notes of anything, I have to keep that in case somebody wants a record of, “what was she writing? What did she make a note on?” I make a lot of notes. You cannot even delete junk clutter mail that comes to your official account. You just keep it all in there.

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Amarillo, TX Councilmember Elaine Hays

Q: Something your council changed right away was the setup of the room. Before the council meetings, you guys have a work session. The council before you sat in a line on the dais as usual. However, you sit on the floor at tables close to the audience. Why would you leave your natural habitat?

A: Due to the open meeting laws in Texas, you can’t discuss amongst yourself except in a public meeting. Coming from a private industry background, that was a huge difference. The frustration–when you are sitting up on the dais, you are side-to-side. You don’t have those face-to-face conversations. We wanted to have more of a boardroom/conference type of conversation. I knew [the mayor] was going to suggest that and I was supportive of it.

Q: Your mayor, Ginger Nelson, brought in a coach to turn you guys into lean, mean, municipal governance machines. Why did she do this? Were things not going smoothly?

A: It was not to smooth things out. It’s education.

Q: As part of the coaching, you’re on the second chapter of Boards That Make a Difference. Have you read anything so far that’s applicable to your council meetings?

A: Our past council was very divided. It was very public. It’s been a complete switch: now there have been concerns where, “y’all have so many 5-0 votes.” One of the things from that book that I found interesting: “when you think alike, but you think differently.” With our board, I would say that we think alike in our value system. But we are going to think differently in how we get there.


Follow Councilmember Elaine Hays on Twitter: @ElainesEco

#147: Prescott, AZ 1/9/18

A new year meant a new, positive attitude at the Prescott city council.

“Mayor Pro Tem, do you have any introductions today?” quizzed Mayor Greg Mengarelli.

“It’s just great to see some new people in the audience,” replied a smiling Councilwoman Billie Orr.

The mayor turned and eyed the man to her left. “And Councilman…Sisch-ka?” he pronounced slowly, with some difficulty. “I’m trying!” he added as snickering arose.

“That’s all right, Mayor,” Councilman Steve Sischka nodded sympathetically. “I couldn’t pronounce it till I was 12 years old!”

“Mayor,” Councilwoman Orr interjected. “I do have one other thing. I was so excited to learn that Expedia named Prescott one of the 18 cities in the United States that you must visit in 2018. That’s a HUGE deal for us!”

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But I only have the budget to visit 17!

However, the easy ride ended here. For one eagle-eyed and sharp-nosed councilman was ready to dive into the hard topics.

“I’m concerned about the escalating growth of this contract,” Councilman Phil Goode thundered about the city’s software update. “When is it gonna end?!”

“We’ve been on this software since 1998,” the IT director explained calmly. “It’s almost like ripping open a house: you hope for the best. You have a budget. Next thing you know, it was built out of solid lead. It has asbestos.”

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So…the software has asbestos?

Granted, a solid lead house would be pretty alarming. But what about a 100-year-old dam?

“This item is for construction of the wet side of the dam,” an employee prefaced. “Some improvements to the gate valve.”

“Just so I can hear you say it: how long will this valve last?” questioned Councilman Steve Blair. “That’s an expensive valve.”

The employee waited a beat before mumbling: “a long time.” Council members chuckled.

“Is there a warranty on this valve?” Councilman Blair pressed.

“The existing valves on the dam go back to the original construction of it,” another staff member responded, scanning his brain for the precise year. “1931?”

WOW. An 87-year old dam valve is quite a scary–

“1919–” he corrected himself by looking down at his notes, “–the existing valves are from. It’s a knife gate. It’ll slide up and down on the front of it.”

While part of me wanted to see the 99-year-old knife gate live to see one hundred, Councilman Goode jumped in–this time defending a large expenditure. “I just want to make sure everyone understands that we don’t have a lot of options here. This HAS to be fixed.”

Indeed, it would be difficult for people to visit this Expedia “top 18” city if it was underwater. This just makes smart tourism sense.

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Prescott: Home of the 99-Year-Old Knife Gate

Speaking of smart, one public commenter had clearly done his research on the pending loan ordinance for three wastewater projects.

“With regard to the emergency clause, I understand the need to close the loan within 30 days,” he began encouragingly. “But I’m looking at the emergency requirements under the charter, which require ‘the immediate preservation of the public peace, health, or safety.'”

He looked up and narrowed his eyes with suspicion. “Does closing the loan within 30 days meet that criteria?”

The city attorney leaned forward, obviously anticipating this question. “Emergency clauses are allowed under state law to preserve the public peace, health, safety, and welfare. That welfare provision is critical. Preserving the public welfare also includes the FISCAL welfare of the city.”

You hear that, Expedia? That prudence is cause for getting on the “top 19” list next year!

Interview #77: Westminster, CO Former Councilor Alberto Garcia (with podcast)

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

Alberto Garcia prefers “recovering councilor” to “former councilor,” which is appropriate because he had a lot to recover from. We talked about the two explosive issues of his final year in office: trash hauling and divisive comments by one of his colleagues.

Q: Alberto, we are talking two months after your council term ended, meaning you can say whatever you want. No, consequences, baby! Tell me–and please use as many F-bombs as you’d like–what is something you’ve been keeping bottled up inside about the Westminster council meetings?

A: If I was on council, I would go with the, “we have a wonderful team. We have great staff.” And all that is true.

Q: But….

A: But I cannot begin to describe to you how long these meetings were. I can tell you, many times that was not absolutely necessary. Sometimes you just say, “come on, we’ve talked about this for two hours. Let’s vote!” There is a cartoon I saw once in which Donald Duck and Porky Pig run for city council. Donald Duck wins. Then in his very first council meeting, he looks up at the clock and it’s 2 a.m. And the mayor says, “now on to agenda item number two.” And that is how I felt frequently!

Q: [Laughs] Well, Westminster has audio, but no video, of its council meetings. So I have no idea what your council chamber looks like, but let me attempt to describe it based on what I’ve heard. If I say anything that’s not accurate, please stop me right away.

A: Sure.

Q: Here we go: fully-nude can-can dancers. Burmese pythons. Air thick with hookah smoke. Heads of councilors who lost reelection mounted on the wall–

A: I’m still waiting for you to say something inaccurate.

Q: Perfect. Are you going to talk to your former council colleagues about getting on the same page as every other civilized municipality–plus Hoboken–and video steam these meetings?

A: I am going to raise this issue in the coming days about why we insist on staying in the past and not showing full transparency.

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Westminster, CO Former Councilor Alberto Garcia

Q: One of the big issues from earlier last year was how the city was thinking about switching to a single trash hauler instead of the 13 or so trash hauling companies that operate now. Were you surprised that Westminster residents were massively protective of their garbagemen?

A: In the four years I was on council, that’s the thing that surprised me the most. I did not realize people’s affinity went: their parents, their children, and their trash hauler.

Q: How hard was it for you, the government, to focus on the facts when people were showing up to the meetings channeling Ayn Rand, talking about liberty and economic freedom?

A: I think that was our biggest mistake: “this is the right thing to do. It’s about sustainability, protecting our environment.” We had to go back to the very beginning and try to convince people that recycling is even necessary! This is a community that does not like change. There is a fear of change.

Q: One of your colleagues, Bruce Baker, made controversial comments during several meetings in a row. If you had been in his position, ideological outlier on a council, would you have adopted his approach?

A: Something I admire is that Councilor Baker did not mind voting no. If I was on a council, I would not take his tactics of attacking my colleagues. If I did not get the outcome I wanted, I would still feel comfortable voting no.


Follow Alberto Garcia on Twitter: @AlbertoinWesty