Interview #107: Tempe, AZ Reporter (with podcast)

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

Jerod MacDonald-Evoy is a reporter with The Arizona Republic who had a front-row seat to many hot-button debates of the Tempe council. From the border wall to a car wash, he explains how things got heated in the desert. Plus, we talk city council fashion!

Q: Can you please explain what the “Tempe Tie” is?

A: So when I was covering Tempe, I found that Tempe has an online store where you can buy all sorts of interesting little merchandise like a city of Tempe pen or a mug. I noticed they also had this tie. One of those fatter-style ties. It had a bunch of Tempe themes on it. I jokingly tweeted [that] if it got 100 retweets, I would wear it to the next council meeting.

Q: And…?

A: And as I should’ve known, you don’t challenge the Internet to those sorts of things. It quickly got over 100 retweets. I bought the tie and ended up wearing it to a few council meetings. I made some other people realize that they wanted that tie and they ended up selling out of them on the store!

Q: Let’s get into the council meetings. In January of this year, the Tempe council was considering a resolution to oppose a wall on the border with Mexico. There were some reasoned arguments about it, and those reasoned arguments lasted until one lady began yelling her comments from the back, which flustered your mayor into opening public comment. Were you expecting him to do that–and do you think that was a good idea?

A: I was expecting him to tell them, “you can have public comment at the end.” I’ve never seen the council open an item that was closed to public hearing. I was very nervous when he decided to do that because some of the women that were there had also been outside and were pretty vocally protesting this border wall resolution. I had a feeling it would only go downhill from there.

Q: Your nervous instincts were correct. Do you get the sense that council members were expecting the comments that ensued–the Trump defenders, the race war advocates, and the references to immigrants as rapists and murders?

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Tempe, AZ reporter Jerod MacDonald-Evoy

A: I don’t think they were expecting it to the extent that it came. A lot of the people weren’t actually from Tempe. A lot of them drove up from the border to talk about this. The resolution they were trying to pass actually was a more gutted version of a resolution that was being pushed nationwide by a lot of cities that would say they wouldn’t do business with companies that work on the border wall. Well, one of the main companies that’s doing the prototypes is a Tempe company. When it didn’t pass, I was very surprised. It seemed very odd that they would give in to–I don’t know if they were giving in to these people exactly, but giving in to that idea that they shouldn’t be doing it.

Q: Do you think the public comment ended up making a difference for any of those council members?

A: I think it could’ve. I think there were a few that were already a little wary because of that idea of the city intruding into federal matters. Having those people show up was enough of a push to get them to not vote that way. It was during an election cycle. They decided they didn’t want to push the controversy and have the attack ad against them say they opposed the border wall and the president.


Follow Jerod MacDonald-Evoy on Twitter: @JerodMacEvoy

#171: Bellflower, CA 10/8/18

Like a well-choreographed symposium, Bellflower council members took turns sounding off on the events of the week, with everyone sharing an equal–and equally pleasant–slice of Bellflower life.

“The mayor’s prayer breakfast will be held Tuesday, October 9, at 7 a.m. to 8:30 a.m.” said Mayor Ray Dunton (naturally).

“Nominations for the 2019 BRAVO Awards open today,” chimed in Council Member Dan Koops. “Jim Abbott, a Major League pitcher, will serve as our special keynote speaker. Jim Abbott was that pitcher born with one hand.”

“The chamber of commerce will host the tenth annual Trick-or-Treat on the Boulevard on Friday, October 26,” finished off Council Member Ron Schnablegger, who even received a slight assist when Koops reached over and subtly switched on the microphone.

At this point, city manager Jeffrey Stewart piled on. “I wanted to ask the council if they would indulge us in a small presentation by the folks from Liberty Utilities.”

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Small but mighty

A man and woman strolled to the microphone with a message which–while not quite as important as the trick-or-treat–did catch the attention of one council member.

“I wanted to announce a free workshop on Saturday, October 27. It’s a drought tolerant plant landscape class,” the woman said. “We did set up for our customer service representatives to be available the second and fourth Friday of each month.”

“So how would a customer who’s not watching us here tonight know your available times?” Council Member Juan Garza pressed.

“We have a mailer that we sent,” was the answer.

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Psst. They just found out about it here!

It didn’t matter that the announcements ran long, since there was a lack of residents interested in commenting on any of the business the council raced through. At one point, Mayor Dunton joked about the light turnout.

“We got some quiet people tonight. That’s not a good state of the city, huh?” he chuckled.

But when the subject changed to RV permit fees, the heat turned up from “room temperature water” to “warm oatmeal.”

“What we’re seeking direction on are two questions,” said a staff member after outlining the brand new online permit store. “Whether the city will be absorbing any of the processing costs or passing them along to the customer. Secondly, whether the city will be absorbing the credit card transaction fee or passing it along to the customer.”

“I don’t think we’re talking a lot of money here,” the mayor muttered, glancing through the sub-$5 charges proposed on the screen.

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Speak for yourself

Council Member Koops scratched his chin. “I’m just concerned once we start things like this, it’s hard for us to revoke it. Do we look at everybody’s ability to pay? Or do we say, ‘we’re all in this together. We need to keep it equal for everyone?’ That’s what I’m struggling with.”

“I was on the fence myself,” agreed the mayor.

“This is about convenience,” the city manager argued. “The person doesn’t want to come into city hall.”

“So then should they pay for that convenience?” countered Koops.

“It’s not a lot of money either way,” reiterated the mayor.

“But once you start it–”

“You can’t turn it around,” finished the mayor.

There was a pause. Council Member Koops suddenly had an idea. “Why don’t we give it a year’s try and see how it goes?”

That was the magic compromise everyone had been looking for. With the stalemate resolved, the council adjourned eager for the next day’s prayer breakfast.

Interview #106: Milpitas, CA Mayor Rich Tran (with podcast)

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

Rich Tran had no political experience before being elected as Milpitas’s mayor two years ago. His first term has had some rough spots, and we explore how he has adapted to the job.

Q: At the April 4 meeting in 2017, what were you trying to accomplish by saying you wanted your city manager’s performance review to be put on the public meeting agenda?

A: I can’t say too much about it because there’s current litigation. If you look at what happened there on the dais, it is really a policy battle that’s happening when you’re listening to myself and the city attorney. It’s like a rugby match and I’m in a scrum with the city attorney. I got so much love for Chris Diaz, our city attorney. He might be listening to this–

Q: Hello, Chris Diaz, Esquire!

A: Yeah! I’m scoring my freedom of speech and my democratic rights to place an item on the city council agenda. I’m definitely following the rules and doing things appropriately. I was looking to do a performance evaluation of our former city manager.

Q: I get that, but your line of inquiry made the city attorney visibly anxious. He’s saying, “as a council you can do whatever you want. I’m just saying as your attorney, I think it’s a terrible idea legally.” What about that was unconvincing to you?

A: I felt like I wasn’t getting the truth so much as I deserved it. I wasn’t looking to discuss anybody’s performance in public.

Q: What’s the distinction between that and placing the performance review on the agenda though?

A: I want the item on the agenda so we can decide if we’re gonna do the performance evaluation or not. That’s it.

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Milpitas, CA Mayor Rich Tran

Q: On October 3 of last year, your council was considering a censure policy for council members. When Councilmember Bob Nuñez said that he had concerns about people following the rules–and singling you out specifically–how did you feel about that?

A: We never had a censure policy here in my city. Not in its 64 years. Councilman Nuñez wanted to bring one about so that in the event that I screwed up or something, he can censure me. Everybody has concerns about me, Michael. They call me the “outspoken mayor.”

Q: What does that mean?

A: Because I talk about things. I don’t accept things that shouldn’t be accepted. Councilman Nuñez was concerned that I was communicating with the community too much. The funny thing is, no one’s ever been censured. It’s like he’s waiting for me to slip somehow.

Q: It’s interesting because they did have the opportunity to, but they instead chose to send you a letter of disapproval chastising you for your conduct outside of the meetings–and that was all four council members. You said, “that goes to show Milpitas has the dirtiest petty politics in all of Santa Clara County.” What, from your point of view, is the root of the problem?

A: It’s an election year. I’m an independent leader. It’s definitely sad. You read the rebuke that was sent my way–the residents are pissed off that the city council’s playing these silly games.

Q: I get that they may not like you because of who you are. Can you think of some mistake you made as mayor that you would be willing to say is a mistake?

A: Definitely. I don’t have a great background in politics. It was only four years ago that I moved back to my hometown from Manhattan. I was going to NYU for my master’s degree. I had no job, no car, I was living out of the back of my uncle’s house–

Q: Sorry, are these all the mistakes?

A: No, I’m just telling you the lead-up. Getting into politics, I didn’t really know much. You asked me what my mistake was: I think to be misunderstood.


Follow Mayor Rich Tran on Twitter: @mayor_richtran

Interview #105: Fremont, CA Councilmember Raj Salwan (with podcast)

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

Raj Salwan has attempted to establish some order in Fremont’s sometimes-fluid appointment procedures for council members. He talked about how things could be better, and also about one contentious development that led to a raucous council meeting.

Q: You were appointed to the Fremont council in 2013. There are also three other current council members who went through this appointment process–meaning that four out of the five of you at one point sat for an interview to be on council. Is that a coincidence or is this truly a shortcut to winning elections that people ought to know about?

A: There’s two types of candidates that apply for these appointments. One is the planning commissioners. The other are people who just ran in the last election. One of the things in Fremont is that if you came in third place in an election, you usually don’t get the appointment. The critics will often say that because you weren’t elected, the voters didn’t choose you. So it’s not really fair but that’s just how it has been.

Q: In 2017, there was another vacancy. And the odd thing to me is that you spent the first ten minutes not sure how things would go. Why did you not have the rules solidified?

A: A lot of times the process is whatever the mayor wants to make it. In the past appointments, some of the council members had said, “hey, I was confused about the process.” We were trying to find what the expectation was so we knew exactly what was gonna happen.

Q: Correct me if I’m wrong, but your new mayor at the time, Lily Mei, had never participated in this appointment process as either a candidate or as someone interviewing candidates.

A: That’s true. It was a new job for her and the first thing she had to do was try to replace her own position [as a council member]. So it got very–well, it was a difficult process.

Q: Ah. If I may point out another area of improvement: the questions you asked of these candidates, if I’m being honest, were pretty basic. “Tell us about yourself.” “How did you get involved in politics?” I think you need to kick it up a notch. Ask them questions like, “if this room caught on fire and you could only save two council members, who would they be?”

A: That’s definitely very critical thinking! In the past, some people had accused council members of asking pointed questions or questions that they felt made them look bad. This was the process the city clerk came up with to give softball questions so nobody could say, “I got this question because somebody didn’t like me.” But I hear you. I like tough, pointed questions.

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Fremont, CA Councilmember Raj Salwan

Q: After your appointment in 2013, you did not win your election in 2014. But you did win in 2016. However, after the election but before your swearing in, the council voted on something called the Walnut Residences. In this case, the development was a huge lightning rod. Is that your memory?

A: This is the biggest fight in the Bay Area. Everybody complains about the cost of housing, but they always oppose housing when it’s near them. This became the flash point for this last election.

Q: In this meeting, Councilmember Lily Mei–who just defeated the incumbent mayor–said they should postpone the vote until you joined the council. I think she expected the vote to be different with you there. Do you think they should have waited?

A: No, I have to respect the decision of the council at the time. I wasn’t there and it’s not fair for me to comment or criticize.

Q: Did you see this at all as an attempt to speed things up like we’ve seen on the federal level–to take advantage of the partisan situation? Or do you buy the explanation that it’s been in front of the council for a really long time and it’s just time to get it done?

A: It’s a complicated thing. It’s been upcoming for several years. The applicant just wanted to get a decision. The council just wanted to take it on. It’s a great election issue for candidates who want to stop all growth. They point to [this].


Follow Councilmember Raj Salwan on Twitter: @RajSalwan

Interview #101: Lakewood, CO Mayor Adam Paul (with podcast)

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

Adam Paul is a city councilor-turned mayor who has had to deal with a series of crises–major and minor–at recent Lakewood council meetings. From the “rat house” to the brawl over a mayor pro tem, he explains how the council confronted the problem and moved on.

Q: I was pleasantly surprised to see at your June 25 meeting this year that you had some guests from Lakewood’s sister city in Australia. Was there anything that you had to explain to them about how your meetings worked?

A: Public comment was an eye-opener for them. It was a little bit foreign to them and [they] were surprised at some of the boldness of the community members in their comments.

Q: Did you get a sense of what their public comment is like?

A: Yeah, limited public comment and certainly in their system, from the queen down, kind of that proper Australian, proper English attitude toward it.

Q: When they’re not wrestling crocodiles and drinking Foster’s, I assume. What did you hope those Aussies took away from your meeting?

A: It was good for my council to understand that while we are literally a world apart, our issues are the same. That was a cool takeaway for me to see this is normal. These are the normal functions of local government. We’re not an outlier.

Q: This same meeting with the Australians, there was actually a bigger, more disgusting concern. When I say the words “rat house,” what does that mean to you?

A: Well, it’s taken on a whole new meaning. You know, in local government, we try to plan against storms and shootings and traffic accidents. You try to be prepared for everything. We were experiencing a quite sad situation. A family was dealing with some mental illness and a hoarding house. They had some pet rats that they were feeding and taking care of and it started to snowball into a terrible situation. We had to have all the rats killed, which is over 500, 600 rats, I think.

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Lakewood, CO Mayor Adam Paul

Q: At that meeting, neighbors stood up and described in graphic detail the feces, urine, and rat carcasses that they were dealing with because of this house. When you were listening to that, how did you feel?

A: I felt terrible. I mean, goodness. What a terrible ordeal. At the end of the day, I’m the mayor. The buck stops with me. Our first thing that we needed to do was contain it, get it stopped. This has been a learning process. There will always be something else that you don’t catch.

Q: Yes, and it’s unrealistic for you to know everything that’s going on in the neighborhoods before someone brings it up at a council meeting. But rats with tumors on their faces? And carcasses lying in yards? I mean, how was this happening for a year and a half and all of a sudden, it’s June 2018 and it’s a crisis?

A: If we didn’t act in a manner that we should have, we need to fix that and we will. But for some it was still too slow and we need to do a better job.

Q: Obviously, you don’t want people coming into the council meeting for public comment with every little situation for you eleven to address. But on the other hand, you don’t want someone’s house literally on fire and then coming in and telling you about it. Where have you given direction to city staff to say, “when a problem gets this bad, we should be talking about it in a council meeting?”

A: That’s why we’re there on Monday night. To hear that. When there comes a point where people don’t feel like they’re being heard or they don’t see things being affected, we’re the last remedy.


Follow Mayor Adam Paul on Twitter: @adampaullkwd

Interview #100: San Jose, CA Councilmember Dev Davis (with podcast)

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

Dev Davis may be known as the District 6 council member, but she is also the mastermind behind the San Jose council curfew, the originator of the Star Trek meeting costume, and–as you will hear–a skilled actor in medical dramas!

Q: I would like to start with the April 18 council meeting of last year, when you all invited Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak into city hall. What stood out to me was what you were wearing. Would you describe your attire that day?

A: I was wearing a traditional Star Trek female crew member dress.

Q: How did you conceive of that?

A: Well, all Comic Cons are celebrated–at least in the United States–by having many of its attendees wear costumes. I thought it would be in the spirit of celebrating Comic Con for the city council to have costumes.

Q: I see your logic but don’t you think it sets a dangerous precedent to have council members putting on costumes for meetings? I mean, what’s to stop your mayor now from wearing assless chaps during Pride?

A: That would not only be a great homage to Pride but also to Prince, who is one of my favorite artists. But our mayor is quite conservative and would never don assless chaps.

Q: Well, Mayor Liccardo, if you were to make that fashion choice, just know you have two supporters of that right here. We will validate your choice. Dev, let me ask you about a procedural oddity in San Jose: does your council not have ordinances or bills? You have “memos?”

A: We do have ordinances, but we have the Brown Act in California, which means that we can only communicate with a minority of our colleagues prior to voting. So the way that we communicate with everyone is through these formal memoranda that get attached to each agenda item. We can say what our thoughts are and basically what motion we’re going to be making on the floor.

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San Jose, CA Councilmember Dev Davis

Q: There seems to be this dance every few months when your council considers affordable housing at a meeting. Renters say, “we cannot afford to live here and it’s too easy to evict us.” Landlords say, “we need to be able to evict people and raise the rents.” And other people say, “this is all beside the point. We need to build more housing!” Then your council around midnight votes to side with the renters. Do you feel good after those meetings that you’ve accomplished something? Or are you frustrated that, okay, we put a Band-Aid on it. In a couple months, we’ll have another midnight meeting on housing again?

A: I do feel frustrated after those meetings. I feel emotionally drained. The reason that we continue to have these discussions is because it took us decades to get into this mess. It’s not something we can solve in one city council meeting and one year.

Q: Logistically, is there any way to structure these meetings better so that you all are not forced to make a decision very late at night after you’ve been yelled at for four hours, and maybe you’re not in the freshest mindset?

A: The only reason we have a midnight curfew is because Councilmember [Chappie] Jones and I asked to have a midnight curfew. Prior to the curfew last year, there were multiple meetings that went until 2:30 in the morning. As we get more and more tired–whether we want to or not consciously–subconsciously our brain starts shutting down and we don’t make the best decisions.

Q: Have you ever felt that you voted the wrong way because of all those stress factors on your brain when you were going to those extremely late meetings?

A: I’ve never regretted any of my votes, but I’ve often wished we had more time to think about the sausage we were making to get to six votes after a long meeting like that.


Follow Councilmember Dev Davis on Twitter: @DevDavisCA

#165: American Fork, UT 7/31/18

“The city is considering a three-month, temporary land use restriction,” Mayor Brad Frost announced sternly as the first order of business. His microphone was off, but his voice carried through the intimate and ornate meeting space.

“The city will not be accepting new development plans or requests for zoning modifications.”

If you want to rile up a town, nothing does it better than talking about people’s land. Surely enough, a strange but emotional scene slowly unfolded before the council in which one family, member by member, stood up with a single message: get off my lawn.

“What gives anybody the right to decide what’s on my property?” pleaded a gray-haired woman. “I own it. We have no interest in selling this. Ever. It’s a family farm. Please, I would ask that you take us out of the T.O.D. [transit-oriented development area].”

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Lock the doors! Don’t let her leave.

She was replaced by her husband, who stood uneasily as a dozen onlookers stared at his back.

“I’m not very comfortable doing this. But I’m going to because I feel so strongly about it,” he admitted.

“We do not want to sell or develop–at least not in my lifetime and certainly not in my kids’ lifetime. And it’s looking like not in the grandkids’ lifetime.”

Councilmember Clark Taylor fidgeted with his ring. The mayor folded his hands in front of him on the desk. The commenter sighed loudly into the microphone.

“If we could, we’d like to leave the city. We get nothing from the city. No sewer. No water. We don’t even get police protection. We never wanted to be part of the city. We were talked into it by the late mayor.”

He gazed into council members’ eyes and nodded to his wife.

“She grew up there watching her grandparents crawl up and down row crops on their hands and knees. Our kids have grown up there. This is home. It’s not just a piece of property.”

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This story is more American than a baseball bat eating apple pie.

As the man turned on his heels and returned to a chair, Mayor Frost tugged on his microphone.

“I appreciate the decorum. I really do. You haven’t yelled or screamed, but we get your message and I appreciate it,” he said thankfully as the rest of the family–the daughter and the grandson–stepped forward.

“I’m fifth generation that’s lived on the farm. He’s sixth generation,” she said, clapping a hand on her son’s shoulder. “I have no desire to sell ever.”

With this family seemingly committed to guarding their compound to the death–and no one in the government itching to call for a raid by the National Guard–the council segued into other business. Although for a moment, it didn’t seem as if the theme had changed all that much.

“It was really one of those moments where you can say I’m proud to live in American Fork and I’m proud to live in America,” Mayor Frost recalled. “This last Saturday night, we welcomed home a soldier deployed to the Middle East. It was put out on Facebook and boy, did our citizens catch ahold of that!”

His voice was low and measured as he told of the heartwarming scene. “We ushered him in with emergency vehicles, and along Main Street people were holding flags. When he got home, there was 200 flags in his neighborhood. It was really special.”

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This story is even more American than the last one!

The lesson here? A city is not just a collection of property. It’s a home. And I think the farm family would approve of that message.