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

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#148: Shakopee, MN 1/16/18

Excitement was high in the Shakopee council chamber as the agenda was emblazoned with one big, bold, pulsating item: the 2017 financial statement. It was so massively important, the half-dozen citizens in the audience made sure it rocketed ahead.

“Anybody that would like to discuss an item that’s not on the agenda tonight?” Councilor Jay Whiting scanned the crowd, which remained seated with their heads down.

With no movement, the finance director/master of ceremonies took center stage to unveil the dollars and cents.

“We will be having plenty of journal entries and lots of receivables and lots of payables yet to come in,” he cautioned as the spreadsheet loaded onscreen.

“Looking at your revenue,” he gestured, “your taxes line item is $331,000 under budget at the moment.” Uh-oh. That’s a lot of moolah not in the bank.

But suddenly, he dropped a whiplash-inducing load of good news–it wasn’t a winning lottery ticket, but it was close:

“We talked a whole year about our licenses and permit revenues coming in high–and they have. We’re close to a million dollars OVER what we originally budgeted. It’s a great year on that end!”

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Drinks on him!

“Are we missing a microphone or something?” came an abrupt gravelly voice from the direction of Councilor Mike Luce. “This thing’s not working.”

“Yeah, I can hear myself reverberating here a little bit,” the finance director acknowledged, tapping the mic.

The presentation halted as Luce fiddled with a device near his ear. “Battery issue. Sorry about that,” he mumbled.

“Can you hear me now, Councilor Luce? Hello? Test?”

“What channel are you on?” Councilor Matt Lehman attempted to troubleshoot. “Channel one?”

But it was no use. Councilor Luce tossed aside the battery and instead leaned forward to listen more intently.

“Your revenues for the year are about 102% of budget,” the finance director continued, before pausing near the bottom of the list in front of a glaring red arrow pointing downward.

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No. No, god.

“Kind of the whole point of this report is that you’re quickly able to identify something that’s not quite within that norm. A red down arrow is part of that.”

The Scarlet Arrow was painfully stuck to the natural resources department. Well, nature isn’t cheap I suppose. Did iron ore and mineral sands get more expensive?

“What is going on in that department?” the director asked rhetorically. “Neither of us realized that when public works employees aren’t snow plowing in the winter, they’re out trimming trees. And that time is charged to natural resources.”

“Really sound financial year,” he wrapped up, adding almost too calmly that the ice arena revenues had “an increase of about $280,000.”

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(N)ice!

With no applause or fanfare–although plenty of thumbs up from me at home–the presentation concluded. The attention shifted to councilors’ reports, which could be lively and engaging or, in the case of Councilor Lehman, more depressing than a municipal financial report.

“School board highlights: closing Pearson School,” he sighed. “One year, possibly two. Taking the sixth graders, moving them to the middle schools. They are gonna reroof it and use it in the future.”

He stopped and tried to remember logistics. “Was it the ninth grade going to the high school? They’re making a shift. Had about a $400,000-$500,000 deficit they’re working on. They’re projecting up to a $2 million shortfall for ’18-’19. So there’s gonna be some hard choices.”

That’s a shame. I know a city that’s rich in licenses-and-permits money, if anyone’s looking.

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

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

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

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

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

Q: Sure.

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

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

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

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Nashville, TN Councilman Colby Sledge

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

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

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

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


Follow Councilman Colby Sledge on Twitter: @Sledgefor17

#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

#146: New Bedford, MA 1/1/18

“Cozy” is how I would describe the New Bedford city council chamber–with curtains decorating the window and an angel topping a Christmas tree in the corner. It could have been someone’s living room. But, you know, with cameras.

The women occupied the front row; men took up the rear. Councilors sat in high-backed reclining chairs, each with his or her own personal desk.

Today there would be no long debates or drawn-out votes on new ordinances. Instead, “Councilors, I’ll open the floor for nominations of council president pro tem,” announced city clerk Dennis Farias.

“I move to nominate Councilor-elect Joseph Lopes,” declared Councilor Linda Morad.

Farias nodded. “Would Councilors-elect [Debora] Coelho and [Ian] Abreu please escort Councilor Lopes to the podium?” As the trio crossed the floor, a smattering of applause greeted Lopes when he took his seat.

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Long live the king, and his glowing lampshades

The adulation was short-lived.

“We are adjourned,” he slammed a gavel on the wooden desk. While it was only five minutes into the meeting–and would have been a contender for shortest meeting on the books–this was actually a pause to swear in councilors elsewhere.

I can only imagine the pomp and pageantry that took place off camera, for two hours elapsed before Councilor Lopes smashed the gavel again to reconvene.

As it turned out, it would be his final gavel to smash.

“I would like to nominate Linda Morad” for council president, Councilor Coehlo stood to deliver a glowing portrait of her nominee.

“She is a lifelong resident of New Bedford. She dearly loves her family. She attended local public schools,” Coehlo rhapsodized as Morad stared stiffly with her hands clasped.

Councilor Dana Rebeiro suddenly shot her arm in the air. “May I–?” she began.

“We’re only having one person speak,” Councilor Lopes rebuffed her. Rebeiro hunched over in disappointment.

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It’s like a Rockwell painting

The vote was unanimous in Morad’s favor, and amidst polite applause she wended her way to the podium, giving hugs and shaking hands along the perimeter of the room.

Standing with her palms flat on the desk, President Morad gave a steady but intense pep talk to her councilors.

“We are the seventh-largest city in Massachusetts. Being a city councilor in New Bedford is a big deal. YOU are the face of government here.”

She reached for a political cliché. “Just like a family, which we are, we won’t always agree. But hopefully we can work together.”

Then, she turned to her right. “I have a couple more pages of my speech. Were you able to get those?” The clerk pushed a hefty stack of papers toward her and Morad thumped them loudly on the desk for effect.

Councilors cackled at the joke.

“Just a few more words if you don’t mind,” she deadpanned.

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Read it! Read it all!

“Madam President,” the clerk segued, “the next item is the drawing of seats.”

A seating chart lottery?! What a rare event to witness. I always wonder how a council seating chart gets birthed and I’ve never seen an actual random assignment. My curiosity will finally be satiated!

“Colleagues, I communicated with you today that Councilor [Hugh] Dunn is not with us tonight,” Morad explained. “Councilor Dunn is interested in moving his seat, so I respectfully ask that we consider tabling this item until our meeting on January 11.”

What?! No, I won’t be watching then!

“The ayes have it,” Morad announced as the deferment passed.

Sigh. I came so close.

Interview #76: Fairfax, VA Councilmember Jennifer Passey (with podcast)

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

When Jennifer Passey became a council member three months ago, she had already witnessed as a citizen the chaos of 2016 when Fairfax’s mayor resigned abruptly. We talked about the reasons for not having a vice mayor as well as the important topic of guns in meetings.

Q: I actually grew up down the street from Fairfax and am HIGHLY familiar with your city. Which means, unfortunately for you, I can play hardball. So get ready to get grilled about the 703. Question numero uno: how’s my dog doing? Is she okay?

A: [Laughs] As far as I know. I haven’t heard anything otherwise.

Q: Oh, thank god. Question numero dos: does Chelsea Licklider still have a crush on me?

A: You know, let me look into that. Isn’t that a good city council answer?!

Q: Yes, very speedy constituent service! Before city council, you were on the planning commission. Was that any less pressure because fewer people were watching?

A: I think the pressure comes from within of wanting to do a good job, for me. It’s a little more public [on council]. Planning commission, it was a little more candid because you knew not a lot of people were watching. People will look at those every once in a while when it was a heated topic.

Q: Being from Virginia, it didn’t come as a surprise to me at your November 7 work session when the city’s lobbyist casually suggested that you join the city of Falls Church in requesting a weapons ban in public buildings from the Virginia legislature. Do you see any harm in tagging along and requesting to keep firearms at least in the parking lot?

A: It’s not an example of something that’s happened where we feel threatened. I’m not really concerned either way. I don’t feel threatened that there are a lot of people that carry guns. But at the same time, you never know what’s happening around the country. We’ve seen it before in city council meetings in other places. I’m torn: I see the issues of infringement, but I’m not sure if I have a full-on stance.

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Fairfax, VA Councilmember Jennifer Passey

Q: If someone were to carry inside the council meeting and was sitting there politely watching with a gun on their hip, how would that make you feel?

A: I grew up in Minnesota. I don’t want to say people carry guns all the time there, but I guess it depends on whether they come in disgruntled or not.

Q: Would it help to outlaw disgruntlement at city hall instead?

A: Disgruntlement with a weapon!

Q: Well Jennifer, since you’ve only been a council member for three months, we don’t have that much to talk about. So thank you for–HOLD ON, SIT BACK DOWN! Obviously, we need to talk about the hugely controversial Vice Mayor-gate. Last summer, your previous mayor resigned. Fairfax had no vice mayor to take over. What was your take on the problem?

A: Residents and city staff during that time were really angry at [the mayor]. I think a lot of the issue was that city council was figuring out the legalities–from my perception–and we don’t have a spokesperson at city hall. If that’s communicated out, people understand the process. It wouldn’t have looked suspicious or that they were conspiring in the back room with the city attorney.


Follow Councilmember Jennifer Passey on Twitter: @jennifer_passey