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

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

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

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

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

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

A: Yes, there was.

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

A: I have not.

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

A: I’d have recalled!

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

A: No.

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

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

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

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

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

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Martinsville, VA Council Member Jennifer Bowles

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

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

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

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

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

Q: So people stopped showing up?

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

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

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


Follow Council Member Jennifer Bowles on Twitter: @ViceMayorBowles

#96: Burnaby, BC 4/3/17

It’s springtime in Canada, which means everything is coming up roses.

That certainly was the case at this week’s Burnaby city council meeting, where even the stickiest of wickets had a silver lining.

“A good friend of mine has Parkinson’s,” revealed a silver-maned man who, being the near-perfect vocal doppelgänger of Mister Rogers, sat politely in front of the councilors.

“He needs to use an electric wheelchair to get around. To come to my house for a coffee has become kind of a problem. To get to that ramp, he would have to put his wheelchair onto the roadway.”

Mayor Derek Corrigan broke in apologetically. “Let me say to you that, uh, the city of Burnaby takes this issue very seriously.”

“I realize that, Your Worship,” the commenter responded in that kindly Fred Rogers deadpan. “I’m a boomer. As we age, mobility will become more of an issue. We’re getting older every day.”

At this point, someone to his left yelled out, “Mature!”

“Mature, yes! More mature,” the man chuckled. “And better looking, I might add.”

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Better looking? Is that possible?

Speaking of older and better looking–

“The report that’s before us is naming the 2016 Outstanding Citizen of the Year,” Councilor Dan Johnston announced. “This year we actually are naming a couple: Jim and Lindy McQueen.”

Johnston rattled off all their volunteer work that made the McQueens mc-qualified for this honor:

  • Classic Car Show
  • Festival of Lights
  • Burnaby Seniors Games
  • Edmonds Bike Fair
  • Foster parents to 15 moose
  • Poutine taste testers

“I think I would call them the lovebirds of the community,” Councilor Anne Kang smiled. “They come out in a pair, they come out as–I don’t want to say this but, Mr. and Mrs. Claus!”

“There is no public event in Burnaby where you don’t find Jim and Lindy. They’re everywhere,” Councilor Pietro Calendino said as a compliment (or perhaps a warning…).

“It’s incredible that two senior citizens–almost as young as I am,” he gestured to his own white hair and beard, “can dedicate so much time to the community.”

Mayor Corrigan subtly nodded. “It’s not often that the award is given to a couple. But in this case, I don’t think you can separate the two.”

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“Believe me, I’ve tried.”

Well, the clock is ticking. It’s time to make one more person happy. We’ve got five councilors left, so who’s it going to be?

“I’m just very pleased to see that we’re purchasing $120,000 worth of shade structures for parks for the summer!” Councilor Colleen Jordan eagerly read off the dollar amount with a huge grin. “One of my pet peeves is providing enough shade.”

Not one to sit on good news, Councilor Jordan looked out to the audience and gasped excitedly.

“Especially since one of our members of our Heritage Commission is in the audience, we got a $57,000 grant for our–yes!” she pumped a thumbs up.

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No caption needed

“I think that because it was such short notice there might not have been many applicants. But whatever the reason, we doubled the amount of money to celebrate our 125th birthday!”

“It’s like having Christmas,” Mayor Corrigan observed.

“It’s very happy Christmas for everyone!” Jordan threw up her hands and laughed.

Final thoughts: After consulting with the judges, I give Jim and Lindy  McQueen 13.41 Canadian stars, which is 10 American. I don’t usually give stars to a couple, but in this case you can’t separate the two.

Interview #42: Danville, VA Councilman Lee Vogler (with podcast)

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

Lee Vogler is the youngest councilman elected in Danville. We talk about his emphatic former mayor, what things are really like behind the cameras, and about one distressing council meeting in which he voted to take down a Confederate flag on city property.

Q: Your city council has been on my radar since last year. What stood out to me was Mayor Sherman Saunders reading a proclamation for the Goodyear plant and really emphasizing the word “DANVILLE.”

A: He loves Danville. He loves to make sure there is no question about where he’s talking about!

Q: You are the youngest councilman in Danville. In the council meetings, do you have to explain to the older councilmen certain concepts like “twerking” and “selfies” and “Ariana Grande?”

A: Believe it or not, we’ve got a pretty cool city council. Our current mayor, John Gilstrap–there’s actually a video of him twerking on YouTube if you care to find it–

Q: I do not wish to see THAT, sir! (I’m kidding, I’ll look it up after we’re done.) There is a blog called SouthsideCentral and they released a report card that gave everyone on your city council a grade. It said of Mayor Saunders, “I don’t like the way he tries to keep all the real debate on the issues in the work sessions,” which are off camera. How accurate is this statement?

A: I don’t know if it’s so much a [matter of] cameras being on or off. It’s not more heated or anything in that sense. But it’s a little more informal. We’re all pretty comfortable around one another and we can say what we really feel about things and not offend anyone. These work sessions, they’re not behind closed doors. I’m on Facebook and Twitter and I’m pretty much an open book with how I feel. We’ve had some issues where, in the televised meetings, there’s been back and forth.

Q: If you had to name the one issue that really shook things up in Danville, what would that be?

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Danville, VA Councilman Lee Vogler

A: I hesitate to even bring this one up because it wasn’t an issue that stirred up local people as much as it was people from outside of Danville. But when the Confederate flag issue was going on, the chambers were packed.

Q: Yeah. Basically, the city owns the history museum and there was a Confederate flag on the pole. And the question was, should the city allow this? At the August 6, 2015 council meeting, every seat is filled. Some people are waving Confederate flags. Some have Confederate flag ties or t-shirts or patches. How did you feel looking out at that?

A: It was a surreal meeting. What you saw was a fraction of the people there. There was probably another hundred outside.

Q: Almost all of the arguments I heard from the pro-flag people were things such as, “it’s our heritage,” “get over it,” “if you get offended by a flag, you are inadequate,” etc. Frankly, a lot of what was said disturbed me. What kind of threats did you get?

A: There were folks who came by [my workplace] and said, “you need to think long and hard about how you vote on this.” I ran for reelection after that vote and I ended up being the top vote-getter. People have moved on.


Follow Councilman Lee Vogler on Twitter: @LeeVogler

Special Feature! “Best Thing, Worst Thing”

This is an exciting new episode of the “Best Thing, Worst Thing” project. Usually, I storm into town, do some interviews, hear about the history, and package it together into a neat bundle for you. This time, we tag along with a few locals as they go about their day and get a more colorful listening experience.

For an explanation of the project, check out the page here. If you’re ready to hear a group of folks talk about the best thing about where they live and the worst thing about where they live, head over to the City Council Chronicles podcast to download the latest episode. Or you can play it below.

Episode 6: Colby, Kansas

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Photo source: Google Street View

Colby is technically a city of 5,400 people in the northwest corner of Kansas–but it’s tempting to call this a “small town.” Agriculture is important here, but Colby also has a community college and medical center. In this episode, we tag along to a Rotary Club meeting, participate in a tornado drill, and try not to get blown away by some fierce wind. We hear from a librarian, a hospital executive, a newspaper publisher, a principal, a tax preparer, and a retired city employee.

Month in Review: February 2017

It’s almost April, which makes this the perfect time to look back at what happened in…February! The shortest month of the year was highly productive: it included our first ever State of the City Council Meetings Address (to a joint session of Congress, no less!), our first Australian city council meeting, and a tale of the councilman who saved San José.

So wander over to the February month in review and try not to get your hand stuck in a coyote trap, y’hear?

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#95: Renton, WA 3/27/17

Often, city council members are the stars of their meetings.

But sometimes, they get upstaged by more intriguing characters.

“Whereas women need to be inspired by female leaders…and women need to document and highlight their triumphs and accomplishments, I do hereby proclaim March 2017 to be Women’s History Month,” deputy city clerk Megan Gregor read the proclamation inside a council chamber whose male-to-female ratio was higher than the Space Needle.

A woman led her infant daughter to the podium. “I think your helper’s gonna get that,” observed Mayor Denis Law. The council smiled at the little girl–until Gregor handed her the paper and she promptly tossed it on the floor.

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What a great moment for wome–annnnd now it’s dirty.

From here on out, the center of gravity shifted to the clerk’s desk, where Gregor plowed through a long string of numbers without breaking a sweat.

“The Finance Committee approves claims vouchers 354750 through 354751, 354754 through 354767, 354793 through 355173, 5325 through 5335, and 1006, and three wire transfers and two payroll runs,” she rattled off flawlessly.

However, the dismount was a struggle.

“With benefit withholding payments totaling four million and four hundred dollars, and–no, sorry. Let me go over that again.” She took a deep breath. “Four million, four hundred and sixty-nine…dollars, eight hundred and four….”

She wheeled around and stared bewildered at Councilmember Ed Prince. “Sorry, I’m reading it all wrong.”

“You did great,” Prince reassured her.

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Even the clock has way too many digits!

But as any stage performer knows, it’s hard to get your groove back if you’re rattled.

“The downtown utility improvements project phase one in the amount of five thousand and seventeen…five hundred thousand, seventeen dollars–no,” Gregor shot a frustrated glance down the dais.

Suddenly, she threw a Hail Mary that even Russell Wilson could admire. “Five, one, seven, two, two, eight,” she laughed, simply reading off each number like a boss.

That slick move apparently infused some much-needed mojo. “An ordinance granting unto Puget Sound Energy, Inc. the franchise to construct, operate, set, erect, support, attach, connect, maintain, repair, replace, enlarge, and use facilities–” she bulldozed forward, “–for power, heat, and light in, upon, over, under, along, across, and through the area.”

BOOM! Talk about nailing one of the ugliest, most convoluted paragraphs ever to rear its head at a city council meeting! I was overjoyed, ecstatic, elated, enchanted, jubilant, joyful, and–uh, feeling…good…times.

But in the home stretch of this well-oiled machine, one council member accidentally chucked a wrench into the works.

“The item I have is a travel authorization and expense report for me to attend the Smart Cities Conference in Santa Ana,” Councilmember Carol Ann Witschi announced. “The total cost is $2,030. I need to submit this to the council tonight for approval.”

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All I see is a floating head in a maroon chair.

Silence.

Mayor Law glanced around. “Okay, uh….”

“Our first one!” blurted Councilmember Randy Corman. “What’s the protocol here?”

Uh-oh. How ironic that the smallest dollar amount of the night caused the biggest snafu.

“Any recommendation from the city attorney?” the mayor glanced playfully down the dais. Other council members chuckled as the city attorney threw up his hands.

It was a lock. The council unanimously voted to send Councilmember Witschi to Santa Ana–all expenses paid.

Final thoughts: The MVP was clearly Renton’s resilient deputy clerk. I give her performance a final score of five hundred six and–no, wait. Fifty and…sorry. Five or–

Interview #41: Detroit, MI Council Member Raquel Castañeda-López (with podcast)

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

Raquel Castañeda-López grew up in Detroit and now she is on the city council, dealing with some truly vexing problems people bring to her: decay, violence, neglect. We talked about challenges from the public, challenges with fellow council members, and the challenges of eating during council meetings.

Q: I came across something disturbing in your background that frankly your constituents ought to know about. You posted this on your Facebook page:

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Tell me about the kinds of things you eat in the city council meetings.

A: I switched to smoothies mostly in the meetings. We will share kale chips or salted seaweed sometimes. Nuts, granola…things you can eat pretty quickly and not make too much of a mess.

Q: I noticed that your council meetings can go pretty long. Recently, the council president added a rule limiting statements by council members to two minutes–

A: Well, the rule has always existed. Unfortunately, it is difficult to enforce it amongst the council members, as we are all prone to talking quite a bit. The reminders come when it’s kind of getting out of control. Meetings, honestly, have been longer than five or six hours sometimes.

Q: If I were going on for too long, how would you politely tell me to shut up?

A: Depending on the content–if you’re talking about something that’s not related to the agenda item, you could say “point of order.” You could “call the question” on a vote to end debate. You could also accuse someone of being out of order. I’ve definitely had people call “out of order” on me, whether justified or not!

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Detroit, MI Council Member Raquel Castaneda-Lopez

Q: Not only do you have your regular meetings downtown, you guys hold meetings around the city at night. They can start off at times like pep rallies, but then they usually turn into extended pleas for help. Do you get anxious before the meetings because you know what’s coming?

A: No. I think there is some mental preparation but it’s our job. You have to be compassionate. The frustrations and suffering that we heard in the comments is very valid. Having been born and raised here, I understand not having very good city services at times and feeling afraid and forgotten. I think the frustrating piece is that sometimes as a council, we don’t have the power that people think we do have. It really lies with the mayor’s office. So trying to explain that to people without them feeling brushed off [is hard].

Q: Well, I get all of my news from the president’s Twitter account, so I know things in Detroit are going “so badly.” What are the three issues that come up most often in your council meetings?

A: I think it’s city services in the neighborhoods. Really. It’s about people having basic quality of life needs met. Safety is always a major concern.

Q: One more thing about public comment: it’s common for council members to respond to people right after they talk to you. Do you know other councils don’t do it that way?

A: There’s pros and cons. It’s weird to come and talk in a meeting and there’s just no response at all. It’s nice to answer the person right then and there if you can.


Follow Council Raquel Castañeda-López on Twitter: @Raquel4Detroit