Calling all councilheads! I have a major announcement.
Last summer, a young council member in North College Hill, Ohio contacted me asking for help. I spent the next 10 months chronicling the bizarre situation with her city’s government–where one faction rebelled against the establishment, then began using their power to block, delay, and demolish.
That audio story, based on 200 hours of council meetings, 60 hours of interviews, and many, many documents, is called “Tear It Down.”
You can listen to all eight parts of the series here.
Big news, everyone: on May 10, I will release “Tear It Down,” a special project I have been working on for nearly a year.
If you liked “Serial,” “S-Town,” or the City Council Chronicles podcast, you should mark your calendars! This is an eight-part audio story about a small city where a group of insurgents seized control of the city council, setting off one battle after another. Some people were chased away. Some people stayed and fought back. And for better or for worse, it changed the city.
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.
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
This week, we take a listen back to some of the spiciest, most compelling, and most art-filled interview segments in the past several months. If you have a friend who you’ve been dying to introduce to the magic of city council meetings, sit ’em down and have them listen to this!
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.
“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.”
“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.
Few people have had as eventful a three years on their city council as Justin Outling has had in Greensboro. From the infamous transgender bathroom bill to screening police body camera footage in a meeting, we relived some of the most contentious moments in his council chamber.
Q: I noticed that every council meeting, you bring in a “courier.” Is this a position of honor or does it go to the city employee who’s about to be fired or what?
A: I think definitely more of the former than the latter! Greensboro city council has had a courier for quite some time now and that person’s task is to provide council with notes either from staff or from persons in the gallery. It’s traditionally a city employee from one of the many departments who has the pleasure of spending four or five hours with us on a Tuesday. “Human conveyor belt” is probably an apt description.
Q: But if they drop a bunch of files on the floor, they’re not gonna walk in and be fired the next morning in the Parks and Rec department, right?
A: If the call were mine, they would not be fired. But that’s really the city manager’s call. So all couriers in Greensboro, beware: don’t drop the papers!
Q: At one meeting, your Republican state representative came to defend the controversial North Carolina transgender bathroom bill. Do you as council members have to watch what you say about higher level politicians in meetings to avoid them retaliating against you?
A: I think there is a lot of strategy that one has to undertake in moving the ball forward and working with state legislators who do have the power to make your life difficult and act against the interests of the city. There are definitely occasions where you have to exercise restraint and do what you think is best for the city, not necessarily what’s best for your sanity.
Q: In the summer of 2016, there was an incident involving a white police officer who used excessive force against a black man and it was captured on body camera footage. Your council decided not only to release that video, but to do it at a council meeting, on camera, with a full room of onlookers. I can imagine council members in other cities going, “what? Why would you ever do such an emotionally-charged, embarrassing, or uncomfortable thing in a council meeting?”
A: Allowing the citizens to actually see what happened and giving them an opportunity to express their frustration, their disappointment, and their hopes for the future–through that incident, it helped bring some members of the community closer together. It perhaps wasn’t the best for council members’ egos in terms of hearing a lot of unpleasant things from members of our community who were hurting like we were.
Q: As the footage was playing in that council chamber, I’m not sure what you were expecting to happen, but did it happen?
A: Yeah, I was expecting to see a lot of hurt on people’s faces, and that’s exactly what I saw. And it’s the same images I saw on the faces of my colleagues the first time we saw it in a closed session.
Q: Do you see a divide on your council between people who consistently think about what the proper role is for council members, and then others who are better at reacting to the mood of the room?
A: I think there is a divide. I would not characterize it as being better to reacting to the mood of the room. I think some people are much more willing to tell folks what they want to hear, notwithstanding the merit. The reality is that I’m an elected member of Greensboro city council. It is not about me feeling good about what I say and what I do.