This Christmas, we are celebrating the third year in a row that City Council Chronicles (and our other project, Tear It Down) has made the ELGL Top 100 Local Government Influencers list! We are very thankful for the award, and you can read more about the other 99 honorees on ELGL.org.
Simultaneously, you can listen to our holiday-themed podcast episode on iTunes, Stitcher, Player FM, and right here:
On this episode, you will hear excerpts from these full interviews:
Jyoti Gondek is a first-term councillor in Calgary, where the discussion has recently turned to council transparency. She explains how it is sometimes necessary to go into closed-door meetings, and responds to the accusation that bullying is occurring therein.
Q: What is your position on city councillors’ attendance?
A: We had one of our fellow councillors raise the point that we should be better documenting when council members are present for a vote or for a meeting. I don’t disagree that it is important that your elected official is weighing in on your behalf. But the way that it was being proposed–through a roll call–to me was a bit ridiculous. There was an article written in a local newspaper about it and it called me out for being terribly nasty and not in favor of transparency. So I took a lighthearted approach and wrote a little something myself about what an “awful person” I was for not wanting transparency! It was a bit of a parody, but it was asking people to think about: do you just want a roll call? Or do you really want to know what kind of job your elected official is doing?
Q: I’m between your position and the more transparent position on attendance. Say you are able to keep track of councillors who wander out of a meeting, who are not there for votes, and who are strategic about when they are in their chairs. What am I supposed to do with that information? I’m not saying, “who cares about attendance?” But if I did care, is this a problem that’s actually affecting things?
A: Attendance has been exceptionally high. We have not seen council members who are trying to use the system and leave for a contentious vote. I don’t think the system is being gamed.
Q: Your council has had some drama about what happens behind closed doors generally. On April 3, Councillor Jeromy Farkas tweeted out:
While sometimes they are warranted, these secret meetings have also been abused and misused to instill fear, intimidate, and shut down new ideas. I am very pleased that Councillor @peterdemong is helping to tackle this issue. #yyccc 2/
Of the charges in that tweet, what percentage are true? What percentage are false? And what percentage are maybe just misinterpretations of people’s intentions?
A: I think it was an interesting thing to post on Twitter rather than bringing it up in a council meeting or to the integrity commissioner or to the mayor. Intimidation is a very big reach. I’ve never felt that way. This idea of secret meetings–or the “chamber of secrets” as it’s been dubbed by Councillor Farkas–perhaps he is learning the ropes. Sometimes a council has to take things offline because there’s confidential information.
Q: On April 5, there was a motion to study the amount of time Calgary spends on closed session meetings. But all of a sudden, Councillor Jeff Davison stood up and expressed his displeasure at those tweets, then apologized for any offense he may have caused. When that happened, did you think, “oh, good! This will clear everything up!”
A: [laughs] No, I did not. Before we go in [to the closed meetings], it’s clearly identified what we are going to talk about. This idea of saying we’re going in camera [closed session] to insult a colleague or intimidate them, it’s not a fact. Now you’ve got a council that’s second guessing, “did we ever say anything that may have been construed in a manner other than what we intended?” If this is a big gang of bullies ganging up on one person, I think you would’ve seen more people actively doing something a lot less public, but we’re not. I think we were caught by surprise. I never expected him to say something about intimidating and bullying because I haven’t observed it.
Dylan Bressey is in his first term on the Grande Prairie city council and he came to my attention for obvious reasons. We talked about all the work he puts into his council meeting recaps, plus he gives prospective council commenters some advice on how to keep things relevant.
Q: I noticed that during your swearing in, unlike other councilors you did not say, “so help me, god” nor did you put your hand on a religious text. So, sir, are you excited that you are going to hell?
A: [Laughs] You know, it’s actually quite the opposite. I’m a member of the clergy and something that I’m very conscious of is I’m very uncomfortable with religious politics. I really intentionally asked not to take my oath on a Bible, taking seriously Jesus’s words not to do that.
Q: Interesting. That hasn’t brought you any bad luck or hellfire since then, has it?
A: Well, it hasn’t yet, but we’ll see what my eternal destiny might hold because of it.
Q: On February 10, someone tweeted at you
The safety of children must be a priority of this council.Also Dylan you information you provide to the residents of GrandePrairie on your Facebook feed is fantastic . #BresseyForMayor
To which you responded, “I disagree about the hashtag, but council feels a lot like school, so I could get behind #bresseyforvaledictorian.” In what way does your council feel a lot like school?
A: Every week it feels like I’m getting hundreds of pages of documents that our administration is asking us to read. I’m digging through online databases. And I’m even writing a lot of papers. I do a lot of blogging. So I really am treating this like school.
Q: On your website, you really set the bar high for what city council members can do to explain everything about their jobs to their constituents. This thing is an encyclopedia for what, why, and how the city council does its business. How long does it take you to write up a summary of a given council meeting?
A: As I’m processing it, I’d say it takes me probably an hour and a half to just do the writing. And then I get somebody to proofread it, I tweak it, I post it on the website.
Q: Some council members tweet out their feelings about council meetings. Others put it on video. I’m sure there’s at least one guy in Vermont who uses puppets or something. What is the advantage in writing out, beat by beat, the proceedings of a council meeting from your point of view?
A: I really don’t like this thing we have going on today where we seem to talk about less and less information more and more passionately whenever we talk about government. It really helps me learn the materials. There’s been quite a few times where I’m writing a blog post and I get halfway through and I realize as I struggle to explain it that I don’t really understand what I just wrote. So I have to study again, call, ask a few questions.
Q: Part of your website is the FAQ. You offer to give people tips on preparing a presentation for council. Let’s say I’m a homeowner in Grande Prairie and my problem is–this being Canada–my neighbors are playing Celine Dion loudly at 4 a.m. and throwing empty maple syrup bottles on my lawn. I want the city to fine them. How do I convince the council to take this problem seriously?
A: Well, I think you’ve already got a good start there. You’ve got a clear problem and you’ve even got a solution you’re suggesting to us. Something we struggle with is sometimes people aren’t able to clearly frame their concern and how they’d like the city to act on it. And that’s hard for us to take a cue from. So coming in with specifics is good.
The first city council meetings probably began in Ancient Mesopotamia, but here we are 6,018 years later and they are still going strong! We rung in the new year with the inauguration of fresh council members and some unconventional suggestions from the old ones.
In perhaps the biggest event of 2018, I gave the annual State of the City Council Meetings address to a joint session of Congress. While I feel bad that they all had to return a few days later for some other “state of the” something, I got my message across loud and clear: I, too, can read a teleprompter.
For the address, the reviews, and the podcast interviews, do not wait another year to check out the January Month in Review.
And if someone tells you that January was just a so-so month for council meetings, you tell them, “when else are you gonna hear a councilor say the phrase, ‘Brawls Deep?'”
After a series of critical motions at the Grande Prairie council meeting, everyone became more relaxed with–what else?–shareholder approval for interim financing for the Wembley water line.
“In light of my opposition to the past motion, I wanted to not just vote yes, but express my ENTHUSIASTIC yes!” Councilor Dylan Bressey grinned.
“Thanks very much,” Mayor Bill Given chuckled at Bressey’s amusement with such a dry item. “The motions here are basically telling me what to do as a shareholder. It’s a weird process, just to clarify for the hundreds of people that might be watching.”
Several councilors heckled him facetiously. “Oh, thousands!” he corrected himself.
“That’ll take us to council member reports,” the mayor glanced down the dais to Councilor Kevin O’Toole. “We’ll start with the Combative Sports Commission.”
Councilor O’Toole explained in a highly non-combative monotone, “we had a meeting last month and review of the event held on December 15: Festival of Fists 2.”
Hearing giggles, he added, “I don’t name these things, guys, so don’t be looking at me! I’m just the middleman here.”
All right, people. Get your laughter out now. There were serious proposals from the Commission that deserve our attention. Go ahead.
“We’re gonna come back with some medical requirements–the Hepatitis B antigen and also the dilated ophthalmic examination,” O’Toole pronounced flawlessly. “The promoter renewed his license. The name of the event will be called Brawls Deep and that will be–hey!”
More snickering commenced. “I had nothing to do with this!” Councilor O’Toole pleaded.
When it came time for Councilor Chris Thiessen to speak, not only did he 100 percent own his red blazer and substantial mutton chops, but he stood behind his remarks unapologetically. (And for a Canadian, being unapologetic is quite rare indeed.)
“Council and the chamber of commerce sat down for a lunch discussion,” recalled Councilor Thiessen. “The mayor was away on business, but Councilor [Jackie] Clayton did a very fine job as deputy mayor. In fact, Councilor [Wade] Pilat afterward said, ‘you’re so quiet in this meeting. I thought you’d talk more.’
“I said, ‘I was in awe.’ No, wait. I was in AHHHHHHH–” Thiessen posed his hand aloft and raised his voice to a falsetto, singing out the note “–of how much of a boss Jackie Clayton is, not only as a chair but as deputy mayor.”
He gave her a sheepish smile. “It took me five years to finally realize how great you are!”
To recap: the combative sports names were weird. And the compliment to the vice mayor was sweet. But how about something weird and sweet at the same time?
“I watched the Center for Creative Arts. I’d never been there before,” Councilor Bressey announced excitedly. “An offer from the executive director: she said if we want a bonding activity, she will teach us a pottery class! I think we should!”
He was amped and practically itching to mold clay right then and there. “It’d be fun to do together! We REALLY need to do some clay pot making. Bicycling that wheel around together!”
Mayor Given smirked and raised his eyebrow. “For people of a certain age, that makes you think of the movie Ghost. And it makes me think that I probably WON’T be doing any clay pot making with you, Councilor Bressey.”
The entire room exploded in laughter as I wondered whether the mayor believed he or Councilor Bressey would be the shirtless Patrick Swayze in this scenario.
“Everybody thought it!” the mayor added, with apparent accuracy.
The biggest news out of April was that we hit our 100th city council meeting review! This project has crisscrossed the United States, with stops in Canada and Australia along the way. Who knows where the future will take us? Europe? Antarctica? The moon?!
Last month, we covered the full range of emotions: sad, angry, confusing…that’s it. But trust me, you’ll be as surprised as this lady to see what kind of council hijinks took place in April!
From inside the gigantic semi-circle of the Medicine Hat city council, an equally gigantic subject emerged: how much reading do councilors REALLY want?
“I always wondered whether we needed more reporting, not less,” Councilor Les Pearson fired a shot across the bow of the anti-report lobby. “I’m wondering if council can be advised in a briefer form in a more frequent basis.
“It’s draining, I guess, on some people–on me in particular,” Pearson admitted with the exasperation of someone who had just forced an Encyclopedia-length government report past his eyeballs. “I guess I would like smaller bites along the way.”
“The intent,” Chief Administrative Officer Merete Heggelund replied, “is that you should be able to get the gist of it from the top” pages. She held her thumb and index finger less than an inch apart, measuring out 20 to 30 sheets of paper max. “It’s not that we expect council to have read 500 pages of financial information.”
“This is good, spirited conversation,” said Councilor Robert Dumanowski without a hint of enthusiasm–but also without irony.
“Quarterly reports are indicative of the industry and market world, etc.,” he launched into an exhaustive stem-winder that made my skull numb for a solid two-and-a-half minutes. I regained lucidity during his closing argument.
“I could go on and on and on, but the reports will only be bumped a single month. It’ll still be, I’m sure, an award-winning financial report,” Dumanowski reassured fellow Hatters.
At this point, the meeting was more than three-quarters of the way over and the council was galloping through the budget like a Mountie on horseback. Prospects for a record-scratch, edge-of-our-seats moment were dim.
But dimness? Thy name is CouncilorBill Cocks.
“I can recall–and he shall remain nameless–a former councilor who voted in favor of the budget but NEVER voted in favor of the tax increases to support,” Councilor Cocks glared out from over his bow tie into the camera. “You can’t have your cake and eat it too.”
Yikes. While this was more “passive” than “aggressive,” the T-word touched off a nerve.
“I’m not happy we’re having a tax increase,” Councilor Julie Friesen hunched over and grimaced. “We don’t have a choice. We have to do this.”
You could almost see the Stockholm Syndrome set in. “I’ll support this, but, you know–who wants to? We don’t want to do it!”
She turned to Heggelund for backup. “You might just explain to people what it would mean if we didn’t do this.”
The Chief Administrative Officer rubbed her chin and said without emotion, “we would have to find the money elsewhere. And we’re running out of places to find that money.”
What a doom-and-gloom way to end a meeting. Heck, even the Civic Recognition Awards were dogged by a rain cloud.
“I’m just a little disappointed that we had no recommendations–NOBODY was nominated for community inclusion or sports and recreation,” Councilor Pearson waved his fist in disdain.
“It’s really too bad that those people were not being recognized. I know there are people who made major contributions to sports and recreation and community inclusion.”
Final thoughts: For those of us who need a picker-upper, here it goes: the City Council Chronicles Sports and Recreation Civic Recognition Award goes to…Councilor Les Pearson! Hooray for closure!