Interview #127: Baltimore, MD Councilman Kristerfer Burnett (with podcast)

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

Kristerfer Burnett was in the large freshman class of 2016 on the Baltimore city council and does not shy away from the role that guns, violence, and policing play in the council’s business. He discusses a contentious hearing about mandatory minimum sentences and a bizarre inquiry into whether the fire department threatened bike advocates.

Q: Councilman Brandon Scott does something small but noteworthy each meeting. At the end, when your council holds a moment of silence, he asks the council vice president to announce the homicide total to date. My first thought upon hearing this was, “why would anyone advertise their city’s worst attribute repeatedly in a public council meeting?” So why would you?

A: I think it’s something that we have to own. The violence in Baltimore is unbelievable. It is debilitating to our city. As policymakers, we have a responsibility to address that. We’ve also started to add the victims of the opioid crisis for the same reason. We had over 700 opioid-related deaths last year. That needs to be the headline. I’m not one that feels like cities should try to always put their best foot forward, an image or façade that things are okay.

Q: On July 3, 2018, the judiciary committee held a hearing about the fire department. Councilman Ryan Dorsey read a letter that you all received from an advocate of bike lanes accusing the fire department of parking a ladder truck in front of her house as a threat. What was being alleged here and why were you, the council, involved?

A: There’s been a lot of resistance from the fire department to the construction of bicycle infrastructure. The argument they were trying to make, albeit poorly, was an attempt to basically argue that by narrowing the roads with bicycle infrastructure, it would make it more difficult to navigate. Some streets are very narrow and their equipment is pretty large. What I didn’t quite understand was, it looks like they got the ladder truck up to me [in a video from the fire department]. The council got involved because there was an attempt by Council Member Dorsey to strike out of the fire code these guidelines that would have prohibited the construction of bike infrastructure due to roadway widths.

Q: Yeah.

A: On a lighter note, when we received that video the day before the hearing, Council Member Dorsey and I–I hope I don’t get in trouble for saying this–we’re two millennial legislators. We’re like, “what do we do with the DVD? I don’t even know where to put this!” I literally had no way to watch it for several hours because my laptop didn’t have a DVD player.

Q: [laughs] 

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Baltimore, MD Councilman Kristerfer Burnett

The overriding concern was why the fire department filmed their video outside the home of one of their opponents. How satisfactory did you find the fire chief’s response that it was not intentional?

A: That particular roadway is a very long one. That bike lane is also one of the longest in the city. If they needed to prove a point on that particular street, they could have done it pretty easily without being in front of the house. I was extremely disappointed in the fire chief on that one and told him so.

Q: That was about accountability for the fire department, so let’s shift to accountability in policing. In the judiciary committee on July 25, 2017, there was legislation which would have established a punishment of one year’s incarceration for anyone who carried a firearm within 100 feet [yards] of a place of public assembly. Right away, multiple council members offered stories of their experiences with gun violence. Is it fair to say that most if not all Baltimore council members have a direct connection to the escalating homicide numbers that we hear at every meeting?

A: That is correct. One of my high school teammates on the football team lost his life to gun violence in 2017. It’s very much something that has hit almost all of us, if not all of us, at some point.

Q: Councilman Scott argued at the hearing that it’s easier for people in black areas of Baltimore to be in violation of this proposed law. There wasn’t really a racial divide that I noticed at the meeting. There were a bunch of people for and against it. Did you see the proposal as fundamentally racist?

A: Yes and here’s why. A lot of my colleagues were very well-intentioned in their support. They felt this is an answer to a problem that we all agree is a problem. You do see patterns of over-policing in black communities without this law. Some of my colleagues were not thinking about that part of it. I represent some of the most dangerous neighborhoods in Baltimore. There is a knee-jerk reaction to say, “we need more cops.” I don’t think their support was because they want to lock up more black people, but I think the unintended consequence would have been that.

Follow Councilman Kristerfer Burnett on Twitter: @CouncilmanKB


#19: Baltimore, MD 5/16/16

I wish I could say the Baltimore city council meeting was all lollipops and kittens. But it wasn’t. Oh, no–it wasn’t at all. Maybe there’s a bug going around, because some council members contracted a case of butthurt.

Right out of the gate, people were peeved: the mayor vetoed the council’s two charter amendments that would have curbed her power. Now, some council members wanted to give Her Honor the collective middle finger.

To bypass the veto, almost every single person would need to vote yes. Would they stick together?

Yes…yes…no…yes…no…the clerk went down the list.

It failed, 9-5. Round 1: the mayor.

They moved on to the second amendment. Midway through the roll call, Councilman Pete Welch stood up. “On the last vote, can I change my vote?”

“I think you can,” Council President Jack Young started, but was drowned out by murmurs from the council members. “Only by unanimous consent,” he corrected himself. They would take care of him after the vote.

Final tally: 8-5. Match: the mayor.

Councilman Pete Welch wants to change his vote, but ironically wants to keep that tie.

Back to Councilman Welch: “Do all council members agree that he can change his vote?” the president asked. Titters of objection percolated on the floor. “Remember, when you all wanna change your vote, it comes back to haunt you,” the president warned, growing visibly irked.

The clerk called out Councilman Brandon Scott. “Are we voting to allow Councilman Welch to change his vote?” Scott asked peevishly.

“Yes,” President Young responded.

Scott leaned waaaaaaay back in his chair. “No.”

Someone chuckled. Others rolled their eyes.

“You can’t change your vote. It’s not unanimous,” the president shrugged at Welch. A devilish smirk crossed his lips. “So just remember that.”

He had a few choice words for the people who took the mayor’s side earlier. “We holler we’re a democratic society and we want our constituents to voice their opinion, and yet the council says no,” he ranted, while the clerk standing next to him put on a solid poker face. “This is not about the council president. I think we have failed the citizens tonight. We just laid down on this one.”

Blink twice if you want us to airlift you out of there!

Councilwoman Rikki Spector rose for a rebuttal. “I understand your frustration–”

“I’m not frustrated,” the president snapped, not hiding his frustration AT ALL.

Councilwoman Spector reminded him that she also wanted a charter amendment once, but the council voted her down. “It would have been an opportunity also for this democratic process to work. I understand why you’re frustrated,” she said, adding sarcastically, “well, you’re not frustrated, are you?”

Picking up his mic, Councilman Bill Henry gestured to the back of the room. “We have some guests in the audience today. We have fourth and fifth graders.” Jesus, why would you invite children to watch council members be catty to each other? Is this the Real Housewives School of Too Much Drama?

“Now I get to go in there and explain any questions they might have,” Councilman Henry chuckled, with a hint of regret. Question 1: “Why did that guy yell for five minutes if he wasn’t frustrated? Does he know what ‘frustrated’ means?”

Damn, girl, are you the Baltimore council’s carpet? Because you look fiiiinnee!

Final thoughts: I think the lesson here is, it’s good to be mayor! You really get to push the council’s buttons, and you don’t have to be in the room with them! I give this meeting 2 out of 2 vetoes.

Interview #1: Baltimore, MD Councilwoman Rikki Spector

Big day for City Council Chronicles: it’s our first interview with a living, breathing, city council member!

And this isn’t just any John Q. Councilor. I talked to Baltimore’s own Rochelle “Rikki” Spector, who has been a city councilwoman for nearly 40 jaw-dropping years. Naturally, being from Charm City, she was off-the-charts friendly. She told me all about double-crossers, power struggles, and city hall’s comfy cushions.

Q: When you first got on city council, did you ever think you’d be there 40 years?

A: I never thought I’d be the longest serving–living–local elected official in the history of Maryland.

Q: I couldn’t find any council member who’s been serving longer than you. Do you think you might be the longest-serving in the whole country?

A: I don’t know about the country. I know in Maryland, one of my colleagues thought it was him. And he did research and found out it was me!

Q: How well do you get along with the other council members?

A: I get tremendous respect from my colleagues.

Q: I mean, when the cameras are on, it seems like everyone is nice to each other. But statistically, it’s impossible for coworkers to get along all of the time. Is there anyone who gets under your skin?

A: Oh, yes. I have a colleague that–and this is just between you and me…[REDACTED: ALL THE GOOD PARTS]…you don’t leave your constituents.

Q: Have you ever been blindsided by someone who said in private they’d support something but then they turn around–

A: Oh, yes! I once had a councilperson say to me that he was going to support a bill, and then he voted against it. And I went over to him–totally, totally amazed–and I said, “I can’t believe that you lied to me!” He said, “So I lied.”

Q: Oh no.

A: That person’s not on the council now. But I have no regard for him. It’s almost an affront to your intelligence, “so I lied.”

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Councilwoman Rochelle “Rikki” Spector

Q: How many people show up to watch the city council meetings?

A: We have a double chamber. We have a balcony upstairs. Every seat is always taken.

Q: Is there anything strange that has happened at a city council meeting?

A: Well, I hope you’ll watch tomorrow night–

Q: I will now!

A: There are two charter amendments that the council has approved that the mayor has vetoed. Tomorrow is the last meeting whether the members want to override the mayor’s veto. And there would need to be 12 members voting to override.

Q: Gimme a prediction, councilwoman. What’ll happen?

A: I do believe the mayor’s veto will stand.

Q: What a power struggle! I’ll tune in. Speaking of which, I know that Washington, D.C. and Baltimore have a rivalry. Who would win in a pickup basketball game: the D.C. council or the Baltimore city council?

A: The Baltimore council, of course.

Q: Which is better: the Washington Nationals or the Baltimore Orioles?

A: The Baltimore Orioles, of course!

Q: What are the chairs like in your council chamber? Are they comfortable?

A: We have leather, upholstered swivel chairs that are very comfortable.

Q: Those sound amazing. I’ve seen city council meetings where it’s like a middle school cafeteria with metal chairs and folding tables. I’m glad Baltimore spares no expense.

A: We spend a lot of time in those chairs. I work nine days a week! It’s a calling, not a job.

Website: Baltimore, MD Councilwoman Rochelle “Rikki” Spector