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

Interview #85: Aurora, CO Council Member Allison Hiltz (with podcast)

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

First-term council member Allison Hiltz has already seen a ton in her first three months: a bicycle shop in distress, sexual harassment training on the rocks, and an uproar involving the Girl Scouts. Listen for all the details!

Q: There’s this image of city council meetings that they are the place you go if your back is up against a wall and you need to plead your case to somebody. On February 5, there were over half a dozen people who came to beg that your city council save the Second Chance Bicycle Shop, which was about to be evicted.  Were they correct to come to you in a meeting to ask for help?

A: Yeah. I think it’s always correct to come and talk about the community at council meetings. That’s what city councils should be. That’s our job to know what’s happening in the community and to help.

Q: Do you get the urge to drop everything and figure out how to help these folks out?

A: I always want to drop everything and fix everything but then I have to stop, take a breath, and just work on getting the right people on it.

Q: Right, you’ve got to pace yourself. You’ve got a four-year term! I heard you are a lifelong Girl Scout. Is that correct?

A: Yes!

Q: Nice, nice. Same here. What was the idea that the Girl Scouts had for the Aurora city council?

A: It was to protect the health and safety of minors who are in cars with people who are smoking.

Q: This proposed ordinance came up at the January 22 meeting. At one point, Council Member Bob LeGare said the ordinance was trying to “legislate the action of stupid people.” You took offense to his use of the word “stupid.” How do you respond to the argument that Bob LeGare may simply have been “telling it like it is” while you were being “politically correct?”

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Aurora, CO Council Member Allison Hiltz

A: You know, I still stand by that comment. I understand that we live in a political world where you can just say whatever you want and call people the names that you want. I do think that as an elected official, you’re held to a higher standard. It is up to us to maintain a level of professionalism. I think once you start calling names over one action, why not start calling everyone else a name for whatever action they have?

Q: Was it the word that bothered you or was it the judgment behind that word being leveled upon people for some behavior?

A: It’s the judgment. No one’s saying that smoking in a car with children is a good idea. But it’s also not our job as council members to start judging the individual actions of people. Once you start passing judgment on people, it just goes into a whole different way of legislating that is not my preferred way.

Q: How surprised were you that between the first meeting with the Girl Scouts’ ordinance and the second meeting, the rhetoric had shifted to opposition?

A: I think it was easy for some to forget that these are 12-year-old girls. There was a lot of conversation about some things that I think maybe were not necessary to have said so vehemently and sternly in a public setting to 12-year-old girls. I would have much preferred those concerns to have been made to those Girl Scouts in a one-on-one context. It’s easy to forget sometimes that the people you’re talking about are real human beings and also 12.


Follow Council Member Allison Hiltz on Twitter: @AllisonHiltz 

Interview #57: Christchurch, NZ Mayor Lianne Dalziel (with podcast)

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

This is our first trip to New Zealand and I could not be more excited! Lianne Dalziel was a longtime member of Parliament before she became mayor of Christchurch, and here she gives wonderful summary of the differences in those meeting styles. We cycled through all of the cool costumes and inventions she has seen in council meetings–including some mythical creatures!

Q: I noticed that you call all of the councilors by their first names in the meetings. Why are you so friendly with your fellow Kiwis? And as a foreigner, am I allowed to call you a Kiwi?

A: Yes, you are allowed to call me a Kiwi. I guess it’s an informality that is pretty Kiwi. I was a member of Parliament for 23 years, so you would never call someone by their first name. Actually, it’s something that I haven’t discussed with my fellow councilors. You’re the first one to raise it. Maybe I better have a conversation with them!

Q: Oh, wow. You’ve gotten to see some pretty cool stuff in your council meetings. You had a demonstration of an electric bicycle. You had someone bring in a model of a cathedral and cranked a pulley to raise the bell. What is the most memorable thing you’ve seen?

A: Well, we did have the faeries come in one day [laughs].

Q: The faeries?

A: They’re just delightful. Faeries that have little wings and wear pretty costumes–

Q: Wait, they live in New Zealand?! Like, Tinkerbells? That’s where they are?

A: Tinkerbells, exactly. They came along and talked about what they did and they go to events and bring joy to children’s lives. That bike that you mentioned was a YikeBike, which was invented here in Christchurch. I don’t know if I’m going to sit on one. They don’t seem to be facing the right way.

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Christchurch, NZ Mayor Lianne Dalziel

Q: Your first council meeting as mayor was also the first-ever council meeting that was streamed online. Were you at all nervous that YOU would be the first Christchurch mayor who, four years later, would have ME scrutinize how you ran a meeting?

A: [Laughs] Michael, I didn’t realize that you would be doing this!

Q: That’s how the dice roll, baby! Were you intimidated by the presence of cameras and microphones?

A: I come from Parliament, and Parliament is live streamed. Sometimes I forget to turn off my mic at the front and I lean over to the chief executive and say, “oh, my goodness!” And she quietly leans forward and switches off the microphone.

Q: Did the councilors adapt to the cameras in a good way? Or was there grandstanding?

A: Grandstanding is inevitable in an environment where you’ve got such an open record of what people did say. But that, in my view, encourages high quality debate. If you’ve got one councilor who gets to his feet and he’s really passionate about a particular subject, I’m thinking that’s good for democracy. It’s good for people to see their own representatives being accountable in that way.

Q: What is the history behind the “tea break” that you take in your council  meetings?

A: I don’t know! It’s quite normal to have a tea break during the course of a working day. Now we invite the public to join us.


Follow Mayor Lianne Dalziel on Twitter: @LianneDalziel

#114: Minnetonka, MN 6/26/17

“The next item on the agenda is ‘special matters,’ and that’s, uh, having me receive the C. C. Ludwig Award,” announced retiring Mayor Terry Schneider.

He practically whispered the last part, seeming slightly embarrassed to be standing in the middle of the room while superlatives were broadcast about him. Chalk it up to Midwestern modesty.

“A kind-hearted individual….we are eternally grateful,” Council Member Brad Wiersum read from multiple glowing recommendations. The mayor clutched his mic timidly with both hands.

“I want to reflect on a personal story that many of you haven’t heard,” he said cautiously, “that might be difficult for me to talk about.”

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I’m all ears

“People asked me, how can I sit through a contentious, controversial meeting and keep my cool and keep it civil? My standard answer is, well, I’m an introvert,” he explained in a gravelly voice. “So it’s the easiest thing for me to do. While that is true, it’s not the real reason why. And, um….”

Schneider coughed lightly and stared at the ground, trying not to cry. A black-and-white photograph of the mayor’s grandfather flashed onscreen.

“My grandparents lived in Plymouth [Nebraska] and I spent most of my summers with my grandparents. It was a phenomenal experience–particularly for an introvert–to be in a low-key town.”

The entire room was listening silently.

“I didn’t realize until after the fact, when we’re in a small town, you didn’t have any toys. One time, I made a bunch of darts. I was doing it in the living room. He was sitting on a rocking chair smoking his pipe. I was throwing and all of a sudden, it stuck him right in the eye.”

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IN THE EYE?!

A few people nervously chuckled. The mayor again paused to collect himself.

“He just sat there. Didn’t say a word. There’s this dart in my grandfather’s eye. So I walked up and took the dart out. He never said a word. That kind of quiet lesson taught me that there are consequences to your action.”

The mayor reached into his pocket and brandished a small trinket.

“I’ve got a little toy tank that he gave me when I was a kid. I would spend hours on the carpet running the tank around. So I carried this with me every day to remember to act like my grandfather. I realized after 20 years, I didn’t need to carry it.”

Council members smiled sympathetically as the mayor concluded: “My grandfather passed away exactly 50 years ago. So thanks for listening to that little story. Maybe somebody will be touched by it.”

I see the man’s point here. But if I may: when someone throws a dart into your eyeball, how on earth is the lesson to sit there until they come and pluck it out?! I’ve heard of turning the other cheek, but you’ve only got so many eyes–and those things are NOT dart-resistant.

I believe silence is golden, but retina damage is PERMANENT.

Speaking of which, in another first for me, council members abruptly donned official “Tour de Tonka” sunglasses as the bike ride’s director strode to the podium.

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Awww, group picture!

“You guys are amazing,” he beamed, pulling out his phone and snapping pictures. “You look amazing, every one of you.”

The ride, he said, “is a sense of accomplishment. It’s not a race. If you can go that far, you deserve a pat on the back.”

Now THAT is a perfect lesson about life–and about being mayor.

#104: Columbus, OH 5/15/17

First impressions were VERY strong at the Columbus city council. No sooner had people risen to face the flag than a thundering orchestral rendition of the Star Spangled Banner blasted over the loudspeakers.

Council members stood at attention while the camera panned across the room. As the trumpeting ceased, onlookers were aided in the Pledge of Allegiance by a beautiful tapestry embroidered with the oath.

Talk about class, folks!

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It’s like a g–d– Norman Rockwell painting.

After this patriotic tour de force, Council Member Jaiza Page rattled off her own tour de fitness. “If I’m out there” on Bike to Work Day, she smiled self-deprecatingly, “you’ll probably see me last in line.”

She added, to chuckles, “just don’t run me over!”

More impressively, Councilmember Page revealed that daring Columbusites would soon be allowed to rapel 19 stories off the PNC Building–not for infamy, but rather for a fundraiser for sexual trafficking victims.

“I did go over the edge last year and I was thoroughly frightened for 20 minutes,” she admitted with no trace of anxiety. “But I would encourage those of you who are not interested in rapelling yourself to go out and just cheer the rapellers on.”

Yes, and also be sure to cheer on Page as she bikes, rapels, canoes, bobsleds, and hanglides her way to the title of “Most Adventurous Council Member.”

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“I got to this meeting via luge.”

By all accounts, things were going swimmingly. (Council Member Page will probably be swimming for charity at some point, too.) Suddenly, after Councilmember Michael Stinziano smoothly moved $1.2 million to repair the city’s sewer pipes, President Pro Tem Priscilla Tyson stared down at her paperwork.

“We have several non-agenda speakers that we will take momentarily.” She glanced at the clock. “We will reconvene at 6:30 for zoning.”

With that, the screen faded to black.

A slow horror dawned on me: she had turned off the cameras for public comment.

I wanted to scream, but I realized that even if she were rapelling off the outside of the PNC Building, President Pro Tem Tyson probably would not hear me.

Within seconds, the council chamber faded back in. The time was now 6:30 and the room was substantially emptier.

“Regular meeting number 26 will now come to order,” Tyson cheerfully announced like Richard Nixon after he erased those 18-and-a-half minutes of tape.

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I expected this kind of behavior from Cleveland. But COLUMBUS???

We may never know what was said in public comment that day. All we know is that the zoning hearing was much, much more tedious.

“To grant a variance from the provisions of Sections 3332.039, R-4 residential district; 3321.05(B)(2), vision clearance; 3321.07(B), landscaping; 3332.25(B), maximum side yards required; 3332.26,(C)(3), minimum side yard permitted,” Council Member Page read for nearly a minute off of the numbers-heavy ordinance.

“This is a very interesting situation,” a neatly-dressed white-haired man said as he stood eager to explain the nuances of zoning. “We have a building that covers close to 100 percent of the parcel that doesn’t comply with the zoning district or the university planning overlay.”

Yes, quite thrilling. You know what else would be an interesting situation? SEEING THE PUBLIC COMMENT.

What a shame that a council meeting with such high production quality should fumble this basic feature.

Final thoughts: While the V.I.P. here is clearly Council Member Page for doing “Fear Factor: Columbus,” the capital city’s lack of 100% transparency forces me to give this meeting only 2 out of 5 buckeyes.

#90: Laramie, WY 3/7/17

It was a sleepy Tuesday evening at Laramie City Hall. Frankly, hibernating bears see more action than we did at this council meeting.

The audience was pared down to Laramie’s hale and hearty: the man scrolling on his phone in a camouflage jacket (this is Wyoming), the guy wearing a dress shirt and stylish vest (this is…Wyoming?), and the cub scout fidgeting next to his mom in the back row.

“I move to approve ordinance 1961–is that the correct item?” Councilor Vicki Henry inquired, glancing over at the mayor for a supportive nod.

A city employee ambled to the podium and shuffled his papers. “Honorable mayor and city council, this is mostly to correct typographical errors and other small errors we found in the code,” he explained.

Typos! That explains why Laramie has no dog park, but lots of dog pork (which, honestly, the dogs enjoy more).

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Counting the seconds

But one hawk-eyed councilor noticed something potentially disturbing in this so-called typo ordinance.

“I love my bicycle. I have a very nice bicycle. I paid a lot for it,” Councilor Bryan Shuster narrowed his eyes. “I see here a bicycle parking requirement shall apply to all uses except single family detached or duplex. So if somebody builds a fourplex, they have to put in bicycle racks?”

“Honorable mayor and Councilor Shuster, that is correct,” acknowledged the employee. That was apparently music to Shuster’s ears. He leaned back and nodded, dreaming of his two-wheeled companion.

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“I often say, ‘Bicycle, I wish I could quit you.'”

But now it was Councilor Henry’s turn to pick a bone.

“If I can find it,” she muttered, searching her packet. “It was something about the outdoor storage and the fences and the things that you’re storing cannot exceed the height of the fence?”

“Honorable mayor and Councilor Henry,” the staffer robotically prefaced again, “it’s actually item B on page 9–”

He drew his pen across the page. “Wait a second. Nope that’s not it.” He paused but kept his composure. “Oh, yeah, it’s the very last sentence….”

He trailed off. “Let’s see,” he scanned his papers as the council waited with folded arms.

“The very first line,” jumped in Councilor Henry, “says ‘each outdoor storage area shall be screened from view’–oh, that’s not the one. Sorry.”

Confusion reigned. Tensions flared. The cub scout yawned.

“It’s B!” hissed multiple councilors, referring to the slippery section B that was the focus of Henry’s white-hot rage.

She locked onto her target. “It says ‘materials may not be stored higher than the height of the primary structure.'”

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“If there’s one thing I cannot stand, it’s tall materials.”

But without warning, Councilor Shuster body-slammed her interpretation. “In my mind the way it’s stated–it says we have a maximum height on the fence but we don’t have a maximum height on the structure.”

“Well, I know of SEVERAL places where the things that are being stored are higher than the primary structure,” shot back Henry. “And I would love to see this enforced.”

There were uneasy glances. Mayor Andi Summerville shifted, then pressed on with the meeting. Shuster again raised his hand to get her attention.

“Mayor? Please announce that the ribbon cutting for the Harney Street overpass has been canceled.” He paused for suspense. “Because they’re afraid of losing people to the wind.”

With that, everyone chuckled and relaxed. The cub scout yawned.

#6: Minneapolis, MN 4/15/16

Ah, Minneapolis. The prettier, more datable sibling of the Twin Cities. But at this week’s city council meeting, it was goodbye “Minnesota Nice” and hello “all-out warfare.”

No sooner had Council President Barbara Johnson opened the day’s agenda than a woman in the front row was hellbent on inserting herself into it.

“Council, I would like you to amend the agenda specific to Jamar Clark,” who was shot two weeks ago. “Our city isn’t responsive to the fact that-”

President Johnson leaned into the microphone. “Those who disrupt proceedings will be asked to leave.”

Front-row lady yielded no ground.  “WHY ARE YOU…KILL OUR RESIDENTS…SHAME!” she shrieked over the president’s warning.

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Protester: “You’ll never take me alive, coppers!”

“Remove this lady!” Johnson ordered, summoning two burly sentinels to eject the rabble rouser. Incredibly, another woman in the front row stood to take her place.

“Consider this on the agenda today-” she repeated.

Ma’am, ma’am! We are trying to conduct a city council meeting,” Johnson pleaded, emphasis on “trying.” “Please remove this lady.”

Burly bouncer #1 rushed again to the front row to seize the protester. But–are you sensing a pattern?–Old Yeller #3 picked up the diatribe mid-sentence!

“BECAUSE WE ALL HAVE A CHOICE,” she bellowed. “A CHOICE ABOUT WHICH SIDE-”

“Ma’am, I’m going to ask security to remove you,” the president reiterated, a phrase that will now be forever seared in my subconscious.

I don’t need to tell you perceptive people what happened next.

“EVEN THE FORMER CHIEF OF POLICE-” the fourth synchronized shouter wailed, loudest of all.

LOCK HER UP WITH THE OTHERS! GAG THEM ALL, President Johnson thundered. (I’m paraphrasing here.)

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Council President Barbara Johnson: “Save the scrawny one for me. I’ll finish her myself.”

At long, blessed last, the council could begin the People’s Business, although the lyrical chants of the dearly departed could still be heard from outside.

“The next item of business is to accept the minutes-”

NO JUSTICE! NO PEACE!

“Moved and seconded-”

NO JUSTICE!

“All in approval say aye-”

NO PEACE!

Council members had been holding their fire, but that all changed with consideration of the Third Avenue South bike lane proposal.

“I would like to move a substitute motion,” Councilmember Lisa Bender bombshelled.

Oh. S#%t. This daredevil diva wanted to take Third Avenue downtown from four lanes to an insane three lanes with bike space and a center turn lane!

“I use Third Street about four or five times per day,” physically fit Councilmember Jacob Frey bragged. “I use it more than anyone else in the city other than the guys that ride their bikes for Jimmy John’s.” It’s dangerous, he said. And he’ll be voting for the three lanes.

“I bicycle every day, year-round on Third Avenue, sometimes with my two small children,” Councilmember Bender responded. Jesus, is this a competition for who has the most badass commute? Does any council member ride a unicycle in the snow with immigrant laborers hanging onto their their back?

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Councilmember Jacob Frey commutes every day to City Hall from his home in Handsometown.

President Johnson called the vote.

It failed. 6-7.

Even though the Rebel Alliance lost out to the Empire, they would still get their bike lanes. No-voting Councilmember Lisa Goodman rubbed in her victory: “I think we’ve won and the feeling that we haven’t won enough makes me sad.”

Final thoughts: On drama, I give this meeting 4 out of 4 screaming protesters. On results, I’ll award only 3 out of 4 lanes because Councilmember Goodman feels sad.