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

#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.

#67: Steinbach, MB 11/15/16

Three days ago, I would have considered Manitoba to be one of the top ten Canadian provinces. But after watching this week’s short, sweet, and dignified Steinbach city council meeting, I think Manitoba is now firmly in the top nine.

“Recently, I had the privilege of turning 60 years of age,” Councilor Jac Siemens announced at the top of the evening. “I feel a great divide between where I have been and where I’m going. The older I get, the more I look back and I see many years of laughing, hurting, crying, working way too much, playing too little–and not stopping enough to celebrate.”

Wow, this sounds more like an “I’m a-leavin'” speech than a “welcome to the meeting” message. As long as he doesn’t pull out a guitar and sing “Cats in the Cradle,” I can hold it together.

“As I celebrate my first 60 years on this earth, I brace myself for the remaining years. When I turned 50, I wrote a list representing 50 things I learned so far in my life. So now, I’ve added ten more to that list.” He flipped the page and unloaded his wisdom on the unsuspecting masses.

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Lesson 1: red carpet makes the floor look like lava.

“In no particular order, here they are.”

  •  We can’t always tell the truth but we must try very hard never to tell a lie.
  • Dress properly.
  • Life’s biggest joys are spouse, family, friends, parents, children, and grandchildren.
  • Worrying is a waste of time.
  • Age should make us better, not bitter about who we are.
  • If I can’t change my situation, I can always change my perspective.

Inspiring stuff. I encourage everyone to print out this review and tape it to your cubicle. Instead of a cat telling you to “hang in there,” it’s a kindly Canadian man saying to “dress properly.”

You had one more thing, councilor?

“I have learned to ride a bike, with all the joy that it gives me. When I am on a bike, all I can do is crank on those pedals,” Siemens boasted as he wrapped his valedictory speech.

Mayor Chris Goertzen had a musing of his own. “Council, I have a question. And there will be a statement before that question,” he politely alerted them.

“Council, we saw that the Penfeld and Number 12 intersection has been virtually complete now. It’s functioning well, but one of the things we do need to recognize is there are quite a number of businesses that have really had a lot of patience along the Number 12 highway.”

The mayor glanced from side to side. “I think we need to publicly acknowledge many of those businesses along there that have suffered through this a little bit–and we wanna say thank you. So my question to you is: do you agree?”

The councilors stared blankly. Suddenly, one courageous soul–no doubt reflecting on Jac Siemens’s 60 Life Lessons–mumbled, “yes.”

And THAT, my friends, is lesson #61: always say thank you.

Interview #21: Burlington, VT Councilor Selene Colburn (with podcast)

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

Vermont is the land of maple syrup and Bernie Sanders. But it’s also home to some spicy city council happenings. I talked to Burlington Councilor Selene Colburn, who has some interesting connections to famous Vermonters and is also a dancer/choreographer!

Q: What’s the turnout like at city council meetings?

A: We have pretty packed meetings from time to time. Right now, we’re debating whether to change our zoning to allow a 14-story mall. Which doesn’t sound very tall, but it would be the tallest building in the state of Vermont.

Q: Fourteen stories?

A: Fourteen. And it would cause us to lose our distinction of being the state with the smallest tallest building. I think that honor will go to Maine!

Q: You have 12 council members. Four are Democrats, four are Progressive, three are independent, and one is a Republican. That sounds messy. Is it?

A: We make it work. It is pretty wild to have one Republican on a city council of 12 in a city of 40,000 people.

Q: Is this guy more of a build-the-wall Republican or an urbane, rational Republican?

A: He is not a build-the-wall Republican. He also serves dually as a state legislator and city councilor simultaneously. He’s what we call a “Vermont Republican.”

Q: In addition to being a city councilor, you are a dancer and a choreographer. If you could take the city council meetings and toss them aside and choreograph them to make them really pop, what would you change?

A: The public forum part is really frustrating for the public because they get their two minutes and they get to talk at the council–and then we move forward. There’s no back and forth from that point on really. Thinking choreographically, that’s like a prelude to the performance that compositionally doesn’t ping back to the main event ever.

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Burlington, VT Councilor Selene Colburn

Q: If Burlington city council meetings were a Ben & Jerry’s flavor, what would they be?

A. Hazed and Confused

B. Americone Dream

C: Vanilla

A: Definitely not vanilla. I’m gonna have to go with Hazed and Confused.

Q: You do realize that is a reference to marijuana, right?

A: [Laughs]

Q: Have you met Ben and/or Jerry?

A: I have! Jerry just endorsed my campaign. They’re really active locally politically. They never go anywhere without scooping ice cream. Every event we have in Vermont that is remotely lefty and political, someone is there scooping free Ben & Jerry’s.

Q: You would think with all that dessert, Vermont would be one of the most obese states.

A: We’re not, we’re pretty healthy. We walk, bike…jump around. I had a meeting with [a constituent] about some of her concerns about a project and she was like, “ugh! Enough with the walking and the biking and the jumping! I’m so tired of hearing about all the jumping!”

Q: [Laughs] Now, we are taping this before Election Day, but you are running for the Vermont state house of representatives and you are unopposed. So congratulations on your victory.

A: Thank you! I hope there’s no vigorous write-in campaign in the last 48 hours.

Q: That would be terrible news. And Donald Trump is our president now, so that’s not ideal.

A: [Gasp]


Follow Councilor Selene Colburn on Twitter: @selene_colburn

#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.