Interview #65: London, UK Assembly Chair Jennette Arnold, OBE (with podcast)

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

Jennette Arnold is a Labour Party Assembly Member who has been chair for several terms. We discussed how London Assembly meetings are radically different from U.S. city council meetings–plus some juicy stories about former Mayor Boris Johnson.

Q: Madam Chair, I see you are an Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire. 

A: I am.

Q: So, “Most Excellent Order”…are you a knight?

A: [Laughs] Only an American would ask that question! Knights are men and the equivalent of a knight would be a baroness and I’m not that. I’m just straightforward Jennette Arnold, OBE.

Q: Gotcha. In the U.S., most city council meetings cover things like zoning, passing laws, and honoring groups in the community. What is the primary function of your assembly meetings?

A: Our governmental structures are very different. The main power that we have is whatever the mayor does, we have the power to call him in front of us so that he can give an account to Londoners through our questioning….Scrutiny is relevant, it’s informed, and you can bring it alive by using case study and evidence from Londoners.

Q: What do assembly members get out of the questioning and what does the mayor get out of it?

A: I think there is something about the political exchange that is adversarial. I’m sitting in the chair aways thinking, “is this member going too far?” That’s in terms of inappropriate language, going outside the mayoral remit, getting personal. My job is to always be monitoring and when I see a member has just about reached the line, to come in and remind that member he has now stepped over the line.

London, UK Assembly Chair Jennette Arnold, OBE

Q: You had some tough questioning of previous Conservative Mayor Boris Johnson. But if a Conservative assembly member grilled your Labour Mayor, Sadiq Khan, and the crowd was cheering that member on, would you shut down that applause?

A: No, I wouldn’t. My job isn’t to stifle the feeling of the meeting. If you’re chairing a charged meeting, you have to be very careful in terms of the interventions. I don’t see it as my job to stop what I call that “energy,” which is a reflection of people’s feelings.

Q: Has a constituent ever come up to you after a meeting and said, “I saw what you did there and I like that you gave the mayor the business?”

A: I can refer you back to the applause in the chamber with the questioning I carried out of Boris Johnson. I remember a school closure. What this school was looking for was for their mayor to hear their case. A cross-section of the school came and I was speaking on their behalf. And I didn’t know that they brought a cake. [Johnson] was not listening. He was not making the proper responses for the young people.

Q: Hmm.

A: I said, “oh, come along. They brought a cake for you! Don’t be so mean!” Everybody laughed and he laughed and it took the heat out of the room. At the end of the meeting, I met the young people downstairs and he just happened to be passing. It was lovely to see the young people surrounded him and there was no getting away from them!

Follow Assembly Chair Jennette Arnold on Twitter: @JennetteArnold


#119: Hardeeville, SC 7/18/17

If you didn’t have a big old smile on your face from 6:00 to 6:10 p.m., you must not have been watching the Hardeeville city council meeting.

“Dear Lord, please continue to guide this council,” Mayor Pro Tem David Spisso began conventionally enough, adding: “Please inspire the Apple Company to bring an Apple Store to Hardeeville. Amen,” he concluded, earning an amused glance from Council Member John Carroll.

An elderly man in a baseball cap quietly introduced himself. “My wife was well-known around here. Nobody hardly knows me,” he admitted humbly. “But she died last month.”

“My sympathies, sir,” Mayor Harry Williams replied.

A Lego plane?

“She was always complaining to me to come here and see you people. I hate to do this, but the neighbor we have refuses to take his garbage off the street. He leaves it there seven days a week.”

“We’ll have code enforcement take a look,” the city manager assured him.

While another citizen might have declared “Mission Accomplished” and returned to their seat, this sprightly nonagenarian had one other news bulletin for the crowd.

“I’ll tell you something else!” he waved his finger. “[My wife] talked me into getting in the bake-off contest this year. I got first place on the cake AND the pie! Ninety-one-year-old beatin’ out all of them women!”

Council members applauded wildly as onlookers cackled with well-intentioned laughter. The man gestured to the cacophony he had created.

“I’m going home!” he hollered.

She’s loving it.

As it turned out, he made the right choice.

Mayor Williams gave a slight frown as the Parks and Recreation director slid behind the microphone to discuss the troubled Hardeeville Recreation Complex turf project.

The director gestured to the screen. “We have a video here of the progress. It’s a minute long.” An excruciatingly slow slide show cycled silently.

“I’m on my edge of the seat. Is this really necessary?” the mayor heckled impatiently.

At last, stationary photographs of the field flashed onscreen. The director described the current situation: “The plan is to get that [soil] dried out so they can put down a geofiber fabric over the soil that is unsuitable.”

Yikes! That’s some sullied soil right there.

The mayor stared down at his paperwork and clenched his fist. “So we ALREADY added $4,900 to the original plan. Now we have ANOTHER $49,000. So we’re $53,000 over budget.”

“We’re still under budget for the project,” the director protested.

“No, we’re not,” the mayor shot back in his thick New Jersey accent. “Let’s make that clear.”

Throwing up both hands, he vented savagely. “I have a real problem. We’re coming back at the eleventh hour asking for another $50,000–which is ten percent over budget and six months late. I don’t find that to be an acceptable performance!”

Barely hiding his contempt for the contractor doing the turf work, Mayor Williams ticked off his complaints. “Didn’t get permits on time. At least a week late and counting. If they’re here,” he glared across the room, “NOT a good performance.”

Putting on his glasses and sighing, the mayor initiated a vote to approve the extra money.

“This is something I wanted in the city for a long time. I want it to be right,” Mayor Pro Tem Spisso announced, voting in favor.

With all other council members as a yes, the mayor voted his disgust. “I supported this. As a protest to the performance of the company, I’m gonna vote no.”

On that dour note, the matter was closed.

#81: Meridian, ID 1/24/17

Inside the vast Meridian council chamber, local holy man Pastor Larry offered an opening prayer that was part weather report–

“Dear Heavenly Father: we thank you for the snow, but for many of us you have given more than we need.”

–part community calendar–

“We look forward to the upcoming State of the City report.”

–and part international travel brochure.

“I asked a young Vietnamese lady why she moved to Meridian. She says, ‘I went online and saw it was one of the safest cities.'”

Someone looked up Meridian, Idaho on the Internet? This sounds like fake news.

One of Meridian’s dedicated employees strode to the podium to brief council members on new fees for tidying up the parks. “Basically, we’re trying to recover the staffing cost to clean up before and after a party,” he explained. “There’s different prices based on the number of people likely to reserve that shelter.”

Council Member Luke Cavener raised an eyebrow in skepticism. “Can you share why it takes less time to clean up Centennial Park compared to Hillsdale Park? There’s a $10 difference.”

“Hillsdale Park, there’s a small splash pad there and a more significant playground,” explained the man. “As far as how much time it takes to clean one versus another, it depends on the party. Did they have a cake fight? It could be some people took advantage and they left a mess.”

A cake fight? Those Idaho Catholics are wilder than I thought!

Maybe don’t do a wide shot of the audience?

But Council Member Cavener angrily shoved aside this sweet talk. “I personally struggle with the city playing favorites as to which shelters WE think are the most valuable.”

He eyeballed his notes. “It takes six staff hours to clean up Kleiner Park shelter A1?!”

Silence. After several uneasy moments, Mayor Tammy de Weerd offered a gentle correction.

“I guess we have to trust that personnel in the field have a grasp of the time commitments,” she said sternly. “I would also say–I’ve seen this personally–our staff is not just cleaning up. They’re running people out of shelters that want to be belligerent even though they didn’t reserve it. Our personnel play interference on a number of different issues.”

Cavener sat quietly. The mayor glanced out at the ghost town of seats.

“This is a public hearing. Is there anyone–gentleman–that would like to provide testimony?”

The one guy sitting with his child in the corner gave a polite smile and a wave, but said nothing. With Council Member Cavener voting “no,” the council passed the cleanup fees.

“Madam Mayor?” Cavener once more loaded up his artillery. “A number of weeks ago, we proposed the idea of a public forum for our citizens. I haven’t heard any progress made on that.”

Her Honor was startled. “I…don’t know. Was I there?” she asked incredulously. “If I don’t remember it, I can guarantee you, there was nothing that has happened.”

Mayor: “Perhaps Mr. Benjamin Franklin would jog my memory….”

“I really like the idea,” Council Member Ty Palmer chimed in. “If nobody shows, so be it. If 25 people show, we’d like to hear ’em.”

“I’m kind of caught unawares,” the mayor murmured reluctantly, before offering her lukewarm endorsement. “We can bring back further information.”

Final thoughts: I give 10 out of 10 stars to the people who have to clean up after the Meridian cake fights.