Interview #135: Fullerton, CA Council Member Ahmad Zahra (with podcast)

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

Ahmad Zahra’s first major decision as a council member was to figure out how to fill a vacant council seat. The debate consumed many hours of meeting time, and he describes his thinking while navigating the city through an unprecedented scenario.

Q: You won election to the Fullerton city council last year. Am I correct that your occupation at the time was a film producer?!

A: That is correct. I’ve been an independent film producer for the past 20 years. It was my lifelong dream to make movies.

Q: Wow. That is quite something and I–wait, what’s this here? This is…oh, my goodness. My acting resume! How did this get on the table? Normally I keep it sitting on your side of the desk, so I’ll just slide it down that way–

A: I’ve heard this so many times before! Take a number!

Q: [laughs] Before your oath of office, what kind of role did you envision for yourself in the screenplay that is the Fullerton city council? Were you a Mr. Smith Goes to Washington? A Hannibal Lecter? Or Shrek?

A: All great characters. We all have a part of Hannibal Lecter and a part of Shrek and a part of Mr. Smith in us. I can relate to all of them at any given time: the shrewdness of Hannibal Lecter. That comes in handy every now and then. The naïveté of Shrek and then the tenacity of Mr. Smith.

Q: I agree. Thank you for giving that answer instead of one which involved eating people. At the same time that you were elected, Council Member Jesus Silva was elected to a district seat from an at-large seat, meaning his at-large seat was vacant. At the December 18 meeting, it was up to your council to decide whether to fill the seat through an appointment or a special election. You and Council Member Bruce Whitaker advocated for a special election, so why did you see the open seat differently than the other two people on council?

A: The motion I made was a special election by mail. For me, there was no particular clear way of actually conducting the interviews or the appointment. We had no process. The other thing is: we were given information that ended up being incorrect, that the city had the option for an all-mail-in ballot election [for] half the cost of a full election and would’ve been sooner. For me that was the middle ground.

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Fullerton, CA Council Member Ahmad Zahra

Q: You may have seen a middle ground in the method, but to other people this was more about intent. Some of the commenters you heard characterized the appointment as a betrayal. Was there something in particular that they were worried about?

A: Throughout time, politicians always have developed fans and people who don’t like them. People who come and participate, they also have their favorites and the ones that they don’t like. We all have biases. You just have to listen to everybody and then make a decision not just based on who’s coming to the city council. For me, it was about making sure we were setting proper policy because it’s going to affect people for the next 50 years.

Q: At the January 29 meeting when your council was actually taking interviews, you referred to this as a “series of unfortunate events.” What did you mean?

A: It was a multitude of factors. State laws recently had changed and they set certain dates for special elections, which ended up pushing our special election date so far out that we would’ve had almost a whole year of a dysfunctional government. The other issue was the county did not adopt another state law that would’ve allowed cities to do all-mail-in ballots. The third thing is in our original ordinance, the appointment process was not included. On the night of the election in 2018, the night I won, there was a city council meeting in which the ordinance was revised to include an option for appointment, but they never discussed a process. Then there was people jumping the gun–candidates, applicants.

Q: What do you say to the criticism that you “sold out” by switching from supporting an election to supporting an appointment?

A: I did my best at pushing for a process that I felt was extremely open and transparent. My conscience is clear. We came to the right decision. We saved the city a lot of money which we actually invested in some lifesaving equipment for our paramedics, which we would not have had if we spent the money on an election.


Follow Council Member Ahmad Zahra on Twitter: @AhmadZahra

Podcast Recap and Listener Survey

We have two major pieces of news this week. First, you may listen to the latest podcast episode–a recap of our greatest hits–on iTunesStitcherPlayer FM, and right here:

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Second, we are launching our first-ever listener survey! What do you like about the podcast? What do you dislike? Please be gentle. But also, please fill it out: visit www.councilchronicles.com/survey and answer a few simple questions. Plus, tell us anything you think we should know about why you listen and what you want from the program.

On this episode, you will hear excerpts from these full interviews:

1. Interview #132: Troy, MI Mayor Pro Tem Ethan Baker (with podcast)

2. Interview #134: Berea, KY Councilwoman Emily LaDouceur (with podcast)

3. Interview #69: Daly City, CA City Manager Pat Martel (with podcast)

By the way, did you know that one year ago this week is when “Tear It Down” was released? In that time, thousands of people have listened and many have walked away with a newfound appreciation for the functionality of their own local governments. To hear the entire eight-chapter series and its colorful cast of characters, visit www.tearitdownpodcast.com.

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As always, City Council Chronicles’ sponsor is Dig Deep Research. They assist local governments in obtaining grant money and are eager to hear from potential new clients. Find out how they can help you today:

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Podcast Recap: Spring Break Special

We are spending spring break at the beach this week, but you can listen to a “best-of” podcast episode on iTunesStitcherPlayer FM, and right here:

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On this episode, you will hear excerpts from these full interviews:

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

2. Interview #129: Portsmouth, NH Councilor Nancy Pearson (with podcast)

3. Interview #67: Duluth, MN Councilor Noah Hobbs (with podcast)

4. Excerpt from “Tear It Down”

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As always, the podcast’s sponsor is Dig Deep Research. They assist local governments in obtaining grant money and are eager to hear from potential new clients. Find out how they can help you today:

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Interview #126: Coalinga, CA Council Member Adam Adkisson (with podcast)

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

Adam Adkisson has been a council member in the small city of Coalinga for less than a year, but he already has a restraining order against a public commenter and is collecting screenshots of online tormentors. What is transpiring in Central California?

Q: Your recent mayor, Nathan Vosburg, had a consistent grievance during his time in the mayor’s seat. How much did you agree with his complaints about negativity and non-participation by the residents of Coalinga?

A: We have a lot of issues with people getting on Facebook and spreading all kinds of lies and rumors about the city. People just take it and run with it. I understand where he’s coming from. I don’t know if I would’ve said it exactly the same way, but I share some of his sentiments.

Q: Normally we think of mayors as cheerleaders for their communities. Did it grate on you to have the mayor in public, on television, saying, “I’m sick and tired of the attitude around here”?

A: No! Sometimes we need someone to say it. People like honesty, so that’s what he gave them.

Q: At your first meeting in November as an elected council member, you said this in nominating Council Member Ron Lander to be the new mayor: “we need a mayor who will lay down the law….We need to quit having these outbursts. You have kids come in here and they have to listen to people throw around F-bombs.” Tell me more.

A: We have an issue with a few citizens who come to the council meeting and they think that certain chairs belong to them and they’ll start a fight just to prove it. We get people who come up–mainly two people–who come up to the lectern and start cussing and yelling. It just got out of control. The mayor now is gonna put an end to it and people need to act appropriately.

Q: On August 2, 2018, your council removed from the agenda a discussion about whether to allow drug testing and background checks of city council members because the city attorney advised that legally, you could not do that. This upset one commenter, who implied that he wanted to fight you.

A: He loves me. He was wanting me to go outside. He doesn’t even live in Coalinga. His mom accused me of being on drugs one time and I said that if she wanted to pay for my drug test, she could do it. If I passed, which I would, she would have to give an apology. That’s all I said.

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Coalinga, CA Council Member Adam Adkisson

Q: By day, you are a bounty hunter. How surprising is it that you come into contact with more people wanting to fight you as a city council member than as a bounty hunter?

A: [laughs] That’s absolutely true. It’s crazy! I never thought it would be like this but you just gotta power through it.

Q: Is this affecting the city to have people bad mouthing each other and then bringing it to the council meeting?

A: Yes, it’s definitely affected us. It needs to stop and it has for the last couple meetings. I have a restraining order and everything is going a lot more smoothly now and we hope to keep it that way. The people of Coalinga should not be afraid to come to meetings. They should not have to listen to this kind of behavior.

Q: Have you considered pulling back from Facebook to avoid the confrontations that germinate there?

A: Absolutely. I’ve pulled back quite a bit. It hasn’t really changed anything. I probably have about 400 screenshots of lies that people have said about me. It comes with the territory.

Q: Uh, yes, to a certain extent all council members have to deal with that. But you’ve been on council for less than a year and you’re already collecting screenshots of lies? That seems unhealthy!

A: They’re sent to me, so I put it in a little folder that me and my friends can laugh at. I have to have some outlet. That’s my outlet.

Month in Review: November 2018

Turkey. Cranberry sauce. Council meetings?

In November, there was plenty to be thankful for in municipal governance, as we witnessed several provocative council meeting moments worth reviewing.

Remember the city council that grew some “jacket envy” after seeing a group of international visitors?

Or the city that was running out of space to list its sports victories?

Surely you recall the council member who brought Donald Trump into a meeting in a bigly way?

But it was also a month for fresh ideas for how to run a council meeting. For example: conduct a racial equity training. Or have high school students present new policies.

To see what we served up on the Thanksgiving dinner table, visit the November Month in Review.

And if you are curious about whether anyone has raised the roof in a council meeting, this guy answers that question:

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#176: Temecula, CA 11/27/18

“Are you in the audience this evening?” Mayor Matt Rahn scanned the room for one particular Boy Scout, which should not have been difficult given the scarcity of badges and uniforms in the crowd.

“We wanted to congratulate you on receiving the rank of Eagle Scout, which is the highest achievement in scouting. Let’s hear about your project!”

The scout stood uneasily behind the microphone and softly described his community service. “For my project, I decided to go with Rancho Damacitas [Children & Family Services]. I decided to go with a garden box and benches. But then they decided they didn’t want that anymore. They wanted to build a shed. So I agreed to make a shed for them.”

“God, you started off with a bench and made it all the way to shed,” the mayor exclaimed. “It’s a good thing they didn’t have an annex wing put on!” A group of teenagers grinned and snickered in the second row–although it was less a reaction to the mayor’s joke than to something they were doodling in their notebooks.

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I see you, kids.

Fortunately, they picked the right night to observe a council meeting, as the Temecula Valley Museum’s director stood to introduce visiting dignitaries from Daisen, Temecula’s sister city in Japan.

“They will be enjoying many of the amenities, including the duck pond, the Pechanga Great Oak Tree, and also San Diego,” she said. “They will also be our special guests in Santa’s Electric Light Parade.

“Please forgive me if I mispronounce their names.” She proceeded strenuously to sound out each name, but none of them appeared to mind as they strode to the front of the room for a group picture.

There was minor confusion as the mayor attempted to pass out certificates, but had no idea who was who. Thinking quickly, he flashed the papers to one of the visitors, who pointed him towards the correct recipient.

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Temecula council goal: learn Japanese

“Have you taken them to In-N-Out Burger?” Mayor Pro Tem Michael Naggar grilled the museum manager. “Not yet? And the Cheesecake Factory?”

“Where do we get those jackets like they have on?” quizzed Council Member Maryann Edwards, pointing to the branded jacket of one of the visitors.

“That’s a good question,” Mayor Rahn echoed. “Where did you get the Temecula jacket?”

“You can get those in the visitor’s center around the corner,” replied the city manager, to the pleasant surprise of the whole council.

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I predict five purchases in the near future.

The last large order of business–other than the teens’ excited whispering about something on one of their phones–was the dry but important matter of extending a construction permit for the Temecula Valley Hospital.

“I can personally vouch that because of the hospital–no exaggeration–it has saved the life of my father-in-law, it saved the life of my wife,” Mayor Pro Tem Naggar testified. “There is an impact of the helicopter flying over–it flies about 300 feet over my house. At first, it’s annoying until you think about who’s in that helicopter. Then you find out a little annoyance is meaningless based on what’s going on up there.”

“None of us could have dreamt that it would be this good,” echoed Council Member Edwards. “My husband has been a ‘customer’ on several occasions. How we ever got along without you, we will never know.”

With praise like that, I hope the Japanese delegation gets to visit the hospital–a far, far healthier alternative to the Cheesecake Factory.

Interview #113: West Hollywood, CA Mayor Pro Tem John D’Amico (with podcast)

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

John D’Amico is in his seventh year on the WeHo council and he is not afraid of wading into controversies. From Donald Trump’s Hollywood star to bad behavior by council members, he discusses the importance of speaking up when necessary.

Q: When did the idea enter your mind that Donald Trump should no longer have a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and that you should do something about it?

A: When that star was vandalized again, it occurred to me that we were spending our time thinking about it and more importantly, the city of Los Angeles was spending tax dollars to replace it. And I was just thinking, why are we doing that? Why are we not speaking out? Why am I not speaking out? What very quickly occurred to me next was, why does this person–this sexist, quasi-fascist actor–have a star on the Walk of Fame?

Q: Yeah.

A: I received hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of emails. I responded to every single one with an email back that had my phone number at the bottom. Only two people called me. They were truly amazing people living in the middle of the country. We agreed that we were not gonna see this in the same way.

Q: On August 6, you introduced an actual resolution asking the Los Angeles city council and the chamber of commerce to remove the Trump star. As you might imagine, there were some strong opinions. One man even called you a “bad strategist” for not waiting until after the primary elections to send the letter. How worried were you that your actions may have affected the Wyoming governor’s race or the Alaska state senate primaries?

A: Well, not at all. I’m fairly certain that what we did here in West Hollywood had zero effect on elections across the country. That effect was generated by this president. He earned this “blue wave.”

Q: I can see that commenter’s point, though. This president loves to take legitimate criticism of him and convert it into fuel for immigrant bashers and media haters and mail bombers. Did you consider what might have happened if he had tweeted about you and what that might have meant for your safety or your city’s image?

A: Here’s what I thought: I’m not gonna live in an America where the president targets people. We can’t live in a country where you can say, “well, if the president tweets at you, you might be harmed.” That is not okay!

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West Hollywood, CA Mayor Pro Tem John D’Amico

Q: You do have a reputation for bringing matters out into the open. I’m thinking especially of the meeting of March 7, 2016, when you called out Councilmember John Duran for his inappropriate behavior in council meetings. What prompted you to go public with that information?

A: I’m not always the most eloquent speaker. I don’t always get it right. But I will say that I do think that silence is often tantamount to complicity. I will say that Mayor Duran and I have very much repaired our relationship. He has changed dramatically as a council member and now mayor of our city. But my side of that was that I wanted our residents to know that I am paying attention and I am not afraid of speaking my truth on their behalf.

Q: Do council members need to be trained to recognize when something is out of whack? If they see something, to bring it up right away and not let it loose in a council meeting two years after the fact?

A: Sure, I guess that would make sense. But council members have bosses. That’s the public. We do not report to each other.

Q: Well, the constituents rely on someone to sound the alarm, though. Would you not agree?

A: Fair enough. Absolutely.


Follow Mayor Pro Tem John D’Amico on Twitter: @ourWEHO