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 #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.

Interview #125: Bloomington, IN City Clerk Nicole Bolden (with podcast)

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

Nicole Bolden is a longtime employee of the Bloomington clerk’s office and is in her first term as the elected clerk. She reminisces about weaponry in the council chamber, her attempt at live tweeting the meetings, and a parking garage debate that stood out.

Q: You have been the clerk for almost four years and before that, I know you worked for the city clerk, sometimes being the fill-in person at the council meetings. How have the meetings changed in the ten years that you’ve been working for the city?

A: I don’t think the meetings have changed dramatically. In some respects they have calmed down. We used to have some citizens who were very active and engaged in the meetings, sometimes to comic effect. Most of our council members are pretty long serving, so they know what they’re doing. They have an established routine.

Q: What is some of the comic relief that we’re missing out on nowadays that you used to see at the microphone way back when?

A: We used to have citizens who would come in and talk about various things that concerned them, but they would also record themselves while standing at the podium. You would see people who were filming things for their own YouTube broadcast or podcast. There were people who would show up with hatchets. There were people who would show up with costumes.

Q: You had me at “hatchet.” Was this a prop hatchet or was this a threat?

A: Neither, it was just a hatchet that our citizen was carrying with him. He still comes to meetings occasionally. He sometimes comes with things that may cause a bit of concern, but that is what he is allowed to do.

Q: Indiana is a wild and lawless place, I love it.

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Bloomington, IN City Clerk Nicole Bolden

I noticed that last fall you live tweeted the council proceedings for one or two meetings and then you stopped. Why did you give up on such riveting tweets as

A: You know, there just didn’t seem to be a huge appetite for that type of tweeting. It’s something that we’ve discussed returning to, but for the moment it is one more thing to juggle during an already busy meeting. I have to be honest, I’m not great at tweeting. I feel a little old sometimes because I don’t know all the abbreviations people use!

Q: In the December 12, 2018 meeting, Council Member Allison Chopra complained about how meetings go way too late. If the council members have to stay late, you have to stay late. What are your thoughts on the duration of the meetings?

A: When I decided to run for city clerk, my family laughed at me. They said, “how on Earth are you going to be able to handle those meetings that go past your bedtime?” When I started, our council meetings used to start at 7:30 p.m., not 6:30. So that was one change that Allison successfully spearheaded through, which was getting the meetings started earlier in the hopes that when we did have longer meetings, people wouldn’t be leaving at 11:30 or 12 at night.

Q: During a contentious debate last year about whether to construct new parking garages, I noticed something unusual in the public comment. One of your employees in the clerk’s office spoke to the council on the topic. What have you told your employees about getting involved in council meetings?

A: I have told them that they are welcome to express their opinions to the council at any given time. I have also asked them that when they are speaking to the council, to make it clear they are speaking for themselves and not on behalf of the office.

Q: Is that a luxury that employees of other departments have? Or because you’re an elected official, do you have more freedom to tell your employees, “if you want to get a little political, have at it”?

A: I’m a separately-elected branch, so I don’t have the same chain of command that other departments have who all ultimately respond to the mayor. I don’t know of anybody who’s ever been told to not speak at a council meeting, but I know there are some people who may think twice.


Follow Nicole Bolden on Twitter: @ClerkNicoleB

State of the City Council Meetings Address 2019

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FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE–For the third year in a row, Michael Karlik appeared before a joint session of Congress for the greatest honor any person can imagine, other than meeting Cher: he delivered the State of the City Council Meetings address. The standing ovations were numerous. The viewership was huge. And almost no one requested a refund afterward. Below is a transcript and audio of the entire speech, sponsored by Dig Deep Research, which is also available on iTunesStitcher, and Player FM:

Madame Speaker, Madame Tussaud, Mesdames and Messieurs: because of the solemn duty conferred upon me by the Constitution, and because there is no one else out there crazy enough to do this, I am here tonight to remark upon the city council meetings of the world. And I want to assure all of you that despite what you may hear from the fake, failing, or–if they’re nice to me–the perfectly fine news media, the state of our city council meetings is…can you scroll the teleprompter please? Strong. [applause]

Tonight, I will share with you stories of city council tests and city council triumphs. Although the tests are a lot more fun, you know what I’m saying? You know what I’m saying? [laughter]

Sitting in the gallery next to the First Lady is the mayor of Lakewood, Colorado, Adam Paul. [applause] Okay, he’s my guest, so next time please wait until I give you permission to clap, capiche? Last year, the Lakewood council had a crisis on its hands. What has a long tail, beady eyes, and a reputation for causing bubonic plagues? Rats. The pigeons of the ground. I actually brought a couple here tonight in this cage and oh, the cage is empty. Uh, that’s not good.

All right, here’s what I’ll do. I’ll release the rattlesnakes also to catch them and–okay, I’m seeing everyone shake their head no, so let’s put a pin in that. Anyway, the Lakewood city council had to act fast to keep the rats from multiplying. Here is their story.

***

Thank you for your response, Mayor. Please clap. [applause] But city councils don’t just respond to problems. They sometimes create their own. And when the Independence, Missouri city council voted to fire people in the Power & Light department, accusations started flying. Agnes, could you roll my interview with Independence Mayor Eileen Weir?

***

Okay, quick update. We found the rats. [applause] Yes, finding rats in the United States Congress is like trying to find a needle in a needle stack, am I right? [laughter and applause] All right, good night, everybody. Goodnight–what’s that? I’m contractually obligated for another 15 minutes? Okay.

Why don’t we check in on Canada? Someone has to, for security. Earlier this year, I became aware of a bizarre story out of Kingston, Ontario. A couple of councillors protested the council proceedings not with their words, not with their votes, but with their feet. Agnes?

***

You know, I always struggle with how to end these things. On the one hand, I want to stay and talk to you forever. On the other hand, I just got a foosball table delivered at home. Choices, choices. You know, I have some thoughts about illegal immigration and abortion that I’d like to get out there. It is terrible that–wait a minute. Callaway?

Hillsboro, Oregon Mayor Steve Callaway?! [applause] I can’t believe they let you past security! Mostly because I told them not to. But folks, during his state of the city address in January, Mayor Callaway gave a very important shout out that I noticed right away.

Yeah, you can clap for that. You can clap for that. In fact, I once interviewed Hillsboro’s city manager, Michael Brown, and we discussed how Hillsboro’s state of the city addresses are always the greatest show on earth.

***

Thank you. God bless you. And god bless city council meetings.

Interview #124: Independence, MO Mayor Eileen Weir (with podcast)

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

On the podcast, Mayor Eileen Weir shares the logic behind the Independence council’s brand new public comment policy. Plus, we walk through one controversial week in summer 2018 in which people’s jobs were on the line and the charter’s rules were under scrutiny.

Q: You announced a new public comment policy at the January 22, 2019 meeting that eliminates advance sign-ups. Why the change?

A: The policy that we had in the past was the agenda comes out on Thursday and by noon on Friday, you needed to contact the city clerk if you wanted to speak to the council. If the agenda was late getting out or people couldn’t meet that deadline, they were not allowed to speak to the council unless they contacted a council member and asked to speak. The council member could request at the council meeting that we suspend the rules of order to allow somebody to speak.

Q: Wow.

A: Most people when they come to speak want to talk about something that the council’s gonna be voting on that night. We always have our citizen comments at the end of the meeting. If somebody wanted to speak on something that we were voting on that night, we would also need to suspend the rules of order to change that around. It seemed like we were making a lot of exceptions all the time. We hope that it’s gonna encourage some more citizen participation in our council discussions.

Q: I want to take us to June 18, 2018. Midway through the meeting, Councilmember Curt Dougherty announces seemingly out of nowhere that he wants to eliminate six positions from the Independence Power & Light utility. What was going through your mind?

A: It was a surprise to me. I didn’t know that motion was going to be made. People were caught very much off guard. It is in the authority of the city council to amend the budget, which was what the motion was. It’s not within the authority of the city council to do any personnel changes.

Q: The council voted 4-3 to save $1 million by getting rid of seven people’s jobs. A week later, the director of Independence Power & Light came to the meeting and criticized that vote. Where is the line for you between standing up for your employees and respecting the chain of command?

A: I think it’s naive to think that a city employee can stand up and be representing himself or herself as a citizen. We don’t get to take off those hats when we assume positions as city employees or as elected officials. I’m the mayor of the city 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The director subsequently resigned from the position. He clearly had that in mind when he chose to come and speak as a “citizen” to the council without the knowledge of the city manager.

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Independence, MO Mayor Eileen Weir

Q: And you think it was a resignation? Not something to send a message to other department heads that “if you show up and question council’s motives, this will happen to you, too”?

A: No, I don’t think it was that. I think he was clearly dismayed, and understandably so. But I don’t think that a city employee or elected official can come to a council meeting and speak and say, “I’m not here in my professional capacity. I’m here as a citizen.”

Q: At that meeting, Councilmember Karen DeLuccie made a serious charge that the council violated the charter with its vote the previous week. Here is section 2.15:

Councilmembers shall not direct the appointment of any person to, or their removal from, office or employment by the city manager or by any other authority, or, except as provided in this charter, participate in any manner in the appointment or removal of officers and employees….

Your reaction is what?

A: I voted against the motion. I voted for the reversal of that motion. Clearly I feel it is outside the council’s authority to decide what the positions should be or who should hold them. That said, the motion was to amend the budget. It really did fall into a gray area.

Q: There’s actually more to that paragraph because it goes on to say:

If any councilmember violates any provision of this section, said councilmember shall be guilty of a misdemeanor, and upon conviction thereof, shall be punished by a fine of not less than twenty-five (25) dollars nor more than five hundred (500) dollars. Any such conviction of any councilmember shall be cause for removal from office, and such councilmember shall be automatically removed by the said conviction….

Wow. Obviously, whoever wrote that was pretty damn serious about council members not hiring or firing people on their own. You can probably imagine scenarios from the past that might have prompted this severe reaction. Did your council’s vote a week prior trigger this provision?

A: It didn’t. No charges were ever brought forward regarding that. You’re correct that when the charter was established, it was following a period of a lot of patronage. The charter commission took it very seriously about the council’s authority over personnel matters.


Follow Mayor Eileen Weir on Twitter: @weirIndep4

Interview #123: Philadelphia, PA Councilman Derek Green (with podcast)

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

Derek Green is a former city council employee and a current at-large Philadelphia councilman. We explore some of the quirky council traditions and the more heated public comments of the last year.

Q: I am shocked to learn that for Philadelphia city council members, attendance is not mandatory. People can vote on bills and resolutions despite having left a meeting. How do you feel about this practice?

A: That is something that’s been allowed over the years in order to record your vote on a matter. I think it gives an opportunity for someone to leave their vote based on the fact they reviewed what’s coming up for a vote and they support the issue and feel comfortable in letting their vote be reflected on the record.

Q: What if someone amends a bill midway through the meeting? Are absentees obligated to vote yes on that, even if it’s a terrible idea?

A: If they leave their vote as aye on all bills and resolutions, that is their vote. If they have a concern, that is something that more likely than not, they will not record their vote in that regard. I think once you become an elected official, your vote is one of your most important things. You need to be judicious in how you give your vote on matters.

Q: Because of the way the chamber is set up, council members have their desks facing away from the lectern for public comment. And I have seen instances where council members are either not in their seats or are facing away from the speaker. I have not personally seen you ignoring commenters, but in general, do you think this behavior is disrespectful? And if so, do I need to come in there and start confiscating cell phones?

A: Whenever we go to public comment, I always turn my chair toward the speaker. I think it’s important to listen to what people have to say. There are times when you are in a session, sometimes you may have a relative or family member contact you with an emergency. Or there can be times you’re trying to deal with some legislation and getting information. I don’t know what my colleagues may be looking at on their phones, so I can’t speak for them.

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Philadelphia, PA Councilman Derek Green

Q: I want to highlight one oddity of the Philadelphia council proceedings. To introduce legislation, the clerk physically unrolls printed legislation after a courier walks it from a council member’s desk to the front. I think I speak for everyone when I say: do you guys not have e-mail?

A: Yes, we do have e-mail. However, there are certain things that are done ritualistically. This is a practice that has occurred over the years. In years past, a resolution or a bill that was being circulated to other members of council used to be delivered to that office. Over time that moved from being done physically to being done electronically. But part of the dynamics of city council has been the process where the document that actually has the written language is presented from the sergeant at arms to the chief clerk.

Q: This past fall, you and other council members sponsored a resolution to name a street after former Mayor Wilson Goode. However, Mayor Goode had one major blemish on his record: in May 1985, a bomb was dropped during a police operation to remove a militant group S.W.A.T.-style. Several people were incredulous that a street would have Wilson Goode’s name on it. How extensively had you considered this reaction before it hit the council floor?

A: We have a number of prominent people in the history of this country that–we’re having this debate right now. Woodrow Wilson with the League of Nations, which became the United Nations, has done a lot to promote peace. But also, he had very strong racial views. These historical figures had perspectives, have taken measures and done things to demonstrate leadership, but have also done other things that causes concern.

Q: The difference between the Wilson Goode street naming and the others you mentioned is that the debate in the other cases is whether to remove names from public structures where the people have not lived up to our modern expectations of what morality and racial justice are. In your case, you were reverse engineering it. You were taking someone with an imperfect record and then elevating them.

A: You also have those who say we should not remove other people who have been elevated because the full context of what they’ve done has not been debated. You have some who are adamant in saying, “this is part of our history and we cannot remove our history.”


Follow Councilman Derek Green on Twitter: @CouncilmanDerek

Interview #121: Salt Lake City, UT Council Member Charlie Luke (with podcast)

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

A historic council chamber. Mayor’s question time. And colorful, sometimes impassioned public commenters. These are the hallmarks of Salt Lake City’s council meetings that Council Member Charlie Luke walks us through.

Q: There is an aspect of your meetings that we don’t find in too many American councils: “questions to the mayor.” Why does this happen in your meetings?

A: Tradition. I don’t know when that practice started. It’s been rather hit and miss with mayors actually attending. A lot of times when they are there, we’re just happy that they are there. We’ve just been following the tradition.

Q: At the mayor’s question time of September 18, 2018, council members were upset that the mayor was not present to answer questions about the controversial Inland Port. Isn’t it unfair to say that the mayor doesn’t show up to answer questions when in fact your council oftentimes has nothing to ask her?

A: Absolutely not because most of our questions are going to be related to the items at hand. Especially when there is an issue where there is substantial council disagreement with the administration, there would have been questions for the mayor. That’s where a lot of the frustration was.

Q: So would it not be more realistic for the mayor to show up to the contentious issues, where maybe council members have given her a heads-up in advance that there will be questions, rather than expect her to come to every meeting just out of tradition and sit through silence while no one asks her anything?

A: We have roughly three formal meetings a month. In my opinion, it is not unreasonable for the mayor to attend those meetings. If we were having multiple meetings a week, I think your point would be valid. I don’t think it is asking too much for the mayor of the capital city of Utah to take an hour out of her agenda to sit through our meeting.

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Salt Lake City, UT Council Member Charlie Luke

Q: One year ago, your fellow council members–and you especially–were all set to fund 50 new police officers for Salt Lake City. Would you briefly explain why you wanted those extra cops while I go back to the car and run your license?

A: The response times for non-emergency crimes have been increasing steadily over the past few years. We knew that what we were tasking them [police] with was unsustainable. If we were going to get those response times down, the only way we could do it would be to add more officers.

Q: For half a year, there was an extraordinary amount of people–mostly young, but not always; mostly black and latino, but not always–who spoke up meeting after meeting against the police officers. Their message to you was that A.) more cops don’t mean better safety, B.) we and our communities actually don’t feel safe around police, and C.) you, the all-white city council, have a distorted experience with police that is not our reality. Your reaction to that is what?

A: Nationally, there have been issues with police and racial issues around the country. In the seven years I’ve been on council, we’ve worked closely with the police chief to better train our officers to deal with de-escalation. I’m not discounting what any of them have said. My life experience as a middle-aged white male is much, much different from people of color, women, and others. I’m not ever going to discount what they’re saying. But I am going to go off of numbers and what we’re looking for as a city.

Q: I don’t think that any of the commenters ever said explicitly that this increase in officers was emblematic of racism or white supremacy. But the message clearly was, “the city uses the police to intimidate and in some cases kill us.” I know that you strongly support the additional officers, but can you think of anything that would have to happen with the police in Salt Lake City for you to believe the argument they were making?

A: It’s not that I don’t believe the argument. I do believe that there is legitimate fear and concern. All I can do is try to improve the situation. I can’t go back and fix things that have historically happened. Since we do have to have law enforcement, let’s make them as best-trained as they can possibly be.


Follow Council Member Charlie Luke on Twitter: @CharlieLukeSLC