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 iTunes, Stitcher, Player FM, and right here:
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:
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.
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:
Davina Duerr joined the Bothell council in 2016 and within a few months became part of a controversial firing of the city manager. She explains why things seemed to happen rapidly and without the transparency that some residents called for. Plus, what is a “council conversation” in Bothell and what do people converse about?
Q: What is Bothell’s “council conversation?”
A: Council conversation was put on the agenda because in Washington state we have something called the Open Public Meetings Act. We cannot have conversations beyond three people that aren’t in public or recorded. We were finding that there were a lot of things we thought we should be notifying other council members of–topics that perhaps one council member knew a lot about but wanted everyone to be aware of. But there wasn’t really a forum to do that. We all aren’t at the same events and getting the same communications from members of the community.
Q: These seem like announcements that you could make at any meeting–holidays, meetings in the community. I mean, do council members really need a separate, blocked-off section of some meetings to get all of that out there?
A: I believe we do. We’ve only had a couple of these council conversations. In our first conversation we talked about something new that we were trying, which was having a liaison to each of our city boards and commissions. Those are the kinds of conversations that we wouldn’t normally have.
Q: In January 2016, you were among the new council members. Both Andy Rheaume and you were elected by your fellow council members as mayor and deputy mayor, respectively, by a 4-3 vote in that very first meeting. Was there a philosophical division on your council?
A: Yeah, the election of Andy Rheaume, James McNeal, and myself flipped the council majority. Some of the things that we ran for were transparency, saving Wayne Golf Course, more thoughtful development, listening to the community–things we thought weren’t happening with the current council. When we ran on those things, I’m sure the council majority took that to be running against them.
Q: On May 3, 2016, midway through there was a motion to go into executive session and when you came out, the proposal was to fire the city manager that night, when he was on vacation. Wasn’t it a bit ruthless to dismiss the city manager when he wasn’t in the room to defend himself?
A: I guess it depends on your point of view. There was some thought that it would be face-saving for him not to have to deal with that in the room. Once a decision’s made to fire someone, what are the odds you’re going to change their minds? We did take a lot of flak for that, but I don’t know if I’d want to be in the room and have a recorded meeting when I’m being fired. I don’t know that that was necessarily a bad thing. I could see it both ways.
Q: What do you say about your duty to the public to provide notice of a major change like this?
A: I think as a council member, you’re in a unique position where you’re working with that individual. That’s the one individual in city government that we hire and fire. I don’t believe having a long, protracted community discussion about the pros and cons of someone would be beneficial to the community. I don’t even know if that would be something that the individual being fired would want.
Q: Have you ever looked back on your campaign pledge for transparency and community engagement and thought about how it was nice to campaign on, but when you’re governing and you’re thrust into a situation like this, people can rightly criticize you for seeming to backtrack on that?
A: The reality is you can only be so transparent. Unfortunately, when you’re in this role, there are things you know you can’t share. And it’s frustrating for all of us. My job is to defend the city and make sure the city is in good shape, not to defend myself. Those are some of the hardest lessons I’ve learned from being on council when it comes to transparency.
Rich Tran had no political experience before being elected as Milpitas’s mayor two years ago. His first term has had some rough spots, and we explore how he has adapted to the job.
Q: At the April 4 meeting in 2017, what were you trying to accomplish by saying you wanted your city manager’s performance review to be put on the public meeting agenda?
A: I can’t say too much about it because there’s current litigation. If you look at what happened there on the dais, it is really a policy battle that’s happening when you’re listening to myself and the city attorney. It’s like a rugby match and I’m in a scrum with the city attorney. I got so much love for Chris Diaz, our city attorney. He might be listening to this–
Q: Hello, Chris Diaz, Esquire!
A: Yeah! I’m scoring my freedom of speech and my democratic rights to place an item on the city council agenda. I’m definitely following the rules and doing things appropriately. I was looking to do a performance evaluation of our former city manager.
Q: I get that, but your line of inquiry made the city attorney visibly anxious. He’s saying, “as a council you can do whatever you want. I’m just saying as your attorney, I think it’s a terrible idea legally.” What about that was unconvincing to you?
A: I felt like I wasn’t getting the truth so much as I deserved it. I wasn’t looking to discuss anybody’s performance in public.
Q: What’s the distinction between that and placing the performance review on the agenda though?
A: I want the item on the agenda so we can decide if we’re gonna do the performance evaluation or not. That’s it.
Q: On October 3 of last year, your council was considering a censure policy for council members. When Councilmember Bob Nuñez said that he had concerns about people following the rules–and singling you out specifically–how did you feel about that?
A: We never had a censure policy here in my city. Not in its 64 years. Councilman Nuñez wanted to bring one about so that in the event that I screwed up or something, he can censure me. Everybody has concerns about me, Michael. They call me the “outspoken mayor.”
Q: What does that mean?
A: Because I talk about things. I don’t accept things that shouldn’t be accepted. Councilman Nuñez was concerned that I was communicating with the community too much. The funny thing is, no one’s ever been censured. It’s like he’s waiting for me to slip somehow.
Q: It’s interesting because they did have the opportunity to, but they instead chose to send you a letter of disapproval chastising you for your conduct outside of the meetings–and that was all four council members. You said, “that goes to show Milpitas has the dirtiest petty politics in all of Santa Clara County.” What, from your point of view, is the root of the problem?
A: It’s an election year. I’m an independent leader. It’s definitely sad. You read the rebuke that was sent my way–the residents are pissed off that the city council’s playing these silly games.
Q: I get that they may not like you because of who you are. Can you think of some mistake you made as mayor that you would be willing to say is a mistake?
A: Definitely. I don’t have a great background in politics. It was only four years ago that I moved back to my hometown from Manhattan. I was going to NYU for my master’s degree. I had no job, no car, I was living out of the back of my uncle’s house–
Q: Sorry, are these all the mistakes?
A: No, I’m just telling you the lead-up. Getting into politics, I didn’t really know much. You asked me what my mistake was: I think to be misunderstood.
The thing you need to know about Hillsboro is: they have fun. Whether it’s art in the council meetings or elaborate comedy routines at the state of the city, creativity abounds in the Hillsboro council chamber. City manager Michael Brown elaborates on why that is.
Q: I am impressed by the range of creative expression that gets showcased in Hillsboro. Just in the past six months, you had artists, you had high school performers, and–my favorite–you had second and third graders dressed up as historical figures from Hillsboro. Is there any segment of society or culture that you would like to be featured in your council meetings?
A: Anything. We view our council meetings as basically a community gathering where half of it is creating performances and different ways to connect with the community. And the second half’s a business meeting. The ones that stand out to me are musicals. Those are really, really fun.
Q: Do those ever make you wish you were on the opposite side of the dais entertaining the audience?
A: No, not anymore. I tried to do acting when I was in high school and the acting director pulled me aside and said, “you know, I think you’d be better as a stagehand.” I worked in the back of the stage, not the front.
Q: Is that a good philosophy for a city manager? Be the stagehand, not the leading lady?
A: [laughs] There’s different expectations council has for you, whether you’re out in front or behind. I like being in the background with charismatic, smart, intelligent leaders out in front of me.
Q: Something completely unexpected to me was watching your state of the city address. Normally across cities, these things are pretty uneventful. The mayor gets up there; rattles off statistics about how well the city is doing; people applaud; and an hour later it’s done. But in Hillsboro, the state of the city is not just a speech. It’s a production. In the 2017 state of the city, for instance, Mayor Steve Callaway had the audience do a text message poll. How does the state of the city come together?
A: Over the course of maybe six months in advance of the performance, we have a group of people that are laying it out and planning it. We sit around, talk about what things might be interesting. In the case of the last mayor and Mayor Steve Callaway, they’re really funny. They really enjoy the opportunity to engage the audience and not get up and give a big speech and have everybody clap. They recognize the value of humor and wit. It is a performance. We view it as a performance.
Q: Your mayor is probably one of the best deliverers of this highly specific kind of entertainment. And speaking of deliver, this year’s state of the city featured former Mayor Jerry Willey walking in as a pizza delivery guy. Did any of the other cities you worked for come close to this kind of choreography?
A: This is a unique place! They enjoy poking fun at each other in a positive way and if you knew Jerry Willey, having him in a pizza uniform is the last thing you think he would do.
Q: One thing that’s not exactly entertaining, but it’s certainly unorthodox for any state of the city address, is that Mayor Callaway actually gives up the microphone midway through and lets councilors have their own time to speak. Why would the mayor give up precious camera time to the hoi polloi on the council?
A: Because it’s a council and the mayor is part of the council. While he’s the political head of government–the person people look to–he wanted to create the space for them to be up there and have the group be together and say, “we view it as a team.” He cares a lot about that.
Pat Martel has been working in government for over three decades and has seen a looooooooooot of council meetings. Plus, she served as president of the ICMA and got to hear from other city managers about their council concerns. We talk about how to ensure civil meetings and, if necessary, whether she would take a bullet for her council.
Q: As ICMA president, did any city managers e-mail or call you and say, “I am really struggling with my council meetings. What advice can you give?”
A: I have been asked that question. We recognized in ICMA that these are issues our members are struggling with. We have had sessions on this very issue–how to have civil meetings. There’s a need for us to solicit input [from the public], but it’s not useful input if we allow that to digress into yelling and screaming. Having the mayor understand that their role is to facilitate the discussion, but when it gets out of hand, to put a stop to that…it’s not infringing on anyone’s free speech to cut off conversation if it becomes uncivil.
A: It’s also important for the city staff to clarify issues that the public may misunderstand. Or, worse yet, to try and identify the “fake news” on which people are basing their comments.
Q: Just for clarification, did any of the recommendations from that session include listening to the City Council Chronicles podcast?
A: [Laughs] No, but come to think of it, it should have! I have found listening very valuable.
Q: Thank you for saying that!
When did you accept the reality that as city manager, you are sometimes the face of unpopular proposals at council meetings?
A: I learned that a very, very long time ago. The position of city manager is a lightning rod for those who don’t agree with certain proposals. It’s not personal. Although council members and the public can make it personal. I think that oftentimes, council members who want to take me on on a particular issue see that the level of information I have exceeds what they have [and] they take it personally. My job is not to stand up to them. It’s to educate them about how things really work. I am really glad to meet with my council members before a meeting to go over things so I don’t have to present information to them in a meeting that will put them in a position where they look like they’re not very knowledgeable.
Q: In June 2014, the council was deciding whether to locate a cell tower in the city. After they voted in favor, a man rushed onto the dais and stood six inches from council members, jabbing his finger in their faces and yelling. How worried were you?
A: I was very worried. That’s one of the reasons why the police chief or one of his captains is always in attendance.
Q: If the chief was out of the room and an incident happened, would you take a bullet for your council?
A: I guess it would be my job to throw myself in front of that onslaught! While I don’t wear a badge, I have a sufficiently directive voice. I think I could probably calm someone down enough, so I would do it.
Julie Underwood has worked in three cities in the past five years–so she’s noooooooo stranger to city council meetings! We talked about what happens when you bring your kids to a meeting, why she chose to sit far away from the mayor, and one pet peeve of hers.
Q: When you got sworn in as Mercer Island city manager, your sons were standing there with you. Your youngest was seemingly doing a Spiderman impression while you were talking about upholding the Constitution…has your family been to any other council meetings?
A: They have not. I generally do not have them attend council meetings for obvious reasons–the Spiderman and the…oh, my gosh! Wanting to take the mic and wanting to get my attention when I need to focus on what’s happening with the council. Many of us are working parents. I’ve had to pick up my kids towards the end of the day and run back to the office where I’ve said, “sit in my office. I’ve got a meeting. Do your homework.”
Q: I noticed that for your first couple of Mercer Island meetings, you sat next to the mayor and other council members. But by the third meeting, you were not up there on the dais! Does Mayor Bruce Bassett smell bad?
A: [Laughs] No, he doesn’t smell bad. They’re the legislative branch. If I were just observing the council meeting, I wouldn’t know exactly what is this person doing up there? Those folks are all elected by the people and I’m appointed. I really wanted to understand, is there a reason city managers sat up there? Are [council members] really wedded to this idea? As it turned out, none of them were.
Q: Are there things you have seen council members do or say in the meetings that you really wish they wouldn’t? What habits grind your gears?
A: I’m certainly sensitive when I might hear a council member use the term “my constituents.” Once you get elected, you work for all residents at that point. Every city I’ve worked for, every one of the elected positions were at-large [elected citywide]. So I just thought that was odd to say “my constituents.”
Q: Yeah, everyone has the same constituents. It might just be something they assume they have to say when they become a politician. It makes you sound like Ted Kennedy or something.
A: Maybe, yeah.
Q: Have city council members ever surprised you by telling you behind closed doors that some project or idea is perfectly reasonable, but once they get in the council meeting, they slam it left and right?
A: Yeah, I’ve had council members tell me in private where they’re going and then on the dais do the opposite. That is their prerogative. There is a certain amount of uncertainty that is not fun. I’ve also seen where they see testimony in public comment and councils just go in a different direction based on that testimony. I will say this: when I do experience that, it gives me pause and I say, okay, this is a case where I do have to be okay with the uncertainty of a particular person. I just don’t know if what they’re saying is going to be what they do.
For two decades, Lee Feldman has been a city manager all around the Florida coast. Currently he is the big cheese in Fort Lauderdale, which has its share of commission meeting drama. We talked about Florida’s causal meeting attire and what council members may really be doing when they’re not looking at public commenters.
Q: You are the city manager of Fort Lauderdale. So, sir, my first question is: how many wet t-shirt contests have you judged?
A: None. Actually, Spring Break–as you may think of–has long gone from Fort Lauderdale. Back in the ’80s, the city fathers felt that Spring Break had gotten a little out of control. They wanted to see the beach evolve to something different, so Spring Break ultimately moved away.
Q: Can you think of anything you’ve done as Fort Lauderdale’s city manager that you think no other city manager in the country might have done?
A: Well, I’ll tell you one. In Florida when you have a quasi-judicial item, you have to be sworn in to give testimony. Our previous process gave you an orange sticker to indicate you were sworn in. I encouraged the clerk to replace that sticker with a sticker that says “I Love Fort Lauderdale.” I’m not sure anybody else in the country has done that.
Q: [Laughs] Yeah, I wouldn’t expect Reno to have stickers that say “I Love Fort Lauderdale!” I noticed in your city commission meetings that some public commenters wear t-shirts, shorts, and baseball caps. Do you find that a little too casual?
A: Over the last 30 years, I’ve seen a general relaxation of meetings. You’ve probably seen some council members that wear t-shirts and ball caps and shorts–
Q: Not yet!
A: You’ll probably find a few, especially in the retirement-oriented communities.
Q: When you were in Palm Bay, there was a contentious city council meeting over the city’s contract with firefighters. Some of them stood up and said, you don’t care about us. Or, cut your pay. What do you want to say to them?
A: We value the work and effort of every employee. Everybody contributes differently. I remember around that time, these anonymous blogs started showing up and somebody blogged that I had gotten a huge raise, which was not the truth. I got a call from my mom–she was yelling at me about “how dare you take a raise when you’re telling others that they need to have changes?”
Q: Some people express concern in public comment that the Fort Lauderdale commissioners aren’t listening to people. I’ve got to say, from watching a few meetings, that seems largely correct.
A: I think our commissioners get a bad rap…we have electronic agendas now. All of our commissioners and myself use our iPads. As people are speaking and referencing things, we will be looking down at the iPad to see what they are talking about.
Q: How can public commenters get your attention and most effectively make their case?
A: The best way to make a case is to know the issue, be able to state the facts, and it’s okay to even get emotional. I’ve seen speakers tear up because the item means so much to them. But the most effective way is to remain civil.