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.

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


#144: Virginia Beach, VA 12/12/17

“I would like to note that our city clerk, Ruth,” Mayor Will Sessoms nodded toward the petite, white-haired woman seated behind stacks of binders, “this will be her last meeting.”

“We love you, we appreciate you, and we will miss you,” he added, leading the entire council in a standing ovation. “Bravo!” someone hollered as Ruth waved politely.

“All right, Ruth,” joked the mayor upon resuming his seat. “Back to work!”

With emphasis on “work”–for not two minutes later, the electronic voting board had a spastic fit and refused to respond to the clerk’s commands.

“It’s not working,” Ruth muttered. “Is everybody aye?”

“Aye,” responded the council in somewhat unison.

“Thank you,” acknowledged Ruth, recording the vote manually. Yikes. With the board on the fritz, can Virginia Beach really afford to lose its clerk now?

May god help them all.

But what to my wondering eyes should appear? But old Saint Nicholas–looking very austere.

“Merry Christmas, everybody,” announced a commenter wearing a Santa Claus hat.

“Hi, Santa,” answered council members cheerfully.

“This [item] is about the city manager’s pay, correct?” faux Santa inquired.

“This is extending his contract for the same salary,” corrected Mayor Sessoms.

“I think the city attorney may have a different opinion of that,” Santa gestured to the lawyer, who responded in a quintessentially surgical fashion.

“If you look at the red line, there is an increase. BUT it is an increase that y’all voted on in July. There is no increase in THIS contract,” he clarified.

Santa nodded. “I think these salaries are out of whack with the real world. Go out and look at the free market and see what you can get for a more reasonable amount.”

Methinks the line between Santa and Scrooge is a bit blurry today. The mayor huffed.

“His background at the Army Corps is exceptional and we are thankful for those talents,” he defended the city manager.

Mommy, why is Santa talking about the free market?

But if the man in the Santa hat was miserly with the manager’s pay, he was downright Grinchlike about the controversial–and unceremoniously-named–“Interfacility Traffic Area.”

“I thought I would read you my letter to Santa,” he brandished a red envelope cartoonishly labeled “TO: SANTA, NORTH POLE.”

“Dear Santa: Mom and Dad want to get me a huge ITA for Christmas and I don’t want one! Who wants a bunch of new development, parking garages, a solid waste transfer station, and more debt? Not me, Santa.”

This routine continued for several minutes, with the man addressing Santa Claus in absentia and the audience stone-faced behind him. But remarkably, he planned a phenomenal dismount. He whipped out a wrapped present from his bag and, in mock surprise, opened it theatrically:

Subsequent public commenters were far less operatic, but no less angry about this big, bad ITA. After Council Member Barbara Henley (her name plate read “Council Lady”) pointedly questioned a critic, a diminutive woman stepped to the lectern in disgust.

“Your horns are showing!” she scolded.

Council Member Henley balked. “I’ve listened to so much misinformation, I’m about to explode.”

“Oh, please do! We would enjoy something different for a change,” the woman retorted to further antagonize Henley.

After listening politely, Henley addressed the bloc of opponents in the audience.

“I apologize if I appeared to lose my cool, but I just couldn’t stand another minute. The ITA is not a creation of the city. The Navy was very concerned that there be no more houses in that high-noise zone,” she calmly explained.

“The city became the owner of a lot of those properties by willing sellers asking the city to buy. This plan is NOT saying we should begin development. On these sensitive areas, we should come up with uses…trails. Baseball parks.”

When Henley concluded, the mayor leaned forward. He glanced over at Ruth again. “Would you like to say anything?”

She rose. “Thirty-nine years, one-and-a-half months. You’ve been very gracious. And I’ve been very dedicated. I thank you.”

Interview #27: North Las Vegas, NV City Clerk Catherine Raynor (with podcast)

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

Catherine Raynor has been city clerk of North Las Vegas for eight months, after being a clerk in two California cities and an Army officer. We played a game that tested her memory of the city council chamber! Then we talked about time she met John Denver and about unusual uses of the council chamber.

Q: We’re going to start off with a little game called “How Well Do You Know the North Las Vegas City Council Chamber?” I’m going to put 60 seconds on the clock. Are you ready?!

A: We might have to stop after 30 seconds…okay, yes.

Q: You’ll do fine. How many projector screens are behind the council?

A: There are two, but there are also two that you do not see.

Q: Correct, and I’ll give you extra credit for that last part. Which company manufactured the computer monitors you’re using?

A: We have Dell.

Q: Correct. Which council member sits left of the mayor?

A: That is Councilwoman Pamela Goynes-Brown.

Q: Correct. Does the door beneath the clock open inward or outward?

A: I would say it opens outward.

Q: True or false: there is only one hand railing in the chamber.

A: False.

Q: That is correct. Congratulations, you got all right!

A: Okay!

Q: You were assistant city clerk in Monterey, California. Were there any differences between their city council meetings and those in North Las Vegas?

A: [Monterey’s] meetings are actually split. They have an afternoon session and an evening session. They have a dinner in between. They have the more routine items in the afternoon and they have the other items in the evening so the public can attend.

North Las Vegas, NV City Clerk Catherine Raynor

Q: You were also the city clerk of Carmel-by-the-Sea, California. Clint Eastwood was once mayor of Carmel. Did you ever see him?

A: He had a movie premiere in Monterey and we purchased tickets to go the Unforgiven film and I saw him there. The only [actor] we were able to talk to was John Denver.

Q: Wow! How would you describe your job to someone who has never seen a city council meeting?

A: For the council, I provide assistance to them in the decorum, the rules of the meeting, how we vote. I also prepare items for council consideration. It’s really a lot about the who, what, when, where, why, and how.

Q: What skills did you learn in the Army that are useful for city council meetings other than being able to kill someone with your bare hands?

A: That was not the kind of Army I was in. I was an intelligence officer and so it’s who, what, when, where, why, and how. Learning that information helped me for taking minutes and for proofing the minutes for what happened at the meeting.

Q: What kinds of things do people use the council chamber for?

A: Congressman Hardy, he uses the chambers. Our police use the chambers for training. The capacity is 344, so if we need a venue that can hold that many people–

Q: So no Zumba or yoga classes?

A: The seats are permanently affixed and it tilts down, so yoga wouldn’t work in there. Unless it was yoga in your chair!

Note: Afterward, Catherine remembered this video of a mannequin challenge in the council chamber:

Interview #2: Avon, OH City Council Clerk Ellen Young

I had an absolute blast interviewing Avon, Ohio’s retiring city council clerk, Ellen Young. She’s been working the council meetings for an impressive 16 years!

During her final week on the job, she told me about keeping calm, checking your ego, and friendly rivalries.

Q: First things first: Avon doesn’t have video of its council meetings! Why not?

A: I’m not sure. It’s been brought up occasionally but it never seems to go anywhere.

Q: How many people show up to watch?

A: Almost nobody. They’re very poorly attended. Typically there’s only one or two people that come because they find them interesting and it’s their Monday night out to see what’s going on in the city.

Q: Wait. You’re saying there are people who ENJOY coming to the council meetings? Like it’s a date night at the movies?

A: Well, maybe. Maybe it’s something to do to get out….They’re from an era when being involved in government was more of a privilege than a burden, you know?

Q: I wouldn’t know–I watch city council meetings for a living. Speaking of which, what’s your job during the meetings? You read everything, right?

A: We read legislation by title only. The person who is replacing me came from Rittman, Ohio and THEY read the entire document.

Q: Yikes.

A: She just clerked her first meeting on Monday and she’s a fast reader, I’ll tell you. She flew through that stuff.

Avon, OH City Council Clerk Ellen Young

Q: How do you prepare for a council meeting? Do you meditate? Listen to metal music?

A: I’m one of the most laid back people you’ll ever meet. If I know something’s going to be happening during a council meeting that’s controversial, I just prepare myself mentally for a longer meeting, that’s all. I’ll probably live forever! I stay pretty calm. I do a lot of muttering under my breath–THAT blows off steam!

Q: Really, you don’t get upset?

A: I was a bartender for 17 years and it prepared me eminently for working with the public. I spend as much time as people need explaining things to them. It’s all about being a public servant and understanding the meaning of those terms.

Q: You sound practically like a council member yourself! Do you ever feel like you should be on the council?

A: [pause] I probably wouldn’t be a good person to be…well…maybe someday. I wouldn’t mind serving on a council somewhere.

Q: Do you ever talk to other clerks about each other’s city councils?

A: I go to conferences and hear people talk about what’s going on in their city and I come back so proud of Avon because people here don’t behave like children typically. And I’m really delighted that egos don’t seem to play a big role in public meetings.

Q: I noticed there’s an Avon, Ohio and an Avon Lake, Ohio. Is there a rivalry between you guys?

A: Personally, the clerk of council in Avon Lake is one of my best friends.

Q: Who would win in a skeet shooting competition: you or the clerk in Avon Lake?

A:  I’m an excellent shot, so I think I would win.

Q: What if I told you I talked to her yesterday and she said that she would win hands down?

A: Ha! It wouldn’t surprise me at all.