Interview #146: Superior, WI Mayor Jim Paine (with podcast)

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

Jim Paine ran into a surprise the day of his second-term swearing in: a stalemate on the Superior council, as no one could claim the council presidency. He discusses why some councilors would not allow him to break a tie, plus gives insight into the student councilors who attend the meetings.

Q: Superior has a coterie of youth councilors–students–who sit in the front row of the council dais every meeting. But I have never seen them say or do anything. They just sit quietly for an hour or more. Is this some kind of alternative detention that you’ve worked out with the school district?

A: You’re the first person to ever ask me about them, but I’m glad you did! This program should be very valuable. I’m going to confess to a little bit of angst here that they don’t participate more. I’ve been in that role–not as a high school student, but part of my local political career began because when I was a university student here, I pushed for more student representation in local government. The Superior mayor at the time laughed me out of his office.

Q: Wow.

A: I was working at a bar at the time and I stormed up and down the bar that night raging about the mayor. It turned out the county board chairman was sitting at the bar and invited me to invent a student seat for the county board, which I did. So I wish that they did participate more. At the county board, those students would let us know everything that was going on in the high school, even if we didn’t care at all! Quite frankly–I don’t think I’ve ever said this locally–I wish they would jump right into the debates. They have working microphones like everybody else. If they ever hit that button in the middle of a hot debate, I’d recognize them immediately.

Q: These kids, these youth councilors, do they have some sort of expectation of what they’re supposed to do in the council meeting?

A: There probably is a misunderstanding between us and them. They’re selected by their high schools to participate. For them, it’s largely a learning exercise. They’re there to watch, listen, and learn. What I’ve communicated to them is they should act as representatives. They should speak up. Now, in their defense, it’s an intimidating environment. Our council debates–if you say something, you’re likely to be challenged. I think they’d get a little bit of leeway being kids, but I know they have opinions.

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Superior, WI Mayor Jim Paine

Q: On April 16, you and half of the council were sworn in to new terms. The next order of business was to elect a council president–someone to fill in for you and assign councilors to committees. There were two candidates for the job: Ruth Ludwig and Brent Fennessey. The result of the vote was Fennessey had five votes, Ludwig had four, and there was one abstention. No one clinched the six-vote majority. Did you know that would happen?

A: The real behind-the-scenes politics there is Councilor Fennessey had the presidency largely locked up months before if there was no change in the council at the elections. There was no change. But one of the councilors who had largely been committed to Councilor Fennessey flipped. He started talking to Councilor Ludwig and decided to vote for Ludwig. That led Councilor [Dan] Olson–who is very close to Councilor Ludwig, but he is much closer politically to Councilor Fennessey–it was fine for him to vote for Councilor Ludwig as long as Fennessey still had six votes. With one of Fennessey’s votes flipping to Ludwig, the vote was 5-5. If it had gone 5-5, I would have voted for Councilor Ludwig and everybody knew it. [Olson’s] abstention prevents an election.

Q: Councilor Olson bizarrely tried to get you to commit to not voting in the event of a tie. I know in politics you shouldn’t take things personally, but hearing that from Dan Olson, that must have been hard not to take personally.

A: I supported him in his first election to city council. He supported me in my election as mayor. I guess I did take that personally–[Ludwig] had the votes. But he said no. I was a little bit offended at the idea that transparency means I should give up the one thing I was there for.

Q: If the two options, as they appeared to be, for the rest of your two years in office were to not have a council president or to draw cards to resolve the tie, would you have continued to be opposed to the cards?

A: Yes, absolutely. We had a council vice president at that time who was capable of exercising authority. So the business of government was fine.


Follow Mayor Jim Paine on Twitter: @JimofSuperior

Interview #137: Madison, WI Alder Samba Baldeh (with podcast)

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

Samba Baldeh is the District 17 alder who remembers quite clearly a fraught council meeting about funding for Southeast Asian mental health services. He also discusses his exchange with the police chief from three years ago after the chief’s accusatory blog post put Madison’s common council in the crosshairs.

Q: I’ve heard of aldermen and alderwomen and even alderpersons, but Madison is the only city I have found whose council members are called “alder.” What do you know about why Madison uses that term?

A: I think Madison is just trying to be politically correct. We can be a female, male, transgender, or people who may identify however they want to identify. I think that is the reason why. A lot of people are confused when you tell them, “I’m an alderperson.” They generally don’t know what that means.

Q: On the night of February 26, there were $115,000 that the council had to direct toward mental health services for Hmong elders. Had you ever experienced this combination of fear and anger before, like what you were hearing from the Hmong community?

A: I do remember this meeting very vividly. Apart from the anger, just the sadness of the event. The community became divided as to who should actually provide these services. Who do we give the money to? That is where the meeting became very deeply personal.

Q: During the public’s testimony, Alder Barbara McKinney raised a point of order about the neutrality of the translation services. Do you know where the concern about the accuracy of translation was coming from?

A: She was sitting next to the interpreters and the people giving testimonies. I think what she observed was people were talking to each other, whispering to each other to an extent where she felt like the interpretation was not neutral. The mayor interjected and said we are doing our best. Even the interpreter did say that it’s difficult to interpret the Hmong language.

Q: The provision of health service was getting wrapped up in race and cultural competency. Do you think this was a healthy debate or was there unnecessary vilification taking place?

A: I do think we shouldn’t have gotten here. I spoke to some of the leaders in the community and let them know that it is important that some of these issues be resolved outside of the public domain. We could have had a better discussion around the money part and how we allocate it. I didn’t think there was a need to vilify each other to the extent we did. The best way was to find a way to resolve the cultural or the societal issues outside of the council. Once it came to council, it basically was difficult to control.

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Madison, WI Alder Samba Baldeh

Q: You mentioned the virtue of resolving conflict before it reaches the council meeting where you don’t have a control over the arguments or what people say, and then it can look messy to the public. There was a similar incident in June 2016 that falls in that category. Your council was about to vote on an additional $350,000 to have a consultant examine the practices of the police department. Your police chief, Michael Koval, has a blog. On the evening of June 5, he published a piece about this report where he started out with “bring it on,” saying the police have nothing to hide. But suddenly, the six paragraphs that followed included this language: “to the Common Council: you are being watched….this is a pre-emptive first strike from me to you.” What was your reaction to his accusations that your council was letting him and his officers down?

A: I think the police chief really was not being very fair in his assessment of why morale was down with his police force. Almost every item that came to council with regards to police funding was approved. That is the first thing we can do to show support for the police department. All the events that they invite us, leadership was part of it. Other council members who could be part of it also took part. I think it was an ill-informed assessment. I also do not believe police leadership should come to council or use their electronic access, like a blog, and threaten community leaders.

Q: I’m sure he would agree with you that the council has given his department money, but that’s not his complaint. What he’s saying is, when people come into this meeting and they talk smack about my department and my officers, a defense from the council is nowhere to be found. So yes, you’re giving us money, but it’s almost like you’re paying us off to sit back and take all this abuse. I really need you, the council, to push back, on this vilification of us that’s happening right in front of you.

A: If people from the community come to testify, they can say whatever they feel about the police. How does that bring credibility to the people of the city if we’ve just been called all these names, and now we have to sit there and defend the person who’s calling us all these names? It’s our responsibility to educate people about the police work and make them feel good about their police force, but it’s also the responsibility of the person who leads that police force to make sure the community have a good view of the department.


Follow Alder Samba Baldeh on Twitter: @aldersamba

#139: Madison, WI 10/31/17

It was the final day of October, so you know what that meant:

Council. Meeting. Costumes.

“Mr. Mayor, we have a quorum,” the clerk called out to Mayor Paul Soglin.

“Thank goodness,” murmured the mayor before shooting a bemused glance at council President Marsha Rummel. “What would you like to do?” he inquired warily.

Other council members cackled as Rummel, wearing a lace garment on her head and several buttons on her shirt, flipped on her mic.

“Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living,” she retorted in character as Mary Harris Jones.

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You…you could have bought a wig.

Alder Shiva Bidar-Sielaff, herself in a modest-looking Wonder Woman outfit, used her superpowers for the most mundane of purposes: “On item 56, I requested that it be noted that I’m recusing myself,” she asked politely.

“Anybody else have comments or observations?” Mayor Soglin gazed around the room. He paused and grinned.

“This looks like it’s going to work out quite nicely since it appears that a signficant number of members need to be out on the streets tonight. And Sara is waiting for me at home to watch the last three episodes of ‘Stranger Things’.”

Council members snickered. But they weren’t the only ones taking advantage of the loosened dress code tonight.

“This particular topic sort of touched a nerve,” a public commenter ornately dressed as a hybrid wizard-priest said about a proposed alcohol license. “I would’ve had my pine bough here to bless you with water because god knows we need blessing right now, including on this issue,” he pantomimed spraying water.

“While I’ve got huge issues with this particular co-op choosing to become one more place selling alcohol and eliminating the sanctuary for some sensitive people to shop for healthy food without alcohol…how can we serve the soul?” he asked rhetorically, wearing the perfect attire for his argument.

“So I’ll put my pine bough up here soaked with water,” he again pretended to toss streams of water onto the council. “Bless you and bless the city.”

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Forgive me, public commenter, for I have sinned.

It was corny, but there was no time to savor the moment. For standing at the lectern was the scariest costume of the night: a man dressed as a big, bad developer.

“You can see a variety of housing types–the multifamily and mixed-use as previously located, with the park and the school site located in the center and east portion,” the Dark Lord gestured to his colorful map as a chill swept the room.

Council President Rummel was now in the presiding chair–the mayor having possibly ducked out early to finish “Stranger Things” with his wife as promised. (I think we’ve all struggled to choose between chairing a council meeting and binge-watching TV, so I get it.) She opened the floor to public comment.

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Wait…maybe he really is a developer.

“We would like to have certain conditions placed to make sure the neighborhood stays the good, vibrant neighborhood it is today,” one citizen pleaded.

“Right now during peak hours, that gets backed up past Kwik Trip,” explained another.

“The fix was in,” ranted a third man with a ponytail and faint New Jersey accent. “I’ve never seen a bigger fix. The fix is in. The deal is done. Too bad.”

“The fix” must have been pretty deep, for the entire council voted in favor of the zoning change. Let’s hope it doesn’t “haunt” them.

Final thoughts: Boo!

#22: Fort Wayne, IN 5/24/16

A group of nine men can do two things: (1) field a baseball team or (2) conduct the People’s Business.

Buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack, because this week, the Fort Wayne city council played a double-header–a committee meeting AND council meeting in the same night. Pitching for the home team was Councilman Glynn Hines.

“Is there anyone in the audience that would like to speak in favor of or in opposition to resolution 16-05-04?” he hollered, scanning the bleachers.

“Second call.” (A swing!)

“Third and final call.” (And a miss! No takers.)

Representing the visiting team was a lady from the Ward Corporation. Resolution 16-05-04 was to give her family’s company some tax relief. “We’ve been in business for 52 years,” she explained, brandishing a picture of her relatives.

“Is that Vern?” Councilman Hines squinted. “I played golf with Vern.”

“I actually don’t think that you should have to pay taxes on this property,” Councilman Jason Arp confessed. “I don’t think anybody should have to pay taxes on business personal property.” But before this modern-day Ayn Rand could hit a home run against taxes, he added: “But I’m gonna vote against it because not everyone gets it.”

Despite his “nay,” the rest of the team approved Ward Corp.’s tax relief.

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Your disgruntled libertarian stepdad, Jason Arp

What happened next was truly bizarre: an apology. From the chamber of commerce. For threats. “With regards to the potential intimidation of elected officials, our board was most troubled by this,” their balding representative read from a statement. “If any of you ever felt that there was intimidation, it is no one’s intent. We will at no time use our position as chamber of commerce to threaten electoral retaliation.”

Whose feet did they threaten to put in cement? Whose home did they promise to cut the gas line? “Nice little city council you got here. It’d be a shame if someone were to drag a key across it!”

“I think the conflict was: when you have a project, you’re often very passionate,” Councilman John Crawford murmured carefully. “Some of the advocacy before was like…it was a little too far.”

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Please don’t kill this nice councilman’s puppy.

Heading into Game 2, the councilmen jogged to a new room. Now in the luxurious council chambers, a man in knee-high socks and a yellow “FORT WAYNE” t-shirt stepped to the mic.

“Gentlemen, I’m gonna tell you something: Sunday morning, I felt like dying because the noise was so great. They were shooting fireworks off.

“They’re four men [who] live there, four women that live there, and a whole pack of kids,” he explained. “They’re all Mexicans, as far as I’m concerned.”

Channeling his inner Donald Trump, he concluded, “we don’t need something like this in Fort Wayne. We need to clean up this town. Gentlemen, have a great evening, and the lord bless all of you.”

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This man merely wants peace, quiet, and deportations.

Steering far away from the crucial matter of cleaning up the Mexicans, Council President Thomas Didier gave a mini-pep talk. “Fireworks are gonna start happening. Fireworks for Memorial Day. Fireworks for Fourth of July. It’s all the holidays…New Year’s Eve. I’m just forewarning you now.”

Final thoughts: If you’re going to be in Fort Wayne between Memorial Day and New Year’s Eve, you might want to bring some earplugs. At least, around the Mexicans.