Interview #65: London, UK Assembly Chair Jennette Arnold, OBE (with podcast)

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

Jennette Arnold is a Labour Party Assembly Member who has been chair for several terms. We discussed how London Assembly meetings are radically different from U.S. city council meetings–plus some juicy stories about former Mayor Boris Johnson.

Q: Madam Chair, I see you are an Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire. 

A: I am.

Q: So, “Most Excellent Order”…are you a knight?

A: [Laughs] Only an American would ask that question! Knights are men and the equivalent of a knight would be a baroness and I’m not that. I’m just straightforward Jennette Arnold, OBE.

Q: Gotcha. In the U.S., most city council meetings cover things like zoning, passing laws, and honoring groups in the community. What is the primary function of your assembly meetings?

A: Our governmental structures are very different. The main power that we have is whatever the mayor does, we have the power to call him in front of us so that he can give an account to Londoners through our questioning….Scrutiny is relevant, it’s informed, and you can bring it alive by using case study and evidence from Londoners.

Q: What do assembly members get out of the questioning and what does the mayor get out of it?

A: I think there is something about the political exchange that is adversarial. I’m sitting in the chair aways thinking, “is this member going too far?” That’s in terms of inappropriate language, going outside the mayoral remit, getting personal. My job is to always be monitoring and when I see a member has just about reached the line, to come in and remind that member he has now stepped over the line.

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London, UK Assembly Chair Jennette Arnold, OBE

Q: You had some tough questioning of previous Conservative Mayor Boris Johnson. But if a Conservative assembly member grilled your Labour Mayor, Sadiq Khan, and the crowd was cheering that member on, would you shut down that applause?

A: No, I wouldn’t. My job isn’t to stifle the feeling of the meeting. If you’re chairing a charged meeting, you have to be very careful in terms of the interventions. I don’t see it as my job to stop what I call that “energy,” which is a reflection of people’s feelings.

Q: Has a constituent ever come up to you after a meeting and said, “I saw what you did there and I like that you gave the mayor the business?”

A: I can refer you back to the applause in the chamber with the questioning I carried out of Boris Johnson. I remember a school closure. What this school was looking for was for their mayor to hear their case. A cross-section of the school came and I was speaking on their behalf. And I didn’t know that they brought a cake. [Johnson] was not listening. He was not making the proper responses for the young people.

Q: Hmm.

A: I said, “oh, come along. They brought a cake for you! Don’t be so mean!” Everybody laughed and he laughed and it took the heat out of the room. At the end of the meeting, I met the young people downstairs and he just happened to be passing. It was lovely to see the young people surrounded him and there was no getting away from them!


Follow Assembly Chair Jennette Arnold on Twitter: @JennetteArnold

Interview #16: Homer, AK Mayor Beth Wythe (with podcast)

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

Beth Wythe has been mayor and city council member in Homer for eight years–and yesterday was actually her last day at city hall. I wanted to get her parting thoughts on everything from breaking tie votes to silencing talkative people…to salmon. Yes, salmon.

Q: Fill in the blank for me: if Homer city council meetings were an animal, they would be a ________.

A: [Laughs] I have to think about that because they can be anything.

Q: What is the hardest part about being in charge of a council meeting?

A: I don’t have a difficulty with it. I do have council members that really want their opinion to be the dominating opinion. And then you have other council members that are a little more withdrawn. And you want to draw them out.

Q: So if someone is monopolizing the discussion, how do you gently nudge them to give the other people some space to get in?

A: The rule of order is that you get to have your say and you get to have one response. You can’t just go back and forth. I will just say, “excuse me, this [other] person would like to have something to say.”

Q: When you were just a council member, were you more talkative or less talkative?

A: I just don’t like to argue in public. Even as the mayor I don’t try to make my opinion the stronger one.

Q: The mayor does not have a vote at city council meetings–

A: Only in the case of a tie.

Q: Right, which doesn’t happen often?

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Homer, AK Mayor Beth Wythe

A: More frequently than you might think. Where that can be frustrating for the community is that I’m a very conservative person. And so when it comes to me deciding, it’s, like, always going to fall on the conservative side of the table. It’s better for the community if there is good consensus with the council.

Q: So you prefer not casting a vote if it means everyone else is on the same page?

A: Right.

Q: That’s very self-sacrificing of you.

A: I think it’s not about me. When it becomes about “I need to have a vote” and “I need to have my voice heard”–when it becomes about the mayor, I think the mayor’s not doing their job.

Q: Does anyone get prone to hyperbole and threaten to walk out?

A: Right now, we don’t have anyone on the council that does not function in a professional capacity. It’s not like you have housewives–which wouldn’t be a bad thing–but it’s not like you have housewives or people that are not accustomed to conducting a business meeting.

Q: Mmhmm.

A: I’m still thinking about the animal thing. And I haven’t come up with one!

Q: Let’s try to come up with one together.

A: Think of something mellow. It’s not like the yippie dog that needs all the attention. We’re not that.

Q: Cats are fairly mellow. But they’re also sleepy and lazy and they can scratch you.

A: Yeah…

Q: Goldfish are mellow.

A: We are a fishing society. Maybe we’re salmon. There are lots of varieties and they’re highly valued. I’m going with salmon!