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

#102: Half Moon Bay, CA 5/2/17

I’ve seen city council meetings that were suspenseful, dramatic, or just plain mysterious.

But here in Half Moon Bay, they had a regular whodunit on their hands.

Nothing seemed amiss as council members watched a slide show about the library construction. It was a beautiful sunny day and the mayor was fresh off of handing a proclamation to a local women’s group.

But without warning, a photo flashed on screen of a gruesome crime scene.

“Uh, a little bit of an end note which I’m not happy about–nor should anybody be happy about,” a city employee grimly informed the next-of-kin, gesturing with a laser pointer to the explicit images. “A few months ago, we installed really nice gates at the Johnston House at the driveway. Over the weekend, somebody yanked those out and took them away.”

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I’m going to vomit.

Too grief-stricken to talk, the council sat silently.

“We will be replacing those and perhaps going to a heavier duty steel,” the staffer shrugged. He added curiously, “we are very surprised that someone didn’t hear or see it. So if anybody sees a couple of new gates popping up somewhere, please let us know.”

No witnesses? No leads? I’m getting too old for this sh*t.

How is Half Moon Bay not swarming with FBI agents looking at DNA samples, tire tracks, and bodily fluids? Why are groundskeepers and handymen not being hauled in for questioning? Can we at least get checkpoints for all pickup trucks in the Bay Area?!

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Whodunit? Was it…the kindly doctor? The affluent socialite? The reclusive innkeeper?

This didn’t add up either for Vice Mayor Deborah Penrose, the Sherlock Holmes of the council.

“How about putting a picture of the gates on our website?” she sharply inquired. “So if somebody runs across a gate they can say, ‘it’s that’ or ‘it’s not?'”

Aha! That’s just the kick in the pants this investigation needs. While we’re at it, put the picture on milk cartons. Send out an Amber Alert. Somebody check craigslist for–

“I wish I had a picture of the gates,” the man chuckled sheepishly. “We have the PLANS for them, but no one ever thought to take a PICTURE of the gates.”

He threw up his arms and let out a hearty laugh. “Who knew?!”

Oh, really? It’s awwwfuuuulllllyyyyy convenient that the city INSTALLED these gates but cannot identify them. Tell me, did the city have insurance on these gates? Are you going to collect a fat payout now that these gates are AWOL?

Also, who took those pictures AFTER the theft? Perpetrators often return to the scene of the crime.

This Gategate goes deep, folks.

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Just to be safe, I’ll need urine samples from all of you.

And as it turns out, the Johnston House gates weren’t the only Bay Area booty to be held hostage.

“I went to a SFO roundtable which deals with airport noise,” announced Council Member Harvey Rarback. “One of the interesting things there: they made a recommendation to the FAA about the height and elevation at which planes can take off.”

He leaned into the microphone and furrowed his brow. “But the FAA is unable to change its regulations because the Trump administration says you cannot add a new regulation without taking away two other regulations. So if you think federal action isn’t affecting you, think again.”

Final thoughts: You know who needs lots of gates? Airports.

Interview #41: Detroit, MI Council Member Raquel Castañeda-López (with podcast)

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

Raquel Castañeda-López grew up in Detroit and now she is on the city council, dealing with some truly vexing problems people bring to her: decay, violence, neglect. We talked about challenges from the public, challenges with fellow council members, and the challenges of eating during council meetings.

Q: I came across something disturbing in your background that frankly your constituents ought to know about. You posted this on your Facebook page:

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Tell me about the kinds of things you eat in the city council meetings.

A: I switched to smoothies mostly in the meetings. We will share kale chips or salted seaweed sometimes. Nuts, granola…things you can eat pretty quickly and not make too much of a mess.

Q: I noticed that your council meetings can go pretty long. Recently, the council president added a rule limiting statements by council members to two minutes–

A: Well, the rule has always existed. Unfortunately, it is difficult to enforce it amongst the council members, as we are all prone to talking quite a bit. The reminders come when it’s kind of getting out of control. Meetings, honestly, have been longer than five or six hours sometimes.

Q: If I were going on for too long, how would you politely tell me to shut up?

A: Depending on the content–if you’re talking about something that’s not related to the agenda item, you could say “point of order.” You could “call the question” on a vote to end debate. You could also accuse someone of being out of order. I’ve definitely had people call “out of order” on me, whether justified or not!

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Detroit, MI Council Member Raquel Castaneda-Lopez

Q: Not only do you have your regular meetings downtown, you guys hold meetings around the city at night. They can start off at times like pep rallies, but then they usually turn into extended pleas for help. Do you get anxious before the meetings because you know what’s coming?

A: No. I think there is some mental preparation but it’s our job. You have to be compassionate. The frustrations and suffering that we heard in the comments is very valid. Having been born and raised here, I understand not having very good city services at times and feeling afraid and forgotten. I think the frustrating piece is that sometimes as a council, we don’t have the power that people think we do have. It really lies with the mayor’s office. So trying to explain that to people without them feeling brushed off [is hard].

Q: Well, I get all of my news from the president’s Twitter account, so I know things in Detroit are going “so badly.” What are the three issues that come up most often in your council meetings?

A: I think it’s city services in the neighborhoods. Really. It’s about people having basic quality of life needs met. Safety is always a major concern.

Q: One more thing about public comment: it’s common for council members to respond to people right after they talk to you. Do you know other councils don’t do it that way?

A: There’s pros and cons. It’s weird to come and talk in a meeting and there’s just no response at all. It’s nice to answer the person right then and there if you can.


Follow Council Raquel Castañeda-López on Twitter: @Raquel4Detroit