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:
October is an exciting month because you can always count on at least one city council to really get into the Halloween spirit. Sure enough, Wisconsin delivered. But there were plenty of other highlights, including a sudden competition between two cupcakeries and a mayoral field trip that I may have been invited to.
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.
Saying farewell to your fearless leader is a sad occasion. But luckily, retiring Mayor Sal Torres was not leaving without a playful jab at his successor.
“Before we get started, I want to make a note of introducing a couple people. Let me start with our newly elected council members: Mr. Glenn Sylvester. Hi, Glenn. Welcome,” His Honor gestured to the newbie councilman in the audience.
After the applause died down, Torres deadpanned, “thank you for not wearing the Hawaiian shirt tonight.”
“I like that Hawaiian shirt!” Council Member Judith Christensen bellowed.
The mayor flashed a good-natured smile Sylvester’s way. “We’re gonna rib you until…whenever.”
In other big news, the “Light Up Our World” art festival is this Saturday–with music, visual art, and…other attractions.
“Together we will form the shape of a heart to symbolize our love for art and our community. Our candles will be powerful and will bring light into darkness,” the organizer described enthusiastically.
Mayor Torres cut in as if she had forgotten something crucial. “You didn’t mention anything about storytelling.”
After a beat, a look of realization dashed across the woman’s face. “I’m very sorry: Mayor Sal is going to have a story time–”
“That’s not why I mentioned it!” the mayor exclaimed as the room laughed.
“You’ll be able to see the book projected on the screen,” she tantalized the crowd. Mayor Torres deftly pulled out the exact book in question and twirled it for dramatic effect.
“Ahhhhh,” the audience approved.
“There’s way too much text in this,” Torres joked. He appeared to be holding a children’s picture book.
With the art festival sufficiently previewed, it was time to move along. “We’re on to public hearings,” somewhat regretfully announced the mayor.
Council Member Christensen rubbed her hands giddily. “Now we get down to business!”
Even though everyone began walking out on his final meeting, the mayor held no grudge. “Thank you, everyone….Have a good night….Don’t forget your coat.”
It was time for public comment. “Probably my favorite time of night over the last few years,” Mayor Torres quipped. “Let me start with the always entertaining Marian Mann.”
An older woman in a bright patterned shirt crossed her arms on the podium. “When I realized that our mayor was retiring…20 years ago he won his election and he’s been here ever since. I want to thank you.”
She pointed to the aisle seat on her right. “I’ve been sitting there 38 years–”
“I know,” the mayor murmured.
“–But you’ve done a good job. I can’t believe your kids are so old! Also, I would like to say that I like the two people that were elected to council. They’re young. They’re fresh. Sal, you’ve really done a remarkable job and you’ve always been the true gentleman.”
She smiled, but barely. “I don’t know if I should say thank you,” she waved her arm at the mayor and turned back to her chair. “Oh, all right. Thank you.”
Final thoughts: Obviously, 10 out of 10 stars to the mayor. We at The Chronicles will deeply miss you, even though we only found out about you this week.