Interview #143: Golden, CO Mayor Pro Tem Casey Brown (with podcast)

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

Casey Brown was a proponent of letting 16 and 17-year-olds vote in Golden’s municipal elections. He discusses the merits of that council proposal, as well as a resident-initiated campaign to place a moratorium on housing construction in the name of “neighborhood character.”

Q: I was shocked to see your council take things a little too far for my taste last year when you sent a measure to the ballot to allow 16 and 17-year-olds to vote in municipal elections. Who came up with this idea? Is this something you got from these violent video games that I hear are destroying our country?

A: [laughs] No, this is actually an idea that has popped up in other cities around the country. It’s something that’s been adopted in a number of other countries as well. It was a neat idea I thought. There was a lot of studies that showed when you lowered the voting age, those individuals became engaged voters for the rest of their lives.

Q: I’ve watched quite a few of your council meetings and I daresay the average age of people who come before you to speak is probably in the forties. Do you think that people are suspicious of young people playing a role in government because they’re not hearing young people play a role in government?

A: I do. It was challenging to overcome some of those preconceived ideas people had about whether 16-year-olds were ready for it. There was even some 16-year-olds who questioned whether they were really ready for it!

Q: There is one other campaign that played out publicly in your council meetings beginning early this year. Can you explain how Golden limits new housing construction?

A: This is often what we call in Golden the one percent growth limit–it’s technically a 0.9 percent growth limit. This is an idea that Golden adopted in 1996, but it’s a way of restraining the growth in residential developments.

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Golden, CO Mayor Pro Tem Casey Brown

Q: In January, you had several residents saying that development was out of control and asking for a moratorium on housing construction until you could revise your city codes. Where was this sentiment coming from?

A: There’s been such a growth in population across all communities along the Front Range. The infill development especially here in Golden has been happening at a bulk and size and scale that was really out of scope with the existing character of the neighborhoods. There was a real frustration and angst about what they were seeing in their neighborhoods–bigger, denser, of a different architectural style, and not really compatible with their existing neighborhood character.

Q: When you heard the word “moratorium,” what do you envision they were asking for?

A: I think what they were asking for is just to put a stop to all development. Just make it stop. I think that’s a reasonable desire, but it’s not a desire that we could really fulfill. It’s not that we want to make everything be old timey, historic Golden. But at the same time, there was clearly some new development that really was not compatible.

Q: It struck me that many of the people–if not 99 percent of them–who spoke, were older than 30. Going back to the 16 and 17-year-olds who you wanted to be able to vote, do you feel that their interests were represented in the moratorium debate?

A: That’s a really interesting thought. When we think about our younger residents, we tend to think of them being concerned about other issues outside of planning and zoning. We tend to think, are we creating the right recreational amenities? Are we creating transportation and transit options for them? But it’s an interesting point because I think they have a real stake in what gets decided as well in the planning code.


Follow Mayor Pro Tem Casey Brown on Twitter: @BrownforGolden

Interview #142: Denver, CO Former Councilman Rafael Espinoza (with podcast)

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

Rafael Espinoza was the District 1 councilman in Denver for the past four years before stepping down this summer. From meeting attendance to the non-televised public comment sessions, he took issue with some of his council’s operating procedures. Plus, he explains on the podcast how he rapidly made up his mind during a divisive vote on affordable housing.

Q: Unlike most cities out there, your council does not hold public comment during the meetings. Why not? And as a follow-up: how dare you?

A: That was an interesting debate. I very much supported having public comment be televised. Basically we were advised by the city attorney to not do that because once you open public comment, you can’t shut it down. You cannot dictate or control what the individual speaks to. In order to maintain the ability for individuals to speak, but maybe not broadcast things that are not really good to broadcast, the decision was to hold that prior to the actual televised meeting.

Q: So if I’m hearing you correctly, there was a fear that mild-mannered Denverites would be more vulgar, crude, and insulting than all of the other cities that do televise their public comment?

A: There are some usual attendees that take every opportunity they can in public comment to speak. There was concern expressed by members of council that those individuals would take that opportunity to expound upon whatever theories they had.

Q: I noticed that the pre-meeting comment, although not televised, was on your personal Facebook page. Is anyone live streaming the half-hour public comment session now that you are no longer on council?

A: No. I took exception to the fact that we were fearful of having public comment. I took it upon myself to live stream it directly from the dais. But I didn’t bother asking permission. I didn’t think it was a big deal because anybody in the audience could do the same thing. But it did come out years later at a retreat–“hey, you’re doing that and you never bothered asking us.” I was like, “does anyone take issue with it?” And there were enough members of council that did that I ceased making that broadcast.

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Denver, CO former Councilman Rafael Espinoza

Q: Denver has council meetings. It has committee meetings. But it also has a unique third type of meeting called the “mayor-council” meeting. Each week, the council members sit around the table, and your mayor–who is not a part of council–comes in to chair a legislative update between the branches of government. These meetings are typically under a half hour, sometimes under ten minutes. If this is the time for the legislature and the chief executive to be in the same room at the same time, I would expect a little more give and take. What was your impression?

A: It is the lone chance where council is sitting at the table with the mayor in a public forum. Early on I did take advantage of that opportunity to try and raise certain concerns. That wasn’t very well received. It’s more of a perfunctory thing.

Q: I noticed that it was very rare for all council members to show up to the mayor-council meetings. What was your philosophy on showing up? Speaking now as John Q. Voter, should it matter to Denverites whether council members are having face time with the mayor?

A: I think it would be important to have face time with the mayor. I was a regular attendee until I wasn’t. There was a lot of things that were on the consent agenda that I took issue with and I wished we were questioning. I’m notorious on council for wanting to question things. For me personally, it made my skin crawl at times to be sitting in there being deferential when there were things there that I thought should be called out and questioned.


Follow former Councilman Rafael Espinoza on Twitter: @CD1Rafael

Interview #115*: Takoma Park, MD Mayor Kate Stewart (with podcast)

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

Kate Stewart oversaw a tough series of council meetings last year in which crowds showed up to protest a tiny retail development. She explains why she wanted to hear suggestions instead of resistance and why abandoning the project would also have been unfair.

Q: In the first half of 2018, your council received substantial heat from residents opposed to Takoma Junction–a 1.4-acre parking lot next to the grocery co-op that was intended for future retail stores. How hard was it to remember that this is a city of 18,000 people and you are hearing on a given night from not even 100 of them? So really, what seems like life or death in the council chamber is not the end of the world for thousands of others.

A: That’s correct. We had online comments. We held a number of open houses. We also did a day on the actual lot–we sketched the outside of what the development may look like. People could come, stand, and be like, “okay, this is how far it is from the street” to get a sense of it. The important thing to remember is that the opportunity to provide public comment at a city council meeting is just one way that people express their views.

Q: At one point in a meeting, a woman started to read off a list of opponents and went well over her time. She turned away from the microphone and continued to yell, and you called a recess. Did that get the meeting back on track or was there another way you could have handled that?

A: I think it’s really important that people stick to the three minute comment period. We had people who had been there waiting their turns who needed to get home to children. The reason I called for a recess was because the energy in the room was getting so antagonistic, particularly the folks who opposed the development. The way that they were heckling and saying things was really not conducive to a good public meeting.

Q: The racial equity statement in the development ordinance asked several questions about the development, without providing any policy predictions. Do you think the people who questioned the racial equity implications were right to demand better?

A: I think it’s always important to demand better. When I asked the resident activists who criticized us for this to provide us with ideas, their ideas were basically, “we just don’t like the project!” I think if you’re going to be pushing your local government to do something, not just being critical, but actually coming with ideas. Local government is set up as this antagonistic relationship between government and residents–it’s one that truly bothers me. To do the job well, I rely on residents to push us but also to come to us with ideas.

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Takoma Park, MD Mayor Kate Stewart

Q: A lot of the people complaining about racial equity were older white people. Don’t get me wrong, those are the ones who you want to care about racial equity. How did it feel to watch a room of liberal white people yell at each other over how to save a food co-op and black and brown people?

A: I think Takoma Park is not unique. When it comes to any type of change, there are very strong feelings. I was talking to somebody the other day–the person told me that this urban planner, when they do meetings regarding development projects, their first rule is to start with the youngest person in the room to have them talk about what they want. When you’re talking about a development project, you’re probably talking about something that’s going to be there for 30-40 years. So starting with somebody in their twenties, that’s the person for whom you’re creating this space.

Q: There were two arguments that I heard repeatedly from the opponents. One was that they weren’t opposed to development; they were just opposed to this development. And the second was how divisive all of this was. They’re saying, “it’s on you, the council, to unify the community,” by which they meant giving them what they wanted. Were you in any mood to unify the community given that some of them were now trying to recall you?

A: My concern for folks who wanted to delay the project or have us hit the restart button is that would make some people happy, but the folks who wanted the project, that would make them unhappy! That wasn’t a compromise! For them, that would be stopping a project they like. I did not see that as a way to bring the community together.


Follow Mayor Kate Stewart on Twitter: @KateforTakoma

*Interview 115 was previously omitted in the numbering order.

#174: Monroe, NC 11/6/18

Things were looking optimistic for the developers of the quaintly-named Veronica Springs subdivision.

“I’m that odd-shaped square in the middle of this project,” the pastor of the Community Church of the Nazarene announced at the lectern while looking very pastoral in glasses and a sweater vest. “At first I wasn’t sure that I wanted 200 homes built around us like that.”

However, he continued, “we’re in support of it. We decided that it was a good thing for this community. Affordable housing is something we need, and we’ll try to be a good neighbor.”

It was a compelling endorsement to have the lord’s representative on the project’s side. But I wonder, could god possibly send a mixed message through another messenger?

“I ran across an interesting article on Cain and Abel,” began a white-haired man now standing at the microphone. “The practice in ancient time was the father left everything to the oldest son. The reason for that? So it didn’t constantly get subdivided. It would get to the point where people couldn’t sustain themselves on that little land. I think that’s a real important point to consider.”

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Amen

It would be an important point if the future homeowners were grazing cattle and not driving down the road to the Walmart Supercenter for groceries. But there was a more insidious, moral implication to the subdivision.

“We have moved from a predominantly rural to a predominantly urban society,” he continued. “Like with the Tower of Babel, people were supposed to disperse and multiply and they tried to exalt themselves with the tower.”

“Well, there is the war, and the good and evil is done by self-centeredness. That’s what takes us away from god. Urban settings tend to push people toward the self-centeredness–”

“Thank you. We’re gonna stay on track with the public hearing,” Mayor Bobby Kilgore gently nudged the speaker away from the microphone at the end of his three rambling minutes. With no further communications from god, the council moved on.

“Here comes ducky,” council members heckled an employee as he approached the lectern. “Quack, quack!”

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Is this hazing?

The man grinned at the apparent inside joke and proceeded. “We request that the industrial parks owned and developed by the city of Monroe be exempt from the ‘naming of public facilities and lands in recognition of individuals’ policy.”

He added, “the industrial park’s name is significant and needs to be really a brand, not attached to a person.”

“I don’t think it’s good to exclude us from naming,” countered Council Member Surluta Anthony.

“It’s not excluding you. You’re the naming entity.”

“We just don’t have a part in giving the suggestion of names?” she asked.

“You can,” was the reply. “The name can be whatever city council decides.”

Council Member Lynn Keziah was satisfied with this names-but-not-names suggestion. “Motion to approve the amendment to exempt city-owned industrial parks from the naming policy.”

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“City Council Chronicles Industrial Park” is still on the table.

“This is only going to be for industrial parks?” Anthony clarified.

“What I just read,” Keziah replied resolutely.

In case anyone was not 100 percent clear on the new policy, they would have to figure it out on their own time because the council promptly approved it and breezed on to more important matters.

“Thanksgiving is coming up. We give our employees Thursday and Friday,” pointed out Keziah. “I think we should give them Wednesday. Traveling time to get to where they’re going.”

“They’re already smiling in the audience!” Mayor Kilgore exclaimed. The employees had good reason to, for the council voted to make the five-day weekend a reality.

Interview #105: Fremont, CA Councilmember Raj Salwan (with podcast)

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

Raj Salwan has attempted to establish some order in Fremont’s sometimes-fluid appointment procedures for council members. He talked about how things could be better, and also about one contentious development that led to a raucous council meeting.

Q: You were appointed to the Fremont council in 2013. There are also three other current council members who went through this appointment process–meaning that four out of the five of you at one point sat for an interview to be on council. Is that a coincidence or is this truly a shortcut to winning elections that people ought to know about?

A: There’s two types of candidates that apply for these appointments. One is the planning commissioners. The other are people who just ran in the last election. One of the things in Fremont is that if you came in third place in an election, you usually don’t get the appointment. The critics will often say that because you weren’t elected, the voters didn’t choose you. So it’s not really fair but that’s just how it has been.

Q: In 2017, there was another vacancy. And the odd thing to me is that you spent the first ten minutes not sure how things would go. Why did you not have the rules solidified?

A: A lot of times the process is whatever the mayor wants to make it. In the past appointments, some of the council members had said, “hey, I was confused about the process.” We were trying to find what the expectation was so we knew exactly what was gonna happen.

Q: Correct me if I’m wrong, but your new mayor at the time, Lily Mei, had never participated in this appointment process as either a candidate or as someone interviewing candidates.

A: That’s true. It was a new job for her and the first thing she had to do was try to replace her own position [as a council member]. So it got very–well, it was a difficult process.

Q: Ah. If I may point out another area of improvement: the questions you asked of these candidates, if I’m being honest, were pretty basic. “Tell us about yourself.” “How did you get involved in politics?” I think you need to kick it up a notch. Ask them questions like, “if this room caught on fire and you could only save two council members, who would they be?”

A: That’s definitely very critical thinking! In the past, some people had accused council members of asking pointed questions or questions that they felt made them look bad. This was the process the city clerk came up with to give softball questions so nobody could say, “I got this question because somebody didn’t like me.” But I hear you. I like tough, pointed questions.

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Fremont, CA Councilmember Raj Salwan

Q: After your appointment in 2013, you did not win your election in 2014. But you did win in 2016. However, after the election but before your swearing in, the council voted on something called the Walnut Residences. In this case, the development was a huge lightning rod. Is that your memory?

A: This is the biggest fight in the Bay Area. Everybody complains about the cost of housing, but they always oppose housing when it’s near them. This became the flash point for this last election.

Q: In this meeting, Councilmember Lily Mei–who just defeated the incumbent mayor–said they should postpone the vote until you joined the council. I think she expected the vote to be different with you there. Do you think they should have waited?

A: No, I have to respect the decision of the council at the time. I wasn’t there and it’s not fair for me to comment or criticize.

Q: Did you see this at all as an attempt to speed things up like we’ve seen on the federal level–to take advantage of the partisan situation? Or do you buy the explanation that it’s been in front of the council for a really long time and it’s just time to get it done?

A: It’s a complicated thing. It’s been upcoming for several years. The applicant just wanted to get a decision. The council just wanted to take it on. It’s a great election issue for candidates who want to stop all growth. They point to [this].


Follow Councilmember Raj Salwan on Twitter: @RajSalwan

#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?

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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.

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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.”