Interview #135: Fullerton, CA Council Member Ahmad Zahra (with podcast)

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

Ahmad Zahra’s first major decision as a council member was to figure out how to fill a vacant council seat. The debate consumed many hours of meeting time, and he describes his thinking while navigating the city through an unprecedented scenario.

Q: You won election to the Fullerton city council last year. Am I correct that your occupation at the time was a film producer?!

A: That is correct. I’ve been an independent film producer for the past 20 years. It was my lifelong dream to make movies.

Q: Wow. That is quite something and I–wait, what’s this here? This is…oh, my goodness. My acting resume! How did this get on the table? Normally I keep it sitting on your side of the desk, so I’ll just slide it down that way–

A: I’ve heard this so many times before! Take a number!

Q: [laughs] Before your oath of office, what kind of role did you envision for yourself in the screenplay that is the Fullerton city council? Were you a Mr. Smith Goes to Washington? A Hannibal Lecter? Or Shrek?

A: All great characters. We all have a part of Hannibal Lecter and a part of Shrek and a part of Mr. Smith in us. I can relate to all of them at any given time: the shrewdness of Hannibal Lecter. That comes in handy every now and then. The naïveté of Shrek and then the tenacity of Mr. Smith.

Q: I agree. Thank you for giving that answer instead of one which involved eating people. At the same time that you were elected, Council Member Jesus Silva was elected to a district seat from an at-large seat, meaning his at-large seat was vacant. At the December 18 meeting, it was up to your council to decide whether to fill the seat through an appointment or a special election. You and Council Member Bruce Whitaker advocated for a special election, so why did you see the open seat differently than the other two people on council?

A: The motion I made was a special election by mail. For me, there was no particular clear way of actually conducting the interviews or the appointment. We had no process. The other thing is: we were given information that ended up being incorrect, that the city had the option for an all-mail-in ballot election [for] half the cost of a full election and would’ve been sooner. For me that was the middle ground.

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Fullerton, CA Council Member Ahmad Zahra

Q: You may have seen a middle ground in the method, but to other people this was more about intent. Some of the commenters you heard characterized the appointment as a betrayal. Was there something in particular that they were worried about?

A: Throughout time, politicians always have developed fans and people who don’t like them. People who come and participate, they also have their favorites and the ones that they don’t like. We all have biases. You just have to listen to everybody and then make a decision not just based on who’s coming to the city council. For me, it was about making sure we were setting proper policy because it’s going to affect people for the next 50 years.

Q: At the January 29 meeting when your council was actually taking interviews, you referred to this as a “series of unfortunate events.” What did you mean?

A: It was a multitude of factors. State laws recently had changed and they set certain dates for special elections, which ended up pushing our special election date so far out that we would’ve had almost a whole year of a dysfunctional government. The other issue was the county did not adopt another state law that would’ve allowed cities to do all-mail-in ballots. The third thing is in our original ordinance, the appointment process was not included. On the night of the election in 2018, the night I won, there was a city council meeting in which the ordinance was revised to include an option for appointment, but they never discussed a process. Then there was people jumping the gun–candidates, applicants.

Q: What do you say to the criticism that you “sold out” by switching from supporting an election to supporting an appointment?

A: I did my best at pushing for a process that I felt was extremely open and transparent. My conscience is clear. We came to the right decision. We saved the city a lot of money which we actually invested in some lifesaving equipment for our paramedics, which we would not have had if we spent the money on an election.


Follow Council Member Ahmad Zahra on Twitter: @AhmadZahra

Interview #114: Toronto, ON Former Councillor Joe Mihevc (with podcast)

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

Joe Mihevc was a councillor for over 20 years when Ontario’s premier suddenly announced in the middle of this year’s election that he was cutting the size of Toronto’s city council from 47 wards to 25. This prompted several chaotic council meetings and even more chaotic provincial legislative sessions.

Q: Where were you on the night of July 26, 2018?

A: All councillors were in council session. That’s when we heard rumor on the second floor during the council meeting that something big was happening. We very quickly understood that the premier was going to be making an announcement the very next day that he was going to reduce our council.

Q: You said the word “premier.” For our American listeners, you’ll have to explain what that is. I’m assuming the premier is some sort of demigod? An authoritative mystic with the magic of Dumbledore and the charisma of Barack Obama?

A: Well, the equivalent to premier is “governor.” Here if you win the premiership, you also run the political party that has charge of the legislature. So it’s a pretty neat gig if you can get it.

Q: Councillor Paula Fletcher used the term “Trump tactics” to describe Premier Doug Ford’s council cuts. Do you agree with her description?

A: Absolutely. When we use those words in Canada, in this context it meant that the premier was acting in an authoritarian way. He was not consulting the folks that were impacted. It basically came from his head and he felt he needed to act, which is our perception of how things flow these days at the presidential level.

Q: During the July 27 meeting, you took a dinner break. And after councillors came back, the tone was completely different and more confrontational. What changed during that break?

A: As the day went on it became clear that the threat was real. I would suggest that what Doug–a part of him wanted us to fight it out. He actually provoked a “Hunger Games” at the city. Forty-four councillors recognized that if we did go to 25, there would be a fight for many a seat. Every councillor positioned himself to be active on the issue partly to show the community how strong they were going to be opposing Doug Ford.

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Toronto, ON former Councillor Joe Mihevc

Q: Help me understand the types of councillors who were in favor of the province’s action. You mentioned there were Doug Ford’s allies, but were there also people who really could not stand the way your council operates?

A: I think the people who were supportive of Doug Ford’s actions–all of them were on the right-wing side of council.

Q: What do you make of the notion that as a councillor, you don’t have to have 12-hour days and do everything for everyone. With fewer councillors, your focus should be on taking votes in meetings, legislating, and not micromanaging everything that goes on in your neighborhoods?

A: That’s a very good point. It depends on your philosophy. If you want to put it on a spectrum, you can say on one side you are the board members of this $12 billion corporation called the city of Toronto and you are there to make decisions. That’s your job and that’s it. Others feel–and I would be one of them–that you have face time with residents. To double the size [of wards] means to get half the amount of face time.

Q: You knew Doug Ford when he was a city councillor. I take it he was a stickler for efficiency, effective governance, and moral rectitude?

A: [chuckles] Doug Ford was a stickler for trying to grab the limelight and score political points on how he hated all government. The word “dysfunction” that Doug Ford labeled city council–it was dysfunctional for many years when he and his brother [Rob Ford] were here. He was willing to go up into the audience. There was once when he was taunting them to come down and take him on. I remember those times as really tumultuous. Once they left, guess what? A new calm. I would suggest right now that provincial parliament is highly dysfunctional, and he’s at the center of that dysfunction.


Follow former Councillor Joe Mihevc on Twitter: @joemihevc

Interview #113: West Hollywood, CA Mayor Pro Tem John D’Amico (with podcast)

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

John D’Amico is in his seventh year on the WeHo council and he is not afraid of wading into controversies. From Donald Trump’s Hollywood star to bad behavior by council members, he discusses the importance of speaking up when necessary.

Q: When did the idea enter your mind that Donald Trump should no longer have a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and that you should do something about it?

A: When that star was vandalized again, it occurred to me that we were spending our time thinking about it and more importantly, the city of Los Angeles was spending tax dollars to replace it. And I was just thinking, why are we doing that? Why are we not speaking out? Why am I not speaking out? What very quickly occurred to me next was, why does this person–this sexist, quasi-fascist actor–have a star on the Walk of Fame?

Q: Yeah.

A: I received hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of emails. I responded to every single one with an email back that had my phone number at the bottom. Only two people called me. They were truly amazing people living in the middle of the country. We agreed that we were not gonna see this in the same way.

Q: On August 6, you introduced an actual resolution asking the Los Angeles city council and the chamber of commerce to remove the Trump star. As you might imagine, there were some strong opinions. One man even called you a “bad strategist” for not waiting until after the primary elections to send the letter. How worried were you that your actions may have affected the Wyoming governor’s race or the Alaska state senate primaries?

A: Well, not at all. I’m fairly certain that what we did here in West Hollywood had zero effect on elections across the country. That effect was generated by this president. He earned this “blue wave.”

Q: I can see that commenter’s point, though. This president loves to take legitimate criticism of him and convert it into fuel for immigrant bashers and media haters and mail bombers. Did you consider what might have happened if he had tweeted about you and what that might have meant for your safety or your city’s image?

A: Here’s what I thought: I’m not gonna live in an America where the president targets people. We can’t live in a country where you can say, “well, if the president tweets at you, you might be harmed.” That is not okay!

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West Hollywood, CA Mayor Pro Tem John D’Amico

Q: You do have a reputation for bringing matters out into the open. I’m thinking especially of the meeting of March 7, 2016, when you called out Councilmember John Duran for his inappropriate behavior in council meetings. What prompted you to go public with that information?

A: I’m not always the most eloquent speaker. I don’t always get it right. But I will say that I do think that silence is often tantamount to complicity. I will say that Mayor Duran and I have very much repaired our relationship. He has changed dramatically as a council member and now mayor of our city. But my side of that was that I wanted our residents to know that I am paying attention and I am not afraid of speaking my truth on their behalf.

Q: Do council members need to be trained to recognize when something is out of whack? If they see something, to bring it up right away and not let it loose in a council meeting two years after the fact?

A: Sure, I guess that would make sense. But council members have bosses. That’s the public. We do not report to each other.

Q: Well, the constituents rely on someone to sound the alarm, though. Would you not agree?

A: Fair enough. Absolutely.


Follow Mayor Pro Tem John D’Amico on Twitter: @ourWEHO

Podcast Recap: Election Day 2018

This past Tuesday was Election Day in the United States, which means there were plenty of city council races to keep track of. We provide you with some updates on a handful of city councils profiled on previous podcast episodes.

You can listen to the Election Day recap on iTunesStitcherPlayer FM, and right here:

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On this episode, you will hear excerpts from these full interviews:

1. Interview #106: Milpitas, CA Mayor Rich Tran (with podcast)

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

3. Interview #110: Montpelier, VT Mayor Anne Watson (with podcast)

4. Interview #47: Crystal, MN Council Member Nancy LaRoche (with podcast)

5. Interview #104: Prairie Village, KS Council Member Tucker Poling (with podcast)

As always, the podcast’s 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:

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Interview #42: Danville, VA Councilman Lee Vogler (with podcast)

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

Lee Vogler is the youngest councilman elected in Danville. We talk about his emphatic former mayor, what things are really like behind the cameras, and about one distressing council meeting in which he voted to take down a Confederate flag on city property.

Q: Your city council has been on my radar since last year. What stood out to me was Mayor Sherman Saunders reading a proclamation for the Goodyear plant and really emphasizing the word “DANVILLE.”

A: He loves Danville. He loves to make sure there is no question about where he’s talking about!

Q: You are the youngest councilman in Danville. In the council meetings, do you have to explain to the older councilmen certain concepts like “twerking” and “selfies” and “Ariana Grande?”

A: Believe it or not, we’ve got a pretty cool city council. Our current mayor, John Gilstrap–there’s actually a video of him twerking on YouTube if you care to find it–

Q: I do not wish to see THAT, sir! (I’m kidding, I’ll look it up after we’re done.) There is a blog called SouthsideCentral and they released a report card that gave everyone on your city council a grade. It said of Mayor Saunders, “I don’t like the way he tries to keep all the real debate on the issues in the work sessions,” which are off camera. How accurate is this statement?

A: I don’t know if it’s so much a [matter of] cameras being on or off. It’s not more heated or anything in that sense. But it’s a little more informal. We’re all pretty comfortable around one another and we can say what we really feel about things and not offend anyone. These work sessions, they’re not behind closed doors. I’m on Facebook and Twitter and I’m pretty much an open book with how I feel. We’ve had some issues where, in the televised meetings, there’s been back and forth.

Q: If you had to name the one issue that really shook things up in Danville, what would that be?

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Danville, VA Councilman Lee Vogler

A: I hesitate to even bring this one up because it wasn’t an issue that stirred up local people as much as it was people from outside of Danville. But when the Confederate flag issue was going on, the chambers were packed.

Q: Yeah. Basically, the city owns the history museum and there was a Confederate flag on the pole. And the question was, should the city allow this? At the August 6, 2015 council meeting, every seat is filled. Some people are waving Confederate flags. Some have Confederate flag ties or t-shirts or patches. How did you feel looking out at that?

A: It was a surreal meeting. What you saw was a fraction of the people there. There was probably another hundred outside.

Q: Almost all of the arguments I heard from the pro-flag people were things such as, “it’s our heritage,” “get over it,” “if you get offended by a flag, you are inadequate,” etc. Frankly, a lot of what was said disturbed me. What kind of threats did you get?

A: There were folks who came by [my workplace] and said, “you need to think long and hard about how you vote on this.” I ran for reelection after that vote and I ended up being the top vote-getter. People have moved on.


Follow Councilman Lee Vogler on Twitter: @LeeVogler

#77: Hutchinson, KS 1/3/17

Folks, 2017 will be a year of uncertainty. Fear. Turmoil.

But all of that faded away when the mustachioed man in the camo-sleeve pullover strode to the Hutchinson city council microphone.

You could tell: he was here to Make Hutchinson Great Again.

“I’m sure you’ve all received my petition in the mail. I’m here to formally represent that petition,” he intoned with a deep, reassuring voice. All signs pointed to this guy having some major grievance with the city council–but honestly, I could listen to him narrate movie trailers all day. His voice was that soothing.

But I’m sorry, you were saying something about tyranny?

“Governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. And the government role is to protect our rights, not to find exceptions,” he murmured, like some sort of Ken Burns documentary.

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He has two guns in those sleeves and 25 in the bunker.

“Your opinion is your theology, and any opinion contrary to the fact I set forth is contrary to our basis of governance. That is why I am requesting repeal of the tax for the support of the sports arena. We’d like to see the city council repeal all ordinances that are destructive of the life, liberty, property, and prosperity of the people of Hutchinson.”

There was a dramatic pause as the John Williams musical score in my head stopped playing.

“Thank you. We appreciate it,” Mayor Jon Daveline casually replied. Then, cheerfully, “next item, please!”

The city attorney leaned forward in his chair, giving the audience an exclusive view of the hyper-expressive sign language translator.

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Love. Her.

“There was a bill passed by the Kansas legislature moving elections to the fall–and requiring an extension of your terms,” he announced. As a smirk spread across his lips, he added, “so let me be the first to thank you for your additional months of service!”

Everyone laughed, perhaps a bit TOO hard.

“This extends your terms from April of this year to January 2018,” he elaborated. “For those whose terms would have expired not in 2017 but in 2019, your terms are extended to 2020.”

Not everybody was elated.

“I mean, they [the voters] might want us out in April and we’re here for another eight months,” Councilmember Jade Piros de Caravalho observed with a mournful chuckle.

“So…the changing of the guard will not occur until WHEN?!” exclaimed the mayor half-jokingly.

“You’re stuck!” Councilmember Nancy Soldner clucked.

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Lock the doors.

At this point, Camo Sleeves jumped uninvited back up to the mic. Cue the music from Braveheart.

“The city does retain the right to stand up and say we will not comply with any law the state comes out with,” he urged them defiantly. “You do have that right. You don’t have to comply with their laws.”

Mayor Daveline shifted uncomfortably, no doubt realizing that the Civil War started over something similar to this. “We’re…gonna take the advice of our city attorney here–”

“The law is often the rule of tyrants,” Camo said firmly. “That’s just the way it is.”

The color had drained from the city attorney’s face. “Uh…the authority that a city has is granted to it by the state of Kansas. If they didn’t grant us the authority…we couldn’t exist.”

Final thoughts: It’s a tough call…they didn’t stand up to tyranny. But they did avoid an inter-governmental apocalypse. I give these council members 8 out of 10 camo-sleeve pullovers.

#28: Phoenix, AZ 6/15/16

Triumphant news from Phoenix city hall! Like the mythical bird rising from the ashes, a shimmering new council member rose to fill the vacant District 3 seat.

“Welcome to Councilwoman Stark,” Mayor Greg Stanton congratulated the beknighted Sun Valley servant. “You have some tough votes today. Welcome to the dais.”

She was further welcomed by a few fair Phoenicians gently begging the council’s favor.

“I wanted to show you the lights here are LEDs,” said a professorial-looking man who shined a laser pointer at the ceiling as attendees craned their necks. “But in the center here are the yellow white lights that I have in my house,” he circled the laser like a TED Talk presenter.

“We’re just asking the city to take a careful look at the options. Soft white is a good choice,” he smiled, pocketing the pointer.

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Phoenix: come for the council meeting, stay for the light show.

“It’s my birthday today and I wanna share something,” a woman in a pink blazer gushed excitedly. “Monday, we did meet downtown–and what do we do every Monday? We! Get! Out!” she pumped her arms while chanting the catchphrase.

“We meet at The Corner restaurant. There are a lot of discounts! There are free raffle tickets! We walk or run and there’s music!” She slyly grinned at the council. “Happy birthday to everybody!”

“Thank you very much,” the mayor picked up on the cue. “I hope I’m not in violation of open meeting law by wishing Ms. Barker a happy birthday.”

“You’re good, mayor!” the city attorney hollered.

Next on the agenda were several liquor license applications. The mayor held a voice vote, with everyone voting aye. Suddenly, a screech came over the speaker.

Mayor Stanton’s eyes darted, until he realized what was happening.

“Councilwoman Pastor, are you on the phone?”

“Yes,” the councilwoman’s voice crackled, sounding like she was in a school bus full of kindergartners caught in a tornado.

“Did you vote aye on that item?” he asked into the abyss.

“Yes!” the voice screeched.

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The mayor’s “I-hear-voices” face

Because it was her first day, it was time for the hazing of newbie Councilwoman Debra Stark. Council members had to set a special election to see if the good Phoenicians wanted her to stick around.

“Councilwoman Stark, are you going to declare a conflict of interest on this?” Hizzoner inquired.

“I think I should,” she chuckled nervously.

There was only one comment, from a devoted Starkhead. “I personally prefer the person siting there,” he gestured toward the councilwoman, before chiding the staffer with a hot trigger finger. “I’m not sure when you start your clock, but please let me get to the podium, so when I start speaking–you probably are doing that, but I thought I heard the beeper go off before I even got out of my chair.”

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This man wants his FULL two minutes, Timekeeper!

The final ordinance? New retail at the airport, with one fancy addition:

“If this passes, Councilman Valenzuela will get his spa at the airport,” Mayor Stanton ribbed his exfoliated colleague. (It passed, much to the delight of the councilman’s pores.)

“That was one of our quicker meetings,” the mayor bragged, glancing way down the dais. “Councilwoman Stark, you brought us good luck!”

Final thoughts: New light bulbs, new spa, and new councilwoman. Wow! Talk about a mythical rebirth! I give this meeting 8 out of 10 soft white bulbs.