‘Twas the night before Christmas / And throughout City Hall,
Not a mayor was stirring / Nor a council near-brawl.
Public commenters were nestled / All snug in their beds,
While concocting some brand new complaints / In their heads.
When on people’s phones / There arose a loud clatter.
They opened up iTunes / To see what was the matter.
With a square yellow icon / People gave a small nod past,
For they knew what it was: / A brand new podcast.
Yes, my friends, this is a special holiday edition of the City Council Chronicles podcast, covering highlights from our best interviews–including all the gifts, challenges, and vintage audio recordings I’ve offered my guests through the months. This “best of” is available on iTunes, Stitcher, Player FM and right here:
We have a highly prestigious episode this week: Lesley Alexander has been a Conservative Party councilor in Bristol since 2003 and is the current Lord Mayor–a.k.a. chair of the council meetings and the ceremonial “first citizen.” She revealed a fun piece of trivia about the council chamber and recalled a scary moment from a council meeting.
Q: Bristol has had a lord mayor or a mayor for 801 years. That is a lot of mayors! So for the next ten hours or so, we’ll go through each of those guys and you tell me how they did at running a council meeting. Thomas Beaupeny, 1384: do you give him a thumbs up, thumbs down, or in the middle?
A: [Laughs] I have no idea! One thing that you may not know: we have quite an adversarial form of council chamber. It’s made out in the same way as Parliament. The distance between the two rows facing each other is two sword-lengths. So nobody can stick their sword into the opposition.
Q: Oh, that’s amazing! As an American, I would never think to measure things in swords. Maybe bullet trajectory, but not swords. Bristol is on its second elected mayor, and he has to stand for you when you enter, just like everyone else. Do you technically outrank the mayor?
A: It’s difficult to say. We’re two different jobs. I chair the full council meetings. He’s got the checkbook. He runs the city. But he’s got the aggravation. I have the chain and the mansion and I have all the fun.
A: We’re two different roles. One is the civic role–that’s mine. Then there’s his role, which is running the city. The two shouldn’t cross over. The mayor has the power to ignore what any of the councilors say, except the budget. He needs the councilors to pass the budget.
Q: I noticed that when you announce whether a motion is passed or failed, you don’t announce the vote split. Why is that?
A: You can do that, I suppose. If you’re watching on the webcast, you should be able to see [how people voted].
Q: No, you can’t.
A: Okay, well that is something I will take on board and make that comment in the future.
Q: During your March 2016 meeting, there was a moment where the council was taking a vote. But you were not present because Councilor Mark Weston said that your car was apparently vandalized. Is that true?
A: Yes, it was. Because the council house was closed for renovations, we had a meeting at the cricket club. We had a, well, I would say a “rent-a-mob” sort of person, rather than somebody with real political convictions. When I tried to go in, he stopped the car and was kicking at it.
Q: Oh, wow. You were sitting in the car while this man was kicking at you?
A: It was quite frightening because he was bouncing up and down with his hands on the car. There was a bit of a baying crowd.
Q: Is he in jail currently?
A: No, he’s not. I think security would have liked us to take it a lot further. But the comment from our legal department was, well, it’s all going to be over now and he’ll go away. And he did.
We had a smörgåsbord of “firsts” in September: the first time we saw a husband bring his wife roses at a council meeting. Our first podcast interview with a knight (even though she claims she’s not a knight). And our first “Best Thing, Worst Thing” story that profiles a non-American city.
And hey! We finally marked our territory in one of the three states that City Council Chronicles had not visited: Montana. Now, it’s only Rhode Island and New Mexico that need to get with the program. Check out which states we did profile with our September Month in Review.
And if you haven’t seen the first country music video we’ve encountered that everybody is talking about (well, everybody who watches the Fayetteville, North Carolina city council meetings, that is), plug in your headphones and jam out 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.
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.
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!
Scott Neal is a fun guy to talk to. Not only has he been the city manager of multiple cities around the Midwest, but he’s a bit of a YouTube star for his “On the Job” video series. We talked about what he learned from British city councils and how public commenters affect how he thinks about the city.
Q: I want to start 4,000 miles away from Edina in England. You were there for ten days in 2005 and you met a queen’s dozen of local councilors. Did you learn anything about city council meetings over there–other than, obviously, their meetings are on the opposite side of the dais?
A: It was a lot of fun. We learned that most of the cities we dropped in on had a huge number of council members compared to the U.S.
Q: What number are we talking?
A: Two dozen, sometimes more. They were amazed that we could get work done with five council members. They had in their mind a link between the number of elected officials and the effectiveness of the organization.
Q: Have you ever gotten sad when a city council member retires or leaves?
A: I’ve had that a number of times over my career. The one that comes to mind most recently is a council member in Edina named Ann Swenson. She was part of the council that hired me. She was clear in what she wanted, which made her an easy person to work for.
Q: At her last council meeting, she said that you put your pen in the air when you want to speak, so she gave you a pen that lights up! Do you use that sparkle pen in meetings?
A: I don’t use it in council meetings. I do use it around my office, yeah!
Q: In Edina, you’ve had a couple of council meetings that stretched on for petty long because you had a bunch of public commenters. You sent out this tweet at a meeting:
Is that a frequent occurrence?
A: No! I started in this line of work prior to city councils having their meetings shown on local access. I remember when we were making those decisions, city officials worried about that very thing happening: what if we’re having a public hearing and somebody watches it on TV and they decide to just come down and join in? I used to think that was unnecessary to worry about. [This] was the first time in my career it’s ever happened! I’m glad he put on his pants and came here–
Q: Wait, you assume they’re not wearing pants at home?!
A: It’s their privilege. It’s a free country.
Q: Amen to that. There was one contentious public comment back in October. A black man was recorded on video being handled roughly by an Edina police officer. At the next council meeting, for three hours people came up to the podium and they were outraged. When that many concerned people show up, do you think that means the city has failed?
A: I do not. Not necessarily. Doesn’t mean it [hasn’t]. I have had in my career a couple of council meetings that reached that level of anger. They haven’t come around very often, but it certainly makes you sit up and take notice.