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.

Interview #112: Minneapolis, MN Council Vice President Andrea Jenkins (with podcast)

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

The Minneapolis council has been proactive about addressing racial inequity, despite outside events making it a challenge. Andrea Jenkins describes how she felt about council members’ reactions to an equity training earlier this year.

Q: On August 1 of this year, there was a committee of the whole meeting in which you all sat through a racial equity training. Would you be surprised if I told you that I’ve been hosting this program for two years and this is the first racial equity training I’ve seen a city council do?

A: Yes, I thought every city council in America was doing racial equity training. That’s not true?

Q: No! I hate to let you down because that is wildly off-base, but what did you hope to accomplish with this training?

A: Well, we’re trying to get the council members woke. The main thing we wanted to accomplish was to have a common understanding and common language that everybody can start with. It dispels the opportunities for people to come in with their own perspective. If we can lay the groundwork for one common understanding, that was the purpose.

Q: I’m glad you brought that up because that was actually the part of the training that hit a roadblock. Council President Lisa Bender said she was uncomfortable participating in an exercise in which council members’ discussions about their early experiences with race would be televised. What did you make of that?

A: Boy, I was really–I was disappointed. We ask people to support us in being representatives. And then we are not willing to share details about our own experiences, our own lives, that could help bring understanding to why we make some of the decisions we make. I know that council President Bender is very open about some really vulnerable parts of her life. It would be really eye opening and compelling for people to understand some of her experiences around race. It wasn’t just council President Bender–I mean, if you watched the meeting, there were a number of council members who were reluctant to share that information. Sometimes there’s really powerful strength in being vulnerable.

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Minneapolis, MN Council Vice President Andrea Jenkins

Q: There is another event we need to discuss that happened before the racial equity training. Can you explain what precipitated your June 27 committee of the whole meeting?

A: A week prior to that meeting, there had been a police-involved shooting of a young, black man who–it was under dispute whether or not he was armed, whether or not he was fleeing and was shot in the back. And so tensions in our community was really, really, really high.

Q: In that meeting, Council Member Cam Gordon wondered whether the city council needed more of a role in the police department. He proceeded to draft that exact charter amendment–which did not sit well with a number of people, including the public safety committee chair, Alondra Cano, who said she was “disgusted by the privilege” of the motion. What did you make of that?

A: I interpreted her use of the term “privilege” to suggest that it would’ve potentially been more appropriate for her to have made that–or someone who had those kinds of experiences–as opposed to Mr. Gordon, who has not lived those kinds of experiences.

Q: So speaking with terms of racial equity, it’s easier for someone who has benefited from the system to look at it and say, “something’s wrong. We need to fix it,” and to have people listen to him, than it might be for someone who belongs to a historically-oppressed group to say the same thing and perhaps get ignored when they say it.

A: I think that is absolutely true. Yes, I agree with that.


Follow Council Vice President Andrea Jenkins on Twitter: @annapoetic

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

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

A whirlwind of activity has buffeted the Prairie Village council–starting with the onset of live streaming earlier this year and ending in an aborted council meeting earlier this week. Council Member Tucker Poling describes his at-times-incredulous reaction to some of the developments.

Q: I am talking to you in the third week of September, which means you had a council meeting a few days ago. How did that go?

A: It went about as well as council meetings go when nobody shows up!

Q: What?!

A: I had a nondiscrimination ordinance on the agenda and suddenly, the few hours before the meeting, we had four council members text or email the city manager and say that they couldn’t make it. Therefore, we did not have a quorum and we could not meet and hilarity did not ensue. I was not happy about it.

Q: You know Prairie Village and you know these council members. I don’t want it to sound like I’m blaming you when I say: should you have known this was coming?

A: I will say no. In my knowledge, it’s never happened before in this way. It’s been very rare we have more than one absence. At the time, I–let’s say I “lost my chill” a little bit, as the younger people say. I had no chill on that evening! [laughs]

Q: [laughs] Well that sounds perfectly “dope” and thank you for not being “extra” despite your lack of “chill.” And–I’m sorry, there’s something else that’s bugging me. Can you explain what was before you council on August 20 of this year?

A: That was Councilman Ron Nelson’s proposal for us to adopt the principles of the convention to end all discrimination against women. All Ron was asking for was a resolution saying that we support equity and equality for women and girls.

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Prairie Village, KS Council Member Tucker Poling

Q: On August 20, the first thing that happened was that council members argued against the resolution. How did you feel about what you heard?

A: I felt mind-numbingly confused and disappointed. I was flabbergasted that this was controversial. We had people in an open, public meeting talking about conspiracy theories about the UN [United Nations].

Q: The resolution was not passed and sent back to staff on a vote of 7-5. Of the six council members who canceled at this week’s meeting for your anti-LGBT discrimination proposal, how many of them also voted to shoot down the anti-gender discrimination proposal?

A: All of them.

Q: Some of them were suspicious of the UN, and I guess I get that a little. It does feed into the caricature of middle America. But others were arguing that “all lives matter,” right? That, “why can’t we have a nondiscrimination again men too?” And others seemed to think there was no inequity in Prairie Village. I’m curious, if your council meeting had happened on Monday, would you have expected that same argument to come up about sexual orientation?

A: Yeah, there definitely would have been those same objections. “We don’t have any discrimination in Prairie Village. This is all ‘political.'” Which is just very confusing to me because the idea that the human condition does not apply in Prairie Village and all the flaws that we have as human beings somehow don’t apply in nice, upper class communities like ours–that’s pretty blind in my view.

Q: It occurred to me that people who said, “if we pass this, it’s just an admission that something is wrong here”–ironically, by not passing it, it gathered all this attention and people asking, “what is wrong with the Prairie Village council that they can’t pass this?” It had the opposite effect.

A: That’s exactly right. It’s bizarre that people think that by not acknowledging something, that’s just going to go away. And people are not going to notice that you’ve chosen to not acknowledge that equity issues exist everywhere.


Follow Council Member Tucker Poling on Twitter: @TuckerForPV