Interview #58: Edinburgh, SCT Councilor Susan Rae (with podcast)

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

Susan Rae is a brand new Green Party councilor in Edinburgh and she has a terrific sense of humor! The Edinburgh city council had a hiccup after no political party won a majority when the council convened in May–plus, no one wanted to form a coalition until after the surprise election the prime minister called for June. We talked about that sticky wicket, plus all of the traditions of her council.

Q: Can you describe your council chamber?

A: It has beautiful stained glass windows and very old, very large desks. They have lids that open so you can hide everything in there. And large seats–I’m very tiny, only five foot tall. So my feet don’t actually touch the ground. They kind of swing!

Q: What do you hide in your desk?

A: I hide my cigarettes and my lighter and some biscuits in case I get hungry.

Q: The Lord Provost (a.k.a. mayor) makes a grand entrance every meeting: someone announces his arrival, everyone stands, and two other fancily-dressed people in white gloves follow him and put the mace into his high-backed chair. As an American, I’m thinking, there have got to be mayors over here who would LOVE their entrance announced with an entourage. Do you think it’s excessively formal?

A: I don’t feel it’s very necessary but there are traditional elements within the council that do like to keep the tradition of the mace and the sword. I’m very desiring of taking in a lightsaber one day. We [in the Green Party] all have our own! I would probably have to stash it in my desk.

Q: Well, yeah, you’d have to take out the cigarettes and the biscuits to fit it in there probably.

A: [Laughs] The traditional part has a place. It’s all on display, all of the silverware, the keys to the city–

Q: Wait, the keys to the city are just sitting out in the open in the chamber where anyone can take them?

A: We take them to Holyrood Palace and present them to the queen. Then she gives us them back and says, “you’re really good at looking after my city. Keep the keys!” So we did that recently.

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Edinburgh, Scotland Councilor Susan Rae (and the keys to the city)

Q: Each of the parties has a section of the room where you all sit together. And generally if the Conservatives are all standing to vote, Labour will not be standing. Are you allowed to disagree with your party and be the only person to vote for something?

A: It depends on the party. Some parties have a whip system and you have to follow the whip’s instruction. We tend to agree on things or we vote with our conscience. Labour and SNP operate a whip system and the Conservatives always vote together.

Q: I don’t know what the penalty is…death, maybe, if you don’t vote with them?

A: I don’t think it’s death quite yet. But I think you can be suspended from the group or they don’t let you have biscuits in your desk.

Q: That’s a steep penalty indeed.

A: The role of a councilor is to look after the people in their ward. I would rather people voted for what the people in their constituency want, not for what their party want.


Follow Councilor Susan Rae on Twitter: @susan4leithwalk

Interview #48: Dublin, IE Councilor Ciarán Cuffe (with podcast)

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

After last week’s Dublin city council meeting, I talked with Ciarán Cuffe about why his council is so enormous, how the political parties get along without too much fighting, and whether the Lord Mayor does a decent job of keeping things on the rails.

Q: Your city council has 63 members. That is a huge number! Be honest with me: do you know everyone’s name?

A: No, I don’t! Up until three years ago we had 52 members and even that was a bit of a struggle to fit into our chamber, which is in a building 250 years old. It’s a squeeze, and if you want to get out to get a glass of water, you have to hustle past several colleagues.

Q: What made you add 11 people?

A: There was a rebalancing in local government between urban and rural. The situation was that there was a lot more councilors in rural areas than in urban areas. So the then-minister at a national level decided to reduce the level of councilors in rural areas and increase it slightly in urban areas.

Q: I read that you recently decided to let councilors bring their children into the meetings. Is that true?

A: Yeah, there was an issue with one of my colleagues who wanted to bring her child into meetings and was told, that’s not something that really works. So Claire [Byrne] battled that and I’m glad to say that she’s now welcomed into meetings. I don’t think anybody would bat an eyelid if a mom was breastfeeding in a meeting. That’s certainly the norm in other European countries.

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Dublin, IE Councilor Ciarán Cuffe

Q: Let’s get into the meat and potatoes–or, as you say in Ireland, the “potatoes and potatoes.” Your council is divided into political parties, I believe eight in total. Explain how these parties affect everything from who sits where, who is allowed to talk and when, and who gets along with whom.

A: Traditionally, we have two center-right parties in Ireland. But in more recent years, there’s been an explosion of left (a lot more left than Bernie Sanders) left-wing parties. You have People Before Profit, you have the Workers’ Party, the Socialist Workers Party. It gets a bit confusing. We talk about bank bailouts and we still have rows about that, and those rows find their way into council meetings. We tend not to have too many fisticuffs at the meetings, but you can have broad discussions.

Q: How do you rank current Lord Mayor Brendan Carr when it comes to running the meetings?

A: Brendan is trying his best but it’s a bit like trying to organize a roomful of screaming cats. Brendan is as challenged as many of his predecessors. The thing about the mayor in the Irish context is we don’t have a directly-elected mayor who’s there for five years. We don’t have an Ed Koch or a Giuliani. We have a mayor who is in for twelve months and they go out again. So they don’t command as much respect.

Q: After people are done being Lord Mayor, are they more wise or tempered?

A: I think they are. I think there’s a knowing glance amongst people who have been mayor. Though I haven’t been mayor, I have been in the national parliament. You’ve got to carefully understand the mood of the room.


Follow Councilor Ciarán Cuffe on Twitter: @CiaranCuffe