Interview #146: Superior, WI Mayor Jim Paine (with podcast)

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

Jim Paine ran into a surprise the day of his second-term swearing in: a stalemate on the Superior council, as no one could claim the council presidency. He discusses why some councilors would not allow him to break a tie, plus gives insight into the student councilors who attend the meetings.

Q: Superior has a coterie of youth councilors–students–who sit in the front row of the council dais every meeting. But I have never seen them say or do anything. They just sit quietly for an hour or more. Is this some kind of alternative detention that you’ve worked out with the school district?

A: You’re the first person to ever ask me about them, but I’m glad you did! This program should be very valuable. I’m going to confess to a little bit of angst here that they don’t participate more. I’ve been in that role–not as a high school student, but part of my local political career began because when I was a university student here, I pushed for more student representation in local government. The Superior mayor at the time laughed me out of his office.

Q: Wow.

A: I was working at a bar at the time and I stormed up and down the bar that night raging about the mayor. It turned out the county board chairman was sitting at the bar and invited me to invent a student seat for the county board, which I did. So I wish that they did participate more. At the county board, those students would let us know everything that was going on in the high school, even if we didn’t care at all! Quite frankly–I don’t think I’ve ever said this locally–I wish they would jump right into the debates. They have working microphones like everybody else. If they ever hit that button in the middle of a hot debate, I’d recognize them immediately.

Q: These kids, these youth councilors, do they have some sort of expectation of what they’re supposed to do in the council meeting?

A: There probably is a misunderstanding between us and them. They’re selected by their high schools to participate. For them, it’s largely a learning exercise. They’re there to watch, listen, and learn. What I’ve communicated to them is they should act as representatives. They should speak up. Now, in their defense, it’s an intimidating environment. Our council debates–if you say something, you’re likely to be challenged. I think they’d get a little bit of leeway being kids, but I know they have opinions.

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Superior, WI Mayor Jim Paine

Q: On April 16, you and half of the council were sworn in to new terms. The next order of business was to elect a council president–someone to fill in for you and assign councilors to committees. There were two candidates for the job: Ruth Ludwig and Brent Fennessey. The result of the vote was Fennessey had five votes, Ludwig had four, and there was one abstention. No one clinched the six-vote majority. Did you know that would happen?

A: The real behind-the-scenes politics there is Councilor Fennessey had the presidency largely locked up months before if there was no change in the council at the elections. There was no change. But one of the councilors who had largely been committed to Councilor Fennessey flipped. He started talking to Councilor Ludwig and decided to vote for Ludwig. That led Councilor [Dan] Olson–who is very close to Councilor Ludwig, but he is much closer politically to Councilor Fennessey–it was fine for him to vote for Councilor Ludwig as long as Fennessey still had six votes. With one of Fennessey’s votes flipping to Ludwig, the vote was 5-5. If it had gone 5-5, I would have voted for Councilor Ludwig and everybody knew it. [Olson’s] abstention prevents an election.

Q: Councilor Olson bizarrely tried to get you to commit to not voting in the event of a tie. I know in politics you shouldn’t take things personally, but hearing that from Dan Olson, that must have been hard not to take personally.

A: I supported him in his first election to city council. He supported me in my election as mayor. I guess I did take that personally–[Ludwig] had the votes. But he said no. I was a little bit offended at the idea that transparency means I should give up the one thing I was there for.

Q: If the two options, as they appeared to be, for the rest of your two years in office were to not have a council president or to draw cards to resolve the tie, would you have continued to be opposed to the cards?

A: Yes, absolutely. We had a council vice president at that time who was capable of exercising authority. So the business of government was fine.


Follow Mayor Jim Paine on Twitter: @JimofSuperior

Interview #76: Fairfax, VA Councilmember Jennifer Passey (with podcast)

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

When Jennifer Passey became a council member three months ago, she had already witnessed as a citizen the chaos of 2016 when Fairfax’s mayor resigned abruptly. We talked about the reasons for not having a vice mayor as well as the important topic of guns in meetings.

Q: I actually grew up down the street from Fairfax and am HIGHLY familiar with your city. Which means, unfortunately for you, I can play hardball. So get ready to get grilled about the 703. Question numero uno: how’s my dog doing? Is she okay?

A: [Laughs] As far as I know. I haven’t heard anything otherwise.

Q: Oh, thank god. Question numero dos: does Chelsea Licklider still have a crush on me?

A: You know, let me look into that. Isn’t that a good city council answer?!

Q: Yes, very speedy constituent service! Before city council, you were on the planning commission. Was that any less pressure because fewer people were watching?

A: I think the pressure comes from within of wanting to do a good job, for me. It’s a little more public [on council]. Planning commission, it was a little more candid because you knew not a lot of people were watching. People will look at those every once in a while when it was a heated topic.

Q: Being from Virginia, it didn’t come as a surprise to me at your November 7 work session when the city’s lobbyist casually suggested that you join the city of Falls Church in requesting a weapons ban in public buildings from the Virginia legislature. Do you see any harm in tagging along and requesting to keep firearms at least in the parking lot?

A: It’s not an example of something that’s happened where we feel threatened. I’m not really concerned either way. I don’t feel threatened that there are a lot of people that carry guns. But at the same time, you never know what’s happening around the country. We’ve seen it before in city council meetings in other places. I’m torn: I see the issues of infringement, but I’m not sure if I have a full-on stance.

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Fairfax, VA Councilmember Jennifer Passey

Q: If someone were to carry inside the council meeting and was sitting there politely watching with a gun on their hip, how would that make you feel?

A: I grew up in Minnesota. I don’t want to say people carry guns all the time there, but I guess it depends on whether they come in disgruntled or not.

Q: Would it help to outlaw disgruntlement at city hall instead?

A: Disgruntlement with a weapon!

Q: Well Jennifer, since you’ve only been a council member for three months, we don’t have that much to talk about. So thank you for–HOLD ON, SIT BACK DOWN! Obviously, we need to talk about the hugely controversial Vice Mayor-gate. Last summer, your previous mayor resigned. Fairfax had no vice mayor to take over. What was your take on the problem?

A: Residents and city staff during that time were really angry at [the mayor]. I think a lot of the issue was that city council was figuring out the legalities–from my perception–and we don’t have a spokesperson at city hall. If that’s communicated out, people understand the process. It wouldn’t have looked suspicious or that they were conspiring in the back room with the city attorney.


Follow Councilmember Jennifer Passey on Twitter: @jennifer_passey 

#105: Madison, IN 5/16/17

You would think that after 104 city council meetings, I’d have seen pretty much everything.

You would be wrong.

“Six students from Mr. Barger’s government class have been with council members today,” Mayor Damon Welch explained to onlookers curious about the half-dozen teens occupying the dais. “Tonight they will be participating in our council meeting.”

His young shadow mayor stood awkwardly beside him. “Whereas, seniors from Madison Consolidated High School–and actually one junior, by the way–” Mayor Welch bragged, jabbing a thumb toward his own protégé, “–learned about local government, I proclaim today Student Government Day.”

Like a driver’s ed instructor passing the keys, Welch then said, “without further ado, I’ll turn over the meeting to our Student Mayor, Clate Winters.”

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Buckle up, folks

Clate flipped over his notes and fidgeted with the microphone. Mayor Welch pointed with his pencil and whispered something.

“Mr. Clerk Treasurer, would you please call the roll?” inquired the Student Mayor hesitantly.

One by one, council members yelled “here!” from the wall behind their normal seats.

“Have you had the opportunity to review the minutes?” Clate read from his script, so nervous that he pronounced “minutes” as min-OOTS. “Is there a motion to approve the minutes?”

A great deal of whispering commenced at the dais. “Say aye!” council members hissed to their fill-ins.  With some giggling, the minutes were approved.

The Student Mayor gestured to Student Council Member Casey Williams. “Thank you, Mr. Mayor,” Casey smoothly transitioned. “July 8 shall be known as Student Day. High school and college students will be given free admission to Crystal Beach Swimming Pool.”

“Nyla, you did speak a lot this afternoon about this,” eagerly interjected Mayor Welch. “Share some thoughts.”

The girl on the end chuckled anxiously. “We wanted the students to have…something to do, I guess!” She looked around for help.

Casey picked up the mic and launched into a confident explanation. “We wanted to present an opportunity that kept the student body active, but allowed them to exist outside.”

Nice job on the assist, Council Member Williams.

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Little crowded

The Student Mayor flipped over his notes again. “Is there a motion to applause?” Welch tapped him on the shoulder. “Approve!” he corrected himself.

The audience was already applauding good-naturedly. But Clate recovered and casually threw Welch under the bus: “The mayor’s handwriting’s not that good!”

Everyone, including the mayor, roared with laughter.

As this boisterous meeting wobbled to the finish line, Mayor Welch asked the kids to explain the vast knowledge they had amassed as council understudies.

“I attended the Chamber of Commerce meeting,” Student Mayor Clate volunteered. “A lot went over my head because, yeah–I’m not used to the business jargon.”

He reflected. “I didn’t understand a lot of it!”

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Hey, even the adults don’t understand a lot of it.

Council Member Laura Hodges introduced her shadow student, Taylor, who promptly took the microphone and described their visit to the sewage treatment plant: “we got to smell a lot of things.”

Council President Darrell Henderson was paired with Casey. “He’s the student rep on the school board,” Henderson explained, “so he thinks this is really an easy meeting.”

“Well, he’s not wrong,” Casey deadpanned to chuckles. At least we know now where he gets that boatload of confidence!

Like a practiced politician, he added that council members “know more in 1/16th of their brain than I have known in my entire 17 years of living thus far.”

Hmm. Casey, howzabout you come back next meeting?

Interview #3: Fort Wayne, IN Reporter Dave Gong

After last week’s Fort Wayne city council meeting, I had some questions. And who better to ask than the lucky S.O.B. who gets to watch EVERY Fort Wayne city council meeting: Journal Gazette reporter (and high school friend of mine) Dave Gong.

He talked to me about surprises, being fair, and his reaction to a salty-mouthed councilman.

Q: On a scale of “fun” to “extremely fun,” how would you describe the council meetings?

A: Extremely fun…they are the highlight of my week.

Q: Noted! No sarcasm! What are you watching and listening for at these meetings?

A: Pretty much everything. You listen for back-and-forth and pointed arguments and the whole deal. Part of politics is we love a good show. Especially the media–we love a good show.

Q: Are there some councilmen whom you can depend on to say something…”out there?”

A: Well, “out there,” yeah. There are councilmen who are very consistent. Sometimes they’ll surprise you, which is always great. I like to be surprised.

Q: How do they generally treat each other?

A: Actually, to be honest–pretty well. I read your thing about Baltimore

Q: Yeah, that was wacky.  Some of them visibly can’t stand each other.

A: They get that way. All city councilmen are like that when you’ve got ideologies–they clash. One guy will be insulting another one week and they’ll be best of friends the next. Fort Wayne, Indiana is one of the most functional cities I’ve ever worked in.

Q: Are they pretty friendly with you?

A: I think they know I can be fair with them. You’ll get reporters and outlets that specific councilmen don’t like. As far as I know, no one has ever told me that they absolutely hate me. Generally if you’re a journalist, someone somewhere hates you.

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Fort Wayne, IN city council reporter Dave Gong

Q: Did I seem cool in high school?

A: Yeah…as cool as any of the rest of us were in high school. I don’t remember any of us going to a bunch of parties. There was a lot of laser tag.

Q: Mmhmm.

A: Whatever my judge of “cool” is, it’s probably wrong….But from my standpoint, you were f*cking awesome.

Q: What’s the weirdest thing that you’ve seen happen?

A: That’s a hard one. Ninety percent of them are super mundane. After the election in November, the council was even more Republican. This guy got up and he starts railing about how all the Democrats are socialists and the Republicans should show backbone.  And [Councilman] Glynn Hines, through his hands, coughed “BULLSH*T” into his hot mic.

Q: Whoa!

A: In other places–you go to Chicago–you see swearing on the floor. I saw lawmakers, state elected lawmakers hurling insults at each other. But in Fort Wayne, that was unconscionable. It spurred a blog post from me–because I like that sort of crap–caused public apologies, and it was…beautiful, actually.

Q: Do you ever gossip about the councilmen to other reporters?

A: Sometimes. Paul Ensley was wearing a bow tie the other day and kind of looked like Pee-wee Herman.

Q: I saw that! So creepy.

A: He’s a fun one. He beat a 12-year incumbent  in the primary.

Q: Are you gonna go to the reunion?

A: I’ve been on that alumni website and–

Q: No one told me about that…

A: …I imagine somebody will call.

Q: …


Follow Dave Gong on Twitter: @DGong89