Interview #46: Paterson, NJ Councilman Andre Sayegh (with podcast)

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

I was SO excited to talk to a councilman from New Jersey. Why? Well, as you could tell from our Hackensack dramatic reading, council meetings in Jersey can easily go haywire. We discussed whether anyone has punched each other in his council meetings (good news: they haven’t) and why things can get aggressive in the Garden State.

Q: I want to play a clip from Paterson’s former city council president, Aslon Goow, Sr. Here he is during an interview:

Goow: There’s nothing hostile about our council environment. We’ve never hit each other. We might yell sometimes. You might have to.

Is it true that no one has hit each other at your council meetings?

A: I can confirm that no one has been physically assaulted since I’ve been on the city council. There have been instances BEFORE I got on of shoving matches. There have been a lot of shouting matches. But it’s not like a session of the Japanese parliament where you got people kicking each other. And it pales in comparison to the British House of Commons where they’re resorting to not only name calling, but profanity!

Q: Is there any actual harm to the city when councilmen verbally fight in the meetings?

A: No, not at all. It’s just the perception. They’ll say we’re a dysfunctional unit and they’ll dismiss us. When I say, “they,” it could be people outside of Paterson and viewers who are tuning in.

Q: A word about the viewers–the clips I found were on YouTube and they were only the negative stuff. That’s because I couldn’t find videos of your council meetings. I’m sure that if you televised the whole meetings, people might see that you threatened your fellow council members only HALF of the time–

A: Not even half of the time! Paterson has to get into the twenty-first century as far as live streaming. For the sake of transparency, you’re right. If we’re gonna debunk that notion that all we do is fight each other as opposed to fight FOR our constituents, that would be beneficial.

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Paterson, NJ Councilman Andre Sayegh

Q: Are all council members different off camera than when they are in the meeting and it’s go-time?

A: There are council people [who] when the camera is off they are Type B personalities. But when it’s 7 o’clock on a Tuesday night, they become Type A.

Q: It’s funny you mention Type A. I have seen similar behavior in other New Jersey council meetings. Everything I know about Jersey comes from Bruce Springsteen songs, so why is the state in perpetual DEFCON 2?

A: Think about it. We’re overcrowded. We’re a small state, but we’re densely populated. So every now and then, you’re gonna have people step on each other’s toes.

Q: So people just annoy each other more in New Jersey because you can’t escape them!

A: Yes! Mike, I hope you see some merit to what I said!

Q: I’m curious, when is the last time you walked away from a council meeting and felt good about what happened?

A: …Mike, you ready for this?

Q: Oh, my god.

A: You sitting down?

Q: I am LYING down. TELL ME.

A: Late February, we adopted a budget that did NOT call for a tax increase. That made me feel better than any other meeting.


Follow Councilman Andre Sayegh on Twitter: @andresayegh

10 Toronto City Council Facts to Impress Your Friends and Potential Mates

It was an electrifying week to embark on our first international city council review! Less electrified was my accountant, who has since advised me to “never, ever fly First Class to Canada again, you moron.”

Anyhow, there was waaaaay too much cool stuff about the Toronto city council to mention. So I’ll mention it all here in the form of a handy list.

1. They start very patriotically.

In the U.S., council meetings usually kick off with the Pledge of Allegiance and occasionally a prayer. In Toronto, a choir sings the Canadian national anthem on top of a sweeping video montage. Come on, America, where’s our inspirational stock footage?!

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2. The mayor’s there!

In big cities, it’s unusual for the mayor to be in the room with the council. It’s even more unusual for the mayor to vote on the council. But in Toronto, the mayor is basically the 45th councilor.

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3. HUGE. NAME. PLACARDS.

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4. They don’t look at each other.

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Here’s an odd thing to watch: when councilors are asking questions to city staff, SOMETIMES they make eye contact like normal human beings. But usually, councilors don’t bother turning to look!

“There’s very few councilors who don’t know exactly where their camera is,” Councilor Shelley Carroll told me. “You pretty much get your media training on the job pretty fast.”

5. They can’t talk directly to people.

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“Hey, Michael, what do you mean by that?” you might ask.

And if I were a Toronto city councilor, I would respond, “Through the speaker, they talk to each other by saying ‘through the speaker.'”

Explained Carroll: “You’re not supposed to take somebody on. Canadian cities try to treat themselves like they’re a House of Commons.” Yes, we wouldn’t want councilors to confront each other…any more than they usually do (see below).

6. They vote DING DING while a chime DING DING rings.

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When councilors vote with their machines, they hear a steady pulsating chime–imagine an autotuned version of a garbage truck’s back-up beeper. It’s kind of hypnotic. I wonder if anyone has dozed off while voting.

 7. A lot of people ACTUALLY watch.

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8. You don’t get to talk forever.

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Councilors have a time limit on asking questions. The speaker butts in when they are done to say, “that was your last question.” And then she cuts their mic! Given how Toronto’s council meetings often stretch into double-digit hours, you better believe time limits are necessary. But I have yet to see another council that plays stopwatch cop like this.

9. They are very polite.

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Of course they’re polite–this is Canada! There were so many “sorrys” that I lost count. Like in this exchange between Councilor Josh Colle and the deputy city manager:

Colle:  What has been the increase in property taxes collected?

DCM: $303 million, I believe.

Colle: Sorry, that’s TTC fares.

DCM: No, sorry, that’s property taxes.

Colle: You might have it the other way around?

DCM: Sorry.

On the other hand,

10. They openly bicker.

The council has a “bylaw,” which members invoke if they think someone is behaving poorly–for example, by insulting the staff. Councilors can also challenge Speaker Frances Nunziata on her rulings. In return, the speaker sometimes snaps at them about wasting time and keeping the noise level down. During the Rob Ford shenanigans, antics were even worse:

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