Interview #128: Dubuque, IA Council Member Luis Del Toro (with podcast)

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

Luis Del Toro entered the Dubuque council in 2016 and explains how he became a bit of an iconoclast, not shying away from dissent or from pushing policy changes. Plus, he clarified why council members seemed so critical of the renters and landlords who came before the council to ask for a ruling.

Q: I noticed a little over a year ago that people started coming into the council meetings to speak about source-of-income discrimination. How did Dubuque get roped into the fight for economic justice?

A: When it came to housing choice vouchers, the city got themselves in a little bit of hot water with [the Department of Housing and Urban Development]. We had some ways that we were trying to divvy those out, and that was seen as discriminatory by HUD. We had to come up with a plan, but we had citizens petition us to make the acceptance of those vouchers mandatory. We’ve opted to not get to that step yet.

Q: Right, the more moderate solutions were what your council voted on in early 2017. However, all of a sudden, Council Member Kevin Lynch broadsided the commenters in the room, scolding them for not working cohesively. How did you feel about that?

A: What he’s referencing is we had a source-of-income committee that was a combination of organizations within our city as well as the landlords that were supposedly trying to come up with a plan for us. What seemed to come out of that was more of an us-versus-them them perspective. They weren’t listening to each other. They couldn’t agree upon what presentation they wanted to bring before council.

Q: The council members seemed to be saying, “you all should have agreed on your own rather than come to us to decide for you.” That took me aback because that is what the government does all the time: it resolves policy disagreements by deciding what is the law. Were these council members offended that they had to make a decision on something?

A: I wouldn’t necessarily say that. I think it was the expectation of having a lot of smart people in the room and a lot of individuals that are very capable of coming up with a solution that actually showed some partnership between the two groups.

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Dubuque, IA Council Member Luis Del Toro

Q: I get the impulse to chastise the two sides, but isn’t it a bit naive to think that two groups of people with very different economic interests will find the common ground that you think they have? Was this a small town expectation of civility that you were projecting onto them?

A: It could be viewed that way. We are a little bit smaller and we’ve always prided ourselves in being able to find answers to problems that seem a little bigger than we are.

Q: On February 18 this year, you proposed an emergency cancellation policy for city council meetings in cases of inclement weather. I assume this covers blizzards, floods, and deluges of presidential candidates?

A: Well, apparently yes! We did vote later that evening to change our upcoming meeting next year due to the caucusing here in Iowa. But right now, our only provision within our city code is we can make adjustments to our meeting date and time 30 days in advance. Obviously, a lot of things can happen in 30 days. This year, we had wind chills that were 60 below. Travel wasn’t advised. We had no provision in place that gave us the opportunity to delay our council meeting to possibly the next evening.

Q: Do you think the criticism from other council members and the mayor that “the council meeting must go on and we’ve managed in bad weather before” is a healthy attitude to have?

A: No, not at all. I respectfully disagree. It should come down to valuing the safety of our citizens as well as ourselves and city staff in trying to get to these meetings. There was a no-tow ban put in place. If you were out on that road and you went into a ditch trying to navigate our icy streets, no help was coming for you. With frostbite that could occur in five to ten minutes, those are dangerous conditions to expect individuals to attend a meeting.

Interview #100: San Jose, CA Councilmember Dev Davis (with podcast)

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

Dev Davis may be known as the District 6 council member, but she is also the mastermind behind the San Jose council curfew, the originator of the Star Trek meeting costume, and–as you will hear–a skilled actor in medical dramas!

Q: I would like to start with the April 18 council meeting of last year, when you all invited Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak into city hall. What stood out to me was what you were wearing. Would you describe your attire that day?

A: I was wearing a traditional Star Trek female crew member dress.

Q: How did you conceive of that?

A: Well, all Comic Cons are celebrated–at least in the United States–by having many of its attendees wear costumes. I thought it would be in the spirit of celebrating Comic Con for the city council to have costumes.

Q: I see your logic but don’t you think it sets a dangerous precedent to have council members putting on costumes for meetings? I mean, what’s to stop your mayor now from wearing assless chaps during Pride?

A: That would not only be a great homage to Pride but also to Prince, who is one of my favorite artists. But our mayor is quite conservative and would never don assless chaps.

Q: Well, Mayor Liccardo, if you were to make that fashion choice, just know you have two supporters of that right here. We will validate your choice. Dev, let me ask you about a procedural oddity in San Jose: does your council not have ordinances or bills? You have “memos?”

A: We do have ordinances, but we have the Brown Act in California, which means that we can only communicate with a minority of our colleagues prior to voting. So the way that we communicate with everyone is through these formal memoranda that get attached to each agenda item. We can say what our thoughts are and basically what motion we’re going to be making on the floor.

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San Jose, CA Councilmember Dev Davis

Q: There seems to be this dance every few months when your council considers affordable housing at a meeting. Renters say, “we cannot afford to live here and it’s too easy to evict us.” Landlords say, “we need to be able to evict people and raise the rents.” And other people say, “this is all beside the point. We need to build more housing!” Then your council around midnight votes to side with the renters. Do you feel good after those meetings that you’ve accomplished something? Or are you frustrated that, okay, we put a Band-Aid on it. In a couple months, we’ll have another midnight meeting on housing again?

A: I do feel frustrated after those meetings. I feel emotionally drained. The reason that we continue to have these discussions is because it took us decades to get into this mess. It’s not something we can solve in one city council meeting and one year.

Q: Logistically, is there any way to structure these meetings better so that you all are not forced to make a decision very late at night after you’ve been yelled at for four hours, and maybe you’re not in the freshest mindset?

A: The only reason we have a midnight curfew is because Councilmember [Chappie] Jones and I asked to have a midnight curfew. Prior to the curfew last year, there were multiple meetings that went until 2:30 in the morning. As we get more and more tired–whether we want to or not consciously–subconsciously our brain starts shutting down and we don’t make the best decisions.

Q: Have you ever felt that you voted the wrong way because of all those stress factors on your brain when you were going to those extremely late meetings?

A: I’ve never regretted any of my votes, but I’ve often wished we had more time to think about the sausage we were making to get to six votes after a long meeting like that.


Follow Councilmember Dev Davis on Twitter: @DevDavisCA

Special Feature! “Best Thing, Worst Thing”

This week, we air the newest episode of the “Best Thing, Worst Thing” project featuring a big-name city: Richmond, Virginia. I talked with many different residents about their favorite and least favorite things about Virginia’s capital. Many brought up the city’s ties to the Confederacy and the legacy of segregation. Others talked about the extensive collection of neighborhoods. You’ll come with me to a rally with the mayor, stroll along an island, and visit the pew where Jefferson Davis sat in church.

For an explanation of the project, check out the page here. If you are ready to learn which historical figure had turkey quills shoved up his nose, head to the City Council Chronicles podcast to download the latest episode. Or you can play it below.

Episode 10: Richmond, Virginia

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Photo source: Main Street Station

Richmond is a city of 220,000 people and the capital of Virginia. It was also the capital of the Confederacy and that legacy still lingers. The James River provides recreational opportunities and the Amtrak station provides a connection to Washington, D.C. and beyond. During our visit, we stand in the middle of the water, attend a rally with the mayor, and visit a restaurant that will be gone in a year. We hear from a real estate agent, some college students, a teacher, a tour guide, people who have moved away and returned, and two political watchdogs.