Interview #141: Aurora, CO Council Member Nicole Johnston (with podcast)

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

After public commenters demanded that the Aurora council speak out against an ICE detention center in Aurora, Council Member Nicole Johnston and some of her colleagues attended a nationwide, pro-immigrant protest at the facility. However, a small splinter group caused an uproar with their behavior, and one of her colleagues held her publicly–and unfairly–responsible in a council meeting.

Q: At the June 24 council meeting, there was a long list of public commenters. Many of them were there to speak against the U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention center in Aurora. Why was immigration and the ICE facility coming up now?

A: There is a history. We have a center that is overseen by this private GEO Group. But there was an internal investigation that gave a series of infractions. We’ve had outbreaks of measles and chickenpox, which affects our first responders if they have to come in. They can leave being exposed. Nationally and locally, we’ve been looking at this.

Q: You did bring up the federal inspector general’s report at the study session prior to the meeting. In response, Mayor Bob LeGare and Councilwoman Francoise Bergan both said they didn’t think Aurora should get involved in federal affairs. But this came about because you and Council Members Crystal Murillo, Allison Hiltz, and Angela Lawson–or “the Squad”–sent a letter to council expressing concern about conditions at this facility. Did you believe that your other colleagues didn’t know about the ICE facility?

A: We all know about the ICE facility. We were not asking our colleagues to develop policy to step on the feet of our federal government. We were just saying, “hey, this is wrong. We don’t want our community to think that we just stand by this. Please, as a council, let’s sign this unanimously and show strong support that we support our immigrant and refugee communities.” Only four of the ten council members signed that letter.

Q: That brings us to the evening of July 12–a Friday night. Where was Nicole Johnston?

A: I attended, along with many people throughout the country–700 cities–in a Lights for Liberty event. The purpose was to shine light on the atrocities that are happening in detention centers.

Q: The protest was at the detention center.

Aurora, CO Council Member Nicole Johnston

A: It was. The protest started with a march. There were speakers speaking to the group. Simultaneously, there’s flagpoles–the American flag was flying. While we were speaking, a group of people had gone past this barrier, took down the American flag, put up a flag of Mexico, attempted to burn the American flag, and put up a pro-police flag–but they had defaced it. I did not know all of those details while I was several hundreds of feet away.

Q: The following Monday, there was a scheduled council meeting and the first public commenter to speak was actually Council Member Dave Gruber, who used his time to hold you and two of your colleagues culpable for the group’s actions. Do you think he planned to whip the audience into a frenzy?

A: I absolutely thought that was intentional. It was a packed house. On the side was a woman who had already been tagging me on Twitter, spreading lies. She was ready to record his speech. She downloaded it on a far-right group, which now has probably almost 30,000 views, saying that we were participants in [desecrating the flag].

Q: After he spoke, you tried to cut in, but Mayor LeGare told you that was not the procedure. Minutes later, Council Member Charlie Richardson moved to overturn his ruling and let you speak. How many times since you’ve been on council have council members attempted to overrule the chair?

A: This was the first. We did not organize that protest. When he [said in his comments to] imagine a loved one of a service member being presented with that desecrated flag, that personally insulted me deeply. I was married to a Marine for over 15 years. Council Member Gruber knew that military connection I had. To give that example was dirty, below the belt. It was something that I don’t know if I can get past.

Q: The editorial board of the Aurora Sentinel called for the council to censure Dave Gruber. How do you feel about that?

A: With our council rules, to censure someone we need six votes. If we don’t get the six votes, those that bring that charge forward of censure are responsible for paying all legal or attorney fees. If Council Member Gruber had an attorney to defend himself and we brought forward censure, if we did not get the six votes, we aren’t on the winning side.

Follow Council Member Nicole Johnston on Twitter: @nicoleforaurora


Interview #117: Boynton Beach, FL Vice Mayor Christina Romelus (with podcast)

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

Christina Romelus is a first-term commissioner and current vice mayor who has experienced pirates in the commission chamber, commentaries on dog poop, and a vote to appoint a new commissioner. But one of the most difficult moments came in response to an idea she raised last year.

Q: On December 5, 2017, you proposed a sanctuary city policy, which basically said that local police will not be enforcing federal immigration law. We have covered sanctuary city debates in other councils. But in the case of Boynton Beach, you all easily had the most boisterous and most raucous public comment of anyplace I’ve seen. How did that make you feel?

A: It reminded me that the First Amendment is alive and well [chuckles]. One of the things that we as America pride ourselves on is being the land of the free and the home of the brave. We provide opportunities. People who come here trying to escape tyranny, they sometimes find worse treatment than they had back home. I’ve never robbed anybody. I’ve never beat up, murdered, stolen anything. Yet when people find out I’m an immigrant or hear the term “immigrant,” that’s what their mind gravitates to.

Q: Mmhmm.

A: The proposal that I was trying to have that night when it turned into a sanctuary city discussion–which is what I never intended for it to be–it was a fruition of the decree that President Trump was cancelling temporary protected status for individuals from countries like Haiti, Honduras, Venezuela, I believe. Those points of view never even got out of my mouth. The second “sanctuary cities” was blared out, it just became an all-out attack on me.

Q: We heard one man say you should be impeached or removed. That is new for me in a sanctuary city debate. What struck me was how personal it got in Boynton Beach. Why do you think that was the direction it took?

A: Half of the people in that room were not Boynton Beach residents. It literally almost became like a Trump rally in chambers. The entire chambers was filled with people with signs–“build the wall!”

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Boynton Beach, FL Vice Mayor Christina Romelus

Q: How surprised were you that all of your other commissioners and the mayor rejected your proposal on grounds of “law and order?”

A: Having you replay this is all raw for me all over again. That night was not an easy night for me. I believe in the Constitution. I took an oath as well to protect and defend the Constitution. And I do that. But we have a duty to protect those who can’t protect themselves. When a black person was considered three-fifths of a person, that was in the Constitution. Was it right to uphold that then? That’s political speak, I feel, for cowering away from the conversation. It was the most politically-savvy way to look like “I’m obligated, my hands are tied,” not necessarily because it’s the right thing to do.

Q: There was a recess after this topic and the commission meeting continued. I noticed you were not there for the remainder of the meeting. Why was that?

A: I could not remain in a room filled with that much hate aimed at me. I could not sit on a dais with people who did not even take the time to consider the reasons or to hear out the arguments why I brought up the conversation. I was not in the right state to continue with that meeting. I actually had somebody escort me home from our police department because that’s how unsafe I felt.

Follow Vice Mayor Christina Romelus on Twitter: @romelus_c

Interview #107: Tempe, AZ Reporter Jerod MacDonald Evoy (with podcast)

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

Jerod MacDonald-Evoy is a reporter with The Arizona Republic who had a front-row seat to many hot-button debates of the Tempe council. From the border wall to a car wash, he explains how things got heated in the desert. Plus, we talk city council fashion!

Q: Can you please explain what the “Tempe Tie” is?

A: So when I was covering Tempe, I found that Tempe has an online store where you can buy all sorts of interesting little merchandise like a city of Tempe pen or a mug. I noticed they also had this tie. One of those fatter-style ties. It had a bunch of Tempe themes on it. I jokingly tweeted [that] if it got 100 retweets, I would wear it to the next council meeting.

Q: And…?

A: And as I should’ve known, you don’t challenge the Internet to those sorts of things. It quickly got over 100 retweets. I bought the tie and ended up wearing it to a few council meetings. I made some other people realize that they wanted that tie and they ended up selling out of them on the store!

Q: Let’s get into the council meetings. In January of this year, the Tempe council was considering a resolution to oppose a wall on the border with Mexico. There were some reasoned arguments about it, and those reasoned arguments lasted until one lady began yelling her comments from the back, which flustered your mayor into opening public comment. Were you expecting him to do that–and do you think that was a good idea?

A: I was expecting him to tell them, “you can have public comment at the end.” I’ve never seen the council open an item that was closed to public hearing. I was very nervous when he decided to do that because some of the women that were there had also been outside and were pretty vocally protesting this border wall resolution. I had a feeling it would only go downhill from there.

Q: Your nervous instincts were correct. Do you get the sense that council members were expecting the comments that ensued–the Trump defenders, the race war advocates, and the references to immigrants as rapists and murders?

Tempe, AZ reporter Jerod MacDonald-Evoy

A: I don’t think they were expecting it to the extent that it came. A lot of the people weren’t actually from Tempe. A lot of them drove up from the border to talk about this. The resolution they were trying to pass actually was a more gutted version of a resolution that was being pushed nationwide by a lot of cities that would say they wouldn’t do business with companies that work on the border wall. Well, one of the main companies that’s doing the prototypes is a Tempe company. When it didn’t pass, I was very surprised. It seemed very odd that they would give in to–I don’t know if they were giving in to these people exactly, but giving in to that idea that they shouldn’t be doing it.

Q: Do you think the public comment ended up making a difference for any of those council members?

A: I think it could’ve. I think there were a few that were already a little wary because of that idea of the city intruding into federal matters. Having those people show up was enough of a push to get them to not vote that way. It was during an election cycle. They decided they didn’t want to push the controversy and have the attack ad against them say they opposed the border wall and the president.

Follow Jerod MacDonald-Evoy on Twitter: @JerodMacEvoy

Special Feature! “Best Thing, Worst Thing”

HUGE NEWS: this is our first international episode of the “Best Thing, Worst Thing” project! And the Canadians I talked to could not have been nicer: you’ll hear from senior citizens playing lawn bowling in the suburbs. You’ll sit on the sidewalk as a blues guitarist serenades us. And most climactic of all, you’ll observe a butter tart bake-off at a fancy hotel, listening to judges and pastry chefs alike. (I’ve been told that this is a HIGHLY Canadian thing to do.)

If you’ve never heard of the project before, check out the page here. When you are mentally prepared to discover who won the Great Canadian Butter Tart Battle, click to the City Council Chronicles podcast to download the latest episode. Or you can play it below.

Episode 11: Toronto, Ontario

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Toronto is the most populous city in Canada and one of the most multicultural places in the world. It was amalgamated in 1998 from several smaller cities and is crisscrossed by streetcars and subways–although those are often a target of Torontonians’ frustrations. We will learn about lawn bowling from a senior citizens’ league, sample the merchandise in a sex shop, and experience a play-by-play of the Great Canadian Butter Tart Battle. Along the way, we will hear from an immigrant, a city councilor, pastry chefs, a musician, and an educator.

#92: Lynnwood, WA 3/13/17

From deep inside the state that sued Donald Trump, it’s no surprise that Lynnwood’s mayor kicked off the council meeting with a love-fest for the tired, the poor, and the huddled masses.

“If you find people who are not feeling safe or welcome in this city, you can give them this card,” Mayor Nicola Smith flashed a densely-worded index card to the camera.

“It tells them what police do and what they don’t do with our immigrants and refugees. I’ve got LOTS more.”

As she pushed a hefty stack down the dais, the mayor revealed another battle plan in the War on Unwelcomeness. “Starting next week,” she continued, “I will begin interviewing candidates for a new diversity, equity, and inclusion commission.”

“There will be a test on this.”

Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore. (Quite literally, I don’t think this sort of thing happens in Kansas.) But lest you think Mayor Smith is running some kind of hippie commune, the public commenters were thirsting for a fight.

“If the council places the Regional Fire Authority measure on the ballot,” read a soft-spoken, sweater-clad man, “if this unfinished, uncertain plan is on the ballot, Lynnwood loses.”

He jabbed the air with his pen. “Your Honor, I challenge you here tonight to meet with me one night a week for the next four weeks to debate this, so the citizens can know. I challenge you and I hope you’ll accept.”

OH, A CHALLENGE?! If there’s two things I know about Mayor Smith, it’s that

1.) she cares about cleaning up Daleway Park and

2.) she NEVER turns down a challenge.

This is Hamilton v. Burr all over again.

“Next on our list–” the mayor sighed, turning down the challenge.

“A couple weeks ago when I was here,” the next woman glared at the council, “I was concerned with what I witnessed from the mayor and the council in regard to not allowing citizens who had not signed up to speak.”

She paused sternly. “That was a little concerning. Hopefully that won’t happen again.”

Goodness, it sounds like we missed quite a kerfuffle. Fortunately, we were about to relitigate the offense. Speaking for the prosecution: none other than the mayor’s brash challenger. He strode to the podium for a second round of grievance-airing.

“I arrived at the sign-in table at 6:55 p.m., expecting to sign in on the sheet. There was no sheet to sign in on the table,” he narrated like it was the beginning to a crime thriller.

“I entered the council chamber knowing that council rules allowed those who had NOT signed in to speak AFTER those who signed in had spoken. When the time for citizen comments came, the mayor announced that ONLY those signed up on the sheet would be allowed to speak.”

Exhibit A: Table (no sign-in sheet)

He stared dead-on at Mayor Smith like a detective who caught his prime suspect in a contradiction. “This is the first time in my 48 years in this city that such a breach of council rules has occurred.”

“We will be better,” promised Council Member Ian Cotton with a frown.

To lighten the mood, Council Member Shannon Sessions held up a prop of her own, a tiny booklet of the “Top 10 Strange and Wonderful Oddities” around Snohomish County.

“Top 10 Oddities?” Council Member George Hurst inquired. “We’re not on there, right?”

“You are!” Council Member Sessions shot back, as Hurst did a rim shot and laughter erupted.

#85: Clarence, TAS 2/6/17

It was one heckuva g’day in the Clarence city council chamber. And right up top, I need to give propers to the head honcho behind that blinding yellow dais, Mayor Doug Chipman, for the classy way in which he kicked off the meeting:

“Before proceeding, I would like to acknowledge the Tasmania aboriginal community as the original inhabitants of this land out of respect to elders past and present.”

Good onya! Normally, one does not see American city council meetings acknowledge the native peoples–unless they are a mascot for the local high school football team.

View from the Rear Cam (L) and the Is-There-Vegemite-In-My-Teeth Cam (R)

Oh, and what luck that the council chamber has two cameras! I can see that there is PLENTY of space on the walls–which will come in handy becauuuuuuseeeee…

“We received a plaque from the Australian Government Department of Immigration and Border Protection thanking this council for its long contribution over many, many years towards the new citizenship program.”

The mayor flashed the shiny, shoe box-sized prize around the room. “So, that’s quite an impressive-looking plaque.”

Ripper! You could fight off a decent-sized boomer with that prezzy.

Mayor: “That’s not a plaque. THIS is a plaque.”

Slowly, Alderman Richard James rose for a quintessentially Australian purpose: to brag all about his weekend hike. “I would like to draw council’s attention to the Blessington Coast Track. We walked it on Sunday. For those who are pretty quick on their feet, I reckon you could do it in 20 minutes at a jog.”

He added, “it took us three-quarters of an hour. But we had a swim.”

He calmly recalled his treacherous journey along the Australian coast. “The track in parts is very steep, particularly up on the cliff. And there’s quite a drop. So I’m not sure as to whether there may be some barrier required on the track.”

Whoa there, mate! This is Australia. Country of the Crocodile Hunter! Heavy drinking! And our near-future adversaries in WWIII! Unless you’re talking about a great reef, there will be no “barriers” along a deadly, dangerous coastline, K?

As it turned out, Alderman James had a surprise that he pulled out of his bloomin’ onion: “The Kangaroo Bay track–it is open to the public,” he proclaimed, turning to the mayor. “Is it possible for us to have a little bit of a celebration?”

Everyone in the room held their breath. Mayor Chipman stared intently like a dingo eyeing a baby. “We can arrange that,” he allowed.

A typical Australian party

But there was one more bit of business, and it came with an ominous-sounding name: “questions without notice.” The idea? A reckless and dangerously unstable concept that ANY alderman can ask ANY question of ANYONE.

I’m already recoiling. Please, be gentle!

  • “Do we have the traffic count figures?” grilled Alderman Peter Cusick.
  • “Are you aware of other councils in Southern Tasmania that are providing after-hours school care?” raged Alderman James Walker.
  • “I would like to know if the toilets at the Lauderdale Yacht Club–if there’s been any thought to their design,” erupted Alderman Debra Thurley.

Yowza. I need a Foster’s after that white-hot earbashing. Longtime Chronicles readers will know that I like my aldermen’s questions like I like my women: with PLENTY of notice.

Final thoughts: You know what? Better stick to North America….I think Australian city councils are a little too intense for me.