Interview #125: Bloomington, IN City Clerk Nicole Bolden (with podcast)

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

Nicole Bolden is a longtime employee of the Bloomington clerk’s office and is in her first term as the elected clerk. She reminisces about weaponry in the council chamber, her attempt at live tweeting the meetings, and a parking garage debate that stood out.

Q: You have been the clerk for almost four years and before that, I know you worked for the city clerk, sometimes being the fill-in person at the council meetings. How have the meetings changed in the ten years that you’ve been working for the city?

A: I don’t think the meetings have changed dramatically. In some respects they have calmed down. We used to have some citizens who were very active and engaged in the meetings, sometimes to comic effect. Most of our council members are pretty long serving, so they know what they’re doing. They have an established routine.

Q: What is some of the comic relief that we’re missing out on nowadays that you used to see at the microphone way back when?

A: We used to have citizens who would come in and talk about various things that concerned them, but they would also record themselves while standing at the podium. You would see people who were filming things for their own YouTube broadcast or podcast. There were people who would show up with hatchets. There were people who would show up with costumes.

Q: You had me at “hatchet.” Was this a prop hatchet or was this a threat?

A: Neither, it was just a hatchet that our citizen was carrying with him. He still comes to meetings occasionally. He sometimes comes with things that may cause a bit of concern, but that is what he is allowed to do.

Q: Indiana is a wild and lawless place, I love it.

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Bloomington, IN City Clerk Nicole Bolden

I noticed that last fall you live tweeted the council proceedings for one or two meetings and then you stopped. Why did you give up on such riveting tweets as

A: You know, there just didn’t seem to be a huge appetite for that type of tweeting. It’s something that we’ve discussed returning to, but for the moment it is one more thing to juggle during an already busy meeting. I have to be honest, I’m not great at tweeting. I feel a little old sometimes because I don’t know all the abbreviations people use!

Q: In the December 12, 2018 meeting, Council Member Allison Chopra complained about how meetings go way too late. If the council members have to stay late, you have to stay late. What are your thoughts on the duration of the meetings?

A: When I decided to run for city clerk, my family laughed at me. They said, “how on Earth are you going to be able to handle those meetings that go past your bedtime?” When I started, our council meetings used to start at 7:30 p.m., not 6:30. So that was one change that Allison successfully spearheaded through, which was getting the meetings started earlier in the hopes that when we did have longer meetings, people wouldn’t be leaving at 11:30 or 12 at night.

Q: During a contentious debate last year about whether to construct new parking garages, I noticed something unusual in the public comment. One of your employees in the clerk’s office spoke to the council on the topic. What have you told your employees about getting involved in council meetings?

A: I have told them that they are welcome to express their opinions to the council at any given time. I have also asked them that when they are speaking to the council, to make it clear they are speaking for themselves and not on behalf of the office.

Q: Is that a luxury that employees of other departments have? Or because you’re an elected official, do you have more freedom to tell your employees, “if you want to get a little political, have at it”?

A: I’m a separately-elected branch, so I don’t have the same chain of command that other departments have who all ultimately respond to the mayor. I don’t know of anybody who’s ever been told to not speak at a council meeting, but I know there are some people who may think twice.


Follow Nicole Bolden on Twitter: @ClerkNicoleB

Month in Review: March 2018

We are still technically in winter, so naturally we saw some dark and chilling moments at March council meetings–like the mayor who mused about active shooter training or the massive feud over a smoking ordinance.

But spring is so close, and we also experienced glimmers of warmth, including the playful rivalry between two mayors and one vocally-talented council announcer.

Not to mention that on the podcast, we had a delightful time–among other things–reviewing artwork for utility boxes!

To see which city council meetings were rays of hope, take a stroll through the March Month in Review.

And if you still are skeptical that March council meetings had sufficient intrigue, you clearly have not heard the case of the mysteriously-appearing park deck. BEHOLD THE DOSSIER:

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Interview #86: Indianapolis, IN Councilor Michael McQuillen (with podcast)

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

Michael McQuillen is the Republican District 4 councilor and minority leader on the Indianapolis-Marion County city-county council. Despite his council’s long name, he tries to make quick decisions on votes, including the difficult ones involving unseating the council president. We talk about those occasions, his perfect attendance, and more.

Q: I hope it is not too late in the year to congratulate you for winning a perfect meeting-attendance award in 2017. Why does the Indianapolis council prefer to honor people who attend all of the meetings instead of my preferred method of shaming people who miss any meetings?

A: That’s actually my crowning achievement for 2017, so we can’t take that too lightly. But seriously, I think it’s something that’s been done for 40, 45 years and I’m just caught up in the minutiae of it now.

Q: You’ve been on the council for ten years. How many of those years have you had perfect attendance?

A: I’m probably about a 50-50 hit or miss. But I generally hit all the council meetings, occasionally will miss a committee meeting here and there.

Q: Okay, gotcha. Well it actually was five out of the ten, and I appreciate you pretending like you didn’t have that memorized. Very convincing! In your second year on council, Republican Council President Bob Cockrum decided to alternate the adjournment between his vice president and the minority leader, rather than have the minority leader do it always. How strongly do you feel about being in charge of that part of the meeting?

A: Being the minority leader, there are very few bells and whistles that that person gets to use. The reading of the memoriams at the end of the meeting is one of the very few. As you point out, that has been my responsibility for the last several years now on council. I don’t know where it would rank in the hierarchy of importance in the council meetings, but I do enjoy brushing up on tricky last names sometimes when I’m on camera.

Q: Sure. I mean it’s ceremonial akin to the invocation and the Pledge of Allegiance. So would you be pretty protective if someone tried to take that away from you?

A: I guess I probably would. Again, it’s one of the few things that puts the spotlight on the minority party for just a very few minutes at the end of the meeting.

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Indianapolis, IN Councilor Michael McQuillen

Q: Earlier this year when the council was choosing whether to retain the council president or elect a challenger, the vote stayed open for a really long time. Do you recall what was going on that took people that long to decide?

A: I’ve never understood in the ten years that I’ve been on the council why some councilors, especially if they know how they’re going to vote on an issue, sit there and wait to hit the button and be perhaps the last person. That’s great if you want to be on the news as the councilor that “made the decision” on how the vote goes. It’s not really true that that’s the way it works, but sometimes that’s how it’s perceived. My personal philosophy has always been to hit that red or green button immediately and move on.

Q: Is that something you’re obligated to do as the leader of the caucus? Or might that be why you’re the leader of the caucus: because you’re so darn decisive?

A: Good point. I do try to throw the button down fairly early for that reason. But also again, I just don’t want to be the last man standing. A few years ago there was a vote on overriding the former mayor’s veto. I was the only person to hit a red button that night. It was 24-1. But it was kind of lonely sitting there at the end of the 60 seconds the board was open and having one lonely, little red button up there.


Follow Councilor Michael McQuillen on Twitter: @mike_mcquillen 

Month in Review: February 2018

It was a tall order to pack a months worth of city council action into only 28 days, but February pulled it off. We welcomed new blood to a city council and saw one person walk away from the job mid-meeting.

We also had a busy podcast schedule, talking to people who are doing wonders for helping their constituents understand the meetings, as well as those who are frustrated by how opaque their council truly is. Plus, we got one promise to video stream council meetings by December!

To see which city councils are doing well and which ones are way behind the times, take a look at the February Month in Review.

And if you heard that nothing innovative ever comes out of a city council meeting, I implore you to read about this little girls revolutionary new homeless shelter:

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#151: Indianapolis, IN 2/19/18

The meeting of the City-County Council of Indianapolis-Marion County (a.k.a. the “Most Hyphenated Council” in the country) began in the most democratic of fashions: with applause for pretty much everybody.

“I’d like to introduce an Orange Township resident, active guy in the community, good friend,” Councilor Michael McQuillen announced, leading the claps for his man in the audience.

Taking a step up from “active guy,” Councilor Scott Kreider introduced two firefighters. Claps.

Not to be outdone, Councilor McQuillen grabbed the mic again. “We have a former city-county council member in the audience.” More claps.

“I want to acknowledge this month being Black History Month,” cut in Councilor LaKeisha Jackson, “and that we give a round of applause for Black History Month.” Raucous claps.

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I like this warm-up!

With no one being able to top Black History Month, the councilors settled in for the business portion of the meeting. But suddenly, Council President Stephen Clay dropped a bomb so large it could have leveled a less-emotionally prepared council chamber.

“In an effort to preserve this institution and advance the people’s agenda, Councilor [Vop] Osili and I have agreed to the orderly transfer of power,” Clay read emotionlessly from his prepared statement.

“My letter of resignation from the office of the president will be presented tonight. I will call upon Democrats and Republicans to support this transition,” he warned sternly, “thus averting any political filibustering.”

Picking up the gavel in preparation to slam it, Clay noted, “I give the gavel to the parliamentarian.” The chamber applauded one last time as Clay stood up, shook hands, and departed for greener pastures–or whatever you’d call the place where the rest of the councilors sit.

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I hardly knew you.

But even this orderly transfer was thrown into momentary disorder when Councilor Leroy Robinson raised his eyebrows and his hand. “Shouldn’t the vice president receive the gavel as opposed to the parliamentarian?” he quizzed.

A constitutional crisis was averted as the parliamentarian calmly agreed. Vice President Zach Adamson hustled over to the chair and opened the floor for presidential nominations.

“I nominate Councilor Vop Osili,” announced Councilor Maggie Lewis.

“Are there any other nominations?” asked the parliamentarian to silence. “The effect of closing nominations with only one candidate will have the effect of electing Councilor Osili as president.”

With no one disputing the outcome, it was official. The new president strode to his seat and with a reassuring smile, delivered a message best characterized as: “there’s a new sheriff in town.”

“Our council has shaken the confidence of our constituents.” He paused. “But that was yesterday. It is time for us to get back to business. And we will start with the next item on the agenda.”

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Crack. The. Whip.

With a calm, steady hand steering the ship, the rest of the meeting proceeded with only minor hiccups.

“Madam Clerk, can you set the, uh…?” Osili backtracked after forgetting to open the voting machine. “All right, let’s go!”

A few minutes later, “proposals numbers 56 and 57 were referred to the Metropolitan Economic Development Committee,” Osili read, glancing up from his notes to the chair of the committee.

She was nowhere in sight.

The council patiently waited while someone rushed to fetch Councilor Jackson. Within minutes, she reappeared, power walking back to her seat.

“I apologize Mr. President,” Jackson blurted.  While the old president might have chewed her out six ways from Sunday, President Osili remained serene. As he might say, some councilors shake the confidence of their constituents.

But that was yesterday.

#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?

#32: Lebanon, IN 6/27/16

We are burning through Lebanons like beer cans on a bonfire. Our second stop on the whirlwind Lebanon tour is Indiana, where someone at city hall is a virtuoso with video graphics.

“First order of business will be the, uh, Pledge of Allegiance,” Mayor Matt Gentry announced, before being upstaged by a rippling animation of Old Glory.

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I pledge allegiance to the–wait, what’s happening to the mayor? Oh, god! It’s coming for him! Run, your honor! The humanity! Oh, the human–there he is again! With liberty and justice for all.

It’s tough to follow a screen-wiping flag, but one hotshot developer in a blue button-up sure tried. “There is, was, and still is a demand for nicer rental housing in downtown Lebanon. We’re dealing with a lot of young professionals. That is the kind of lifestyle they’re looking for.”

Yes, I bet many young professionals yearn to move to Lebanon, Indiana for the famous [look up something to put here] and the legendary [don’t forget to write something].

Youthful Councilor Corey Kutz wanted to know how the monied classes were living in Lebanon’s rival city. “What did the amenities look like? I know they’re maybe fetching $1,000 [per apartment] in Zionsville, but are they getting a pool? Are they getting a gym?”

The developer waved off the Z-town envy. “We’re in ‘downtown.’ We’re not sitting out in a corn field,” he slammed Zionsville, which is a puny little burg known only for [find literally anything interesting]. “We’ve got a historic gymnasium. You can’t compete with that!”

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Councilor Corey Kutz: “What about massage parlors with full release? Does Zionsville have those?”

But sadly, Lebanon has a dark, noisy underbelly.

“I am Lebanon resident,” a bearded public commenter addressed councilors. “Grew up here, very proud of our community. And the two things I always brag is: we’re very neighborly and we LOVE the Fourth of July. We celebrate like no other city in central Indiana.” Yeah, shove that up your tailpipe, Zionsville!

But when you love something too much, sometimes the relationship turns ugly. “Saturday night, I sat up until 11:45 listening to what sounded like cannon shots right outside my bedroom window.”

And did he take this lying down? F*ck no. “I started looking into the ordinances,” this proud Lebanoner announced. “I found one that was passed in 1875 and it specifically mentions fireworks. It says they’re only to be set off on four days: July 4, Christmas, January 1, and Presidents Day.”

Councilor Kutz was kutzcerned. “Indianapolis just updated theirs [ordinance]. We could use a revamp on that….I don’t think it’ll happen before the fourth though.”

“I’m not trying to be a party pooper,” the commenter protested.

The role of party pooper went instead to the police chief, who stepped up to the mic.

“If it was up to me, there’d be no bass speakers, no dogs, and no fireworks allowed in the city, period.” The room erupted in laughter, but the chief looked as serious as a funeral. “I’d ban everything. Make it all quiet.”

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More like Chief Buzzkill

Final thoughts: If the chief has his way, maybe Lebanon will at last have a cool factoid to its name: the quietest city in central Indiana.