This Christmas, we are celebrating the third year in a row that City Council Chronicles (and our other project, Tear It Down) has made the ELGL Top 100 Local Government Influencers list! We are very thankful for the award, and you can read more about the other 99 honorees on ELGL.org.
Simultaneously, you can listen to our holiday-themed podcast episode on iTunes, Stitcher, Player FM, and right here:
On this episode, you will hear excerpts from these full interviews:
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.
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!”
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
Alexa Loo is a former Olympic athlete and current city councillor who has witnessed a pull-and-tug over the maximum size of houses on Richmond farmland. She explains what the root of the issue appears to have been for some people.
Q: I must congratulate you on being newly inaugurated to a second council term. Whose idea was it for the men and the women to take separate oaths of office?
A: What ended up happening is the men ended up sitting on the one side of the room and the women sat on the other side. It just worked out that way. On the women’s side, we even sit in alphabetical order. And that wasn’t planned either.
Q: So is this going to be like a seventh grade dance with the boys on one side and the girls on the other for the next four years?
A: Yes! It is what it is.
Q: On your island, you have something called the agricultural land reserve. About 39 percent of Richmond is farmland. Why were some councillors concerned about how long that would last?
A: There had never been a cap or a limit on the size of house that you could have on agricultural land. House sizes started to get bigger. There were starting to become applications for things as big as 40,000 square feet. You can put a skating rink in 40,000 square feet.
Q: In a meeting, your council decided to put a cap on the size of a house on farmland to around 11,000 square feet. I don’t know a lot about farming, but I’m assuming that with my bedroom, my children’s bedroom, my tractor’s bedroom, my wheat thresher’s bedroom, and the bedroom for my livestock–even with bunk beds I’d be pushing it with 11,000 square feet.
A: Well, a wheat thresher is so big, you can’t even drive it on a standard road, so–
Q: I would need a really big bedroom is what you’re saying?
A: You would. There’s a whole bunch of rules that still protect the farmland, so at some point, does it matter if they have a three-car garage or a four-car garage? Does it matter if you have six bedrooms or five bedrooms? Why is it anybody else’s business what they’re doing?
Q: The fact is some people were unhappy with the limit. They thought 11,000 square feet were way too many–
A: And there’s a lot of people that don’t want a proliferation of South Asian people living on farmland.
Q: Their outrage was specifically aimed at limiting a racial or ethnic group from building these houses?
A: Typically those are the people building it. It’s easy to go after the size and shape of things if you know it’s gonna stick it to that group, I think.
Q: You referred in council meetings to the “good old boys” and fairness. Why in the meeting did you couch your language like that?
A: Because standing up at a council meeting and calling other people racist is a bold and dangerous move. Throwing names around like that–we’re not allowed to call people names.
Q: Were there any other councillors who felt the way you did about the racial aspect?
A: Oh, everybody’s well aware of it. The 23,000 square foot house that had been built, it had been built by a Caucasian person in Richmond. And he had a bowling alley in it. So when people are like, “what do you need a big house for?” He needs a bowling alley, apparently. But nobody seemed to have a big problem with it. They were more in awe at the time. But now if somebody else builds one, there’s a problem around it.
John D’Amico is in his seventh year on the WeHo council and he is not afraid of wading into controversies. From Donald Trump’s Hollywood star to bad behavior by council members, he discusses the importance of speaking up when necessary.
Q: When did the idea enter your mind that Donald Trump should no longer have a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and that you should do something about it?
A: When that star was vandalized again, it occurred to me that we were spending our time thinking about it and more importantly, the city of Los Angeles was spending tax dollars to replace it. And I was just thinking, why are we doing that? Why are we not speaking out? Why am I not speaking out? What very quickly occurred to me next was, why does this person–this sexist, quasi-fascist actor–have a star on the Walk of Fame?
A: I received hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of emails. I responded to every single one with an email back that had my phone number at the bottom. Only two people called me. They were truly amazing people living in the middle of the country. We agreed that we were not gonna see this in the same way.
Q: On August 6, you introduced an actual resolution asking the Los Angeles city council and the chamber of commerce to remove the Trump star. As you might imagine, there were some strong opinions. One man even called you a “bad strategist” for not waiting until after the primary elections to send the letter. How worried were you that your actions may have affected the Wyoming governor’s race or the Alaska state senate primaries?
A: Well, not at all. I’m fairly certain that what we did here in West Hollywood had zero effect on elections across the country. That effect was generated by this president. He earned this “blue wave.”
Q: I can see that commenter’s point, though. This president loves to take legitimate criticism of him and convert it into fuel for immigrant bashers and media haters and mail bombers. Did you consider what might have happened if he had tweeted about you and what that might have meant for your safety or your city’s image?
A: Here’s what I thought: I’m not gonna live in an America where the president targets people. We can’t live in a country where you can say, “well, if the president tweets at you, you might be harmed.” That is not okay!
Q: You do have a reputation for bringing matters out into the open. I’m thinking especially of the meeting of March 7, 2016, when you called out Councilmember John Duran for his inappropriate behavior in council meetings. What prompted you to go public with that information?
A: I’m not always the most eloquent speaker. I don’t always get it right. But I will say that I do think that silence is often tantamount to complicity. I will say that Mayor Duran and I have very much repaired our relationship. He has changed dramatically as a council member and now mayor of our city. But my side of that was that I wanted our residents to know that I am paying attention and I am not afraid of speaking my truth on their behalf.
Q: Do council members need to be trained to recognize when something is out of whack? If they see something, to bring it up right away and not let it loose in a council meeting two years after the fact?
A: Sure, I guess that would make sense. But council members have bosses. That’s the public. We do not report to each other.
Q: Well, the constituents rely on someone to sound the alarm, though. Would you not agree?
A: Fair enough. Absolutely.
Follow Mayor Pro Tem John D’Amico on Twitter: @ourWEHO
The Minneapolis council has been proactive about addressing racial inequity, despite outside events making it a challenge. Andrea Jenkins describes how she felt about council members’ reactions to an equity training earlier this year.
Q: On August 1 of this year, there was a committee of the whole meeting in which you all sat through a racial equity training. Would you be surprised if I told you that I’ve been hosting this program for two years and this is the first racial equity training I’ve seen a city council do?
A: Yes, I thought every city council in America was doing racial equity training. That’s not true?
Q: No! I hate to let you down because that is wildly off-base, but what did you hope to accomplish with this training?
A: Well, we’re trying to get the council members woke. The main thing we wanted to accomplish was to have a common understanding and common language that everybody can start with. It dispels the opportunities for people to come in with their own perspective. If we can lay the groundwork for one common understanding, that was the purpose.
Q: I’m glad you brought that up because that was actually the part of the training that hit a roadblock. Council President Lisa Bender said she was uncomfortable participating in an exercise in which council members’ discussions about their early experiences with race would be televised. What did you make of that?
A: Boy, I was really–I was disappointed. We ask people to support us in being representatives. And then we are not willing to share details about our own experiences, our own lives, that could help bring understanding to why we make some of the decisions we make. I know that council President Bender is very open about some really vulnerable parts of her life. It would be really eye opening and compelling for people to understand some of her experiences around race. It wasn’t just council President Bender–I mean, if you watched the meeting, there were a number of council members who were reluctant to share that information. Sometimes there’s really powerful strength in being vulnerable.
Q: There is another event we need to discuss that happened before the racial equity training. Can you explain what precipitated your June 27 committee of the whole meeting?
A: A week prior to that meeting, there had been a police-involved shooting of a young, black man who–it was under dispute whether or not he was armed, whether or not he was fleeing and was shot in the back. And so tensions in our community was really, really, really high.
Q: In that meeting, Council Member Cam Gordon wondered whether the city council needed more of a role in the police department. He proceeded to draft that exact charter amendment–which did not sit well with a number of people, including the public safety committee chair, Alondra Cano, who said she was “disgusted by the privilege” of the motion. What did you make of that?
A: I interpreted her use of the term “privilege” to suggest that it would’ve potentially been more appropriate for her to have made that–or someone who had those kinds of experiences–as opposed to Mr. Gordon, who has not lived those kinds of experiences.
Q: So speaking with terms of racial equity, it’s easier for someone who has benefited from the system to look at it and say, “something’s wrong. We need to fix it,” and to have people listen to him, than it might be for someone who belongs to a historically-oppressed group to say the same thing and perhaps get ignored when they say it.
A: I think that is absolutely true. Yes, I agree with that.
Follow Council Vice President Andrea Jenkins on Twitter: @annapoetic
This past Tuesday was Election Day in the United States, which means there were plenty of city council races to keep track of. We provide you with some updates on a handful of city councils profiled on previous podcast episodes.
Anne Watson is a high school teacher and first-term mayor who made a few tweaks to the council meetings when she took the gavel this year. She explains why high school students come into the council chamber regularly and we discuss a contentious meeting about a vacancy this spring.
Q: I noticed that your council does not say the Pledge of Allegiance in your meetings. Mayor Watson, simple question: how dare you?
A: You know, I think it’s sort of assumed that we’re all on board with loving America. So we just use our time well and want to just keep moving forward!
Q: Please tell me that you at least have Judeo-Christian prayer before the meetings.
A: No, we don’t pray before the meetings either!
Q: Oh, my god. If the French Canadians want to invade you people, I could care less at this point. I notice that you have been cursed with a finicky sound system. What is the problem with the microphones in your council chamber?
A: The microphones were a little bit far away from the edge of the desks and so for a long time, we had to lean over the desks to get close enough to actually be heard. We could look into getting some better mics that might actually pick us up, but they were just recently moved to be closer. And actually, since that meeting happened, we’ve had some better sound.
Q: I want to talk about some of the aspects of the meetings that changed since you became mayor earlier this year. Do I understand that you instituted a two-minute limit on public comment?
A: That’s correct. We actually have a card that one of our councilors holds up. The one side says you’ve got one minute left and the other side says you’ve got to stop.
Q: I love low-tech solutions. Perhaps for the sound system you could just roll up a piece of paper and talk through it like a megaphone instead!
A: There we go!
Q: Is there now in your council chamber a white board with future agenda items?
A: There is an agenda board and that was something that I asked for. I think it’s really helpful for planning our time. When we’re in the council meetings and we’re thinking about if we are going to table this topic or somebody raises an issue that’s worth talking about further, then we can right there have a visual representation of when it might fit in our future agendas.
Q: Tell me about the kids who come into your meetings to drop policy on you.
A: So every year, there’s a class at the high school that does a project around civics and whatever topics are going on in the city. They come to the council and make a pitch. There was one we had about possibly banning plastic bags in the city of Montpelier. We have an item on the ballot on November 6 coming up as to whether we should be asking the legislature for permission to enact some kind of ban on plastic bags. The kids were definitely a part of that.
Q: You are actually a teacher at the high school there. If a student said to you, “Ms. Watson, I didn’t do my homework for your class because I was working on my policy project for the city council,” would you be mad?
A: Oh, of course I would! Well, I probably wouldn’t be mad, but I would probably say something like, “listen, you need to manage your time.”