Interview #78: Nashville, TN Councilman Colby Sledge (with podcast)

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

Colby Sledge is the District 17 councilman and a former reporter on the Nashville Metro Council. There is a smorgasbord of procedural features in the Music City that you won’t find in most American city councils–primarily because of the size. Plus, we talk about the many ways in which Nashville’s council exercises politeness.

Q: Most city councils have seven members, nine members–but Nashville has 40 council members. And you all sit at individual desks on the chamber floor. The Tennessee state senate has 33 people, so you have more members than half of your state’s legislature! What are the advantage and disadvantage of having that many council members?

A: Yeah, it’s always a fun thing to throw out whenever we’re at conferences or speaking with lawmakers in other cities, to get “that look” when we tell them we have 40 members. It is a product of when the city and county merged more than 50 years ago. Everybody got to keep their jobs!

Q: Sure.

A: We have the third-largest municipal council in the country behind New York and Chicago. I think the advantage is definitely constituent service. You are expected, as a council member, to know pretty much everyone in your district. Disadvantage is, as you imagine, it can get unwieldy sometimes.

Q: You have a lot of public hearings. You don’t take public comment in the meetings, but you have hearings where people raise their hands in the gallery if they are in favor of or opposed to a bill. I haven’t seen this hand-raising thing before. What are you looking for, exactly?

A: We’re primarily looking for folks who are opposed. Because there are so many zoning bills that we handle, we’re trying to get a sense if there is still dissent within the community. It encourages council members to have meetings before it comes to public hearing. The worst-case scenario is you have a lot of people who are opposed; it kind of reflects poorly on the council member because he or she may have not done all the prep work.

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Nashville, TN Councilman Colby Sledge

Q: I have heard of the concept of “councilmanic courtesy” in Nashville. Essentially, it’s “I’ve got something in my district that I’d like approved. Please do it for me and I’ll vote for the next thing YOU need in your district.” How many times since you’ve been on council have you received councilmanic courtesy?

A: That’s a good question. I think it’s a product of our size. The vast majority of zoning bills–I can’t even think of one that I didn’t [receive courtesy]. If I made a compelling case for a rezoning, most of the time, council members were for it. There’s no written rule that says we’re supposed to be offering this. But when you have a legislative body that’s this large dealing with land-use issues, it tends to be the unwritten rule. I try to think about how it’s going to affect my constituents. If there’s little to no effect, I feel comfortable supporting it.

Q: There is no such thing as councilwomanic courtesy because you don’t have councilwomen in Nashville. You have “council ladies.” What kind of “Gone With the Wind” tradition is that?!

A: [Laughs] I will say that my predecessor in District 17 was a woman and I probably almost always called her “council lady.” It’s really up to each member’s preference.


Follow Councilman Colby Sledge on Twitter: @Sledgefor17

Interview #76: Fairfax, VA Councilmember Jennifer Passey (with podcast)

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

When Jennifer Passey became a council member three months ago, she had already witnessed as a citizen the chaos of 2016 when Fairfax’s mayor resigned abruptly. We talked about the reasons for not having a vice mayor as well as the important topic of guns in meetings.

Q: I actually grew up down the street from Fairfax and am HIGHLY familiar with your city. Which means, unfortunately for you, I can play hardball. So get ready to get grilled about the 703. Question numero uno: how’s my dog doing? Is she okay?

A: [Laughs] As far as I know. I haven’t heard anything otherwise.

Q: Oh, thank god. Question numero dos: does Chelsea Licklider still have a crush on me?

A: You know, let me look into that. Isn’t that a good city council answer?!

Q: Yes, very speedy constituent service! Before city council, you were on the planning commission. Was that any less pressure because fewer people were watching?

A: I think the pressure comes from within of wanting to do a good job, for me. It’s a little more public [on council]. Planning commission, it was a little more candid because you knew not a lot of people were watching. People will look at those every once in a while when it was a heated topic.

Q: Being from Virginia, it didn’t come as a surprise to me at your November 7 work session when the city’s lobbyist casually suggested that you join the city of Falls Church in requesting a weapons ban in public buildings from the Virginia legislature. Do you see any harm in tagging along and requesting to keep firearms at least in the parking lot?

A: It’s not an example of something that’s happened where we feel threatened. I’m not really concerned either way. I don’t feel threatened that there are a lot of people that carry guns. But at the same time, you never know what’s happening around the country. We’ve seen it before in city council meetings in other places. I’m torn: I see the issues of infringement, but I’m not sure if I have a full-on stance.

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Fairfax, VA Councilmember Jennifer Passey

Q: If someone were to carry inside the council meeting and was sitting there politely watching with a gun on their hip, how would that make you feel?

A: I grew up in Minnesota. I don’t want to say people carry guns all the time there, but I guess it depends on whether they come in disgruntled or not.

Q: Would it help to outlaw disgruntlement at city hall instead?

A: Disgruntlement with a weapon!

Q: Well Jennifer, since you’ve only been a council member for three months, we don’t have that much to talk about. So thank you for–HOLD ON, SIT BACK DOWN! Obviously, we need to talk about the hugely controversial Vice Mayor-gate. Last summer, your previous mayor resigned. Fairfax had no vice mayor to take over. What was your take on the problem?

A: Residents and city staff during that time were really angry at [the mayor]. I think a lot of the issue was that city council was figuring out the legalities–from my perception–and we don’t have a spokesperson at city hall. If that’s communicated out, people understand the process. It wouldn’t have looked suspicious or that they were conspiring in the back room with the city attorney.


Follow Councilmember Jennifer Passey on Twitter: @jennifer_passey 

Interview #74: Juneau, AK Assembly Member Jesse Kiehl (with podcast)

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

Jesse Kiehl works for the Alaska legislature by day and serves on the Juneau assembly by night. On the podcast, he promises that the era of live-streamed meetings is dawning, explains a few uniquely-Alaska issues, and recounts a disturbing incident that happened mere feet from an assembly meeting.

Q: Jesse, I don’t care if you do live in Alaska and I don’t care if you can see Russia from your house. I–well, actually, CAN you see Russia from your house? That would be pretty boss.

A: We’re a little too far away.

Q: Oh. Well, ahem, I don’t care if you CAN’T see Russia from your house. Why can I not go online and see the Juneau assembly meetings?

A: Because we’re cheap! There is an individual who has been voluntarily putting those up online now for about eight, nine months. He is a businessman and is interested in competing for a contract to do that. I agree with you, Michael. It’s time.

Q: Do you have any idea when is the earliest we could see the new video system? 2018? 2019?

A: It wouldn’t surprise me if we got started in the early summer.

Q: Well, you’ve got to get your beach body in shape. Does that scare you?

A: I do not have–nor will I ever have–a “beach body.”

Q: Fair enough. This being Alaska, I want to talk about the Alaska-specific things people might find in your assembly meetings. For example, in your September 2017 meeting, a bunch of people showed up angry about a bear who was shot by police. How often do issues like this come up–that city councils in the lower 48 probably are not dealing with?

A: Most of the issues really are the same. I suppose people who have raccoons get in their garbage are a little more worried about rabies from a bite instead of mauling. But otherwise, it’s about the same.

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Juneau, AK Assembly Member Jesse Kiehl

Q: At the June 6 meeting, apparently there was some shouting outside the chamber and the mayor called a recess to have people investigate it. I think you were one of those who walked out of the room. Do you remember what happened?

A: There’s a public restroom on the other side of the chamber and there was a domestic violence incident–ah, let’s call it what it was: a guy beat up his girlfriend just outside the restrooms. There was shouting and thumping. We jumped up and the only person who got up faster than me was [Assembly Member] Jerry [Nankervis, a former police officer]. Unfortunately, she was not interested in police protection or a ride to our domestic violence shelter and that’s really hard. You intervene in hopes that people will get the help they need. But that time, they didn’t.

Q: When you’re sitting there in the meetings, you’ve got 33,000 people that you want to make life better for. But when it’s just one person who is not susceptible to persuasion or to you as an authority, I’m sure it’s quite a contrast and made you feel somewhat helpless.

A: [Sigh] Seeing and hearing something like that during a meeting sure keeps you grounded. It keeps you focused on the ways we make life better–or fail to–and the impacts those have on people who don’t have the level of comfort that all of us on the assembly do.


Follow Assembly Member Jesse Kiehl on Twitter: @JesseKiehl

#143: Littleton, CO 12/5/17

Freshly sworn in and ready for business, the Littleton city council backed out of the driveway and, metaphorically, immediately hit the mailbox.

Not only were two new council members absent, but one citizen marched down to raise hell about “Candy and Cash”-gate.

“At the last meeting when the recognition of the council members who were leaving–let’s see if I say this right,” she dramatically donned her eyeglasses and stared at the transcript.

“Citizens asked for time to make recognition also. [One council member] said, ‘this group may give us candy.’ Council Member [Phil] Cernanec said, ‘we appreciate cash’ and I’m sure that was a joke.”

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Ix-nay on the ash-cay.

She whipped off her glasses and point-blank recited how much the council members ten feet from her had received in campaign contributions from the cash-and-candy jokesters.

“I’m very concerned about special access for special interests. This raised all the red flags for me. I’m going to suggest it was out of order. I’m sure it was well-intentioned and I’m also sure that it was bad.”

Agreed. If there is one thing I cannot stand, it is jokes about bribery at a council meeting. (Although I am open to changing my views for a simple wire transfer of $8,000 or greater.)

Returning to the council meeting, the city attorney had another dire warning if Littleton didn’t change the definitions in its tax code.

“The legislature goes back into session on January 5. I have to tell the council it’s very, very critical that we do this,” he asserted with a wry smile.

“Property tax does not pay city bills. Sales tax does. If cities do not demonstrate this willingness to look at their tax codes, I think we will be at risk of having our sales tax authority impinged.”

The stakes were straightforward enough. The real heavy lifting, however, went to Council Member Kyle Schlachter, who read an ordinance title so lengthy and complex, it was almost as hard to comprehend as the tax code itself.

“I move to approve ordinance 35-2017 amending Title 3, Chapter 9, Sections 9-9-1-2, 3-9-3-2, 3-9-1-10, and 3-9-6-12 of the city code,” he announced triumphantly.

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Noooooooooo! After all that hard work!

“I need a motion, please,” requested Mayor Debbie Brinkman, flipping through a routine emergency medical transportation enterprise fund budget.

“I move to approve the ordinance,” Mayor Pro Tem Jerry Valdes began calmly enough, “entering into a trust agreement for the Colorado Firefighters–”

“Nope!” the mayor halted him.

“I’m on the wrong one!” exclaimed Valdes, frantically poking at his tablet screen. “Take over, Kyle!”

“All right,” quickly rebounded Council Member Schlachter. “I move to approve the amendment to the Emergency Medical Transport Enterprise Fund 2017 Budget.”

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He is getting quite the reputation as the council’s resident reader.

Eyeing the clock near the end of the meeting, Mayor Brinkman turned to the city manager. “City manager, do you have any report?”

“I do not,” he informed her cheerfully.

“Good,” she replied absent-mindedly. Audience members started to snicker, prompting her to quickly reconsider her choice of words.

“I mean, THANK YOU!” she gushed, somewhat facetiously. As the chuckling subsided, she gave a stern parting reminder to the council.

“I need those who have not given me their goals for 2018, please send me those by the end of the week.”

I can think of one goal: get Mayor Pro Tem Valdes a tutorial for that iPad.

#140: Fort Morgan, CO 11/7/17

“In the interest of brevity, I’ll try to keep it as short and concise as possible,” city attorney Jason Meyers promised. I was skeptical. No lawyer can resist the allure of long, drawn-out soliloquies–and that was exactly what council members would get here.

However, I immediately became less concerned about the length of the monologue and more concerned about the dire situation erupting in Fort Morgan.

“Every year the state legislature passes another set of bills that restricts the ability of the municipal court to operate,” Meyers began solemnly. “More recent changes have stated that if anybody is in custody on a jailable offense, regardless of whether they’re indigent, they have to have a court-appointed attorney available at the time they’re talking to a judge.”

Seems reasonable enough, yes? Right to counsel. Habeas corpus. Gluteus maximus. The bedrock of our country!

“How do we have a court-appointed attorney available every Wednesday, whether we have cases?” Meyers asked rhetorically. “We’re paying an attorney to sit there just in case.”

Ah yes, the other bedrock of our country: money. But listen, buddy, if you knew this was gonna cause problems, you should have said something about it earlier.

“I did go to the legislature two years ago and testify,” explained Meyers. “I got grilled for about 30 minutes. It felt like hours. In essence, they don’t care about the rural communities. This is the result.”

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I care about you.

The council listened stoically to the scenario. I am sure this can be resolved without drastic measures.

“We removed jail as an option for most municipal court violations. You can still be written into municipal court for assault and disorderly [conduct] and resisting arrest. We just can’t put you in jail for it anymore if this passes,” he concluded.

“This” being the following proposal from Mayor Pro Tem Lisa Northrup: “I would offer a resolution eliminating jail as a possible penalty in Fort Morgan municipal court cases and request to schedule a public hearing.”

Mayor Ron Shaver waited a beat. “Roll call.”

A string of lighted domes blazed green in front of council members as everyone voted yes. Let that be a lesson: if you’re looking for a place to resist arrest for being disorderly, Eastern Colorado is the promise land.

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Ooh…the orbs!

There was little time to dwell on the fate of the jail or ponder the imminence of anarchy. Winter was fast approaching and Fort Morgan had a reputation to uphold:

“When people ask, ‘why are we the Christmas Capital of the Plains,’ it’s because we do more in the four weeks before Christmas than any other community in Colorado,” city manager Jeffrey Wells bragged to the council–and, technically, to any other council in earshot.

“I would tell anybody to try and take us on,” he challenged brazenly.

“You may have seen in the paper,” Wells continued, “that our very own [Director of Public Works] Steve Glammeyer was awarded the–”

He halted in search of the name.

“William E. Korbitz!” yelled someone from the side.

“–the William E. Korbitz Award with the Colorado Chapter of the American Public Works Association,” recovered Wells. “So thanks a lot, Steve.”

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Hell yes, Steve.

The room broke into applause and Wells grinned fiendishly. “He HATES it when we do this.”

“Do it again!” someone hollered. A second round of applause and whoops thundered down for Steve. Luckily, they could get as disorderly as they wanted–it’s not like they’ll go to jail.

#117: Park City, KS 7/11/17

Emotions were running high at City Hall as Mayor Ray Mann called the meeting to order with a tearful farewell to an old friend.

“Daniela,” he murmured, “for the last time in this building that has served us well, would you call the roll?”

That’s right, the doors are closing on fabled Hydraulic Street and the message was clear: don’t leave anything behind tonight.

“We’ll be closed Thursday and Friday and Monday,” announced the city administrator. “We’ll be moving from this facility to the new facility.”

“We’ve got movers in place. So it’s gonna be a busy day Thursday and Friday,” the mayor observed, glancing sideways at a couple of the council members as if to say, “you’re still coming to carry boxes, right?”

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The new Park City Hall, I’m assuming

But rather than rest up and conserve their energy, the council found themselves thrust into the middle of an existential crisis.

“What has happened is the Kansas legislature decided to take a more proactive approach encouraging people to use their seatbelts,” an employee explained to steely glances. “They established a ‘Seatbelt Education Fund.’ Fines for seatbelts will increase from $10 to $30, and $20 will be sent to fund this.”

Then he revealed the kicker: “They’ve also added a section that says that no county or municipality can change it. Because we have an ordinance on the books that says the seatbelt fine is only $10, we have to change it.”

Council Member Tom Jones jumped in sounding about as enthusiastic as someone who’s been asked to move an entire city hall. “We don’t have any choice,” he sighed.

He added, seemingly with sarcasm, “they’re ‘helping’ us out again.”

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“Could they also help us load the vans on Thursday?”

But while Park City was cleaning up its ordinances, there was a lingering question: who would clean the brand new City Hall?

“They come in and clean the building while staff is not there?” quizzed Council Member George Capps.

“Yes, sir,” the clerk answered.

Capps seemed astonished. “What have you done to check their security?”

“They go through an extensive background check and get fingerprinted,” she assured him. “And those same individuals will have to clean every week.”

“Okay,” he eased up. “Thank you.”

Getting fingerprinted to clean a city hall? What kind of top-secret, classified, national security information are they stor–hold on. I just noticed something: EVERYONE is wearing official Park City-branded shirts! Man, that mayor runs a tight ship here.

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I DEMAND YOU SEND ME ONE OF EVERY COLOR, MAYOR!

As the meeting wrapped up, people shared their fond–and not so fond–memories from the Fourth of July.

“I thought the holidays went real good, except all the fireworks really got the dogs upset,” Council Member Capps smiled wearily. “I, for one, got bit. It’s just the price we pay, I guess.”

While I admire his cavalier attitude in the face of, well, sharp teeth, someone else paid zero price for his canine encounter.

“I was able to be part of the pet judge contest,” bragged Council Member George Glover. “They had ‘wagging tail dog’ and ‘best sit-up dog,’ ‘best trick dog’….It was good to be part of that.”

To that, Council Member Melvin Kerr retorted, “I think I was the most popular councilman. I was handing out the ice cream!”

With a hearty laugh, the last meeting in the old City Hall was over. Onward to greener pastures!

Final thoughts: Seriously, I would like a shirt please.

#93: Batavia, IL 3/20/17

It was as if someone had asked, “which do you want first? Good news or bad news?”

The first half of the Batavia city council meeting was OVERFLOWING with civic pride. Here’s a sampling from the municipal smorgasbord:

  • Mayor Jeffery Schielke swore in a smiling new firefighter/paramedic, who ambitiously vowed to “support the Constitution of the United States.”
  • There was breaking news that the Downtown Egg Hop (sponsored, naturally, by Chick-fil-A) will feature a visit from the real live Easter Bunny.
  • Because so many scofflaws had to pay fines for failing Batavia’s tobacco sales compliance checks, the police decided to give $3,000 to the high school’s after-prom party. “The good news is, people have violated our liquor and tobacco ordinance,” the police chief said to laughter as he handed a normal-sized check to the organizers.
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Was the giant novelty check store closed?

Even the seemingly-snoozeworthy item of “Phase I wastewater treatment plant rehabilitation” got juiced by a mayoral shout-out.

“I had the opportunity to spend three hours here with the Batavia Environmental Commission. They had their movie night,” Mayor Schielke explained to his sizeable herd of 14 aldermen. “But before we got into the movie, they had me speak for a moment. So I get up and start talking about this, and everybody starts applauding!”

He waved his hand incredulously. “This room was full! There’s all these people from Yorkville and West Chicago and Aurora and everybody was here because they thought this was a real cool thing.”

Schielke sat back and marveled one last time at the memory. “I mean, I got a thundering round of applause when I talked about removing the phosphorus!”

Hey, now. If a mayor can’t get an ovation for phosphorus, that’s not the country I wanna live in!

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Watch out, phosphorus. There’s a new sheriff in town.

But alas, what goes up must come down. We had reached the halfway point–and the tone turned solemn.

“I received a notice from the school district. It’s come to our attention that ‘Touchdown Sports’ has been contacting local businesses to solicit sponsorships,” warned city administrator Laura Newman. “The company sometimes claims that specific coaches ask them to contact the business. By all accounts, this is just a scam.”

She emphasized each word. “Don’t share your credit card information.”

Fittingly, a financial scam at home quickly segued to the financial meltdown in Springfield.

“I think it’s crazy they have not been able to come up with a budget,” sighed Alderman Alan Wolff, clamping his fists together while reporting on the council’s field trip to the state capitol.

“House Leader [Barbara Flynn] Currie’s description was, we’re gonna get what we have now. Basically she thinks that’s their ‘gift’ to us.”

At this point, various other aldermen chimed in with their own recollections and grievances.

“We should be ‘grateful’ for their generosity,” one person spat disgustedly.

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“The only thing I’m ‘grateful’ for is this hand lotion.”

“It was all I could do to hold my tongue in that room,” Alderman Wolff flexed his fingers and eyeballed the floor.

Alderman Dan Chanzit stared grief-stricken at the mayor. “I never left a trip feeling so hopeless and in such despair.”

There were sympathetic grimaces around the table as Alderman Chanzit shook his head. “I hear chanting at town hall meetings of our congressmen, ‘you work for us.’ It took a lot for me to not start yelling that.”

Interview #25: Former Honolulu, HI Councilman Charles Djou (with podcast)

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

Charles Djou has done it all–Hawaii state legislature, U.S. Congressman, and most importantly, Honolulu city councilman. He got me up to speed on some city council traditions and local island lingo, plus the time a native chief put a curse on the council! Definitely listen to the podcast because there is so much more stuff in there than you’ll read below.

Q: Something I’m curious about is the dress code for the city council meetings. Is it suits and ties or Hawaiian shirts and leis?

A: Yes, so some of the things that are different about the Honolulu city council: the FULL council is in coat and tie. But our committee hearings are done in aloha shirts–

Q: They’re called “aloha” shirts, there? Not Hawaiian shirts?

A: Yes. The other thing that is perhaps a little different is the first city council meeting of the year after an election, everybody wears leis. And everybody gets leis.

Q: What is the lei protocol in Hawaii? Is there any occasion where it’s inappropriate to wear a lei?

A: You know…I wouldn’t say there’s any time where it’s not appropriate. It is relatively common to see people wear a lei if it’s your birthday, if it’s something significant, if you–

Q: Are you wearing a lei now?

A: I am not.

Q: OH, THIS ISN’T SIGNIFICANT FOR YOU?!

A: [Laughs]

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Former Honolulu, HI Councilman Charles Djou

Q: Any interesting moments you can remember from the Honolulu city council meetings?

A: By tradition, usually the very first city council meeting, we’ll open it with an oli, which is a native Hawaiian chant and prayer. I imagine maybe some of the city councils in, like, South Dakota or Oklahoma with large Native American populations maybe have some similar tradition.

Q: You’re probably right about tribal involvement. But prayer, especially in the South, is common for kicking off council meetings. When you say “chant,” I think of something rhythmic, like BUM-bum-bum-bum BUM-bum-bum-bum.

A: Yes. It’s in the native Hawaiian language. And then frequently accompanied with hula.

Q: Hula! Does that mean you have bikini-clad women in the council chamber?

A: Uhhhhhh, no. The whole bikini-clad women thing is sort of a 1950s/1960s image people have.

Q: Mmm.

A: I’ll share with you one interesting story. This occurred right before I became a member of the city council. The city council had a relatively controversial issue about condemnation of some native Hawaiian land. I remember a native Hawaiian kapuna (tribal elder) came in and put a curse on the city council members who voted against it.

Q: Wow, a curse! Did you feel worse voting no when there were eight other people you were working with on the council, compared to the state house with 50 other people?

A: No–if anything, on the city council I felt I had a greater voice in being able to dissent.

Q: Now, the listeners will revolt if I don’t ask this: between the Hawaii state house, the U.S. House, and the Honolulu city council, which had the nicest chairs?

A: Oh, the U.S. Congress! [Laughs] They have the nice comfy leather chairs over in Congress.


Follow Charles Djou on Twitter: @Djou4Hawaii