Interview #137: Madison, WI Alder Samba Baldeh (with podcast)

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

Samba Baldeh is the District 17 alder who remembers quite clearly a fraught council meeting about funding for Southeast Asian mental health services. He also discusses his exchange with the police chief from three years ago after the chief’s accusatory blog post put Madison’s common council in the crosshairs.

Q: I’ve heard of aldermen and alderwomen and even alderpersons, but Madison is the only city I have found whose council members are called “alder.” What do you know about why Madison uses that term?

A: I think Madison is just trying to be politically correct. We can be a female, male, transgender, or people who may identify however they want to identify. I think that is the reason why. A lot of people are confused when you tell them, “I’m an alderperson.” They generally don’t know what that means.

Q: On the night of February 26, there were $115,000 that the council had to direct toward mental health services for Hmong elders. Had you ever experienced this combination of fear and anger before, like what you were hearing from the Hmong community?

A: I do remember this meeting very vividly. Apart from the anger, just the sadness of the event. The community became divided as to who should actually provide these services. Who do we give the money to? That is where the meeting became very deeply personal.

Q: During the public’s testimony, Alder Barbara McKinney raised a point of order about the neutrality of the translation services. Do you know where the concern about the accuracy of translation was coming from?

A: She was sitting next to the interpreters and the people giving testimonies. I think what she observed was people were talking to each other, whispering to each other to an extent where she felt like the interpretation was not neutral. The mayor interjected and said we are doing our best. Even the interpreter did say that it’s difficult to interpret the Hmong language.

Q: The provision of health service was getting wrapped up in race and cultural competency. Do you think this was a healthy debate or was there unnecessary vilification taking place?

A: I do think we shouldn’t have gotten here. I spoke to some of the leaders in the community and let them know that it is important that some of these issues be resolved outside of the public domain. We could have had a better discussion around the money part and how we allocate it. I didn’t think there was a need to vilify each other to the extent we did. The best way was to find a way to resolve the cultural or the societal issues outside of the council. Once it came to council, it basically was difficult to control.

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Madison, WI Alder Samba Baldeh

Q: You mentioned the virtue of resolving conflict before it reaches the council meeting where you don’t have a control over the arguments or what people say, and then it can look messy to the public. There was a similar incident in June 2016 that falls in that category. Your council was about to vote on an additional $350,000 to have a consultant examine the practices of the police department. Your police chief, Michael Koval, has a blog. On the evening of June 5, he published a piece about this report where he started out with “bring it on,” saying the police have nothing to hide. But suddenly, the six paragraphs that followed included this language: “to the Common Council: you are being watched….this is a pre-emptive first strike from me to you.” What was your reaction to his accusations that your council was letting him and his officers down?

A: I think the police chief really was not being very fair in his assessment of why morale was down with his police force. Almost every item that came to council with regards to police funding was approved. That is the first thing we can do to show support for the police department. All the events that they invite us, leadership was part of it. Other council members who could be part of it also took part. I think it was an ill-informed assessment. I also do not believe police leadership should come to council or use their electronic access, like a blog, and threaten community leaders.

Q: I’m sure he would agree with you that the council has given his department money, but that’s not his complaint. What he’s saying is, when people come into this meeting and they talk smack about my department and my officers, a defense from the council is nowhere to be found. So yes, you’re giving us money, but it’s almost like you’re paying us off to sit back and take all this abuse. I really need you, the council, to push back, on this vilification of us that’s happening right in front of you.

A: If people from the community come to testify, they can say whatever they feel about the police. How does that bring credibility to the people of the city if we’ve just been called all these names, and now we have to sit there and defend the person who’s calling us all these names? It’s our responsibility to educate people about the police work and make them feel good about their police force, but it’s also the responsibility of the person who leads that police force to make sure the community have a good view of the department.


Follow Alder Samba Baldeh on Twitter: @aldersamba

Month in Review: October 2017

October is an exciting month because you can always count on at least one city council to really get into the Halloween spirit. Sure enough, Wisconsin delivered. But there were plenty of other highlights, including a sudden competition between two cupcakeries and a mayoral field trip that I may have been invited to.

The podcast was also busy, as we heard from a former Scottish Highland dancer, a city manager who remembered the ejection of one council member, and a robot-heavy episode of our “Best Thing, Worst Thing” project. Look at the highlights in our October Month in Review.

And if you still aren’t convinced that last month was any different from the other 11 months of the year, THIS wizard-priest will cast a spell on you:

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#139: Madison, WI 10/31/17

It was the final day of October, so you know what that meant:

Council. Meeting. Costumes.

“Mr. Mayor, we have a quorum,” the clerk called out to Mayor Paul Soglin.

“Thank goodness,” murmured the mayor before shooting a bemused glance at council President Marsha Rummel. “What would you like to do?” he inquired warily.

Other council members cackled as Rummel, wearing a lace garment on her head and several buttons on her shirt, flipped on her mic.

“Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living,” she retorted in character as Mary Harris Jones.

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You…you could have bought a wig.

Alder Shiva Bidar-Sielaff, herself in a modest-looking Wonder Woman outfit, used her superpowers for the most mundane of purposes: “On item 56, I requested that it be noted that I’m recusing myself,” she asked politely.

“Anybody else have comments or observations?” Mayor Soglin gazed around the room. He paused and grinned.

“This looks like it’s going to work out quite nicely since it appears that a signficant number of members need to be out on the streets tonight. And Sara is waiting for me at home to watch the last three episodes of ‘Stranger Things’.”

Council members snickered. But they weren’t the only ones taking advantage of the loosened dress code tonight.

“This particular topic sort of touched a nerve,” a public commenter ornately dressed as a hybrid wizard-priest said about a proposed alcohol license. “I would’ve had my pine bough here to bless you with water because god knows we need blessing right now, including on this issue,” he pantomimed spraying water.

“While I’ve got huge issues with this particular co-op choosing to become one more place selling alcohol and eliminating the sanctuary for some sensitive people to shop for healthy food without alcohol…how can we serve the soul?” he asked rhetorically, wearing the perfect attire for his argument.

“So I’ll put my pine bough up here soaked with water,” he again pretended to toss streams of water onto the council. “Bless you and bless the city.”

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Forgive me, public commenter, for I have sinned.

It was corny, but there was no time to savor the moment. For standing at the lectern was the scariest costume of the night: a man dressed as a big, bad developer.

“You can see a variety of housing types–the multifamily and mixed-use as previously located, with the park and the school site located in the center and east portion,” the Dark Lord gestured to his colorful map as a chill swept the room.

Council President Rummel was now in the presiding chair–the mayor having possibly ducked out early to finish “Stranger Things” with his wife as promised. (I think we’ve all struggled to choose between chairing a council meeting and binge-watching TV, so I get it.) She opened the floor to public comment.

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Wait…maybe he really is a developer.

“We would like to have certain conditions placed to make sure the neighborhood stays the good, vibrant neighborhood it is today,” one citizen pleaded.

“Right now during peak hours, that gets backed up past Kwik Trip,” explained another.

“The fix was in,” ranted a third man with a ponytail and faint New Jersey accent. “I’ve never seen a bigger fix. The fix is in. The deal is done. Too bad.”

“The fix” must have been pretty deep, for the entire council voted in favor of the zoning change. Let’s hope it doesn’t “haunt” them.

Final thoughts: Boo!

Interview #62: Jefferson City, MO Mayor Carrie Tergin (with podcast)

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

I talked to Carrie Tergin last year about her reputation for taking “selfies with the mayor.” But after this year’s International City Hall Selfie Day, I HAD to get her take on the 2017 artwork.

Q: A couple of weeks ago it was International City Hall Selfie Day and I’d like us to critique some of the city council selfies that people sent in. Let’s start with your image. What’s going on there?

A: This is Cardboard Carrie decked out in the eclipse glasses. Councilman [Rick] Mihalevich, who had to run the meeting in my absence, really got a workout and took several pictures. I’m very impressed with Rick and his form.

Q: Of the top 10 city council selfies, did you have a favorite one?

A: First of all, I loved every single one! This Columbia, South Carolina–the gentleman holding it up, he’s kind of got his mouth open. You can tell it might be his first selfie ever. It makes me think of maybe my dad if my dad were to take a selife! He really made an effort.

The second one would be Ocean City. That is, like, wow–Mr. Fuzzy Britches? How impressive! Why didn’t we think to bring Darco, the police dog?

I would say my top choice was Madison, Wisconsin. It almost looks like Maurice Cheeks is standing in the center of the world. He has literally put Madison at the center of the world and that would be my top pick.

Q: Maurice Cheeks’s selfie also has excellent product placement–he’s holding a City Hall Selfie Day sticker! But Mayor, if you came into a council meeting and noticed a big stain on the floor and the police chief told you, “that is from our horse that we brought here after hours and he pooped on the floor,” what would your reaction be?

A: I think I may frown on that just a little bit! I mean, hats off to our police officers, our firefighters, and honestly, that includes our police dog, Darco. It includes Mr. Fuzzy Britches the horse. That’s something else I liked about [International City Hall Selfie Day]: when you recognize those who keep our city safe.

Q: Carrie, I heard an anecdote at one of your council meetings that Jefferson City stopped making public commenters give their address because people were getting fan mail from prisoners who were watching. Is that true?

A: [Laughs] A couple of reasons: one is safety. When you’re at a council meeting giving your address, we do stream our meetings live. So, “oh, guess what? So-and-so who lives at XYZ? They’re not home right now!” You don’t want something to happen. And two: we welcome people whether you’re inside city limits or not.

Q: I saw that a Thomas Jefferson reenactor stopped by one of your meetings! How often does he come in?

A: In Jefferson City, we do celebrate as often as possible. The thought was, let’s have a birthday celebration for Thomas Jefferson and why not invite him to a council meeting?

Q: Do you think the next City Hall Selfie Day, you’ll get a picture with Thomas Jefferson?

A: He kind of photobombs a lot of my selfies because he’s on the city seal behind where the mayor sits!


Follow Mayor Carrie Tergin on Twitter: @CarrieTergin 

Special Feature! International #CityHallSelfie Day 2017

Unless you’re a sovereign citizen, yesterday was the yugest, bigliest day of the year: a celebration of local government called #CityHallSelfie Day! Naturally, that holiday is firmly up our alley.

On social media there are now hundreds–possibly thousands–of city hall pictures from around the earth. That is why I have curated the best city council selfies.

My criteria were stricter than a disgruntled warden. These pictures needed to

A. be taken by or feature a city council member/mayor; or

B. be taken in a council chamber; and

C. be a true selfie — i.e. taken by someone in the picture.

In a few weeks, we will have a municipal selfie expert on the podcast to help me judge the best city hall art! That being said, here are my top 10:

10. Springfield, IL

The layers here are incredible: while a reporter takes a selfie, another audience member takes a picture of the city council taking a selfie. Please tell me there’s a fourth cell phone somewhere so that the selfie chain can be even longer.

9. Westwood, KS

Ah yes, the power pose. While I think the intended vibe is “tough but fair,” it would also be appropriate to have a speech bubble reading, “Do you feel lucky, punk?”

8. Jefferson City, MO

It appears that Jeff City’s mayor, Carrie Tergin, stepped away from the council meeting–only to be replaced by a cardboard cutout wearing eclipse glasses! (My sources tell me the cutout also runs a helluva council meeting.) I love the spectrum of emotions from council members; they range from “meh” to “I AM HAVING THE TIME OF MY LIFE!”

7. Columbia, SC

There were oodles of voyeuristic pictures featuring people in the process of taking selfies. I like this one for two reasons: first, Columbia has set up their selfie station in advance–major points there. And second, this proves that you can have a good selfie or you can have a good portrait, but it’s hard to have a good portrait of a selfie.

6. Dallas, TX

Dallas lands a spot on the list thanks to this fellow gunning it through the city council selfie loophole. Not only is it ingenious to have a chart of all council members’ faces, but do you see that flamingo shirt?! Memorable for sure.

5. Franklin, TN

Hats galore! Witches in the back, viking in the front, and the mayor in a top hat inside the council chamber.  There aren’t nearly enough props in city government, so nice job raiding the costume store.

4. Madison, WI

Uh, paging all art museums: who wants this masterpiece on their wall?! Seriously, what a trippy and visionary take on a selfie by Alder Maurice Cheeks! I’m getting a bit nauseous, but part of me wants to put on some sitar music and ponder the circular nature of life.

3. Yuma, CO

I love a selfie with a story. What a heartwarming cosmic coincidence for this Yuma councilwoman!

2. Gaithersburg, MD

Gaithersburg had all hands on deck. Council Member Ryan Spiegel covered the outside perimeter, Council Member Neil Harris staked out the inside, and Mayor Jud Ashman took the extreeeeeeeeeeeme eastern part of Gaithersburg: Europe! Good teamwork, gentlemen.

1. Ocean City, MD

“OH, FOR GOD’S SAKE. WHY DIDN’T WE THINK TO USE THE HORSE?!” That’s what I imagine every media person in local government is saying this morning as they bang their head on a desk. Seriously, hats and helmets WAY off to Ocean City for setting next year’s bar at “getting a horse into a council chamber.”

#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?

Interview #20: Mesa, AZ PIO Kevin Christopher (with podcast)

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

If you saw the Mesa city council meeting review, you’ll recognize Kevin Christopher as the announcer of a HUGE agenda. But did you know he once reported on city council meetings? He did–and he has the stories to prove it!

Q: You were a journalist covering city council meetings in the early 1980s. How were meetings different in the ’80s other than, obviously, uglier eyeglasses?

A: Yeah, and interesting hair and fashion! I think the biggest change is the technology. Nowadays, it’s very easy to find out the agendas.

Q: Were there always a lot of spectators?

A: I think because [Midwesterners] have deep roots, they tend to be a little more passionate about issues. We always had pretty good crowds. Madison had like 20 aldermen–for a population of about 250,000–

Q: Wow! Chicago has 50 alderman, and they certainly have more than double the population of Madison.

A: Even that’s huge. Fifty people! Cincinnati had nine. Mesa has seven.

Q: What do you think is the ideal number of city council members?

A: I think seven or nine is good.

Q: When you started in Cincinnati, Jerry Springer was there. Did he stand out at all during council meetings?

A: He was pretty colorful. He was very charismatic and personable and I think that’s what was very appealing.

Q: You’ve sat through city council meetings in Cincinnati, Madison, and Mesa. Take me down the list–who stuck out?

A: I think the most memorable was a woman in Cincinnati. It wasn’t her real name, but she went by Fifi Taft Rockefeller. She claimed to have affairs with presidents and Winston Churchill. She’d be at city council almost all the time.

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Mesa, AZ Public Information Officer Kevin Christopher

A: Generally you put like a three-minute limit on people to speak. And in Madison, they didn’t do that. I’m thinking, “no wonder these meetings go six and seven hours.”

Q: They had no time limits?

A: No! I thought that was insane.

Q: It is! Other than running egregiously long meetings, how did council members treat you in the media?

A: As long as you were fair, they treated you very well. I remember in Cincinnati, they all enjoyed the microphones and cameras. If it wasn’t a particular hot button issue being debated at the time, they would get up in the middle of the meeting and you could go to the back of the room and talk.

Q: For your current job in Mesa, you read the entire agenda–45 items–and it took you eight whole minutes to get through. Do you prepare for that? Do you do vocal warm ups?

A: I look it over. There’s a few tricky–with restaurants and things that are in Spanish. My favorite of all time: a liquor license application for “What the Hell Bar & Grill.”

Q: Are there any memorable moments from Mesa?

A: When I first came to the city, we had one council member, Tom Rawles, who decided back in 2007 he was not going to stand for the Pledge of the Allegiance. So he kind of pulled a Colin Kaepernick. This was a protest against the war in Iraq. All of a sudden we started getting these people showing up at meetings and criticizing him. He actually got police protection for a few days to be safe. I’m not sure what he’s doing now.