Interview #115*: Takoma Park, MD Mayor Kate Stewart (with podcast)

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

Kate Stewart oversaw a tough series of council meetings last year in which crowds showed up to protest a tiny retail development. She explains why she wanted to hear suggestions instead of resistance and why abandoning the project would also have been unfair.

Q: In the first half of 2018, your council received substantial heat from residents opposed to Takoma Junction–a 1.4-acre parking lot next to the grocery co-op that was intended for future retail stores. How hard was it to remember that this is a city of 18,000 people and you are hearing on a given night from not even 100 of them? So really, what seems like life or death in the council chamber is not the end of the world for thousands of others.

A: That’s correct. We had online comments. We held a number of open houses. We also did a day on the actual lot–we sketched the outside of what the development may look like. People could come, stand, and be like, “okay, this is how far it is from the street” to get a sense of it. The important thing to remember is that the opportunity to provide public comment at a city council meeting is just one way that people express their views.

Q: At one point in a meeting, a woman started to read off a list of opponents and went well over her time. She turned away from the microphone and continued to yell, and you called a recess. Did that get the meeting back on track or was there another way you could have handled that?

A: I think it’s really important that people stick to the three minute comment period. We had people who had been there waiting their turns who needed to get home to children. The reason I called for a recess was because the energy in the room was getting so antagonistic, particularly the folks who opposed the development. The way that they were heckling and saying things was really not conducive to a good public meeting.

Q: The racial equity statement in the development ordinance asked several questions about the development, without providing any policy predictions. Do you think the people who questioned the racial equity implications were right to demand better?

A: I think it’s always important to demand better. When I asked the resident activists who criticized us for this to provide us with ideas, their ideas were basically, “we just don’t like the project!” I think if you’re going to be pushing your local government to do something, not just being critical, but actually coming with ideas. Local government is set up as this antagonistic relationship between government and residents–it’s one that truly bothers me. To do the job well, I rely on residents to push us but also to come to us with ideas.

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Takoma Park, MD Mayor Kate Stewart

Q: A lot of the people complaining about racial equity were older white people. Don’t get me wrong, those are the ones who you want to care about racial equity. How did it feel to watch a room of liberal white people yell at each other over how to save a food co-op and black and brown people?

A: I think Takoma Park is not unique. When it comes to any type of change, there are very strong feelings. I was talking to somebody the other day–the person told me that this urban planner, when they do meetings regarding development projects, their first rule is to start with the youngest person in the room to have them talk about what they want. When you’re talking about a development project, you’re probably talking about something that’s going to be there for 30-40 years. So starting with somebody in their twenties, that’s the person for whom you’re creating this space.

Q: There were two arguments that I heard repeatedly from the opponents. One was that they weren’t opposed to development; they were just opposed to this development. And the second was how divisive all of this was. They’re saying, “it’s on you, the council, to unify the community,” by which they meant giving them what they wanted. Were you in any mood to unify the community given that some of them were now trying to recall you?

A: My concern for folks who wanted to delay the project or have us hit the restart button is that would make some people happy, but the folks who wanted the project, that would make them unhappy! That wasn’t a compromise! For them, that would be stopping a project they like. I did not see that as a way to bring the community together.


Follow Mayor Kate Stewart on Twitter: @KateforTakoma

*Interview 115 was previously omitted in the numbering order.

Interview #110: Montpelier, VT Mayor Anne Watson (with podcast)

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

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!

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Montpelier, VT Mayor Anne Watson

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.”


Follow Mayor Anne Watson on Twitter: @anneofvermont

Interview #108: Thornton, CO Mayor Heidi Williams (with podcast)

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

Even though Thornton gets rid of its council meeting videos (boo), there was still a lot of ground to cover with two-term Mayor Heidi Williams. She discussed difficult public hearings, titular protocol, and her frequent public commenters.

Q: Your Honor, the city of Thornton video streams its council meetings–which is good! And they are even in high definition with remarkable sound quality. So that is even better. The problem is: you only have videos posted for the last year. And I was told that Thornton takes down and destroys videos older than one year! Now look, we all made questionable fashion choices in the mid 2010s. Short shorts. Mom jeans. White people dreadlocks. So if that’s what this is about, I’m empathetic. But Mayor, when it comes to those videos, how do you defend what I am calling the Great Thornton Purge?

A: Well, I have to be honest: this is the first time I’ve heard of that. I did not realize that we took those videos down and destroyed them. So I will be getting to the bottom of that. I really thought that you could go back and watch videos a long time back.

Q: I am glad you are on the case. I take it from your answer that you don’t often watch videos of the council meetings after they happen. Is that accurate?

A: Oftentimes, I don’t want to actually relive it. The times that I’ve gone back and watched a portion of a meeting is because I thought maybe I said something really stupid. And generally I find that I either did or it wasn’t as bad as I thought. I think it’s a little narcissistic–again, I’m already there. But having said that, I understand how a lot of people aren’t there. And constituents are like, “oh, we watch you on channel 8 or we watch you online!” And I’m like, “you do?!” It’s always surprising to me that people do.

Q: Well, it’s all the more frustrating to me that I can only watch 52 weeks’ worth of meetings! I noticed that you don’t often miss meetings, which is admirable. But whenever you are gone and the mayor pro tem is in charge, everyone calls the mayor pro tem “Your Honor.” That title is reserved for you! Have you ever told your mayors pro tem to get back in their place–or do you want me to do that for you right now?

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Thornton, CO Mayor Heidi Williams

A: In Thornton, all the elected officials are considered “The Honorable.” So actually, everybody that serves on council with me is “Your Honor.” I only missed two meetings the first six years. But the city manager called the mayor pro tem at the time “mayor” and somebody texted me right away. Apparently, that’s what they used to do. They don’t do that anymore, but they will say “Your Honor.”

Q: On March 20, there was an extended stay hotel proposed in Thornton. This council meeting was to approve it or reject it. Hearing people in the public hearing talk about “this type” of hotel and how “no college educated” people would stay there, and talking about how transient families would send their kids to school and “use our resources,” I felt uncomfortable with how people were resorting to elitist arguments when they really didn’t have to. Did that cross your mind at the time?

A: Sure, it’s always tough when a developer wants to put something in that people don’t want–the NIMBY effect. I’ve heard probably worse than that. That was a difficult hearing.

Q: You also had crowded meetings about marijuana stores, and I’m sure people were making arguments about destroying the city or letting in the “wrong type” of people or threatening children. Does it concern you when people make it seem that with one vote, your council will do all of those things to the city?

A: Yeah, and the longer I’m the mayor, I’ve just seen so much of that. That would probably be one of my most frustrating things. Everybody’s like, “not in my backyard.” As a society, we have to start being more thoughtful and less hateful. And try to talk to our council members about what we want and don’t want, but in a way that’s not demeaning or hateful. I’ve just seen in the last couple of years a lot more hateful stuff being said. Not tons, but a lot more than I did.


Follow Mayor Heidi Williams on Twitter: @mayorheidi

Interview #102: Jefferson City, MO Mayor Carrie Tergin (with podcast)

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

Carrie Tergin is famous for her “selfies with the mayor” and is therefore the foremost authority to appraise our International #CityHallSelfie Day Top 10 List. On the podcast, we welcome her back to talk about city hall art, and then discuss one time her own council meeting took a series of unexpected twists.

Q: Mayor, where would you like to start?

A: I have to tell you, these top 10 selfies are just exquisite. We have Waldo, Florida and it was his first selfie! Mayor Louie Davis, to share your very first ever selfie on #CityHallSelfie Day–and he may or may not know this–the requirement is that he’s gonna have to send regular selfies. He can’t just do the one. We wanna see that continue, so don’t disappoint me.

Q: I am inspired that it is never too late to start taking selfies!

A: Absolutely. And the “Where’s Waldo?” I mean, you can do so much with that. Number eight, we have Cary, North Carolina. I have to say, I’m going to give this a number two on Mayor Tergin’s list. Why? Because she has a Snapchat filter. Wow! And a bitmoji on top of it. If you don’t know what either one of those are, you’re gonna have to get with the program!

Q: Has Jeff City ever had a Snapchat filter to your knowledge?

A: Oh, as a matter of fact we have. Shame on me for not taking a selfie with it. Uh-oh. That’s our challenge: figuring out how can we elevate our selfie game? Congrats, Lori. You are my number two choice.

A: This next selfie in Maryland, which is the multi-angle selfie–a selfie within a selfie within a selfie, so basically the “infinity” city hall selfie–that would be my number one. I mean, you can’t hide. When you talk about transparency, when you talk about open government, I don’t know how you can get any more open than that. If you look in there, you’ll just be looking really to infinity to see all of the infinite selfies that are shown in this picture. Really good job on all the action.

Q: I appreciate all of your critiques. I think everyone who entered this competition was a winner, even though they didn’t know I was turning it into a competition! We do have to get back to the serious business of council meetings in Jefferson City. On March 5, I noticed that you could not have a meeting due to the lack of council members. When did you find out that was the situation?

A: Well, sitting there waiting for the council meeting to begin and looking at the clock and starting to say, “where is this councilman and that councilman? Is everybody okay?” And then realizing that “oh, this person did say they were going to be out of town.” At the time I thought, what do you want me to do? You want me to sing? You want me to entertain you? We’ve got everybody here, so how do we have an entertaining time without actually conducting any city business?

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Jefferson City, MO Mayor Carrie Tergin

A: That particular night, though, we were also waiting on the crew for the U.S.S. Jefferson City. We have a submarine that is named for our city. We had crew members that were in from Hawaii visiting their namesake city. They had planned to stop by that evening. The cool thing was, even though we had no official business, we were able to spend quite a bit of time with the crew members, have them talk about their experiences. We were able to focus that entire time on our military and all they do for our country. In that moment of panic that “we don’t have a quorum and what are we going to do,” it was almost like it was meant to be, really. It was one of those moments that turned out to be one of my favorite council meetings ever.


Follow Mayor Carrie Tergin on Twitter: @CarrieTergin

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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#155: Richfield, MN 3/27/18

When the sheriff shows up in cowboy movies, it’s a sure sign the bad guy is going down.

“To make sure he got here in time, [he] hustled the vice president out of town so he wouldn’t be late,” joked Richfield Mayor Pat Elliott, welcoming the top cop to apparently the second-most important event of his day.

The sheriff stared down his nemesis: a slide show on the computer. “Which do you think it is? Arrow to the right?” he mused aloud. “Up-down?”

Everyone waited patiently while he solved the mystery of the puzzling PowerPoint. “Help,” the lawman murmured, proving that sometimes even heroes need heroes.

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I believe in you.

Finally he got the hang of it and opened with a bit of trivia.

“I will not ask you, Mr. Mayor, what are the names of the three rivers that flow through Hennepin County. But I know you know the Crow, the Mississippi, and–what’s that last one?” he stumped himself.

“Minnesota,” Mayor Elliott replied, acing the rivers pop quiz.

But between those rivers lay a festering problem, and the sheriff turned on the rhetorical lights and sirens for his nearly 200 opioid overdoses.

“If I had 162 homicides in Hennepin County last year, I’d bet that it’d be in the front page of the Star Tribune or on the 4, 5, 9, 10, 11–all news channels in between. But it’s not.”

As frustrated as he was by the drug deaths, the sheriff was also irritated at himself for the crime of third-degree long-windedness.

“I promised you, Mr. Mayor and council members, eight to ten minutes. I took eight minutes and 35 seconds. I went a little bit over.”

As he surrendered the lectern, Mayor Elliott welcomed a former mayor who had since risen to the ranks of the elite.

“Commissioner [Debbie] Goettel, it is good to see you! You’re back in your stomping grounds,” he gushed. “I hope you have some words of wisdom for us yourself.”

“There are some pretty startling facts that he didn’t share with you,” she countered, dodging any happy wisdom and instead beelining to the opioid wisdom.

“They are disproportionately affecting our younger folks. Anywhere from the age of 15 to about 45.”

After waiting a beat to digest the news, Council Member Edwina Garcia confessed, “we still miss you.”

“I beg your pardon!” exclaimed the current occupant of the mayor’s seat.

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Mayor brawl!

“I mean we,” Garcia quickly clarified, referring to the royal “we.” “Not necessarily sitting right here,” she jabbed at the mayor.

I don’t know who would win in the battle of the mayors. But I will admit: the high point of the meeting was when Mayor Elliott revealed the catchy slogan for “council member announcements.”

“On to ‘Hats Off to Hometown Hits,’” he said.

In his Hometown Hit, the mayor offered the most striking analogy of the day. “Anytime you get a special verdict form that comes back that’s in your favor–this is gonna sound a little strange,” he admitted, holding up an official document. “But when I get one like this, it’s akin to the birth of a child. We got one this past week.”

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Boy or girl?

But Council Member Maria Regan Gonzalez used her Hometown Hit to once again ground her colleagues. “This morning we met with our congressman, Congressman Ellison. The opioid crisis, we did talk about that.”

Well, I think we know what Richfield Public Enemy Number One is. Citizens, let’s run these opioids out of town like they are the vice president.

Month in Review: January 2018

The first city council meetings probably began in Ancient Mesopotamia, but here we are 6,018 years later and they are still going strong! We rung in the new year with the inauguration of fresh council members and some unconventional suggestions from the old ones.

In perhaps the biggest event of 2018, I gave the annual State of the City Council Meetings address to a joint session of Congress. While I feel bad that they all had to return a few days later for some other “state of the” something, I got my message across loud and clear: I, too, can read a teleprompter.

For the address, the reviews, and the podcast interviews, do not wait another year to check out the January Month in Review.

And if someone tells you that January was just a so-so month for council meetings, you tell them, “when else are you gonna hear a councilor say the phrase, ‘Brawls Deep?'”

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Interview #80: Peachtree City, GA Mayor Vanessa Fleisch (with podcast)

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

If you were riding on Peachtree City’s 100 miles of golf cart paths this week, you might have noticed Mayor Vanessa Fleisch and I talking about her council meetings. We discussed the one thing her council does extremely well, but also her tumultuous years of meetings as a council member alongside a controversial former mayor.

Q: I do have to compliment Peachtree City for having a surprisingly detailed set of minutes from all of your meetings. Not only are they detailed, you have the minutes going all the way back to 1959! Do you think your council has primarily focused on the minutes instead of the video?

A: Oh, without a doubt because according to the state of Georgia, the minutes are actually the legal part of it. The video and the audio are extra and something we do try to provide. Unfortunately, yes, we’ve run into glitches with some of the video and getting it right with our contractor. By law, it’s the minutes that are the important part.

Q: Hmm, I see. By the way, one of the things the city council did at its first meeting in 1959? Have the mayor call the post office and say, “hey, we exist now.”

A: [Laughs] Well that’s good because we still don’t have a postmaster and it’s been almost 60 years! So maybe you can help us with that.

Q: We might as well get to the stuff that the mainstream city council meeting podcasts are not talking about. How would you describe relations on the council under former Mayor Don Haddix?

A: I think it was a rather strange relationship, particularly during the council meetings. That is something that I think we’ve come a long way and are far more efficient with our meetings now.

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Peachtree City, GA Mayor Vanessa Fleisch

Q: At the July 21 meeting in 2011, there was a resolution for the censure of Mayor Haddix. That included a vote of no confidence and a request for his resignation. The mayor’s complaint was the censure had been added the night before and he hadn’t had appropriate time to write a rebuttal. Do you recall if he was blindsided with that and if that was kind of the point?

A: I do not recall that specifically. I do know by law, when we do make changes to the agenda, it has to be done 24 hours in advance. I can’t imagine he was totally blindsided. We move far more professionally now. That was a difficult period for the city.

Q: How much of the censure was about protecting the city’s image and then how much was it about your professional discomfort with a coworker?

A: There was a concern that we were continually on the front page of the paper with some of the issues at our meetings. It’s very difficult to get things done when you have continual upheaval at your council meetings. A lot of it was to protect the city in general because there’s a lot of consequences to the public airing of discord at these meetings, when there’s a lack of professionalism. It was more about the city–34,000 people is what I think about every day.

Q: You were not really inside the “ring of fire” in those meetings. Was your experience different from those of the other council members?

A: There were a lot of fireworks at the meetings and I didn’t think it was very productive to have just one more person entering into the fray. So yes, I stayed out of a lot of it.


Follow Mayor Vanessa Fleisch on Twitter: @vanessafleisch

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