Interview #130: Linden, NJ Councilwoman Rhashonna Cosby (with podcast)

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

Rhashonna Cosby is a longtime councilwoman (and newly-minted podcaster) who is none too happy with the drama and conflict that unfold in many Linden council meetings. She discusses her interpretations of new council rules and advises fellow council members on how to receive a little less heat from commenters.

Q: To the extent that there is discord or dysfunction in your council meetings, what do you feel causes it?

A: There’s a power struggle in my opinion. It’s not about anybody having a great idea or someone doing something detrimental to the community. It’s clearly and only about power–who controls what. For so many years, we had a good council. It wasn’t as bad as it is now.

Q: What was the turning point do you think?

A: The turning point was the election in 2014. I ran for mayor and after that election, two of my council colleagues were no longer colleagues. They were more like adversaries. I couldn’t understand why. For whatever reason, they are now aligned with the current mayor who won that primary.

Q: I notice that you abstain on council votes more often than your other colleagues. What is your personal policy on whether you will abstain?

A: If it’s a personnel matter, I will abstain so that I won’t get a violation filed against me by an employee. In our city, if you vote no against an employee, they tend to take it personally and then they want to file an ethics complaint or some kind of legal complaint. It’s less time and less drama if I just abstain.

Q: Can you explain a little more about what hypothetically you might be asked to vote on that is a personnel issue where you want to vote no, but out of caution you abstain?

A: There’s an employee who I filed a complaint against and that employee, who had an open complaint, was put up for promotion. I definitely wanted to vote no and the attorney said to me, “Rhashonna, it’s probably best if you abstain to avoid any conflicts.” So I abstained. Again, I don’t even vote anymore on personnel because they’re not hiring according to the policies that we should be. It’s not fair. It’s not transparent.

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Linden, NJ Councilwoman Rhashonna Cosby

Q: Your council instituted a new five-minute limit on the commentary that each council member is allowed during the meetings. Did you see that as being aimed at you?

A: Absolutely.

Q: In what way?

A: My reports are usually the longest. My reports were always thorough. I would give my reports on my committees and I would lead into my community reports and initiatives. I think my longest council report may have been, like, 12 minutes. The complaint was, “the meetings run too long.” That’s not my fault. If the people actually gave real reports, they would probably be longer than they are. But they want to go back and forth and arguing, making comments about what someone else said instead of giving a report on their initiatives.

Q: Linden has monthly meetings that go on for three, four hours each. Do you see any merit to making the meetings weekly or twice monthly so that they will be shorter?

A: I recommended four years ago that we have our meetings [work session and council meeting] a week apart. Once we adopt our agenda, we can publicize the proposed resolutions and ordinances. If people have a question during that week, they can make a call to city hall and get those answers. So the meeting would be shorter because it’s less time with providing those explanations.

Q: Okay, so separating the work sessions from the council meetings more than the, I believe day–or 24 hours–that they currently are.

A: Right.

Q: It seems as if people bring into the council chamber all of the emotional and political baggage that they are experiencing outside of the meetings. There should be a middle ground between a council member having to sit quietly and ignore the abuse they are receiving for their job, and yelling at their antagonist. Where do you come down on that?

A: When the person comes up, they’re not necessarily attacking us individually so much as they are making public some of their dissatisfaction with their representation. You have community meetings where they come and have that forum. So I have community meetings every three months and the people come if they have issues. That’s the place for that.


Follow Councilwoman Rhashonna Cosby on Twitter: @Rhashonna10

Interview #46: Paterson, NJ Councilman Andre Sayegh (with podcast)

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

I was SO excited to talk to a councilman from New Jersey. Why? Well, as you could tell from our Hackensack dramatic reading, council meetings in Jersey can easily go haywire. We discussed whether anyone has punched each other in his council meetings (good news: they haven’t) and why things can get aggressive in the Garden State.

Q: I want to play a clip from Paterson’s former city council president, Aslon Goow, Sr. Here he is during an interview:

Goow: There’s nothing hostile about our council environment. We’ve never hit each other. We might yell sometimes. You might have to.

Is it true that no one has hit each other at your council meetings?

A: I can confirm that no one has been physically assaulted since I’ve been on the city council. There have been instances BEFORE I got on of shoving matches. There have been a lot of shouting matches. But it’s not like a session of the Japanese parliament where you got people kicking each other. And it pales in comparison to the British House of Commons where they’re resorting to not only name calling, but profanity!

Q: Is there any actual harm to the city when councilmen verbally fight in the meetings?

A: No, not at all. It’s just the perception. They’ll say we’re a dysfunctional unit and they’ll dismiss us. When I say, “they,” it could be people outside of Paterson and viewers who are tuning in.

Q: A word about the viewers–the clips I found were on YouTube and they were only the negative stuff. That’s because I couldn’t find videos of your council meetings. I’m sure that if you televised the whole meetings, people might see that you threatened your fellow council members only HALF of the time–

A: Not even half of the time! Paterson has to get into the twenty-first century as far as live streaming. For the sake of transparency, you’re right. If we’re gonna debunk that notion that all we do is fight each other as opposed to fight FOR our constituents, that would be beneficial.

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Paterson, NJ Councilman Andre Sayegh

Q: Are all council members different off camera than when they are in the meeting and it’s go-time?

A: There are council people [who] when the camera is off they are Type B personalities. But when it’s 7 o’clock on a Tuesday night, they become Type A.

Q: It’s funny you mention Type A. I have seen similar behavior in other New Jersey council meetings. Everything I know about Jersey comes from Bruce Springsteen songs, so why is the state in perpetual DEFCON 2?

A: Think about it. We’re overcrowded. We’re a small state, but we’re densely populated. So every now and then, you’re gonna have people step on each other’s toes.

Q: So people just annoy each other more in New Jersey because you can’t escape them!

A: Yes! Mike, I hope you see some merit to what I said!

Q: I’m curious, when is the last time you walked away from a council meeting and felt good about what happened?

A: …Mike, you ready for this?

Q: Oh, my god.

A: You sitting down?

Q: I am LYING down. TELL ME.

A: Late February, we adopted a budget that did NOT call for a tax increase. That made me feel better than any other meeting.


Follow Councilman Andre Sayegh on Twitter: @andresayegh

#64: Hackensack, NJ 11/1/16

EDITOR’S NOTE: This meeting was insane. Therefore, I turned my review into a dramatic reading. For your listening pleasure:

It was a typical day at the Hackensack city council–which, for a normal person, would be absolutely terrifying.

A tall man lumbered to the podium, his shoulders hunched and his hands meaty.

“Richard Salkin in Hackensack, New Jersey,” he announced.

From the back of the room came a heckler’s yell. “WHAT ADDRESS?”

The man, Salkin, threw up his hands and made it clear: do not f*ck with me.

“I’m not going to be interrupted by Lenny Nix. It’s just not gonna happen.”

Mayor John Labrosse smacked his gavel from his high perch. “Lenny! Do not interrupt. He said Hackensack. That’s fine.”

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“Everything is fine. This wood is bulletproof, right?”

Ohhhh, mayor. Things were anything BUT fine. Because Mr. Salkin wheeled around and pounced on his accuser.

“151 PROSPECT AVENUE,” he screamed. “YOU WANNA GO SLASH MY TIRES?! HAVE A GOOD TIME!”

I assure him: at this point, no one was having a good time–especially now that he started talking about his wife’s lawsuit against the very city council members he was shouting at.

“The case soon will be awaiting a trial date–” he began, before Mayor Labrosse jumped in with the gavel.

“Mr. Salkin, I hate to interrupt you, but we’re not going to discuss current litigation.”

This only made his veins pop harder. “I don’t CARE if you discuss it or not! I can speak about whatever I want. Please reset it since I was interrupted!” he hollered at the timekeeper.

What came next was a verbal avalanche of biblical proportions. A tsunami of hatred aimed at the mayor and Deputy Mayor Kathleen Canestrino.

“Mr. Labrosse and Mrs. Canestrino seem to enjoy vilifying victims of your misdeeds. I am speaking out to expose what you have done. My wife has been the victim of your cheap shots. There is no longer any insurance coverage to protect the taxpayers in Debbie’s case thanks to your incompetence and your venomous motivations!”

The man looked directly into the camera–into my eyes. I nearly jumped out of my La-Z-Boy. “Anyone who watches this on YouTube, if you have any questions, you’re very welcome to call me. I’d be thrilled to explain it you.”

Believe me: I have many, many questions. But I totally, 100 percent will not be calling him. He is scary.

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Please stop looking at me.

But if you thought the madness ended there–oh, no. Oh, no, no, no. It was time for another council member to get toasted in the hot seat.

“I actually had a question for Mr. Battaglia,” a woman in a scarf looked dead-on at kindly old Council Member Leonardo Battaglia. “Can you explain what you meant during the last meeting when you said that there would be ice cream and 19-year-old girls at the SportZone?”

Battaglia, caught off guard, spoke in halting, accented English. “That was a joke I told to the guy, Chris, because I saw him many times at Dunkin’ Donuts having ice cream with 19-year-old girls, and they were not his daughter.”

“What’s funny about that?” demanded the woman.

“Because I saw him many time in working hours. And that was not right what he was doing.”

I literally cannot believe what I’m hearing. I don’t know who’s more ridiculous: him for making the terrible joke or her for deconstructing the terrible joke. But she wasn’t done raking him over the coals:

“You’re how old, sir?” she asked. He did not reply.

“It’s actually pretty disgusting for a council member to make such a comment and expect it to be funny when it denigrates women. You should apologize.”

She stomped away from the podium to scattered applause. But oh, goodness. Look who stomped back up: Lenny, the heckler from earlier. He was wearing a sweatshirt and headphones. And he spoke at the volume of a sonic boom:

“I’M NOT GONNA BS AROUND. THERE’S A LOTTA PEOPLE MAKING A LOTTA GOD DANG MONEY IN THIS TOWN THAT DON’T DESERVE IT. YOU DON’T KNOW WHAT YOU’RE DOING. NOT EVEN CLOSE.”

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Those headphones play the nonstop sound of German artillery.

With that, Lenny wandered away from the podium–still with the headphones and still screaming at the top of his lungs.

“DON’T MAKE UP STORIES UP ABOUT ME.”

The mayor sounded so, so tired. “We won’t talk about you at all.”

“GOOD,” Lenny hollered as Hackensack’s finest escorted him out.

The mayor turned to the middle-aged woman next in line. “Sorry, Mrs. Davis.”

“That’s all right. I am a registered nurse. I understand,” she said patiently as Lenny screamed from the back. “I just want to say that this is one of the first meetings I’ve been to that sounded like a city council meeting should be.”

Lady, I hate to tell you, but you’re not even close.