This week, we take a listen back to some of the spiciest, most compelling, and most art-filled interview segments in the past several months. If you have a friend who you’ve been dying to introduce to the magic of city council meetings, sit ’em down and have them listen to this!
Khalid Bey is dissatisfied in many ways with how the Syracuse Common Council operates. It is not transparent to the public and even he gets little notice about what transpires in the council chamber. We discussed the parts that are getting better, but also the parts that aren’t going to change anytime soon.
Q: Councilor, I want to read you this tweet:
Sometimes, Syracuse Council meetings are like watching people play a new board game where no one really understands the rules.
A: I think unfortunately it may be pretty accurate. One of the concerns I’ve expressed in the past relative to council meetings is there is more politics involved and not as much good government. I always make the statement that politics disturbs good government. I’ve also made an effort to push for a charter review to reduce some of the ambiguity. There’s just some things that I think need to be made black and white so that the people understand the discussion that is going on in the chambers.
Q: If the Syracuse Common Council meetings were a board game, which would they be?
C. Hungry, Hungry Hippos
A: I would probably say Jenga.
Q: So you have to be really careful because at some point it could all come tumbling down?
A: That’s right!
Q: Not only does Syracuse not video stream its meetings, but I did not see your meeting minutes online either. When I called the clerk’s office, they told me those documents are only available in their office in a physical book of council minutes. Why has the common council allowed this situation to continue?
A: Well, it’s interesting because I’d be surprised if most of the councilors even know that. Because I didn’t know that. I think oftentimes what you’re dealing with is certainly the city being a little behind the times. And we’re talking from a technological perspective. But also, established custom gets mistaken for rule. And sometimes these established customs have to be brought to the attention of the council and others for them to change. So I appreciate you bringing that to my attention because I will tell you: I did not know that.
Q: How often are you surprised about what you’re asked to vote on in a council meeting?
A: We get the agenda book less than 24 hours before we’re obligated to come and discuss it intelligently. This is an unfair advantage to the council. This council takes a beating from the media and the public because it often appears ill-equipped–which it most certainly is–having to speak intelligently on something that it just received less than 24 hours. In comparison to somebody from the administration who may have had it for weeks and months.
Q: Do you think the news coverage of the common council has to be thorough precisely because there is so little official documentation of what happens?
A: I think so. Certainly one of the things that people talk about is when they go live stream, the behavior of some of the councilors will change. That is true. That is an unforutnate thing because I need them to see the behavior they don’t know about.
Q: What behavior do you wish or hope will go away once there are cameras in the meetings?
A: I’ll speak for me. When I push legislation, they respond sometimes as if they’re doing me a favor. So I always try to make the case to them, listen: if you have a distaste for me, fine. But it’s not about me. You’re doing work for the people. And sometimes the responses sound as if you’re doing favors for me. If you watch them, that’s exactly what it looks like.
Follow Councilor Khalid Bey on Twitter: @khalidbey
It’s a holiday, so enjoy your day off and remember to thank your city council members. We will be back on Wednesday with a new podcast interview. But in the meantime–hey, did you read EVERY council meeting review in December? Including the one with the border wall around the city council?
If not, you can do your part to Make America Great Again by browsing the month in review. And as always, you can listen to the regular and bonus podcast episodes (22 in all) on iTunes, Stitcher, and Player FM.
For the last city council meeting of 2016, I couldn’t have picked a more beautiful council chamber: ornate chairs, delicate chandeliers, intricate woodwork. It looked more like the set of “Hamilton” than a municipal building.
But the room was also deeply, deeply confusing: the six council members were crowded into a single wooden desk–cafeteria style. The council president had her own luxurious dais in roughly the next ZIP code.
And then, there was the graphics department:
However, the phrase “lipstick on a pig” sprung to mind, as the beautiful room was consumed by a series of irate public commenters tearing each council member a new rectum and–occasionally–making sense.
“Regarding the Uber issue,” a woman in a baggy blazer slowly wound herself up. “What is an ‘Uber?’ Is it generic? Is it a brand name? Is it a transitive verb? Is it a modifying adverb? I’d like to know.”
I had absolutely zero read on whether she was kidding. My heart said she wasn’t, and my head said, “oh, god, this is gonna get worse.”
“I picked up some statistics. Our seven new electric motorcycles–” she continued.
“Okay, this is about Uber and Lyft,” cut in Council President Leesa Perazzo with some exasperation. “It’s NOT about electric vehicles.”
“Well,” the woman huffed, “these can be hooked up if it’s electric motorcycles. There are many acres of forestland being destroyed for motorcycle lanes!”
Uh, point…taken? I’m sure all of the Uber drivers with electric motorcycles are quaking in their helmets.
The next commenter was a tiny balding man in a sweater vest who spoke with a slight impediment and even slighter enthusiasm.
“I’d like to speak on what I call ‘my two cents’ on the smoking ordinance. When I found that this council had passed us a law, I went, ‘seriously? Did the council pass that without realizing some people are not gonna like it?'”
He was referring to a new ordinance banning people from smoking in cars when minors are present. Also, he was apparently new to the concept that city councils do things people don’t agree with.
He sagely added, “I don’t think anybody in the government has been using the brains or common sense…things.”
Well, this has been enlightening. And another anti-anti-smoking commenter stomped to the podium. “If you have custody of those children and you tend to be in a car that’s bought and paid for, that’s your personal property! You can do anything you want with your personal property!” he fumed.
Amen! That’s the same logic I use to run a dog-fighting ring in my basement and cook meth in my RV. Read the Constitution.
And if the comments from the public hadn’t soured the mood enough, Councilman Vincent Riggi stood up to seal the deal. “Just to clarify the vote on the smoking: YOU brought up that it’s our part to not abstain, Madam President. I don’t know WHY that left-handed shot had to come out. That’s certainly my prerogative to abstain,” he snapped.
“I thought we were beyond that, but I guess we’re not. And I thought YOU were beyond that, but apparently not.”
“I won’t answer any of the other nonsense I heard tonight,” he slammed the microphone down.
This is a fun one! Rochester city council Vice President Dana Miller filled me in on what kind of vice president he is (hint: not a Dan Quayle) and how there is fierce competition between the public commenters at council meetings.
Q: How is being the vice president of the Rochester city council similar to being vice president of the United States?
A: The jobs are similar in that the vice president of city council and the vice president of the United States serve as a backup for the president.
Q: Do you see yourself more as a Joe Biden or a Dick Cheney?
A: It’s interesting–I met Joe Biden. It turns out, we both have two sons, we were both married in 1977, we both have sisters named Valerie who worked on our campaigns. So I find myself having an affinity for Joe Biden and being there as a person who could step in for the president–and not necessarily be a shadowy figure who’s actually pulling the strings.
Q: “Shadowy figure?” Sir, are you telling me that you have never shot one of your friends in the face while bird hunting?
A: I can absolutely say with certainty that I have not shot any of my friends in the face while bird hunting.
Q: Do you bring a different personality or energy to the meetings when you preside?
A: I would like to think so. We have a session before the council meeting starts called Speak to Council where people can talk about any topic they want. I like to ensure that people are knowing they are welcome to be there. I like to give them some eye contact.
A: We have the A List, which are things that are going to be discussed that evening. And the B List, which is everything else. The A Listers get to go first. The B Listers tend to be people who come to every council meeting and they always have something to discuss. The B Listers kind of compete to see who is going to be the last speaker. That’s interesting to watch.
Q: For the other council members, are they behaving like their normal selves on camera, or are we seeing a different version of them?
A: One of the fears of the cameras was that people would be different. When I first joined council, I argued for the fact that we should broadcast the meeting. I was greeted with “over my dead body” by some people–all of whom are no longer on council.
A: There was a great fear that people would be playing to the cameras or going on long-winded diatribes just to get airtime. I’ve not really seen that.
Q: The Rochester City council has a newsletter. And the name of the newsletter…I want to pronounce this correctly…THE CITY COUNCIL CHRONICLE! Who do I have to talk to to get that named changed?!
A: I would encourage you to sign up for the B List and make your case. I’m sure we would listen intently.
“Gentlemen,” began the mustachioed public commenter in the Oswego council chamber, “I want you to know that I’ve taken a survey through this town…what?”
One councilor muttered something off-mic.
“What did I say?” the man stared blankly.
“She’s not a gentleman,” said the voice, indicating the presence of Councilor Caitlin Reynolds.
The citizen commenter smoothly bowed and issued an extended mea culpa.
“Gentlewoman! I apologize. I’m old school. Let me get on my hands and knees for this–” He pivoted to the onlookers and held up a palm. “I apologize to all you female people.”
He was buttering up the crowd for something. I could tell by his suave demeanor and the way his t-shirt was tucked into his khakis that he was about to rip someone a new butthole.
“I took a poll here this past two weeks. It’s been–” terrible? people are furious? “–very good feedback. Very good. You people know what Standard & Poor’s is? It’s the stock market guys who grade the credit rating. This city, this council, this mayor is at QUADRUPLE A! Nobody’s complaining! They LOVE what you’re doing.”
Wow, that’s incredible! Leaving aside the fact that Quadruple A doesn’t exist, it’s truly amazing when there are ZERO complaints about ANYTH–oh, sorry, you had one more thing to say?
“One more thing, Mr. Mayor,” the man added Columbo-style, scanning the room behind him. “I see that he’s not here tonight….I would like to dismiss the fire chief, okay? It’s time for him to go. They don’t like him anymore. GET RID OF HIM. He is BEYOND BELIEF a scumbag, okay?”
Jesus. Talk about Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. How did we go from “nobody’s complaining” to “heads must roll?”
“And I’m sorry if that’s too direct,” the man said, not nearly as contrite as when he called ladypeople men earlier, “and if that’s personal, that’s too bad because he’s called ME a couple names in his lifetime, too. Thank you.”
Mayor William Barlow, Jr. propped himself on one elbow with his finger almost touching his eyeball. “Thank you,” he muttered.
As if things couldn’t get any worse, all of a sudden, in marched the Grinch.
“I don’t want people to think that I’m against holiday tree lighting ceremonies,” began Councilor Robert Corradino innocently enough, “BUT we’re going to be spending about $6,000 for a temporary ice skating rink that uses a synthetic surface.”
His Grinchitude tapped his fingers. “I just feel that with all the other expenses we have, it’s a lot of money. I don’t say it’s NOT a good idea, but for ten hours on one day?”
Councilor John Gosek, a.k.a. Second Field Lieutenant in Oswego’s War on Christmas, piled on. “I don’t know how I can justify this to my constituents. We have several skating rinks available in the city we can perhaps use.”
Rushing to Christmas’s defense was pro-skating rink Councilor Nathan Emmons. “It’s not only ‘take, take, take’ money from our residents, but we turn around and provide ENJOYMENT within our community! I think there’s a lot of value in that.”
With that, the council’s hearts grew three sizes–they voted unanimously for the skating rink. Councilor Emmons saved Christmas!
Grab some chowdah and pahk your cah in the yahd–today we head to Boston!
Immediately, I knew that the MVP of this council meeting would be city clerk Maureen Feeney, who called roll in the most legit Boston accent this side of Bunker Hill.
“Councilah Flehrety [Flaherty]…Councilah MaCaathy [McCarthy]…Councilah Wooah [Wu],” she blurted out like a hotdog vendor at Fenway Park.
As a pastor stepped to the dais to offer the day’s prayer, it raised an important question: why is the Boston city council meeting in the concrete basement of Montresor from “The Cask of Amontillado”?
Councilors got down to business, with the clerk helpfully narrating the big issues:
“Dahket numbah 0993: accept for the city of Bahstan a donation from the Coast Gaahd. The boat and trailah will be added to the Habah Patrol and will benefit the city of Bahstan.”
“Dahket numbah 0823, sponsored by the mayah: Bahstan Latin School pahtial boilah replacement.”
But it wasn’t all trailahs and boilahs–there were serious problems facing the council as well.
Gas leaks: “There are anywhere from 1,300–which was a conservative estimate–[or] double or triple that,” Councilor Matt O’Malley cautioned.
LGBTQ youth: “Of the youth studied, one in five attempted suicide in the past year,” Councilor Josh Zakim fretted.
People without IDs: “Getting a formal identification card is burdensome for certain communities–undocumented immigrants, residents who are experiencing homelessness, transgender,” Council President Michelle Wu wu-arned.
Yikes, I haven’t seen this much chaos in Boston since any given Red Sox game.
But all was not lost. Riding in like Paul Revere was Councilor Ayanna Pressley. “I’m rising to create a little peer pressure for everyone,” she said cheekily. “If your spouse’s birthday falls on the same day as the council meeting, you will now feel the pressure to do the same thing I’m doing: happy birthday, sweetheart! Thirty-nine years young!”
Let’s see…13 council spouses…52 council meetings per year…the odds of another birthday happening are…gosh, where’s a math-savvy MIT janitor when you need one?
And what’s even better than a Boston birthday? A Boston boast-day:
“My office was contacted by the comptroller in New York City looking for information on our free sunscreen in the parks program,” Councilor O’Malley bragged. “This is a public health service that we are offering at zero cost to the taxpayer. New York City is piloting it this summer at their city pools.”
He gave a sly grin. “So I wanted to congratulate the great city of New York for ONCE AGAIN following Boston’s lead.” The other councilors whooped and guffawed like it was the second coming of the Boston Tea Party. (I admired their restraint for not also chanting “YANK-EES SUCK!”)
And on that note of being BRIEFLY, on ONE thing, SLIGHTLY better than New York, the council adjourned for some Dunkin’ Donuts and a packy of Sam Adams.
Final thoughts: What a wicked pissa of a council meeting! For slipping an F-U to New Yorkers, I give this meeting 8 out of 10 deflated Patriots footballs.