We have two major pieces of news this week. First, you may listen to the latest podcast episode–a recap of our greatest hits–on iTunes, Stitcher, Player FM, and right here:
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On this episode, you will hear excerpts from these full interviews:
By the way, did you know that one year ago this week is when “Tear It Down” was released? In that time, thousands of people have listened and many have walked away with a newfound appreciation for the functionality of their own local governments. To hear the entire eight-chapter series and its colorful cast of characters, visit www.tearitdownpodcast.com.
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Davina Duerr joined the Bothell council in 2016 and within a few months became part of a controversial firing of the city manager. She explains why things seemed to happen rapidly and without the transparency that some residents called for. Plus, what is a “council conversation” in Bothell and what do people converse about?
Q: What is Bothell’s “council conversation?”
A: Council conversation was put on the agenda because in Washington state we have something called the Open Public Meetings Act. We cannot have conversations beyond three people that aren’t in public or recorded. We were finding that there were a lot of things we thought we should be notifying other council members of–topics that perhaps one council member knew a lot about but wanted everyone to be aware of. But there wasn’t really a forum to do that. We all aren’t at the same events and getting the same communications from members of the community.
Q: These seem like announcements that you could make at any meeting–holidays, meetings in the community. I mean, do council members really need a separate, blocked-off section of some meetings to get all of that out there?
A: I believe we do. We’ve only had a couple of these council conversations. In our first conversation we talked about something new that we were trying, which was having a liaison to each of our city boards and commissions. Those are the kinds of conversations that we wouldn’t normally have.
Q: In January 2016, you were among the new council members. Both Andy Rheaume and you were elected by your fellow council members as mayor and deputy mayor, respectively, by a 4-3 vote in that very first meeting. Was there a philosophical division on your council?
A: Yeah, the election of Andy Rheaume, James McNeal, and myself flipped the council majority. Some of the things that we ran for were transparency, saving Wayne Golf Course, more thoughtful development, listening to the community–things we thought weren’t happening with the current council. When we ran on those things, I’m sure the council majority took that to be running against them.
Q: On May 3, 2016, midway through there was a motion to go into executive session and when you came out, the proposal was to fire the city manager that night, when he was on vacation. Wasn’t it a bit ruthless to dismiss the city manager when he wasn’t in the room to defend himself?
A: I guess it depends on your point of view. There was some thought that it would be face-saving for him not to have to deal with that in the room. Once a decision’s made to fire someone, what are the odds you’re going to change their minds? We did take a lot of flak for that, but I don’t know if I’d want to be in the room and have a recorded meeting when I’m being fired. I don’t know that that was necessarily a bad thing. I could see it both ways.
Q: What do you say about your duty to the public to provide notice of a major change like this?
A: I think as a council member, you’re in a unique position where you’re working with that individual. That’s the one individual in city government that we hire and fire. I don’t believe having a long, protracted community discussion about the pros and cons of someone would be beneficial to the community. I don’t even know if that would be something that the individual being fired would want.
Q: Have you ever looked back on your campaign pledge for transparency and community engagement and thought about how it was nice to campaign on, but when you’re governing and you’re thrust into a situation like this, people can rightly criticize you for seeming to backtrack on that?
A: The reality is you can only be so transparent. Unfortunately, when you’re in this role, there are things you know you can’t share. And it’s frustrating for all of us. My job is to defend the city and make sure the city is in good shape, not to defend myself. Those are some of the hardest lessons I’ve learned from being on council when it comes to transparency.
When the city manager of Troy was arrested in 2018, it was the latest in a series of events that forced the city council into some tough decisions. Ethan Baker describes his points of view at various times in the multiyear saga and what that has done to his council relationships.
Q: On March 11, 2018, your council met in a special Sunday session to fire city manager Brian Kischnick. What had happened in the last 24 hours to necessitate that firing?
A: It had actually been about 48 hours. That Friday evening, the former city manager had gone out to a restaurant in a neighboring city with his girlfriend–who we didn’t know was his girlfriend but happened to also be his assistant. They apparently had too much to drink and he physically assaulted her. He got arrested and was in lockup that weekend. We met on a Sunday and we terminated him for cause.
Q: There is more: in the summer of 2016 the council commissioned a report on the city manager’s conduct. It came to you confidential in July of that year and at the August 8 meeting, your council decided whether to release that report to the public. This vote was 4-3 with you in the majority against the release, and you said to the city manager, “we are watching everything that happens in city administration at this point.” After that vote, how did you notice the city manager’s behavior change based upon your observations?
A: It did change initially. We met with Brian Kischnick quite a bit in closed sessions. As time progressed, it seemed that he went kind of back to not being as communicative with us. Things snowballed and he got indicted after he was terminated.
Q: After you made your statement about “we’re watching you,” the city manager continued to solicit bribes, extorted money from a contractor, lived rent-free in a fully-furnished apartment, and bullied his employees.
A: One thing that the public has to understand a little bit is city council members are not full-time employees. We are rarely at city hall. A lot of information didn’t come to us. It’s one of the shortfalls of this style of government, a council-manager form of government, where you have a city manager who runs the show. That form of government works great in communities throughout the country. The only problem with it is when you have the person at the top, the city manager, who is the problem.
Q: What did it say about your council that city workers did not feel comfortable coming to you for their problems with your employee, the city manager?
A: There’s not supposed to be a lot of interaction between city council members and city employees. By edict of the city manager, everything was to be funneled through him, which became a problem. But because of the 4-3 vote in the summer of 2016 saying we’re not going to release the report, I think some city staff felt that Brian Kischnick’s protected. I’ve since learned that’s what Brian Kischnick was telling people. The employees felt fruitless–why bother if there’s only gonna be a minority of council members who might do something? Had I heard something more from any employee, I would’ve been the first to say [to Kischnick], “I’m sorry, we gave you another chance. You blew it.”
Q: After Brian Kischnick’s arrest and firing in early 2018, there was again a demand for you to release that report. On April 9, three council members wanted to publish the report and three did not. Which meant that you were the decisive vote. Did you walk into that meeting knowing that you were willing to release the whole thing?
A: I don’t know if I was 100 percent sure that I was willing to do it. What you can’t hear in the audio is that there were at least 100 people sitting in our chamber. It was standing-room only. When they heard that I was going to release the full report, there was a lot of relief in that chamber. I am so happy and thankful that I did make that vote. I think it’s done a lot of good for our community.
Q: You speak of relief. People in Troy vilified you for your 2016 vote. But now, you kind of redeemed yourself. What’s your thought on that?
A: “Redemption” is funny. You’re only one vote away from having somebody not like you. Things change and it goes back and forth all the time.
DeDreana Freeman describes Durham’s procedure for providing translation services at council meetings, plus a handful of contentious issues that turned out large numbers of emotional commenters: including alleged anti-Semitism and a planned railyard close to an elementary school in a wealthy neighborhood.
Q: Durham’s population is, I believe, about 15 percent Hispanic. Occasionally you do have Spanish speakers come in to comment to your council. I was a bit surprised at the March 4 meeting this year to hear a woman give her remarks in Spanish and no translation for her was present. One commenter even criticized the city for it. Why was that unavailable here?
A: If it’s not requested in advance, no one’s made available to do translation. Same thing for sign language or disability. The plan is to try and make it more visible how to make that request. I think it was a well-timed smack on the wrist. “You guys need to be paying attention to this.” I appreciated it.
Q: When Durham was firing on all cylinders, you had a robust method of handling translation. In January 2018, you had a vacancy on the council and the other council members had to fill that spot. It’s my understanding that there was English-to-Spanish translation in the room for people who picked up headsets from the city. How much effort did that take to coordinate the realtime translation?
A: There are service providers in the city who offer this service. All we do is make a phone call. It’s not difficult, it’s just a matter of being aware.
Q: In April 2018, there was a meeting that touched upon human rights, race, and institutionalized discrimination. If I gave the listeners ten guesses, they probably wouldn’t come close to knowing what you spent two hours of that meeting talking about. Why was Durham, North Carolina concerned about…Israel?
A: I don’t think the concern was around Israel. I think it was specific to the claims that our police were engaging in militarized training.
Q: Who was making those allegations?
A: There were a number of groups making those allegations. Apparently there was a pamphlet from the Israeli military police that presented that Durham was one of their clients.
Q: At this meeting, the council was voting on adopting a statement that Mayor Steve Schewel wrote whose message was: Durham will not adopt military-style training for its police force, mainly because that exacerbates the problem of racial profiling. However, there was this introductory paragraph of the letter:
It turns out that mentioning Israel and police training in the same thought was enough to cause some people–and by “some” I mean 50 public commenters–to put the gas pedal to the floor on accusations of anti-Semitism. Did you sense whether Mayor Schewel, who is Jewish himself, felt bad that he inadvertently dragged your council into an accusatory environment? Or did he appear, as I would have, that “I don’t understand what you’re mad about?”
A: I’m not sure. I know that we all stood firm behind the chief’s response to the accusation that we were doing militarized police training. Folks can be offended, but it doesn’t mean that the offense was intentional. It’s okay to hear back that you are offended.
Q: Almost a year later, have you studied up on anti-Semitism and now feel that “yes, I see where they are coming from”? Or are you still mind-boggled that the mere mention of Israel for some people is like using the N-word?
A: I think I understood it then, it was just more important to make clear that we were not engaged [in militarized training]. I’ve had plenty of conversations to hear perspectives that are different from mine. I can completely be empathetic to the feeling of the sentiment that was received.
Q: So if you truly felt you were being anti-Semitic with this statement, you would’ve owned that? You would’ve avoided it in the future?
A: Of course. If I thought it was the case, I would. I’ve encouraged everyone who’s had anything to say about this situation to say what you need to say. It is when you speak for yourself that you get what you need out of it.
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.
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?
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.
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
Luis Del Toro entered the Dubuque council in 2016 and explains how he became a bit of an iconoclast, not shying away from dissent or from pushing policy changes. Plus, he clarified why council members seemed so critical of the renters and landlords who came before the council to ask for a ruling.
Q: I noticed a little over a year ago that people started coming into the council meetings to speak about source-of-income discrimination. How did Dubuque get roped into the fight for economic justice?
A: When it came to housing choice vouchers, the city got themselves in a little bit of hot water with [the Department of Housing and Urban Development]. We had some ways that we were trying to divvy those out, and that was seen as discriminatory by HUD. We had to come up with a plan, but we had citizens petition us to make the acceptance of those vouchers mandatory. We’ve opted to not get to that step yet.
Q: Right, the more moderate solutions were what your council voted on in early 2017. However, all of a sudden, Council Member Kevin Lynch broadsided the commenters in the room, scolding them for not working cohesively. How did you feel about that?
A: What he’s referencing is we had a source-of-income committee that was a combination of organizations within our city as well as the landlords that were supposedly trying to come up with a plan for us. What seemed to come out of that was more of an us-versus-them them perspective. They weren’t listening to each other. They couldn’t agree upon what presentation they wanted to bring before council.
Q: The council members seemed to be saying, “you all should have agreed on your own rather than come to us to decide for you.” That took me aback because that is what the government does all the time: it resolves policy disagreements by deciding what is the law. Were these council members offended that they had to make a decision on something?
A: I wouldn’t necessarily say that. I think it was the expectation of having a lot of smart people in the room and a lot of individuals that are very capable of coming up with a solution that actually showed some partnership between the two groups.
Q: I get the impulse to chastise the two sides, but isn’t it a bit naive to think that two groups of people with very different economic interests will find the common ground that you think they have? Was this a small town expectation of civility that you were projecting onto them?
A: It could be viewed that way. We are a little bit smaller and we’ve always prided ourselves in being able to find answers to problems that seem a little bigger than we are.
Q: On February 18 this year, you proposed an emergency cancellation policy for city council meetings in cases of inclement weather. I assume this covers blizzards, floods, and deluges of presidential candidates?
A: Well, apparently yes! We did vote later that evening to change our upcoming meeting next year due to the caucusing here in Iowa. But right now, our only provision within our city code is we can make adjustments to our meeting date and time 30 days in advance. Obviously, a lot of things can happen in 30 days. This year, we had wind chills that were 60 below. Travel wasn’t advised. We had no provision in place that gave us the opportunity to delay our council meeting to possibly the next evening.
Q: Do you think the criticism from other council members and the mayor that “the council meeting must go on and we’ve managed in bad weather before” is a healthy attitude to have?
A: No, not at all. I respectfully disagree. It should come down to valuing the safety of our citizens as well as ourselves and city staff in trying to get to these meetings. There was a no-tow ban put in place. If you were out on that road and you went into a ditch trying to navigate our icy streets, no help was coming for you. With frostbite that could occur in five to ten minutes, those are dangerous conditions to expect individuals to attend a meeting.