Interview #142: Denver, CO Former Councilman Rafael Espinoza (with podcast)

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

Rafael Espinoza was the District 1 councilman in Denver for the past four years before stepping down this summer. From meeting attendance to the non-televised public comment sessions, he took issue with some of his council’s operating procedures. Plus, he explains on the podcast how he rapidly made up his mind during a divisive vote on affordable housing.

Q: Unlike most cities out there, your council does not hold public comment during the meetings. Why not? And as a follow-up: how dare you?

A: That was an interesting debate. I very much supported having public comment be televised. Basically we were advised by the city attorney to not do that because once you open public comment, you can’t shut it down. You cannot dictate or control what the individual speaks to. In order to maintain the ability for individuals to speak, but maybe not broadcast things that are not really good to broadcast, the decision was to hold that prior to the actual televised meeting.

Q: So if I’m hearing you correctly, there was a fear that mild-mannered Denverites would be more vulgar, crude, and insulting than all of the other cities that do televise their public comment?

A: There are some usual attendees that take every opportunity they can in public comment to speak. There was concern expressed by members of council that those individuals would take that opportunity to expound upon whatever theories they had.

Q: I noticed that the pre-meeting comment, although not televised, was on your personal Facebook page. Is anyone live streaming the half-hour public comment session now that you are no longer on council?

A: No. I took exception to the fact that we were fearful of having public comment. I took it upon myself to live stream it directly from the dais. But I didn’t bother asking permission. I didn’t think it was a big deal because anybody in the audience could do the same thing. But it did come out years later at a retreat–“hey, you’re doing that and you never bothered asking us.” I was like, “does anyone take issue with it?” And there were enough members of council that did that I ceased making that broadcast.

Editorial-Rafael-Espinoza-2-19
Denver, CO former Councilman Rafael Espinoza

Q: Denver has council meetings. It has committee meetings. But it also has a unique third type of meeting called the “mayor-council” meeting. Each week, the council members sit around the table, and your mayor–who is not a part of council–comes in to chair a legislative update between the branches of government. These meetings are typically under a half hour, sometimes under ten minutes. If this is the time for the legislature and the chief executive to be in the same room at the same time, I would expect a little more give and take. What was your impression?

A: It is the lone chance where council is sitting at the table with the mayor in a public forum. Early on I did take advantage of that opportunity to try and raise certain concerns. That wasn’t very well received. It’s more of a perfunctory thing.

Q: I noticed that it was very rare for all council members to show up to the mayor-council meetings. What was your philosophy on showing up? Speaking now as John Q. Voter, should it matter to Denverites whether council members are having face time with the mayor?

A: I think it would be important to have face time with the mayor. I was a regular attendee until I wasn’t. There was a lot of things that were on the consent agenda that I took issue with and I wished we were questioning. I’m notorious on council for wanting to question things. For me personally, it made my skin crawl at times to be sitting in there being deferential when there were things there that I thought should be called out and questioned.


Follow former Councilman Rafael Espinoza on Twitter: @CD1Rafael

Interview #141: Aurora, CO Council Member Nicole Johnston (with podcast)

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

After public commenters demanded that the Aurora council speak out against an ICE detention center in Aurora, Council Member Nicole Johnston and some of her colleagues attended a nationwide, pro-immigrant protest at the facility. However, a small splinter group caused an uproar with their behavior, and one of her colleagues held her publicly–and unfairly–responsible in a council meeting.

Q: At the June 24 council meeting, there was a long list of public commenters. Many of them were there to speak against the U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention center in Aurora. Why was immigration and the ICE facility coming up now?

A: There is a history. We have a center that is overseen by this private GEO Group. But there was an internal investigation that gave a series of infractions. We’ve had outbreaks of measles and chickenpox, which affects our first responders if they have to come in. They can leave being exposed. Nationally and locally, we’ve been looking at this.

Q: You did bring up the federal inspector general’s report at the study session prior to the meeting. In response, Mayor Bob LeGare and Councilwoman Francoise Bergan both said they didn’t think Aurora should get involved in federal affairs. But this came about because you and Council Members Crystal Murillo, Allison Hiltz, and Angela Lawson–or “the Squad”–sent a letter to council expressing concern about conditions at this facility. Did you believe that your other colleagues didn’t know about the ICE facility?

A: We all know about the ICE facility. We were not asking our colleagues to develop policy to step on the feet of our federal government. We were just saying, “hey, this is wrong. We don’t want our community to think that we just stand by this. Please, as a council, let’s sign this unanimously and show strong support that we support our immigrant and refugee communities.” Only four of the ten council members signed that letter.

Q: That brings us to the evening of July 12–a Friday night. Where was Nicole Johnston?

A: I attended, along with many people throughout the country–700 cities–in a Lights for Liberty event. The purpose was to shine light on the atrocities that are happening in detention centers.

Q: The protest was at the detention center.

Nicole-Johnston.jpg
Aurora, CO Council Member Nicole Johnston

A: It was. The protest started with a march. There were speakers speaking to the group. Simultaneously, there’s flagpoles–the American flag was flying. While we were speaking, a group of people had gone past this barrier, took down the American flag, put up a flag of Mexico, attempted to burn the American flag, and put up a pro-police flag–but they had defaced it. I did not know all of those details while I was several hundreds of feet away.

Q: The following Monday, there was a scheduled council meeting and the first public commenter to speak was actually Council Member Dave Gruber, who used his time to hold you and two of your colleagues culpable for the group’s actions. Do you think he planned to whip the audience into a frenzy?

A: I absolutely thought that was intentional. It was a packed house. On the side was a woman who had already been tagging me on Twitter, spreading lies. She was ready to record his speech. She downloaded it on a far-right group, which now has probably almost 30,000 views, saying that we were participants in [desecrating the flag].

Q: After he spoke, you tried to cut in, but Mayor LeGare told you that was not the procedure. Minutes later, Council Member Charlie Richardson moved to overturn his ruling and let you speak. How many times since you’ve been on council have council members attempted to overrule the chair?

A: This was the first. We did not organize that protest. When he [said in his comments to] imagine a loved one of a service member being presented with that desecrated flag, that personally insulted me deeply. I was married to a Marine for over 15 years. Council Member Gruber knew that military connection I had. To give that example was dirty, below the belt. It was something that I don’t know if I can get past.

Q: The editorial board of the Aurora Sentinel called for the council to censure Dave Gruber. How do you feel about that?

A: With our council rules, to censure someone we need six votes. If we don’t get the six votes, those that bring that charge forward of censure are responsible for paying all legal or attorney fees. If Council Member Gruber had an attorney to defend himself and we brought forward censure, if we did not get the six votes, we aren’t on the winning side.


Follow Council Member Nicole Johnston on Twitter: @nicoleforaurora

Interview #140: Seaside, CA Council Member Jon Wizard (with podcast)

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

Where should Seaside hold its July Fourth festivities? And would the council endorse a controversial state bill about policing? Jon Wizard walks through his first six eventful months on the Seaside council.

Q: As far back as March, the Seaside council was deliberating what to do for a Fourth of July celebration. You could have held an event at city hall or the local golf course. At that time, what was the Jon Wizard vision for July Fourth bacchanalia?

A: It was really a lively conversation for such a seemingly innocuous decision. For me, it was trying to balance accessibility with environment. The golf course is roughly 70 acres.  People can spread out, plenty of room to move around, and stunning views of Monterey Bay. However, it is on the edge of the city up a hill. Access is difficult. A majority of us decided that for those reasons, the accessibility and the closeness to downtown and city hall would be preferred. But ultimately, that’s not how it went.

Q: Let’s fast forward to June 11, less than a month from showtime. Council Member Jason Campbell stated that he wanted to stick with the less costly city hall option. To which Mayor Pro Tem Dave Pacheco responded that he would donate $2,000 of his own money to have the golf course celebration. Were you surprised?

A: I was surprised. We really focus on providing services and kid-friendly activities throughout the year. We do these large events that don’t cost a penny for the public. The Fourth of July is an expensive event. It was less expensive to do it at city hall.

Q: After the city staff heard the offer, they went into a huddle and came back saying, we can scrounge up some of the money. What kind of precedent do you think it sets that the council as a whole and one council member personally can find several thousand dollars to fund an event when that money could have gone toward social services instead?

A: Those are fair questions and I think it’s important to remember that budgets are set in the second quarter of each year. While the [recreation] department said that they were short, there was already money programmed for a Fourth of July event. Between the money that was already allocated, Council Member Pacheco contributed some money out of his personal funds. The city manager contributed some money. The local building trades council contributed their personal money. While Council Member Pacheco talked about how difficult it is to raise that kind of money in such a short time, if memory serves, all the money was raised that night.

Fb3RKaVJ.jpg
Seaside, CA Council Member Jon Wizard

Q: At the May 16 meeting, there was an item on the agenda that you put there. You were asking the council to endorse a state assembly bill changing the use of force guidelines for police. Mayor Pro Tem Pacheco had two major concerns. First, the effect on policing. And two, he wasn’t sure what he would be endorsing, given how legislation changes. What did you think of his points?

A: Legislation changes as it moves through the two houses before it reaches the governor’s desk. However, people in the state house are sometimes accused of not having support for their proposed legislation. That they just thought something up and decided it would be a good idea. I thought that Seaside as a historically diverse community–a community that is majority-minority–that it be important that our diversity be reflected in the support of that proposed bill.

Q: Unlike in other communities where the topic of policing brings people out in droves, for this debate there was not quite half a dozen people who showed up to comment. Do you think the debate would have been different if people were not so satisfied with the Seaside Police Department?

A: I think if there was more focus on our police department explicitly, there would have been more participation. I also think that the lack of participation was a function of the time of the evening. Because of all the other business we had to consider, I think it was after 11 p.m. by the time we voted. While there was more than a dozen people who were there to speak on this one topic, after 9 o’clock they had all left except for a handful of people.

Q: It’s not surprising to me that the placement of an item on the agenda can dictate who shows up and who sticks around and who ultimately speaks. Are you implying that because this was obscured farther down in the meeting, the lack of support that might have otherwise been there affected how council members voted?

A: There is a city ordinance that dictates the order in which things were heard. By no means was this item “buried.” I will say, though, that Council Member [Alissa] Kispersky made some comments about a lack of community input. She was moved to vote no against the resolution based on the participation. If we had heard this item at a different time, based on her own justification, she might have voted the other way.


Follow Council Member Jon Wizard on Twitter: @electwizard

Interview #111*: Doraville, GA Council Member Joseph Geierman (with podcast)

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

Joseph Geierman is the first-term District 2 council member who saw his city’s non-discrimination ordinance get held up in brief confusion at a council meeting last year. He explains why it was important to pass the legislation right away and the merits of speeding up council action generally.

Q: On November 5, 2018, the Doraville council was to vote on a non-discrimination ordinance. However, Council Member Pam Fleming wanted it to be a resolution and apply to businesses as well as individuals. What do you believe she was getting at there?

A: I think that Council Member Fleming maybe believed that we were trying to legislate morality by passing a non-discrimination ordinance. Really we were concerned about everyone in our city being treated equally. While I don’t think that she wants people to be treated unfairly, I think that she just had a concern with the concept of a non-discrimination ordinance.

Q: Procedurally, you would need to vote unanimously to waive the first reading and, if successful, would proceed to the final reading that night to pass it on a majority vote. But two council members said, “no, we don’t want to pass it tonight.” Other people responded, “well, we need a special meeting because this is pretty damn important.” Did you feel it was important enough to pass P.D.Q? You know your community; how much discrimination could there have been in the month between council meetings?

A: For us, the bigger impetus was we had been talking about it a lot. I think we were generating buzz in other cities. Since we passed it, several other cities in the area have passed it. Before we did it, no other city in Georgia besides Atlanta had passed a non-discrimination ordinance, and theirs had passed 20 years ago. We really wanted to make a statement with this and we didn’t want it to be pushed and maybe have other cities get ahead of us.

Q: We heard Council Member Fleming’s confusion about what the council had voted on and she moved to switch her vote. Were you surprised that she was surprised about what the council was doing?

A: I think she didn’t want to go to a special called meeting and she decided to go along with waiving the first read. She knew it was gonna pass. Why not go along and get it over with?

JosephG-351-Edit-WEB.jpg
Doraville, GA Council Member Joseph Geierman

Q: This kind of fake-out did surface again in January when your council held a public hearing for whether to allow a telemedicine services clinic in the city. Council Member M.D. Naser was the only one to vote against waiving the first reading. And again, someone attempted to call a special council meeting and the holdout council member caved in and changed his vote. Do you think there is any merit to changing the requirement of unanimity to waive the first reading?

A: I am certainly open to looking at that. The challenge is if we are only meeting on a particular day in a month and the next date is a month later, that’s a long time for a business to wait for their license just because someone feels like we should hear this all again and then vote yes. We should be looking at changing that because it’s a problem.

Q: I get that people have business before the council and it’s a bummer to make them wait for an additional month. But it also benefits the residents to have more than one occasion to give their opinion and it also benefits you all to reflect on what you’ve learned from meeting to meeting. Does the Doraville council prioritize speed over reflection?

A: I’m sure a lot of business owners would feel like they wished we were a little speedier! If there is serious legislation or a change in our rules or something that really would require a lot of public input, I do think that there probably should be a little more discussion about whether we should waive the first reading.


Follow Council Member Joseph Geierman on Twitter: @geierman

*Interview 111 was previously omitted in the numbering order.

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.

Screen-Shot-2017-11-22-at-4.59.13-PM.png
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 #138: Saint John, NB Reporter Barbara Simpson (with podcast)

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

Barbara Simpson is the Telegraph-Journal‘s municipal affairs reporter who had a front row seat to an array of quintessentially Canadian policy debates in Saint John, including what to do with the emboldened deer population and whether to retaliate against outsiders using the city’s ice rinks.

Q: Back in January, you tweeted this:

Who are the Leamans and why do they get the V.I.P. treatment at the council meetings?

A: The Leamans are my kind of people because they are dedicated council watchers. If you cover municipal politics, you know that it’s very rare to have ordinary citizens come out on an issue that isn’t a hot-button issue. But the Leamans come to every single meeting, except I think they go away for a little bit in the winter. They bring their books and they read before the meeting, so they’re very civically engaged.

Q: What do they do in the winter? Drive down to Florida and sit in on their council meetings?

A: I don’t think so, but that would be fantastic!

Q: What was the problem that the Saint John council was having with deer earlier this year?

A: Most of our province is beautiful, natural habitat. But in this one particular area [of the city], we have a high density of deer. They cause all sorts of problems. They chew on people’s shrubs. The deer spread Lyme disease. This is how brazen the deer are in Saint John: I have a photograph of the deer at Halloween time and they’re eating a pumpkin off of someone’s front porch. To remedy this issue, the city is moving forward with a deer cull. Each property owner could apply to the province to bring a hunter in to bag one deer per defined hunting season.

Q: Before Saint Johners could hunt the deer, there had to be a prohibition on feeding deer. How was the city planning to capture physical evidence of deer feeding?

A: There’s some recognition that this is going to be pretty difficult to enforce. I can’t imagine–we’re all good Canadians here–that neighbors are going to be taking photos of each other in the act of feeding deer.

Q: Deputy Mayor Shirley McAlary was concerned about people wandering around with bows and arrows like something out of The Hunger Games. Was she the only one?

A: Yes. If you listen further, I believe Councillor Gary Sullivan makes that point that if you call the police and said there’s someone running around with a weapon, the police would respond relatively quickly.

Q: In America, when someone wanders around with a weapon, it’s called concealed carry and it’s, like, half the country. So I’m glad you have a distinction.

TNcmgG1L.jpg
Saint John, NB reporter Barbara Simpson

In November of last year, Mayor Don Darling suggested that if there could not be some fair, regional way to pay for use of Saint John’s ice rinks, drastic measures may be on the way, like closing down the rinks entirely. How serious is this sentiment in Saint John that outsiders are using the rinks and not paying for it?

A: It’s incredibly serious. Over the last few months, Saint John and the surrounding communities have been trying to negotiate a deal because the cost of arenas–the operating costs, the city argues–isn’t being fairly shared across the region. The city is in a very difficult financial situation. The city took a provincial bailout of up to $22.8 million over the next three years. They’re trying to find new revenue. On the opposing side of that, the communities surrounding us say, “this is Saint John’s problem. Why should we be contributing more?”

Q: Hockey is obviously sacred to you all. Is that why the council seemed a bit touchier than if it were other types of facilities that were abused by non-residents?

A: No, I think why they’re so touchy is it speaks to a bigger issue in Saint John. We are a city of 67,000 people. The greater region is 125,000 people. There’s some sentiment that people drive into the city from these outlying communities, use our arenas and other services, and don’t pay their fair share. But the arenas is the touchpoint for this.


Follow Barbara Simpson on Twitter: @JournoBarb

Podcast Recap and Listener Survey

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 iTunesStitcherPlayer FM, and right here:

CCC_Logo.JPG

Second, we are launching our first-ever listener survey! What do you like about the podcast? What do you dislike? Please be gentle. But also, please fill it out: visit www.councilchronicles.com/survey and answer a few simple questions. Plus, tell us anything you think we should know about why you listen and what you want from the program.

On this episode, you will hear excerpts from these full interviews:

1. Interview #132: Troy, MI Mayor Pro Tem Ethan Baker (with podcast)

2. Interview #134: Berea, KY Councilwoman Emily LaDouceur (with podcast)

3. Interview #69: Daly City, CA City Manager Pat Martel (with podcast)

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.

tear-it-down-logo-with-bricks-2.jpg

As always, City Council Chronicles’ sponsor is Dig Deep Research. They assist local governments in obtaining grant money and are eager to hear from potential new clients. Find out how they can help you today:

DigDeepLogo-1