Interview #128: Dubuque, IA Council Member Luis Del Toro (with podcast)

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

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.

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Dubuque, IA Council Member Luis Del Toro

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.

Interview #127: Baltimore, MD Councilman Kristerfer Burnett (with podcast)

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

Kristerfer Burnett was in the large freshman class of 2016 on the Baltimore city council and does not shy away from the role that guns, violence, and policing play in the council’s business. He discusses a contentious hearing about mandatory minimum sentences and a bizarre inquiry into whether the fire department threatened bike advocates.

Q: Councilman Brandon Scott does something small but noteworthy each meeting. At the end, when your council holds a moment of silence, he asks the council vice president to announce the homicide total to date. My first thought upon hearing this was, “why would anyone advertise their city’s worst attribute repeatedly in a public council meeting?” So why would you?

A: I think it’s something that we have to own. The violence in Baltimore is unbelievable. It is debilitating to our city. As policymakers, we have a responsibility to address that. We’ve also started to add the victims of the opioid crisis for the same reason. We had over 700 opioid-related deaths last year. That needs to be the headline. I’m not one that feels like cities should try to always put their best foot forward, an image or façade that things are okay.

Q: On July 3, 2018, the judiciary committee held a hearing about the fire department. Councilman Ryan Dorsey read a letter that you all received from an advocate of bike lanes accusing the fire department of parking a ladder truck in front of her house as a threat. What was being alleged here and why were you, the council, involved?

A: There’s been a lot of resistance from the fire department to the construction of bicycle infrastructure. The argument they were trying to make, albeit poorly, was an attempt to basically argue that by narrowing the roads with bicycle infrastructure, it would make it more difficult to navigate. Some streets are very narrow and their equipment is pretty large. What I didn’t quite understand was, it looks like they got the ladder truck up to me [in a video from the fire department]. The council got involved because there was an attempt by Council Member Dorsey to strike out of the fire code these guidelines that would have prohibited the construction of bike infrastructure due to roadway widths.

Q: Yeah.

A: On a lighter note, when we received that video the day before the hearing, Council Member Dorsey and I–I hope I don’t get in trouble for saying this–we’re two millennial legislators. We’re like, “what do we do with the DVD? I don’t even know where to put this!” I literally had no way to watch it for several hours because my laptop didn’t have a DVD player.

Q: [laughs] 

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Baltimore, MD Councilman Kristerfer Burnett

The overriding concern was why the fire department filmed their video outside the home of one of their opponents. How satisfactory did you find the fire chief’s response that it was not intentional?

A: That particular roadway is a very long one. That bike lane is also one of the longest in the city. If they needed to prove a point on that particular street, they could have done it pretty easily without being in front of the house. I was extremely disappointed in the fire chief on that one and told him so.

Q: That was about accountability for the fire department, so let’s shift to accountability in policing. In the judiciary committee on July 25, 2017, there was legislation which would have established a punishment of one year’s incarceration for anyone who carried a firearm within 100 feet [yards] of a place of public assembly. Right away, multiple council members offered stories of their experiences with gun violence. Is it fair to say that most if not all Baltimore council members have a direct connection to the escalating homicide numbers that we hear at every meeting?

A: That is correct. One of my high school teammates on the football team lost his life to gun violence in 2017. It’s very much something that has hit almost all of us, if not all of us, at some point.

Q: Councilman Scott argued at the hearing that it’s easier for people in black areas of Baltimore to be in violation of this proposed law. There wasn’t really a racial divide that I noticed at the meeting. There were a bunch of people for and against it. Did you see the proposal as fundamentally racist?

A: Yes and here’s why. A lot of my colleagues were very well-intentioned in their support. They felt this is an answer to a problem that we all agree is a problem. You do see patterns of over-policing in black communities without this law. Some of my colleagues were not thinking about that part of it. I represent some of the most dangerous neighborhoods in Baltimore. There is a knee-jerk reaction to say, “we need more cops.” I don’t think their support was because they want to lock up more black people, but I think the unintended consequence would have been that.


Follow Councilman Kristerfer Burnett on Twitter: @CouncilmanKB

Interview #126: Coalinga, CA Council Member Adam Adkisson (with podcast)

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

Adam Adkisson has been a council member in the small city of Coalinga for less than a year, but he already has a restraining order against a public commenter and is collecting screenshots of online tormentors. What is transpiring in Central California?

Q: Your recent mayor, Nathan Vosburg, had a consistent grievance during his time in the mayor’s seat. How much did you agree with his complaints about negativity and non-participation by the residents of Coalinga?

A: We have a lot of issues with people getting on Facebook and spreading all kinds of lies and rumors about the city. People just take it and run with it. I understand where he’s coming from. I don’t know if I would’ve said it exactly the same way, but I share some of his sentiments.

Q: Normally we think of mayors as cheerleaders for their communities. Did it grate on you to have the mayor in public, on television, saying, “I’m sick and tired of the attitude around here”?

A: No! Sometimes we need someone to say it. People like honesty, so that’s what he gave them.

Q: At your first meeting in November as an elected council member, you said this in nominating Council Member Ron Lander to be the new mayor: “we need a mayor who will lay down the law….We need to quit having these outbursts. You have kids come in here and they have to listen to people throw around F-bombs.” Tell me more.

A: We have an issue with a few citizens who come to the council meeting and they think that certain chairs belong to them and they’ll start a fight just to prove it. We get people who come up–mainly two people–who come up to the lectern and start cussing and yelling. It just got out of control. The mayor now is gonna put an end to it and people need to act appropriately.

Q: On August 2, 2018, your council removed from the agenda a discussion about whether to allow drug testing and background checks of city council members because the city attorney advised that legally, you could not do that. This upset one commenter, who implied that he wanted to fight you.

A: He loves me. He was wanting me to go outside. He doesn’t even live in Coalinga. His mom accused me of being on drugs one time and I said that if she wanted to pay for my drug test, she could do it. If I passed, which I would, she would have to give an apology. That’s all I said.

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Coalinga, CA Council Member Adam Adkisson

Q: By day, you are a bounty hunter. How surprising is it that you come into contact with more people wanting to fight you as a city council member than as a bounty hunter?

A: [laughs] That’s absolutely true. It’s crazy! I never thought it would be like this but you just gotta power through it.

Q: Is this affecting the city to have people bad mouthing each other and then bringing it to the council meeting?

A: Yes, it’s definitely affected us. It needs to stop and it has for the last couple meetings. I have a restraining order and everything is going a lot more smoothly now and we hope to keep it that way. The people of Coalinga should not be afraid to come to meetings. They should not have to listen to this kind of behavior.

Q: Have you considered pulling back from Facebook to avoid the confrontations that germinate there?

A: Absolutely. I’ve pulled back quite a bit. It hasn’t really changed anything. I probably have about 400 screenshots of lies that people have said about me. It comes with the territory.

Q: Uh, yes, to a certain extent all council members have to deal with that. But you’ve been on council for less than a year and you’re already collecting screenshots of lies? That seems unhealthy!

A: They’re sent to me, so I put it in a little folder that me and my friends can laugh at. I have to have some outlet. That’s my outlet.

Interview #124: Independence, MO Mayor Eileen Weir (with podcast)

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

On the podcast, Mayor Eileen Weir shares the logic behind the Independence council’s brand new public comment policy. Plus, we walk through one controversial week in summer 2018 in which people’s jobs were on the line and the charter’s rules were under scrutiny.

Q: You announced a new public comment policy at the January 22, 2019 meeting that eliminates advance sign-ups. Why the change?

A: The policy that we had in the past was the agenda comes out on Thursday and by noon on Friday, you needed to contact the city clerk if you wanted to speak to the council. If the agenda was late getting out or people couldn’t meet that deadline, they were not allowed to speak to the council unless they contacted a council member and asked to speak. The council member could request at the council meeting that we suspend the rules of order to allow somebody to speak.

Q: Wow.

A: Most people when they come to speak want to talk about something that the council’s gonna be voting on that night. We always have our citizen comments at the end of the meeting. If somebody wanted to speak on something that we were voting on that night, we would also need to suspend the rules of order to change that around. It seemed like we were making a lot of exceptions all the time. We hope that it’s gonna encourage some more citizen participation in our council discussions.

Q: I want to take us to June 18, 2018. Midway through the meeting, Councilmember Curt Dougherty announces seemingly out of nowhere that he wants to eliminate six positions from the Independence Power & Light utility. What was going through your mind?

A: It was a surprise to me. I didn’t know that motion was going to be made. People were caught very much off guard. It is in the authority of the city council to amend the budget, which was what the motion was. It’s not within the authority of the city council to do any personnel changes.

Q: The council voted 4-3 to save $1 million by getting rid of seven people’s jobs. A week later, the director of Independence Power & Light came to the meeting and criticized that vote. Where is the line for you between standing up for your employees and respecting the chain of command?

A: I think it’s naive to think that a city employee can stand up and be representing himself or herself as a citizen. We don’t get to take off those hats when we assume positions as city employees or as elected officials. I’m the mayor of the city 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The director subsequently resigned from the position. He clearly had that in mind when he chose to come and speak as a “citizen” to the council without the knowledge of the city manager.

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Independence, MO Mayor Eileen Weir

Q: And you think it was a resignation? Not something to send a message to other department heads that “if you show up and question council’s motives, this will happen to you, too”?

A: No, I don’t think it was that. I think he was clearly dismayed, and understandably so. But I don’t think that a city employee or elected official can come to a council meeting and speak and say, “I’m not here in my professional capacity. I’m here as a citizen.”

Q: At that meeting, Councilmember Karen DeLuccie made a serious charge that the council violated the charter with its vote the previous week. Here is section 2.15:

Councilmembers shall not direct the appointment of any person to, or their removal from, office or employment by the city manager or by any other authority, or, except as provided in this charter, participate in any manner in the appointment or removal of officers and employees….

Your reaction is what?

A: I voted against the motion. I voted for the reversal of that motion. Clearly I feel it is outside the council’s authority to decide what the positions should be or who should hold them. That said, the motion was to amend the budget. It really did fall into a gray area.

Q: There’s actually more to that paragraph because it goes on to say:

If any councilmember violates any provision of this section, said councilmember shall be guilty of a misdemeanor, and upon conviction thereof, shall be punished by a fine of not less than twenty-five (25) dollars nor more than five hundred (500) dollars. Any such conviction of any councilmember shall be cause for removal from office, and such councilmember shall be automatically removed by the said conviction….

Wow. Obviously, whoever wrote that was pretty damn serious about council members not hiring or firing people on their own. You can probably imagine scenarios from the past that might have prompted this severe reaction. Did your council’s vote a week prior trigger this provision?

A: It didn’t. No charges were ever brought forward regarding that. You’re correct that when the charter was established, it was following a period of a lot of patronage. The charter commission took it very seriously about the council’s authority over personnel matters.


Follow Mayor Eileen Weir on Twitter: @weirIndep4

Interview #118: Decatur, IL Reporter Tom Lisi (with podcast)

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

Tom Lisi, a reporter with the Herald & Review, has had a literal front row seat to some of the more surprising votes in the Decatur city council–including guidelines for trick-or-treating, a second ambulance license, and a late-game switch for a local golf tournament.

Q: Let’s go to May 7, 2018. What was your council’s beef with professional golf–other than, you know, it’s golf?

A: The tournament is in the Hickory Point Golf Course, which is outside the city of Decatur. It’s in the other side of the tracks–the “good” other side of the tracks–in Forsyth. Usually, in years past, [Decatur] paid the tournament the sponsorship earlier in the year. They held off, so out of frustration, the organizers of the tournament pulled the name [Decatur].

Q: The motion to provide the $20,000 tournament funding failed 3-3 in that council meeting. How shocked were you that the council didn’t break par on that one?

A: Honestly, it was surprising. Part of the reason that that motion failed was the mayor was absent this week. I can feel pretty safely in saying that she would’ve voted for that. If she was there, the motion would’ve passed. But that was one of the shockers of the year, that vote.

Q: And you don’t feel that there was any rigging of the calendar to ensure the mayor would be out of town when this came up?

A: [chuckles] I can’t speculate on that. I guess the bloggers and 4chan commenters out there might have a different theory, but as far as I know she was just on vacation or something.

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Decatur, IL reporter Tom Lisi

Q: Councilman David Horn, with this issue and others I’ve observed, is not shy about offering amendments or compromises. Is he the one who most often brings suggestions to the council floor?

A: Yeah, and he’s definitely gotten blowback from other council members on that. It’s sort of a tactic he’s used from time to time and it does throw other council members off–“we had a plan and now you’re trying to throw something new in.” It is a little strange to walk through that and people getting twisted up in Robert’s Rules stuff.

Q: So their irritation comes not from the fact that he’s refusing to go along with the program, it’s just a last-minute addition to the deal they already thought they had?

A: You know, the way these city manager-council forms of government work is the city manager discusses the agenda with council members individually. He has to go with, “what does the majority of the council seem to want?” Councilman Horn is often not in that majority, so I guess you could say the amendment tactic is a way to say, “I’m not on board with the decision that was made beforehand. So I’m gonna throw my two cents in right now and see if anybody goes along with it.”

Q: I didn’t see a lot of public commenters show up to that vote about pulling the tournament funding. Was that because everyone thought it was a sure deal? Or do they just not care about it?

A: I think it might’ve been a mixture of both. I think the average Decatur resident probably doesn’t care that much about that tournament. Maybe people from other parts of the world–because the LPGA is big in parts of Asia–it puts this focus on Decatur in a way residents that live there don’t even know about. There’s definitely people that were really frustrated by that vote. It’s possible they didn’t show up because they didn’t think it was that controversial.


Follow Tom Lisi on Twitter: @tommylisi

Month in Review: November 2018

Turkey. Cranberry sauce. Council meetings?

In November, there was plenty to be thankful for in municipal governance, as we witnessed several provocative council meeting moments worth reviewing.

Remember the city council that grew some “jacket envy” after seeing a group of international visitors?

Or the city that was running out of space to list its sports victories?

Surely you recall the council member who brought Donald Trump into a meeting in a bigly way?

But it was also a month for fresh ideas for how to run a council meeting. For example: conduct a racial equity training. Or have high school students present new policies.

To see what we served up on the Thanksgiving dinner table, visit the November Month in Review.

And if you are curious about whether anyone has raised the roof in a council meeting, this guy answers that question:

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#179: Clawson, MI 12/18/18

It was the type of announcement that separates the city councils who take the winter holidays seriously from those who are, well, Scrooges.

“Every year we have beautification awards,” explained a representative from the Parks and Recreation Department. “People can call in houses they see around town that they really like the way they’re decorated.”

She added, “our Parks and Rec Advisory Board also goes out and are each assigned a section of town. They kind of score all the houses. The top five point-getters were the ones we give awards to tonight.”

With that, the five chosen families strolled to the front of the chamber for a photo. Many of them sported some type of seasonal attire–from the more discreet Santa pin and St. Nick hat to the more flashy necklace of Christmas lights and festive sweaters.

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The decorators

If you were expecting this Yuletide cheer to be followed by three French hens, two turtle doves, or even six geese a-laying, city attorney Jon Kingsepp disappointed you–but only slightly–by talking instead about backyard chickens.

“Fifty years ago, they were barnyard animals. Dinner table items. That’s no longer the case,” he explained.

“Chickens are great in most cases, unless you’re a neighbor that doesn’t want chickens next door to you,” Mayor Debbie Wooley observed dryly.

Kingsepp sighed. “There are two ways to look at that. There’s one that can say, ‘I don’t like chickens next to me because they’re loud and they’re gonna attract vermin.’ The other approach is, ‘if you like cats and dogs next door, then what is the difference with chickens?’ The noise level of a chicken is extremely low.”

“I want zero” chickens, shot back Council Member Paula Millan. “Not because I don’t like people’s chickens but because I don’t want them in my backyard. I just don’t.”

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Beware the Butcher of Clawson

She paused. Although her reaction was intense, it was not, in fact, poultryphobic. “I don’t think it’s the animal that’s really the problem,” she admitted. “I would assume it’s most likely the owner. If you have a neighbor that cares only about themselves and not the people around them, there’s an issue.”

A woman in the front row seized on a lull in the discussion and launched into a tutorial on chicken care. Rather than cut her off, surprisingly, the mayor allowed a microphone to be passed down.

“Great pets,” she boasted of her own chickens. “No one ever knew we had ’em. My aviary was spotless. The rats cannot get into it.

“There are rats in our neighborhood. A lot of ’em. But they never came for my chickens.”

A posse of women from the earlier home decorating contest were sitting two rows back in their Christmas sweaters nodding vigorously.

“My grandchildren–24 grandchildren–played with those chickens like a puppy. They were very sweet,” she argued, while one of those 24 grandchildren slumped in his chair next to her asleep.

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Dreaming of poultry playtime at grandma’s

Chickens may have been quiet and kind. Heck, they could have been the cure to cancer. But Council Member Millan was immovable.

“Some of my neighbors have been on our block since they built their homes in 1967. They don’t want chickens in their backyard,” she insisted. “Their perception is not that they are pets.

“It’s not against the animal. It’s about, ‘I moved to a city. Didn’t move to a farm. Where’s it gonna end?'”

She shrugged. “We have to address the ‘where’s it gonna end’ thing.”

Perhaps next year, Clawsonians can decorate an aviary and win the beautification contest. Then people might realize that chickens can be family, not food.