Interview #57: Christchurch, NZ Mayor Lianne Dalziel (with podcast)

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

This is our first trip to New Zealand and I could not be more excited! Lianne Dalziel was a longtime member of Parliament before she became mayor of Christchurch, and here she gives wonderful summary of the differences in those meeting styles. We cycled through all of the cool costumes and inventions she has seen in council meetings–including some mythical creatures!

Q: I noticed that you call all of the councilors by their first names in the meetings. Why are you so friendly with your fellow Kiwis? And as a foreigner, am I allowed to call you a Kiwi?

A: Yes, you are allowed to call me a Kiwi. I guess it’s an informality that is pretty Kiwi. I was a member of Parliament for 23 years, so you would never call someone by their first name. Actually, it’s something that I haven’t discussed with my fellow councilors. You’re the first one to raise it. Maybe I better have a conversation with them!

Q: Oh, wow. You’ve gotten to see some pretty cool stuff in your council meetings. You had a demonstration of an electric bicycle. You had someone bring in a model of a cathedral and cranked a pulley to raise the bell. What is the most memorable thing you’ve seen?

A: Well, we did have the faeries come in one day [laughs].

Q: The faeries?

A: They’re just delightful. Faeries that have little wings and wear pretty costumes–

Q: Wait, they live in New Zealand?! Like, Tinkerbells? That’s where they are?

A: Tinkerbells, exactly. They came along and talked about what they did and they go to events and bring joy to children’s lives. That bike that you mentioned was a YikeBike, which was invented here in Christchurch. I don’t know if I’m going to sit on one. They don’t seem to be facing the right way.

Christchurch, NZ Mayor Lianne Dalziel

Q: Your first council meeting as mayor was also the first-ever council meeting that was streamed online. Were you at all nervous that YOU would be the first Christchurch mayor who, four years later, would have ME scrutinize how you ran a meeting?

A: [Laughs] Michael, I didn’t realize that you would be doing this!

Q: That’s how the dice roll, baby! Were you intimidated by the presence of cameras and microphones?

A: I come from Parliament, and Parliament is live streamed. Sometimes I forget to turn off my mic at the front and I lean over to the chief executive and say, “oh, my goodness!” And she quietly leans forward and switches off the microphone.

Q: Did the councilors adapt to the cameras in a good way? Or was there grandstanding?

A: Grandstanding is inevitable in an environment where you’ve got such an open record of what people did say. But that, in my view, encourages high quality debate. If you’ve got one councilor who gets to his feet and he’s really passionate about a particular subject, I’m thinking that’s good for democracy. It’s good for people to see their own representatives being accountable in that way.

Q: What is the history behind the “tea break” that you take in your council  meetings?

A: I don’t know! It’s quite normal to have a tea break during the course of a working day. Now we invite the public to join us.

Follow Mayor Lianne Dalziel on Twitter: @LianneDalziel

Interview #48: Dublin, IE Councilor Ciarán Cuffe (with podcast)

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

After last week’s Dublin city council meeting, I talked with Ciarán Cuffe about why his council is so enormous, how the political parties get along without too much fighting, and whether the Lord Mayor does a decent job of keeping things on the rails.

Q: Your city council has 63 members. That is a huge number! Be honest with me: do you know everyone’s name?

A: No, I don’t! Up until three years ago we had 52 members and even that was a bit of a struggle to fit into our chamber, which is in a building 250 years old. It’s a squeeze, and if you want to get out to get a glass of water, you have to hustle past several colleagues.

Q: What made you add 11 people?

A: There was a rebalancing in local government between urban and rural. The situation was that there was a lot more councilors in rural areas than in urban areas. So the then-minister at a national level decided to reduce the level of councilors in rural areas and increase it slightly in urban areas.

Q: I read that you recently decided to let councilors bring their children into the meetings. Is that true?

A: Yeah, there was an issue with one of my colleagues who wanted to bring her child into meetings and was told, that’s not something that really works. So Claire [Byrne] battled that and I’m glad to say that she’s now welcomed into meetings. I don’t think anybody would bat an eyelid if a mom was breastfeeding in a meeting. That’s certainly the norm in other European countries.

Dublin, IE Councilor Ciarán Cuffe

Q: Let’s get into the meat and potatoes–or, as you say in Ireland, the “potatoes and potatoes.” Your council is divided into political parties, I believe eight in total. Explain how these parties affect everything from who sits where, who is allowed to talk and when, and who gets along with whom.

A: Traditionally, we have two center-right parties in Ireland. But in more recent years, there’s been an explosion of left (a lot more left than Bernie Sanders) left-wing parties. You have People Before Profit, you have the Workers’ Party, the Socialist Workers Party. It gets a bit confusing. We talk about bank bailouts and we still have rows about that, and those rows find their way into council meetings. We tend not to have too many fisticuffs at the meetings, but you can have broad discussions.

Q: How do you rank current Lord Mayor Brendan Carr when it comes to running the meetings?

A: Brendan is trying his best but it’s a bit like trying to organize a roomful of screaming cats. Brendan is as challenged as many of his predecessors. The thing about the mayor in the Irish context is we don’t have a directly-elected mayor who’s there for five years. We don’t have an Ed Koch or a Giuliani. We have a mayor who is in for twelve months and they go out again. So they don’t command as much respect.

Q: After people are done being Lord Mayor, are they more wise or tempered?

A: I think they are. I think there’s a knowing glance amongst people who have been mayor. Though I haven’t been mayor, I have been in the national parliament. You’ve got to carefully understand the mood of the room.

Follow Councilor Ciarán Cuffe on Twitter: @CiaranCuffe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paterson, NJ Councilman Andre Sayegh

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A: …Mike, you ready for this?

Q: Oh, my god.

A: You sitting down?

Q: I am LYING down. TELL ME.

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

Follow Councilman Andre Sayegh on Twitter: @andresayegh

#94: Montgomery, AL 3/21/17

Mayor Todd Strange smiled patiently as he waited for council members to slowly fill the numerous vacant chairs on the dais.

“Well, obviously Spring Break has taken its toll on certain council people,” Strange quipped, soldiering ahead. Montgomery City Hall was fuller than usual with brightly-dressed dignitaries lining the front rows.

“We have a large crowd visiting Montgomery: 18 or so individuals from faraway Africa! Their purpose is to study the structure of race and social justice and look to our diversity and things that work.”

Um, I get that they’re here to study race relations, but–and don’t take this wrong way, Mr. Mayor–why the h*ck did they choose Alabama?!

“We were notified by Trivago that we were the number one community as a must-see for African-American culture,” he explained. Then he wheeled around to face the audience directly.

“I see you shaking your heads, so you do understand some English. We’re delighted to have you here!”

As the mayor turned back, the visitors exchanged glances and stifled laughter. Granted, his delivery was a little goofy, but I don’t get the joke.

Is there a lesson about racial justice here somewhere?

With that, the lady in charge of the platoon stepped forward to introduce everybody.

“The delegation this evening, ALL of whom are English speaking and representing 16 different countries in Africa, are emerging leaders.”

Ah. They all speak English. If the mayor realized his faux pas, he shrugged it off in a nanosecond. “We wanna get a group picture!” he gestured excitedly.

“This is why we come to Montgomery,” the woman deadpanned. What followed was a painful butchering of names as the journalists, attorneys, and even members of parliament gathered in front of the dais for what was, I assume, the highlight of their 6,000 mile trip.

Unfortunately, the travelers all journeyed to the exit, heading to their next event. Which meant they missed this slickly-produced audiovisual display:

Coming off the good vibes from the video, the meeting’s smooth flow was suddenly halted by a man so tall that he hunched at the podium to reach the microphone. The subject was a grave one: the city wanted to demolish his dilapidated house.

“You want to talk to us about your appeal?” President Pro Tem Tracy Larkin gently inquired in a voice so smooth you could toss a bowling ball down it.

“Yeah, my dad was fixing on [the house] and he got sick and all,” stammered the man. “I would like to have the opportunity to fix it back up to the code.”

“How much work was done so far?” Larkin murmured.

“Well, you look up on the basement, you can see all the way through,” he replied in his heavily muddled accent. “Then you look in the roof–on the edge it’s rotten. It’s real bad. Then it gotta be rewired.”

If lullabies were a person

The white-haired, mustachioed housing enforcement officer jumped in. “Mr. President, it would be appropriate for the council NOT to give him any extension,” he asserted.

Oh, no! What kind of heartless bureaucrat would demolish a man’s house?

“We’re not bringing it for demolition. We contend that it’s an unsafe structure at this time,” he clarified.

“You do agree that it is an unsafe structure?” probed one council member.

“Yes,” the tall man leaned into the mic and nodded vigorously.

Well then, no demolition. No controversy. No further discussion. I guess the Africa delegation didn’t miss much after all.

Interview #6: Portland, OR Commissioner Amanda Fritz

After watching the Portland city council meeting, I, like many of you, was confused. Hungry. Thirsty. So after I ordered a pizza and poured a glass of Merlot, I called up local Commissioner Amanda Fritz to get the Bridgetown scoop.

We talked about public commenters, regret, and looking good for the cameras.

Q: Despite your thick Portland accent, you grew up somewhere else, right?

A: I was born and raised in England.

Q: Have you ever seen council city meetings over there?

A: No, I’ve watched Parliament but not city councils.

Q: Is Parliament similar to the Portland city council?

A: Not really. There’s no citizen testimony–it’s just all politicians pontificating.

Q: Let’s pretend it’s one hour before the council meeting. What are you doing to get in the zone?

A: We get the agenda the week before. So Friday afternoon and Monday and Tuesday my staff are looking at every single issue that’s going to be coming up. When I get to work at about nine on Wednesday, most of the time I’m just remembering to put my no-shine powder on because of the HDTV, getting my tea, getting breakfast.

Q: Portland’s meetings can be brutal. How do you stay focused?

A: For me, it’s not hard because you’ve got dozens of eyes watching you either in the audience or on television. It’s really important that you recognize you’re onstage. Being onstage constantly for three or four hours knowing that thousands of people may be watching at home is exhausting.

Q: I never thought about it that way! Do you have any training as a stage actor?

A: [Laughs] Only what I did in high school.

Portland, OR Commissioner Amanda Fritz

Q: Say I’m coming in to testify for three minutes. What do I need to do to impress you?

A: What you should’ve done is send in your comments beforehand.

Q: So…don’t come in? That’s your advice?

A: No, do both! There are very few people who could persuade you in three minutes to completely change your mind. Then it’s basically the rules of advertising: tell them, tell them what you told them, and tell them again. And then get other people to testify.

Q: Is there anything you’ve regretted saying during a city council meeting that has stuck with you?

A: I always go home thinking, “gosh, I should have said this instead of that.” Very rarely do you believe that you’ve completely nailed a speech or a performance. So there’s always that “I could have done this better.”

Q: Portland’s HDTV is really amazing. Were you nervous at first that you would have to spend more time in hair and makeup?

A: Well, my hair doesn’t behave anyway, but it was Laural Porter–who is a TV reporter–it was she who festooned me with powder and explained about the “HD shine.” Ever since then, I’ve been dutifully putting my HD powder on before meetings. I’ve noticed that I don’t shine and the boys do. Either nobody’s told them about the powder or else they think it’s not a manly thing to do.

Q: Have you ever nudged one of them and whispered, “Commissioner, you’re shining right now.”

A: We had a commissioner who had a very bald head which would shine rampantly. I may have mentioned it to him but I don’t think he ever took me up on it.

Follow Commissioner Amanda Fritz on Twitter: @AmandaFritzRN