Interview #110: Montpelier, VT Mayor Anne Watson (with podcast)

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

Anne Watson is a high school teacher and first-term mayor who made a few tweaks to the council meetings when she took the gavel this year. She explains why high school students come into the council chamber regularly and we discuss a contentious meeting about a vacancy this spring.

Q: I noticed that your council does not say the Pledge of Allegiance in your meetings. Mayor Watson, simple question: how dare you?

A: You know, I think it’s sort of assumed that we’re all on board with loving America. So we just use our time well and want to just keep moving forward!

Q: Please tell me that you at least have Judeo-Christian prayer before the meetings.

A: No, we don’t pray before the meetings either!

Q: Oh, my god. If the French Canadians want to invade you people, I could care less at this point. I notice that you have been cursed with a finicky sound system. What is the problem with the microphones in your council chamber?

A: The microphones were a little bit far away from the edge of the desks and so for a long time, we had to lean over the desks to get close enough to actually be heard. We could look into getting some better mics that might actually pick us up, but they were just recently moved to be closer. And actually, since that meeting happened, we’ve had some better sound.

Q: I want to talk about some of the aspects of the meetings that changed since you became mayor earlier this year. Do I understand that you instituted a two-minute limit on public comment?

A: That’s correct. We actually have a card that one of our councilors holds up. The one side says you’ve got one minute left and the other side says you’ve got to stop.

Q: I love low-tech solutions. Perhaps for the sound system you could just roll up a piece of paper and talk through it like a megaphone instead!

A: There we go!

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Montpelier, VT Mayor Anne Watson

Q: Is there now in your council chamber a white board with future agenda items?

A: There is an agenda board and that was something that I asked for. I think it’s really helpful for planning our time. When we’re in the council meetings and we’re thinking about if we are going to table this topic or somebody raises an issue that’s worth talking about further, then we can right there have a visual representation of when it might fit in our future agendas.

Q: Tell me about the kids who come into your meetings to drop policy on you.

A: So every year, there’s a class at the high school that does a project around civics and whatever topics are going on in the city. They come to the council and make a pitch. There was one we had about possibly banning plastic bags in the city of Montpelier. We have an item on the ballot on November 6 coming up as to whether we should be asking the legislature for permission to enact some kind of ban on plastic bags. The kids were definitely a part of that.

Q: You are actually a teacher at the high school there. If a student said to you, “Ms. Watson, I didn’t do my homework for your class because I was working on my policy project for the city council,” would you be mad?

A: Oh, of course I would! Well, I probably wouldn’t be mad, but I would probably say something like, “listen, you need to manage your time.”


Follow Mayor Anne Watson on Twitter: @anneofvermont

Interview #86: Indianapolis, IN Councilor Michael McQuillen (with podcast)

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

Michael McQuillen is the Republican District 4 councilor and minority leader on the Indianapolis-Marion County city-county council. Despite his council’s long name, he tries to make quick decisions on votes, including the difficult ones involving unseating the council president. We talk about those occasions, his perfect attendance, and more.

Q: I hope it is not too late in the year to congratulate you for winning a perfect meeting-attendance award in 2017. Why does the Indianapolis council prefer to honor people who attend all of the meetings instead of my preferred method of shaming people who miss any meetings?

A: That’s actually my crowning achievement for 2017, so we can’t take that too lightly. But seriously, I think it’s something that’s been done for 40, 45 years and I’m just caught up in the minutiae of it now.

Q: You’ve been on the council for ten years. How many of those years have you had perfect attendance?

A: I’m probably about a 50-50 hit or miss. But I generally hit all the council meetings, occasionally will miss a committee meeting here and there.

Q: Okay, gotcha. Well it actually was five out of the ten, and I appreciate you pretending like you didn’t have that memorized. Very convincing! In your second year on council, Republican Council President Bob Cockrum decided to alternate the adjournment between his vice president and the minority leader, rather than have the minority leader do it always. How strongly do you feel about being in charge of that part of the meeting?

A: Being the minority leader, there are very few bells and whistles that that person gets to use. The reading of the memoriams at the end of the meeting is one of the very few. As you point out, that has been my responsibility for the last several years now on council. I don’t know where it would rank in the hierarchy of importance in the council meetings, but I do enjoy brushing up on tricky last names sometimes when I’m on camera.

Q: Sure. I mean it’s ceremonial akin to the invocation and the Pledge of Allegiance. So would you be pretty protective if someone tried to take that away from you?

A: I guess I probably would. Again, it’s one of the few things that puts the spotlight on the minority party for just a very few minutes at the end of the meeting.

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Indianapolis, IN Councilor Michael McQuillen

Q: Earlier this year when the council was choosing whether to retain the council president or elect a challenger, the vote stayed open for a really long time. Do you recall what was going on that took people that long to decide?

A: I’ve never understood in the ten years that I’ve been on the council why some councilors, especially if they know how they’re going to vote on an issue, sit there and wait to hit the button and be perhaps the last person. That’s great if you want to be on the news as the councilor that “made the decision” on how the vote goes. It’s not really true that that’s the way it works, but sometimes that’s how it’s perceived. My personal philosophy has always been to hit that red or green button immediately and move on.

Q: Is that something you’re obligated to do as the leader of the caucus? Or might that be why you’re the leader of the caucus: because you’re so darn decisive?

A: Good point. I do try to throw the button down fairly early for that reason. But also again, I just don’t want to be the last man standing. A few years ago there was a vote on overriding the former mayor’s veto. I was the only person to hit a red button that night. It was 24-1. But it was kind of lonely sitting there at the end of the 60 seconds the board was open and having one lonely, little red button up there.


Follow Councilor Michael McQuillen on Twitter: @mike_mcquillen 

#138: Ogden, UT 10/24/17

“This is the 6 p.m. meeting,” Ogden council Chair Marcia White stated, brazenly defying the clock in front of her which read “5:59.” It’s refreshing to see someone so eager to begin a council meeting (either that or it really was six o’clock and this timepiece was spreading Fake News).

Council Vice Chair Richard Hyer scanned the audience. “It’s my pleasure,” he said, his eyes settling on a target in the crowd, “to announce that we’re going to have our Ogden/Weber Convention & Visitor’s Bureau director lead us in the pledge today.”

The randomly-selected lady rose to the occasion literally, as people stood with her and flawlessly recited the Pledge of Allegiance. Sitting back down, White grinned and shot a glance at the vice chair.

“That’s kind of mean that you put them on the spot. THAT’S when you forget the pledge!” she observed with a chuckle. “It’s like, ‘ah! I’ve said it all my life.'”

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It’s an impromptu patriotism test

Hyer defended his unorthodox method. “I didn’t ask her to sing the national anthem! I just asked her to say the pledge.” As the laughter subsided, he murmured to himself, “we should do that national anthem thing.”

Well, sir, I’m not sure where you can find the singers. But I DO know where you can find actors.

“Recognizing WNY Productions for their immense support of Ogden while filming the series ‘Youth and Consequences’ right here at Ogden High School,” Council Member Bart Blair read from a proclamation.

“We are eager to view the final cut” of the teen comedy/drama series, he added, coming to a YouTube channel near you.

“We have a little something for you, too,” one of the production team members responded.

A man pulled out a tiny plastic-wrapped notebook. “These are so you can keep track of your own stories. Maybe turn them into screenplays,” he encouraged the council. Aha–the vice chair can get a shot at his musical after all!

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“Ogden and the Amazing Technicolor Council Livestream”

Buddy, I’ll turn this entire council meeting review into a screenplay.

ENTER: SWASHBUCKLING MAYOR

All three of my daughters were extras in that. They had a 
blast.

ENTER: GIANT NINJA ROBOT

I'll show you a blast...with my laser cannon!

See, how hard is that? Oh, and the part about the mayor’s daughters being extras was real. The ninja robot? Well, you’ll have to check the tape.

“We have Halloween next week,” sighed Mayor Mike Caldwell. “I would just lobby to say I wish that was on a Friday or a Saturday.”

He smiled, picturing the ordeal that would await him after a long night of candy-harvesting. “Having young kids that get all sugared up, to have to turn them around and get them off their sugar hangover and get them back to school is kind of rough.”

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Send them to my house–I’m passing out kale and copies of The Old Testament.

Council Member Neil Garner also had a concerned message for the drivers. “Please, next Tuesday, be extremely careful. Watch out for the little trick-or-treaters.”

ENTER: GIANT NINJA ROBOT

With one hand, I shall deliver 
candy to your children. 
With the other hand, I shall 
karate chop your dangerous 
drivers. Hee-yah!

Final thoughts: Obviously, I give 50 out of 50 stars to the woman who seamlessly and confidently led the Pledge of Allegiance. May your sugar hangover be brief and mild.

#104: Columbus, OH 5/15/17

First impressions were VERY strong at the Columbus city council. No sooner had people risen to face the flag than a thundering orchestral rendition of the Star Spangled Banner blasted over the loudspeakers.

Council members stood at attention while the camera panned across the room. As the trumpeting ceased, onlookers were aided in the Pledge of Allegiance by a beautiful tapestry embroidered with the oath.

Talk about class, folks!

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It’s like a g–d– Norman Rockwell painting.

After this patriotic tour de force, Council Member Jaiza Page rattled off her own tour de fitness. “If I’m out there” on Bike to Work Day, she smiled self-deprecatingly, “you’ll probably see me last in line.”

She added, to chuckles, “just don’t run me over!”

More impressively, Councilmember Page revealed that daring Columbusites would soon be allowed to rapel 19 stories off the PNC Building–not for infamy, but rather for a fundraiser for sexual trafficking victims.

“I did go over the edge last year and I was thoroughly frightened for 20 minutes,” she admitted with no trace of anxiety. “But I would encourage those of you who are not interested in rapelling yourself to go out and just cheer the rapellers on.”

Yes, and also be sure to cheer on Page as she bikes, rapels, canoes, bobsleds, and hanglides her way to the title of “Most Adventurous Council Member.”

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“I got to this meeting via luge.”

By all accounts, things were going swimmingly. (Council Member Page will probably be swimming for charity at some point, too.) Suddenly, after Councilmember Michael Stinziano smoothly moved $1.2 million to repair the city’s sewer pipes, President Pro Tem Priscilla Tyson stared down at her paperwork.

“We have several non-agenda speakers that we will take momentarily.” She glanced at the clock. “We will reconvene at 6:30 for zoning.”

With that, the screen faded to black.

A slow horror dawned on me: she had turned off the cameras for public comment.

I wanted to scream, but I realized that even if she were rapelling off the outside of the PNC Building, President Pro Tem Tyson probably would not hear me.

Within seconds, the council chamber faded back in. The time was now 6:30 and the room was substantially emptier.

“Regular meeting number 26 will now come to order,” Tyson cheerfully announced like Richard Nixon after he erased those 18-and-a-half minutes of tape.

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I expected this kind of behavior from Cleveland. But COLUMBUS???

We may never know what was said in public comment that day. All we know is that the zoning hearing was much, much more tedious.

“To grant a variance from the provisions of Sections 3332.039, R-4 residential district; 3321.05(B)(2), vision clearance; 3321.07(B), landscaping; 3332.25(B), maximum side yards required; 3332.26,(C)(3), minimum side yard permitted,” Council Member Page read for nearly a minute off of the numbers-heavy ordinance.

“This is a very interesting situation,” a neatly-dressed white-haired man said as he stood eager to explain the nuances of zoning. “We have a building that covers close to 100 percent of the parcel that doesn’t comply with the zoning district or the university planning overlay.”

Yes, quite thrilling. You know what else would be an interesting situation? SEEING THE PUBLIC COMMENT.

What a shame that a council meeting with such high production quality should fumble this basic feature.

Final thoughts: While the V.I.P. here is clearly Council Member Page for doing “Fear Factor: Columbus,” the capital city’s lack of 100% transparency forces me to give this meeting only 2 out of 5 buckeyes.

Interview #33: Lewisville, TX Councilman TJ Gilmore (with podcast)

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

TJ Gilmore has been a city councilman since 2011. He’s also a Scoutmaster, an occasional tweeter of council meetings, and someone whose dad once came to watch him at city hall. He told me about the time someone got kicked out for using a naughty word!

Q: Some people probably don’t know that Texas has its OWN pledge of allegiance that you say at council meetings after the national Pledge of Allegiance.

A: That’s very true!

Q: When you moved to Texas and first heard the pledge, did you think, “this is cool! It’s doubly patriotic”? Or did you kind of roll your eyes and think, “this is such a quintessentially Texas thing to do”?

A: It is a totally Texas thing to do. When I was a small child, my father took a job in west Texas and I encountered it there for the first time. When we came back to live here in 2000, it popped back up and I went, “oh, there it is!”

Q: Can you remember any unruly or unexpected moments from your city council meetings?

A: The most entertaining one was almost two years ago, I think. We had a gentleman come in with his girlfriend and he decided that he wanted to talk about the Lewisville Lake Dam. We have a dam that’s run by the [Army] Corps of Engineers. It was in the news because it needed some repair.

Q: Mmhmm.

A: So he came in and was–I don’t know if he was showing off for his young lady–but he decided that he would go into a tirade about why the city was not fixing the dam. It’s run by the federal government, so when he was given those facts he decided to curse. At which point, Mayor [Rudy] Durham said, “that’s it, you’re out!”

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Lewisville, TX Councilman TJ Gilmore

Q: Did they look like they were on a date? Or were they coming in because they were concerned about the dam?

A: I got the vibe that he was there to show off. Speak truth to power or something. That would be the first time I ever heard anybody drop the F-bomb in city council.

Q: I have noticed how relatively non-eventful Lewisville city council meetings are–which is what made this Facebook post of yours stand out to me:

gildad

What do you remember from that meeting?!

A: It went fine! My dad is 6’4″. He still rides horses and used to work for Sheriff Joe Arpaio as a prison guard. He tells it like it is.

Q: Well, he should be the one to kick people out if they’re f-in’ around in there!

A: There’s one thing I know in my family: I’m not ever gonna be allowed to allow my ego to overstep its bounds.

Q: One council moment I want to ask you about…in September 2011, Councilman David Thornhill died of a heart attack. The next council meeting, there was a tribute video with pictures of him and a eulogy from his son. Is it hard sometimes to be fully present in the council meeting when something like that goes on?

A: Oh, sure. Part of the importance of being up there is to relate to people and what they need. I think it’s important that we recognize the things we lose, the things we gain–what had value.


Follow Council an TJ Gilmore on Twitter: @ThomasGilmore

Interview #20: Mesa, AZ PIO Kevin Christopher (with podcast)

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

If you saw the Mesa city council meeting review, you’ll recognize Kevin Christopher as the announcer of a HUGE agenda. But did you know he once reported on city council meetings? He did–and he has the stories to prove it!

Q: You were a journalist covering city council meetings in the early 1980s. How were meetings different in the ’80s other than, obviously, uglier eyeglasses?

A: Yeah, and interesting hair and fashion! I think the biggest change is the technology. Nowadays, it’s very easy to find out the agendas.

Q: Were there always a lot of spectators?

A: I think because [Midwesterners] have deep roots, they tend to be a little more passionate about issues. We always had pretty good crowds. Madison had like 20 aldermen–for a population of about 250,000–

Q: Wow! Chicago has 50 alderman, and they certainly have more than double the population of Madison.

A: Even that’s huge. Fifty people! Cincinnati had nine. Mesa has seven.

Q: What do you think is the ideal number of city council members?

A: I think seven or nine is good.

Q: When you started in Cincinnati, Jerry Springer was there. Did he stand out at all during council meetings?

A: He was pretty colorful. He was very charismatic and personable and I think that’s what was very appealing.

Q: You’ve sat through city council meetings in Cincinnati, Madison, and Mesa. Take me down the list–who stuck out?

A: I think the most memorable was a woman in Cincinnati. It wasn’t her real name, but she went by Fifi Taft Rockefeller. She claimed to have affairs with presidents and Winston Churchill. She’d be at city council almost all the time.

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Mesa, AZ Public Information Officer Kevin Christopher

A: Generally you put like a three-minute limit on people to speak. And in Madison, they didn’t do that. I’m thinking, “no wonder these meetings go six and seven hours.”

Q: They had no time limits?

A: No! I thought that was insane.

Q: It is! Other than running egregiously long meetings, how did council members treat you in the media?

A: As long as you were fair, they treated you very well. I remember in Cincinnati, they all enjoyed the microphones and cameras. If it wasn’t a particular hot button issue being debated at the time, they would get up in the middle of the meeting and you could go to the back of the room and talk.

Q: For your current job in Mesa, you read the entire agenda–45 items–and it took you eight whole minutes to get through. Do you prepare for that? Do you do vocal warm ups?

A: I look it over. There’s a few tricky–with restaurants and things that are in Spanish. My favorite of all time: a liquor license application for “What the Hell Bar & Grill.”

Q: Are there any memorable moments from Mesa?

A: When I first came to the city, we had one council member, Tom Rawles, who decided back in 2007 he was not going to stand for the Pledge of the Allegiance. So he kind of pulled a Colin Kaepernick. This was a protest against the war in Iraq. All of a sudden we started getting these people showing up at meetings and criticizing him. He actually got police protection for a few days to be safe. I’m not sure what he’s doing now.

#63: Pasadena, TX 11/1/16

This week, we go to Pasadena! No, not the home of movie stars and the Rose Bowl. But rather, the home of even COOLER STUFF.

Exhibit A: barely half a second after the Pledge of Allegiance, the entire council and packed audience sharply pivoted 90 degrees to face the sacred flag of Texas.

“…with liberty and justice for all. Honor the Texas flag; I pledge allegiance to thee, Texas, one state under God, one and indivisible.”

Oh, I’m sorry–you guys DIDN’T know the Texas Pledge of Allegiance? Pfft, this is why the country is going down the tubes at warp speed.

After sitting down, each council member had the opportunity to make announcements. As it turns out, the most pressing issue in Pasadena was…Council Member Cody Ray Wheeler’s backyard lagoon?

“About 12 days ago, I had someone drive through my fence into my pool,” he recalled fondly. “Before the gentleman could get out of his car to my house, the police were already there. So I appreciate them doing that.”

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“What I’m saying is, the pool party is cancelled.”

Council Member Cary Bass was ever so curious about the young people with matching t-shirts in the front row. “We got Keller Middle School! I think you are gonna sing a song for us today,” he teased the kids, as the room chuckled. “They’re lookin’ at me goin’, ‘there’s no song. We’re gonna talk.'”

And, tragically, they did opt for talking over singing.

“This year, we will be collecting nonperishable food items for the food drive,” one child read at the podium as the other middle schoolers stood in formation. Suddenly, she barked: “Rangers, lead the way!”

To which everyone behind her chanted,  “ALL THE WAY UP!”

Everyone in the chamber laughed. “Allll the wayyyyy up!” Mayor Johnny Isbell repeated singsong.

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I’ll take 500 of those shirts, please.

Well, shucks–between the cute kids and Council Member Wheeler’s pool being ruined, this was just the perfect council meeting.

Until…

“I’ll be supporting this,” Mayor Isbell said of a bill that would keep insurance premiums for city employees low, but raise premiums on retirees.  “I think it’s a good deal for the city.”

Almost everyone agreed–except for Council Member Pat Van Houte, who voted no.

“Council Member Van Houte votes no….against the city employees. Great,” the mayor mumbled, clacking his gavel. “Okay–”

“Mayor,” Council Member Van Houte leaned forward incredulously. “What did you say?”

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Children, leave the room. This is Texas and people have guns.

His Honor paused and stared at her, searching for words. “What did I say? I don’t remember what I said.” He sounded genuinely bewildered. “I said, ‘Council Member Van Houte votes no on the insurance rate employees…for the employees.'”

He shot her a dirty look. “Did that bother you?”

Look, I’ll admit that the mayor, who was talking like a librarian with a sore throat, was hard to hear. But he DEFINITELY did not say THAT.

“It sounded like you said something else,” Van Houte shot back skeptically.

Mayor Isbell brushed her off. “I’m sure it’s on tape, whatever that is.”

Final thoughts: City Council Chronicles exists solely to quash minor verbal feuds. I wouldn’t say the mayor’s pants are on fire, but I do give 10 out of 10 Pinocchios to his revisionist history.

#50: Stillwater, OK 9/12/16

It wasn’t your typical day at the Stillwater city council.

The big boss–Mayor Gina Noble–was away, which meant everyone could loosen their ties, let their guards down, and be a little naughtier than usual.

No one was more determined to have a good time than Vice Mayor Pat Darlington, who, as the substitute teacher for the day, brought a surprise for the class.

“We are so excited to have Eliza Neal,” to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. “She is…I’ll let her tell you later. But she is going to lead us.”

What a teaser! What could she possibly be that the vice mayor isn’t telling us? A vampire? A Belieber? In fact, we’d have to play one of Darlington’s twisted games to find out.

“May I ask you a few questions?” the vice mayor kindly gazed upon the bespectacled child. “Eliza, what year are you in school?”

“Umm…” Eliza said, clearly pondering this hardball question. “Fifth.”

The vice mayor feigned surprise. “Fifth grade?! I was gonna say high school.” The room chortled at this witty banter. “What is the favorite book you had this summer?”

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Eliza is going on “Charlie Rose” after this.

“It’s actually a series,” Eliza responded cautiously. “It’s called Warriors.

Warriors.” Darlington narrowed her eyes. “Is that violent?”

Once again, the room erupted in laughter, including Eliza.

“Unless you say cats fighting…yes,” Eliza conceded with a giggle.

The vice mayor straightened her back. “Well, I might just have to read that in the daytime, not the night.” This was quite the comedic routine, and the audience was eating it up. Now that the duo had loosened things up, Darlington had a final question.

“I think that she has a riddle for us. Do you have a riddle for us?”

“Yeah,” Eliza remembered. “Where do you park a camel?”

“Is that specific to the city of Stillwater or just in general?” the vice mayor deadpanned to further cackles.

Eliza gave away the punchline. “In Camelot!”

“Oooohhhh, that’s a good one,” Darlington remarked dryly. At this point, the crowd was definitely open to having Eliza and the vice mayor do some sort of “Who’s On First” slapstick routine. But the first rule of showbiz is “always leave them wanting more.” So Eliza took a bow and the council got back to the lesson plan.

It turns out, there are other fun things in Stillwater besides the city council meetings–and the visitor’s bureau chief eagerly rattled them off in a PowerPoint presentation: the Wrestling Hall of Fame and Museum, Mid-Continent Kennel Show, and the All Aboard Polar Express train.

“You may not know that we’ve secured reindeer that will be in town” for the Polar Express, she bragged. Which would mean “a majority of people being around a reindeer for the first time in their lives.”

But rumors of the reindeer had been swirling around the Stillwater airwaves.

“I can’t remember who was talking about the reindeer,” Councilor Miguel Najera pondered, before a stroke of realization. “It was Kylie! ‘Cause she said ‘live reindeer’ and Steve [Daniels of ‘The Morning Scramble’ 105.1 FM] said, is it gonna be ‘dead reindeer’?!”

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Councilor Najera wants to make it rein.

The head of the visitor’s bureau smiled knowingly. “We’ve been saying that because eight out of 10 people think they’re mystical creatures. They don’t know that they’re real!”

“They are,” murmured city manager Norman McNickle. “They can fly.”