Interview #105: Fremont, CA Councilmember Raj Salwan (with podcast)

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

Raj Salwan has attempted to establish some order in Fremont’s sometimes-fluid appointment procedures for council members. He talked about how things could be better, and also about one contentious development that led to a raucous council meeting.

Q: You were appointed to the Fremont council in 2013. There are also three other current council members who went through this appointment process–meaning that four out of the five of you at one point sat for an interview to be on council. Is that a coincidence or is this truly a shortcut to winning elections that people ought to know about?

A: There’s two types of candidates that apply for these appointments. One is the planning commissioners. The other are people who just ran in the last election. One of the things in Fremont is that if you came in third place in an election, you usually don’t get the appointment. The critics will often say that because you weren’t elected, the voters didn’t choose you. So it’s not really fair but that’s just how it has been.

Q: In 2017, there was another vacancy. And the odd thing to me is that you spent the first ten minutes not sure how things would go. Why did you not have the rules solidified?

A: A lot of times the process is whatever the mayor wants to make it. In the past appointments, some of the council members had said, “hey, I was confused about the process.” We were trying to find what the expectation was so we knew exactly what was gonna happen.

Q: Correct me if I’m wrong, but your new mayor at the time, Lily Mei, had never participated in this appointment process as either a candidate or as someone interviewing candidates.

A: That’s true. It was a new job for her and the first thing she had to do was try to replace her own position [as a council member]. So it got very–well, it was a difficult process.

Q: Ah. If I may point out another area of improvement: the questions you asked of these candidates, if I’m being honest, were pretty basic. “Tell us about yourself.” “How did you get involved in politics?” I think you need to kick it up a notch. Ask them questions like, “if this room caught on fire and you could only save two council members, who would they be?”

A: That’s definitely very critical thinking! In the past, some people had accused council members of asking pointed questions or questions that they felt made them look bad. This was the process the city clerk came up with to give softball questions so nobody could say, “I got this question because somebody didn’t like me.” But I hear you. I like tough, pointed questions.

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Fremont, CA Councilmember Raj Salwan

Q: After your appointment in 2013, you did not win your election in 2014. But you did win in 2016. However, after the election but before your swearing in, the council voted on something called the Walnut Residences. In this case, the development was a huge lightning rod. Is that your memory?

A: This is the biggest fight in the Bay Area. Everybody complains about the cost of housing, but they always oppose housing when it’s near them. This became the flash point for this last election.

Q: In this meeting, Councilmember Lily Mei–who just defeated the incumbent mayor–said they should postpone the vote until you joined the council. I think she expected the vote to be different with you there. Do you think they should have waited?

A: No, I have to respect the decision of the council at the time. I wasn’t there and it’s not fair for me to comment or criticize.

Q: Did you see this at all as an attempt to speed things up like we’ve seen on the federal level–to take advantage of the partisan situation? Or do you buy the explanation that it’s been in front of the council for a really long time and it’s just time to get it done?

A: It’s a complicated thing. It’s been upcoming for several years. The applicant just wanted to get a decision. The council just wanted to take it on. It’s a great election issue for candidates who want to stop all growth. They point to [this].


Follow Councilmember Raj Salwan on Twitter: @RajSalwan

Podcast Recap: Second Anniversary Special

It’s an exciting week because we just wrapped up the second year of the City Council Chronicles podcast! In the past year, our episodes covered

3 countries 🌍

22 American states 🇺🇸

3 Canadian provinces 🇨🇦

And you can listen to the special anniversary episode on iTunesStitcherPlayer FM, and right here:

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Year two guests

Other stats from this year include:

  • 52% of guests were men and 48% were women

  • 76% of guests were council members and 12% were mayors

  • One-fifth of guests came from California and Ontario

While you are exploring past podcast episodes, take note of our special programming:

“Tear It Down,” an eight-part story about one small-town government plagued by mistrust and poor decisions.

“Best Thing, Worst Thing,” a yearlong documentary series exploring cities and towns in North America.

“A Higher Expectation,” one person’s account of how city council meetings can be meaningful.

One more thing: please support City Council Chronicles and the podcast by learning more about our sponsor, 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:

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Interview #103: Louisville, KY Council President David James (with podcast)

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

David James is a longtime Louisville Metro councilman who became president this year. We talked about an odd twist to the oath of office, how council members spend money in meetings, and about the sexual harassment proceedings against a former councilman.

Q: On January 11 you became the new council president. And I hope you’ll forgive me when I say that the more interesting part of that meeting was when your clerk was sworn in a few minutes later. This was part of the oath:

Do you further solemnly affirm that since the adoption of the present constitution, you have not fought a duel with deadly weapons, nor have you sent or accepted a challenge to fight a duel with deadly weapons, nor have you acted as a second in carrying a challenge?

How big of a problem is dueling in Kentucky that it has to be part of the oath?

A: Apparently back in the day it was a huge problem in the state of Kentucky and they have left that as part of the oath that everybody takes throughout the state, I guess for historical and cultural purposes.

Q: You used to be a police officer. How many times would you break up a duel by saying, “hey. Hey! If you don’t cut it out, you’ll never be sworn in as a municipal officer!”

A: It never happened! I don’t think anybody would listen to me anyway.

Q: We could talk about dueling all day, but this program is about city council meetings. The Louisville Metro council is a smorgasbord of intrigue that makes the Minneapolis city council look like the Branson board of aldermen! Can you explain what “neighborhood development funds” are?

A: Each council member receives $75,000 a year in neighborhood development funds that they get to assign for different purposes. Whether that is to help a nonprofit, or if that’s to put in lighting in a railroad underpass, or if that’s to fund some other organization doing good work in the community.

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Louisville, KY Council President David James

Q: So if you had an organization that, say, produced quality audio content about city council meetings and they wanted to apply, and there was a council member or even council president who supported that cause, how would I–I mean, that organization, get some of that easy cash–I mean, neighborhood development money?

A: You apply for the grant. You have to list your board members and what you’re going to do with the funding. And it’d be up to the council member to introduce it and council would vote on it yes or no.

Q: In the meetings, when council members distribute money through NDFs, it’s like a slowed-down version of an auction. Is it that spontaneous when it happens in a meeting?

A: People have already signed on for X number of dollars by the time it gets to that point. They come to the council meeting as a last opportunity to join in on that. Once we have voted on it, you can’t add any more money to it. It’s the last opportunity.

Q: It’s like going door to door as a Girl Scout selling cookies, and your mom just gets the rest of the orders at her office that day to backfill it.

A: That’s it. There you go.

Q: There is this overtone of salesmanship in these NDFs and it can take the form of guilting people into spending money.

A: Oh, absolutely.

Q: I get that this is politics and you have to be a bit of a cheerleader, but does any of this seem more theatrical than it needs to be?

A: No, not really. You’re just advocating for the particular cause that you believe in.


Follow Council President David James on Twitter: @CouncilmanJames

Interview #101: Lakewood, CO Mayor Adam Paul (with podcast)

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

Adam Paul is a city councilor-turned mayor who has had to deal with a series of crises–major and minor–at recent Lakewood council meetings. From the “rat house” to the brawl over a mayor pro tem, he explains how the council confronted the problem and moved on.

Q: I was pleasantly surprised to see at your June 25 meeting this year that you had some guests from Lakewood’s sister city in Australia. Was there anything that you had to explain to them about how your meetings worked?

A: Public comment was an eye-opener for them. It was a little bit foreign to them and [they] were surprised at some of the boldness of the community members in their comments.

Q: Did you get a sense of what their public comment is like?

A: Yeah, limited public comment and certainly in their system, from the queen down, kind of that proper Australian, proper English attitude toward it.

Q: When they’re not wrestling crocodiles and drinking Foster’s, I assume. What did you hope those Aussies took away from your meeting?

A: It was good for my council to understand that while we are literally a world apart, our issues are the same. That was a cool takeaway for me to see this is normal. These are the normal functions of local government. We’re not an outlier.

Q: This same meeting with the Australians, there was actually a bigger, more disgusting concern. When I say the words “rat house,” what does that mean to you?

A: Well, it’s taken on a whole new meaning. You know, in local government, we try to plan against storms and shootings and traffic accidents. You try to be prepared for everything. We were experiencing a quite sad situation. A family was dealing with some mental illness and a hoarding house. They had some pet rats that they were feeding and taking care of and it started to snowball into a terrible situation. We had to have all the rats killed, which is over 500, 600 rats, I think.

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Lakewood, CO Mayor Adam Paul

Q: At that meeting, neighbors stood up and described in graphic detail the feces, urine, and rat carcasses that they were dealing with because of this house. When you were listening to that, how did you feel?

A: I felt terrible. I mean, goodness. What a terrible ordeal. At the end of the day, I’m the mayor. The buck stops with me. Our first thing that we needed to do was contain it, get it stopped. This has been a learning process. There will always be something else that you don’t catch.

Q: Yes, and it’s unrealistic for you to know everything that’s going on in the neighborhoods before someone brings it up at a council meeting. But rats with tumors on their faces? And carcasses lying in yards? I mean, how was this happening for a year and a half and all of a sudden, it’s June 2018 and it’s a crisis?

A: If we didn’t act in a manner that we should have, we need to fix that and we will. But for some it was still too slow and we need to do a better job.

Q: Obviously, you don’t want people coming into the council meeting for public comment with every little situation for you eleven to address. But on the other hand, you don’t want someone’s house literally on fire and then coming in and telling you about it. Where have you given direction to city staff to say, “when a problem gets this bad, we should be talking about it in a council meeting?”

A: That’s why we’re there on Monday night. To hear that. When there comes a point where people don’t feel like they’re being heard or they don’t see things being affected, we’re the last remedy.


Follow Mayor Adam Paul on Twitter: @adampaullkwd

Interview #100: San Jose, CA Councilmember Dev Davis (with podcast)

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

Dev Davis may be known as the District 6 council member, but she is also the mastermind behind the San Jose council curfew, the originator of the Star Trek meeting costume, and–as you will hear–a skilled actor in medical dramas!

Q: I would like to start with the April 18 council meeting of last year, when you all invited Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak into city hall. What stood out to me was what you were wearing. Would you describe your attire that day?

A: I was wearing a traditional Star Trek female crew member dress.

Q: How did you conceive of that?

A: Well, all Comic Cons are celebrated–at least in the United States–by having many of its attendees wear costumes. I thought it would be in the spirit of celebrating Comic Con for the city council to have costumes.

Q: I see your logic but don’t you think it sets a dangerous precedent to have council members putting on costumes for meetings? I mean, what’s to stop your mayor now from wearing assless chaps during Pride?

A: That would not only be a great homage to Pride but also to Prince, who is one of my favorite artists. But our mayor is quite conservative and would never don assless chaps.

Q: Well, Mayor Liccardo, if you were to make that fashion choice, just know you have two supporters of that right here. We will validate your choice. Dev, let me ask you about a procedural oddity in San Jose: does your council not have ordinances or bills? You have “memos?”

A: We do have ordinances, but we have the Brown Act in California, which means that we can only communicate with a minority of our colleagues prior to voting. So the way that we communicate with everyone is through these formal memoranda that get attached to each agenda item. We can say what our thoughts are and basically what motion we’re going to be making on the floor.

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San Jose, CA Councilmember Dev Davis

Q: There seems to be this dance every few months when your council considers affordable housing at a meeting. Renters say, “we cannot afford to live here and it’s too easy to evict us.” Landlords say, “we need to be able to evict people and raise the rents.” And other people say, “this is all beside the point. We need to build more housing!” Then your council around midnight votes to side with the renters. Do you feel good after those meetings that you’ve accomplished something? Or are you frustrated that, okay, we put a Band-Aid on it. In a couple months, we’ll have another midnight meeting on housing again?

A: I do feel frustrated after those meetings. I feel emotionally drained. The reason that we continue to have these discussions is because it took us decades to get into this mess. It’s not something we can solve in one city council meeting and one year.

Q: Logistically, is there any way to structure these meetings better so that you all are not forced to make a decision very late at night after you’ve been yelled at for four hours, and maybe you’re not in the freshest mindset?

A: The only reason we have a midnight curfew is because Councilmember [Chappie] Jones and I asked to have a midnight curfew. Prior to the curfew last year, there were multiple meetings that went until 2:30 in the morning. As we get more and more tired–whether we want to or not consciously–subconsciously our brain starts shutting down and we don’t make the best decisions.

Q: Have you ever felt that you voted the wrong way because of all those stress factors on your brain when you were going to those extremely late meetings?

A: I’ve never regretted any of my votes, but I’ve often wished we had more time to think about the sausage we were making to get to six votes after a long meeting like that.


Follow Councilmember Dev Davis on Twitter: @DevDavisCA

Month in Review: July 2018

July was a solid month for a couple of our key demographics. Readers, for instance, were buoyed by the news that the Book Mobile was roaring back after a 30-year absence!

People who enjoy theater and comedy were also pleased when we interviewed the city manager whose council loves to put on an elaborate production once a year.

We also heard on the podcast from two council members who were part of a once-hostile atmosphere at their city halls that has since cooled down considerably.

To find out who is a city council trendsetter and who is still working out the kinks of the job, check out the July Month in Review.

And if the thought of catching up on all of the council meetings you missed seems daunting, the deputy city clerk here feels your pain:

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Interview #98: Newport, OR Public Works Director Tim Gross (with podcast)

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

Tim Gross is the first public works director to appear on the program! We spoke about how he prepares the councilors to decide on technical issues and what he learned as an actor that applies to the meetings.

Q: How do you feel about the fact that you have to sit at the dais with your councilors during every meeting?

A: Well, there’s a lot of business that takes place at a council meeting that is not public works-related. I wish that I was at the beginning of the meeting instead of at the end [laughs].

Q: What do you do when you’re sitting through that copious downtime?

A: The council meetings honestly are the longest period of uninterrupted time I have for doing work that I have otherwise not had the time to do. It’s a great opportunity for me to get some correspondence done. I’ll keep an ear out for what’s happening in the meeting.

Q: So a public council meeting for you is a better work environment than your actual work environment?

A: Yes, absolutely!

Q: You obviously have a specialized field of knowledge. How frustrated do you get when there is a technical concept that they are voting on and they don’t seem to be getting it?

A: I’m gonna actually turn that on ear a little bit. More often what I get is people coming in from the public who have a solution to whatever problem they’ve identified. It’s not necessarily a good solution. It’s my opportunity and responsibility to–I hate to say the word “educate”–educate the council on how public works operates. I usually make sure that I don’t necessarily get in a battle of wits with somebody who comes into the council chambers.

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Newport, OR Public Works Director Tim Gross

Q: Tim, I’m surprised you don’t like to engage in battles of the wits because is it true that you once acted in “Schoolhouse Rock Live!?”

A: [laughs] Yes, that’s one of the shows I’ve been in. I was the teacher in that musical.

Q: Did you learn anything from working with children that was beneficial to you in the city council meetings?

A: I mean, a city is made up of people. What I like about acting in musicals is you’re working with a bunch of people from a huge variety of backgrounds. I enjoy that.

Q: Most of the meeting is not, unfortunately, public works-related. Because you are a department head–because you are sitting at the dais with everyone else–if there is an issue before council, do you automatically feel that it’s partly your responsibility? Or do you think, “good luck with that, but it’s not really my area?”

A: I have a motto: “if I have the ability, I have the responsibility.” If the council doesn’t get back on point and discuss the issue at hand, it’s my responsibility to be able to make sure they are factual in what they’re deciding. Sometimes they just figure it out on their own.

Q: One time a county commissioner candidate came into a meeting and complained about how the commissioners specialize on issues and aren’t able to speak to everything. Does that happen with the Newport council?

A: It depends. To have everybody do everything is not possible. The candidate was pretty spot-on in that the county commission, because there’s only three of them, have become very specialized. Oftentimes the other commissioners won’t comment at all on some of the special interests. But I have not seen that with the city council.