Interview #82: Syracuse, NY Councilor Khalid Bey (with podcast)

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

Khalid Bey is dissatisfied in many ways with how the Syracuse Common Council operates. It is not transparent to the public and even he gets little notice about what transpires in the council chamber. We discussed the parts that are getting better, but also the parts that aren’t going to change anytime soon.

Q: Councilor, I want to read you this tweet:

How accurate is that observation?

A: I think unfortunately it may be pretty accurate. One of the concerns I’ve expressed in the past relative to council meetings is there is more politics involved and not as much good government. I always make the statement that politics disturbs good government. I’ve also made an effort to push for a charter review to reduce some of the ambiguity. There’s just some things that I think need to be made black and white so that the people understand the discussion that is going on in the chambers.

Q: If the Syracuse Common Council meetings were a board game, which would they be?

A. Monopoly

B. Jenga

C. Hungry, Hungry Hippos

A: I would probably say Jenga.

Q: So you have to be really careful because at some point it could all come tumbling down?

A: That’s right!

Q: Not only does Syracuse not video stream its meetings, but I did not see your meeting minutes online either. When I called the clerk’s office, they told me those documents are only available in their office in a physical book of council minutes. Why has the common council allowed this situation to continue?

A: Well, it’s interesting because I’d be surprised if most of the councilors even know that. Because I didn’t know that. I think oftentimes what you’re dealing with is certainly the city being a little behind the times. And we’re talking from a technological perspective. But also, established custom gets mistaken for rule. And sometimes these established customs have to be brought to the attention of the council and others for them to change. So I appreciate you bringing that to my attention because I will tell you: I did not know that.

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Syracuse, NY Councilor Khalid Bey

Q: How often are you surprised about what you’re asked to vote on in a council meeting?

A: We get the agenda book less than 24 hours before we’re obligated to come and discuss it intelligently. This is an unfair advantage to the council. This council takes a beating from the media and the public because it often appears ill-equipped–which it most certainly is–having to speak intelligently on something that it just received less than 24 hours. In comparison to somebody from the administration who may have had it for weeks and months.

Q: Do you think the news coverage of the common council has to be thorough precisely because there is so little official documentation of what happens?

A: I think so. Certainly one of the things that people talk about is when they go live stream, the behavior of some of the councilors will change. That is true. That is an unforutnate thing because I need them to see the behavior they don’t know about.

Q: What behavior do you wish or hope will go away once there are cameras in the meetings?

A: I’ll speak for me. When I push legislation, they respond sometimes as if they’re doing me a favor. So I always try to make the case to them, listen: if you have a distaste for me, fine. But it’s not about me. You’re doing work for the people. And sometimes the responses sound as if you’re doing favors for me. If you watch them, that’s exactly what it looks like.


Follow Councilor Khalid Bey on Twitter: @khalidbey

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Interview #81: Middlesex Centre, ON Councilor Derek Silva (with podcast)

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

Derek Silva is in his second year as the Ward 4 councilor in Middlesex Centre and is a staunch advocate for video streaming his council meetings. He is leading the charge to get it done this year! Plus, we discuss whether his meeting time of 4 p.m. is a deterrent for potential councilors.

Q: Derek, you listen to the podcast so you are well aware that there is one HUGE problem with Middlesex Centre council meetings that I’ve talked about on here many, many times. And that problem is, say it with me–

(unison) Q: –video streaming. A: The Ward 3 Strangler.

Q: Wait, sorry, did you say the “Ward 3 Strangler?”

A: I said video streaming. What’s the Ward 3 Strangler?

Q: Uh, sorry, I misheard you. But yeah, video streaming. There is no audio visual evidence of your council meetings. What are your views on this travesty?

A: Part of the issue has been cultural. We do get a few folks at council meetings, but certainly past councils didn’t see it as a priority. I’m happy to report that in our search for new digital agenda software, staff is also using that opportunity to look into video streaming. I’m confident that for the next council session starting in December, live streaming will be there, maybe sooner.

Q: That is fantastic. Normally when I ask people that question, they’re like, oh it’s important…and I never hear from them again. But you’re saying you have a time! When you campaigned in 2014, you mentioned that streaming could be done at a cost under $1,000. How did you arrive at that figure?

A: I arrived at that $1,000 figure understanding that we are a small municipality. For the prices at the time, I didn’t see the need to invest a whole ton of money in getting a camera and start live streaming to YouTube. My direct comparison was to the city of London [Ontario], which bought multiple cameras which would automatically pan and tilt and zoom to the person speaking. And they were paying a private company to host the server. You keep adding all these extra layers and you realize this costs $40,000-$50,000. My point was, something is better than nothing, so let’s do something.

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Middlesex Centre, ON Councilor Derek Silva

Q: In November, Deputy Mayor Aina DeViet asked for a list of start times of other municipalities in Ontario. Why did she want this? Are you guys having problems with your meeting start times?

A: Aina said that she had multiple people express an interest in running in the election this year. Which is great because in 2014, the only contests that Middlesex Centre had were in Ward 4 and for the school board trustees. Aina had been hearing from people who said, I’d love to run for council but Wednesday at 4 p.m.? Not gonna happen. I get that. Not exactly the most convenient time.

Q: Do you think there’s anything else scaring people away other than the meeting start time?

A: I think it’s a variety of reasons. If it was just attending meetings, I imagine lots of people would’ve run for office. But there are lots of people who aren’t built for a very customer service-type role in a lot of ways. It’s been said a lot lately, but there is definitely this misperception about what level of influence municipal politics has over your life. Municipal government has a much, much bigger influence and yet gets far less [of] pretty much everything.


Follow Councilor Derek Silva on Twitter: @DerekSilva 

Month in Review: January 2018

The first city council meetings probably began in Ancient Mesopotamia, but here we are 6,018 years later and they are still going strong! We rung in the new year with the inauguration of fresh council members and some unconventional suggestions from the old ones.

In perhaps the biggest event of 2018, I gave the annual State of the City Council Meetings address to a joint session of Congress. While I feel bad that they all had to return a few days later for some other “state of the” something, I got my message across loud and clear: I, too, can read a teleprompter.

For the address, the reviews, and the podcast interviews, do not wait another year to check out the January Month in Review.

And if someone tells you that January was just a so-so month for council meetings, you tell them, “when else are you gonna hear a councilor say the phrase, ‘Brawls Deep?'”

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Interview #80: Peachtree City, GA Mayor Vanessa Fleisch (with podcast)

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

If you were riding on Peachtree City’s 100 miles of golf cart paths this week, you might have noticed Mayor Vanessa Fleisch and I talking about her council meetings. We discussed the one thing her council does extremely well, but also her tumultuous years of meetings as a council member alongside a controversial former mayor.

Q: I do have to compliment Peachtree City for having a surprisingly detailed set of minutes from all of your meetings. Not only are they detailed, you have the minutes going all the way back to 1959! Do you think your council has primarily focused on the minutes instead of the video?

A: Oh, without a doubt because according to the state of Georgia, the minutes are actually the legal part of it. The video and the audio are extra and something we do try to provide. Unfortunately, yes, we’ve run into glitches with some of the video and getting it right with our contractor. By law, it’s the minutes that are the important part.

Q: Hmm, I see. By the way, one of the things the city council did at its first meeting in 1959? Have the mayor call the post office and say, “hey, we exist now.”

A: [Laughs] Well that’s good because we still don’t have a postmaster and it’s been almost 60 years! So maybe you can help us with that.

Q: We might as well get to the stuff that the mainstream city council meeting podcasts are not talking about. How would you describe relations on the council under former Mayor Don Haddix?

A: I think it was a rather strange relationship, particularly during the council meetings. That is something that I think we’ve come a long way and are far more efficient with our meetings now.

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Peachtree City, GA Mayor Vanessa Fleisch

Q: At the July 21 meeting in 2011, there was a resolution for the censure of Mayor Haddix. That included a vote of no confidence and a request for his resignation. The mayor’s complaint was the censure had been added the night before and he hadn’t had appropriate time to write a rebuttal. Do you recall if he was blindsided with that and if that was kind of the point?

A: I do not recall that specifically. I do know by law, when we do make changes to the agenda, it has to be done 24 hours in advance. I can’t imagine he was totally blindsided. We move far more professionally now. That was a difficult period for the city.

Q: How much of the censure was about protecting the city’s image and then how much was it about your professional discomfort with a coworker?

A: There was a concern that we were continually on the front page of the paper with some of the issues at our meetings. It’s very difficult to get things done when you have continual upheaval at your council meetings. A lot of it was to protect the city in general because there’s a lot of consequences to the public airing of discord at these meetings, when there’s a lack of professionalism. It was more about the city–34,000 people is what I think about every day.

Q: You were not really inside the “ring of fire” in those meetings. Was your experience different from those of the other council members?

A: There were a lot of fireworks at the meetings and I didn’t think it was very productive to have just one more person entering into the fray. So yes, I stayed out of a lot of it.


Follow Mayor Vanessa Fleisch on Twitter: @vanessafleisch

Interview #79: Amarillo, TX Councilmember Elaine Hays (with podcast)

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

Elaine Hays is a freshman council member–as is everyone else on the Amarillo city council. We talked about the changes they made, the coaching they are receiving, and what she is still getting used to.

Q: At your swearing-in on May 16, 2017, I noticed two things. First, were you aware that your son was standing behind you during this, the most important moment of your life, CHEWING GUM?!

A: No, I was not aware of that. I know that his posture made him look more like a security guard, that his siblings certainly gave him a hard time about!

Q: Mmhmm. The other thing I noticed was that Amarillo’s city council has five members, including the mayor. On May 16, how many of you were sworn in for your first council term ever?

A: All five of us.

Q: That’s right, Amarilloans wanted to drain the sw–hold on. Are you in a swamp?

A: We are dry. We are more of a desert area. So draining the swamp, we would take some extra water.

Q: Well, Amarilloans wanted to drain the des–okay, let’s put a pin in that metaphor. Is there anything that was really surprising to you about the way your council does things?

A: One of the things that surprised me was just the record keeping and the documents that–I’m sitting right now looking at this pile of material that stretches across my office that I’m required to keep for a certain time. If I make notes of anything, I have to keep that in case somebody wants a record of, “what was she writing? What did she make a note on?” I make a lot of notes. You cannot even delete junk clutter mail that comes to your official account. You just keep it all in there.

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Amarillo, TX Councilmember Elaine Hays

Q: Something your council changed right away was the setup of the room. Before the council meetings, you guys have a work session. The council before you sat in a line on the dais as usual. However, you sit on the floor at tables close to the audience. Why would you leave your natural habitat?

A: Due to the open meeting laws in Texas, you can’t discuss amongst yourself except in a public meeting. Coming from a private industry background, that was a huge difference. The frustration–when you are sitting up on the dais, you are side-to-side. You don’t have those face-to-face conversations. We wanted to have more of a boardroom/conference type of conversation. I knew [the mayor] was going to suggest that and I was supportive of it.

Q: Your mayor, Ginger Nelson, brought in a coach to turn you guys into lean, mean, municipal governance machines. Why did she do this? Were things not going smoothly?

A: It was not to smooth things out. It’s education.

Q: As part of the coaching, you’re on the second chapter of Boards That Make a Difference. Have you read anything so far that’s applicable to your council meetings?

A: Our past council was very divided. It was very public. It’s been a complete switch: now there have been concerns where, “y’all have so many 5-0 votes.” One of the things from that book that I found interesting: “when you think alike, but you think differently.” With our board, I would say that we think alike in our value system. But we are going to think differently in how we get there.


Follow Councilmember Elaine Hays on Twitter: @ElainesEco

Interview #78: Nashville, TN Councilman Colby Sledge (with podcast)

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

Colby Sledge is the District 17 councilman and a former reporter on the Nashville Metro Council. There is a smorgasbord of procedural features in the Music City that you won’t find in most American city councils–primarily because of the size. Plus, we talk about the many ways in which Nashville’s council exercises politeness.

Q: Most city councils have seven members, nine members–but Nashville has 40 council members. And you all sit at individual desks on the chamber floor. The Tennessee state senate has 33 people, so you have more members than half of your state’s legislature! What are the advantage and disadvantage of having that many council members?

A: Yeah, it’s always a fun thing to throw out whenever we’re at conferences or speaking with lawmakers in other cities, to get “that look” when we tell them we have 40 members. It is a product of when the city and county merged more than 50 years ago. Everybody got to keep their jobs!

Q: Sure.

A: We have the third-largest municipal council in the country behind New York and Chicago. I think the advantage is definitely constituent service. You are expected, as a council member, to know pretty much everyone in your district. Disadvantage is, as you imagine, it can get unwieldy sometimes.

Q: You have a lot of public hearings. You don’t take public comment in the meetings, but you have hearings where people raise their hands in the gallery if they are in favor of or opposed to a bill. I haven’t seen this hand-raising thing before. What are you looking for, exactly?

A: We’re primarily looking for folks who are opposed. Because there are so many zoning bills that we handle, we’re trying to get a sense if there is still dissent within the community. It encourages council members to have meetings before it comes to public hearing. The worst-case scenario is you have a lot of people who are opposed; it kind of reflects poorly on the council member because he or she may have not done all the prep work.

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Nashville, TN Councilman Colby Sledge

Q: I have heard of the concept of “councilmanic courtesy” in Nashville. Essentially, it’s “I’ve got something in my district that I’d like approved. Please do it for me and I’ll vote for the next thing YOU need in your district.” How many times since you’ve been on council have you received councilmanic courtesy?

A: That’s a good question. I think it’s a product of our size. The vast majority of zoning bills–I can’t even think of one that I didn’t [receive courtesy]. If I made a compelling case for a rezoning, most of the time, council members were for it. There’s no written rule that says we’re supposed to be offering this. But when you have a legislative body that’s this large dealing with land-use issues, it tends to be the unwritten rule. I try to think about how it’s going to affect my constituents. If there’s little to no effect, I feel comfortable supporting it.

Q: There is no such thing as councilwomanic courtesy because you don’t have councilwomen in Nashville. You have “council ladies.” What kind of “Gone With the Wind” tradition is that?!

A: [Laughs] I will say that my predecessor in District 17 was a woman and I probably almost always called her “council lady.” It’s really up to each member’s preference.


Follow Councilman Colby Sledge on Twitter: @Sledgefor17

Interview #77: Westminster, CO Former Councilor Alberto Garcia (with podcast)

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

Alberto Garcia prefers “recovering councilor” to “former councilor,” which is appropriate because he had a lot to recover from. We talked about the two explosive issues of his final year in office: trash hauling and divisive comments by one of his colleagues.

Q: Alberto, we are talking two months after your council term ended, meaning you can say whatever you want. No, consequences, baby! Tell me–and please use as many F-bombs as you’d like–what is something you’ve been keeping bottled up inside about the Westminster council meetings?

A: If I was on council, I would go with the, “we have a wonderful team. We have great staff.” And all that is true.

Q: But….

A: But I cannot begin to describe to you how long these meetings were. I can tell you, many times that was not absolutely necessary. Sometimes you just say, “come on, we’ve talked about this for two hours. Let’s vote!” There is a cartoon I saw once in which Donald Duck and Porky Pig run for city council. Donald Duck wins. Then in his very first council meeting, he looks up at the clock and it’s 2 a.m. And the mayor says, “now on to agenda item number two.” And that is how I felt frequently!

Q: [Laughs] Well, Westminster has audio, but no video, of its council meetings. So I have no idea what your council chamber looks like, but let me attempt to describe it based on what I’ve heard. If I say anything that’s not accurate, please stop me right away.

A: Sure.

Q: Here we go: fully-nude can-can dancers. Burmese pythons. Air thick with hookah smoke. Heads of councilors who lost reelection mounted on the wall–

A: I’m still waiting for you to say something inaccurate.

Q: Perfect. Are you going to talk to your former council colleagues about getting on the same page as every other civilized municipality–plus Hoboken–and video steam these meetings?

A: I am going to raise this issue in the coming days about why we insist on staying in the past and not showing full transparency.

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Westminster, CO Former Councilor Alberto Garcia

Q: One of the big issues from earlier last year was how the city was thinking about switching to a single trash hauler instead of the 13 or so trash hauling companies that operate now. Were you surprised that Westminster residents were massively protective of their garbagemen?

A: In the four years I was on council, that’s the thing that surprised me the most. I did not realize people’s affinity went: their parents, their children, and their trash hauler.

Q: How hard was it for you, the government, to focus on the facts when people were showing up to the meetings channeling Ayn Rand, talking about liberty and economic freedom?

A: I think that was our biggest mistake: “this is the right thing to do. It’s about sustainability, protecting our environment.” We had to go back to the very beginning and try to convince people that recycling is even necessary! This is a community that does not like change. There is a fear of change.

Q: One of your colleagues, Bruce Baker, made controversial comments during several meetings in a row. If you had been in his position, ideological outlier on a council, would you have adopted his approach?

A: Something I admire is that Councilor Baker did not mind voting no. If I was on a council, I would not take his tactics of attacking my colleagues. If I did not get the outcome I wanted, I would still feel comfortable voting no.


Follow Alberto Garcia on Twitter: @AlbertoinWesty