Plus, you can listen to a segment of “Tear It Down,” an eight-chapter audio series about a small town whose government became wildly dysfunctional when political insurgent group formed seeking revenge: www.tearitdownpodcast.com.
As always, City Council Chronicles’ sponsor is 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:
Kate Stewart oversaw a tough series of council meetings last year in which crowds showed up to protest a tiny retail development. She explains why she wanted to hear suggestions instead of resistance and why abandoning the project would also have been unfair.
Q: In the first half of 2018, your council received substantial heat from residents opposed to Takoma Junction–a 1.4-acre parking lot next to the grocery co-op that was intended for future retail stores. How hard was it to remember that this is a city of 18,000 people and you are hearing on a given night from not even 100 of them? So really, what seems like life or death in the council chamber is not the end of the world for thousands of others.
A: That’s correct. We had online comments. We held a number of open houses. We also did a day on the actual lot–we sketched the outside of what the development may look like. People could come, stand, and be like, “okay, this is how far it is from the street” to get a sense of it. The important thing to remember is that the opportunity to provide public comment at a city council meeting is just one way that people express their views.
Q: At one point in a meeting, a woman started to read off a list of opponents and went well over her time. She turned away from the microphone and continued to yell, and you called a recess. Did that get the meeting back on track or was there another way you could have handled that?
A: I think it’s really important that people stick to the three minute comment period. We had people who had been there waiting their turns who needed to get home to children. The reason I called for a recess was because the energy in the room was getting so antagonistic, particularly the folks who opposed the development. The way that they were heckling and saying things was really not conducive to a good public meeting.
Q: The racial equity statement in the development ordinance asked several questions about the development, without providing any policy predictions. Do you think the people who questioned the racial equity implications were right to demand better?
A: I think it’s always important to demand better. When I asked the resident activists who criticized us for this to provide us with ideas, their ideas were basically, “we just don’t like the project!” I think if you’re going to be pushing your local government to do something, not just being critical, but actually coming with ideas. Local government is set up as this antagonistic relationship between government and residents–it’s one that truly bothers me. To do the job well, I rely on residents to push us but also to come to us with ideas.
Q: A lot of the people complaining about racial equity were older white people. Don’t get me wrong, those are the ones who you want to care about racial equity. How did it feel to watch a room of liberal white people yell at each other over how to save a food co-op and black and brown people?
A: I think Takoma Park is not unique. When it comes to any type of change, there are very strong feelings. I was talking to somebody the other day–the person told me that this urban planner, when they do meetings regarding development projects, their first rule is to start with the youngest person in the room to have them talk about what they want. When you’re talking about a development project, you’re probably talking about something that’s going to be there for 30-40 years. So starting with somebody in their twenties, that’s the person for whom you’re creating this space.
Q: There were two arguments that I heard repeatedly from the opponents. One was that they weren’t opposed to development; they were just opposed to this development. And the second was how divisive all of this was. They’re saying, “it’s on you, the council, to unify the community,” by which they meant giving them what they wanted. Were you in any mood to unify the community given that some of them were now trying to recall you?
A: My concern for folks who wanted to delay the project or have us hit the restart button is that would make some people happy, but the folks who wanted the project, that would make them unhappy! That wasn’t a compromise! For them, that would be stopping a project they like. I did not see that as a way to bring the community together.
Samba Baldeh is the District 17 alder who remembers quite clearly a fraught council meeting about funding for Southeast Asian mental health services. He also discusses his exchange with the police chief from three years ago after the chief’s accusatory blog post put Madison’s common council in the crosshairs.
Q: I’ve heard of aldermen and alderwomen and even alderpersons, but Madison is the only city I have found whose council members are called “alder.” What do you know about why Madison uses that term?
A: I think Madison is just trying to be politically correct. We can be a female, male, transgender, or people who may identify however they want to identify. I think that is the reason why. A lot of people are confused when you tell them, “I’m an alderperson.” They generally don’t know what that means.
Q: On the night of February 26, there were $115,000 that the council had to direct toward mental health services for Hmong elders. Had you ever experienced this combination of fear and anger before, like what you were hearing from the Hmong community?
A: I do remember this meeting very vividly. Apart from the anger, just the sadness of the event. The community became divided as to who should actually provide these services. Who do we give the money to? That is where the meeting became very deeply personal.
Q: During the public’s testimony, Alder Barbara McKinney raised a point of order about the neutrality of the translation services. Do you know where the concern about the accuracy of translation was coming from?
A: She was sitting next to the interpreters and the people giving testimonies. I think what she observed was people were talking to each other, whispering to each other to an extent where she felt like the interpretation was not neutral. The mayor interjected and said we are doing our best. Even the interpreter did say that it’s difficult to interpret the Hmong language.
Q: The provision of health service was getting wrapped up in race and cultural competency. Do you think this was a healthy debate or was there unnecessary vilification taking place?
A: I do think we shouldn’t have gotten here. I spoke to some of the leaders in the community and let them know that it is important that some of these issues be resolved outside of the public domain. We could have had a better discussion around the money part and how we allocate it. I didn’t think there was a need to vilify each other to the extent we did. The best way was to find a way to resolve the cultural or the societal issues outside of the council. Once it came to council, it basically was difficult to control.
Q: You mentioned the virtue of resolving conflict before it reaches the council meeting where you don’t have a control over the arguments or what people say, and then it can look messy to the public. There was a similar incident in June 2016 that falls in that category. Your council was about to vote on an additional $350,000 to have a consultant examine the practices of the police department. Your police chief, Michael Koval, has a blog. On the evening of June 5, he published a piece about this report where he started out with “bring it on,” saying the police have nothing to hide. But suddenly, the six paragraphs that followed included this language: “to the Common Council: you are being watched….this is a pre-emptive first strike from me to you.” What was your reaction to his accusations that your council was letting him and his officers down?
A: I think the police chief really was not being very fair in his assessment of why morale was down with his police force. Almost every item that came to council with regards to police funding was approved. That is the first thing we can do to show support for the police department. All the events that they invite us, leadership was part of it. Other council members who could be part of it also took part. I think it was an ill-informed assessment. I also do not believe police leadership should come to council or use their electronic access, like a blog, and threaten community leaders.
Q: I’m sure he would agree with you that the council has given his department money, but that’s not his complaint. What he’s saying is, when people come into this meeting and they talk smack about my department and my officers, a defense from the council is nowhere to be found. So yes, you’re giving us money, but it’s almost like you’re paying us off to sit back and take all this abuse. I really need you, the council, to push back, on this vilification of us that’s happening right in front of you.
A: If people from the community come to testify, they can say whatever they feel about the police. How does that bring credibility to the people of the city if we’ve just been called all these names, and now we have to sit there and defend the person who’s calling us all these names? It’s our responsibility to educate people about the police work and make them feel good about their police force, but it’s also the responsibility of the person who leads that police force to make sure the community have a good view of the department.
Eva Murray is a first-term Labour councillor in Glasgow who seems to know all of the names of her 84 colleagues (no small feat!). She discusses the the cycle of partisan blame that emerges in the debates and how that can be frustrating for a new councillor. Plus, she explains why young people appear to take interest in attending the Glasgow meetings.
Q: Am I reading correctly that you are one of 85 city councillors in Glasgow?
A: That’s absolutely correct.
Q: Wow, 85! Be honest with me, madam: do you know everybody’s name?
A: I think I do. I mean, two years on I hope I would. There’s still a few that I struggle with. We’ve got three Councillor Morgans. I still get them confused a little bit!
Q: I noticed something unusual that someone tweeted at you:
Excited to attend @GlasgowCC full council meeting today. Thanks a bunch to the amazing @EvaCMurray for getting me a ticket.
Do you need tickets to watch your council meetings? And follow-up: do you ever go on tour?
A: People can tune in online, but there’s a very limited amount of tickets to watch it from the gallery. You have to contact your local councillor and hopefully you can get them. You have to be quick. I think there’s only 12 to 14 spaces in the gallery. As for going on tour, that could be an interesting summer trip but at the moment, no. We could get some merchandise, put all the dates on the back, and just tour Scotland.
Q: Do I take it to mean that you have a full gallery most of the time if the tickets are in such demand?
A: We do most times, especially if there’s a controversial motion. Or some people have just never been to a council meeting. We’ve seen a lot of younger people take up the opportunity to come and watch.
Q: What is in the magic sauce of the Glasgow council that makes young people interested in showing up to watch? Is it the historic nature of the place? The topics you consider? Or with 85 councillors, everyone has a friend on city council and they’re showing up to support their buddies?
A: Maybe it’s a bit of everything. Two years ago was the first time 16-year-olds could vote in a council election. We’ve seen younger people become more involved in politics.
Q: Something that is noticeably different from most American and Canadian councils is the time in Glasgow’s council meetings dedicated to questions. Who decides which councillors get to question, and what is the purpose of asking those questions?
A: They’ve in the last couple of meetings changed how questions are done. Before it could genuinely take up a full meeting just full of questions. What they’ve done now is, say the Labour Party would put in six or seven questions. Four of them will get picked and the other three will get a written response. Some people use it to make noise about an ongoing issue, to take a hit at the leader of the council. Other people will use it to highlight a local issue. If you get a good hit on a question, you can make not just your local paper, but maybe the Glasgow citywide paper.
Q: A lot of what I hear in debates goes along the lines of “Labour did this five years ago.” “Well, the Tories did that 10 years ago.” “Oh, where was the SNP when this and that was happening?” It appears like you are settling a score. How much accuracy is there to that?
A: I think you’re right in that a lot of people like to play the blame game. It’s frustrating for me as someone who’s only in the city chambers two years–who wasn’t there when other decisions were made–and to have to take that. I’m trying my best to be the new generation of councillor, but you’re still tarred with the decisions made a long time ago.
Q: So you’re speaking to a culture where new councillors get saddled with their party’s baggage to the point that when they are the seasoned councillor, the expectation is that they will saddle new incoming councillors of the opposition party with the bad decisions of their predecessors?
A: Absolutely. You try and get away from that. People outside, like constituents, they’re willing to listen and see that you are the new face. But there’s a lot of people in the chamber—that is their rhetoric. If they can’t properly answer a question, they’ll say, “what did Labour do?” Or “what did the Tories do?”
Ahmad Zahra’s first major decision as a council member was to figure out how to fill a vacant council seat. The debate consumed many hours of meeting time, and he describes his thinking while navigating the city through an unprecedented scenario.
Q: You won election to the Fullerton city council last year. Am I correct that your occupation at the time was a film producer?!
A: That is correct. I’ve been an independent film producer for the past 20 years. It was my lifelong dream to make movies.
Q: Wow. That is quite something and I–wait, what’s this here? This is…oh, my goodness. My acting resume! How did this get on the table? Normally I keep it sitting on your side of the desk, so I’ll just slide it down that way–
A: I’ve heard this so many times before! Take a number!
Q: [laughs] Before your oath of office, what kind of role did you envision for yourself in the screenplay that is the Fullerton city council? Were you a Mr. Smith Goes to Washington? A Hannibal Lecter? Or Shrek?
A: All great characters. We all have a part of Hannibal Lecter and a part of Shrek and a part of Mr. Smith in us. I can relate to all of them at any given time: the shrewdness of Hannibal Lecter. That comes in handy every now and then. The naïveté of Shrek and then the tenacity of Mr. Smith.
Q: I agree. Thank you for giving that answer instead of one which involved eating people. At the same time that you were elected, Council Member Jesus Silva was elected to a district seat from an at-large seat, meaning his at-large seat was vacant. At the December 18 meeting, it was up to your council to decide whether to fill the seat through an appointment or a special election. You and Council Member Bruce Whitaker advocated for a special election, so why did you see the open seat differently than the other two people on council?
A: The motion I made was a special election by mail. For me, there was no particular clear way of actually conducting the interviews or the appointment. We had no process. The other thing is: we were given information that ended up being incorrect, that the city had the option for an all-mail-in ballot election [for] half the cost of a full election and would’ve been sooner. For me that was the middle ground.
Q: You may have seen a middle ground in the method, but to other people this was more about intent. Some of the commenters you heard characterized the appointment as a betrayal. Was there something in particular that they were worried about?
A: Throughout time, politicians always have developed fans and people who don’t like them. People who come and participate, they also have their favorites and the ones that they don’t like. We all have biases. You just have to listen to everybody and then make a decision not just based on who’s coming to the city council. For me, it was about making sure we were setting proper policy because it’s going to affect people for the next 50 years.
Q: At the January 29 meeting when your council was actually taking interviews, you referred to this as a “series of unfortunate events.” What did you mean?
A: It was a multitude of factors. State laws recently had changed and they set certain dates for special elections, which ended up pushing our special election date so far out that we would’ve had almost a whole year of a dysfunctional government. The other issue was the county did not adopt another state law that would’ve allowed cities to do all-mail-in ballots. The third thing is in our original ordinance, the appointment process was not included. On the night of the election in 2018, the night I won, there was a city council meeting in which the ordinance was revised to include an option for appointment, but they never discussed a process. Then there was people jumping the gun–candidates, applicants.
Q: What do you say to the criticism that you “sold out” by switching from supporting an election to supporting an appointment?
A: I did my best at pushing for a process that I felt was extremely open and transparent. My conscience is clear. We came to the right decision. We saved the city a lot of money which we actually invested in some lifesaving equipment for our paramedics, which we would not have had if we spent the money on an election.
Follow Council Member Ahmad Zahra on Twitter: @AhmadZahra
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On this episode, you will hear excerpts from these full interviews:
By the way, did you know that one year ago this week is when “Tear It Down” was released? In that time, thousands of people have listened and many have walked away with a newfound appreciation for the functionality of their own local governments. To hear the entire eight-chapter series and its colorful cast of characters, visit www.tearitdownpodcast.com.
As always, City Council Chronicles’ sponsor is 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:
Emily LaDouceur has had a front row seat to several heated skirmishes during her mere four months on the Berea council. From responding to criticism of her attire to pushing an overhaul of the anemic ethics code, she discusses the forces in the community that are making her life difficult.
Q: What happened prior to the April 16, 2019 council meeting that led to your comments about leggings?
A: A man who ran for city council made derogatory comments about me being a big girl and why do I think I can wear yoga leggings? It was posted in a public but membership-only Facebook group. [Another member] posted a picture of me giving a tour of children in city hall. She had put a black smudge over my face and asked “what is this black cloud over Berea?” He made his comments below and it went from there.
Q: Okay, a school group. How many of the parents contacted you after the tour and said, “my child saw female legs today and I had to check him into therapy?”
A: That would be a big, fat zero. None. Nil.
Q: I don’t understand, though, how your tour went from school kids to “I’m getting hate mail for my trousers.” Was it just this one individual who has so much sway over perceptions of you?
A: I wouldn’t say they have huge sway. But hate always has some measure of following. It had nothing to do with my leggings, let’s be real. It’s about politics, where I am left-leaning and they are a very conservative group. And then some good old-fashioned misogyny.
Q: You turned the criticism right back around on your antagonists by posting on Facebook, “the outfit was appropriate….I’ll let you put on the outfit I wore that day…then you can put on the holy, stained T-shirt and oversized jeans worn by some of my colleagues to city council meetings. Report back to us which outfit is more ‘lazy and inappropriate.'” Why bring your fellow councilmen’s choices into this? You could have easily defended yourself without putting them down, yes?
A: Sure. I don’t see it as putting them down as just pointing out the double standard. Women are held to completely different and more stringent standards. I don’t care what they wear as long as they’re getting the work done.
Q: In what way did your council colleagues and the mayor disappoint you here?
A: By not directly calling out the hatefulness. It really is a hate group, and I don’t use that term lightly. There are five council members and the mayor who are members of that group. Progressives in town made a call for them to denounce the behavior of this group and to also exit it. Instead it was a whole lot of false equivalence.
Q: You proposed a new council committee to review your city’s code of ethics. What prompted you to think that Berea could be more ethical?
A: We did have a huge blow-up that made statewide news of one particular councilman. He posted an inappropriate and misogynistic meme on Facebook and it was during the Kavanaugh [confirmation] hearing, speaking about the victim. At the following council meeting, there were I think 16 women and men who spoke and many people really laying their hearts on the table about their trauma. They weren’t asking for him to resign. They wanted reconciliation. They wanted an authentic apology. The problem was that in his apology, instead of really saying sorry, said his wife posted it.
A: All of the council members used their opportunity to respond by saying, “well, we have an outdated ethics code. We should probably revisit that.” When I started digging into the code, it is the bare minimum. It is probably, in the whole state of Kentucky, the most bare, basic, minimum code that is in existence.
Q: Where has the meeting footage of the ethics committee come from?
A: It came from my phone. My Facebook live.
Q: Do I understand that the only reason we know about a massive overhaul of the municipal ethics code is because one council member thought to press record on her phone?
A: Yes. I presented a laundry list of open meetings violations that our current council has been partaking in. There won’t be any discussion in council meetings. Most of the discussion happens in these committee meetings that are very poorly attended. They’re not recorded. Minutes are rarely taken. No one really knows what’s going on. I took it upon myself to bring up those things and some of them have changed. I’ve committed to recording as many of them that I can. I’m trying to record them so the public can see how these things are operating.
Davina Duerr joined the Bothell council in 2016 and within a few months became part of a controversial firing of the city manager. She explains why things seemed to happen rapidly and without the transparency that some residents called for. Plus, what is a “council conversation” in Bothell and what do people converse about?
Q: What is Bothell’s “council conversation?”
A: Council conversation was put on the agenda because in Washington state we have something called the Open Public Meetings Act. We cannot have conversations beyond three people that aren’t in public or recorded. We were finding that there were a lot of things we thought we should be notifying other council members of–topics that perhaps one council member knew a lot about but wanted everyone to be aware of. But there wasn’t really a forum to do that. We all aren’t at the same events and getting the same communications from members of the community.
Q: These seem like announcements that you could make at any meeting–holidays, meetings in the community. I mean, do council members really need a separate, blocked-off section of some meetings to get all of that out there?
A: I believe we do. We’ve only had a couple of these council conversations. In our first conversation we talked about something new that we were trying, which was having a liaison to each of our city boards and commissions. Those are the kinds of conversations that we wouldn’t normally have.
Q: In January 2016, you were among the new council members. Both Andy Rheaume and you were elected by your fellow council members as mayor and deputy mayor, respectively, by a 4-3 vote in that very first meeting. Was there a philosophical division on your council?
A: Yeah, the election of Andy Rheaume, James McNeal, and myself flipped the council majority. Some of the things that we ran for were transparency, saving Wayne Golf Course, more thoughtful development, listening to the community–things we thought weren’t happening with the current council. When we ran on those things, I’m sure the council majority took that to be running against them.
Q: On May 3, 2016, midway through there was a motion to go into executive session and when you came out, the proposal was to fire the city manager that night, when he was on vacation. Wasn’t it a bit ruthless to dismiss the city manager when he wasn’t in the room to defend himself?
A: I guess it depends on your point of view. There was some thought that it would be face-saving for him not to have to deal with that in the room. Once a decision’s made to fire someone, what are the odds you’re going to change their minds? We did take a lot of flak for that, but I don’t know if I’d want to be in the room and have a recorded meeting when I’m being fired. I don’t know that that was necessarily a bad thing. I could see it both ways.
Q: What do you say about your duty to the public to provide notice of a major change like this?
A: I think as a council member, you’re in a unique position where you’re working with that individual. That’s the one individual in city government that we hire and fire. I don’t believe having a long, protracted community discussion about the pros and cons of someone would be beneficial to the community. I don’t even know if that would be something that the individual being fired would want.
Q: Have you ever looked back on your campaign pledge for transparency and community engagement and thought about how it was nice to campaign on, but when you’re governing and you’re thrust into a situation like this, people can rightly criticize you for seeming to backtrack on that?
A: The reality is you can only be so transparent. Unfortunately, when you’re in this role, there are things you know you can’t share. And it’s frustrating for all of us. My job is to defend the city and make sure the city is in good shape, not to defend myself. Those are some of the hardest lessons I’ve learned from being on council when it comes to transparency.
When the city manager of Troy was arrested in 2018, it was the latest in a series of events that forced the city council into some tough decisions. Ethan Baker describes his points of view at various times in the multiyear saga and what that has done to his council relationships.
Q: On March 11, 2018, your council met in a special Sunday session to fire city manager Brian Kischnick. What had happened in the last 24 hours to necessitate that firing?
A: It had actually been about 48 hours. That Friday evening, the former city manager had gone out to a restaurant in a neighboring city with his girlfriend–who we didn’t know was his girlfriend but happened to also be his assistant. They apparently had too much to drink and he physically assaulted her. He got arrested and was in lockup that weekend. We met on a Sunday and we terminated him for cause.
Q: There is more: in the summer of 2016 the council commissioned a report on the city manager’s conduct. It came to you confidential in July of that year and at the August 8 meeting, your council decided whether to release that report to the public. This vote was 4-3 with you in the majority against the release, and you said to the city manager, “we are watching everything that happens in city administration at this point.” After that vote, how did you notice the city manager’s behavior change based upon your observations?
A: It did change initially. We met with Brian Kischnick quite a bit in closed sessions. As time progressed, it seemed that he went kind of back to not being as communicative with us. Things snowballed and he got indicted after he was terminated.
Q: After you made your statement about “we’re watching you,” the city manager continued to solicit bribes, extorted money from a contractor, lived rent-free in a fully-furnished apartment, and bullied his employees.
A: One thing that the public has to understand a little bit is city council members are not full-time employees. We are rarely at city hall. A lot of information didn’t come to us. It’s one of the shortfalls of this style of government, a council-manager form of government, where you have a city manager who runs the show. That form of government works great in communities throughout the country. The only problem with it is when you have the person at the top, the city manager, who is the problem.
Q: What did it say about your council that city workers did not feel comfortable coming to you for their problems with your employee, the city manager?
A: There’s not supposed to be a lot of interaction between city council members and city employees. By edict of the city manager, everything was to be funneled through him, which became a problem. But because of the 4-3 vote in the summer of 2016 saying we’re not going to release the report, I think some city staff felt that Brian Kischnick’s protected. I’ve since learned that’s what Brian Kischnick was telling people. The employees felt fruitless–why bother if there’s only gonna be a minority of council members who might do something? Had I heard something more from any employee, I would’ve been the first to say [to Kischnick], “I’m sorry, we gave you another chance. You blew it.”
Q: After Brian Kischnick’s arrest and firing in early 2018, there was again a demand for you to release that report. On April 9, three council members wanted to publish the report and three did not. Which meant that you were the decisive vote. Did you walk into that meeting knowing that you were willing to release the whole thing?
A: I don’t know if I was 100 percent sure that I was willing to do it. What you can’t hear in the audio is that there were at least 100 people sitting in our chamber. It was standing-room only. When they heard that I was going to release the full report, there was a lot of relief in that chamber. I am so happy and thankful that I did make that vote. I think it’s done a lot of good for our community.
Q: You speak of relief. People in Troy vilified you for your 2016 vote. But now, you kind of redeemed yourself. What’s your thought on that?
A: “Redemption” is funny. You’re only one vote away from having somebody not like you. Things change and it goes back and forth all the time.