Interview #127: Baltimore, MD Councilman Kristerfer Burnett (with podcast)

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

Kristerfer Burnett was in the large freshman class of 2016 on the Baltimore city council and does not shy away from the role that guns, violence, and policing play in the council’s business. He discusses a contentious hearing about mandatory minimum sentences and a bizarre inquiry into whether the fire department threatened bike advocates.

Q: Councilman Brandon Scott does something small but noteworthy each meeting. At the end, when your council holds a moment of silence, he asks the council vice president to announce the homicide total to date. My first thought upon hearing this was, “why would anyone advertise their city’s worst attribute repeatedly in a public council meeting?” So why would you?

A: I think it’s something that we have to own. The violence in Baltimore is unbelievable. It is debilitating to our city. As policymakers, we have a responsibility to address that. We’ve also started to add the victims of the opioid crisis for the same reason. We had over 700 opioid-related deaths last year. That needs to be the headline. I’m not one that feels like cities should try to always put their best foot forward, an image or façade that things are okay.

Q: On July 3, 2018, the judiciary committee held a hearing about the fire department. Councilman Ryan Dorsey read a letter that you all received from an advocate of bike lanes accusing the fire department of parking a ladder truck in front of her house as a threat. What was being alleged here and why were you, the council, involved?

A: There’s been a lot of resistance from the fire department to the construction of bicycle infrastructure. The argument they were trying to make, albeit poorly, was an attempt to basically argue that by narrowing the roads with bicycle infrastructure, it would make it more difficult to navigate. Some streets are very narrow and their equipment is pretty large. What I didn’t quite understand was, it looks like they got the ladder truck up to me [in a video from the fire department]. The council got involved because there was an attempt by Council Member Dorsey to strike out of the fire code these guidelines that would have prohibited the construction of bike infrastructure due to roadway widths.

Q: Yeah.

A: On a lighter note, when we received that video the day before the hearing, Council Member Dorsey and I–I hope I don’t get in trouble for saying this–we’re two millennial legislators. We’re like, “what do we do with the DVD? I don’t even know where to put this!” I literally had no way to watch it for several hours because my laptop didn’t have a DVD player.

Q: [laughs] 

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Baltimore, MD Councilman Kristerfer Burnett

The overriding concern was why the fire department filmed their video outside the home of one of their opponents. How satisfactory did you find the fire chief’s response that it was not intentional?

A: That particular roadway is a very long one. That bike lane is also one of the longest in the city. If they needed to prove a point on that particular street, they could have done it pretty easily without being in front of the house. I was extremely disappointed in the fire chief on that one and told him so.

Q: That was about accountability for the fire department, so let’s shift to accountability in policing. In the judiciary committee on July 25, 2017, there was legislation which would have established a punishment of one year’s incarceration for anyone who carried a firearm within 100 feet [yards] of a place of public assembly. Right away, multiple council members offered stories of their experiences with gun violence. Is it fair to say that most if not all Baltimore council members have a direct connection to the escalating homicide numbers that we hear at every meeting?

A: That is correct. One of my high school teammates on the football team lost his life to gun violence in 2017. It’s very much something that has hit almost all of us, if not all of us, at some point.

Q: Councilman Scott argued at the hearing that it’s easier for people in black areas of Baltimore to be in violation of this proposed law. There wasn’t really a racial divide that I noticed at the meeting. There were a bunch of people for and against it. Did you see the proposal as fundamentally racist?

A: Yes and here’s why. A lot of my colleagues were very well-intentioned in their support. They felt this is an answer to a problem that we all agree is a problem. You do see patterns of over-policing in black communities without this law. Some of my colleagues were not thinking about that part of it. I represent some of the most dangerous neighborhoods in Baltimore. There is a knee-jerk reaction to say, “we need more cops.” I don’t think their support was because they want to lock up more black people, but I think the unintended consequence would have been that.


Follow Councilman Kristerfer Burnett on Twitter: @CouncilmanKB

Interview #121: Salt Lake City, UT Council Member Charlie Luke (with podcast)

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

A historic council chamber. Mayor’s question time. And colorful, sometimes impassioned public commenters. These are the hallmarks of Salt Lake City’s council meetings that Council Member Charlie Luke walks us through.

Q: There is an aspect of your meetings that we don’t find in too many American councils: “questions to the mayor.” Why does this happen in your meetings?

A: Tradition. I don’t know when that practice started. It’s been rather hit and miss with mayors actually attending. A lot of times when they are there, we’re just happy that they are there. We’ve just been following the tradition.

Q: At the mayor’s question time of September 18, 2018, council members were upset that the mayor was not present to answer questions about the controversial Inland Port. Isn’t it unfair to say that the mayor doesn’t show up to answer questions when in fact your council oftentimes has nothing to ask her?

A: Absolutely not because most of our questions are going to be related to the items at hand. Especially when there is an issue where there is substantial council disagreement with the administration, there would have been questions for the mayor. That’s where a lot of the frustration was.

Q: So would it not be more realistic for the mayor to show up to the contentious issues, where maybe council members have given her a heads-up in advance that there will be questions, rather than expect her to come to every meeting just out of tradition and sit through silence while no one asks her anything?

A: We have roughly three formal meetings a month. In my opinion, it is not unreasonable for the mayor to attend those meetings. If we were having multiple meetings a week, I think your point would be valid. I don’t think it is asking too much for the mayor of the capital city of Utah to take an hour out of her agenda to sit through our meeting.

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Salt Lake City, UT Council Member Charlie Luke

Q: One year ago, your fellow council members–and you especially–were all set to fund 50 new police officers for Salt Lake City. Would you briefly explain why you wanted those extra cops while I go back to the car and run your license?

A: The response times for non-emergency crimes have been increasing steadily over the past few years. We knew that what we were tasking them [police] with was unsustainable. If we were going to get those response times down, the only way we could do it would be to add more officers.

Q: For half a year, there was an extraordinary amount of people–mostly young, but not always; mostly black and latino, but not always–who spoke up meeting after meeting against the police officers. Their message to you was that A.) more cops don’t mean better safety, B.) we and our communities actually don’t feel safe around police, and C.) you, the all-white city council, have a distorted experience with police that is not our reality. Your reaction to that is what?

A: Nationally, there have been issues with police and racial issues around the country. In the seven years I’ve been on council, we’ve worked closely with the police chief to better train our officers to deal with de-escalation. I’m not discounting what any of them have said. My life experience as a middle-aged white male is much, much different from people of color, women, and others. I’m not ever going to discount what they’re saying. But I am going to go off of numbers and what we’re looking for as a city.

Q: I don’t think that any of the commenters ever said explicitly that this increase in officers was emblematic of racism or white supremacy. But the message clearly was, “the city uses the police to intimidate and in some cases kill us.” I know that you strongly support the additional officers, but can you think of anything that would have to happen with the police in Salt Lake City for you to believe the argument they were making?

A: It’s not that I don’t believe the argument. I do believe that there is legitimate fear and concern. All I can do is try to improve the situation. I can’t go back and fix things that have historically happened. Since we do have to have law enforcement, let’s make them as best-trained as they can possibly be.


Follow Council Member Charlie Luke on Twitter: @CharlieLukeSLC

Interview #112: Minneapolis, MN Council Vice President Andrea Jenkins (with podcast)

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

The Minneapolis council has been proactive about addressing racial inequity, despite outside events making it a challenge. Andrea Jenkins describes how she felt about council members’ reactions to an equity training earlier this year.

Q: On August 1 of this year, there was a committee of the whole meeting in which you all sat through a racial equity training. Would you be surprised if I told you that I’ve been hosting this program for two years and this is the first racial equity training I’ve seen a city council do?

A: Yes, I thought every city council in America was doing racial equity training. That’s not true?

Q: No! I hate to let you down because that is wildly off-base, but what did you hope to accomplish with this training?

A: Well, we’re trying to get the council members woke. The main thing we wanted to accomplish was to have a common understanding and common language that everybody can start with. It dispels the opportunities for people to come in with their own perspective. If we can lay the groundwork for one common understanding, that was the purpose.

Q: I’m glad you brought that up because that was actually the part of the training that hit a roadblock. Council President Lisa Bender said she was uncomfortable participating in an exercise in which council members’ discussions about their early experiences with race would be televised. What did you make of that?

A: Boy, I was really–I was disappointed. We ask people to support us in being representatives. And then we are not willing to share details about our own experiences, our own lives, that could help bring understanding to why we make some of the decisions we make. I know that council President Bender is very open about some really vulnerable parts of her life. It would be really eye opening and compelling for people to understand some of her experiences around race. It wasn’t just council President Bender–I mean, if you watched the meeting, there were a number of council members who were reluctant to share that information. Sometimes there’s really powerful strength in being vulnerable.

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Minneapolis, MN Council Vice President Andrea Jenkins

Q: There is another event we need to discuss that happened before the racial equity training. Can you explain what precipitated your June 27 committee of the whole meeting?

A: A week prior to that meeting, there had been a police-involved shooting of a young, black man who–it was under dispute whether or not he was armed, whether or not he was fleeing and was shot in the back. And so tensions in our community was really, really, really high.

Q: In that meeting, Council Member Cam Gordon wondered whether the city council needed more of a role in the police department. He proceeded to draft that exact charter amendment–which did not sit well with a number of people, including the public safety committee chair, Alondra Cano, who said she was “disgusted by the privilege” of the motion. What did you make of that?

A: I interpreted her use of the term “privilege” to suggest that it would’ve potentially been more appropriate for her to have made that–or someone who had those kinds of experiences–as opposed to Mr. Gordon, who has not lived those kinds of experiences.

Q: So speaking with terms of racial equity, it’s easier for someone who has benefited from the system to look at it and say, “something’s wrong. We need to fix it,” and to have people listen to him, than it might be for someone who belongs to a historically-oppressed group to say the same thing and perhaps get ignored when they say it.

A: I think that is absolutely true. Yes, I agree with that.


Follow Council Vice President Andrea Jenkins on Twitter: @annapoetic

#172: Weyburn, SK 10/22/18

The camera zoomed out from the golden falcon resting on the table next to Mayor Marcel Roy. Its wings were raised, anticipating a takeoff. It was a spot-on mascot for a city council meeting, even if the agenda tonight was less than explosive.

“In 2018 September in comparison to 2017, the crimes against persons had decreased by one. Crimes against property has decreased by 14,” Councillor Mel Van Betuw read in a monotone from the police commission’s meeting minutes.

“At the end of September there were five dogs and 20 cats at the shelter, none fostered.”

All of a sudden, this routine report on cats and dogs pivoted to the major national event of the week with the drop of a single word.

“The board discussed the timeframe between recreational cannabis usage by police and reporting for duty,” Van Betuw announced. “The mayor suggested it be the same as in the military, which is 24 hours.”

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You let your military do the dew?!

He continued, “the board instructed the chief to advise his members that they require all police officers to go at least 24 hours from the time of cannabis usage before reporting for duty.”

Twenty-four hours? It’s hard to call it “recreational” cannabis when you have to plan it a day in advance. Mayor Roy chimed in with an explanation.

“With all this recreational marijuana going forward, there’s a lot of different issues. Calgary has issued a 28-day no-use of recreational marijuana, which basically gets down to null and void. The military has two [policies]: eight hours if you’re doing paperwork and 24 hours if you’re doing vehicles or weapons.”

He added, somewhat unnecessarily, “once the officer is on duty, there should be no use of recreational marijuana.”

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Only medicinal

From there, it was time to hear from the youth council mayor. Unsurprisingly, the city’s youth had also heard about their friend Mary Jane moving to town.

“Some business that was discussed included cannabis legalization and the impact on the youth,” the youth mayor said. “We also talked about a youth council social media strategy. We will make an Instagram page. We will continue to discuss ways to engage the youth in Weyburn and provide entertainment for young people as well.”

Non-drug-related entertainment was the subtext–although it’s nice that the youth now have options.

“The youth council made a motion to recommend that council appoints Lincoln Alexander to fill the last vacant seat on the youth council.” The youth mayor pointed out, “Lincoln is present tonight.”

“Welcome, my friend!” exclaimed Councillor Dick Michel as he made that very motion.

“Lincoln?” Mayor Roy nodded toward the audience. “Step up, if you would please.”

The new councillor joined the mayor for a picture, jokingly adjusting his shirt to pantomime the mayor buttoning his suit jacket. Both of them grinned.

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Good improv

Rounding out the day’s youth news, Councillor Michel performed his civic duty by bragging about the city’s sports teams.

“On Friday, the Weyburn Bantam Young Fellow Falcons captured the league title in football!” he proclaimed. “Weyburn defeated the Moose Jaw Razorbacks in Moose Jaw to claim this title. Gentlemen: a job well done.”

“I am going to the mayors’ caucus and administrators’ meeting on Thursday,” Mayor Roy remarked. “I will make note to the mayor of Moose Jaw that we beat them there. We will make sure that this well known at the mayors’ caucus.”

I’m happy to do my part here!

Podcast Recap: Heated Meetings

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

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During these hot summer months, why not make it even hotter by listening to some of the most contentious city council meetings featured on the City Council Chronicles podcast?

This week, we revisit:

  1. The takedown of a racist street sign–with Norman, Oklahoma Council Member Breea Clark
  2. A woman who had a traumatic encounter with the Lancaster, Pennsylvania police–with Councilwoman Janet Diaz
  3. Whether to fly the confederate flag on city property–with Danville, Virginia Councilman Lee Vogler
  4. Why the Greensboro, North Carolina city council decided to screen footage of police brutality in a crowded council meeting–with Council Member Justin Outling

Oh, and we did cover one feel-good moment in this episode: the award we recently won! Hooray!

#158: Columbia, SC 6/5/18

“It’s amazing. You referenced the prophet Isaiah–‘come let us reason together’,” Mayor Steven Benjamin mused after a pastor wrapped up his invocation and the audience lifted their heads.

“We’re gonna move to defer item 41 for two weeks in the interest of everyone talking together again. Let’s see if we can get some good discussion.”

Eying the standing room-only crowd–some wearing color-coordinated t-shirts–the mayor added, “we’re not gonna be voting on the healthcare plan tonight. Some of you obviously have other things that you need to be doing.”

A cacophony of disgruntled murmuring arose as a mob of people lined up for the door. Council members sat stiffly and Mayor Benjamin fingered the gavel just in case.

“Please keep it down just a tad bit!” he hollered.

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“See you in two weeks, everyone!”

The crowd may have left, but the fireworks were just getting started.

“Mr. Mayor, I am opposed to this because this is another start of tax breaks for student housing in the city of Columbia,” insisted Councilman Howard Duvall indignantly.

“I respectfully disagree,” Mayor Benjamin replied calmly. “We’re gonna be able to disagree on policy and respectfully disagree.”

For the third time in under a minute, he clarified, respectfully: “But I respect your ability to disagree.”

With that, the fury fizzled. Everyone got on the same page and with rocket speed approved one item after the other–only pausing long enough for Councilman Duvall to exclaim:

“Those were the most detailed plans I’ve ever seen for a bicycle repair rack! About 16 pages!”

All of a sudden, as the clerk prepared to call the roll, Mayor Benjamin stood up and wandered over to Duvall, deliberately switching off the councilman’s microphone and whispering in his ear.

“Mr. Duvall?” the clerk prompted.

With the two men gossiping off mic, Councilwoman Tameika Isaac Devine glanced over. “Howard, say ‘aye’,” she coached.

Duvall whipped around and blinked. “Aye!” he declared, spinning back to continue with the mayor.

Apparently, Mayor Benjamin is a master of keeping secrets. Not five minutes later, he again sprung up to have a side chat with Councilman Edward McDowell, all the while keeping far away from the microphones.

What was he plotting? A surprise party for someone’s birthday? A legislative coup? A strategic ploy to make the front page of City Council Chronicles?

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Mission accomplished, chief.

Councilwoman Devine raised her hand. “I would just say, regarding mainly our land use boards, the new members will have to go through training.”

She fired a warning shot to the newest crop of board members. “They are sitting and representing the city. They need to hear people out. They need to be respectful. And they need to follow the law.”

I would add a final commandment: they need to avoid having side chatter in a business meeting. (Not directed to anyone in particular!)

Moving on to public comment, a man with a striped tie sternly informed council members, “I myself on May 27 was the victim of racial profiling. I wasn’t pleased.”

Then, in a possible attempt at intimidation, he cautioned: “I told your chief, once my people come from Seattle, we will be organizing protests.”

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Seattle knows how to protest, Your Honor.

It didn’t work on Mayor Benjamin. “They’re welcome to come from Seattle, my friend,” he nodded. “We have porous borders. If you are in the borders of the United States of America, you’re welcome to have your positions heard. Happy to talk with you.”

We know you are, Mayor. We know.

Interview #88: Greensboro, NC Council Member Justin Outling (with podcast)

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

Few people have had as eventful a three years on their city council as Justin Outling has had in Greensboro. From the infamous transgender bathroom bill to screening police body camera footage in a meeting, we relived some of the most contentious moments in his council chamber.

Q: I noticed that every council meeting, you bring in a courier. Is this a position of honor or does it go to the city employee who’s about to be fired or what?

A: I think definitely more of the former than the latter! Greensboro city council has had a courier for quite some time now and that person’s task is to provide council with notes either from staff or from persons in the gallery. It’s traditionally a city employee from one of the many departments who has the pleasure of spending four or five hours with us on a Tuesday. Human conveyor belt is probably an apt description.

Q: But if they drop a bunch of files on the floor, they’re not gonna walk in and be fired the next morning in the Parks and Rec department, right?

A: If the call were mine, they would not be fired. But that’s really the city manager’s call. So all couriers in Greensboro, beware: don’t drop the papers!

Q: At one meeting, your Republican state representative came to defend the controversial North Carolina transgender bathroom bill. Do you as council members have to watch what you say about higher level politicians in meetings to avoid them retaliating against you?

A: I think there is a lot of strategy that one has to undertake in moving the ball forward and working with state legislators who do have the power to make your life difficult and act against the interests of the city. There are definitely occasions where you have to exercise restraint and do what you think is best for the city, not necessarily what’s best for your sanity.

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Greensboro, NC Council Member Justin Outling

Q: In the summer of 2016, there was an incident involving a white police officer who used excessive force against a black man and it was captured on body camera footage. Your council decided not only to release that video, but to do it at a council meeting, on camera, with a full room of onlookers. I can imagine council members in other cities going, “what? Why would you ever do such an emotionally-charged, embarrassing, or uncomfortable thing in a council meeting?” 

A: Allowing the citizens to actually see what happened and giving them an opportunity to express their frustration, their disappointment, and their hopes for the future–through that incident, it helped bring some members of the community closer together. It perhaps wasn’t the best for council members’ egos in terms of hearing a lot of unpleasant things from members of our community who were hurting like we were.

Q: As the footage was playing in that council chamber, I’m not sure what you were expecting to happen, but did it happen?

A: Yeah, I was expecting to see a lot of hurt on people’s faces, and that’s exactly what I saw. And it’s the same images I saw on the faces of my colleagues the first time we saw it in a closed session.

Q: Do you see a divide on your council between people who consistently think about what the proper role is for council members, and then others who are better at reacting to the mood of the room?

A: I think there is a divide. I would not characterize it as being better to reacting to the mood of the room. I think some people are much more willing to tell folks what they want to hear, notwithstanding the merit. The reality is that I’m an elected member of Greensboro city council. It is not about me feeling good about what I say and what I do.


Follow Council Member Justin Outling on Twitter: @JustinOutling