Interview #120: Clawson, MI Councilmember Susan Moffitt (with podcast)

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

Susan Moffitt experienced an eventful first year on council in which chickens took center stage! She discusses how people’s backyard pets made the news and how the city is casual in some ways about its procedures.

Q: There is a majorly important subject that exploded in your council’s face last year. I’m talking about backyard chickens. Walk me through how Clawson pecked its way into the spotlight on the chicken issue.

A: Historically, although the city had ordinances that prevented having backyard chickens, the practice was sort of allowed. Citizens told stories of neighbors reporting them and the ordinance enforcer going, “yeah, it’s okay that we have chickens.” Someone in the city had a rooster and that led to some complaints. There was a directive to take care of the rooster, which was misinterpreted to mean, “let’s start enforcing the chicken ordinance.” Chickens used to be a barnyard animal. Now they’re kind of pets. So when letters went out saying you’ve got 90 days to get rid of your chicken, they interpreted it as: “you have 90 days to get rid of your pet.”

Q: Were you angry that you had to resolve a crisis that seemed to be created by previous councils and current city employees deciding to have zero tolerance all of a sudden?

A: I don’t think angry is the right word. Never should our citizens be blindsided; but having had that happen, we had a bunch of citizens engaged. It was great that so many people came out.

Q: You seemed to be very pro-chicken from the start. Other council members over the course of multiple meetings said, “well, at first I thought no on the chickens, but now I’m a maybe, and actually now I’m a yes.” Why do you think they ended up joining you? Did it have anything to do with the fact that people showing up to defend their chickens were normal people who looked and sounded like you all and used their chickens for companionship in a very relatable way?

A: I think that had a lot to do with it. People had those personal connections. Ninety-five percent of the people want chickens and five percent don’t want the chickens. The people that don’t want it, they don’t want it on principle. We’ve been able to refute all of their arguments. If you don’t want chickens, don’t have them. But you can’t reach into your neighbor’s yard and decide whether they’re gonna have them.

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Clawson, MI Councilmember Susan Moffitt

Q: I’m sure you recall your recent meeting of January 2 when Councilmember Paula Millan objected to a vote to confirm the mayor’s appointees because the charter said the council was supposed to receive their resumes–and you did not receive them. How blindsided did you feel?

A: Not only was I blindsided, but the mayor was blindsided. What I don’t understand is if she felt she should have received something prior to the meeting, why she waited until five minutes before the meeting started to request it.

Q: How worried do you get about the city’s image and the confidence people have in the government when one council member waltzes in, pulls out their phone, and reads the section of the charter that you all are not following?

A: That’s one piece in all of the activities that we do. If they’re upset about it, they have the opportunity to talk to us. There’s a lot of pieces of our charter that are old or outdated. I always have concerns about following a law for the law’s sake. One of the things about our city that’s unique is that we have a sense of moving forward without being overly concerned about the laws on a regular basis–evidenced by the fact that we had a chicken ordinance that was prohibiting chickens and it wasn’t enforced for years and years. That’s how Clawson has been governed for a long time for good or for ill. The citizens seem to not be upset by those kinds of things.


Follow Councilmember Susan Moffitt on Twitter: @Moffitt4Clawson

Interview #118: Decatur, IL Reporter Tom Lisi (with podcast)

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

Tom Lisi, a reporter with the Herald & Review, has had a literal front row seat to some of the more surprising votes in the Decatur city council–including guidelines for trick-or-treating, a second ambulance license, and a late-game switch for a local golf tournament.

Q: Let’s go to May 7, 2018. What was your council’s beef with professional golf–other than, you know, it’s golf?

A: The tournament is in the Hickory Point Golf Course, which is outside the city of Decatur. It’s in the other side of the tracks–the “good” other side of the tracks–in Forsyth. Usually, in years past, [Decatur] paid the tournament the sponsorship earlier in the year. They held off, so out of frustration, the organizers of the tournament pulled the name [Decatur].

Q: The motion to provide the $20,000 tournament funding failed 3-3 in that council meeting. How shocked were you that the council didn’t break par on that one?

A: Honestly, it was surprising. Part of the reason that that motion failed was the mayor was absent this week. I can feel pretty safely in saying that she would’ve voted for that. If she was there, the motion would’ve passed. But that was one of the shockers of the year, that vote.

Q: And you don’t feel that there was any rigging of the calendar to ensure the mayor would be out of town when this came up?

A: [chuckles] I can’t speculate on that. I guess the bloggers and 4chan commenters out there might have a different theory, but as far as I know she was just on vacation or something.

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Decatur, IL reporter Tom Lisi

Q: Councilman David Horn, with this issue and others I’ve observed, is not shy about offering amendments or compromises. Is he the one who most often brings suggestions to the council floor?

A: Yeah, and he’s definitely gotten blowback from other council members on that. It’s sort of a tactic he’s used from time to time and it does throw other council members off–“we had a plan and now you’re trying to throw something new in.” It is a little strange to walk through that and people getting twisted up in Robert’s Rules stuff.

Q: So their irritation comes not from the fact that he’s refusing to go along with the program, it’s just a last-minute addition to the deal they already thought they had?

A: You know, the way these city manager-council forms of government work is the city manager discusses the agenda with council members individually. He has to go with, “what does the majority of the council seem to want?” Councilman Horn is often not in that majority, so I guess you could say the amendment tactic is a way to say, “I’m not on board with the decision that was made beforehand. So I’m gonna throw my two cents in right now and see if anybody goes along with it.”

Q: I didn’t see a lot of public commenters show up to that vote about pulling the tournament funding. Was that because everyone thought it was a sure deal? Or do they just not care about it?

A: I think it might’ve been a mixture of both. I think the average Decatur resident probably doesn’t care that much about that tournament. Maybe people from other parts of the world–because the LPGA is big in parts of Asia–it puts this focus on Decatur in a way residents that live there don’t even know about. There’s definitely people that were really frustrated by that vote. It’s possible they didn’t show up because they didn’t think it was that controversial.


Follow Tom Lisi on Twitter: @tommylisi

Month in Review: November 2018

Turkey. Cranberry sauce. Council meetings?

In November, there was plenty to be thankful for in municipal governance, as we witnessed several provocative council meeting moments worth reviewing.

Remember the city council that grew some “jacket envy” after seeing a group of international visitors?

Or the city that was running out of space to list its sports victories?

Surely you recall the council member who brought Donald Trump into a meeting in a bigly way?

But it was also a month for fresh ideas for how to run a council meeting. For example: conduct a racial equity training. Or have high school students present new policies.

To see what we served up on the Thanksgiving dinner table, visit the November Month in Review.

And if you are curious about whether anyone has raised the roof in a council meeting, this guy answers that question:

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Podcast Recap: A Council Christmas Carol

This Christmas, we are celebrating the third year in a row that City Council Chronicles (and our other project, Tear It Down) has made the ELGL Top 100 Local Government Influencers list! We are very thankful for the award, and you can read more about the other 99 honorees on ELGL.org.

Simultaneously, you can listen to our holiday-themed podcast episode on iTunesStitcherPlayer FM, and right here:

CCCXMAS

On this episode, you will hear excerpts from these full interviews:

1. Interview #109: Calgary, AB Councillor Jyoti Gondek (with podcast)

2. Interview #114: Toronto, ON Former Councillor Joe Mihevc (with podcast)

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

4. Interview #117: Boynton Beach, FL Vice Mayor Christina Romelus (with podcast)

As always, the podcast’s 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:

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#179: Clawson, MI 12/18/18

It was the type of announcement that separates the city councils who take the winter holidays seriously from those who are, well, Scrooges.

“Every year we have beautification awards,” explained a representative from the Parks and Recreation Department. “People can call in houses they see around town that they really like the way they’re decorated.”

She added, “our Parks and Rec Advisory Board also goes out and are each assigned a section of town. They kind of score all the houses. The top five point-getters were the ones we give awards to tonight.”

With that, the five chosen families strolled to the front of the chamber for a photo. Many of them sported some type of seasonal attire–from the more discreet Santa pin and St. Nick hat to the more flashy necklace of Christmas lights and festive sweaters.

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The decorators

If you were expecting this Yuletide cheer to be followed by three French hens, two turtle doves, or even six geese a-laying, city attorney Jon Kingsepp disappointed you–but only slightly–by talking instead about backyard chickens.

“Fifty years ago, they were barnyard animals. Dinner table items. That’s no longer the case,” he explained.

“Chickens are great in most cases, unless you’re a neighbor that doesn’t want chickens next door to you,” Mayor Debbie Wooley observed dryly.

Kingsepp sighed. “There are two ways to look at that. There’s one that can say, ‘I don’t like chickens next to me because they’re loud and they’re gonna attract vermin.’ The other approach is, ‘if you like cats and dogs next door, then what is the difference with chickens?’ The noise level of a chicken is extremely low.”

“I want zero” chickens, shot back Council Member Paula Millan. “Not because I don’t like people’s chickens but because I don’t want them in my backyard. I just don’t.”

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Beware the Butcher of Clawson

She paused. Although her reaction was intense, it was not, in fact, poultryphobic. “I don’t think it’s the animal that’s really the problem,” she admitted. “I would assume it’s most likely the owner. If you have a neighbor that cares only about themselves and not the people around them, there’s an issue.”

A woman in the front row seized on a lull in the discussion and launched into a tutorial on chicken care. Rather than cut her off, surprisingly, the mayor allowed a microphone to be passed down.

“Great pets,” she boasted of her own chickens. “No one ever knew we had ’em. My aviary was spotless. The rats cannot get into it.

“There are rats in our neighborhood. A lot of ’em. But they never came for my chickens.”

A posse of women from the earlier home decorating contest were sitting two rows back in their Christmas sweaters nodding vigorously.

“My grandchildren–24 grandchildren–played with those chickens like a puppy. They were very sweet,” she argued, while one of those 24 grandchildren slumped in his chair next to her asleep.

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Dreaming of poultry playtime at grandma’s

Chickens may have been quiet and kind. Heck, they could have been the cure to cancer. But Council Member Millan was immovable.

“Some of my neighbors have been on our block since they built their homes in 1967. They don’t want chickens in their backyard,” she insisted. “Their perception is not that they are pets.

“It’s not against the animal. It’s about, ‘I moved to a city. Didn’t move to a farm. Where’s it gonna end?'”

She shrugged. “We have to address the ‘where’s it gonna end’ thing.”

Perhaps next year, Clawsonians can decorate an aviary and win the beautification contest. Then people might realize that chickens can be family, not food.

#178: Marion, IL 12/10/18

While the Marion city council undoubtedly gets points for its assortment of dais decorations–including flower pots, a wall portrait, and a giant construction-style sign–the real focus was off-camera.

“We have a great big group here tonight,” observed Mayor Anthony Rinella as his eyes darted across the audience, “and we have a spokesman for that group. Would you come forward and tell us what you guys are here for?”

A teenager wearing a baseball cap and camouflage sweatshirt popped up at the microphone. “We’re here for our civics class. We have a service learning project and coming to a meeting like this is one of the requirements.”

“Okay,” responded the mayor. “Who’s your teacher?”

“Mr. Martin.”

“Coach Martin. How come he’s not here?”

“Good question,” the teenager answered uncomfortably. “I’ll have to ask.”

“Ask him tomorrow. I mean, does he not have to be part of the program?”

Pause. “I guess not.”

“Make him run laps,” insisted the mayor.

Two of the commissioners smiled and glanced at each other. Commissioner Angelo Hightower surveyed the room cautiously. Commissioner John Goss stared blankly at the desk.

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Was it an excused absence?

“Okay. Our favorite council meeting of the year,” Mayor Rinella announced in monotone. “Guys, this is exciting. We’re gonna go over the city audit.”

A car alarm sounded outside the chamber. “Uh-oh, we gotta leave!” joked the mayor as the car’s owner quickly silenced the horn.

Although it was likely a joke that the audit meeting was the “favorite” of the year, it wasn’t at all a bad thing to hear that money was coming hand over fist into Marion.

“If you look back at 2005, the first year I got here, your total revenue was $15 million,” explained a city employee. “Look at this year. Thirty-three million dollars. That says a lot.”

“So since 2006, our total revenue has more than doubled?” the mayor quizzed incredulously.

“It has.”

Mayor Rinella nodded. “That sends you to bed feeling good about yourselves, guys,” he offered to the commissioners.

He then stared into the crowd at one of the city’s recreation employees. “Favorite part of the night,” he deadpanned by way of summoning the man to the lectern.

“If I may brag a bit on our Marion HUB Manta Rays. I’m sporting a shirt today–” the recreation employee opened his jacket to show off a bright yellow t-shirt emblazoned with a large ray. “They finished fourth out of 15 of the non-home teams.”

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Smells like team spirit

After the swim team had received sufficient on-camera promotion, the mayor wrapped up. “Last week we talked about some apps that the city introduced. One was a Facebook page and the other was the Nextdoor app. Well this past week, we had some incidences of vandalism on people’s Christmas ornaments.

“One of the people that was videoing this occurring had the Nextdoor app. So our Nextdoor app, in just one week’s time of people getting on this, is nothing more than the neighborhood watch going high tech.”

He added, “hats off to our IT department.”

He shuffled his papers and remembered that the group of students was still watching him. “You guys got any questions? Did you learn anything?”

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I learned that there is a “Governor’s Hometown Award.”

A few in the audience mumbled replies.

“You’ve just come to one of our mild, boring meetings how we conduct city business,” Mayor Rinella said matter-of-factly. “I apologize for that.”

Well, at least he is making their teacher run laps. Perhaps that made it all worth it.

Interview #114: Toronto, ON Former Councillor Joe Mihevc (with podcast)

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

Joe Mihevc was a councillor for over 20 years when Ontario’s premier suddenly announced in the middle of this year’s election that he was cutting the size of Toronto’s city council from 47 wards to 25. This prompted several chaotic council meetings and even more chaotic provincial legislative sessions.

Q: Where were you on the night of July 26, 2018?

A: All councillors were in council session. That’s when we heard rumor on the second floor during the council meeting that something big was happening. We very quickly understood that the premier was going to be making an announcement the very next day that he was going to reduce our council.

Q: You said the word “premier.” For our American listeners, you’ll have to explain what that is. I’m assuming the premier is some sort of demigod? An authoritative mystic with the magic of Dumbledore and the charisma of Barack Obama?

A: Well, the equivalent to premier is “governor.” Here if you win the premiership, you also run the political party that has charge of the legislature. So it’s a pretty neat gig if you can get it.

Q: Councillor Paula Fletcher used the term “Trump tactics” to describe Premier Doug Ford’s council cuts. Do you agree with her description?

A: Absolutely. When we use those words in Canada, in this context it meant that the premier was acting in an authoritarian way. He was not consulting the folks that were impacted. It basically came from his head and he felt he needed to act, which is our perception of how things flow these days at the presidential level.

Q: During the July 27 meeting, you took a dinner break. And after councillors came back, the tone was completely different and more confrontational. What changed during that break?

A: As the day went on it became clear that the threat was real. I would suggest that what Doug–a part of him wanted us to fight it out. He actually provoked a “Hunger Games” at the city. Forty-four councillors recognized that if we did go to 25, there would be a fight for many a seat. Every councillor positioned himself to be active on the issue partly to show the community how strong they were going to be opposing Doug Ford.

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Toronto, ON former Councillor Joe Mihevc

Q: Help me understand the types of councillors who were in favor of the province’s action. You mentioned there were Doug Ford’s allies, but were there also people who really could not stand the way your council operates?

A: I think the people who were supportive of Doug Ford’s actions–all of them were on the right-wing side of council.

Q: What do you make of the notion that as a councillor, you don’t have to have 12-hour days and do everything for everyone. With fewer councillors, your focus should be on taking votes in meetings, legislating, and not micromanaging everything that goes on in your neighborhoods?

A: That’s a very good point. It depends on your philosophy. If you want to put it on a spectrum, you can say on one side you are the board members of this $12 billion corporation called the city of Toronto and you are there to make decisions. That’s your job and that’s it. Others feel–and I would be one of them–that you have face time with residents. To double the size [of wards] means to get half the amount of face time.

Q: You knew Doug Ford when he was a city councillor. I take it he was a stickler for efficiency, effective governance, and moral rectitude?

A: [chuckles] Doug Ford was a stickler for trying to grab the limelight and score political points on how he hated all government. The word “dysfunction” that Doug Ford labeled city council–it was dysfunctional for many years when he and his brother [Rob Ford] were here. He was willing to go up into the audience. There was once when he was taunting them to come down and take him on. I remember those times as really tumultuous. Once they left, guess what? A new calm. I would suggest right now that provincial parliament is highly dysfunctional, and he’s at the center of that dysfunction.


Follow former Councillor Joe Mihevc on Twitter: @joemihevc