Interview #146: Superior, WI Mayor Jim Paine (with podcast)

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

Jim Paine ran into a surprise the day of his second-term swearing in: a stalemate on the Superior council, as no one could claim the council presidency. He discusses why some councilors would not allow him to break a tie, plus gives insight into the student councilors who attend the meetings.

Q: Superior has a coterie of youth councilors–students–who sit in the front row of the council dais every meeting. But I have never seen them say or do anything. They just sit quietly for an hour or more. Is this some kind of alternative detention that you’ve worked out with the school district?

A: You’re the first person to ever ask me about them, but I’m glad you did! This program should be very valuable. I’m going to confess to a little bit of angst here that they don’t participate more. I’ve been in that role–not as a high school student, but part of my local political career began because when I was a university student here, I pushed for more student representation in local government. The Superior mayor at the time laughed me out of his office.

Q: Wow.

A: I was working at a bar at the time and I stormed up and down the bar that night raging about the mayor. It turned out the county board chairman was sitting at the bar and invited me to invent a student seat for the county board, which I did. So I wish that they did participate more. At the county board, those students would let us know everything that was going on in the high school, even if we didn’t care at all! Quite frankly–I don’t think I’ve ever said this locally–I wish they would jump right into the debates. They have working microphones like everybody else. If they ever hit that button in the middle of a hot debate, I’d recognize them immediately.

Q: These kids, these youth councilors, do they have some sort of expectation of what they’re supposed to do in the council meeting?

A: There probably is a misunderstanding between us and them. They’re selected by their high schools to participate. For them, it’s largely a learning exercise. They’re there to watch, listen, and learn. What I’ve communicated to them is they should act as representatives. They should speak up. Now, in their defense, it’s an intimidating environment. Our council debates–if you say something, you’re likely to be challenged. I think they’d get a little bit of leeway being kids, but I know they have opinions.

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Superior, WI Mayor Jim Paine

Q: On April 16, you and half of the council were sworn in to new terms. The next order of business was to elect a council president–someone to fill in for you and assign councilors to committees. There were two candidates for the job: Ruth Ludwig and Brent Fennessey. The result of the vote was Fennessey had five votes, Ludwig had four, and there was one abstention. No one clinched the six-vote majority. Did you know that would happen?

A: The real behind-the-scenes politics there is Councilor Fennessey had the presidency largely locked up months before if there was no change in the council at the elections. There was no change. But one of the councilors who had largely been committed to Councilor Fennessey flipped. He started talking to Councilor Ludwig and decided to vote for Ludwig. That led Councilor [Dan] Olson–who is very close to Councilor Ludwig, but he is much closer politically to Councilor Fennessey–it was fine for him to vote for Councilor Ludwig as long as Fennessey still had six votes. With one of Fennessey’s votes flipping to Ludwig, the vote was 5-5. If it had gone 5-5, I would have voted for Councilor Ludwig and everybody knew it. [Olson’s] abstention prevents an election.

Q: Councilor Olson bizarrely tried to get you to commit to not voting in the event of a tie. I know in politics you shouldn’t take things personally, but hearing that from Dan Olson, that must have been hard not to take personally.

A: I supported him in his first election to city council. He supported me in my election as mayor. I guess I did take that personally–[Ludwig] had the votes. But he said no. I was a little bit offended at the idea that transparency means I should give up the one thing I was there for.

Q: If the two options, as they appeared to be, for the rest of your two years in office were to not have a council president or to draw cards to resolve the tie, would you have continued to be opposed to the cards?

A: Yes, absolutely. We had a council vice president at that time who was capable of exercising authority. So the business of government was fine.


Follow Mayor Jim Paine on Twitter: @JimofSuperior

Interview #144: Belmont, CA Vice Mayor Warren Lieberman (with podcast)

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

Warren Lieberman has been a Belmont council member for 13 years, and there have been a few notable changes. He discusses the mock council exercise he helped institute for second graders and what policies they pretended to pass.

Q: On October 17 of last year, your council welcomed second graders into city hall for a mock council meeting. Tell me why Belmont started bringing the niños into the council chamber.

A: For a long time, Belmont’s second graders have come to visit city hall. Typically they would see the council chambers and they would be told about the council meeting and they would meet the mayor. And I thought, you know what? That doesn’t really give the second graders a good picture or understanding of what happens. So I suggested to make it more interesting, why don’t we actually stage a mock council meeting? We assigned some of the second graders to be council members, some to be city staff, some to be members of the public, and we created a 15-20 minute exercise.

Q: What concept did these kids have the hardest time grasping? Was it amending a motion on the floor before voting on the underlying motion? Or sitting still?

A: While we can’t mimic everything that happens in a council meeting, I think for sure the second graders who were members of the public, they certainly had fun giving the council a piece of their mind.

Q: You’re dividing up these roles and obviously there can only be one mayor. In a class of 25 second graders, how do you pick the best candidate?

A: We put the names in a hat and just picked one out. I would say that for second graders, public speaking does not always come naturally. So sometimes, even after you selected the mayor, you need to help encourage them.

Q: What kinds of laws did those second graders pass? And is this why Belmont’s official city animal is Kayden’s family’s puppy?

A: [laughs] I’m not sure that there’s a connection! The focus of the meetings are on some type of park or recreation item. I believe one year, one of the mayors tried to bring in a zoning ordinance. I’m not quite sure how well that one worked.

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Belmont, CA Vice Mayor Warren Lieberman

Q: In 2018, your council had to fill a vacancy. How detailed were the procedures for doing so and how much could you improvise?

A: The council basically by law has two ways to approach things. You can either appoint somebody and there are certain time limits. Or you can go to an election.

Q: You all had this batch of resumes and you voted on your top candidates. All of them happened to be commissioners. Would it have made sense to say on the application that there would be a preference for commissioners to get that seat, such that everyone else who didn’t have that experience wouldn’t have wasted their time applying?

A: I wouldn’t see it that way. Certainly for myself, I try hard to look at the type of experience that folks have had. Some might be commissioners. Some might be school board members. Some may be active in the Rotary Club. If you had that kind of qualifier, it would discourage people from applying. From my perspective, I would always be considering them.

Interview #142: Denver, CO Former Councilman Rafael Espinoza (with podcast)

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

Rafael Espinoza was the District 1 councilman in Denver for the past four years before stepping down this summer. From meeting attendance to the non-televised public comment sessions, he took issue with some of his council’s operating procedures. Plus, he explains on the podcast how he rapidly made up his mind during a divisive vote on affordable housing.

Q: Unlike most cities out there, your council does not hold public comment during the meetings. Why not? And as a follow-up: how dare you?

A: That was an interesting debate. I very much supported having public comment be televised. Basically we were advised by the city attorney to not do that because once you open public comment, you can’t shut it down. You cannot dictate or control what the individual speaks to. In order to maintain the ability for individuals to speak, but maybe not broadcast things that are not really good to broadcast, the decision was to hold that prior to the actual televised meeting.

Q: So if I’m hearing you correctly, there was a fear that mild-mannered Denverites would be more vulgar, crude, and insulting than all of the other cities that do televise their public comment?

A: There are some usual attendees that take every opportunity they can in public comment to speak. There was concern expressed by members of council that those individuals would take that opportunity to expound upon whatever theories they had.

Q: I noticed that the pre-meeting comment, although not televised, was on your personal Facebook page. Is anyone live streaming the half-hour public comment session now that you are no longer on council?

A: No. I took exception to the fact that we were fearful of having public comment. I took it upon myself to live stream it directly from the dais. But I didn’t bother asking permission. I didn’t think it was a big deal because anybody in the audience could do the same thing. But it did come out years later at a retreat–“hey, you’re doing that and you never bothered asking us.” I was like, “does anyone take issue with it?” And there were enough members of council that did that I ceased making that broadcast.

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Denver, CO former Councilman Rafael Espinoza

Q: Denver has council meetings. It has committee meetings. But it also has a unique third type of meeting called the “mayor-council” meeting. Each week, the council members sit around the table, and your mayor–who is not a part of council–comes in to chair a legislative update between the branches of government. These meetings are typically under a half hour, sometimes under ten minutes. If this is the time for the legislature and the chief executive to be in the same room at the same time, I would expect a little more give and take. What was your impression?

A: It is the lone chance where council is sitting at the table with the mayor in a public forum. Early on I did take advantage of that opportunity to try and raise certain concerns. That wasn’t very well received. It’s more of a perfunctory thing.

Q: I noticed that it was very rare for all council members to show up to the mayor-council meetings. What was your philosophy on showing up? Speaking now as John Q. Voter, should it matter to Denverites whether council members are having face time with the mayor?

A: I think it would be important to have face time with the mayor. I was a regular attendee until I wasn’t. There was a lot of things that were on the consent agenda that I took issue with and I wished we were questioning. I’m notorious on council for wanting to question things. For me personally, it made my skin crawl at times to be sitting in there being deferential when there were things there that I thought should be called out and questioned.


Follow former Councilman Rafael Espinoza on Twitter: @CD1Rafael

Interview #141: Aurora, CO Council Member Nicole Johnston (with podcast)

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

After public commenters demanded that the Aurora council speak out against an ICE detention center in Aurora, Council Member Nicole Johnston and some of her colleagues attended a nationwide, pro-immigrant protest at the facility. However, a small splinter group caused an uproar with their behavior, and one of her colleagues held her publicly–and unfairly–responsible in a council meeting.

Q: At the June 24 council meeting, there was a long list of public commenters. Many of them were there to speak against the U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention center in Aurora. Why was immigration and the ICE facility coming up now?

A: There is a history. We have a center that is overseen by this private GEO Group. But there was an internal investigation that gave a series of infractions. We’ve had outbreaks of measles and chickenpox, which affects our first responders if they have to come in. They can leave being exposed. Nationally and locally, we’ve been looking at this.

Q: You did bring up the federal inspector general’s report at the study session prior to the meeting. In response, Mayor Bob LeGare and Councilwoman Francoise Bergan both said they didn’t think Aurora should get involved in federal affairs. But this came about because you and Council Members Crystal Murillo, Allison Hiltz, and Angela Lawson–or “the Squad”–sent a letter to council expressing concern about conditions at this facility. Did you believe that your other colleagues didn’t know about the ICE facility?

A: We all know about the ICE facility. We were not asking our colleagues to develop policy to step on the feet of our federal government. We were just saying, “hey, this is wrong. We don’t want our community to think that we just stand by this. Please, as a council, let’s sign this unanimously and show strong support that we support our immigrant and refugee communities.” Only four of the ten council members signed that letter.

Q: That brings us to the evening of July 12–a Friday night. Where was Nicole Johnston?

A: I attended, along with many people throughout the country–700 cities–in a Lights for Liberty event. The purpose was to shine light on the atrocities that are happening in detention centers.

Q: The protest was at the detention center.

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Aurora, CO Council Member Nicole Johnston

A: It was. The protest started with a march. There were speakers speaking to the group. Simultaneously, there’s flagpoles–the American flag was flying. While we were speaking, a group of people had gone past this barrier, took down the American flag, put up a flag of Mexico, attempted to burn the American flag, and put up a pro-police flag–but they had defaced it. I did not know all of those details while I was several hundreds of feet away.

Q: The following Monday, there was a scheduled council meeting and the first public commenter to speak was actually Council Member Dave Gruber, who used his time to hold you and two of your colleagues culpable for the group’s actions. Do you think he planned to whip the audience into a frenzy?

A: I absolutely thought that was intentional. It was a packed house. On the side was a woman who had already been tagging me on Twitter, spreading lies. She was ready to record his speech. She downloaded it on a far-right group, which now has probably almost 30,000 views, saying that we were participants in [desecrating the flag].

Q: After he spoke, you tried to cut in, but Mayor LeGare told you that was not the procedure. Minutes later, Council Member Charlie Richardson moved to overturn his ruling and let you speak. How many times since you’ve been on council have council members attempted to overrule the chair?

A: This was the first. We did not organize that protest. When he [said in his comments to] imagine a loved one of a service member being presented with that desecrated flag, that personally insulted me deeply. I was married to a Marine for over 15 years. Council Member Gruber knew that military connection I had. To give that example was dirty, below the belt. It was something that I don’t know if I can get past.

Q: The editorial board of the Aurora Sentinel called for the council to censure Dave Gruber. How do you feel about that?

A: With our council rules, to censure someone we need six votes. If we don’t get the six votes, those that bring that charge forward of censure are responsible for paying all legal or attorney fees. If Council Member Gruber had an attorney to defend himself and we brought forward censure, if we did not get the six votes, we aren’t on the winning side.


Follow Council Member Nicole Johnston on Twitter: @nicoleforaurora

Interview #140: Seaside, CA Council Member Jon Wizard (with podcast)

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

Where should Seaside hold its July Fourth festivities? And would the council endorse a controversial state bill about policing? Jon Wizard walks through his first six eventful months on the Seaside council.

Q: As far back as March, the Seaside council was deliberating what to do for a Fourth of July celebration. You could have held an event at city hall or the local golf course. At that time, what was the Jon Wizard vision for July Fourth bacchanalia?

A: It was really a lively conversation for such a seemingly innocuous decision. For me, it was trying to balance accessibility with environment. The golf course is roughly 70 acres.  People can spread out, plenty of room to move around, and stunning views of Monterey Bay. However, it is on the edge of the city up a hill. Access is difficult. A majority of us decided that for those reasons, the accessibility and the closeness to downtown and city hall would be preferred. But ultimately, that’s not how it went.

Q: Let’s fast forward to June 11, less than a month from showtime. Council Member Jason Campbell stated that he wanted to stick with the less costly city hall option. To which Mayor Pro Tem Dave Pacheco responded that he would donate $2,000 of his own money to have the golf course celebration. Were you surprised?

A: I was surprised. We really focus on providing services and kid-friendly activities throughout the year. We do these large events that don’t cost a penny for the public. The Fourth of July is an expensive event. It was less expensive to do it at city hall.

Q: After the city staff heard the offer, they went into a huddle and came back saying, we can scrounge up some of the money. What kind of precedent do you think it sets that the council as a whole and one council member personally can find several thousand dollars to fund an event when that money could have gone toward social services instead?

A: Those are fair questions and I think it’s important to remember that budgets are set in the second quarter of each year. While the [recreation] department said that they were short, there was already money programmed for a Fourth of July event. Between the money that was already allocated, Council Member Pacheco contributed some money out of his personal funds. The city manager contributed some money. The local building trades council contributed their personal money. While Council Member Pacheco talked about how difficult it is to raise that kind of money in such a short time, if memory serves, all the money was raised that night.

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Seaside, CA Council Member Jon Wizard

Q: At the May 16 meeting, there was an item on the agenda that you put there. You were asking the council to endorse a state assembly bill changing the use of force guidelines for police. Mayor Pro Tem Pacheco had two major concerns. First, the effect on policing. And two, he wasn’t sure what he would be endorsing, given how legislation changes. What did you think of his points?

A: Legislation changes as it moves through the two houses before it reaches the governor’s desk. However, people in the state house are sometimes accused of not having support for their proposed legislation. That they just thought something up and decided it would be a good idea. I thought that Seaside as a historically diverse community–a community that is majority-minority–that it be important that our diversity be reflected in the support of that proposed bill.

Q: Unlike in other communities where the topic of policing brings people out in droves, for this debate there was not quite half a dozen people who showed up to comment. Do you think the debate would have been different if people were not so satisfied with the Seaside Police Department?

A: I think if there was more focus on our police department explicitly, there would have been more participation. I also think that the lack of participation was a function of the time of the evening. Because of all the other business we had to consider, I think it was after 11 p.m. by the time we voted. While there was more than a dozen people who were there to speak on this one topic, after 9 o’clock they had all left except for a handful of people.

Q: It’s not surprising to me that the placement of an item on the agenda can dictate who shows up and who sticks around and who ultimately speaks. Are you implying that because this was obscured farther down in the meeting, the lack of support that might have otherwise been there affected how council members voted?

A: There is a city ordinance that dictates the order in which things were heard. By no means was this item “buried.” I will say, though, that Council Member [Alissa] Kispersky made some comments about a lack of community input. She was moved to vote no against the resolution based on the participation. If we had heard this item at a different time, based on her own justification, she might have voted the other way.


Follow Council Member Jon Wizard on Twitter: @electwizard

Interview #139: Homewood, AL Councilor Jennifer Andress (with podcast)

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

There are a handful of quirks to the Homewood council meetings–from the lack of public comment to the mysterious location of the committee meeting minutes. Jennifer Andress explains the council procedures as well as notable meetings about nuisance properties and Bird scooters.

Q: I noticed that Homewood does not stream its committee meetings online, nor does Homewood put the committee meeting minutes online–

A: No, we do put the [minutes of] committee meetings online. As soon as we approve them, they go online. You’re right about the streaming live. A few of us have talked about that. There’s some extra cost involved. There are 11 of us on the council and I’m not sure that there would be 11 votes for that. I would vote for that.

Q: I’m surprised by your contention that the committee meeting minutes are online because I have the minutes from your public safety committee on April 1, 2019. I had to request the minutes from the city because they were not posted. Why do you make it hard for people to see the work of your government?

A: So we don’t put committee meeting minutes online, you are correct. We do put the council meeting minutes online. The committee meeting minutes are different. The reason we don’t is just the enormity of what it would be. What we’ve done is once those minutes are approved at council, that becomes part of the council minutes.

Q: The committee minutes don’t really capture the lead-up to the action. What was the debate? Who asked what questions? What information did you receive? Do you think that barebones action minutes are appropriate considering they are the only record of the committee’s work?

A: Our city clerk takes diligent notes, but you’re correct, that is what the committee meeting minutes look like. Our council meeting minutes are quite detailed and capture every comment that’s made. But I agree with you, committee meeting minutes are bullet pointed and action oriented.

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Homewood, AL Councilor Jennifer Andress

Q: I realized that I was watching a lot of Homewood meetings about the same topic: nuisance properties. How often do you have to decide whether somebody’s house is a nuisance?

A: I would say maybe once a quarter and they usually put them all on the same night. Our city is eight square miles but we typically know right away when something comes before us; we’re familiar with the property. We’ve got the city covered. There’s 11 of us and we’ve traveled these miles a lot.

Q: With 11 councilors in an eight-square-mile city–more than one councilor per square mile–do you ever worry about the consequences of condemning a house in your neighborhood? How do you deal with those relationships?

A: For example, the home that I had known about for 17 years–it was just in awful condition. We gave this guy a million breaks and a million chances. It’s not hard to argue, “hey, there’s animals living in the kitchen sink.” You gotta think about all the other neighbors around that property that want the property gone. Obviously, you’ve got the homeowner, but you’re also representing everybody around them. Neighbor after neighbor comes up and says, “look, this has been going on for 10 years. This is a detriment to our neighborhood and our property values, and our kids’ safety.” A lot of times it comes down to kids’ safety, honestly. I know that sounds cliche, “what about the kids?” But honestly, they can sue the city [if they go on hazardous property].


Follow Councilor Jennifer Andress on Twitter: @andressjen

Interview #111*: Doraville, GA Council Member Joseph Geierman (with podcast)

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

Joseph Geierman is the first-term District 2 council member who saw his city’s non-discrimination ordinance get held up in brief confusion at a council meeting last year. He explains why it was important to pass the legislation right away and the merits of speeding up council action generally.

Q: On November 5, 2018, the Doraville council was to vote on a non-discrimination ordinance. However, Council Member Pam Fleming wanted it to be a resolution and apply to businesses as well as individuals. What do you believe she was getting at there?

A: I think that Council Member Fleming maybe believed that we were trying to legislate morality by passing a non-discrimination ordinance. Really we were concerned about everyone in our city being treated equally. While I don’t think that she wants people to be treated unfairly, I think that she just had a concern with the concept of a non-discrimination ordinance.

Q: Procedurally, you would need to vote unanimously to waive the first reading and, if successful, would proceed to the final reading that night to pass it on a majority vote. But two council members said, “no, we don’t want to pass it tonight.” Other people responded, “well, we need a special meeting because this is pretty damn important.” Did you feel it was important enough to pass P.D.Q? You know your community; how much discrimination could there have been in the month between council meetings?

A: For us, the bigger impetus was we had been talking about it a lot. I think we were generating buzz in other cities. Since we passed it, several other cities in the area have passed it. Before we did it, no other city in Georgia besides Atlanta had passed a non-discrimination ordinance, and theirs had passed 20 years ago. We really wanted to make a statement with this and we didn’t want it to be pushed and maybe have other cities get ahead of us.

Q: We heard Council Member Fleming’s confusion about what the council had voted on and she moved to switch her vote. Were you surprised that she was surprised about what the council was doing?

A: I think she didn’t want to go to a special called meeting and she decided to go along with waiving the first read. She knew it was gonna pass. Why not go along and get it over with?

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Doraville, GA Council Member Joseph Geierman

Q: This kind of fake-out did surface again in January when your council held a public hearing for whether to allow a telemedicine services clinic in the city. Council Member M.D. Naser was the only one to vote against waiving the first reading. And again, someone attempted to call a special council meeting and the holdout council member caved in and changed his vote. Do you think there is any merit to changing the requirement of unanimity to waive the first reading?

A: I am certainly open to looking at that. The challenge is if we are only meeting on a particular day in a month and the next date is a month later, that’s a long time for a business to wait for their license just because someone feels like we should hear this all again and then vote yes. We should be looking at changing that because it’s a problem.

Q: I get that people have business before the council and it’s a bummer to make them wait for an additional month. But it also benefits the residents to have more than one occasion to give their opinion and it also benefits you all to reflect on what you’ve learned from meeting to meeting. Does the Doraville council prioritize speed over reflection?

A: I’m sure a lot of business owners would feel like they wished we were a little speedier! If there is serious legislation or a change in our rules or something that really would require a lot of public input, I do think that there probably should be a little more discussion about whether we should waive the first reading.


Follow Council Member Joseph Geierman on Twitter: @geierman

*Interview 111 was previously omitted in the numbering order.