Interview #110: Montpelier, VT Mayor Anne Watson (with podcast)

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

Anne Watson is a high school teacher and first-term mayor who made a few tweaks to the council meetings when she took the gavel this year. She explains why high school students come into the council chamber regularly and we discuss a contentious meeting about a vacancy this spring.

Q: I noticed that your council does not say the Pledge of Allegiance in your meetings. Mayor Watson, simple question: how dare you?

A: You know, I think it’s sort of assumed that we’re all on board with loving America. So we just use our time well and want to just keep moving forward!

Q: Please tell me that you at least have Judeo-Christian prayer before the meetings.

A: No, we don’t pray before the meetings either!

Q: Oh, my god. If the French Canadians want to invade you people, I could care less at this point. I notice that you have been cursed with a finicky sound system. What is the problem with the microphones in your council chamber?

A: The microphones were a little bit far away from the edge of the desks and so for a long time, we had to lean over the desks to get close enough to actually be heard. We could look into getting some better mics that might actually pick us up, but they were just recently moved to be closer. And actually, since that meeting happened, we’ve had some better sound.

Q: I want to talk about some of the aspects of the meetings that changed since you became mayor earlier this year. Do I understand that you instituted a two-minute limit on public comment?

A: That’s correct. We actually have a card that one of our councilors holds up. The one side says you’ve got one minute left and the other side says you’ve got to stop.

Q: I love low-tech solutions. Perhaps for the sound system you could just roll up a piece of paper and talk through it like a megaphone instead!

A: There we go!

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Montpelier, VT Mayor Anne Watson

Q: Is there now in your council chamber a white board with future agenda items?

A: There is an agenda board and that was something that I asked for. I think it’s really helpful for planning our time. When we’re in the council meetings and we’re thinking about if we are going to table this topic or somebody raises an issue that’s worth talking about further, then we can right there have a visual representation of when it might fit in our future agendas.

Q: Tell me about the kids who come into your meetings to drop policy on you.

A: So every year, there’s a class at the high school that does a project around civics and whatever topics are going on in the city. They come to the council and make a pitch. There was one we had about possibly banning plastic bags in the city of Montpelier. We have an item on the ballot on November 6 coming up as to whether we should be asking the legislature for permission to enact some kind of ban on plastic bags. The kids were definitely a part of that.

Q: You are actually a teacher at the high school there. If a student said to you, “Ms. Watson, I didn’t do my homework for your class because I was working on my policy project for the city council,” would you be mad?

A: Oh, of course I would! Well, I probably wouldn’t be mad, but I would probably say something like, “listen, you need to manage your time.”


Follow Mayor Anne Watson on Twitter: @anneofvermont

#156: Denison, TX 4/2/18

It was only appropriate that a Texas-sized stemwinder of a prayer kicked off the Denison council meeting.

“Every beginning has its ending and every ending has a new beginning. Help our leaders to know what to cling to, what to preserve, and what to let go of,” a woman in an Easter-Bunny-pink shirt requested from the heavens.

“Empower each one of them to use their unique gifts to create a beautiful life in our community. As they are guided by your holy spirit, our entire community will flourish.”

It was more important than usual that the prayer today be thorough, for the council was facing an issue that might usher in copious amounts of sin:

Whether to give a nightclub an alcohol and live music permit.

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Pray for cheap drinks

“One of the situations in the request is also the operating hours,” a staff member explained. “Proposed operating hours for this are Thursday through Saturday, 8 p.m. to 2 a.m.”

He quickly added, “this is inside the entertainment district. A nightclub use, live music, is appropriate.”

When I think “small-town Texas entertainment district,” I imagine rodeos and gun stores, not live music and dancing. Talk about pushing boundaries!

“We are the owners of the nightclub,” a couple announced at the lectern. “Here for any questions you may have.”

“Is this your first time to operate a nightclub?” Mayor Jared Johnson quizzed them.

“Yes. I’ve worked in nightclubs before off and on throughout the years,” replied the man confidently.

Councilmember J.C. Doty was surprised at how late the nightclub would keep the music cranking. “You’re requesting to be open till 2 a.m. I know some of the other places around close at midnight,” he observed. “Was there a specific reason why you wanted to stay open till 2 a.m.?”

“We’re only gonna be open three nights a week,” countered the owner, much to the chagrin of the Tuesday-night club aficionados. “I believe that’d be very important for our profit margin to have a couple extra hours per night.”

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Who closes at midnight??

“So being in the entertainment district,” the mayor mused aloud, “should there be an event on a Saturday afternoon that they could benefit from being open during that time, what would be the process for allowing them to do that?”

Mayor Pro Tem Kris Spiegel abruptly leaned forward to defend the tiny business from the heavy hand of big government.

“I guess I don’t understand why we’re limiting it to 8 [p.m.] to 2 [a.m.] Whether they open at 5 p.m. or 4 p.m., I don’t know why we care.”

The staff member seemed to back up the libertarian point of view, replying, “I’d have to request the ordinance. I’m not sure that we have to restrict their hours. I believe we request them to give us operating hours.”

The mayor, sensing a compromise between the open-anytime wing of the council and the eight-to-two faction, said, “if it’s the council’s pleasure, what they’re suggesting is to put in a number not to exceed five or six times a year to have different opening hours.”

He glanced to his left. “Mr. Pro Tem, does that make sense?”

Spiegel nodded. “Understood.”

After a moment’s silence, he continued, “does that mean you want me to make a motion?”

“That’d be great,” the mayor deadpanned to laughter, before adding ominously, “don’t mess it up.”

And just as the prayer said: the council knew what to preserve and knew what to let go of.

Interview #64: Mobile, AL Council Member Levon Manzie (with podcast)

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

Levon Manzie is a reverend by day who served on the school board and recently won his second term as the District 2 representative. He shares how he benefits from having prayer in the council meetings, plus his thoughts on rules and compassion. And be sure to listen to the audio–I give him some suggested catchphrases for District 2.

Q: Every Mobile city council meeting opens with a prayer. Whenever you give that prayer, how is it different from the prayer you write for Sunday morning?

A: To be honest, it isn’t that much different because I really don’t write it. When I’m called upon, I seek inspiration. At that moment before a council meeting, I wanted god to bless what we were voting on. What we were deliberating over touches the lives of [thousands of] individuals.

Q: Have you ever watched someone else give the prayer and thought, “oof, that’s a little heavy handed?”

A: That has not happened to my knowledge. The scheduler tries to have a variety of ministers offer the blessing. Now, there have been some I thought were too long!

Q: [Laughs] Would you ever begrudge someone who says, “this is a business meeting. I don’t think it’s appropriate to be praying.”

A: I wouldn’t begrudge someone. But for me, I think prayer is most appropriate. Just last week to the right of us, Hurricane Irma. To the left of us, Hurricane Harvey. So I’m not ashamed about being mindful that we’ve been blessed and it’s most appropriate to acknowledge that. Again, those are my personal views. I believe most persons would pray specific to the city of Mobile or a general prayer asking for guidance in a general sense.

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Mobile, AL Council Member Levon Manzie

Q: You were on the school board before this. Is the difference between school board meetings and council meetings like the difference between the minor leagues and the major leagues? Or between decaf coffee and a shot of espresso? How would you compare them?

A: I think decaf and espresso would probably be the best analogy. On the school board we dealt with one overarching theme, which was providing quality education. Everything was judged off of that standard. Every contract. Every appointment. Every vacancy. Here in the city, it’s not as single-focused.

Q: How would you describe council President Gina Gregory’s style at running meetings?

A: You know, she’s a veteran. She’s compassionate, sometimes allowing individuals to go over the alloted time so they can completely finish their thought. But she’s also orderly. And when people go off topic or when they abuse their time, she knows how to be strict.

Q: So you’re saying that compassion and rule-bending are just as important in some situations as being strict and treating everyone the same in every circumstance.

A: Well, one hundred percent. You have to be as compassionate or as strict as the person will allow you to be. If you’ve got somebody who is causing a ruckus in the meeting, there isn’t any room for compassion. But if you’ve got an individual who is impassioned about changes that are proposed for his or her community and they’re about 90 percent from finishing a complete thought and they’ve followed the rules, it’s incumbent upon you to judiciously allow some rule-bending. And I think she’s mastered that.


Follow Council Member Levon Manzie on Twitter: @lcmanzie06

Interview #38: Edmonton, AB Councilor Bev Esslinger (with podcast)

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

It’s our first dip into the waters of Alberta and boy, what a fun time it was! I talked to Bev Esslinger, a councilor in Edmonton. We addressed accusations that the Edmonton council meetings are a “man cave,” and also discussed the seemingly-unrelated subjects of prayer and city hall security.

Q: Something caught my eye on the CBC. This is a story from January:

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Do you agree with this characterization of your city council meetings as an “upscale man cave?”

A: I wouldn’t call it a man cave. The last time, we didn’t have that many women running for council. We’ve been really working on that in Edmonton to improve that. We’ve changed some of our policies to be more family friendly–it’s good for everyone if meetings end at 5:30 rather than going into the evening after a full day of debate. No one’s at their best when the meeting goes past that time.

Q: Something that was big at your city council was the 2015 Supreme Court decision saying that prayer at government meetings was not allowed. You didn’t seem to like this, but looking back at almost two and a half years without prayer, is it still a disappointment?

A: Absolutely. We used to start our meeting with a prayer from a different interfaith group each time. It was always a very nice part of the day. I thought it reflected the diversity we have.

Q: City council meetings are a business meeting, ceremony, and public forum rolled into one. Did it help you do your job to have someone give a prayer right before you heard about things like zoning?

A: It was a moment of pause to reflect on our community’s diversity. It was a moment where people got to wish us their best. Hey, we can all use more prayer!

Q: I’ll give that an amen. But one of the suggestions to replace the prayer was to have a “moment of reflection” when citizens would say what it meant to them to be an Edmontonian through a poem or a song. You were against it. Why?

A: It went from a prayer to something that could be very broad.  I didn’t think it was the same thing at all.

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Edmonton, AB Councilor Bev Esslinger

Q: Perhaps you haven’t heard a poem about Edmonton that truly blew your socks off. May I read my poem?

A: Why not!

Q: Okay:

Saskatchewan River–
Cold waters as sharp
As Gretzky’s skates.
Light rail
Now going to Century Park.
What’s that?
That’s the Royal Alberta Museum.
History!…Mmm so thirsty;
Better go to the waterpark
At the West Edmonton Mall.
Splash
Into Alberta!

When I visit Edmonton, can I read that at a council meeting?

A: No.

Q: …Okay, let’s change the subject. On September 22, 2015, a group of cab drivers protested during a meeting when you were deciding whether to allow Uber in Edmonton. Have you ever been concerned about your safety at a council meeting?

A: Not really. It’s disruptive–you can’t conduct a meeting. We don’t try to get into it with people. In this case, this large a group of people reacting…you can’t continue your meeting.

Q: You decided to beef up your security with metal detectors and a glass wall. Wouldn’t it be cheaper if the councilors carried guns?

A: That would not be Canadian.


Follow Councilor Bev Esslinger on Twitter: @bevesslinger

Interview #32: Lee’s Summit, MO Council Member Chris Moreno (with podcast)

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

Lee’s Summit city council meetings have been extremely contentious over the past eight months. Two council members have even called on each other to resign. One of them, Chris Moreno, is facing a recall election because some people are unhappy with his conduct at council meetings. But he remains steadfast. He talks here about his preparation for council meetings and how he deals with the criticism.

Q: On the day of the council meetings, what do you do to prepare? Do you have a ritual?

A: I just do a lot of studying. I do a lot of prayer, a lot of thinking about the agenda and the topic itself. I play a lot of worship music throughout my breaks.

Q: Interesting. When you were first elected, did you have to do an orientation on things like how to make a motion and how to debate?

A: Yeah, Robert’s Rules of Order and all that good stuff. I was a debater in high school, so I kind of knew [that stuff].

Q: Where did the debating team stand in the social hierarchy in your high school?

A: I was a basketball guy. I loved basketball and so when I was introduced to debate, I kind of was like, “this is not for me.” But I loved the challenge. I loved public speaking. Playing sports, my friends–I loved them all, but we weren’t exactly straight-A students, you know?

Q: Gotcha. So, it came out last year that allegedly Council Member Diane Forte improperly got city contracts for her own business. You were very critical of her and it bled over into the council meetings. You said this about her:

I personally do not believe that after the lies you told to the cameras and to this body, that this can continue to go on.

Here was her response:

To come on this council and try to destroy relationships that I have built in this city–if anyone’s going to resign, it’s not going to be me! It’s going to be you!

How do you think the other council members and staff felt while this was going on?

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Lee’s Summit, MO Council Member Chris Moreno

A: The context of this was: that was four weeks later and she was refusing to acknowledge her illegal business deals. For me, this isn’t personal. For me, it’s about government. We should not have politicians profiting off of taxpayer dollars.

Q: You are facing a recall election in April. Can you think of anything you said–or the way in which you said it–at the council meetings that you would have done differently?

A: No. I think I actually was more courteous than what I should have been. I couldn’t say right then and there, “you have deals that violated state law.” Looking back, I wish I would have.

Q: You once called the public comment at your council meetings a “Jerry Springer Show.” What would you do to reform it?

A: We have these people coming in with an agenda: to personally attack politicians on grounds that have nothing to do with city business. That being said, I’m not opposed to criticism. They have a right to do it. But we should not allow for a political campaign to take place at the dais.


Follow Council Member Chris Moreno on Twitter: @MorenoDadKC