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

#124: Rockledge, FL 8/16/17

Mayor Thomas Price was all smiles as he kicked off the meeting.

“Can I have the Friends of the Children of Brevard come up?” he announced, glancing coyly at the audience. Surrounded by a clique of three women, he reached underneath the podium.

“You’re gonna get the proceeds from our golf tournament. It’s my pleasure to present you with”–he hoisted a giant novelty check–“a $21,000 check!”

The women’s jaws dropped as the council clapped and hollered. After the ceremonial picture, Mayor Price turned toward them. “Are any of you Rockledge residents?”

“I am,” one of them volunteered.

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My eyes have never worked so hard to watch a council meeting.

The mayor instantly produced a smaller gift (my sources tell me either an energy bar or a piece of candy) and handed it to her as the room erupted in laughter. I can only assume that this is the mayor’s calling card and it’s not the first time he’s passed out snacks here.

Taking his seat on the dais, Mayor Price steered the council through a series of permit fees and zoning ordinances that were heavy on words and light on drama. He paused.

“Folks, we’re not always this boring. We just gotta get through all these ordinances first,” he winked, causing another round of chuckles from the crowd.

Suddenly, the infamous Rockledge Environmental Enforcement Board had a handful of open spots–and controversy flared.

“How many vacancies do we have?” the mayor quizzed the council. “Two. How many people do we have applied? Two.”

He waved his hand. “This is going to be easy.”

“If I may,” interrupted Vice Mayor T. Patrick O’Neill, “my recommendation would be that we only fill one of these vacancies tonight rather than throwing new meat into too many boards at one time.”

“New meat?” It’s an advisory board, not Army boot camp. I think everyone will survive. Nevertheless, under the New Meat Doctrine, the council dutifully filled one seat and left the other languishing.

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Strike it through, boys!

It was at this point the city manager announced another vacancy: hers.

“Tomorrow night, I will be flying out of town. I’ll return Monday morning,” she said. “In my absence, Matthew Trine, our finance director, will be the acting city manager.”

“Are beards allowed for our acting city managers?” teased Mayor Price, shooting a look of feigned skepticism to Trine.

“I’ll have to check the dress code, mayor!” quipped the city manager as the council guffawed.

But one man who wasn’t in a lighthearted mood was Council Member Frank Forester, who gave a pained soliloquy on the deterioration of public protests.

“I’ve been watching the news again. You know how THAT can cause problems these days,” he frowned. “I saw a lot of this back in the day when I was in college. The thing I didn’t see then that I’m seeing now is people wearing masks.”

He leaned back in his chair and searched for words. “I kind of feel like, if you’ve got something to say, let people see who’s saying it. Otherwise, who cares? I might care what a man or a woman has to say, but I don’t care what a mask has to say.”

The city attorney joined the grievance bandwagon as council members listened silently. “Those people who dress like that have nothing to say. They really don’t. What they wanna do is cause a scene.”

Beards, masks…the city manager better take a hard look at the fashion guidelines on her flight out of Rockledge.

Interview #56: Cork, IE Lord Mayor Tony Fitzgerald (with podcast)

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

Cork is a very old city and by my cursory count, Tony Fitzgerald may well be the six-hundredth-or-so mayor to lead the council! He has been a councilor since 2004 and I was curious to know where he stood on putting cameras in the council chamber. He has an open mind and wants to do his research, but also says that the rules are a firm “no” on the issue.

Q: I noticed that the Cork City Council does not live stream its meetings. In fact, in 2014 the council voted against live streaming by a margin of 22-6. Which side were you on?

A: My understanding was that we didn’t have the proper procedures. I mean, it’s important to make the meetings interesting to the public and it’s important to keep the focus on the issues of the city rather than, you know, making political speeches. So I would have an open mind to that. If I do recall it now, it wasn’t really very well thought out.

Q: I’ve said this before on the program: if people can’t see the entire meeting, all they know is the sensational stuff that gets tweeted out or the protest videos on YouTube. That also skews people’s perceptions of your council meetings.

A: Yes, yes. I think as well that in 2014, budgets were quite limited. I think spending money to video record council meetings…that money would have been much wiser spent in housing or roads. You have to be prudent in terms of what is the best way to spend public money.

Q: I do have a suggestion for you. Cork has, I think, 125,000 people. In an American city of that size, you might have five to seven city council members. Cork has 31. And I would argue that a small council where you can see what they’re doing is MORE democratic than a large council where you cannot. So what do you think of finding the money in that way?

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Cork, IE Lord Mayor Tony Fitzgerald

A: Well, at the moment there is a report due on the representation of the number of elected members to the city council. All of that is up for review at the moment. But I would think that it’s good to have a strong interface with the public. I think it’s good to have as many voices as possible. It gives you wide political perspective.

Q: Do you have a smart phone, sir?

A: I do.

Q: Would you commit to doing a Facebook Live video of council meetings on your phone–for free–before you leave office?

A: That’s something I haven’t considered. It’s not as easy for me to say that today. I’m more of a practical representative in doing my research. That would have to be considered by the party leaders, the party whips, in conjunction with the administration. I mean, we have to stick to the rules of the council. But I have a very open mind on a lot of issues.

Q: Well, you have 31 councilors. You can have 31 potential Facebook Live videos, each streaming out to their hundreds or thousands of followers and you could cover a pretty good size of Cork that way.

A: Yeah, yeah. But we have to look at the practicalities of that too. But that’s something that could be considered.

Q: Okay. Well, keep me posted.


Follow Lord Mayor Tony Fitzgerald on Twitter: @Tfitzgeraldcork

#112: Auburn, WA 6/19/17

As council members idly chatted while awaiting the mayor’s arrival, a little girl shuffled quietly to the middle of the chamber.

She planted herself in front of the dais and wiped her nose on a flowing blue skirt. After several moments of silent staring, she caught the attention of Councilmember Yolanda Trout-Manuel.

“Come on up,” Trout-Manuel called, waving to the staircase beside her.

The little girl bolted away wide-eyed. “Mommy!” she yelled. Then she whirled around and sprinted to the staircase. “I’mbusy!I’mbusy!I’mbusy!” she chanted, scaling the steps to the dais.

“DESTINY ROSE!” bellowed the mother as her daughter marched around the desk shaking hands with council members. “Come on,” she hissed angrily as the girl jumped into her front row seat and began kicking excitedly.

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WARNING: Do not try to invite yourself onto a dais if you are not a cute little girl.

Mayor Nancy Backus gaveled open the meeting and the girl’s mother immediately slid behind the podium.

“My main concern is with the sex offender registry. Level 2 and Level 3 are required to give notifications. Why not Level 1?” she quizzed the council. “Someone I know is on that registry before I even knew he had contact with my daughter.”

The police commander reassured her: “all registered sex offenders are supposed to be on the King County website.”

She frowned. “He is not there.”

The cop kept his poker face and steady tone. “When we get done here, I’d be happy to speak with you.”

No sooner was that matter resolved than a soft-spoken older woman approached the microphone.

“I’d like to say thanks for the quick follow-up on my concerns from last time,” she smiled shyly. “Also, um, I baked some cookies for you guys. They’re gluten free.”

Mayor Backus nodded approvingly. “That is very, very sweet of you, Mary.”

Wow, talk about going above and beyond the call of duty in Auburn! If the commander sorts out that sex offender issue in time, he could be on the receiving end of a box of Tagalongs next meeting.

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But seriously: you couldn’t have left a little gluten in there?

“On Saturday, the Valley Civil Disturbance Unit was held at Renton city hall,” Mayor Backus updated council members. She added with a chuckle, “we were made aware of how elected officials can get in the way of law enforcement in a civil disturbance.”

I presumed she wasn’t talking about chaining herself to a bulldozer, which she confirmed by rattling off all of the situations where council members need to duck and cover: “sit-ins, protests, protesters locked in ‘Sleeping Dragon,’ use of lethal munitions….”

Sleeping Dragon? That sounds more like a yoga pose than a restraint technique. Either way, I’d want to be far, far away when the dragon wakes up.

“Let law enforcement do their job,” she warned her colleagues.

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“I did learn some SWAT techniques if we’re rushed by little girls again.”

“One final thing,” the mayor added. “Last month there were some comments made at the study session about actions taken to exclude council members from meetings and events.”

She gazed out sternly while addressing no one in particular. “Our staff goes above and beyond for EVERYONE. There is NO place in this council chambers for campaigning and I hope we can focus on the work of the city.”

With that cryptic message, the meeting ended. Hopefully, the offending party knows to stay in line–or else they might end up in Sleeping Dragon position.

Interview #49: Johannesburg, ZA-GT Councilor Michael Sun (with podcast)

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

This is very exciting: our first visit to Africa! Michael Sun is one of 270 councilors in Johannesburg. We talk about how the meetings have changed since the 2016 election, the importance of singing and dancing, and the time tragedy struck.

Q: Before the 2016 election when one political party, the African National Congress, had a majority, did council meetings go smoothly?

A: I would say it ran fairly smoothly and [there] probably was very little disruption from the opposition parties. I think the biggest disruption we’ve ever seen was a walk-out from council chambers. Other than that, we have not seen any violence as we have been seeing very recently.

Q: I do read the South African news and see stories about protesters, intimidation, and threats at the Johannesburg council meetings. Have you ever been threatened?

A: It’s very unfortunate that some groups of protesters would choose council to stage their protest. Our Constitution protects one’s right to protest. Some of them go as extreme as ending up in fistfights. It’s something that we are not accustomed to–something that we certainly condemn.

Q: I do have to be thorough because you are in Africa: has a group of elephants ever stampeded your chamber, sir?

A: [Laughs] Michael, we are a little far away from the Bushveld!

Q: Ah. Do councilors trust each other?

A: I trust my fellow councilors. Our position is that there’s no reason why we shouldn’t trust each other. But when doubts are being brought to the fore [about corruption], one needs to exercise discretion.

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Johannesburg, ZA-GT Councilor Michael Sun

Q: I noticed that in your first council meeting after the election, a group of EFF councilors started singing and dancing. And at one point, most of the room was dancing! Does music have a role in your council meetings?

A: Oh, absolutely! Singing and dancing is part of our culture. Whether there are happy moments, we sing. Or sad moments, we sing. So political parties in a way of celebration or to express sorrow will break out into song. Often if you’re not exposed to this kind of display of culture, one would feel offended by the noise and gesture. But if you have an understanding of where the country comes from, you would appreciate the display.

Q: Mmhmm.

A: Sometimes we get up and sing at the top of our voices. Some of them don’t know all the words but we try our best!

Q: Going back to that first council meeting, one of the councilors collapsed. And a little while later, she died. I mean, you had singing, dancing, allegations of corruption, and now a death. 

A: This is the first time that a councilor passed on in a council meeting. We would never wish for any councilor to suffer that fate. We understood afterward she had been ill. But because of the volatility of the contestation of the mayorship and the speakership, it was a very sad day for all of us.

Q: Is there any racial tension in your meetings?

A: I think as a country, we’ve really come a long way. Once you have so many ethic groups in one pot, it’s bound to spark. It’s also from the spark we will learn from each other. We know to respect each other. So racial issues has never really been a problem for me.


Follow Councilor Michael Sun on Twitter: @MichaelSun168

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