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 #129: Portsmouth, NH Councilor Nancy Pearson (with podcast)

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

The Portsmouth council has pioneered a “public dialogue” session at some of their council meetings in lieu of public comment. Nancy Pearson discusses why it is an attractive option, why many residents initially opposed it, and why it’s unconcerning that the public dialogue remains untelevised. Plus, on the podcast you will hear about one former council member’s crusade against closed-door meetings.

Q: At the February 4 council meeting, I heard Mayor Jack Blalock say that Portsmouth council members only get paid for 20 of the 22 meetings every year. Are you being forced to work without pay during those other two?

A: It’s a tricky thing in New Hampshire. Not all of our municipal duties are paid assignments. We all have day jobs that actually pay the bills and we are given a stipend for each of our council meetings with the exception of the last four meetings of the year. We are capped at $1,500 a year. One of our council members, Josh Denton, was bringing to the attention of the council that we might look at lifting the cap so we can be compensated for each and every council meeting.

Q: How do you feel about this?

A: I think he brings up a good point. If you can compensate the volunteers [council members] for each and every meeting, that might go a little bit more toward leveling the playing field. For example, one of the council members said he uses the stipend to buy attire to wear to council meetings, as he is a contractor and doesn’t necessarily have a closet full of suits and ties. I understand his point. I think it’s fair.

Q: At the Portsmouth city council’s retreat in 2017, you graded your council a “C” on the effectiveness of public comment. Look, normally I only invite on guests who have a “B” average or higher, so you’d better be killing it in biology and calculus for this interview to continue. What should your council have been doing better?

A: Up until that point, we had an antiquated system for public engagement. We came up with [an alternative to] every single meeting having a 45-minute public comment session. It doesn’t allow the opportunity for us to answer questions or engage in conversation or alleviate concerns. One of the things we’ve done now going on two years is public dialogue. We do these every other meeting. It happens before the city council meeting. If there’s a large crowd, we break up into two groups, the city council does. But we sit in an equal circle. The public has an opportunity to ask us questions and we can answer them either ourselves or the city staff is all there.

Q: Okay.

A: I was also finding that during public comment, people were saying things, making things up. Things are being put into public record that are not based in reality. That bothers me a little bit. I didn’t want to let the opportunity go by where we couldn’t correct some things or provide the right information.

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Portsmouth, NH Councilor Nancy Pearson

Q: You sound an optimistic tone now, but originally the public commenters were hostile to the idea of putting public dialogue where public comment normally is. Do you not televise the public dialogue?

A: That is correct. If we break up into two sessions, that would be very challenging to televise. The community often has a reaction to change like that. They don’t understand it. Portsmouth has a long history of resistance to change. We’re called “Granite Staters” for a reason–we’re very rock solid in our beliefs.

Q: It strikes me that one of the benefits you listed of public dialogue was correcting misinformation that circulates in public. By not televising public dialogue, are you not missing the opportunity to correct it and broadcast it to the whole city?

A: We do keep minutes and we do an oral debrief of public dialogue at the city council meeting directly following.

Q: If you have all of the councilors in a room–or five out of the nine, which is a quorum–are you running into any ethical or perhaps legal trouble by not televising what is perhaps a meeting of the council?

A: No because televising a council meeting is not a mandatory exercise. As long as we are taking meeting minutes, which happens at each table by our city clerk, that suffices every legal obligation we have.

Q: But you would concede that while you are doing what’s required, you could also be doing more?

A: Well, one of the things that we discovered and one of the reasons we moved toward public dialogue is because while there are many people who enjoy coming to the podium, speaking their mind, and having that televised, there are an equal amount of people that are reluctant to come and speak to council because it is televised. In the spirit of egalitarianism, the public dialogue is attractive to those people who are intimidated to come to the podium to speak in public.


Follow Councilor Nancy Pearson on Twitter: @Nancy_Pearson20

Interview #89: Santa Ana, CA Mayor Pro Tem Michele Martinez (with podcast)

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

Michele Martinez has been on the Santa Ana council for 12 years and is the current mayor pro tem. That means she runs the meetings when the mayor is gone, and it turns out that she has a significant philosophical difference on how to do things. We talk about her approach to public comment and the linguistic changes that have happened in her council chamber.

Q: You were first elected in 2006, which was also the year I created my first municipal affairs program, the “Planning and Zoning Commission Chronicles.” In retrospect, it was terrible. But can you think of any changes that have happened to the Santa Ana council meetings during these 12 years?

A: One of the first things that my colleagues and myself did was to get translation services for those that wished to come and speak before the council. Before that, our mayor would translate for those that would come and speak Spanish. We just thought that was kind of unfair.

Q: Was translation something he wanted to do or was he given that task?

A: Well by default, he knows Spanish fluently and as the mayor he would just do it because we had no one, nor did we ever dedicate the funding to pay for someone. If he weren’t there and there isn’t someone else to translate, a staff member or someone else in the public would translate on behalf of that person.

Q: One time, you and Mayor Miguel Pulido were absent and the other council members excused you but refused to excuse him. What does that mean–does an unexcused absence go on the mayor’s permanent record?

A: Obviously, he won’t get paid for that council meeting.

Q: Ah. Is the mayor frequently gone for important votes?

A: True. There are times where he doesn’t want to take action on certain items, so he won’t attend. I always give ample notice and I inform everyone why I can’t attend. The mayor chooses not to do that. He’ll contact the clerk very last minute and never give his rationale. The mayor doesn’t like controversy and I think everyone knows that about him.

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Santa Ana, CA Mayor Pro Tem Michele Martinez

Q: Well, I don’t like controversy either so–I’m kidding, I love controversy. That’s why I’ll bring up this: in December 2016 there was a meeting of four council members, including you and the mayor. The other three council members were absent. The subject of the meeting was disciplining the city manager. You needed four votes to put him on administrative leave and you coincidentally had those four votes. Were you sensitive to the perception that this meeting was about power and not process?

A: The mayor in this case doesn’t need four members of the council. He can do a special meeting at any given time without consent of the council. So the mayor chose to have that meeting. There’s been inconsistencies as it pertains to the process. We need to have some kind of protocol so there is no blame game and we’re consistent.

Q: Can you speculate why the decision to discipline the city manager could not have waited until a meeting with all seven council members?

A: Obviously it could. Yeah. The mayor chose to do it at that specific time because it benefited him.

Q: I just realized that when the mayor leaves early from meetings, he doesn’t hear all the public comments that he pushed to the end. Did you realize that?

A: Oh, yes. I realize it every single time. He does leave most times before public comment and I believe that’s wrong. We should all be able to listen, including the mayor.


Follow Mayor Pro Tem Michele Martinez on Twitter: @Michele714

#131: Mobile, AL 9/19/17

You can’t simply snap your fingers in municipal government and make things happen. But you can sure as heck show up to public comment and TELL people to make things happen.

“It’s really long overdue and it’s something I want to get done,” a woman clad entirely in white ordered Mobile council members. “We need to get this done.” (“This” being renaming Glennon Avenue to “Dr. Yvonne Kennedy Avenue.”)

“I talked with Councilman [Levon] Manzie this morning,” she narrowed her eyes at him. “We’re going to have Dr. Kennedy’s name on the pole?”

“Yes, ma’am,” acknowledged Manzie.

“We’re also going to have Glennon Avenue on the pole?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“We wanna put a permanent plaque and–can I have my way with this? Doing what I want to do?” she inquired.

“No, ma’am!” Manzie exclaimed.

“I love having my way!” she threw up her hands and chuckled.

“I think Councilman Manzie hears you loud and clear,” intervened Council President Gina Gregory as the woman retreated in satisfaction.

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The lady’s got vision!

Success! Could there be anything more slam-dunk than a street named after a scion of the community?

Yes: Christmas.

“I’ve always enjoyed Elfapalooza,” a kindly man in a pink shirt smiled. “I’ve never actually put on my pointed ears and gone down in my tights. And, uh–”

“I’m visualizing that right now,” President Gregory deadpanned, prompting raucous laughter.

“Maybe if you give ’em the $40,000, I’ll do that this year!” the man replied.

“Might be worth it,” Gregory considered with a smirk.

He was, of course, referring to $40,000 proposed to revive the “North Pole Stroll.” It was a hot topic for a cold season, and Council Member John Williams was ready to wrap that present.

“This payment will be for holiday events and decorations,” he cheerfully made the motion.

But just as Christmas needs a Santa Claus, it also needs a fiscally-responsible Grinch.

“We’ve been assured that they’re going to have a robust Christmas celebration in downtown,” Council Member Manzie protested. “We don’t know what those activities will cost, so I’m a little hesitant.”

He added, logically, “if it’s a great success, the expectation will be that we need to continue [payments]. I would hate to start something and not continue in perpetuity.”

Council Member Fredrick Richardson attempted his own Scrooge impersonation. “Sometimes we need to leave well enough alone,” he grumbled.

“I think,” he softened, “we need to go back with the Christmas parade. It brings joy in the hearts of all.”

President Gregory called for a vote. It failed. The man in the pink shirt would not be wearing his elf ears and tights after all (although we can mark that in the “good news” column.)

Yikes. If the Mobile city council said no to Christmas, what would they say “yes” to?

“On Wednesday, I had the honor of being interviewed,” announced Council Member Manzie. “Michael Karlik runs a website and podcast called City Council Chronicles.”

“He came up with some new catchphrases for District Two. I promised I would play it in the meeting, but I can’t get it to function here,” Manzie admitted, trying to recall the catchphrases. “‘District Two: We have a Hardee’s.’ ‘District Two: Walk on the wild side!'”

“Well, Michael,” Gregory mused, “I’m guessing you’re watching….’Seventh Heaven?'” She glanced around as her colleagues giggled at her own district catchphrase.

“‘District Seven…Heaven.’ You gotta rhyme!” she insisted.

Council Member Richardson leaned into his microphone. “Did you get that, Mike?”

Yes, sir!

#111: Sioux Falls, SD 6/13/17

When you think of South Dakota, you picture the lineup of four presidents gazing out from a mountainside. But after watching the Sioux Falls city council meeting, I’ll always picture the lineup of provocative public commenters!

“I’m a retired lawyer and full-time writer of nonfiction books,” announced a gray-haired man sporting a white Wilford Brimley moustache. “I want to talk about Senator R.F. Pettigrew. What would he think of his creation today?”

The commenter then traced a mesmerizing biographical journey through the life of Sioux Falls’s version of George Washington.

“He’s one of these people who could sit around a campfire and see a city in the making. He had a funny way of dealing with people standing in the way of progress: they were called ‘kickers’ and ‘croakers.'”

After listing several Sioux Falls mainstays that Pettigrew would’ve admired–schools, small businesses–the man reached an ironclad conclusion:

“One of the things that would make him especially proud is that his city, Sioux Falls, is far, far bigger than Yankton. He didn’t like Yankton.”

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R.F. Pettigrew, seen here grimacing in the direction of Yankton

“It’s tremendous commentary,” gently interrupted Mayor Mike Huether at the five-minute mark, “but I need you to wrap it up.”

Secretly, however, the mayor no doubt wished for another history lesson. Because the next commenter sauntered to the microphone with an American flag t-shirt and a palpable chip on his shoulder.

“I want to apologize to the people that are watching this city council meeting,” he began, presumably not including me. (But just in case, apology accepted, fam.)

“When people come up to me in the grocery store and they talk to me about issues in this city, I apologize for bringing them up to the city council,” he continued with his arms braced squarely on the podium.

“I always ask ’em, why don’t you come and do it yourself? And they said, no, we watch how people are treated at city council meetings. You’re either chastised during the meeting or chastised at the end of the meeting. That’s true.” He frowned deeply and took his seat.

“Thank you, Tim. Appreciate it,” the mayor viciously chastised him.

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Stay strong, patriot

Tim was replaced by an even more cocky complainant who aggressively launched into his grievances.

“After last week’s meeting, I sent you all a copy of the First Amendment. I thought maybe you could sharpen up on what it is,” he oozed with contempt.

“Tim said it best: why don’t a lot of people come up here to speak besides us five? Because they’re scared TO DEATH! They’re scared about repercussions. I hear it A LOT!”

He raised his voice an octave in closing. “We get yelled at. We get chewed out for doing what is our constitutional right!”

“Very good, thank you,” Mayor Huether chewed him out.

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Sioux Falls’s mayor, seen here screaming in the direction of Yankton

As councilors returned to the honorable business of legislating, something was clearly bothering Councilor Rex Rolfing.

“I have one observation,” he grimaced with arms folded. “It was sad to see the media leave directly after public input with seemingly no real interest in the real business of the city. It’s revealing to me, and I hope it is to the rest of the city.”

The mayor paused, then gestured to the back of the room. “Scouts, welcome,” he waved at the dozen Boy Scouts who were caught up in the middle of this awkward exchange.

#104: Columbus, OH 5/15/17

First impressions were VERY strong at the Columbus city council. No sooner had people risen to face the flag than a thundering orchestral rendition of the Star Spangled Banner blasted over the loudspeakers.

Council members stood at attention while the camera panned across the room. As the trumpeting ceased, onlookers were aided in the Pledge of Allegiance by a beautiful tapestry embroidered with the oath.

Talk about class, folks!

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It’s like a g–d– Norman Rockwell painting.

After this patriotic tour de force, Council Member Jaiza Page rattled off her own tour de fitness. “If I’m out there” on Bike to Work Day, she smiled self-deprecatingly, “you’ll probably see me last in line.”

She added, to chuckles, “just don’t run me over!”

More impressively, Councilmember Page revealed that daring Columbusites would soon be allowed to rapel 19 stories off the PNC Building–not for infamy, but rather for a fundraiser for sexual trafficking victims.

“I did go over the edge last year and I was thoroughly frightened for 20 minutes,” she admitted with no trace of anxiety. “But I would encourage those of you who are not interested in rapelling yourself to go out and just cheer the rapellers on.”

Yes, and also be sure to cheer on Page as she bikes, rapels, canoes, bobsleds, and hanglides her way to the title of “Most Adventurous Council Member.”

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“I got to this meeting via luge.”

By all accounts, things were going swimmingly. (Council Member Page will probably be swimming for charity at some point, too.) Suddenly, after Councilmember Michael Stinziano smoothly moved $1.2 million to repair the city’s sewer pipes, President Pro Tem Priscilla Tyson stared down at her paperwork.

“We have several non-agenda speakers that we will take momentarily.” She glanced at the clock. “We will reconvene at 6:30 for zoning.”

With that, the screen faded to black.

A slow horror dawned on me: she had turned off the cameras for public comment.

I wanted to scream, but I realized that even if she were rapelling off the outside of the PNC Building, President Pro Tem Tyson probably would not hear me.

Within seconds, the council chamber faded back in. The time was now 6:30 and the room was substantially emptier.

“Regular meeting number 26 will now come to order,” Tyson cheerfully announced like Richard Nixon after he erased those 18-and-a-half minutes of tape.

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I expected this kind of behavior from Cleveland. But COLUMBUS???

We may never know what was said in public comment that day. All we know is that the zoning hearing was much, much more tedious.

“To grant a variance from the provisions of Sections 3332.039, R-4 residential district; 3321.05(B)(2), vision clearance; 3321.07(B), landscaping; 3332.25(B), maximum side yards required; 3332.26,(C)(3), minimum side yard permitted,” Council Member Page read for nearly a minute off of the numbers-heavy ordinance.

“This is a very interesting situation,” a neatly-dressed white-haired man said as he stood eager to explain the nuances of zoning. “We have a building that covers close to 100 percent of the parcel that doesn’t comply with the zoning district or the university planning overlay.”

Yes, quite thrilling. You know what else would be an interesting situation? SEEING THE PUBLIC COMMENT.

What a shame that a council meeting with such high production quality should fumble this basic feature.

Final thoughts: While the V.I.P. here is clearly Council Member Page for doing “Fear Factor: Columbus,” the capital city’s lack of 100% transparency forces me to give this meeting only 2 out of 5 buckeyes.

#92: Lynnwood, WA 3/13/17

From deep inside the state that sued Donald Trump, it’s no surprise that Lynnwood’s mayor kicked off the council meeting with a love-fest for the tired, the poor, and the huddled masses.

“If you find people who are not feeling safe or welcome in this city, you can give them this card,” Mayor Nicola Smith flashed a densely-worded index card to the camera.

“It tells them what police do and what they don’t do with our immigrants and refugees. I’ve got LOTS more.”

As she pushed a hefty stack down the dais, the mayor revealed another battle plan in the War on Unwelcomeness. “Starting next week,” she continued, “I will begin interviewing candidates for a new diversity, equity, and inclusion commission.”

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“There will be a test on this.”

Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore. (Quite literally, I don’t think this sort of thing happens in Kansas.) But lest you think Mayor Smith is running some kind of hippie commune, the public commenters were thirsting for a fight.

“If the council places the Regional Fire Authority measure on the ballot,” read a soft-spoken, sweater-clad man, “if this unfinished, uncertain plan is on the ballot, Lynnwood loses.”

He jabbed the air with his pen. “Your Honor, I challenge you here tonight to meet with me one night a week for the next four weeks to debate this, so the citizens can know. I challenge you and I hope you’ll accept.”

OH, A CHALLENGE?! If there’s two things I know about Mayor Smith, it’s that

1.) she cares about cleaning up Daleway Park and

2.) she NEVER turns down a challenge.

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This is Hamilton v. Burr all over again.

“Next on our list–” the mayor sighed, turning down the challenge.

“A couple weeks ago when I was here,” the next woman glared at the council, “I was concerned with what I witnessed from the mayor and the council in regard to not allowing citizens who had not signed up to speak.”

She paused sternly. “That was a little concerning. Hopefully that won’t happen again.”

Goodness, it sounds like we missed quite a kerfuffle. Fortunately, we were about to relitigate the offense. Speaking for the prosecution: none other than the mayor’s brash challenger. He strode to the podium for a second round of grievance-airing.

“I arrived at the sign-in table at 6:55 p.m., expecting to sign in on the sheet. There was no sheet to sign in on the table,” he narrated like it was the beginning to a crime thriller.

“I entered the council chamber knowing that council rules allowed those who had NOT signed in to speak AFTER those who signed in had spoken. When the time for citizen comments came, the mayor announced that ONLY those signed up on the sheet would be allowed to speak.”

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Exhibit A: Table (no sign-in sheet)

He stared dead-on at Mayor Smith like a detective who caught his prime suspect in a contradiction. “This is the first time in my 48 years in this city that such a breach of council rules has occurred.”

“We will be better,” promised Council Member Ian Cotton with a frown.

To lighten the mood, Council Member Shannon Sessions held up a prop of her own, a tiny booklet of the “Top 10 Strange and Wonderful Oddities” around Snohomish County.

“Top 10 Oddities?” Council Member George Hurst inquired. “We’re not on there, right?”

“You are!” Council Member Sessions shot back, as Hurst did a rim shot and laughter erupted.