Interview #115*: Takoma Park, MD Mayor Kate Stewart (with podcast)

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

Kate Stewart oversaw a tough series of council meetings last year in which crowds showed up to protest a tiny retail development. She explains why she wanted to hear suggestions instead of resistance and why abandoning the project would also have been unfair.

Q: In the first half of 2018, your council received substantial heat from residents opposed to Takoma Junction–a 1.4-acre parking lot next to the grocery co-op that was intended for future retail stores. How hard was it to remember that this is a city of 18,000 people and you are hearing on a given night from not even 100 of them? So really, what seems like life or death in the council chamber is not the end of the world for thousands of others.

A: That’s correct. We had online comments. We held a number of open houses. We also did a day on the actual lot–we sketched the outside of what the development may look like. People could come, stand, and be like, “okay, this is how far it is from the street” to get a sense of it. The important thing to remember is that the opportunity to provide public comment at a city council meeting is just one way that people express their views.

Q: At one point in a meeting, a woman started to read off a list of opponents and went well over her time. She turned away from the microphone and continued to yell, and you called a recess. Did that get the meeting back on track or was there another way you could have handled that?

A: I think it’s really important that people stick to the three minute comment period. We had people who had been there waiting their turns who needed to get home to children. The reason I called for a recess was because the energy in the room was getting so antagonistic, particularly the folks who opposed the development. The way that they were heckling and saying things was really not conducive to a good public meeting.

Q: The racial equity statement in the development ordinance asked several questions about the development, without providing any policy predictions. Do you think the people who questioned the racial equity implications were right to demand better?

A: I think it’s always important to demand better. When I asked the resident activists who criticized us for this to provide us with ideas, their ideas were basically, “we just don’t like the project!” I think if you’re going to be pushing your local government to do something, not just being critical, but actually coming with ideas. Local government is set up as this antagonistic relationship between government and residents–it’s one that truly bothers me. To do the job well, I rely on residents to push us but also to come to us with ideas.

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Takoma Park, MD Mayor Kate Stewart

Q: A lot of the people complaining about racial equity were older white people. Don’t get me wrong, those are the ones who you want to care about racial equity. How did it feel to watch a room of liberal white people yell at each other over how to save a food co-op and black and brown people?

A: I think Takoma Park is not unique. When it comes to any type of change, there are very strong feelings. I was talking to somebody the other day–the person told me that this urban planner, when they do meetings regarding development projects, their first rule is to start with the youngest person in the room to have them talk about what they want. When you’re talking about a development project, you’re probably talking about something that’s going to be there for 30-40 years. So starting with somebody in their twenties, that’s the person for whom you’re creating this space.

Q: There were two arguments that I heard repeatedly from the opponents. One was that they weren’t opposed to development; they were just opposed to this development. And the second was how divisive all of this was. They’re saying, “it’s on you, the council, to unify the community,” by which they meant giving them what they wanted. Were you in any mood to unify the community given that some of them were now trying to recall you?

A: My concern for folks who wanted to delay the project or have us hit the restart button is that would make some people happy, but the folks who wanted the project, that would make them unhappy! That wasn’t a compromise! For them, that would be stopping a project they like. I did not see that as a way to bring the community together.


Follow Mayor Kate Stewart on Twitter: @KateforTakoma

*Interview 115 was previously omitted in the numbering order.

Interview #121: Salt Lake City, UT Council Member Charlie Luke (with podcast)

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

A historic council chamber. Mayor’s question time. And colorful, sometimes impassioned public commenters. These are the hallmarks of Salt Lake City’s council meetings that Council Member Charlie Luke walks us through.

Q: There is an aspect of your meetings that we don’t find in too many American councils: “questions to the mayor.” Why does this happen in your meetings?

A: Tradition. I don’t know when that practice started. It’s been rather hit and miss with mayors actually attending. A lot of times when they are there, we’re just happy that they are there. We’ve just been following the tradition.

Q: At the mayor’s question time of September 18, 2018, council members were upset that the mayor was not present to answer questions about the controversial Inland Port. Isn’t it unfair to say that the mayor doesn’t show up to answer questions when in fact your council oftentimes has nothing to ask her?

A: Absolutely not because most of our questions are going to be related to the items at hand. Especially when there is an issue where there is substantial council disagreement with the administration, there would have been questions for the mayor. That’s where a lot of the frustration was.

Q: So would it not be more realistic for the mayor to show up to the contentious issues, where maybe council members have given her a heads-up in advance that there will be questions, rather than expect her to come to every meeting just out of tradition and sit through silence while no one asks her anything?

A: We have roughly three formal meetings a month. In my opinion, it is not unreasonable for the mayor to attend those meetings. If we were having multiple meetings a week, I think your point would be valid. I don’t think it is asking too much for the mayor of the capital city of Utah to take an hour out of her agenda to sit through our meeting.

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Salt Lake City, UT Council Member Charlie Luke

Q: One year ago, your fellow council members–and you especially–were all set to fund 50 new police officers for Salt Lake City. Would you briefly explain why you wanted those extra cops while I go back to the car and run your license?

A: The response times for non-emergency crimes have been increasing steadily over the past few years. We knew that what we were tasking them [police] with was unsustainable. If we were going to get those response times down, the only way we could do it would be to add more officers.

Q: For half a year, there was an extraordinary amount of people–mostly young, but not always; mostly black and latino, but not always–who spoke up meeting after meeting against the police officers. Their message to you was that A.) more cops don’t mean better safety, B.) we and our communities actually don’t feel safe around police, and C.) you, the all-white city council, have a distorted experience with police that is not our reality. Your reaction to that is what?

A: Nationally, there have been issues with police and racial issues around the country. In the seven years I’ve been on council, we’ve worked closely with the police chief to better train our officers to deal with de-escalation. I’m not discounting what any of them have said. My life experience as a middle-aged white male is much, much different from people of color, women, and others. I’m not ever going to discount what they’re saying. But I am going to go off of numbers and what we’re looking for as a city.

Q: I don’t think that any of the commenters ever said explicitly that this increase in officers was emblematic of racism or white supremacy. But the message clearly was, “the city uses the police to intimidate and in some cases kill us.” I know that you strongly support the additional officers, but can you think of anything that would have to happen with the police in Salt Lake City for you to believe the argument they were making?

A: It’s not that I don’t believe the argument. I do believe that there is legitimate fear and concern. All I can do is try to improve the situation. I can’t go back and fix things that have historically happened. Since we do have to have law enforcement, let’s make them as best-trained as they can possibly be.


Follow Council Member Charlie Luke on Twitter: @CharlieLukeSLC

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

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

The Minneapolis council has been proactive about addressing racial inequity, despite outside events making it a challenge. Andrea Jenkins describes how she felt about council members’ reactions to an equity training earlier this year.

Q: On August 1 of this year, there was a committee of the whole meeting in which you all sat through a racial equity training. Would you be surprised if I told you that I’ve been hosting this program for two years and this is the first racial equity training I’ve seen a city council do?

A: Yes, I thought every city council in America was doing racial equity training. That’s not true?

Q: No! I hate to let you down because that is wildly off-base, but what did you hope to accomplish with this training?

A: Well, we’re trying to get the council members woke. The main thing we wanted to accomplish was to have a common understanding and common language that everybody can start with. It dispels the opportunities for people to come in with their own perspective. If we can lay the groundwork for one common understanding, that was the purpose.

Q: I’m glad you brought that up because that was actually the part of the training that hit a roadblock. Council President Lisa Bender said she was uncomfortable participating in an exercise in which council members’ discussions about their early experiences with race would be televised. What did you make of that?

A: Boy, I was really–I was disappointed. We ask people to support us in being representatives. And then we are not willing to share details about our own experiences, our own lives, that could help bring understanding to why we make some of the decisions we make. I know that council President Bender is very open about some really vulnerable parts of her life. It would be really eye opening and compelling for people to understand some of her experiences around race. It wasn’t just council President Bender–I mean, if you watched the meeting, there were a number of council members who were reluctant to share that information. Sometimes there’s really powerful strength in being vulnerable.

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Minneapolis, MN Council Vice President Andrea Jenkins

Q: There is another event we need to discuss that happened before the racial equity training. Can you explain what precipitated your June 27 committee of the whole meeting?

A: A week prior to that meeting, there had been a police-involved shooting of a young, black man who–it was under dispute whether or not he was armed, whether or not he was fleeing and was shot in the back. And so tensions in our community was really, really, really high.

Q: In that meeting, Council Member Cam Gordon wondered whether the city council needed more of a role in the police department. He proceeded to draft that exact charter amendment–which did not sit well with a number of people, including the public safety committee chair, Alondra Cano, who said she was “disgusted by the privilege” of the motion. What did you make of that?

A: I interpreted her use of the term “privilege” to suggest that it would’ve potentially been more appropriate for her to have made that–or someone who had those kinds of experiences–as opposed to Mr. Gordon, who has not lived those kinds of experiences.

Q: So speaking with terms of racial equity, it’s easier for someone who has benefited from the system to look at it and say, “something’s wrong. We need to fix it,” and to have people listen to him, than it might be for someone who belongs to a historically-oppressed group to say the same thing and perhaps get ignored when they say it.

A: I think that is absolutely true. Yes, I agree with that.


Follow Council Vice President Andrea Jenkins on Twitter: @annapoetic

Special Feature! “Best Thing, Worst Thing”

In the latest, greatest episode of our “Best Thing, Worst Thing” project, we swing through Western Pennsylvania to visit the famed steel city of Pittsburgh. There may be three rivers and hundreds of bridges, but I take you on a trip to the less obvious places in search of best and worst things: to a machine shop where Chinese students and high school girls are working together; to a Sunday morning church service; and to the “Yugoslav Room” with a local poet.

If you’ve never heard of the project before, catch the previous 11 episodes here. When you are ready to learn about the hardest part of designing a robot, click over to the City Council Chronicles podcast to download this latest episode. Or you can play it below.

Episode 12: Pittsburgh, PA

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Pittsburgh had a reputation as a steel-producing city in Western Pennsylvania and now is known more for its robotics, technology, and medicine. It has a population of 300,000 and is defined by hills, rivers, and bridges. In our visit, we watch a high school team assemble robots with visiting Chinese students; attend a picnic in a park; and experience a Baptist church service. We also hear from a poet, a retired educator, a recently-returned young mother, and a “Girl of Steel.”

Special Feature! “Best Thing, Worst Thing”

This week, we air the newest episode of the “Best Thing, Worst Thing” project featuring a big-name city: Richmond, Virginia. I talked with many different residents about their favorite and least favorite things about Virginia’s capital. Many brought up the city’s ties to the Confederacy and the legacy of segregation. Others talked about the extensive collection of neighborhoods. You’ll come with me to a rally with the mayor, stroll along an island, and visit the pew where Jefferson Davis sat in church.

For an explanation of the project, check out the page here. If you are ready to learn which historical figure had turkey quills shoved up his nose, head to the City Council Chronicles podcast to download the latest episode. Or you can play it below.

Episode 10: Richmond, Virginia

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Photo source: Main Street Station

Richmond is a city of 220,000 people and the capital of Virginia. It was also the capital of the Confederacy and that legacy still lingers. The James River provides recreational opportunities and the Amtrak station provides a connection to Washington, D.C. and beyond. During our visit, we stand in the middle of the water, attend a rally with the mayor, and visit a restaurant that will be gone in a year. We hear from a real estate agent, some college students, a teacher, a tour guide, people who have moved away and returned, and two political watchdogs.

#114: Minnetonka, MN 6/26/17

“The next item on the agenda is ‘special matters,’ and that’s, uh, having me receive the C. C. Ludwig Award,” announced retiring Mayor Terry Schneider.

He practically whispered the last part, seeming slightly embarrassed to be standing in the middle of the room while superlatives were broadcast about him. Chalk it up to Midwestern modesty.

“A kind-hearted individual….we are eternally grateful,” Council Member Brad Wiersum read from multiple glowing recommendations. The mayor clutched his mic timidly with both hands.

“I want to reflect on a personal story that many of you haven’t heard,” he said cautiously, “that might be difficult for me to talk about.”

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I’m all ears

“People asked me, how can I sit through a contentious, controversial meeting and keep my cool and keep it civil? My standard answer is, well, I’m an introvert,” he explained in a gravelly voice. “So it’s the easiest thing for me to do. While that is true, it’s not the real reason why. And, um….”

Schneider coughed lightly and stared at the ground, trying not to cry. A black-and-white photograph of the mayor’s grandfather flashed onscreen.

“My grandparents lived in Plymouth [Nebraska] and I spent most of my summers with my grandparents. It was a phenomenal experience–particularly for an introvert–to be in a low-key town.”

The entire room was listening silently.

“I didn’t realize until after the fact, when we’re in a small town, you didn’t have any toys. One time, I made a bunch of darts. I was doing it in the living room. He was sitting on a rocking chair smoking his pipe. I was throwing and all of a sudden, it stuck him right in the eye.”

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IN THE EYE?!

A few people nervously chuckled. The mayor again paused to collect himself.

“He just sat there. Didn’t say a word. There’s this dart in my grandfather’s eye. So I walked up and took the dart out. He never said a word. That kind of quiet lesson taught me that there are consequences to your action.”

The mayor reached into his pocket and brandished a small trinket.

“I’ve got a little toy tank that he gave me when I was a kid. I would spend hours on the carpet running the tank around. So I carried this with me every day to remember to act like my grandfather. I realized after 20 years, I didn’t need to carry it.”

Council members smiled sympathetically as the mayor concluded: “My grandfather passed away exactly 50 years ago. So thanks for listening to that little story. Maybe somebody will be touched by it.”

I see the man’s point here. But if I may: when someone throws a dart into your eyeball, how on earth is the lesson to sit there until they come and pluck it out?! I’ve heard of turning the other cheek, but you’ve only got so many eyes–and those things are NOT dart-resistant.

I believe silence is golden, but retina damage is PERMANENT.

Speaking of which, in another first for me, council members abruptly donned official “Tour de Tonka” sunglasses as the bike ride’s director strode to the podium.

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Awww, group picture!

“You guys are amazing,” he beamed, pulling out his phone and snapping pictures. “You look amazing, every one of you.”

The ride, he said, “is a sense of accomplishment. It’s not a race. If you can go that far, you deserve a pat on the back.”

Now THAT is a perfect lesson about life–and about being mayor.

Interview #52: Raleigh, NC Councilor Corey Branch (with podcast)

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

Corey Branch is in his first term on the Raleigh city council and there is one simple thing that he’d like to receive at a council meeting. (Much to my chagrin, it’s not a flamethrower.) Plus, we talk about how you have to acknowledge criticism from citizens and move past it.

Q: Other than grievances, what have people given you at council meetings?

A: Handouts, shirts, mugs are the main things we’ve seen. Little pinwheels we’ve received for child abuse prevention. Those–

Q: I don’t see the connection there.

A: Yeah, they’re pink pinwheels. It’s a symbol for that. I couldn’t tell you how it started.

Q: Well, obviously you remember what the pinwheel was for, so it did its job. But if you could receive anything for free at a council meeting, what would you want it to be?

A: A thank-you. That for me, honestly, means so much because I know the time that me and my peers put in to serve. Sometimes it’s just good to hear that it’s appreciated because we hear a lot of what we’re doing wrong. It’s just good to hear someone say thank you.

Q: Mmm. I would have chosen those novelty glasses that you put on and it looks like your eyes are open but secretly you can sleep behind them, you know?

A: I know exactly the ones you’re talking about!

Q: Yeah, well that’s what I would have chosen anyway. That or a flamethrower.

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Raleigh, NC Councilor Corey Branch

When public commenters bring up the issue of race or refer to the other council members as “white folks,” do you feel they are excluding you? Or are they not speaking so much about “black v. white,” but really “citizens v. people in power?”

A: I think it’s a mix of both. People’s experiences play a major role in how they interact and how they may see things or express things. As for me, do I feel they’re talking to me or excluding me? I can’t speak for them. I just know every day for the last 39.5 years when I wake up, I’ve been a man of color.

Q: I don’t want to be the white guy who does this, but I watched an episode of Blackish recently, and–

A: [Chuckles]

Q: I know how this is coming across right now! But the father explains to the son about “the nod,” where if two black men walk past each other, they nod in acknowledgment. Do you get the sense that when people speak to the council, they telegraph to you, “hey, YOU should at least be on my side?”

A: Um, yes. I have to look at the situation, what’s going on. I’m fortunate that I can bring in some experiences that other council members have not [had]. If I feel there is a lack of equity, I need to be a voice. Speaking out may not be directly from that table. It may be a sidebar conversation.

Q: If someone was criticizing me because I was “white folks” or…or anything, “young people,” “left-handed people,” I would get defensive and tune them out.

A: I hear it and acknowledge it. We have to act like adults. That’s why earlier when you asked me what I wanted, I said a thank-you for these very reasons we’re talking about here.


Follow Councilor Corey Branch on Twitter: @Corey4DistrictC