Interview #75: Fresno, CA Councilmember Esmeralda Soria (with podcast)

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

Esmeralda Soria is in her first term on the Fresno council and discusses the elaborate gift-giving protocol for the outgoing council president with me. Plus, we analyze one difficult meeting involving the politics of religion.

Q: Each year, a different council member becomes the president. At the end of their term in January, they apparently get to pick out a parting gift for themselves. Can you tell us what the council is getting current president Clint Olivier?

A: We’re still working on that. I think people were very impressed by the last gift–the sign that says your name and then “President” at the bottom, which is what our former president, [Paul] Caprioglio, received.

Q: In 2015, Council Member Steve Brandau got a photoshopped picture of Texas Sen. Ted Cruz smoking a cigarette with tattoos all over his body. When you saw that, did you think, “huh, that seems like a perfectly wholesome and normal thing to give someone?”

A: Well, I don’t think that they were trying to be normal. I think they were trying to add a little humor to the parting gift! I think that was the intent.

Q: Let’s go back to May of this year. Council Member Garry Bredefeld looks at the wall behind you in the council chamber where it says “City of Fresno.” He says to himself, “this is missing something.” How did you first learn what he wanted to do?

A: It was something that Councilwoman–I forget her name–out of Bakersfield…[she] had sent an e-mail. Not just to him, to everyone. He was the only one that it caught his attention and thought it was a great idea to bring to Fresno. That’s how I first learned he was interested.

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Fresno, CA Councilmember Esmeralda Soria

Q: What you’re referring to is putting in big letters behind you, “In God We Trust” under the name of the city. You had over 40 commenters show up on both sides–cheering and yelling, calling this “needlessly divisive.” In the end, you and the entire council voted in favor of this. Did you have any unease over how the process went?

A: At the beginning, there was. I even expressed that to my council colleague. I felt that it wasn’t something the city needed to debate. It became a very divisive issue. But for me, I didn’t see anything wrong with putting our country’s motto on the dais. It wasn’t about religion. Every council meeting, we have an invocation. We invite people from all walks of life to do the invocation because we value diversity.

Q: I’ve got to say, I’ve watched a lot of your council meetings. It’s hard to take away a message that all gods are welcome given how frequently people refer to Jesus Christ in the invocation. Do you see how the actual proceedings would suggest that the council is not totally neutral?

A: I can see that. I can tell you–at least when I have the opportunity–I have the Sikh community come in here, someone from the Muslim community come, and it’s not about Jesus. It’s not a complete representation, but I can see your point.

Q: Did any of the extreme arguments you heard in that May meeting change your initial opinion?

A: I thought to some degree it was a waste of valuable time. The debate didn’t have to be that extensive.


Follow Councilmember Esmeralda Soria on Twitter: @Esmeralda_Soria

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

#123: Goldsboro, NC 8/7/17

If you had asked me to write the plotline for a council meeting in a small southern town, there is no way I would have invented anything as riveting as the actual Goldsboro city council meeting.

“My favorite time of the night: public comment period,” swashbuckling Mayor Chuck Allen boomed as onlookers stirred in their seats. He had barely finished his sentence before an elderly man swaggered to the podium, shouting his name and address.

“How are you, sir?” Council Member Mark Stevens greeted him warmly.

“I’m doing wonderful! Everybody’s bright-eyed and enjoying the meeting,” hollered the man. He planted his entire body in an immobile slouch and made his position crystal clear.

“In behalf of all the fine, clean, Christian people who live in Goldsboro and wanna keep this a safe and clean city,” he thundered, “we the clean, Christian people do hereby OPPOSE Sabbath morning sale of alcoholic beverages.”

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Oh, my god. It’s Footloose.

Heads nodded in the crowd.

“It’s a threat to the church. It’s a disgrace to the community. Thank you for your vote against it.”

In a first for me, he then commenced his own round of applause, which citizens and a few council members joined as he retreated from the microphone.

A petite woman with a shock of white hair took his place. “I attend Adamsville Baptist Church. Serving alcohol at 10 a.m. on Sunday will be a bad influence on the young people.”

She frowned deeply as if looking into the eyes of Satan himself. “If we have our people setting in the bar on a Sunday morning, they are missing an opportunity to attend one of our many churches.”

I should mention, the council was voting today on the “Brunch Bill” to allow alcohol sales starting at 10 a.m. on Sundays. And if you couldn’t tell, there was a teensy bit of opposition from a very specific demographic:

“You have one person–one person ONLY–that is looking at you HARDER than we are,” bellowed a graying church deacon, pointing skyward.  “It’s the man upstairs.”

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People are literally sitting in pews here.

“Amens” flitted across the room. But the president of the downtown merchants’ association strolled to the podium to argue on behalf of the local heretics.

“Seventy-one percent of downtown merchants are in favor of the Brunch Bill. The merchants feel the bill will bring new businesses to Goldsboro,” he countered, rattling off all of the neighboring cities and counties that had Sunday morning sales.

A hostile silence, broken by a single boo, greeted the heathen as he walked off.

Another local bar owner, clad in a neat button-up shirt and a tidy haircut, stared at the mayor and asked a simple question.

“We have alcohol sales starting at 7 a.m. Monday through Saturday. So what’s the difference with Sunday?”

Mayor Allen eyed the gallery as various parishioners muttered, “it’s the lord’s day.”

“The LORD’S day,” the man repeated for emphasis. “THAT’S the difference. So now this is an issue of religion.”

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If I may answer on behalf of the audience: “Yeah…so?”

“There are many sabbaths,” this barkeep-cum-professor lectured the council. “Sunday is not the ONLY sabbath. We’re making laws based on religion. I would refer you to the First Amendment.”

Having heard both sides for almost a half hour, Mayor Allen called for the vote. “All those in favor, raise your right hand.”

He and three council members voted aye. The remaining three voted no. The teetotalers had lost.

Council Member Stevens vented in frustration. “For those who were disappointed in this situation, you know…keep praying. The lord will keep you safe.”

Interview #50: Tucson, AZ Vice Mayor Regina Romero (with podcast)

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

Regina Romero has been on the Tucson city council for nearly ten years, and things are a little different down near the border. This being Arizona, naturally we talked about guns. But Satanism also has been rearing its head at council meetings across the Grand Canyon State! Take a listen!

Q: I’m looking at this picture. What are these things?

A: Those are lock boxes for people’s guns. Arizona is an open-carry state and governments have the choice, at least for now, to not permit guns inside of their buildings. So city council has a rule of no guns inside of our buildings. As you enter, there’s boxes that people have to put their guns in, lock them up, and enter our meeting rooms.

Q: Uh…if I can’t bring my gun into a city council meeting, what’s the point of owning a gun?

A: [Laughs] Um, we’ve had incidents in Tucson. [Former Congresswoman] Gabby Giffords was shot. Also in Phoenix, an individual walked into a Board of Supervisors meeting and shot a former member of the Board in Maricopa County. To be honest, it’s been a contention: state legislature is a Republican-controlled body, so we have different views on guns.

Q: Do you ever carry a weapon to the council meetings?

A: No.

Q: I’m not sure if you’re aware, but the only way to stop a bad council member with a gun is a good council member with a gun. I don’t usually do this, but out of respect for the rules of Tucson, I will disassemble my rifle here. And I’ll take off the Glock in my side holster. And I’ll EVEN PUT AWAY the Colt .45 in my ankle holster.

A: Oh, my lord! Thank god we are Skyping for this interview.

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Tucson, AZ Vice Mayor Regina Romero

Q: In the past year, the Satanic Temple has been trying to get permission to do its own invocation at city council meetings in Arizona. When asked about whether they should be allowed to in Tucson, you said, “I believe in the Constitution 100 percent.” Simple question: why would your city council meetings benefit from the blessing of the Dark Lord, Lucifer?

A: Uh, I don’t think we’ve ever received any request from Satanists to speak. To be honest, it cuts both ways. I would much rather do away with the invocation at the beginning. I am a religious person and I understand why atheists and others would say we shouldn’t be doing that. I enjoy the invocation; not everybody does.

Q: Mmhmm.

A: So if you ask me, “do you want to hear a Satanist at your council meeting,” of course I would say no. If you ask me, “do they have the right to practice Satanism,” sure.

Q: Can you think of the weirdest thing you have seen at your city council meetings?

A: [Pause] Not off the bat. There’s been some rowdiness to the point of shouting by an individual, a citizen. The mayor has had to call police officers. That’s always kind of hard to watch. Other than that, things in all of the council chambers around the country are very simple, really!

Q: Okay, well once you let in the guns and let in the Satanists, please come back on the program and tell me how it goes.


Follow Vice Mayor Regina Romero on Twitter: @TucsonRomero