Interview #138: Saint John, NB Reporter Barbara Simpson (with podcast)

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

Barbara Simpson is the Telegraph-Journal‘s municipal affairs reporter who had a front row seat to an array of quintessentially Canadian policy debates in Saint John, including what to do with the emboldened deer population and whether to retaliate against outsiders using the city’s ice rinks.

Q: Back in January, you tweeted this:

Who are the Leamans and why do they get the V.I.P. treatment at the council meetings?

A: The Leamans are my kind of people because they are dedicated council watchers. If you cover municipal politics, you know that it’s very rare to have ordinary citizens come out on an issue that isn’t a hot-button issue. But the Leamans come to every single meeting, except I think they go away for a little bit in the winter. They bring their books and they read before the meeting, so they’re very civically engaged.

Q: What do they do in the winter? Drive down to Florida and sit in on their council meetings?

A: I don’t think so, but that would be fantastic!

Q: What was the problem that the Saint John council was having with deer earlier this year?

A: Most of our province is beautiful, natural habitat. But in this one particular area [of the city], we have a high density of deer. They cause all sorts of problems. They chew on people’s shrubs. The deer spread Lyme disease. This is how brazen the deer are in Saint John: I have a photograph of the deer at Halloween time and they’re eating a pumpkin off of someone’s front porch. To remedy this issue, the city is moving forward with a deer cull. Each property owner could apply to the province to bring a hunter in to bag one deer per defined hunting season.

Q: Before Saint Johners could hunt the deer, there had to be a prohibition on feeding deer. How was the city planning to capture physical evidence of deer feeding?

A: There’s some recognition that this is going to be pretty difficult to enforce. I can’t imagine–we’re all good Canadians here–that neighbors are going to be taking photos of each other in the act of feeding deer.

Q: Deputy Mayor Shirley McAlary was concerned about people wandering around with bows and arrows like something out of The Hunger Games. Was she the only one?

A: Yes. If you listen further, I believe Councillor Gary Sullivan makes that point that if you call the police and said there’s someone running around with a weapon, the police would respond relatively quickly.

Q: In America, when someone wanders around with a weapon, it’s called concealed carry and it’s, like, half the country. So I’m glad you have a distinction.

TNcmgG1L.jpg
Saint John, NB reporter Barbara Simpson

In November of last year, Mayor Don Darling suggested that if there could not be some fair, regional way to pay for use of Saint John’s ice rinks, drastic measures may be on the way, like closing down the rinks entirely. How serious is this sentiment in Saint John that outsiders are using the rinks and not paying for it?

A: It’s incredibly serious. Over the last few months, Saint John and the surrounding communities have been trying to negotiate a deal because the cost of arenas–the operating costs, the city argues–isn’t being fairly shared across the region. The city is in a very difficult financial situation. The city took a provincial bailout of up to $22.8 million over the next three years. They’re trying to find new revenue. On the opposing side of that, the communities surrounding us say, “this is Saint John’s problem. Why should we be contributing more?”

Q: Hockey is obviously sacred to you all. Is that why the council seemed a bit touchier than if it were other types of facilities that were abused by non-residents?

A: No, I think why they’re so touchy is it speaks to a bigger issue in Saint John. We are a city of 67,000 people. The greater region is 125,000 people. There’s some sentiment that people drive into the city from these outlying communities, use our arenas and other services, and don’t pay their fair share. But the arenas is the touchpoint for this.


Follow Barbara Simpson on Twitter: @JournoBarb

Interview #20: Mesa, AZ PIO Kevin Christopher (with podcast)

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

If you saw the Mesa city council meeting review, you’ll recognize Kevin Christopher as the announcer of a HUGE agenda. But did you know he once reported on city council meetings? He did–and he has the stories to prove it!

Q: You were a journalist covering city council meetings in the early 1980s. How were meetings different in the ’80s other than, obviously, uglier eyeglasses?

A: Yeah, and interesting hair and fashion! I think the biggest change is the technology. Nowadays, it’s very easy to find out the agendas.

Q: Were there always a lot of spectators?

A: I think because [Midwesterners] have deep roots, they tend to be a little more passionate about issues. We always had pretty good crowds. Madison had like 20 aldermen–for a population of about 250,000–

Q: Wow! Chicago has 50 alderman, and they certainly have more than double the population of Madison.

A: Even that’s huge. Fifty people! Cincinnati had nine. Mesa has seven.

Q: What do you think is the ideal number of city council members?

A: I think seven or nine is good.

Q: When you started in Cincinnati, Jerry Springer was there. Did he stand out at all during council meetings?

A: He was pretty colorful. He was very charismatic and personable and I think that’s what was very appealing.

Q: You’ve sat through city council meetings in Cincinnati, Madison, and Mesa. Take me down the list–who stuck out?

A: I think the most memorable was a woman in Cincinnati. It wasn’t her real name, but she went by Fifi Taft Rockefeller. She claimed to have affairs with presidents and Winston Churchill. She’d be at city council almost all the time.

kevin-christopher
Mesa, AZ Public Information Officer Kevin Christopher

A: Generally you put like a three-minute limit on people to speak. And in Madison, they didn’t do that. I’m thinking, “no wonder these meetings go six and seven hours.”

Q: They had no time limits?

A: No! I thought that was insane.

Q: It is! Other than running egregiously long meetings, how did council members treat you in the media?

A: As long as you were fair, they treated you very well. I remember in Cincinnati, they all enjoyed the microphones and cameras. If it wasn’t a particular hot button issue being debated at the time, they would get up in the middle of the meeting and you could go to the back of the room and talk.

Q: For your current job in Mesa, you read the entire agenda–45 items–and it took you eight whole minutes to get through. Do you prepare for that? Do you do vocal warm ups?

A: I look it over. There’s a few tricky–with restaurants and things that are in Spanish. My favorite of all time: a liquor license application for “What the Hell Bar & Grill.”

Q: Are there any memorable moments from Mesa?

A: When I first came to the city, we had one council member, Tom Rawles, who decided back in 2007 he was not going to stand for the Pledge of the Allegiance. So he kind of pulled a Colin Kaepernick. This was a protest against the war in Iraq. All of a sudden we started getting these people showing up at meetings and criticizing him. He actually got police protection for a few days to be safe. I’m not sure what he’s doing now.

Interview #9: Paducah, KY Reporter Lauren Duncan

Grab your banjo and hop a freight train with me down to Paducah, Kentucky. Home to Dippin’ Dots, the Paducah International Raceway, and the National Quilt Museum, y’all best mosey on over to city hall, where every Tuesday night Paducah Sun reporter Lauren Duncan watches the city commission meetings.

She talked to me about how everyone always gets along…or do they?

Q: How long have you been covering the city commission?

A: I have been here just two years–and today is my last day.

Q: Oh, no way!

A: I’ve got a city commission meeting tonight and [then] I’ve got a job in Chicago.

Q: Do you think the commissioners are planning a surprise party for you?

A: I don’t, but they have all been very kind to me. Paducah is a pretty small town–I run into them out and about.

Q: When you see them outside of council meetings, is it like when you were in school and you would see your teacher in the grocery store and it would feel super weird?

A: Haha, I get what you’re saying. One of our commissioners, he owns a coffee shop in town and so he is just one of your popular neighborhood guys. But he’s also the commissioner who get the most votes every year. He’s one of those people where if I weren’t a reporter, I’d probably be friends with him, you know?

Picture1
Paducah, KY city council reporter Lauren Duncan

A: This town is just like a PBS special. Our city commissioner who owns the coffee shop…we’ve got a train down by our river, and they were going to get rid of it because it was falling apart. He went out and painted it all up himself. He spent, like, a month with his wide-brimmed hat out there on top of the train.

Q: So I’m assuming everyone is pretty friendly during city commission meetings?

A: There has not been a single shouting match between the commissioners or the mayor or the city manager. That is mind boggling to me.

Q: It sounds like the “Stepford Wives”–everyone is happy and cookie cutter.

A: A lot of stuff happens behind closed doors. All of our meetings are live broadcast and I think there’s sort of a fear to have frank discussions.

Q: Is that a southern thing? A small city thing?

A: That’s something I’ve never seen before. I think it’s literally just the fact that they’re being televised and they’re nervous about public perception of having a heated debate that people can see.

Q: Suppose you and your best friend sign up for a cooking class, but she gets sick and has to cancel. Which commissioner would you invite to do the cooking class with you?

A: You’re basically asking who’s my favorite!

Q: Sure. Or who makes a great casserole.

A: That’s easy because he’s one of the most personable guys in town: it’s Allan Rhodes, the commissioner who owns the coffee shop and paints the trains.

Q: All around good guy. Regular Mr. Rogers.

A: He was the first guy I talked to here. I was looking for a place to live. Someone said, “talk to Allan Rhodes.” And he gave me all kinds of advice for moving here!

Q: Well, I hope there’s another Allan Rhodes waiting for you in Chicago.


Follow Lauren Duncan on Twitter: @LaurenPDuncan

Interview #5: Galesburg, IL Reporter Marty Hobe

I once passed through Galesburg on a train and thought, “Well, well, well: THIS place seems like they’d have some funky city council meetings!”

Like usual, I was right. I talked to the grand poobah of G-Burg, Marty Hobe, who reports on the city council for The Register-Mail. He told me about costumed performers, the Burgnado, and Galesburg’s survivalist mayor.

Q: How many people show up to city council meetings?

A: You can get quite a few people. We had the local humane society looking for its annual grant from the city. Every year, they flood the chambers with people who talk about cute little puppies they save.

Q: Do they bring in puppies?

A: No, they’ve never brought in a puppy!

Q: Hmm.

A: Once–so, a historical figure from Galesburg was Mother Bickerdyke. She was a nurse in the Civil War. We built an overpass recently and the city council was deciding what they should name it. Our mayor said we should just call it the Seminary-Kellogg Street Bridge because it’s Seminary and Kellogg Streets it physically goes over. But someone dressed up in historically accurate garb as Mother Bickerdyke and addressed the council as Mother Bickerdyke, asking them to name the bridge after her. It was quite the performance!

Q: So…did she sway the votes?

A: Oh, yeah. It’s called the Bickerdyke Bridge today.

Q: Wow!

hobe
Galesburg, IL city council reporter Marty Hobe

Q: Other than the ghost of Mother Bickerdyke, does anyone do public comment?

A: Not really. We have people who are frequently in the audience, but they won’t sit up to speak.

Q: Weird. What’s their deal?

A: I don’t know if they’re just dedicated civilians or–I know there was one woman who would come to meeting after meeting. Turns out she wanted to run for one of the open alderman seats, and she ended up winning.

Q: I heard things went sideways when they voted on the city manager’s raise. A 4-3 vote, right?

A: That was a bit of an awkward day, anytime you’re dealing with salaries. We’re not dealing with celebrity-type politicians. These are still real people.

Q: Marty, what is the Burgnado?

A: It’s a tornado drill. The city council sits in and the Knox County emergency response team, they role-play. It was a kind of a walk-through of what would happen should an F4 tornado come through and decimate Galesburg.

Q: What’s the city council supposed to do? 

A: Mostly informing the public…one of the messages was just basically, “take the information back to your constituents and stay out of our way.”

Q: If you had to be stranded on a desert island with one of the city council members, who would you choose?

A: Oh, I have to play favorites?

Q: You absolutely have to play favorites.

A: Probably our mayor, John Pritchard. He’s a pretty funny guy. He likes to joke around a lot.

Q: Ah, so he’d be good company on an island.

A: Exactly. He wouldn’t be boring.

Q: Did he knock it out of the park during the Burgnado drill?

A: I think so. He’s got a lot of survival instincts in him.

Q: Do you think he could spear a fish in the water and cook it on a makeshift fire?

A: I don’t know how quick he is with a spear. I’d have to see that first.


Follow Marty Hobe on Twitter: @mhobe55

Interview #3: Fort Wayne, IN Reporter Dave Gong

After last week’s Fort Wayne city council meeting, I had some questions. And who better to ask than the lucky S.O.B. who gets to watch EVERY Fort Wayne city council meeting: Journal Gazette reporter (and high school friend of mine) Dave Gong.

He talked to me about surprises, being fair, and his reaction to a salty-mouthed councilman.

Q: On a scale of “fun” to “extremely fun,” how would you describe the council meetings?

A: Extremely fun…they are the highlight of my week.

Q: Noted! No sarcasm! What are you watching and listening for at these meetings?

A: Pretty much everything. You listen for back-and-forth and pointed arguments and the whole deal. Part of politics is we love a good show. Especially the media–we love a good show.

Q: Are there some councilmen whom you can depend on to say something…”out there?”

A: Well, “out there,” yeah. There are councilmen who are very consistent. Sometimes they’ll surprise you, which is always great. I like to be surprised.

Q: How do they generally treat each other?

A: Actually, to be honest–pretty well. I read your thing about Baltimore

Q: Yeah, that was wacky.  Some of them visibly can’t stand each other.

A: They get that way. All city councilmen are like that when you’ve got ideologies–they clash. One guy will be insulting another one week and they’ll be best of friends the next. Fort Wayne, Indiana is one of the most functional cities I’ve ever worked in.

Q: Are they pretty friendly with you?

A: I think they know I can be fair with them. You’ll get reporters and outlets that specific councilmen don’t like. As far as I know, no one has ever told me that they absolutely hate me. Generally if you’re a journalist, someone somewhere hates you.

davegong
Fort Wayne, IN city council reporter Dave Gong

Q: Did I seem cool in high school?

A: Yeah…as cool as any of the rest of us were in high school. I don’t remember any of us going to a bunch of parties. There was a lot of laser tag.

Q: Mmhmm.

A: Whatever my judge of “cool” is, it’s probably wrong….But from my standpoint, you were f*cking awesome.

Q: What’s the weirdest thing that you’ve seen happen?

A: That’s a hard one. Ninety percent of them are super mundane. After the election in November, the council was even more Republican. This guy got up and he starts railing about how all the Democrats are socialists and the Republicans should show backbone.  And [Councilman] Glynn Hines, through his hands, coughed “BULLSH*T” into his hot mic.

Q: Whoa!

A: In other places–you go to Chicago–you see swearing on the floor. I saw lawmakers, state elected lawmakers hurling insults at each other. But in Fort Wayne, that was unconscionable. It spurred a blog post from me–because I like that sort of crap–caused public apologies, and it was…beautiful, actually.

Q: Do you ever gossip about the councilmen to other reporters?

A: Sometimes. Paul Ensley was wearing a bow tie the other day and kind of looked like Pee-wee Herman.

Q: I saw that! So creepy.

A: He’s a fun one. He beat a 12-year incumbent  in the primary.

Q: Are you gonna go to the reunion?

A: I’ve been on that alumni website and–

Q: No one told me about that…

A: …I imagine somebody will call.

Q: …


Follow Dave Gong on Twitter: @DGong89