Plus, you can listen to a segment of “Tear It Down,” an eight-chapter audio series about a small town whose government became wildly dysfunctional when political insurgent group formed seeking revenge: www.tearitdownpodcast.com.
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Samba Baldeh is the District 17 alder who remembers quite clearly a fraught council meeting about funding for Southeast Asian mental health services. He also discusses his exchange with the police chief from three years ago after the chief’s accusatory blog post put Madison’s common council in the crosshairs.
Q: I’ve heard of aldermen and alderwomen and even alderpersons, but Madison is the only city I have found whose council members are called “alder.” What do you know about why Madison uses that term?
A: I think Madison is just trying to be politically correct. We can be a female, male, transgender, or people who may identify however they want to identify. I think that is the reason why. A lot of people are confused when you tell them, “I’m an alderperson.” They generally don’t know what that means.
Q: On the night of February 26, there were $115,000 that the council had to direct toward mental health services for Hmong elders. Had you ever experienced this combination of fear and anger before, like what you were hearing from the Hmong community?
A: I do remember this meeting very vividly. Apart from the anger, just the sadness of the event. The community became divided as to who should actually provide these services. Who do we give the money to? That is where the meeting became very deeply personal.
Q: During the public’s testimony, Alder Barbara McKinney raised a point of order about the neutrality of the translation services. Do you know where the concern about the accuracy of translation was coming from?
A: She was sitting next to the interpreters and the people giving testimonies. I think what she observed was people were talking to each other, whispering to each other to an extent where she felt like the interpretation was not neutral. The mayor interjected and said we are doing our best. Even the interpreter did say that it’s difficult to interpret the Hmong language.
Q: The provision of health service was getting wrapped up in race and cultural competency. Do you think this was a healthy debate or was there unnecessary vilification taking place?
A: I do think we shouldn’t have gotten here. I spoke to some of the leaders in the community and let them know that it is important that some of these issues be resolved outside of the public domain. We could have had a better discussion around the money part and how we allocate it. I didn’t think there was a need to vilify each other to the extent we did. The best way was to find a way to resolve the cultural or the societal issues outside of the council. Once it came to council, it basically was difficult to control.
Q: You mentioned the virtue of resolving conflict before it reaches the council meeting where you don’t have a control over the arguments or what people say, and then it can look messy to the public. There was a similar incident in June 2016 that falls in that category. Your council was about to vote on an additional $350,000 to have a consultant examine the practices of the police department. Your police chief, Michael Koval, has a blog. On the evening of June 5, he published a piece about this report where he started out with “bring it on,” saying the police have nothing to hide. But suddenly, the six paragraphs that followed included this language: “to the Common Council: you are being watched….this is a pre-emptive first strike from me to you.” What was your reaction to his accusations that your council was letting him and his officers down?
A: I think the police chief really was not being very fair in his assessment of why morale was down with his police force. Almost every item that came to council with regards to police funding was approved. That is the first thing we can do to show support for the police department. All the events that they invite us, leadership was part of it. Other council members who could be part of it also took part. I think it was an ill-informed assessment. I also do not believe police leadership should come to council or use their electronic access, like a blog, and threaten community leaders.
Q: I’m sure he would agree with you that the council has given his department money, but that’s not his complaint. What he’s saying is, when people come into this meeting and they talk smack about my department and my officers, a defense from the council is nowhere to be found. So yes, you’re giving us money, but it’s almost like you’re paying us off to sit back and take all this abuse. I really need you, the council, to push back, on this vilification of us that’s happening right in front of you.
A: If people from the community come to testify, they can say whatever they feel about the police. How does that bring credibility to the people of the city if we’ve just been called all these names, and now we have to sit there and defend the person who’s calling us all these names? It’s our responsibility to educate people about the police work and make them feel good about their police force, but it’s also the responsibility of the person who leads that police force to make sure the community have a good view of the department.