Interview #144: Belmont, CA Vice Mayor Warren Lieberman (with podcast)

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

Warren Lieberman has been a Belmont council member for 13 years, and there have been a few notable changes. He discusses the mock council exercise he helped institute for second graders and what policies they pretended to pass.

Q: On October 17 of last year, your council welcomed second graders into city hall for a mock council meeting. Tell me why Belmont started bringing the niños into the council chamber.

A: For a long time, Belmont’s second graders have come to visit city hall. Typically they would see the council chambers and they would be told about the council meeting and they would meet the mayor. And I thought, you know what? That doesn’t really give the second graders a good picture or understanding of what happens. So I suggested to make it more interesting, why don’t we actually stage a mock council meeting? We assigned some of the second graders to be council members, some to be city staff, some to be members of the public, and we created a 15-20 minute exercise.

Q: What concept did these kids have the hardest time grasping? Was it amending a motion on the floor before voting on the underlying motion? Or sitting still?

A: While we can’t mimic everything that happens in a council meeting, I think for sure the second graders who were members of the public, they certainly had fun giving the council a piece of their mind.

Q: You’re dividing up these roles and obviously there can only be one mayor. In a class of 25 second graders, how do you pick the best candidate?

A: We put the names in a hat and just picked one out. I would say that for second graders, public speaking does not always come naturally. So sometimes, even after you selected the mayor, you need to help encourage them.

Q: What kinds of laws did those second graders pass? And is this why Belmont’s official city animal is Kayden’s family’s puppy?

A: [laughs] I’m not sure that there’s a connection! The focus of the meetings are on some type of park or recreation item. I believe one year, one of the mayors tried to bring in a zoning ordinance. I’m not quite sure how well that one worked.

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Belmont, CA Vice Mayor Warren Lieberman

Q: In 2018, your council had to fill a vacancy. How detailed were the procedures for doing so and how much could you improvise?

A: The council basically by law has two ways to approach things. You can either appoint somebody and there are certain time limits. Or you can go to an election.

Q: You all had this batch of resumes and you voted on your top candidates. All of them happened to be commissioners. Would it have made sense to say on the application that there would be a preference for commissioners to get that seat, such that everyone else who didn’t have that experience wouldn’t have wasted their time applying?

A: I wouldn’t see it that way. Certainly for myself, I try hard to look at the type of experience that folks have had. Some might be commissioners. Some might be school board members. Some may be active in the Rotary Club. If you had that kind of qualifier, it would discourage people from applying. From my perspective, I would always be considering them.

#178: Marion, IL 12/10/18

While the Marion city council undoubtedly gets points for its assortment of dais decorations–including flower pots, a wall portrait, and a giant construction-style sign–the real focus was off-camera.

“We have a great big group here tonight,” observed Mayor Anthony Rinella as his eyes darted across the audience, “and we have a spokesman for that group. Would you come forward and tell us what you guys are here for?”

A teenager wearing a baseball cap and camouflage sweatshirt popped up at the microphone. “We’re here for our civics class. We have a service learning project and coming to a meeting like this is one of the requirements.”

“Okay,” responded the mayor. “Who’s your teacher?”

“Mr. Martin.”

“Coach Martin. How come he’s not here?”

“Good question,” the teenager answered uncomfortably. “I’ll have to ask.”

“Ask him tomorrow. I mean, does he not have to be part of the program?”

Pause. “I guess not.”

“Make him run laps,” insisted the mayor.

Two of the commissioners smiled and glanced at each other. Commissioner Angelo Hightower surveyed the room cautiously. Commissioner John Goss stared blankly at the desk.

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Was it an excused absence?

“Okay. Our favorite council meeting of the year,” Mayor Rinella announced in monotone. “Guys, this is exciting. We’re gonna go over the city audit.”

A car alarm sounded outside the chamber. “Uh-oh, we gotta leave!” joked the mayor as the car’s owner quickly silenced the horn.

Although it was likely a joke that the audit meeting was the “favorite” of the year, it wasn’t at all a bad thing to hear that money was coming hand over fist into Marion.

“If you look back at 2005, the first year I got here, your total revenue was $15 million,” explained a city employee. “Look at this year. Thirty-three million dollars. That says a lot.”

“So since 2006, our total revenue has more than doubled?” the mayor quizzed incredulously.

“It has.”

Mayor Rinella nodded. “That sends you to bed feeling good about yourselves, guys,” he offered to the commissioners.

He then stared into the crowd at one of the city’s recreation employees. “Favorite part of the night,” he deadpanned by way of summoning the man to the lectern.

“If I may brag a bit on our Marion HUB Manta Rays. I’m sporting a shirt today–” the recreation employee opened his jacket to show off a bright yellow t-shirt emblazoned with a large ray. “They finished fourth out of 15 of the non-home teams.”

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Smells like team spirit

After the swim team had received sufficient on-camera promotion, the mayor wrapped up. “Last week we talked about some apps that the city introduced. One was a Facebook page and the other was the Nextdoor app. Well this past week, we had some incidences of vandalism on people’s Christmas ornaments.

“One of the people that was videoing this occurring had the Nextdoor app. So our Nextdoor app, in just one week’s time of people getting on this, is nothing more than the neighborhood watch going high tech.”

He added, “hats off to our IT department.”

He shuffled his papers and remembered that the group of students was still watching him. “You guys got any questions? Did you learn anything?”

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I learned that there is a “Governor’s Hometown Award.”

A few in the audience mumbled replies.

“You’ve just come to one of our mild, boring meetings how we conduct city business,” Mayor Rinella said matter-of-factly. “I apologize for that.”

Well, at least he is making their teacher run laps. Perhaps that made it all worth it.

Interview #83: Grande Prairie, AB Councilor Dylan Bressey (with podcast)

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

Dylan Bressey is in his first term on the Grande Prairie city council and he came to my attention for obvious reasons. We talked about all the work he puts into his council meeting recaps, plus he gives prospective council commenters some advice on how to keep things relevant.

Q: I noticed that during your swearing in, unlike other councilors you did not say, “so help me, god” nor did you put your hand on a religious text. So, sir, are you excited that you are going to hell?

A: [Laughs] You know, it’s actually quite the opposite. I’m a member of the clergy and something that I’m very conscious of is I’m very uncomfortable with religious politics. I really intentionally asked not to take my oath on a Bible, taking seriously Jesus’s words not to do that.

Q: Interesting. That hasn’t brought you any bad luck or hellfire since then, has it?

A: Well, it hasn’t yet, but we’ll see what my eternal destiny might hold because of it.

Q: On February 10, someone tweeted at you

To which you responded, “I disagree about the hashtag, but council feels a lot like school, so I could get behind #bresseyforvaledictorian.” In what way does your council feel a lot like school?

A: Every week it feels like I’m getting hundreds of pages of documents that our administration is asking us to read. I’m digging through online databases. And I’m even writing a lot of papers. I do a lot of blogging. So I really am treating this like school.

Q: On your website, you really set the bar high for what city council members can do to explain everything about their jobs to their constituents. This thing is an encyclopedia for what, why, and how the city council does its business. How long does it take you to write up a summary of a given council meeting?

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Grande Prairie, AB Councilor Dylan Bressey

A: As I’m processing it, I’d say it takes me probably an hour and a half to just do the writing. And then I get somebody to proofread it, I tweak it, I post it on the website.

Q: Some council members tweet out their feelings about council meetings. Others put it on video. I’m sure there’s at least one guy in Vermont who uses puppets or something. What is the advantage in writing out, beat by beat, the proceedings of a council meeting from your point of view?

A: I really don’t like this thing we have going on today where we seem to talk about less and less information more and more passionately whenever we talk about government. It really helps me learn the materials. There’s been quite a few times where I’m writing a blog post and I get halfway through and I realize as I struggle to explain it that I don’t really understand what I just wrote. So I have to study again, call, ask a few questions.

Q: Part of your website is the FAQ. You offer to give people tips on preparing a presentation for council. Let’s say I’m a homeowner in Grande Prairie and my problem is–this being Canada–my neighbors are playing Celine Dion loudly at 4 a.m. and throwing empty maple syrup bottles on my lawn. I want the city to fine them. How do I convince the council to take this problem seriously?

A: Well, I think you’ve already got a good start there. You’ve got a clear problem and you’ve even got a solution you’re suggesting to us. Something we struggle with is sometimes people aren’t able to clearly frame their concern and how they’d like the city to act on it. And that’s hard for us to take a cue from. So coming in with specifics is good.


Follow Councilor Dylan Bressey on Twitter: @DylanBressey 

Interview #65: London, UK Assembly Chair Jennette Arnold, OBE (with podcast)

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

Jennette Arnold is a Labour Party Assembly Member who has been chair for several terms. We discussed how London Assembly meetings are radically different from U.S. city council meetings–plus some juicy stories about former Mayor Boris Johnson.

Q: Madam Chair, I see you are an Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire. 

A: I am.

Q: So, “Most Excellent Order”…are you a knight?

A: [Laughs] Only an American would ask that question! Knights are men and the equivalent of a knight would be a baroness and I’m not that. I’m just straightforward Jennette Arnold, OBE.

Q: Gotcha. In the U.S., most city council meetings cover things like zoning, passing laws, and honoring groups in the community. What is the primary function of your assembly meetings?

A: Our governmental structures are very different. The main power that we have is whatever the mayor does, we have the power to call him in front of us so that he can give an account to Londoners through our questioning….Scrutiny is relevant, it’s informed, and you can bring it alive by using case study and evidence from Londoners.

Q: What do assembly members get out of the questioning and what does the mayor get out of it?

A: I think there is something about the political exchange that is adversarial. I’m sitting in the chair aways thinking, “is this member going too far?” That’s in terms of inappropriate language, going outside the mayoral remit, getting personal. My job is to always be monitoring and when I see a member has just about reached the line, to come in and remind that member he has now stepped over the line.

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London, UK Assembly Chair Jennette Arnold, OBE

Q: You had some tough questioning of previous Conservative Mayor Boris Johnson. But if a Conservative assembly member grilled your Labour Mayor, Sadiq Khan, and the crowd was cheering that member on, would you shut down that applause?

A: No, I wouldn’t. My job isn’t to stifle the feeling of the meeting. If you’re chairing a charged meeting, you have to be very careful in terms of the interventions. I don’t see it as my job to stop what I call that “energy,” which is a reflection of people’s feelings.

Q: Has a constituent ever come up to you after a meeting and said, “I saw what you did there and I like that you gave the mayor the business?”

A: I can refer you back to the applause in the chamber with the questioning I carried out of Boris Johnson. I remember a school closure. What this school was looking for was for their mayor to hear their case. A cross-section of the school came and I was speaking on their behalf. And I didn’t know that they brought a cake. [Johnson] was not listening. He was not making the proper responses for the young people.

Q: Hmm.

A: I said, “oh, come along. They brought a cake for you! Don’t be so mean!” Everybody laughed and he laughed and it took the heat out of the room. At the end of the meeting, I met the young people downstairs and he just happened to be passing. It was lovely to see the young people surrounded him and there was no getting away from them!


Follow Assembly Chair Jennette Arnold on Twitter: @JennetteArnold