Interview #131: Durham, NC Council Member DeDreana Freeman (with podcast)

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

DeDreana Freeman describes Durham’s procedure for providing translation services at council meetings, plus a handful of contentious issues that turned out large numbers of emotional commenters: including alleged anti-Semitism and a planned railyard close to an elementary school in a wealthy neighborhood.

Q: Durham’s population is, I believe, about 15 percent Hispanic. Occasionally you do have Spanish speakers come in to comment to your council. I was a bit surprised at the March 4 meeting this year to hear a woman give her remarks in Spanish and no translation for her was present. One commenter even criticized the city for it. Why was that unavailable here?

A: If it’s not requested in advance, no one’s made available to do translation. Same thing for sign language or disability. The plan is to try and make it more visible how to make that request. I think it was a well-timed smack on the wrist. “You guys need to be paying attention to this.” I appreciated it.

Q: When Durham was firing on all cylinders, you had a robust method of handling translation. In January 2018, you had a vacancy on the council and the other council members had to fill that spot. It’s my understanding that there was English-to-Spanish translation in the room for people who picked up headsets from the city. How much effort did that take to coordinate the realtime translation?

A: There are service providers in the city who offer this service. All we do is make a phone call. It’s not difficult, it’s just a matter of being aware.

Q: In April 2018, there was a meeting that touched upon human rights, race, and institutionalized discrimination. If I gave the listeners ten guesses, they probably wouldn’t come close to knowing what you spent two hours of that meeting talking about. Why was Durham, North Carolina concerned about…Israel?

A: I don’t think the concern was around Israel. I think it was specific to the claims that our police were engaging in militarized training.

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Durham, NC Council Member DeDreana Freeman

Q: Who was making those allegations?

A: There were a number of groups making those allegations. Apparently there was a pamphlet from the Israeli military police that presented that Durham was one of their clients.

Q: At this meeting, the council was voting on adopting a statement that Mayor Steve Schewel wrote whose message was: Durham will not adopt military-style training for its police force, mainly because that exacerbates the problem of racial profiling. However, there was this introductory paragraph of the letter:

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It turns out that mentioning Israel and police training in the same thought was enough to cause some people–and by “some” I mean 50 public commenters–to put the gas pedal to the floor on accusations of anti-Semitism. Did you sense whether Mayor Schewel, who is Jewish himself, felt bad that he inadvertently dragged your council into an accusatory environment? Or did he appear, as I would have, that “I don’t understand what you’re mad about?”

A: I’m not sure. I know that we all stood firm behind the chief’s response to the accusation that we were doing militarized police training. Folks can be offended, but it doesn’t mean that the offense was intentional. It’s okay to hear back that you are offended.

Q: Almost a year later, have you studied up on anti-Semitism and now feel that “yes, I see where they are coming from”? Or are you still mind-boggled that the mere mention of Israel for some people is like using the N-word?

A: I think I understood it then, it was just more important to make clear that we were not engaged [in militarized training]. I’ve had plenty of conversations to hear perspectives that are different from mine. I can completely be empathetic to the feeling of the sentiment that was received.

Q: So if you truly felt you were being anti-Semitic with this statement, you would’ve owned that? You would’ve avoided it in the future?

A: Of course. If I thought it was the case, I would. I’ve encouraged everyone who’s had anything to say about this situation to say what you need to say. It is when you speak for yourself that you get what you need out of it.

Follow Council Member DeDreana Freeman on Twitter: @Freeman4Durham

Interview #89: Santa Ana, CA Mayor Pro Tem Michele Martinez (with podcast)

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

Michele Martinez has been on the Santa Ana council for 12 years and is the current mayor pro tem. That means she runs the meetings when the mayor is gone, and it turns out that she has a significant philosophical difference on how to do things. We talk about her approach to public comment and the linguistic changes that have happened in her council chamber.

Q: You were first elected in 2006, which was also the year I created my first municipal affairs program, the “Planning and Zoning Commission Chronicles.” In retrospect, it was terrible. But can you think of any changes that have happened to the Santa Ana council meetings during these 12 years?

A: One of the first things that my colleagues and myself did was to get translation services for those that wished to come and speak before the council. Before that, our mayor would translate for those that would come and speak Spanish. We just thought that was kind of unfair.

Q: Was translation something he wanted to do or was he given that task?

A: Well by default, he knows Spanish fluently and as the mayor he would just do it because we had no one, nor did we ever dedicate the funding to pay for someone. If he weren’t there and there isn’t someone else to translate, a staff member or someone else in the public would translate on behalf of that person.

Q: One time, you and Mayor Miguel Pulido were absent and the other council members excused you but refused to excuse him. What does that mean–does an unexcused absence go on the mayor’s permanent record?

A: Obviously, he won’t get paid for that council meeting.

Q: Ah. Is the mayor frequently gone for important votes?

A: True. There are times where he doesn’t want to take action on certain items, so he won’t attend. I always give ample notice and I inform everyone why I can’t attend. The mayor chooses not to do that. He’ll contact the clerk very last minute and never give his rationale. The mayor doesn’t like controversy and I think everyone knows that about him.

Santa Ana, CA Mayor Pro Tem Michele Martinez

Q: Well, I don’t like controversy either so–I’m kidding, I love controversy. That’s why I’ll bring up this: in December 2016 there was a meeting of four council members, including you and the mayor. The other three council members were absent. The subject of the meeting was disciplining the city manager. You needed four votes to put him on administrative leave and you coincidentally had those four votes. Were you sensitive to the perception that this meeting was about power and not process?

A: The mayor in this case doesn’t need four members of the council. He can do a special meeting at any given time without consent of the council. So the mayor chose to have that meeting. There’s been inconsistencies as it pertains to the process. We need to have some kind of protocol so there is no blame game and we’re consistent.

Q: Can you speculate why the decision to discipline the city manager could not have waited until a meeting with all seven council members?

A: Obviously it could. Yeah. The mayor chose to do it at that specific time because it benefited him.

Q: I just realized that when the mayor leaves early from meetings, he doesn’t hear all the public comments that he pushed to the end. Did you realize that?

A: Oh, yes. I realize it every single time. He does leave most times before public comment and I believe that’s wrong. We should all be able to listen, including the mayor.

Follow Mayor Pro Tem Michele Martinez on Twitter: @Michele714

#71: Beloit, WI 12/5/16

Okay, I have to admit something: I had a hard time focusing on the Beloit city council meeting. It’s not because it was boring (it wasn’t). It’s not because I was under the influence of alcohol (I was).

It’s because all I could think about…was the wall.

The brick wall. AROUND the city council.

Is this to keep the Big Bad Wolf out of council meetings?

Is it art? Is it a metaphor? Or is it a way of saying, “the only way you’re gonna ‘stick it’ to City Hall is with a bulldozer?”

Regardless, the city council had four more walls to worry about: a proposed “indoor entertainment venue.” To approve or not approve was the question.

“We were contacted by five neighboring property owners who are opposed due to concerns about traffic, parking, noise, and loitering,” a bespectacled city staffer informed the stern-looking councilors.

“The planning commission reviewed this and voted 6-0 to recommend denial.” She nodded to the building owner sitting alone in the audience. “I don’t think he’s trying to negatively impact the neighborhood.”

The man cautiously approached the wall. He was wearing a Carolina Tarheels fleece under a puffy jacket. “My name is Mario. I’m the owner. I’m trying, you know, to do that thing. Whatever that thing…” he stuttered with a heavy accent.

“My English is broken so hopefully you understand me,” he apologized. “If you guys say no, throw away that idea then continue. So technically you’re the boss.”

Do it! Scale the wall!

But Councilor Sheila De Forest looked intensely grief-stricken. “I want to make sure that you were understood at the planing commission. Did you have a translator there at the meeting for him?”

The staffer slid next to Mario at the podium. “He didn’t ask for one. I didn’t know he needed one.”

“Did we OFFER him one, though?” De Forest pressed angrily.

“I…don’t know,” sighed the employee.

Councilor De Forest was livid. “I guess I’m not comfortable proceeding until we offer him a translator,” she demanded.

City Manager Lori Curtis Luther jumped into the fray. “I just want to make a cautionary note that we shouldn’t ASSUME what someone does or does not want,” she attempted to out-sensitize De Forest’s sensitivity. “I don’t want to imply that we think you NEED a translator. I think that can be insulting to some.”

Some might say a fortressed city council is a tad insulting.

Riding in to the rescue was the third Good Samaritan, Councilor Marilyn Sloniker. “Would you like ME to ask him in Spanish if he understands what’s going on?”

Council President David Luebke quickly tried to sort out the ethical dilemma roiling the council. “I think…I think that’s…we’re pushing it too far. I don’t want to insult anybody’s intelligence.”

“I understand,” shrugged Sloniker. It’s no small irony that the council who erected a wall around themselves was worried about how to be properly inclusive.

However, when it came to Luebke’s fellow councilors, the gloves were off.

“The Holidazzle was fantastic. I happened to go in where you work, Mark,” he slyly grinned, referring to Councilor Mark Preuschl’s candy shop.

“They had samples up there, but for every one he gave out, he ate a piece too!” Everyone had a much-needed and de-stressing laugh.

No translation needed there!

#59: Mesa, AZ 10/17/16

It’s a troubled time in America. People are confused. Searching for answers. They want a calm, steady presence to chart the way forward.

Ladies and gentleman, I think I found the hero we are looking for at the Mesa city council meeting.

His name? Kevin Christopher.

“Good evening, mayor and council members. These are the items on the consent agenda,” the bespectacled, baritone-voiced city employee announced.  Then, attempting the unthinkable, he turned a standard agenda-reading into a can’t-tear-your-ears-away vocal marathon.

“Item 3A–liquor license application for Algae Biomass Organization. One-day civic event. Wednesday, October 26. 7418 East Innovation Way South. Item 3B–liquor license application for All Saints Roman Catholic Church Knights of Columbus. One-day fraternal event. Sunday, November 5. 1534 North Recker Road.”

Minutes ticked by. The man raced through FORTY-THREE items without so much as a drink of water!

“Item 6G–authorizing the city manager to enter into a subgrantee agreement for grant funds for the Fire and Medical Department’s Rapid Response Team.”

Captain’s Log, Day 14: We’re halfway through the agenda.

Not stumbling and not slowing down, the captions sped by underneath him as he rounded an incredible EIGHT MINUTES OF NONSTOP READING!

“Item 9A–subdivision plat. Bella Via Parcel 15 located on the east side of Signal Butte Road. Mayor and council members, these are the items on the consent agenda.”

Although I was giving him a standing ovation at home, Mayor John Giles was unfazed by Christopher’s oral Olympics.

“Please cast your vote,” he deadpanned. In less than two seconds, six “ayes” popped up and Christopher’s Last Stand was no more.

Switching to public comment, puzzlingly, there were two people at the podium.

Buenas tardes,” a diminutive woman introduced herself.

“Good afternoon,” the man in the maroon shirt repeated.

“I don’t mean to interrupt,” Mayor Giles interrupted, “but I notice you’re using an interpreter. So we’ll allow a total of six minutes.”

Six minutes–or, as it’s known in Mesa, a “Three-Quarters Christopher.”

I should have paid attention in high school Spanish.

Honorable miembros de concilio–”

Translator: “Honorable council members…me and my brothers come here to ask for our rights…for a place to live….We know that you have a heart….Thank you.”

One of her brothers, in matching red, took her place at the podium to clarify:

Translator: “The moving us out that the City of Mesa has tried to do…along with the owner of the mobile home park….you can help us but you haven’t wanted to….The mobile home park of Mesa Real has not been able to be helped.”

Mayor Giles furrowed his brow and tightened his grip on his pen. “Fernando, would you translate that there is a sheet of paper with frequently asked questions related to the Mesa Real trailer park?”

Seriously, Your Honor? An FAQ? Not so much as an “I feel your pain” or “si, se puede?”

The mayor grimaced and anxiously ruubbed his chin as the translator conveyed the message. Council members eased the tension by staring at their cell phones and tablets.

Finally, Mayor Giles adjourned the meeting not with a whimper, but with a sick guitar riff. Crank it:

Final thoughts: I give 10 out of 10 stars to Kevin “The Reader” Christopher and whoever added that outtro music. And negative 10 stars to everyone else for not helping the trailer park.