Interview #66: Ottawa, ON Councilor Michael Qaqish (with podcast)

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

Michael Qaqish is in his first term on the Ottawa city council and we had a lot to talk about: his appearances on the “Man Panel” and “Fun Friday,” but also his thoughts on bilingualism, distractions, and protesters in the council chamber.

Q: Do you know when you are on camera in the meetings and think about how to come across best on TV?

A: Yeah, it’s funny because I sit on the left side of the table. The camera is usually in my left corner so I never get picked up. I don’t get much on the camera, but we’re all sort of aware. I’ve also had photos snapped of me at committee or council where I didn’t realize they were, so sometimes we’re not necessarily staring at the media.

Q: In the U.S. there are certainly politicians who are obsessed with their image, watching hours of cable news while sitting in the White House (not naming names). Do you ever go back and look at council meeting videos or media coverage of yourself?

A: I want to learn from what I see: am I doing it right? Do I look okay? Do I speak fast, slow? So whenever I do an interview I try to catch it and improve. Do I watch council videos? No, I don’t! [Laughs]

Q: What behavior do you sometimes see in council meetings that grinds your gears?

A: One of the things I don’t like is when people around the table or in the audience start talking and–especially when somebody says something and they don’t agree with it–they start, “ugh!” or making noises and starting to have side conversations. Whenever I have an opportunity to raise it with a chair of a committee or someone else, I do take the opportunity to raise that.

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Ottawa, ON Councilor Michael Qaqish

Q: I noticed something that disturbed me: your councilors sometimes speak in English one minute and then in French the next. Please explain to me–IN FRENCH–why you guys can’t pick a language!

A: [Laughs] Well, my French is not as advanced as some of my other colleagues. We have a couple of Franco-Ontario colleagues. I was taking French classes and I took a break in the summer. Bilingualism is part of our culture.

Q: Do you think the councilors who switch to French know they’re doing that? Does it serve a purpose?

A: Some of the councilors are French. Councilor [Mathieu] Fleury has a lot of [constituents] whose first language would be French. For some of them it’s a personal thing because they want to maintain the langauge. But for some of them it’s to let their residents know–who are predominantly French–that they are asking questions in French as well.

Q: In the meeting of April 13, 2016, there was a lengthy discussion about how to regulate Uber. But one angry taxi driver stood up and yelled at you all for nearly two minutes. Do you guys have security there?

A: We do have security. Those situations are always tricky because on the one hand, you don’t want to create a scene. But give them a couple of minutes to vent and it’s done. He wanted to get something off his chest and he did. I think it’s okay for people to vent. We didn’t need security–the people around him were telling him to calm down.


Follow Councilor Michael Qaqish on Twitter: @QaqishPolitico

Interview #38: Edmonton, AB Councilor Bev Esslinger (with podcast)

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

It’s our first dip into the waters of Alberta and boy, what a fun time it was! I talked to Bev Esslinger, a councilor in Edmonton. We addressed accusations that the Edmonton council meetings are a “man cave,” and also discussed the seemingly-unrelated subjects of prayer and city hall security.

Q: Something caught my eye on the CBC. This is a story from January:

mancave

Do you agree with this characterization of your city council meetings as an “upscale man cave?”

A: I wouldn’t call it a man cave. The last time, we didn’t have that many women running for council. We’ve been really working on that in Edmonton to improve that. We’ve changed some of our policies to be more family friendly–it’s good for everyone if meetings end at 5:30 rather than going into the evening after a full day of debate. No one’s at their best when the meeting goes past that time.

Q: Something that was big at your city council was the 2015 Supreme Court decision saying that prayer at government meetings was not allowed. You didn’t seem to like this, but looking back at almost two and a half years without prayer, is it still a disappointment?

A: Absolutely. We used to start our meeting with a prayer from a different interfaith group each time. It was always a very nice part of the day. I thought it reflected the diversity we have.

Q: City council meetings are a business meeting, ceremony, and public forum rolled into one. Did it help you do your job to have someone give a prayer right before you heard about things like zoning?

A: It was a moment of pause to reflect on our community’s diversity. It was a moment where people got to wish us their best. Hey, we can all use more prayer!

Q: I’ll give that an amen. But one of the suggestions to replace the prayer was to have a “moment of reflection” when citizens would say what it meant to them to be an Edmontonian through a poem or a song. You were against it. Why?

A: It went from a prayer to something that could be very broad.  I didn’t think it was the same thing at all.

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Edmonton, AB Councilor Bev Esslinger

Q: Perhaps you haven’t heard a poem about Edmonton that truly blew your socks off. May I read my poem?

A: Why not!

Q: Okay:

Saskatchewan River–
Cold waters as sharp
As Gretzky’s skates.
Light rail
Now going to Century Park.
What’s that?
That’s the Royal Alberta Museum.
History!…Mmm so thirsty;
Better go to the waterpark
At the West Edmonton Mall.
Splash
Into Alberta!

When I visit Edmonton, can I read that at a council meeting?

A: No.

Q: …Okay, let’s change the subject. On September 22, 2015, a group of cab drivers protested during a meeting when you were deciding whether to allow Uber in Edmonton. Have you ever been concerned about your safety at a council meeting?

A: Not really. It’s disruptive–you can’t conduct a meeting. We don’t try to get into it with people. In this case, this large a group of people reacting…you can’t continue your meeting.

Q: You decided to beef up your security with metal detectors and a glass wall. Wouldn’t it be cheaper if the councilors carried guns?

A: That would not be Canadian.


Follow Councilor Bev Esslinger on Twitter: @bevesslinger

#76: Schenectady, NY 12/27/16

For the last city council meeting of 2016, I couldn’t have picked a more beautiful council chamber: ornate chairs, delicate chandeliers, intricate woodwork. It looked more like the set of “Hamilton” than a municipal building.

But the room was also deeply, deeply confusing: the six council members were crowded into a single wooden desk–cafeteria style. The council president had her own luxurious dais in roughly the next ZIP code.

And then, there was the graphics department:

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“Councilman Textbox Head has the floor.”

However, the phrase “lipstick on a pig” sprung to mind, as the beautiful room was consumed by a series of irate public commenters tearing each council member a new rectum and–occasionally–making sense.

“Regarding the Uber issue,” a woman in a baggy blazer slowly wound herself up. “What is an ‘Uber?’ Is it generic? Is it a brand name? Is it a transitive verb? Is it a modifying adverb? I’d like to know.”

I had absolutely zero read on whether she was kidding. My heart said she wasn’t, and my head said, “oh, god, this is gonna get worse.”

“I picked up some statistics. Our seven new electric motorcycles–” she continued.

“Okay, this is about Uber and Lyft,” cut in Council President Leesa Perazzo with some exasperation. “It’s NOT about electric vehicles.”

“Well,” the woman huffed, “these can be hooked up if it’s electric motorcycles. There are many acres of forestland being destroyed for motorcycle lanes!”

Uh, point…taken? I’m sure all of the Uber drivers with electric motorcycles are quaking in their helmets.

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“Is it a house? Is it a mouse? Is it in a box? Is it with a fox?”

The next commenter was a tiny balding man in a sweater vest who spoke with a slight impediment and even slighter enthusiasm.

“I’d like to speak on what I call ‘my two cents’ on the smoking ordinance. When I found that this council had passed us a law, I went, ‘seriously? Did the council pass that without realizing some people are not gonna like it?'”

He was referring to a new ordinance banning people from smoking in cars when minors are present. Also, he was apparently new to the concept that city councils do things people don’t agree with.

He sagely added, “I don’t think anybody in the government has been using the brains or common sense…things.”

Well, this has been enlightening. And another anti-anti-smoking commenter stomped to the podium. “If you have custody of those children and you tend to be in a car that’s bought and paid for, that’s your personal property! You can do anything you want with your personal property!” he fumed.

Amen! That’s the same logic I use to run a dog-fighting ring in my basement and cook meth in my RV. Read the Constitution.

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Basically my reaction

And if the comments from the public hadn’t soured the mood enough, Councilman Vincent Riggi stood up to seal the deal. “Just to clarify the vote on the smoking: YOU brought up that it’s our part to not abstain, Madam President. I don’t know WHY that left-handed shot had to come out. That’s certainly my prerogative to abstain,” he snapped.

“I thought we were beyond that, but I guess we’re not. And I thought YOU were beyond that, but apparently not.”

Pause.

“I won’t answer any of the other nonsense I heard tonight,” he slammed the microphone down.

Here’s to a Happy New Year?