Interview #136: Glasgow, SCT Councillor Eva Murray (with podcast)

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

Eva Murray is a first-term Labour councillor in Glasgow who seems to know all of the names of her 84 colleagues (no small feat!). She discusses the the cycle of partisan blame that emerges in the debates and how that can be frustrating for a new councillor. Plus, she explains why young people appear to take interest in attending the Glasgow meetings.

Q: Am I reading correctly that you are one of 85 city councillors in Glasgow?

A: That’s absolutely correct. 

Q: Wow, 85! Be honest with me, madam: do you know everybody’s name?

A: I think I do. I mean, two years on I hope I would. There’s still a few that I struggle with. We’ve got three Councillor Morgans. I still get them confused a little bit!

Q: I noticed something unusual that someone tweeted at you:

Do you need tickets to watch your council meetings? And follow-up: do you ever go on tour?

A: People can tune in online, but there’s a very limited amount of tickets to watch it from the gallery. You have to contact your local councillor and hopefully you can get them. You have to be quick. I think there’s only 12 to 14 spaces in the gallery. As for going on tour, that could be an interesting summer trip but at the moment, no. We could get some merchandise, put all the dates on the back, and just tour Scotland. 

Q: Do I take it to mean that you have a full gallery most of the time if the tickets are in such demand?

A: We do most times, especially if there’s a controversial motion. Or some people have just never been to a council meeting. We’ve seen a lot of younger people take up the opportunity to come and watch.

Q: What is in the magic sauce of the Glasgow council that makes young people interested in showing up to watch? Is it the historic nature of the place? The topics you consider? Or with 85 councillors, everyone has a friend on city council and they’re showing up to support their buddies?

A: Maybe it’s a bit of everything. Two years ago was the first time 16-year-olds could vote in a council election. We’ve seen younger people become more involved in politics.

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Glasgow, SCT Councillor Eva Murray

Q: Something that is noticeably different from most American and Canadian councils is the time in Glasgow’s council meetings dedicated to questions. Who decides which councillors get to question, and what is the purpose of asking those questions?

A: They’ve in the last couple of meetings changed how questions are done. Before it could genuinely take up a full meeting just full of questions. What they’ve done now is, say the Labour Party would put in six or seven questions. Four of them will get picked and the other three will get a written response. Some people use it to make noise about an ongoing issue, to take a hit at the leader of the council. Other people will use it to highlight a local issue. If you get a good hit on a question, you can make not just your local paper, but maybe the Glasgow citywide paper.

Q: A lot of what I hear in debates goes along the lines of “Labour did this five years ago.” “Well, the Tories did that 10 years ago.” “Oh, where was the SNP when this and that was happening?” It appears like you are settling a score. How much accuracy is there to that?

A: I think you’re right in that a lot of people like to play the blame game. It’s frustrating for me as someone who’s only in the city chambers two years–who wasn’t there when other decisions were made–and to have to take that. I’m trying my best to be the new generation of councillor, but you’re still tarred with the decisions made a long time ago.

Q: So you’re speaking to a culture where new councillors get saddled with their party’s baggage to the point that when they are the seasoned councillor, the expectation is that they will saddle new incoming councillors of the opposition party with the bad decisions of their predecessors?

A: Absolutely. You try and get away from that. People outside, like constituents, they’re willing to listen and see that you are the new face. But there’s a lot of people in the chamber—that is their rhetoric. If they can’t properly answer a question, they’ll say, “what did Labour do?” Or “what did the Tories do?” 


Follow Councillor Eva Murray on Twitter: @EvaCMurray

State of the City Council Meetings Address 2018

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FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE–This evening, City Council Chronicles Editor Michael Karlik gave the second annual State of the City Council Meetings address to a joint session of Congress. Reports are that nearly all senators stayed awake and a stunning nine of ten House members did not walk out. By any measure, it was a success. Below is a rush transcript and audio of the entire speech, which is also available on iTunesStitcher, and Player FM:

Mr. Speaker, mayors, council members, Mom: ever since this project began in April 2016, we have chronicled the city council meetings of over 200 cities on four continents in eight countries. And none of them were sh*tholes.

Now, some have questioned my ability to chronicle that many city councils. But I assure you, as someone who is 6’3″ and 239 pounds–239? Is that what we’re going with, Doc? Great–and 239 pounds, I am in perfect health. I could easily do this for another four to eight weeks before I get bored and start reviewing Star Wars instead or something.

But I do not keep watch over the world’s city council meetings by myself. My team of unpaid interns with questionable citizenship status work 18 hours a day reviewing footage, checking Robert’s Rules of Order, and not finding out what OSHA is. And—do not clap for them! Justice Breyer, DO. NOT. Anyway, I am thankful for my interns and as soon as I find out what college credit is, I will consider giving it to them.

Speaking of being thankful, tonight we have some esteemed guests in the gallery. Sitting next to the First Lady is past podcast guest Andy Richardson, city councilman in Charleston, West Virginia, who has since announced that he is running for mayor. Good luck, Councilman. And remember, you’ll always be the mayor of my heart.

Next to him is Lauren McLean, council member in Boise, Idaho who, surprisingly, was elected her council’s president this year. Council Member McLean was a former Scottish Highland dancer, so she’s no stranger to unusual moves.

And finally, we have Fresno, California Council Member Esmeralda Soria, who appeared on the podcast back in December as council vice president, but totally and expectedly became council president this month. But get this: outgoing President Clint Olivier tried to pull a fast one on her by simply not handing over the gavel until she called him out.

When Council Member Soria appeared on the podcast, we talked about her council’s tradition of giving a parting gift to the outgoing president.

***

In case you were wondering, Clint Olivier received a watch and a Captain America portrait. And because he made it into this speech, I am also sending him a check for $10,000–what’s that? My horse lost at the track? Okay, scratch that. I am instead sending him, uh, let’s see…these, oh, these note cards that I am reading off of. So yeah, collectors items. Please clap.

Ladies and gentlemen, one brand new feature we rolled out this past year on the podcast was the Listener’s List–where anyone anyplace in the world could send me hot tips on city council hanky panky. We receive dozens of calls on the hotline each minute, so if you can’t get through, send your scoop to presssecretary@whitehouse.gov or through the City Council Chronicles Facebook page. One Listener’s List item became its own podcast episode last year, and it involved a marriage proposal in Flower Mound, Texas.

***

Thank you, Jimmy. And thank you, Mr. Mayor, for keeping my secret. You know, the one involving, uh, herpes. The State of the City Council Meetings address is typically a time for good news. But because I am standing in Congress, where you cannot swing a dead cat without hitting someone with the competence of a dead cat, let’s get into that weird sh*t. Huh?! Senator McCain, you know what I’m talking about!

I spoke with recently retired Councilor Alberto Garcia of Westminster, Colorado about a bizarre month-and-a-half his city council spent dealing with one colleague who had a score to settle.

***

I meant every word of that. Stand back! I’m soaked in deer urine. I don’t get much out of it, but it’s fun for the deer. Folks, normally the biggest threat a council member has to deal with is being yelled at by an angry public commenter. Oh, and bees. Bees are the silent killer. But in December, Lord Mayor Lesley Alexander of the city of Bristol walked me through a terrifying encounter she once had with a council saboteur.

***

That is why I never travel anywhere without my team of snipers. Plus, my own Colt .45. Stand back! It is loaded and soaked in deer urine. The deer was a little nervous but the gun enjoys it.

Well, I see the hour is getting late and half of the South Carolina delegation is falling asleep–and not the good half. I’m kidding; there is no good half. Let me finish this address by reminding everyone that city councils are human. They cannot solve all problems, and that limitation can be frustrating and depressing. Nowhere was that better illustrated than in Juneau, Alaska, when I talked with Assembly Member Jesse Kiehl. I leave you, the nation, and the world with this story of when councils fall short.

Month in Review: December 2017

Step under the mistletoe and get kissed by the FANTASTIC set of council meetings we reviewed in December! The season may have been cheery, but residents of Garner Street certainly were not. Neither were the anti-Interfacility Traffic Area (that’s the last time I will ever type that phrase) activists in Virginia Beach.

But hey, like Rudolph with his red nose, last month’s podcast guests guided our way through the darkness by talking about their ideal council meeting presents and their beach bodies. Hubba hubba!

For all of that and a glass of eggnog, check out our December Month in Review.

And if you are still uncertain whether December council meetings were sufficiently festive, BEHOLD THE SARCASTIC SANTA:

Interview #73: Bristol, UK Lord Mayor Lesley Alexander (with podcast)

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

We have a highly prestigious episode this week: Lesley Alexander has been a Conservative Party councilor in Bristol since 2003 and is the current Lord Mayor–a.k.a. chair of the council meetings and the ceremonial “first citizen.” She revealed a fun piece of trivia about the council chamber and recalled a scary moment from a council meeting.

Q: Bristol has had a lord mayor or a mayor for 801 years. That is a lot of mayors! So for the next ten hours or so, we’ll go through each of those guys and you tell me how they did at running a council meeting. Thomas Beaupeny, 1384: do you give him a thumbs up, thumbs down, or in the middle?

A: [Laughs] I have no idea! One thing that you may not know: we have quite an adversarial form of council chamber. It’s made out in the same way as Parliament. The distance between the two rows facing each other is two sword-lengths. So nobody can stick their sword into the opposition.

Q: Oh, that’s amazing! As an American, I would never think to measure things in swords. Maybe bullet trajectory, but not swords. Bristol is on its second elected mayor, and he has to stand for you when you enter, just like everyone else. Do you technically outrank the mayor?

A: It’s difficult to say. We’re two different jobs. I chair the full council meetings. He’s got the checkbook. He runs the city. But he’s got the aggravation. I have the chain and the mansion and I have all the fun.

Q: [Laughs]

A: We’re two different roles. One is the civic role–that’s mine. Then there’s his role, which is running the city. The two shouldn’t cross over. The mayor has the power to ignore what any of the councilors say, except the budget. He needs the councilors to pass the budget.

Q: I noticed that when you announce whether a motion is passed or failed, you don’t announce the vote split. Why is that?

A: You can do that, I suppose. If you’re watching on the webcast, you should be able to see [how people voted].

Q: No, you can’t.

A: Okay, well that is something I will take on board and make that comment in the future.

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Bristol, UK Lord Mayor Lesley Alexander

Q: During your March 2016 meeting, there was a moment where the council was taking a vote. But you were not present because Councilor Mark Weston said that your car was apparently vandalized. Is that true?

A: Yes, it was. Because the council house was closed for renovations, we had a meeting at the cricket club. We had a, well, I would say a “rent-a-mob” sort of person, rather than somebody with real political convictions. When I tried to go in, he stopped the car and was kicking at it.

Q: Oh, wow. You were sitting in the car while this man was kicking at you?

A: It was quite frightening because he was bouncing up and down with his hands on the car. There was a bit of a baying crowd.

Q: Is he in jail currently?

A: No, he’s not. I think security would have liked us to take it a lot further. But the comment from our legal department was, well, it’s all going to be over now and he’ll go away. And he did.


Follow Lord Mayor Lesley Alexander on Twitter: @brislordmayor

Month in Review: September 2017

We had a smörgåsbord of “firsts” in September: the first time we saw a husband bring his wife roses at a council meeting. Our first podcast interview with a knight (even though she claims she’s not a knight). And our first “Best Thing, Worst Thing” story that profiles a non-American city.

And hey! We finally marked our territory in one of the three states that City Council Chronicles had not visited: Montana. Now, it’s only Rhode Island and New Mexico that need to get with the program. Check out which states we did profile with our September Month in Review.

And if you haven’t seen the first country music video we’ve encountered that everybody is talking about (well, everybody who watches the Fayetteville, North Carolina city council meetings, that is), plug in your headphones and jam out here:

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

Interview #58: Edinburgh, SCT Councilor Susan Rae (with podcast)

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

Susan Rae is a brand new Green Party councilor in Edinburgh and she has a terrific sense of humor! The Edinburgh city council had a hiccup after no political party won a majority when the council convened in May–plus, no one wanted to form a coalition until after the surprise election the prime minister called for June. We talked about that sticky wicket, plus all of the traditions of her council.

Q: Can you describe your council chamber?

A: It has beautiful stained glass windows and very old, very large desks. They have lids that open so you can hide everything in there. And large seats–I’m very tiny, only five foot tall. So my feet don’t actually touch the ground. They kind of swing!

Q: What do you hide in your desk?

A: I hide my cigarettes and my lighter and some biscuits in case I get hungry.

Q: The Lord Provost (a.k.a. mayor) makes a grand entrance every meeting: someone announces his arrival, everyone stands, and two other fancily-dressed people in white gloves follow him and put the mace into his high-backed chair. As an American, I’m thinking, there have got to be mayors over here who would LOVE their entrance announced with an entourage. Do you think it’s excessively formal?

A: I don’t feel it’s very necessary but there are traditional elements within the council that do like to keep the tradition of the mace and the sword. I’m very desiring of taking in a lightsaber one day. We [in the Green Party] all have our own! I would probably have to stash it in my desk.

Q: Well, yeah, you’d have to take out the cigarettes and the biscuits to fit it in there probably.

A: [Laughs] The traditional part has a place. It’s all on display, all of the silverware, the keys to the city–

Q: Wait, the keys to the city are just sitting out in the open in the chamber where anyone can take them?

A: We take them to Holyrood Palace and present them to the queen. Then she gives us them back and says, “you’re really good at looking after my city. Keep the keys!” So we did that recently.

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Edinburgh, Scotland Councilor Susan Rae (and the keys to the city)

Q: Each of the parties has a section of the room where you all sit together. And generally if the Conservatives are all standing to vote, Labour will not be standing. Are you allowed to disagree with your party and be the only person to vote for something?

A: It depends on the party. Some parties have a whip system and you have to follow the whip’s instruction. We tend to agree on things or we vote with our conscience. Labour and SNP operate a whip system and the Conservatives always vote together.

Q: I don’t know what the penalty is…death, maybe, if you don’t vote with them?

A: I don’t think it’s death quite yet. But I think you can be suspended from the group or they don’t let you have biscuits in your desk.

Q: That’s a steep penalty indeed.

A: The role of a councilor is to look after the people in their ward. I would rather people voted for what the people in their constituency want, not for what their party want.


Follow Councilor Susan Rae on Twitter: @susan4leithwalk