This past Tuesday was Election Day in the United States, which means there were plenty of city council races to keep track of. We provide you with some updates on a handful of city councils profiled on previous podcast episodes.
Anne Watson is a high school teacher and first-term mayor who made a few tweaks to the council meetings when she took the gavel this year. She explains why high school students come into the council chamber regularly and we discuss a contentious meeting about a vacancy this spring.
Q: I noticed that your council does not say the Pledge of Allegiance in your meetings. Mayor Watson, simple question: how dare you?
A: You know, I think it’s sort of assumed that we’re all on board with loving America. So we just use our time well and want to just keep moving forward!
Q: Please tell me that you at least have Judeo-Christian prayer before the meetings.
A: No, we don’t pray before the meetings either!
Q: Oh, my god. If the French Canadians want to invade you people, I could care less at this point. I notice that you have been cursed with a finicky sound system. What is the problem with the microphones in your council chamber?
A: The microphones were a little bit far away from the edge of the desks and so for a long time, we had to lean over the desks to get close enough to actually be heard. We could look into getting some better mics that might actually pick us up, but they were just recently moved to be closer. And actually, since that meeting happened, we’ve had some better sound.
Q: I want to talk about some of the aspects of the meetings that changed since you became mayor earlier this year. Do I understand that you instituted a two-minute limit on public comment?
A: That’s correct. We actually have a card that one of our councilors holds up. The one side says you’ve got one minute left and the other side says you’ve got to stop.
Q: I love low-tech solutions. Perhaps for the sound system you could just roll up a piece of paper and talk through it like a megaphone instead!
A: There we go!
Q: Is there now in your council chamber a white board with future agenda items?
A: There is an agenda board and that was something that I asked for. I think it’s really helpful for planning our time. When we’re in the council meetings and we’re thinking about if we are going to table this topic or somebody raises an issue that’s worth talking about further, then we can right there have a visual representation of when it might fit in our future agendas.
Q: Tell me about the kids who come into your meetings to drop policy on you.
A: So every year, there’s a class at the high school that does a project around civics and whatever topics are going on in the city. They come to the council and make a pitch. There was one we had about possibly banning plastic bags in the city of Montpelier. We have an item on the ballot on November 6 coming up as to whether we should be asking the legislature for permission to enact some kind of ban on plastic bags. The kids were definitely a part of that.
Q: You are actually a teacher at the high school there. If a student said to you, “Ms. Watson, I didn’t do my homework for your class because I was working on my policy project for the city council,” would you be mad?
A: Oh, of course I would! Well, I probably wouldn’t be mad, but I would probably say something like, “listen, you need to manage your time.”
Vermont is the land of maple syrup and Bernie Sanders. But it’s also home to some spicy city council happenings. I talked to Burlington Councilor Selene Colburn, who has some interesting connections to famous Vermonters and is also a dancer/choreographer!
Q: What’s the turnout like at city council meetings?
A: We have pretty packed meetings from time to time. Right now, we’re debating whether to change our zoning to allow a 14-story mall. Which doesn’t sound very tall, but it would be the tallest building in the state of Vermont.
Q: Fourteen stories?
A: Fourteen. And it would cause us to lose our distinction of being the state with the smallest tallest building. I think that honor will go to Maine!
Q: You have 12 council members. Four are Democrats, four are Progressive, three are independent, and one is a Republican. That sounds messy. Is it?
A: We make it work. It is pretty wild to have one Republican on a city council of 12 in a city of 40,000 people.
Q: Is this guy more of a build-the-wall Republican or an urbane, rational Republican?
A: He is not a build-the-wall Republican. He also serves dually as a state legislator and city councilor simultaneously. He’s what we call a “Vermont Republican.”
Q: In addition to being a city councilor, you are a dancer and a choreographer. If you could take the city council meetings and toss them aside and choreograph them to make them really pop, what would you change?
A: The public forum part is really frustrating for the public because they get their two minutes and they get to talk at the council–and then we move forward. There’s no back and forth from that point on really. Thinking choreographically, that’s like a prelude to the performance that compositionally doesn’t ping back to the main event ever.
Q: If Burlington city council meetings were a Ben & Jerry’s flavor, what would they be?
A. Hazed and Confused
B. Americone Dream
A: Definitely not vanilla. I’m gonna have to go with Hazed and Confused.
Q: You do realize that is a reference to marijuana, right?
Q: Have you met Ben and/or Jerry?
A: I have! Jerry just endorsed my campaign. They’re really active locally politically. They never go anywhere without scooping ice cream. Every event we have in Vermont that is remotely lefty and political, someone is there scooping free Ben & Jerry’s.
Q: You would think with all that dessert, Vermont would be one of the most obese states.
A: We’re not, we’re pretty healthy. We walk, bike…jump around. I had a meeting with [a constituent] about some of her concerns about a project and she was like, “ugh! Enough with the walking and the biking and the jumping! I’m so tired of hearing about all the jumping!”
Q: [Laughs] Now, we are taping this before Election Day, but you are running for the Vermont state house of representatives and you are unopposed. So congratulations on your victory.
A: Thank you! I hope there’s no vigorous write-in campaign in the last 48 hours.
Q: That would be terrible news. And Donald Trump is our president now, so that’s not ideal.