Interview #146: Superior, WI Mayor Jim Paine (with podcast)

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

Jim Paine ran into a surprise the day of his second-term swearing in: a stalemate on the Superior council, as no one could claim the council presidency. He discusses why some councilors would not allow him to break a tie, plus gives insight into the student councilors who attend the meetings.

Q: Superior has a coterie of youth councilors–students–who sit in the front row of the council dais every meeting. But I have never seen them say or do anything. They just sit quietly for an hour or more. Is this some kind of alternative detention that you’ve worked out with the school district?

A: You’re the first person to ever ask me about them, but I’m glad you did! This program should be very valuable. I’m going to confess to a little bit of angst here that they don’t participate more. I’ve been in that role–not as a high school student, but part of my local political career began because when I was a university student here, I pushed for more student representation in local government. The Superior mayor at the time laughed me out of his office.

Q: Wow.

A: I was working at a bar at the time and I stormed up and down the bar that night raging about the mayor. It turned out the county board chairman was sitting at the bar and invited me to invent a student seat for the county board, which I did. So I wish that they did participate more. At the county board, those students would let us know everything that was going on in the high school, even if we didn’t care at all! Quite frankly–I don’t think I’ve ever said this locally–I wish they would jump right into the debates. They have working microphones like everybody else. If they ever hit that button in the middle of a hot debate, I’d recognize them immediately.

Q: These kids, these youth councilors, do they have some sort of expectation of what they’re supposed to do in the council meeting?

A: There probably is a misunderstanding between us and them. They’re selected by their high schools to participate. For them, it’s largely a learning exercise. They’re there to watch, listen, and learn. What I’ve communicated to them is they should act as representatives. They should speak up. Now, in their defense, it’s an intimidating environment. Our council debates–if you say something, you’re likely to be challenged. I think they’d get a little bit of leeway being kids, but I know they have opinions.

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Superior, WI Mayor Jim Paine

Q: On April 16, you and half of the council were sworn in to new terms. The next order of business was to elect a council president–someone to fill in for you and assign councilors to committees. There were two candidates for the job: Ruth Ludwig and Brent Fennessey. The result of the vote was Fennessey had five votes, Ludwig had four, and there was one abstention. No one clinched the six-vote majority. Did you know that would happen?

A: The real behind-the-scenes politics there is Councilor Fennessey had the presidency largely locked up months before if there was no change in the council at the elections. There was no change. But one of the councilors who had largely been committed to Councilor Fennessey flipped. He started talking to Councilor Ludwig and decided to vote for Ludwig. That led Councilor [Dan] Olson–who is very close to Councilor Ludwig, but he is much closer politically to Councilor Fennessey–it was fine for him to vote for Councilor Ludwig as long as Fennessey still had six votes. With one of Fennessey’s votes flipping to Ludwig, the vote was 5-5. If it had gone 5-5, I would have voted for Councilor Ludwig and everybody knew it. [Olson’s] abstention prevents an election.

Q: Councilor Olson bizarrely tried to get you to commit to not voting in the event of a tie. I know in politics you shouldn’t take things personally, but hearing that from Dan Olson, that must have been hard not to take personally.

A: I supported him in his first election to city council. He supported me in my election as mayor. I guess I did take that personally–[Ludwig] had the votes. But he said no. I was a little bit offended at the idea that transparency means I should give up the one thing I was there for.

Q: If the two options, as they appeared to be, for the rest of your two years in office were to not have a council president or to draw cards to resolve the tie, would you have continued to be opposed to the cards?

A: Yes, absolutely. We had a council vice president at that time who was capable of exercising authority. So the business of government was fine.


Follow Mayor Jim Paine on Twitter: @JimofSuperior

Interview #137: Madison, WI Alder Samba Baldeh (with podcast)

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

Samba Baldeh is the District 17 alder who remembers quite clearly a fraught council meeting about funding for Southeast Asian mental health services. He also discusses his exchange with the police chief from three years ago after the chief’s accusatory blog post put Madison’s common council in the crosshairs.

Q: I’ve heard of aldermen and alderwomen and even alderpersons, but Madison is the only city I have found whose council members are called “alder.” What do you know about why Madison uses that term?

A: I think Madison is just trying to be politically correct. We can be a female, male, transgender, or people who may identify however they want to identify. I think that is the reason why. A lot of people are confused when you tell them, “I’m an alderperson.” They generally don’t know what that means.

Q: On the night of February 26, there were $115,000 that the council had to direct toward mental health services for Hmong elders. Had you ever experienced this combination of fear and anger before, like what you were hearing from the Hmong community?

A: I do remember this meeting very vividly. Apart from the anger, just the sadness of the event. The community became divided as to who should actually provide these services. Who do we give the money to? That is where the meeting became very deeply personal.

Q: During the public’s testimony, Alder Barbara McKinney raised a point of order about the neutrality of the translation services. Do you know where the concern about the accuracy of translation was coming from?

A: She was sitting next to the interpreters and the people giving testimonies. I think what she observed was people were talking to each other, whispering to each other to an extent where she felt like the interpretation was not neutral. The mayor interjected and said we are doing our best. Even the interpreter did say that it’s difficult to interpret the Hmong language.

Q: The provision of health service was getting wrapped up in race and cultural competency. Do you think this was a healthy debate or was there unnecessary vilification taking place?

A: I do think we shouldn’t have gotten here. I spoke to some of the leaders in the community and let them know that it is important that some of these issues be resolved outside of the public domain. We could have had a better discussion around the money part and how we allocate it. I didn’t think there was a need to vilify each other to the extent we did. The best way was to find a way to resolve the cultural or the societal issues outside of the council. Once it came to council, it basically was difficult to control.

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Madison, WI Alder Samba Baldeh

Q: You mentioned the virtue of resolving conflict before it reaches the council meeting where you don’t have a control over the arguments or what people say, and then it can look messy to the public. There was a similar incident in June 2016 that falls in that category. Your council was about to vote on an additional $350,000 to have a consultant examine the practices of the police department. Your police chief, Michael Koval, has a blog. On the evening of June 5, he published a piece about this report where he started out with “bring it on,” saying the police have nothing to hide. But suddenly, the six paragraphs that followed included this language: “to the Common Council: you are being watched….this is a pre-emptive first strike from me to you.” What was your reaction to his accusations that your council was letting him and his officers down?

A: I think the police chief really was not being very fair in his assessment of why morale was down with his police force. Almost every item that came to council with regards to police funding was approved. That is the first thing we can do to show support for the police department. All the events that they invite us, leadership was part of it. Other council members who could be part of it also took part. I think it was an ill-informed assessment. I also do not believe police leadership should come to council or use their electronic access, like a blog, and threaten community leaders.

Q: I’m sure he would agree with you that the council has given his department money, but that’s not his complaint. What he’s saying is, when people come into this meeting and they talk smack about my department and my officers, a defense from the council is nowhere to be found. So yes, you’re giving us money, but it’s almost like you’re paying us off to sit back and take all this abuse. I really need you, the council, to push back, on this vilification of us that’s happening right in front of you.

A: If people from the community come to testify, they can say whatever they feel about the police. How does that bring credibility to the people of the city if we’ve just been called all these names, and now we have to sit there and defend the person who’s calling us all these names? It’s our responsibility to educate people about the police work and make them feel good about their police force, but it’s also the responsibility of the person who leads that police force to make sure the community have a good view of the department.


Follow Alder Samba Baldeh on Twitter: @aldersamba

Month in Review: March 2018

We are still technically in winter, so naturally we saw some dark and chilling moments at March council meetings–like the mayor who mused about active shooter training or the massive feud over a smoking ordinance.

But spring is so close, and we also experienced glimmers of warmth, including the playful rivalry between two mayors and one vocally-talented council announcer.

Not to mention that on the podcast, we had a delightful time–among other things–reviewing artwork for utility boxes!

To see which city council meetings were rays of hope, take a stroll through the March Month in Review.

And if you still are skeptical that March council meetings had sufficient intrigue, you clearly have not heard the case of the mysteriously-appearing park deck. BEHOLD THE DOSSIER:

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#154: Monona, WI 3/19/18

What did the city council know and when did they know it?

That was the question one sleuthful citizen had after doing a little amateur detective work on some government documents.

I’m here again to urge the council to reject all of the bids related to the Wyldhaven Park project, a flannel-clad man informed the crowd. The deck is a detriment to the park and serves no practical purpose.

I also have serious concerns regarding procedure. According to meeting minutes–” he continued, hoisting a sheaf of papers in the air as the smoking gun, “there was a committee discussion of a plan for Wyldhaven Park on October 6, 2015. That plan had no deck in it.”

The plot was thick with intrigue. A deck had appeared out of nowhere.  What’s next? A swing? Wind chimes? A grill and some hot dogs? The precedent was dangerous.

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Bag it for evidence

“A number of people I’ve talked to were surprised to hear that there’s gonna be a deck. They said, ‘really? Like, a deck?’” the man recalled, albeit with zero ounce of surprise in his delivery.

“Where did all this detail, including deck, come from? Certainly not in the committee meeting minutes.” He paused before delivering the verdict. “My opinion on this is that the committee must’ve acted on its own!”

Aha! And how did Mayor Mary O’Connor then attempt to shut down the investigation and suppress further testimony?

“If anyone else is here to speak about the Wyldhaven Park project or would like to register, there’s a slip over there to fill out,” she indicated politely.

“We have a deck. We love it,” smiled the next commenter. “The location of the Wyldhaven Park observation deck is one with a spectacular view. You have beautiful sunsets. You have the super moon.”

Having heard from both sides, the mayor wheeled around to a staff member.

“So that was in the minutes?”

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It was there the whole time?

“It’s in the packet,” the employee clarified. “And we approve or recommend approval of all the projects as a whole. Not each individual project.”

Alderperson Doug Wood made it crystal clear that nothing nefarious was afoot. “I think this did go through the normal process, if not maybe a little more so than most capital projects?”

“Correct.”

Well, so much for the secret society theory. Apparently the deck was simply a victim of insufficient bullet-pointing.

But if you thought the council was done with deck-related problems, they weren’t in the clear yet.

“I will move approval but with the requirement that video surveillance be installed,” Alderperson Wood piped up as the council was about to approve an alcohol permit for a Mexican restaurant’s patio.

After several minutes of wrangling, Alderperson Brian Holmquist finally inquired, “Do all our other patios require that you have surveillance?”

The answer was yes–clearing the deck (as it were) for a council thumbs-up.

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No more deck talk

Mayor O’Connor waited until the end of the meeting to air a concern she had been pondering.

“One thing I wondered about: if we want to think about having–” she paused and stared up at the ceiling. “I hate to even bring this up but the way the world is today, some active shooter training for the council might not be a bad idea.”

She indicated to either side of the room. “Frankly, sitting here and seeing these doors, I think it might be a good idea if anybody’s interested.”

Yikes. I guess if Monona keeps having deck problems, it couldn’t hurt.

Month in Review: October 2017

October is an exciting month because you can always count on at least one city council to really get into the Halloween spirit. Sure enough, Wisconsin delivered. But there were plenty of other highlights, including a sudden competition between two cupcakeries and a mayoral field trip that I may have been invited to.

The podcast was also busy, as we heard from a former Scottish Highland dancer, a city manager who remembered the ejection of one council member, and a robot-heavy episode of our “Best Thing, Worst Thing” project. Look at the highlights in our October Month in Review.

And if you still aren’t convinced that last month was any different from the other 11 months of the year, THIS wizard-priest will cast a spell on you:

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#139: Madison, WI 10/31/17

It was the final day of October, so you know what that meant:

Council. Meeting. Costumes.

“Mr. Mayor, we have a quorum,” the clerk called out to Mayor Paul Soglin.

“Thank goodness,” murmured the mayor before shooting a bemused glance at council President Marsha Rummel. “What would you like to do?” he inquired warily.

Other council members cackled as Rummel, wearing a lace garment on her head and several buttons on her shirt, flipped on her mic.

“Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living,” she retorted in character as Mary Harris Jones.

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You…you could have bought a wig.

Alder Shiva Bidar-Sielaff, herself in a modest-looking Wonder Woman outfit, used her superpowers for the most mundane of purposes: “On item 56, I requested that it be noted that I’m recusing myself,” she asked politely.

“Anybody else have comments or observations?” Mayor Soglin gazed around the room. He paused and grinned.

“This looks like it’s going to work out quite nicely since it appears that a signficant number of members need to be out on the streets tonight. And Sara is waiting for me at home to watch the last three episodes of ‘Stranger Things’.”

Council members snickered. But they weren’t the only ones taking advantage of the loosened dress code tonight.

“This particular topic sort of touched a nerve,” a public commenter ornately dressed as a hybrid wizard-priest said about a proposed alcohol license. “I would’ve had my pine bough here to bless you with water because god knows we need blessing right now, including on this issue,” he pantomimed spraying water.

“While I’ve got huge issues with this particular co-op choosing to become one more place selling alcohol and eliminating the sanctuary for some sensitive people to shop for healthy food without alcohol…how can we serve the soul?” he asked rhetorically, wearing the perfect attire for his argument.

“So I’ll put my pine bough up here soaked with water,” he again pretended to toss streams of water onto the council. “Bless you and bless the city.”

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Forgive me, public commenter, for I have sinned.

It was corny, but there was no time to savor the moment. For standing at the lectern was the scariest costume of the night: a man dressed as a big, bad developer.

“You can see a variety of housing types–the multifamily and mixed-use as previously located, with the park and the school site located in the center and east portion,” the Dark Lord gestured to his colorful map as a chill swept the room.

Council President Rummel was now in the presiding chair–the mayor having possibly ducked out early to finish “Stranger Things” with his wife as promised. (I think we’ve all struggled to choose between chairing a council meeting and binge-watching TV, so I get it.) She opened the floor to public comment.

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Wait…maybe he really is a developer.

“We would like to have certain conditions placed to make sure the neighborhood stays the good, vibrant neighborhood it is today,” one citizen pleaded.

“Right now during peak hours, that gets backed up past Kwik Trip,” explained another.

“The fix was in,” ranted a third man with a ponytail and faint New Jersey accent. “I’ve never seen a bigger fix. The fix is in. The deal is done. Too bad.”

“The fix” must have been pretty deep, for the entire council voted in favor of the zoning change. Let’s hope it doesn’t “haunt” them.

Final thoughts: Boo!

Interview #62: Jefferson City, MO Mayor Carrie Tergin (with podcast)

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

I talked to Carrie Tergin last year about her reputation for taking “selfies with the mayor.” But after this year’s International City Hall Selfie Day, I HAD to get her take on the 2017 artwork.

Q: A couple of weeks ago it was International City Hall Selfie Day and I’d like us to critique some of the city council selfies that people sent in. Let’s start with your image. What’s going on there?

A: This is Cardboard Carrie decked out in the eclipse glasses. Councilman [Rick] Mihalevich, who had to run the meeting in my absence, really got a workout and took several pictures. I’m very impressed with Rick and his form.

Q: Of the top 10 city council selfies, did you have a favorite one?

A: First of all, I loved every single one! This Columbia, South Carolina–the gentleman holding it up, he’s kind of got his mouth open. You can tell it might be his first selfie ever. It makes me think of maybe my dad if my dad were to take a selife! He really made an effort.

The second one would be Ocean City. That is, like, wow–Mr. Fuzzy Britches? How impressive! Why didn’t we think to bring Darco, the police dog?

I would say my top choice was Madison, Wisconsin. It almost looks like Maurice Cheeks is standing in the center of the world. He has literally put Madison at the center of the world and that would be my top pick.

Q: Maurice Cheeks’s selfie also has excellent product placement–he’s holding a City Hall Selfie Day sticker! But Mayor, if you came into a council meeting and noticed a big stain on the floor and the police chief told you, “that is from our horse that we brought here after hours and he pooped on the floor,” what would your reaction be?

A: I think I may frown on that just a little bit! I mean, hats off to our police officers, our firefighters, and honestly, that includes our police dog, Darco. It includes Mr. Fuzzy Britches the horse. That’s something else I liked about [International City Hall Selfie Day]: when you recognize those who keep our city safe.

Q: Carrie, I heard an anecdote at one of your council meetings that Jefferson City stopped making public commenters give their address because people were getting fan mail from prisoners who were watching. Is that true?

A: [Laughs] A couple of reasons: one is safety. When you’re at a council meeting giving your address, we do stream our meetings live. So, “oh, guess what? So-and-so who lives at XYZ? They’re not home right now!” You don’t want something to happen. And two: we welcome people whether you’re inside city limits or not.

Q: I saw that a Thomas Jefferson reenactor stopped by one of your meetings! How often does he come in?

A: In Jefferson City, we do celebrate as often as possible. The thought was, let’s have a birthday celebration for Thomas Jefferson and why not invite him to a council meeting?

Q: Do you think the next City Hall Selfie Day, you’ll get a picture with Thomas Jefferson?

A: He kind of photobombs a lot of my selfies because he’s on the city seal behind where the mayor sits!


Follow Mayor Carrie Tergin on Twitter: @CarrieTergin 

Special Feature! International #CityHallSelfie Day 2017

Unless you’re a sovereign citizen, yesterday was the yugest, bigliest day of the year: a celebration of local government called #CityHallSelfie Day! Naturally, that holiday is firmly up our alley.

On social media there are now hundreds–possibly thousands–of city hall pictures from around the earth. That is why I have curated the best city council selfies.

My criteria were stricter than a disgruntled warden. These pictures needed to

A. be taken by or feature a city council member/mayor; or

B. be taken in a council chamber; and

C. be a true selfie — i.e. taken by someone in the picture.

In a few weeks, we will have a municipal selfie expert on the podcast to help me judge the best city hall art! That being said, here are my top 10:

10. Springfield, IL

The layers here are incredible: while a reporter takes a selfie, another audience member takes a picture of the city council taking a selfie. Please tell me there’s a fourth cell phone somewhere so that the selfie chain can be even longer.

9. Westwood, KS

Ah yes, the power pose. While I think the intended vibe is “tough but fair,” it would also be appropriate to have a speech bubble reading, “Do you feel lucky, punk?”

8. Jefferson City, MO

It appears that Jeff City’s mayor, Carrie Tergin, stepped away from the council meeting–only to be replaced by a cardboard cutout wearing eclipse glasses! (My sources tell me the cutout also runs a helluva council meeting.) I love the spectrum of emotions from council members; they range from “meh” to “I AM HAVING THE TIME OF MY LIFE!”

7. Columbia, SC

There were oodles of voyeuristic pictures featuring people in the process of taking selfies. I like this one for two reasons: first, Columbia has set up their selfie station in advance–major points there. And second, this proves that you can have a good selfie or you can have a good portrait, but it’s hard to have a good portrait of a selfie.

6. Dallas, TX

Dallas lands a spot on the list thanks to this fellow gunning it through the city council selfie loophole. Not only is it ingenious to have a chart of all council members’ faces, but do you see that flamingo shirt?! Memorable for sure.

5. Franklin, TN

Hats galore! Witches in the back, viking in the front, and the mayor in a top hat inside the council chamber.  There aren’t nearly enough props in city government, so nice job raiding the costume store.

4. Madison, WI

Uh, paging all art museums: who wants this masterpiece on their wall?! Seriously, what a trippy and visionary take on a selfie by Alder Maurice Cheeks! I’m getting a bit nauseous, but part of me wants to put on some sitar music and ponder the circular nature of life.

3. Yuma, CO

I love a selfie with a story. What a heartwarming cosmic coincidence for this Yuma councilwoman!

2. Gaithersburg, MD

Gaithersburg had all hands on deck. Council Member Ryan Spiegel covered the outside perimeter, Council Member Neil Harris staked out the inside, and Mayor Jud Ashman took the extreeeeeeeeeeeme eastern part of Gaithersburg: Europe! Good teamwork, gentlemen.

1. Ocean City, MD

“OH, FOR GOD’S SAKE. WHY DIDN’T WE THINK TO USE THE HORSE?!” That’s what I imagine every media person in local government is saying this morning as they bang their head on a desk. Seriously, hats and helmets WAY off to Ocean City for setting next year’s bar at “getting a horse into a council chamber.”

Month in Review: December 2016

It’s a holiday, so enjoy your day off and remember to thank your city council members. We will be back on Wednesday with a new podcast interview. But in the meantime–hey, did you read EVERY council meeting review in December? Including the one with the border wall around the city council?

If not, you can do your part to Make America Great Again by browsing the month in review. And as always, you can listen to the regular and bonus podcast episodes (22 in all) on iTunesStitcher, and Player FM.

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