In an unusual move, last week after a particularly heated city council meeting Mayor Gayle McLaughlin sent an email to her online supporters entitled “The situation at City Council meetings,” in which she castigated “one councilmember’s” behavior during meetings, urged the public and other councilmembers to recognize to her authority as mayor and assured everyone that she will be tightening the reigns.
“There is dysfunction on this Council, but the dysfunction does not come from the Council as a whole. This dysfunction comes from one councilmember,” she wrote in her message. McLaughlin accused this councilmember of disrupting the council and of wasting time while he levels personal attacks against other councilmembers, instead of dealing with the agenda items. “It is truly a shame that this councilmember disrupts time and time again the needed business under discussion at the Council meeting. He forces us to deal with chaos, disruptions, and vitriolic speech that bring harm to the entire city of Richmond,” she wrote.
The letter did not name a particular councilmember, but during recent meetings conflict has broken out between the mayor and Councilmember Corky Booze, as well as between Booze and other councilmembers. At the July 17 meeting, Booze accused the mayor of trying to silence him and asked the Richmond City Attorney to advise the council on free speech guidelines. Booze said he was he concerned that the mayor may have infringed on the public’s right to free speech by having an audience member removed during a previous meeting. Booze and Councilmember Jovanka Beckles, whose relationship is especially strained, got in to an argument towards the end of the July 17 meeting resulting in Beckles leaving early and saying to Booze, “You are evil. So evil.”
During a meeting on July 10, Councilmember Jeff Ritterman and Booze got in to a quarrel over whether or not Booze was wasting time by asking for his agenda item, regarding looking into charging for berthing of the SS Red Oak Victory Ship, to appear for a second time at the council’s next meeting. Booze’s request came after his motion—and the item—failed to pass. Booze said the reason he thought they should vote on it again at the next meeting was because the agenda incorrectly stated where the SS Red Oak Victory Ship was berthed—the vote against his motion to look into charging the ship for berthing at Terminal 1 didn’t count because the ship is actually berthed at Terminal 3, he said. Booze asked the city attorney to weigh in on the legality of the situation after his motion failed, at which point Ritterman said, “Don’t be wasting our time. We’re done with this item. You lost. It’s over.”
Booze said he believes that he is the councilmember referred to by the mayor in her letter. “That is just a horrible thing that she did,” he said. He said that he has “never, never,” seen a letter like this from McLaughlin before.
Booze said that it’s his fiduciary responsibility to the city to “ask the tough questions,” and doesn’t agree that what he does is a waste of time. Instead, he blames the marathon-length meetings on the topics that the other members prioritize. “Nothing that they’re doing deals with Richmond business,” he said citing the hours spent at the July 17 meeting discussing Teach For America teachers as well as the July 10 meeting, at which the council voted on a semantic distinction between a person being an “owner” or “guardian” of their pet.
Booze was the top vote-getter in the 2010 election, but he said that he feels that the other council members have shut him out since then. “Their whole idea is to knock me out and go after anyone I support,” he said.
Booze said that as mayor, McLaughlin’s does not enforce rules uniformly. “She always cuts me off, she is rude. But, she allows Beckles and Ritterman to talk over her. She doesn’t stop them,” he said.
In her letter to her supporters, McLaughlin quoted an unnamed councilmember describing her experience during meetings: ”You have one councilmember beating up on another. The first councilmember attacks and attacks with the other councilmember not fighting back, recognizing that the public can see the despicable behavior exhibited and judge for themselves. Yet the beating continues until the councilmember under attack, now on the floor suffering more jabs, decides she has had enough and stands up and pushes back.”
McLaughlin did not name Beckles as the source of the quote in her letter; however, Beckles later confirmed for Richmond Confidential that it had come from her.
Beckles said she agrees with McLaughlin’s assessment of the meetings and supports the letter. “I’m glad she called it like it is,” she said. Despite their recent blow-up at the July 17 meeting, Beckles maintains that she does not have a problem with Booze. “I am not at odds with any councilmember,” she said.
When asked for his perspective on McLauglin’s letter, Councilmember Nat Bates wrote in an email: “A chairperson must be fair, impartial and lead by example while displaying respect for their colleagues and the public. This mayor does neither and thus is the result of a dysfunctional Richmond city council.”
In a response to an interview request, McLaughlin emailed Richmond Confidential to explain why she sent the letter. “The reason I put it out was to try and gain cooperation for moving meetings forward to address the necessary business of the residents,” she wrote. “The response to my newsletter was really supportive.”
McLaughlin also wrote that she will remind the council of the governing rules before Tuesday’s meeting and will make a brief statement to the public. “It’s necessary for everyone to understand the role of the chair, so our meetings can become more orderly and the issues under discussion can be heard by all,” she wrote.
In last week’s letter to her supporters, McLaughlin acknowledged that as mayor it is her job to keep meetings in order and promised to enforce the meeting rules strictly. However, her goals extend farther, she wrote. “Many of us have looked toward changing the composition of the City Council in order to shift toward a better Richmond, and we will continue to do that. We have made so many gains with good councilmembers being elected in recent years. We will make more gains in November, and in subsequent elections,” she wrote.
For his part, Booze sounds just as assured. “One day my team will be able to be heard,” he said.