Tuesday night’s Richmond City Council meeting was short on substance but long on drama. Despite an agenda that included few controversial items, councilmembers and the public traded barbs and accusations deep into the night. In the nearly six-hour meeting, the council’s only decision was to choose a vice-mayor.
Councilmember Corky Booze and Mayor Gayle McLaughlin sat on either side of an empty seat, left open by councilmember-elect Gary Bell, who remains in a coma. Last week the council held a special meeting to declare his seat vacant and to set a date to fill it. Booze and others on the council would like to hold a special election for the seat, while McLaughlin’s Richmond Progressive Alliance favors appointing to the seat RPA member Eduardo Martinez, who got the next most votes after Gary Bell in November’s election.
The empty seat was a visual cue to the council’s ideological gap as they slogged through an agenda that focused on handing out awards and recapping the previous year’s achievements. While the vacancy wasn’t discussed outright, it nevertheless loomed large over the proceedings. Councilmembers and public commenters spent much of the meeting hurtling political jabs across the gap, to the dismay of some audience members. “Fighting, bickering—you gotta get over it,” said Ursula Manning, one of the first public speakers. “You all love the same thing. It can’t be that hard to come together.” Her words drew loud applause from the audience.
But even during a meeting in which there were no major votes, the council couldn’t seem to get along, a division McLaughlin made note of in her State of the City address. “It was a year of groundbreaking and historic accomplishments and it was also a year of deep controversy and difference of opinion,” she read. “Whether it was difficult controversies or groundbreaking accomplishments, we have risen to the occasion and I remain honored to represent the great diverse community that resides here in our great city.”
McLaughlin listed the happenings of 2012—new community gardens, new culverts, a rise in the number of business cooperatives, a new city compost program, 3,000 fruit and olive trees “successfully given away,” and awards given to government agencies by other government agencies. She also chastised Chevron for its August refinery fire. “Chevron has imparted great harm to our community by their pollution,” she said.
Then came a slideshow of positive events in Richmond. Councilmembers Jim Rogers, Booze, Jovanka Beckles, Nat Bates, and Tom Butt sat in silence as McLaughlin narrated photo after photo of community events, most of which somehow involved the Richmond Progressive Alliance. “Here’s some beautiful artistic benches,” she said, looking up at the TV. “Here’s another mural … and a strawberry garden.”
After that came an agenda block titled, “Presentations, Proclamations, and Commendations.” McLaughlin announced the winners of the 2013 Martin Luther King Jr. Richmond Community Leadership and Service Award, and roughly 30 people filed forward to accept the plaques, including members of community groups dedicated to easing former prisoners’ reentry into society. Among the groups receiving the award was the Richmond Progressive Alliance.
During the public comment period that followed, former council candidate Mark Wassberg, who ran in the November election, stepped forward and delivered a tirade in which he pronounced the Richmond Progressive Alliance “racists.” Wassberg, who is white, was angered at the RPA’s self-congratulation, and compared members of the organization to Nazis, Mao Zedong, and the Ku Klux Klan. He also—seemingly unprovoked—called Tom Butt a “butt-head.”
Nearly three hours into the meeting, the council finished presenting, proclaiming, and commending, and moved on to more substantive business. Dr. Denise Nolden, President of Contra Costa College, gave a report on the condition of the college and goals for the future, which the council thoughtfully received. Booze and Bates, both alums, asked questions about the football team, which Nolden said is on its way up.
Then members of Fair Housing of Marin and Bay Area Legal Aid presented the results of their recent study on racial discrimination by landlords. For their study, the groups had people whose voices seemed to indicate the caller was either white, Hispanic or African-American telephone Contra Costa County landlords and act interested in renting their property. Among the landlords surveyed, they found that roughly 30 percent quoted higher prices, or even denied the availability of rentals, to non-whites.
After that, Alan Wolken from the city Engineering Services Department gave a presentation about reducing congestion on I-80, at San Pablo Dam Road, McBryde Avenue, and El Portal Drive. He advocated realigning the road and two bridges, and lengthening the gap between the on- and off-ramps, which he said would cost more than $200 million, to be paid for by CalTrans and federal stimulus funding.
After Wolken’s presentation, which had been bumped from the council’s December 18 meeting, Booze admonished McLaughlin for not placing him first on the agenda. Wolken had already waited through a whole previous meeting, Booze said—to not put him first was rude. McLaughlin replied that the other items on the agenda were already set, and that she fit Wolken in where she could. Booze and McLaughlin then began talking over each other into the mics, a garbled mess of invectives, until Bates scolded them to stop arguing.
“You win,” Booze said, leaning back in his chair with a smile. “You win.”
McLaughlin started to say something.
“You win,” Booze said. “You win.”
By 11:45, the council reached its only vote of the night—who should be vice-mayor. By then the audience had dwindled to fewer than 10 people, down from more than 150.
Booze was nominated. In the resulting vote, Beckles abstained, Butt voted against (saying “No… I don’t… I don’t… no,” before trailing off), and the rest voted yes, giving Booze the vice-mayor’s seat.
The meeting was then adjourned, and the councilmembers bee-lined for the doors. It was Booze’s 68th birthday, and he walked out of the council chambers with a bouquet of red roses. He said that the six-hour meeting didn’t accomplish much. “Nothing,” he said. “There was really nothing.”