Councilmember Tom Butt left the April 24 city council meeting around 9 pm, too frustrated to continue, followed a while later by Councilmember Jovanka Beckles, who had to work early the next morning. Down to five remaining members, the council debated and argued into the night, past 11 pm, midnight, 1 am.
By the time Mayor Gayle McLaughlin declared the end of the meeting, around 1:30 am, it had gone on for more than seven hours.
The long meeting wasn’t a show of industry, nor some kind of masochism, say councilmembers—they simply stumbled into it, stymied by their own squabbling. Past councils have had personality clashes, say long-time observers, but the depth of this council’s divide is something new–and it’s becoming an impediment to city business.
“I’m not surprised they take longer than other cities,” Supervisor John Gioia said. “It becomes harder to get the public’s work done when there are challenged relationships on an elected body. It’s not fun to watch and it doesn’t help the public.”
But, Gioia said, aside from council in-fighting Richmond has a long history of citizen participation during meetings—people who line up to speak during the public comment section and a handful that speak on nearly every issue that comes before the council.
The combination can make for some long nights.
“It whacks you for a couple of days, really, and it takes awhile to catch up,” said City Manager Bill Lindsay, of the marathon council meetings. Like the city attorney, the city clerk, and several other city employees, Lindsay attends every meeting and is often called upon to answer councilmembers’ questions.
Similarly, would-be contractors and city department heads often spend hours waiting for their items to come up for a vote and then have to come back at the next meeting because there isn’t enough time for them to present.
He said the biggest cost of long meetings is to productivity: His employees aren’t at their best when they’re tired, and he said the same goes for the City Council.
“By the time you get to a lot of the things that are really critical items councilmembers start to get crabby, and they start to get sleepy,” Butt said. “So, you’re dealing with the council’s most important business when everyone is in a bad mood. And it’s just not a good situation.”
Of the last 10 regular meetings this year, six of them contained carryover items from previous meetings. The carryovers were most frequent in January, when, because of councilmember-elect Gary Bell’s illness, the City Council wasn’t fully staffed. At last week’s meeting five items were carried over from the April 16 meeting.
Following the meeting on April 23, Butt sent an announcement to his email list, telling his thousands of subscribers that there is one main reason the meetings are dragging on: Vice-Mayor Corky Booze.
“I lay about 95 percent of the blame on Corky Booze,” Butt wrote in his email, titled, Richmond Deserves Better City Council Behavior.
Booze responded in a phone interview, saying he’s on four or five other decision-making boards in the city, and the council is the only one where people argue—suggesting the problem isn’t just him.
In his email, Butt reserves the remaining 5 percent of the blame for Councilmember Jim Rogers and the newest addition to the council, Jael Myrick.
“People are intimidated by Corky and don’t want to get on the wrong side of him. They suck up and put up with him, Jael and Jim most particularly, I think they’re both intimidated,” Butt said “And, they’re up for reelection in a year and half and don’t want to offend anyone.”
Rogers said his votes have nothing to do with intimidation from anyone else on the council. “Tom is certainly entitled to his opinion,” Rogers said. “But, I’m not going to get sucked into partisan reactions. I’m at the point where I’m just going to do my job.”
Mayor Gayle McLaughlin joined Butt in criticizing Booze, saying that in her almost-decade on the City Council, some groups have been more contentious than others, but Booze has brought to the council a disregard for the rules that is unprecedented. “I see a lack of parliamentary procedure,” she said of Booze, and his council ally Nat Bates. “Their disrespect of me and my role to conduct the meeting in an orderly fashion is an affront to democracy, in my view.”
Jim McMillan, who was a councilmember from 1983 until 1995, said that in his 50 years of watching the council, he’s never seen it more contentious, and that personal emotions seem to be a big part of the problem. Booze and his RPA opponents, including McLaughlin and Beckles, were actually allies before he was elected; both the RPA and Tom Butt supported him as a city council candidate. After Booze was elected, the two groups parted ways. “I was surprised, as the public was about it,” McMillan said. “They said they supported [Booze] and I presumed they supported him, with a sense of his being on the same track.”
Butt also said he was surprised. “At least three or four times I’ve given him permission to put my quote on his mailers, and the last two times I endorsed him,” Butt said. Booze was first elected to the council in 2010, after more than 20 years of failed attempts. Things changed after the election, though, Butt said. “Once he got elected he just turned on me and I don’t know why.”
But Booze said he’s the same person on the council that he was as a candidate. It’s the RPA that’s responsible for holding up the meetings he said, and they’re the ones not following parliamentary procedure. “I’m always courteous,” he said.
McLaughlin said she’s going to start calling recesses whenever arguments get too heated, which will hopefully give councilmembers time to cool off. “We’ll try a five or 10 minute break, and so on and so on,” she said. “It’s just not fair to the people of Richmond to have such a chaotic situation.”
Booze said the recesses would be a waste of time.
There’s one other thing that might help, said Lindsay—a council retreat. He’s approached several members of the council about taking a few days to hang out with each other outside of work. A couple of them sounded interested, he said, but to make it happen, one of them would have to put it on the council agenda, and then talk–or argue–about it.
McMillan said that he went on several retreats as a councilmember. “It was helpful,” he said. “While we didn’t have cocktails with each other after every meeting, we certainly were friendlier.”
Lindsay said taking a retreat could help the current council learn some respect for each other, he said. Or it could not. “I can’t decide if it would be a sitcom or a drama,” he said.