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City Council’s uneasy calm

on September 30, 2011

On Monday, a Richmond Human Rights Committee member likened the antics on the City Council dais in recent weeks to the “Jerry Springer Show.”

But Tuesday’s council meeting was hardly daytime shock material. No heated spats. No audible sighs. No cries for order.  At one point Councilmembers Jeff Ritterman and Corky Booze, who have clashed repeatedly in recent weeks, teamed up to tease Council member Tom Butt about his bucolic Hilltop home.

“I think the rhetoric the public hears doesn’t necessarily represent the personal relationship between council members,” Butt said. “Most of the people do get along on the council.”

The chumminess animating the council dais Tuesday came in stark contrast to the vitriol spewed from all sides in previous weeks. In August, Booze threatened to punch Ritterman in the nose. Ritterman, accusing Booze of corruption, filed complaints against his colleague with the state’s top watchdog agency in early September. On September 20, Booze berated Councilmember Jovanka Beckles, sitting to his left, for her heavy breathing.

This week’s new found amiability may be the result of a combination of factors, Butt said.

In addition to what he called a cooling of the Booze-Ritterman feud,  this week’s agenda wasn’t particularly controversial. (“Except for that whole chicken thing,” Butt said – referring to the council’s 4-2 vote to ban the sale of live chickens at the farmer’s market.)

Although Booze continued to take policy positions that isolated him from other council members, the debates Tuesday night remained polite.

Ritterman supported banning sales of live chickens at the farmer’s market, while Booze and Butt argued that residents should be able to choose whether or not to buy the chickens.

Domestic violence also exposed a sharp divide at this weeks meeting, this time pitting Booze against Beckles and Mayor Gayle McLaughlin.

“The beginning part of domestic violence is no job,” Booze said. “All seven of us need to make sure that we get people employed.”

Beckles countered, “While there are factors that contribute to someone hitting another person, there is no excuse.”

 McLaughlin quickly added: “There are no excuses.”

Rather than defending his point, Booze pivoted to a lighter topic — a trip on BART he took with 18 Richmond youth in July.

Next the council commended the Police Department for its award-winning community policing program. The mood lightened when Booze doted on a representative sent to present city leaders with the award — a notable departure from his reputation as the council’s roughest interrogator. “Have the chief take you down to Hotel Mac and buy you a steak,” Booze said, drawing chuckles. “This is what we do!”

Whether this latest round of smiles and civility represents a new trend or just a fleeting calm on a naturally restive council remains to be seen.

For all the heated language and sometimes even violent rhetoric, irascibility within government is by no means a Richmond-only problem. In Sausalito, an affluent North Bay community, a council member slapped another’s hand in frustration during this week’s city council meeting. Check out the slap here.

Even if it doesn’t last, Tom Butt said all the impassioned discourse may have a silver lining. “Sometimes these meetings get a little boring,” he said. “It is kind of nice to see a little heated exchange to keep you awake and keep you alert every now and then.”

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