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Media Coverage
Richmond Can't Call Meetings To Order
July 21, 1996



Sunday, July 21, 1996
Section: News
Page: A01
Caption: PHOTO 1. Councilman Nat Bates. PHOTO 2. Councilman Tom Butt. PHOTO 3. Councilwoman Donna Powers. (EDDIE LEDESMA/Times).

RICHMOND Councilwoman Lesa McIntosh was standing in the Pacific Gas & Electric Co. office on a recent weekday paying her electric bill when a clerk recognized her.

"Oh, Councilwoman McIntosh," the woman said, "I love watching those City Council meetings on TV. It's better than watching a sitcom."

The clerk sounded amused. McIntosh, and some of her fellow council members, are not.

"A lot of people find great comedic pleasure in watching council meetings," McIntosh said. "That's not the kind of reaction we want."

But it's often what they get.

Richmond City Council meetings are widely viewed among staff, the business community, the public and even council members themselves as a series of long, raucous, bitter, out-of-control circus shows. Members ridicule each other. They bicker and swear. Some embarrass city staff members. Occasionally, they aim their verbal fire at residents who come to speak.

Not every council member acts this way. The worst behavior is limited to a few, most agree. But the public, the business community, staff and council members themselves agree: the pandemonium has come to define the character of the nine-member group.

"I'm more appalled than anything else," said Joyce Harris, a Richmond resident and planning commissioner who often watches the meetings. "They seem to not care that the microphone is on. It's embarrassing."

"Certainly, it is discouraging to some business people," said Judy Morgan, head of the Richmond Chamber of Commerce. "We certainly couldn't run a business that way. The employees would leave. The customers would leave."

Recent eyebrow-raisers include a tantrum by Councilman Tom Butt in which he pitched an entire pile of papers off the dais and stomped out. He was angry about a decision the mayor had made.

Earlier this month, Councilwoman Donna Powers mumbled a comment about a female resident who had just spoken. "I hope something bad happens to that person," she said, loud enough for people nearby to hear. Her microphone may or may not have picked it up.

On another occasion, she declared, "I'm not going to take this bull," and left the meeting.

Some council members have tried to put a stop to such rudeness, which is often spawned by personal rivalries and political fights.

Last fall the council passed a resolution adopting a "code of conduct." Among other things, the code says council members "shall refrain from making personal and/or derogatory remarks about other City Council members, city staff or individuals and/or members of the public."

But the code hasn't had much effect.

"There is a total lack of decorum, lack of respect on the part of some council members," said Councilman John Marquez. "We are setting a bad example for our young people."

It has gotten worse since the November 1995 election, he said. Vice Mayor Richard Griffin agreed.

"It's the worst I've seen it in all the (dozen) years I've been on the council," he said.

Meeting on conduct

Griffin initiated a discussion last week about council members reaffirming their commitment to the code of conduct.

Support for the proposal wasn't unanimous.

Powers opposed the code when it was originally passed, arguing that it was an attempt to stifle her specifically. She considers it her job to speak up and ask tough questions, she said. True to form, she reiterated her position last week in no uncertain terms.

"If the people on the blasted school board would have gotten off their butts and asked questions, maybe our school board wouldn't have gone down the toilet like it did," she said.

Powers does some good work, but her personality is a turn-off, said Kristin Leimkuhler, a neighborhood activist and member of the Private Industry Council board.

"I don't think that abrasiveness is necessary to being an effective politician," she said. "We want to see action but that doesn't mean they have to ride rough-shod over other people"

Grilling city staff

City employees, who often attend council meetings to provide information or explain recommendations, are also subjected to the heat of council flare-ups.

Powers and Councilman Nat Bates are known for brutally grilling employees at council meetings calling them lazy, incompetent or dishonest. Many staffers grit their teeth as they approach the podium.

"I think council members have an obligation to ask tough questions of the city whether it's embarrassing or not," Powers said. "I think some staff members should be humiliated for some of the things they are doing. If somebody is screwing up, I think the council ought to call them on that."

Bates echoed Powers' sentiments.

"If people aren't doing their jobs, I don't beat around the bush. I don't play games with people," he said. "I'm not going to sugar-coat it.

"If it offends some people, if it hurts them tough."

Deputy City Manager Henry Tingle said he tries not to take criticism personally.

"As long as I know I'm doing the right thing, it's easy for me to deal with that nonsense," he said. Asked if he thought the council's demeanor had gotten worse in recent months, he added, "I think it's coming to a head. That's the general consensus."

Slamming the gavel'

Several council members blamed Mayor Rosemary Corbin for not wielding a firm enough hand. The former mayor laid down the law, they said.

"George Livingston had a knack for just slamming the gavel down and ruling people out of order and he didn't care who it was," Marquez said.

"I, personally, believe Rosemary does a wonderful job," McIntosh said. "However, I believe she needs to be a bit more stern and a bit more consistent. No matter who the council member is, if they're out of line, they need to be called out of line."

Corbin said there's only so much she can do. Sometimes, the gavel silences her colleagues. And sometimes it just makes them raise their voices even higher.

"The question then is, what do you do next?" she said. "I think there is a serious question as to whether I have the authority to throw anyone out. They don't work for me. They serve at the pleasure of the public."

What, if anything, would prompt her to actually kick someone out of a meeting?

"Physical violence," Corbin said.

Put it in writing

Besides a stronger mayor, several council members said they supported having a written parliamentary procedure, like Robert's Rules of Order, for the council to follow. Currently, there are none.

The council voted last week to ask the city attorney to put the unwritten rules down on paper.

Butt, for one, is in favor of adopting parliamentary procedure. He said he constantly hears from people about the conduct of the council.

"I've tried to do my best, but I've been guilty of interrupting people and throwing papers on the floor," he said. "There's not a person you talk to that says they don't want to do better."

The suggestion that keeps coming up can be summarized in one word: respect.

"We need to check our egos at the door," McIntosh said. "We need to be respectful with each other. I don't care if someone disagrees with me. That's not the issue. The issue is how you express that."