RICHMOND -- The Green Party matriarch of a mayor sits poised with gavel in hand, watching for any colleague who crosses the line of decorum. Police stand guard nearby, ready to clear the chamber of boisterous spectators at her command.
The dais is bookended by a blunt Arkansan known to occasionally berate colleagues and a curly-haired former trial lawyer who equivocates like a nervous witness. The next two seats are held down by a junk parts collector who has threatened to slug people and a hardened stalwart who has held office here since the 1960s and never tires of telling his followers that this is a City Council like none other. Next comes a progressive firebrand who drops the occasional F-bomb and sometimes catches an in-meeting snooze (allegedly), and, finally, a 28-year-old neophyte whose steely disposition belies his legislative inexperience and encyclopedic knowledge of hip hop history.
Descriptions of the proceedings take on a nasty, even apocalyptic, tone.
"Circuslike." "Pandering fools." "Sliding into the abyss." "A laughingstock." "God help us." "Shut him up!"
And that's just what these politicians say about themselves and each other. The colorful rebukes that come from residents reach new levels of excoriation.
Welcome to the Richmond City Council, where impassioned meetings often careen past midnight and public business, including items as simple as building a public restroom, takes weeks or even months to resolve. Crowds 200 strong sometimes pack the chamber, cleaved along interest group lines, haranguing council members and often each other.
The endless drama takes a toll on workers at every level of city government.
"City Council went till almost 1 a.m. on Tuesday," police Chief Chris Magnus once wrote on Facebook. "They like to keep staff around so we can be as tired, ineffective and crabby as possible the next work day!"
Among the council itself, everyone seems to agree that the situation has spiraled out of control; they just can't settle on who is to blame or what to do about it.
"This has to be the very worst and most dysfunctional council I have witnessed during my 35 years as a council member," Nat Bates wrote in a mass email to residents.
Weeks ago, Bates sent those on his email list a YouTube video of a scrappy Florida swamp cat named Mugsy that swats alligators with his paw, wryly suggesting that Mugsy is needed to enforce decorum among his garrulous colleagues.
But smoother nights could be on the horizon. The council voted 6-1 on April 22 — with Councilman Corky Boozé dissenting -- to impose time limits of five minutes per council member for each item, limitations on monthly presentations and a provision to hold additional meetings if a backlog of agenda items aren't cleared within 30 days.
Or not. At the first meeting since establishing the rule, on May 6, Boozé and Mayor Gayle McLaughlin jawed at each other over how many five-minute terms each member was entitled to before McLaughlin whipped out her gavel, declared her colleague out of order and recessed the meeting.
"Nobody tells Corky how to vote!" Boozé harrumphed, in a baffling non sequitur. When the meeting reconvened -- and Boozé ambled back to his seat after stoking the crowd -- the residents in attendance were as dyspeptic as ever.
"These new rules you guys have are crap," said resident Naomi Williams.
The meeting droned on to nearly midnight as one item -- a directive to staff to merely draw up a minimum wage ordinance for later review -- burned nearly four hours. The meeting ended with a backlog of at least a dozen items left unheard.
Even passing the five-minute rule in the first place was the source of considerable teeth gnashing, gumming up the machinery of government at two prior meetings and debate lasting hours before passage.
Long and combative council meetings aren't a new phenomenon in Richmond, a rough and tumble town with a council divided among progressive, passionate environmentalists and African-American stalwarts who back big business, with plenty of overlap in between. Raucous applause and lusty jeers provide the meetings' nightly soundtrack.
But in recent years, some say particularly since the 2010 election of Boozé and Councilwoman Jovanka Beckles, the situation has grown worse. A rule tweak last year automatically ended council meetings at 11 p.m. unless the council votes to continue -- which they often do not -- but the effect has been that bread-and-butter public service items are left unheard, postponed to a future meeting. The backlog has fouled the machinery of government.
In a telephone interview, City Manager Bill Lindsay noted that in recent months two key items -- one to install a restroom in a Marina Bay park and another to send a memo to the UC Board of Regents regarding the coming development of a UC campus project -- have been repeatedly delayed to the detriment of public services because of inefficient meetings.
"The atmosphere makes it challenging to get work done," Lindsay said. "It tends to suck energy out of the organization. It can be demoralizing to a staff person who goes to a meeting to give a presentation on an item and waits hours only for the item to be held over to a later meeting."
Clashing council members
While Boozé's one-man show gobbles up most of the time, with a mix of long soliloquies to the local cable TV cameras ("I want the people at home to see what's going on here ..." he says regularly) and testy interrogations of staff members, archrival Beckles has locked horns with Boozé and Bates as well. Soon after she and Boozé were elected, she requested her seat on the dais next to Boozé be moved after she claimed he threatened her.
On April 22, after McLaughlin pounded her gavel to call a recess to stem growing disorder, Beckles directed a profanity toward Boozé, prompting Bates to suggest that she needs anger-management training. In the past, Beckles has publicly called Boozé "delusional" and "a liar."
Residents get in on the action too, often taking to Facebook to vent their disapproval.
"All of our council members need to stop acting like squabbling children and grow up," resident Ellen Seskin wrote on a Facebook group called "the REALRICH Richmond, Ca". "Stop pulling up the past and stop calling names or insinuating someone's lack of intelligence, and start deciding what is better for our city as a whole."
The festering animus on the dais has fueled interminable hand-wringing among the public. Over the past few years, several items about free speech rights and council decorum have been discussed, with mixed results.
Since as early 2008, the city's Human Relations and Human Rights Commission has taken up the issue of unruly council meetings and poor manners several times but has never been able to proffer a sustained solution.
McLaughlin, whose job is to maintain decorum on the dais, has shouldered some blame in the past. Earlier this year, Councilman Tom Butt stormed out of a meeting after yelling at McLaughlin and wagging his index finger in her face. He has since apologized.
In a telephone interview, Butt said his outburst was the result of "frustration," and tossed some blame to colleagues Jael Myrick and Jim Rogers, whom he blamed for not backing him up with votes when he calls to muzzle Boozé.
As the council meanders deep into the night, the members' fuses shorten and their chins sink into their chests. The few hardy souls that remain in the audience sit with arms crossed, braced against fatigue and disgust.
In an email, McLaughlin put most of the blame for the dysfunctional meetings on Boozé, and defended her practice of calling five-minute recesses when civility breaks down.
"Long and acrimonious meetings are a disservice to our residents, staff, and our democratic process," she wrote.
That's one of the few things Richmond's City Council can agree on.