Tom Butt
  E-Mail Forum – 2017  
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  RPA Dominated City Council Leaves the Rails
November 22, 2017

If the Brown Act would allow me to discuss these issues with every City Council member personally, I would do it. But it won’t, so I am using the E-FORUM for one of its intended purposes, to editorialize and inform in the public in the media vacuum in which Richmond finds itself.

I have a concern that the current City Council is devolving into the kind of behavior that Corky Booze made famous, impeding the necessary flow of City business, giving the City a bad name and a reputation for “political dysfunction.”

Item K-4 was placed on the Agenda by three RPA Council members, Willis, Choi and Beckles.

DIRECT the City Manager to dissolve the joint position of Fire Chief/Fire Marshal and create two full time permanent positions for Fire Marshal and Deputy Fire Marshal to be filled in house - Councilmember Willis (412-2050), Councilmember Choi (620-6565) and Vice Mayor Beckles (620-6568).

What might appear to the uninformed observer as a sincere interest by three City Council members in public safety was not that at all. It was an unfortunately successful attempt by RPA City Council members to exploit a personal friendship with a staff member to contrive to get that staff member promoted into the position of fire marshal. That fact that it had the full support of all five RPA City Council members probably made it a Brown Act violation as well, or at least a pitiful example of herd mentality.

The Charter of the City of Richmond gives the city manager the authority to organize City staff  the way he best believes will accomplish the policy directions provided by the City Council.

The City Manager shall be the chief executive officer and the head of the administrative branch of the City Government. He shall be responsible to the Council for the proper administration of all affairs of the City and to that end, subject to the personnel provisions of this Charter, he shall have power and shall be required to: (1) Appoint and, when necessary for the good of the service, remove all department heads and employees of the City except as otherwise provided by the provisions pertaining to Personnel Administration of this Charter and except as he may authorize the head of a department to appoint and remove subordinates in such department…

City Council members using their voting privilege to try to micromanage personnel decisions is, in my opinion, a serious violation of the City Charter. In any event, the agenda item was poorly written and inaccurate. Among other things, it noted “There is no financial impact for this item.” The city manager pointed out that filling the currently authorized but unfilled position of fire marshal would cost approximately $300,000 a year. He also pointed out that there was not currently a “joint position of Fire Chief/Fire Marshal,” and that the City Council could not direct that the positions to “be filled in-house.” Hiring in Richmond is subject to the Charter, the personnel and civil service rules, not explicit direction by the City Council.

As I stated last night, this was one of the most brazen moves by the City Council to direct personnel decisions since the days of Darrell Reese. And this is not the first time they have tried this. We had a similar discussion about the fire marshal position earlier this year during the budget hearings.

None of the City Council members who spoke on this provided any compelling evidence that filling the fire marshal position was necessary to make the City safer. All we heard were vague references to Chevron, industry, fires and what they are doing in San Francisco.

Which brings me to my second topic.

In the Corky Booze-like protracted effort by Councilmembers to justify Item K-4, I asked Vice-mayor Beckles to try and “wrap it up,” so we could move on. She was beginning to ramble and repeat herself.

Not only did the vice-mayor protest my request, our newest Councilmember, Ada Recinos, chastised me for “interrupting a woman of color.” I later pointed out to her and the other Councilmembers that, according to Rosenberg’s Rules, moving debate along is one of the jobs of the chair.

Debate and discussion should be focused, but free and open. In the interest of time, the chair may, however, limit the time allotted to speakers, including members of the body.

Endless rambling and repetition was one of the hallmarks of the Corky Booze era, and I don’t think we want to go back there.

Finally, we had yet another discussion about hate speech. When a public speaker chastised me for allowing hate speech, I asked the city attorney to confirm, once again, that hate speech is Constitutionally protected by the First Amendment, which he did. When I took the oath of office, I swore to uphold and defend  the Constitution of the United States. I simply do not have the authority to decide what kind of speech people can use in a City Council meeting.

The city attorney also pointed out that our rule allows anyone who is offended by hate speech to leave the room, which we all ultimately did on November 7.

Vice-mayor Beckles again took issue, arguing that the speech by Mark Wassberg on November 7, 2017, was out of order because it was off topic. Beckles argued that it dealt with “positions and genitalia,” which are “not within the purview of the City Council.”

I reviewed the video of Wassberg’s comments, which were difficult to hear over Beckles repeated objections. They were, not unexpectedly, essentially homophobic, disgusting and hateful. I was just as offended as anyone. I did not hear him say anything explicitly about “genitalia” or “positions.” However, since the agenda item Wassberg was addressing explicitly involved human sexuality and gender, (“Lesbian, Gay, Bi-sexual, and Transgender (LGBT) month and National Coming Out Day”), Wassberg’s comments were, unfortunately but arguably, on topic. I did not hear what Wassberg had to say after we all left the room.

Unfortunately the vice-mayor continues to criticize me for allowing Wassberg to speak, and she encourages others to do so. She refuses to accept what the city attorney has advised us about hate speech.

Beckles wrote on her Facebook page:

Free speech doesn’t mean you can say what you want and people HAVE TO listen to you. We don’t have to listen to hateful, divisive, homophobic rants. Our children should not have to listen to that. Our community should not have to listen to that. We are already living with daily trauma. It’s wrong. The Mayor has the power to either stop it, or encourage it. Please come to the next city council meeting and insist that the Mayor control the meeting and supports the community by ruling hate speech out of order.

And her supporters have chimed in:
  • Chantal Rohlfing It’s awful to hear that’s still happening Jovanka. Why can’t the council pass some rules about Hate speech, and if they are violated, they get kicked out.
  • Richard Sugerman It appears that Mayor Tom Butt could have warned the offender, but chose not to, even after being asked ("shouted" in Mayor Tom Butt's words) to by his colleagues.
  • Luci Riley The video recording should be up on the Richmond City Council website by now. We should record the segment of the meeting where this happened and blast it out on FB and Twitter. We can use it to torpedo Butt next year.
  • Lauren Steiner I agree Jovanka. This is hate speech. Maybe you should go on the offensive and document a case so the DA can prosecute the person for it.
  • Jovanka Beckles Right, Mickey. Just in time for election season🙂 It didn’t work the first time. I wonder what makes them think it’ll work this time? Because we’re more awake than a few years back when they tried this “blame progressives for disrupting the meeting,” even though they are/were orchestrating the whole disruptive mood. The difference is that Gayle McLaughlin shut it down. This Mayor is encouraging it by letting him spew toxic language.
  • Luci Riley I say let Butt hang himself for re-election on this one. If he allows hate speech during city council meetings, he supports hat speech. The voters in Richmond will not have any problem calling this what it is, straight up racist bullshit.
    Meanwhile, our REAL progressives on the council get a chance to show stark contrast with Butt’s wing of the California Democratic Party. You know, the wing that has presided

What the vice-mayor and other Council members don’t get is that what Wassberg really wants is to incite a disturbance and get thrown out. Unless he actually breaks a rule, the best thing is to simply let him finish and let him sit down or leave.

I have actually ejected Wassberg on more than one occasion for exceeding his time period to speak and warning him three times.

What is not helpful is for Beckles, Willis and Martinez to speak, as they did on November 7, without being recognized and simply prolong the misery.