For the first time since I became mayor, the Richmond City Council unfortunately backslid last night into behavior patterns reminiscent of the Corky Booze era.
Because of the Brown Act, I cannot have this discussion one-on-one or as a group with City Council members, so I am using this medium, which I believe will reach them one way or another.
It started when Mark Wassberg signed up to speak following Vice-mayor Beckles proclamation “recognizing October as Lesbian, Gay, Bi-sexual, and Transgender (LGBT) month and National Coming Out Day” As might be predicted, the homophobic and xenophobic Wassberg launched into one of his familiar tirades of disgusting hate speech.
Unfortunately, Beckles rose to the bait and repeatedly shouted to Wassberg “I’m offended.” Councilmembers Willis and Martinez joined in by shouting for me to call Wassberg out of order.
The exchange got to the point that I had to call a recess to get everyone quieted down. I explained to Vice-mayor Beckles that if she is offended, the City’s Harassment Policy, which is printed on the agenda, allows any City employee, including councilmembers, to leave the room for the duration, but I cannot bar Wassberg from simply speaking, no matter how hateful his utterances.
When we reconvened the meeting, and Wassberg again engaged in a homophobic tirade, all City Council members present, including me, left the room, accompanied by the city attorney and the city manager.
What the City Council needs to understand is that Wassberg does this for one reason – to get a rise out of City Council members. Engaging him, as Beckles, Willis and Martinez did, and speaking out of turn and without being recognized is exactly what he wants. It’s like throwing B’rer Rabbit in the briar patch. The best reaction is just to let him speak and get it over with as soon as possible.
Willis and Martinez argued that Wassberg was out of order because the subject matter he was speaking on is outside City Council jurisdiction. That’s simply not true, and the city attorney confirmed it. As the city attorney has long advised us, hate speech is protected by the First Amendment.
What I can do – and I have done it more than once – is eject Wassberg from the chamber when he continues to speak after his time has expired.
Later, when the issue of Vice-mayor Beckles request to remove Item I-29 from the Consent Calendar came up, both Martinez and Willis bypassed rules of decorum, as they did during Wassberg’s tirade, that they be recognized before speaking. Resolution 2-07, adopted unanimously by the City Council on January 16, 2007 states:
While the Council is in session, the members must preserve order and decorum. A Councilmember shall not, by conversation or other actions, delay, interrupt the proceedings or the peace of the Council nor disturb any member while speaking, nor refuse to obey the orders of the Council, or the presiding officer, except as otherwise herein provided. Councilmembers shall use discretion and leave the Chamber to discuss items before the City Council with members of the audience.
I do not want to reprise the Corky Booze days. It was bad for staff morale, bad for business and bad for the City Council’s reputation – which was widely regarded as dysfunctional. It also caused City Council meetings to extend far into the night or into the next morning.
So, I am asking the following:
- Vice-mayor Beckles, please refrain from engaging with speakers. If you are offended, you can leave the room, and like last night, we may all go with you in a show of solidarity.
- Councilmember Willis, City Council meetings are not ACCE rallies. We have a procedure for requesting to speak and being recognized by the chair. Please observe it.
- Councilmember Martinez, We have a procedure for asking to speak and being recognized by the chair. Please observe it.