Tonight, I attended my second Richmond City Council meeting of the semester, which was very different from the first. Before I even entered the chamber, I saw Don Coleman, head of the School Board, who recognized me and greeted me. Knowing the stakeholders in City Hall has changed my perspective and allowed me to better understand the dynamics of City Council.
The meeting began normally. Although it was clear from the banners in the rear of the room that there were going to be passionate speakers and Council was a little bit late, there was nothing out of the ordinary. That changed about 10-15 minutes into the meeting, when there was a commotion in the press box to the left of Council. Chris Dorsey, an outspoken critic of the Council, decided to sit in the Press Box and was forcibly removed from the Council chamber after an argument with a council staff member. As Dorsey was carried from the chamber screaming, “I am being assaulted; I am being kidnapped” repeatedly, I wondered what the public perception of the City Council meeting would be. Would they remember the actual policy discussed at the meeting? Probably not. (True to my prediction, the consistent headline in local news outlets about the meeting was in regard to Dorsey’s removal)
My second thought about the removal of Dorsey concerned the difficulty of Council members’ jobs. After meeting with Council members individually, it’s clear that they work incredibly hard for a relatively small salary. Yet, in this meeting, I realized that the challenges of the job extend beyond the long hours and small salary. Dorsey made threats against the council members and their families, which places additional stress on those council members. In essence, Dorsey made me realize that the Council members have even more stress to handle on top of their challenging jobs.
Even once Dorsey was removed from the room, the meeting was still eventful. Several minutes after Dorsey was removed, a speaker came up to the podium. He was speaking on the consent agenda—a part of the meeting that is supposed to be non-controversial—and began to ramble, quoting the Bible and talking about how Jesus would look down on the Monroe Park lease. Council President Samuels told him to stop because he was not speaking about the agenda. When he kept speaking, Samuels gaveled a recess and left the room. It’s unusual to see a Council President so irritated as to gavel a recess and leave the room, but Samuels was clearly wound up. Admittedly, it had already been a stressful meeting and this speaker was not helping. Unfortunately, a part of being a public leader is to listen to your constituents. Samuels invoked a technicality to call a recess. While legally valid, is it ethically valid? I think it falls into a gray area. Samuels should probably have just let the speaker finish, yet was somewhat justified in calling the recess since the speaker was so abrasive.
Reflecting on this Council meeting, it occurred to me that the dramatic events in the chamber overshadowed much of the actual meeting. The Council ended up approving the Monroe Park lease, a big and contentious decision, but the actual decision was overshadowed by the events that preceded it. If anything, this Council meeting reminded me that municipal leaders are in an extremely challenging position, as they try to balance the difficulty of their job with the small salary it pays. Furthermore, it reminded me that the media will focus on the “interesting” pieces of the meeting, while often neglecting to mention the important decisions that were reached. Hopefully, the next meeting of City Council will be slightly more routine.