A Political Spat Boils Over in Richmond, With Angry Mayor Walking Out of Council Meeting

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A screenshot from KCRT of Richmond Mayor Tom Butt walking out of a City Council meeting on Tuesday. (KCRT Television)

Richmond Mayor Tom Butt abruptly walked out of Tuesday's City Council meeting after another member of the council accused him of disrespecting women and women of color.

Butt walked out after a presentation from a panel of community housing advocates on ways to address homelessness and increase affordable housing in the East Bay city. Butt objected at length to suggestions from the panel that the city was not doing enough to attract affordable housing or development in general and that the council should consider adding staff to focus on the issue.

Butt's apparent irritation with the panel prompted Councilwoman Jovanka Beckles to make a motion to end the discussion. Butt called a timeout on the meeting, and when councilmembers returned, he asked for three minutes to "wrap up" his observations on the presentation.

Beckles denied his request.

"Mayor, I think that you've been incredibly disrespectful to our speakers and our presenters," Beckles said. "And you have insulted them. Particularly, I see you do this behavior all the time with women, particularly women of color."

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"One thing the chair has the opportunity to do is to wait until everybody else speaks and then have the last word," Butt responded. "And for you guys to deny me that opportunity is incredibly disrespectful. You can continue the rest of the meeting without me."

Butt then gathered up his papers and departed.

"What is this, like the hundredth little tantrum from this guy's thrown?" she asked as Butt left the room.

The mayor's exit Tuesday came after the council had worked through a significant portion of a long agenda.

The body approved a contract with a consulting firm to search for a city manager to replace Bill Lindsay, a well-liked city official who recently announced his retirement.

But the meeting never got to an issue Butt has expressed concern about for years: the role Contra Costa County's warning system has played in communicating with Richmond residents about emergencies.

That item, prompted by criticism of the system's alerts during January's fire at the Sims Metal Management yard, will be taken up at the council's next meeting.

Later, the conflict between Beckles and Butt moved online. The councilwoman took a shot at the mayor on Twitter and predicted he would respond with a blast at the Richmond Progressive Alliance, the coalition of which Beckles is a member.

On Wednesday morning, Butt published an online forum post criticizing the progressive group -- though without mentioning the dispute at the council meeting.

Asked later about his departure from the meeting, Butt told KQED he felt like he was being lectured during the housing presentation.

"Sometimes, I just can't take these RPA people anymore. I needed to get out of there. I don't suffer fools well," Butt wrote in an email.

"Jovanka is particularly insufferable. God help us if she wins AD-15," he wrote.

Beckles is one of the 12 candidates running for the 15th Assembly District. (See KQED's ongoing coverage, including candidate profiles.)

Butt then claimed that Beckles pays little attention to council meetings, that she plays computer games during important debates, and is fed questions by other members of the council's progressive bloc.

In an interview Wednesday, Beckles called Butt's allegations "hilarious" and "childish." On the issue of computer games, she said the mayor was referring to an occasion several years ago when she played a word game during a presentation she was already familiar with.

She added that Butt himself spends time "surfing the web" during council sessions.

"When people are crying, literally crying before the City Council in their public forum, he is on Facebook," Beckles said.

The councilwoman said Butt had walked out of meetings in the past when he was a member of the council. But, she said, the departure on Tuesday was his first as mayor.

"It happens because he's not able to get his way," Beckles said. "He likes to take revenge, and he likes to throw tantrums and behave like a child, and that's not really becoming of a mayor of a city."