What's Happening in Compton City Hall? An Introduction to Routine Chaos

04/24/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Emily Henry Health Care Policy Research Consultant, Journalist, Yogi, Mother

On a Tuesday afternoon in January, the Compton City Council chambers are full to the brim with concerned citizens, guests, and business owners. Almost every seat in the house is taken. Up in front, however, attendance is sparse. The mayor's seat is empty. The city treasurer and fourth council member are also absent.

By the time the various commissions have been addressed - gaming, urban community development, public finance and housing - the clock reads 4:57pm when the "3pm" council meeting officially begins. By 7pm, the meeting is running approximately three hours behind.

But residents, especially the die-hard meeting goers like William Kemp, Lynn Boone and Joyce Kelly, are resilient. They're also fearlessly opinionated. Kemp - who wears an immaculate ivory suit with snake-skin shoes - stands at the podium and warns the council that the mayor's frequent absences are more than just impolite. "In Lynwood," announces Kemp, "Mayor Byrd was indicted for less than this." Showing up to meetings just two times a month, according to Kemp, is a misuse of public funds. The mayor is not doing the job he is being paid to do. And neither is the city council. The audience grumbles in approval.

The style of the Compton City council meetings is one of routine chaos. Although the atmosphere is often tense, especially when residents aim their comments directly at specific officials ("I don't believe what the city manager says," announced Kelly during one of her many public comments. "I don't trust him."), there is also a sense of mutual understanding. The council expects to see the same three faces each week, among many others, and to hear their berating verbalizations of the flaws in the current agenda and Compton's political process as a whole. But perhaps they didn't expect the papers recently delivered to them, just before the Feb. 16 council meeting was due to start, indicating an intent to circulate a recall petition. The clues, however, were always there.

2010-02-20-WilliamKemp.JPGBack to the Jan. 26 meeting, and Kemp isn't the only resident to complain tonight. In fact, the usual onslaught of comments chastising the council has irked Councilmember Lillie Dobson. "If you're going to say something about me," she pleads, "say something nice."

But the sarcastic quips continue to flow. An older man in glasses, who later in the session will win an award for his Christmas-light display, tells the council that he is leaving Compton. "And it's because of you," he says.

Soon, Councilmember Willie Jones has to remind members of the public not to "conduct their own meeting" by responding to comments or jeering. A few residents are bickering amongst themselves in the front row.

Carrying the thick file she compiles each week, Boone steps before the microphone in her red high heels and starts with her signature catchphrase: "Read, and listen," she tells the council. It is intended as a command, not a request. If the elected officials in Compton took the time to read through all the agenda documents, she says, the city would be running properly. Boone's papers are covered with the marks of highlighter pens, and her notes are prolific.

2010-02-20-LynnBoone.JPGTo kick off her commentary today, she tells the council that the city does not need to spend any more money on consultants. "We've spent millions of dollars and not one of them has done any work," says Boone. "You pay them to tell us what we need, like everybody here is Stevie Wonder and can't walk outside and see what we need."

The regulars seem to agree that the council wastes much and achieves little. For weeks now, Boone has been recommending that the council more vehemently screen their employees and stop handing out city positions to under-qualified candidates. One former Sunday-School teacher is being paid $90,000 working at City Hall, according to Boone. "What are her qualifications for that job?" asks Boone. But there is no response from the council, who maintain a stoic appearance no matter what is said into the public microphone.

2010-02-20-ComptonSeniorResident2.JPGThe room is still half full when the mayor shows up four hours late. He takes his seat and proceeds to lead the meeting. There are whispers among the audience. The tension in the air shifts almost unnoticeably. Some residents are wary of Mayor Eric Perrodin's way of doing things: in a previous session, he announced a ban on reading newspapers in the council chambers. He has ejected residents from meetings in the past for various reasons, from newspaper-reading to using proper names in their public comments. Today the mayor tells a local church pastor that, no, he cannot go over his allotted two minutes in case it sets a precedent. Comments need to be kept to a minimum.

It is long dark outside when the meeting comes to an end. But for the community activists with a fire in their bellies, it's just the beginning.

Read updates from the Compton City Council meetings on the South Los Angeles Report.