BY THEO DOUGLAS Californian staff writer email@example.com
In the Bakersfield City Council's televised meetings, a Bakersfield Police officer is always in evidence, stationed at the back of the room -- just in case. That's where these meetings' resemblance to a tabloid talk show ends, however.
No one enters City Hall South by sliding down a stripper pole. No one on the dais lets loose a string of profanities and, usually, no one in the audience does either.
In this realm, courtesy reigns. Disagreements are resolved not with a ceremonial throwing of chairs but with discussion, a polite airing of differences and an eventual vote.
And in Bakersfield, that vote is frequently unanimous.
Council members who observe each other when they're not watching the audience or city staff members have noticed this, and others have as well. Mutual respect, despite more-than-occasional policy differences, is the rule rather than the exception.
It's a far cry from the 1980s, when two council members nearly came to blows during a closed-session meeting.
Routine goes fast on consent
"I've had people ask me, 'There's a lot of seven-nothing votes up there.' Most things are pretty routine," said Ward 5 Councilman Harold Hanson, who represents the southwest. "When you see it's 4-3 or 5-2 you know it's a pretty serious discussion."
The "routine" often involves the consent calendar, a series of items that city staffers believe will not require council discussion.
They're intended to be passed with one vote and no talk, and can range from the recent purchase of the Bakersfield Condors by the Edmonton Oilers to the more mundane: changing the job specs for a Canal Tender II, abating weeds, or filing successor agency payments.
Split votes a sign of differences
Other items in council meetings, from deferred business to public hearings, contain issues requiring lengthy consideration from the council, comments from audience members or both.
Several times a year, an issue comes along and -- while it might still pass -- results in a split vote, a sure indication of a difference in opinion.
In May, the council voted 4-2 against changing city policy on keeping chickens on residential-zoned property.
Ward 6 Councilwoman Jacquie Sullivan and Ward 4 Councilman Bob Smith thought fowls were fair game.
In October, the council voted 5-2 to table the so-called Human Life ordinance, restricting abortion within the city limits, and to not consider a less-restrictive resolution.
Sullivan and Ward 7 Councilman Russell Johnson voted against ending the Human Life discussion.
In January, the council voted 6-1 on three separate occasions, to change a requirement for cul-de-sacs south of 24th Street, and to build cul-de-sacs on Spruce and A streets.
Ward 2 Councilman Terry Maxwell cast the lone vote opposing cul-de-sacs in his own district.
But council members say that at no time has pettiness or partisan politics emerged.
"I'm right at a year (of service on the council) and I don't ever feel or perceive any partisan politics-type stuff. Everybody's trying to do what's best for the city," said Ward 4 Councilman Bob Smith, who was elected in November 2012 and represents the northwest. "We don't always agree on that (but) I think there's no animosity. You take different votes and then you go down the road."
Former Ward 7 Councilman Mark Salvaggio said council cordiality made a great leap forward in the late 1990s with the election of Mike Maggard and David Couch, who have since gone on to represent Kern County's third and fourth supervisorial districts, respectively.
But Salvaggio vividly remembered seeing Mayor Tom Payne get ready to duke it out with Ward 6 Councilman Mark Dickerson in 1986, after Dickerson bumped into Payne's chair once too often.
"In those days, we held the closed session in what we called the Mayor's conference room. It was attached to the Mayor's office there. We all got in there and we're getting ready and apparently Dickerson bumped the Mayor's chair," said Salvaggio, a 19-year councilman who now works as a constituent services specialist for Couch. "Mayor Payne got up, he took off his belt and went toward Councilman Dickerson, but (Ward 5) Councilman Rollie Moore stepped in before there was any fight."
Would the Mayor really have thrown a punch?
"Oh, absolutely, Payne would have. He took off his belt," Salvaggio said. "But those were the zany days."
With new members came respect
Couch, who served Ward 4 from December 1998 to December 2012, remembered tough decisions on freeways, building a baseball stadium downtown, and adding "In God We Trust" to the council chambers, but credited his fellow council members with sticking to the facts.
"There was never a lack of civility," Couch said. "Really arguing the facts and the merits and not so much the politics, I think, makes for better relationships among council members and better decisions."
Sue Benham, who represented Ward 2 until she stepped down in 2012, said respect and a shared vision -- not political ties -- often put her on the same sides of council issues with Couch and Maggard.
"We didn't always vote the same, but I think there was a real respect for each other's experience and political integrity," Benham said. "I think we really shared a vision for where the city should go in terms of transportation solutions and representing downtown."
Maggard did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Benham voted for the 2012 city council resolution that allowed cul-de-sacs on Beech, Myrtle, Spruce, Pine, Cedar, and A streets at 24th Street, so long as all residents between 22nd and 24th streets wanted them, and corner lot owners on 24th Street donated part of their property.
On Jan. 22, Maxwell cast the lone vote against relaxing the requirement for 100 percent agreement among residents to 75 percent.
He also voted against proceeding immediately with cul-de-sacs on Spruce and A streets.
Respect for iconic stance
Council members seem to respect Maxwell's solitary stand.
Ward 1 Councilman Willie Rivera, who was elected in June to represent the southeast, said Maxwell's position is inspiring.
"That's certainly something I respect, that he stood on what he felt very strongly about," said Rivera, who is serving out Rudy Salas' unexpired term and will face re-election in November. "I don't think questions are a bad thing, and if staff is prepared they should have an answer to every question any of us have."
Republican political consultant Stan Harper said the cul-de-sacs issue would be difficult for any elected representative of the downtown area, but he still found Maxwell's position odd.
"Strange vote, in my opinion, for him. It appeared that some of the other council people knew more about the issue than him," said Harper, who has consulted with current Ward 7 Councilman Russell Johnson. "He represents the area, he lives in the area. But it seems, (by) their vote, they were more aware, more in tune with what needed to be done."
Maxwell, who has said he thinks changing some of the downtown streets to one-way traffic could help ease its traffic woes, said on Jan. 22 it was never his intent to forbid the cul-de-sacs, but he was against relaxing the requirement because rules are rules.
"When I've got a position I'm defending, I'm defending it because I've tried to look at it from every different angle," said Maxwell, who estimates he's spent more than 70 hours researching the 24th Street widening issue.
"That's what I do because I have to live with myself. I look at myself in the mirror every morning. I don't look at anyone else."
What happens on the dais is business, Maxwell said -- the city's business, for which each council representative is paid a token stipend of $100 a month -- and he doesn't hold a grudge either.
"I fight very hard for what I believe in and if the vote goes against me I don't take it personal," Maxwell said.