LYNWOOD — In his first meeting as the new mayor, Paul Richards was unable to sit in the middle chair normally reserved for the City Council's presiding officer.
Councilwoman Evelyn Wells, who had been acting mayor for two weeks, refused Tuesday to relinquish the chair. She gave Richards the gavel but not the seat.
When the city attorney suggested that Richards take the middle chair so he could conduct the meeting, Wells angrily refused. "No, he can do it from there," Wells said of Richards' place two seats away.
Wells also refused to make Richards' selection unanimous at the suggestion of Councilman John Byork.
Byork, who had been absent for more than a month due to illness, broke a council deadlock in forming a majority with Richards and Councilman E. L. Morris to give Richards the mostly ceremonial mayor's post.
Councilman Robert Henning, Richards, Byork and Morris voted for Wells to serve as mayor pro tem. Still in an angry mood, Wells voted against herself as mayor pro tem but said later in an interview that she would serve as vice mayor and give Richards his seat as mayor.
"This is a ceremonial position. What's the big deal? I do feel that I'm qualified to do the job. The only difference is that I'm a woman," Wells said.
"I will be doing the same thing I would have been doing as mayor, only I won't be presiding over the meeting and I won't be cutting ribbons," she said.
"It has nothing to do with gender. It's politics," said Richards, who was elected to the council in November to fill a slot created by the death of Louis Thompson.
Richards said he is impressed with Wells' "grass-root knowledge, but she has voted so closely with Bob (Henning) she hasn't independently demonstrated she is capable of being mayor."
Richards, who was not supported in his election campaign by any of the incumbent council members, pledged to be "an independent thinker" on the council.
"I'm not sure how long I will be mayor. It might be short-lived but I want to be the best possible leader I can possibly be," said Richards, 30.
Henning, who just finished a year's term as mayor, abstained during the vote for Richards.
"This is embarrassing. This is an attack on our women to try and say Evelyn would not serve our community well as mayor," said Henning, who backed Wells for mayor and supported her during her successful campaign for a council seat in 1985. Henning noted that Wells was the first woman to serve on the council in more than 20 years and the first minority woman to ever win a council seat.
Waited for Byork
On Dec. 2, Henning attempted but failed to have Wells chosen as mayor. Richards and Morris said the council should wait until Byork--then hospitalized with pneumonia and emphysema--returned. Henning then resigned as mayor and turned over his duties to Wells, who was serving as mayor pro tem.
Legally, Wells was only acting mayor because the council had not voted her into the position. The mayor pro tem has all of the power and duties of the mayor and serves when the mayor is unable to, according to state law.
Byork on Tuesday congratulated Wells on her two-week tenure as "the first black lady mayor."
"She will have another opportunity" to be mayor, he said.
Byork said he voted for Richards because the council has been deadlocked 2-2 on many issues since Thompson died in July. The council, he said, needs "a neutral person" as mayor.
Traditionally, the mayor serves for a year, with the council electing a new mayor each December. The council has historically selected the mayor pro tem as mayor, according to Henning, although Morris said there have been occasions when the mayor pro tem has not been selected.
As Tuesday night's meeting drew to a close, Henning proposed a motion that would allow the voters to elect a mayor to a one- or two-year term and receive an additional $100 a month. Currently, council members, who serve part time, receive $500 a month and a $175-a-month car allowance.
Richards said he had "no problem with the concept" of voters electing the mayor but that he believes there should be more study and discussion.
The issue was unresolved with Wells and Henning voting for it and Morris and Richards voting against it.
Byork was absent, having left the council chambers to go home. Oxygen had to be administered to him earlier in the meeting. The 78-year-old Byork said he was "feeling a little pooped."
Morris, who nominated Richards for mayor, said the newcomer could bring harmony to a divided council.
"He is the best qualified. He has many years of experience in city government," Morris said of Richards, who is chief of staff and legal and policy adviser to the Compton City Council.