LONG BEACH — It was a hell of a civics lesson.
Not long after 26 visiting Longfellow School fourth-graders settled into cushy Council Chamber seats Tuesday, the debate turned nasty.
Councilman Thomas Clark had begun to recount City Council attempts to stop the spread of boxy apartment houses on small lots--a volatile issue.
He mentioned an earlier meeting, where a slowdown in construction was passed in concept in the morning, then lost in the afternoon because of Councilman Wallace Edgerton's absence from the meeting.
Clark did not mention Edgerton by name. But two seats away, Edgerton, a longtime adversary, flushed red. "I am tired of you sitting there and lying. . . ." Edgerton shouted. "Damn it, get out the public record."
Then, with the Longfellow students watching intently, Clark said the motion had died because of Edgerton's absence.
"You're a damned liar," Edgerton responded.
A surprised Clark, who just weeks ago had stood chest-to-chest with Edgerton in another angry public argument, said little in return.
But Councilman Ray Grabinski walked behind the council dais, touched Edgerton on the elbow and escorted him out of the room.
Grabinski, who had stopped council proceedings to welcome the Longfellow students, said later, "I felt it appropriate to remind him that kids were present."
The students left shortly thereafter and, according to teacher Genevieve Choy, did not discuss the matter in class that day.
"I was a little disturbed myself," Choy said. "I just didn't expect the debate to be as heated as that.
"If possible, I'll ignore it, but if the children bring it up, we'll discuss different points of view. . . . That's how the world is, and in any sort of discussion it will not always be like a fairy tale. It was reality."
After the incident, Edgerton was remorseful. "I lost my temper and I apologize," he said in an interview. "I'm very sorry I did that. I visit schools, and I'll go out and tell these kids this is an example of what not to do. . . . But Tom has incessantly goaded me on that. I've asked him not to do that, and he did it again today."
Clark said that he was simply reciting the record to make a point to two community groups that the City Council had been working to limit bad apartment development for a long time. He said that he had never mentioned Edgerton's absence at the April, 1986, meeting until Tuesday.
(The council turned down the community groups' requests for an immediate halt to new apartment construction in their neighborhoods. It asked the city attorney, however, to draft an ordinance that would effectively cancel many projects approved before strict zoning laws were adopted Nov. 11, but which have not been pursued since. A hearing is scheduled for Tuesday.)
"I don't think I was goading him," Clark said. "I didn't mention Mr. Edgerton by name. . . . It was his choice to spotlight himself."
Clark said he resents Edgerton for accusing him of lying. "I didn't say anything that couldn't be proven," he said.
The transcript of the April 15 meeting shows that the council approved in the morning a moratorium on apartment projects that did not meet stringent parking requirements, but another vote was needed because the motion had not been in ordinance form.
Edgerton said he thought that the second vote would occur a week later, not that afternoon, so he skipped the meeting. Then he expected the five-person majority to pass the ordinance the next week, but then-Councilwoman Eunice Sato switched her vote. Eventually, a less-demanding parking ordinance was passed.
Clark said his style during 21 years on the council has been to reason with, not needle, rivals.
But Edgerton saw things differently.
"The guy knows how deeply I care about this density issue. He plays these games. And frankly, today he won and I lost," Edgerton said.
"The thing that really bothers me," he added, "is that as a veteran you shouldn't let the other guy get your goat. Today he stole one of my goats, and from now on I'll be looking for one of his."