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Compton gadflies persist despite attempts to swat them down

A trio of citizens is a constant at council meetings, undeterred by a 'decorum' ordinance. The three scold the mayor and council with complaints ranging from gripes about alleged bad manners to charges of major misconduct.

March 05, 2011|By Ann M. Simmons, Los Angeles Times
  • Compton resident William Kemp, right, part of a defiant trio of concerned citizens, speaks at a Compton City Council meeting recently.
Compton resident William Kemp, right, part of a defiant trio of concerned…

They can be counted on, week in and week out.

Whatever the issue before the Compton City Council, Joyce Kelly, William Kemp and Lynn Boone will be there.

They'll arrive early, clutching manila envelopes stuffed with documents.

They'll be impeccably dressed: Kelly in a smart outfit with matching hat, Kemp in dapper suit, tie and shoes of ostrich or alligator leather, Boone in high heels and a perfectly coifed do — blonde by L'Oréal.

They will sit in the front row, or on the aisle with easy access to the podium.

And one by one they will rise to scold the mayor and council with an assortment of complaints ranging from gripes about alleged bad manners to charges of major misconduct, such as the alleged misappropriation of funds.

The drama has intensified since Mayor Eric Perrodin began his third term in April 2009.

Most cities have their gadflies. But in Compton, the weekly showdown pitting Kelly, Kemp and Boone against city leaders is often the central feature of the city's public proceedings — so much so that the city in recent years passed a "decorum" ordinance prohibiting, among other actions, whistling at such meetings.

The mayor has also tried to ban clapping, talking among audience members and rattling of newspaper pages. He has even tried to outlaw coughing.

But the Compton three keep coming back.

"It wouldn't bother me if you use the word 'obsessed,' because I am," said Kelly, 62, who lost in her 2009 bid to become Compton's mayor.

It's not unusual these days for Southern Californian municipal governments to have written policies governing conduct at city council meetings.

In 2002, for example, Riverside adopted an ordinance that allows the council to remove speakers for hissing or using profanity or insulting language during a meeting. The following year, the Corona City Council adopted a similar ordinance that allows speakers to be barred from any city meeting if they become boisterous or make "personal, impertinent or slanderous remarks."

And in 2009, the Los Angeles City Council tightened its decorum rules after a man wearing a Ku Klux Klan hood and robe made several outbursts.

"City councils are always trying to balance the situation of letting residents testify and letting the council meeting move along," said Robert Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit that studies California governance. "You want it to be an efficient meeting. If you have people coming up and saying the same thing all the time, you are really wasting everyone's time."

But Stern said he had never heard of rules to ban actions such as coughing or applause. "That's more like a courtroom," he said.

Neither Perrodin nor other city representatives, including the city attorney, responded to requests seeking comment for this article.

Compton's ordinance prohibits "disorderly or boisterous conduct, including the utterance of loud, threatening or abusive language, whistling, or stamping of feet" or other actions "that disturb, disrupt or impede the orderly conduct of the council meeting."

But the rule has not shut down the gadflies. Neither have the council's other strategies, such as canceling broadcasts of public comments at meetings (the broadcasts were later resumed) or reducing the time allotted for audience members to speak.

Punctured with interruptions, council meetings frequently stretch late into the evening. The atmosphere is often tense. Tempers become heated.

Usually at least a few supporters of Kelly, Kemp and Boone are in the crowd, murmuring, "Uh-huh," and "That's right," as the three speak. Perrodin has tried to crack down on that too.

At other times, fearing ejection by black-clad municipal law enforcement officers, audience members scribble notes on scraps of paper and surreptitiously pass them around.

Sometimes the back-and-forth between Perrodin and the three resembles a family quarrel. For example, Kemp recently implored Perrodin to "look at me when I'm talking to you." The mayor disobeyed, eyes down, face deadpan.

Other times, the tone has turned ugly.

For example, in November, according to transcripts, Kelly and Perrodin faced off.

Kelly told the council she didn't appreciate the "the games" members were playing. "It's very rude," she said. "But then you don't give a damn."

Perrodin: "Ms. Kelly. Ms. Kelly."

Kelly: "What! Don't tell me how to talk, what to talk, and when to talk …"

Perrodin: "Sheriff's officials! Sheriff's officials! I'll sign the arrest report!"

Kelly: "You sign it! And you know what? You know what you can do with it!"

A month later, Perrodin was visibly angry as he repeatedly warned Boone, who said she had been diagnosed with pneumonia, to stop coughing or face expulsion from the chamber. The warning resulted in a seemingly unconscious chorus of stifled coughs.

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