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  Taj Mahal or City Hall?
May 12, 2004

The “temporary” City Council chamber in the “temporary” City hall debuted last night with the crowd, perhaps appropriately, a little more rowdy than usual. (Photos are attached to this E-Forum as PDF files) The chamber looked anything but temporary with expensive handcrafted hardwood paneling and trim throughout where sheetrock and paint would have functioned equally as well. This is the latest in recent spate of remodeling projects designed to show off the remarkable prowess of the City’s carpenters. Previous projects included the wood panelization of the previous Council Chamber and the Permits Center in the now abandoned Civic Center (old) City Hall. Meanwhile, parks and libraries are shutting down and public safety is diminished. Code enforcement and abatement, as challenged as they were, are just fond memories. The sparkling new City Council “digs” provided an ironic backdrop for the final pleas of some 200 City employees who will hit the streets on Friday.


While no cost was spared on woodwork, the technology could use a little help. Both attendees and TV watchers complained that the sound system was deficient, the vote tallies were hard to discern, and the high panel in the front of the dais made City Council members hard to see.


The Marina Bay City Hall, aka “City Hall South” is perhaps the most tangible symbol of a colossal management failure with no resolution in sight. The saga started several years ago when the City Council resolved to seismically retrofit “City Hall North.”  What started as a simple structural engineering exercise turned into a completed $20 million rehabilitation plan with no program basis and no funding that cost the City $1.5 million in design fees. It all went into the trash can.


Realizing that the plan was fatally flawed, the administration retained a design and planning team to prepare a program and master plan the Civic Center Complex at a cost of some $500,000. After months of work and dozens of meetings with staff, City Council members and several public hearings, a community consensus emerged to retain and rehabilitate the existing Civic Center buildings. But the City Council balked, and indecision reigned. Finally, a pot of money, some $13 million of Redevelopment Agency debt to the General Fund, was identified that could go a long way toward implementing the first phase rehabilitation of City Hall.


Meanwhile, the administration began moving City staff to Marina Bay. Moving costs mounted, and delays plagued the operation. Contractors and architects were hired and fired. There were also rumors of personal grudges and vendettas among City staff that added to the problem. Months and years passed. Finally, the move is over, at a cost of over $1 million, and the City is paying over $1 million a year in rent. The administration justifies the opulence by explaining that savings were realized by doing the remodeling work “in-house,” that is, by City employees. I challenge anyone to prove that “in-house” labor is less expensive than “outside’ labor. It simply doesn’t compute, and even if it were true, it’s still money that we didn’t have.


What about the vacated City Hall? Guess what? There is no plan and no money. No design has been completed, and no seismic retrofit has been started. There is no schedule, no budget, no money and, apparently, no concern. All the previously identified money was spent by departments that could not live within the budget adopted by the City Council, so they just went ahead and spent whatever they wanted to. If you or I write bad checks, we could go to jail. In Richmond, you get a raise or get promoted.


I really don’t know how the people of Richmond want to resolve this mess, but I think they should be given a chance. I will ask that next week’s City Council agenda include a ballot item for this November for a bond to pay for the immediate rehabilitation of the former City Hall so that we can move back to Civic Center.