July 12, 2004
For those who aspire to fix whatever may be wrong with the City of Richmond, today is the first day of the filing period for the City Council election of November 2, 2004. There are five incumbents who presumably will ask the voters to return them to office. These are the four Bís (Bates, Bell, Belcher and Butt) and Penn. Announced challengers include John Marquez, Andres Soto, Gayle McLaughlin, Kathy Scharff, Corky Booze, Arnie Kasendorf and Eddrick Osborne. I apologize if I missed anyone.
Columnist Chip Johnson took note of the official opening of Richmondís campaign season in todayís San Francisco Chronicle with the following article:
Only the governor's signature stands between the troubled city of Richmond and a state-backed tax note it needs to secure a $14 million loan and avert a financial disaster.
But it is like dressing a gunshot wound with a Band-Aid -- it won't mend an ineffective City Council that has shown little acumen in running the working-class East Bay city of 100,000.
The Legislature approved a tax-revenue anticipation note on July 2 after Richmond's nine-member council reluctantly agreed to place a measure on the November ballot that will let voters decide whether a smaller council -- perhaps seven or five members -- could provide more effective leadership.
"It doesn't make a difference whether we have three, five, seven or nine council members,'' said Nat Bates, the dean of the council who, along with colleague Richard Griffin, has served on the council for nearly 25 years.
The city's $35 million budget shortfall, Bates said, was a result of cuts in state revenue -- not shortcomings in governance. He acknowledged that the council's decision to increase police and fire retirement benefits, as well as major miscalculations by the city's former finance director, added to the deficit.
But if Richmond's worst problem was reduced state funding, why isn't every other city of comparable size seeking a state-backed loan? It's because money shortages are only part of the city's problem.
Richmond is in dire need of a complete governmental overhaul. There are vacancies in virtually every major administrative department, and the city is operating with an interim city manager, city attorney, police chief and fire chief.
The city has no library director and no parks and recreation director, and no one running its housing authority.
The library and parks positions were lost in a recent layoff of 78 employees, but everything else is the culmination of a City Council asleep at the wheel.
Even under pressure of losing the state bailout loan unless it pledged to put the council-reduction measure to voters, the council took four votes before it fully complied with the state Legislature's demand. The council voted May 18 to place such a measure on the November ballot but voted a week later to delay the change until 2008. On its third vote, the council opted not to put the idea before the voters at all.
When the council finally approved the measure, it was anything but an inspirational moment. Councilman Griffin referred to a state legislator as a "Southern California redneck,'' while his colleague Bates suggested the proposal was camouflage for county and state legislators who want to control the council.
Bates said the state-backed loan and payments from the city's economic development department and the Port of Richmond have reduced the deficit to around $7 million, but it's apparent the city will not thrive with a council that operates without a safety net more often than the Flying Wallendas.
Come November, Richmond residents have a prime opportunity to begin the process of rebuilding their shattered city government, with the council- reduction measure on the ballot and five members up for re-election.
The filing period for the election opens today and ends Aug. 6, and two progressive candidates have already filed. More are expected to do so.
Andres Soto, who is running on the same slate as Green Party member Gayle McLaughlin, described the council's performance as nothing short of "abysmal."
And according to a survey of 400 voters commissioned by the city in May, citizens agree. Nearly 8 in 10 respondents graded the council's performance as "fair to poor.''
It seems fair to conclude that with such dissatisfaction among voters, the council is ripe for a big shakeup.
"I think there needs to be a systematic reconstruct of the politics and public financing of the city,'' Soto said. "There is the lack of an effective democracy that's led to the environment that's created the fiscal mess we find ourselves in.''
Soto and McLaughlin are campaigning to create district elections and instant runoff voting in addition to paring down the council to five members, elected by district, with a mayor elected at large.
I don't know if district elections are the answer in a city where fewer than half of its 35,104 registered voters regularly cast ballots in municipal races, but it's worth a public debate.
Perhaps fresh leadership could also implement a term-limits measure, which could end the system that has allowed Bates and Griffin to remain in office for a quarter-century.
Until that happens, Richmond will have to endure the arrogance and lethargy that have engulfed the council.
"We have had nine (council) members for 100 years, and the city has survived race riots and a host of problems, and we'll survive this as well,'' proclaimed Bates, who is an adamant critic of term limits.
"This city will survive because we have too many strong people who overshadow the weak and the dissidents,'' he said. "You can take that to the bank.''
Not if it's drawn against Richmond's bank account.
E-mail Chip Johnson at firstname.lastname@example.org, or write to him at 483 Ninth St., Suite 100, Oakland, CA 94607.