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  Who to Vote For?
October 10, 2004
  A number of E-Forum subscribers have asked me for recommendations for candidates to vote for in the upcoming City Council election. My response is that I am unable to do so because I have not yet made up my own mind who to vote for.

The best advice I can give to any voter is to select candidates who will work to support your vision of what Richmond should be and, equally important, how we should get there.

In this election, we have four incumbents seeking re-election and eleven challengers. The incumbents should be an easier call because they have an extensive voting record as well as a record of the causes and issues they have supported or opposed. Unless you are a habitual watcher of City Council meetings, however, there is no place you can go for a quick summary of where these folks have been on major issues over the last four or more years.

For the most part, the challengers in this election are well-educated, articulate and have work experience that conceivably prepared them to be a city council member. How they would apply those skills is harder to predict. The challengers are typically strong on concepts (I will restore libraries and parks.) but short on details (Where will the money come from?). Most have little previous involvement in Richmond city government, and even fewer have a comprehensive grasp of the kind of details that previous service on such stepping stones as the Planning Commission or Police Commission provides. That isn't to say that they wouldn't make good or even outstanding council members; it just makes them harder to read.

In this city council campaign, debate has been subdued and, for the most part, avoided tough issues that elicit the true nature of the candidates. A discussion of the influence of special interests has been largely missing. A look at candidates contributors can be instructive, but the real money in a Richmond election is soft, as a host of last minute mailers and hit pieces from supposedly independent committees hit mailboxes in the final week.

How do you pick the best when all candidates are in favor of fiscal responsibility, less violence, better blight abatement, improved schools and re-opening parks and libraries? All candidates want to hire a good city manager and permanent department heads. The only two issues where candidates seem to part is rent control and a casino at Point Molate.

Without recommending who to vote for, I would like to point out some areas of policy that I believe have been underrepresented in campaign debate:

Revenue Enhancement: Despite a continuing fiscal crisis, the City Council has refused to move on potential revenue measures commonly used elsewhere, such as business license fees for rental property owners, 9-1-1 dispatch fees, false alarm fees for fire alarms and separate districts for libraries and parks funded by parcel taxes. The City Council has stubbornly resisted any attempt to even obtain information to determine if ChevronTexaco would pay more utility user tax if the cap were removed and actually ordered the city manager to cease enforcing the self-funded rental unit inspection ordinance.

Municipal Surveys: The City Council needs periodic timely feedback from residents about City services and priorities, so that policy and planning decisions can be made, particularly when funding is required. It is essential for the City Council to know what service or infrastructure enhancements people are willing to pay for. The City Council has resisted such surveys for years probably because they don't want to pay a pollster to bring them criticism and bad news from a disappointed electorate.
Accountability: For years, the City Council has taken a hands off attitude toward performance of City management staff. In private, members complain bitterly about staff performance of some individuals. In public, they cant say enough good things. The worst punishment for those responsible for costly mistakes is they are encouraged to look for jobs elsewhere. More often, it seems, they are promoted. The City Council just cant seem to come to grips with the relationship between underperforming staff and an underperforming city.

Civic Pride and Image: One thing most Richmonders agree on is that our city needs image enhancement maybe even a makeover. Changing the way people think about Richmond can be accomplished by promoting and supporting our previously undervalued assets. The Bay Trail, Rosie the Riveter WW II / Home Front National Historical Park and preservation of our historic districts and historic buildings (and ship) all bring positive attention to our city in a way few considered even a decade ago. City Council support for these has been in fits and starts and sometimes grudgingly but never overwhelming.
Planning and Development: Land use issues are perennial hot buttons in Richmond, but we continue to struggle for a public consensus. Many City Council members look at development as only one thing a source if tax revenue. The Planning Commission and Design Review Board are under attack as impediments to development (and the economic recovery of Richmond). Richmond's General Plan is more than 10 years old and so out of date that it includes no reference to Richmond's new national park, the Reuse Plan for Point Molate or major proposed development sites, such as Zeneca (Campus Bay) or the Macdonald-80 Center. Neither the Shoreline Plan nor the recently completed Macdonald Avenue Plan has been incorporated into the General Plan. No specific development guidelines have been formulated as anticipated when the City Council adopted the Design Review ordinance years ago. Where are the candidates on these issues?

Neighborhoods: Many City Council members disdain the neighborhood council system, dismissing neighborhood councils as unrepresentative pockets of protest that meddle in the City Councils business. Is this what the people want?

These are just a few of the issues I will consider when I pick out the four other people I will vote for on November 2.

Information about candidates beyond what is in the Voter Pamphlet can be found at http://www.smartvoter.org/2004/11/02/ca/cc/race/2163/. Some candidates have websites that include additional information. Most have listed their email address, making it easy to ask their positions on issues of interest.