March 14, 2005
Contra Costa Times
Posted on Sat, Mar. 12, 2005
Richmond to probe accusations
At the request of Planning Director Barry Cromartie, Richmond city officials will investigate whether Councilman Tom Butt has created a "hostile work environment" for black city employees.
Butt, who frequently takes city managers to task for alleged incompetence, scoffed at the complaint.
"I'm an equal opportunity critic," he said. "Everybody knows that."
The law obligates the city to investigate complaints of mistreatment of any "protected class," whether gender- or race-based, said City Manager Bill Lindsay.
"This is not about whether the behavior is bad or good, it's about whether it's directed at a particular class," he said.
He said he did not yet know how long the probe would take or what it would involve. The city will hire a consultant to conduct the investigation, he said.
In a March 3 memo to Lindsay, Cromartie discusses "a disturbing yet consistent pattern (of) misrepresenting facts, slandering, and otherwise making statements which are abusive and/or libelous in the record.
"As part of this deliberate pattern, Mr. Butt has consistently negatively labeled, slandered, and characterized some staff and other 'protected' classes or otherwise 'painted' staff in the most negative light possible," the memo says. Butt has subjected previous planning directors to the same treatment, the memo says.
It mentions Butt's "false accusations related to city staff's use of credit cards" as part of a "larger and deliberate pattern of animus, disrespect, slander," it says.
He did not say whether Butt accused any one staffer by name of credit card abuse, but an investigation by interim City Manager Phil Batchelor reported widespread abuse of credit cards.
In February, Batchelor confiscated all 14 private credit cards issued to city executives and some of the more restricted city cards. He also demanded repayment by offenders. He described misuse as rampant.
Butt frequently excoriates Cromartie and other staffers in his weekly "E-Forum," an online newsletter.
He said in a telephone interview that Cromartie's demands are unreasonable. For instance, Cromartie insisted that Butt contact him only by telephone, not e-mail, although e-mail is a more efficient use of time, Butt said.
"Admittedly, I have never been much of a Cromartie fan, as we have been on opposite sides of many public policy debates since he was hired by Isiah Turner to run the Richmond Planning Department," Butt said in an e-mail message to the Times.
"The frustrations of being a Richmond City Council member in the midst of the struggles and travails over budget train wrecks, environmental disasters, crumbling infrastructure, bad development projects, credit card scandals and a few underperforming staff members is almost more than I can bear," he said.
"It is immeasurably difficult to keep one's mouth shut or to sing false praises under such circumstances."
Cromartie fought a city before, filing a grievance against Emeryville when he worked for it. He charged the city with racial discrimination and won his job back after a layoff and was awarded $125,000 in compensatory damages in 1997.
Contra Costa Times
Groups anxious over city planner's vision
When chief planner Barry Cromartie came to Richmond in 2002, he found a planning department without a current map.
The city was not linked to GIS, the geographic imaging software governments and businesses use to analyze environment, business community, accessibility and crime factors. He found an astonishingly inadequate computer capability.
Businesses and residents blamed poor service on staffers, whose morale plummeted correspondingly.
Today, "Someone in Boston or New York who is thinking of investing in Richmond can go onto our Web site at 10 or 11 at night from his bedroom, plug in a parcel number, and find all kinds of planning and zoning information," he said Thursday.
"There is no other city in the Bay Area whose Web site allows you to do that."
Even Cromartie's critics say he's dragged the city -- sometimes kicking and screaming -- into the 21st century.
But tensions have escalated as Cromartie pursues changes he outlined when he took the job.
Critics, including some environmental and resident groups, say the city is now too quick to give carte blanche to business and developers.
A City Council majority has stood behind Cromartie's proposed overhaul of planning although he and Councilman Tom Butt, frequently tangle. Butt uses his online newsletter to excoriate Cromartie for perceived missteps.
"To the extent that I'm a lightning rod, I'm comfortable with that," Cromartie said.
"Having information online, having forms available, being able to explain the process -- all that has made a huge difference," said Eleanor Loynd, president of the Richmond Neighborhood Coordinating Council. "It's been brought up to date. Positive? Very much so."
And because developers must now pay administrative costs up front, the department sustains itself financially. During the bone-deep cutbacks that decimated most city offices last year, the planning department did not lose one position.
"Barry has moved things forward in a faster way, but it doesn't give the residents time to get involved," Loynd said.
Among the changes Cromartie is championing:
• Cutting the city's seven-member design review board. Most cities have three to five members "if they have them at all," he says.
• Cutting Planning Commission seats from nine to seven in 2008.
• A fast-track for selected projects deemed by a committee including the city manager, mayor and himself as small-scale and noncontroversial.
"We're losing a lot of business," he said. "I consider this a high priority."
The city hosted 13 meetings throughout the city on his proposed design review changes. The maximum number to show up at any one of them: 10.
"The game is, don't go, then complain and derail a project," he said.
Cromartie's changes are making resident groups, including the Richmond Neighborhood Coordinating Council, jumpy.
Butt questions the fast-track idea.
"Setting up a committee of a few people who make a decision (about a development) early on, before there's been any public scrutiny, is borderline illegal if not illegal," he said.
"Word goes out to the Planning Commission and the design review board: 'We want this. Don't hold this up.'"
The changes can't come fast enough for developers, including Stan Davis, who is building a 1,000-unit affordable-housing tract.
He'd love to see the design review board disappear.
"A design review board is political," he said. "It's all about who likes who, who does who, who hires whose janitorial firm for his business. It's a waste of time, money and effort."
Not so, Loynd said.
"Sometimes the neighbors know something the developer doesn't," she said.
City Manager Bill Lindsay said it doesn't matter who reviews the design of proposed projects as long as somebody does -- and there is plenty of public involvement.
Davis' last go-round with the city came in 2000, when his San Jose-based Davis & Associates planned a research and development complex on 236 acres near Breuner Marsh. He's pitching the housing complex on the same site.
In 2002, "It seemed like the staff and city couldn't get (an environmental review) done," he complained. "Now it seems like they really have a handle on things."
Critics say Cromartie is too willing to let development projects skate through review without the appropriately rigorous environmental review.
But he says the way it is now, too many groups do not discriminate between developments on complex, polluted or environmentally sensitive sites and viable projects that could revive blighted areas.
The city nearly lost Target, its anchor for the Macdonald 80 complex, because the developer "had to jump through so many hoops," Cromartie said. "There were no spotted owls there. It was ridiculous. The greatest victim would have been the city."
He argued against forcing Cherokee Simeon to formally review the former Stauffer Chemical site, drawing a swift protest from Communities for a Better Environment, a public interest law group.
Because government records show radioactive and toxic materials may remain, the city should have conducted a rigorous study, said CBE lawyer Adrienne Bloch.
Cromartie said because the 18-acre site already was clean -- the water board had ordered then-owner Zeneca Corp. to clean it up -- such study was unnecessary and punitive.