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Richmond Planning Commission Resigns En Masse

Early today, shocked and dismayed Richmond City Council members received an advance email copy of a letter that will be released to the press and officially delivered to Mayor McLaughlin Tuesday morning signed by all four members of the Richmond Planning Commission in a joint resignation effective midnight tonight.


Apparently driven over the edge by the highly contentious and protracted debate over the Chevron Energy and Hydrogen Renewal Project, the four commissioners concluded that the demands being put on their personal lives were simply more than any of them signed up for.


The March 20 hearing on the Chevron project droned on for more than five hours, extending well past midnight in a scene more reminiscent of the dysfunctional Richmond City Council than a normal Planning Commission meeting. It was then continued to April 10, when it will probably go on again until after midnight. “And that might not even be the end of it,” confided Planning Director Richard Mitchell, who just found out about the mutiny this morning. “It could go on, week after week, for at least a couple of months – or maybe the rest of this year.”


Reportedly, Chair Virginia Finlay, a 13-year veteran of the Commission and, arguably, the most grounded of the four, tried to stop the stampede but eventually gave in when the outcome became inevitable. “I tried to reason with them,” Finlay told several surprised City Council members this morning, “but it just wouldn’t look right if I was the only one to show up for the next meeting. I don’t think they are doing the right thing, but I’m going to show solidarity with my colleagues”


Finlay was seriously concerned about a violation of the Brown Act as all four commissioners bounced the idea around for a couple of days beginning Friday. But finally in exasperation, she concluded that if there is no longer a Planning Commission, how can there be a Brown Act violation?


Finlay had her own frustrations, complaining that the Planning Commission was getting unfairly blamed for hundreds of people who signed up to speak but later left go home in disgust after being relegated to an outside tent with no restroom access. “We had nothing to do with that; no one told us about the logistics of the meeting. We just follow the rules. Nobody assigned us to be hall monitors.”


Jeff Lee, the newest Planning Commission member who has taken an increasingly active role in recent deliberations, described how the intense lobbying for the high-profile project had taken a toll on his personal life. “It used to be that I might get one or two phone calls about an item coming up on the agenda and maybe a couple of emails, but now they are calling all day and all night. I thought Kozy Kove was bad, but this is simply beyond belief. There are those dadgum emails, supposedly from Richmond residents, that are clogging up my computer,” complained Lee. “ “First there were dribs and drabs from Chevron’s email offensive. Then the opponents highjacked the process with all those missives from ‘Stop scamming Richmond’ and ‘cleanair@asthma.com.’ Now, Chevron has reprogrammed www.richmondrefinery.com and foolproofed the automatic email to the point that you don’t even know who it’s coming from. Emails increased to hundreds, eventually blowing out my spam filter and damaging my hard disk.”


Steve Williams, one of the quieter members of the Commission, said it just wasn’t worth it anymore. Williams harked back to his salad days as a staffer in the California legislature: “I know better than anyone that politicians are well paid and get a lot of perks to put up with the kind of harassment we have been getting lately, but planning commissioners don’t get squat. When I worked with Willie Brown in Sacramento, the lobbyists used to wine and dine us high on the hog at Frank Fats, followed by Cuban cigars and rare brandy. But when Dean O’Hair took me out to lobby me on a billion dollar project, where do you think he took me? A Taco Bell in Vallejo! Frankly, I was insulted.”


“Heck,” said Jeff Lee, “I didn’t even get a fee meal out of Chevron. Dean O’Hair and Jim Brumfield wanted to meet me at Starbucks because it’s right under Eric Zell’s office. I waited fifteen minutes and then bought my own frappuccino. He didn’t even offer me a refill.”


Williams said the final straw was when a woman called him at 3:00 a.m., saying that if the Planning Commission could keep her up half the night, she would make sure she kept him up the other half.


Nagaraja Rao, who is Committee Chairman of the Contra Costa Democratic Central Committee, was at the California Democratic Convention in San Jose all weekend, but kept in touch by cell phone and Blackberry. Rao, who has always been tight with the unions, said he feels whiplashed between union locals taking sides on the project.


“It used to be all the unions were on the same page,” lamented Rao, “but now they are all over the place. It was hard enough with that darn Pinole recall thing getting slammed between AFSCME Local 444 and the Contra Costa Central Labor Council. Now, we’ve got SEIU criticizing the project, half the Contra Costa Building and Construction Trades Council supporting it and the other half sold out by their brothers and ordered to stay silent while cursing it in private.”


“I just don’t have time for this local stuff anymore,” said Rao, “when the most important thing we have facing us is getting Bush replaced with a Democratic president. I’m going to hang it up and hit the campaign trail first thing tomorrow morning. I’m off to Pennsylvania. Don’t look for me in Richmond again until after November.”


The intervention of Attorney General Jerry Brown was also a factor in the decision by two of the commissioners. Finlay and Lee, who are both retired and are looking forward to some extended travel, were concerned that they might be dragged into the inevitable lawsuit as the attorney general, CBE and Chevron began posturing for litigation. “It would be just my luck,” said Finlay, “to be sitting on the beach in Tahiti and get a subpoena from Jerry Brown to testify. I’ve paid my dues, and I don’t need that now.”


The mayor, city manager, city attorney, and planning director held an emergency meeting by phone to come up with a stopgap plan. After consulting with and getting the nod from Councilmember Viramontes, they determined the most plausible scenario would be to immediately swear in the Design Review Board as the Planning Commission and let them conduct the next scheduled hearing on April 10. City Attorney Louise Renne was especially concerned that any delay in the proceedings would invite a lawsuit from Chevron that could bankrupt the City. “They are richer than Croesus and have more lawyers than Florida has alligators,” said Renne. “Richmond wouldn’t stand a chance.”


Mayors McLaughlin and Viramontes will hold a joint press conference on the front porch of Salute’s tomorrow morning at 10:00 a.m., April 1, 2008, joined by Eric Zell, Jim Brumfield, Dean O’Hair, Tom Powers and Phil Batchelor, to officially accept the Planning Commission resignations and announce the plan for moving the project forward without missing a beat, after which they will join hands and sing Kumbaya.


Happy April Fool’s Day!