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Ladies and Gentlemen, Start Your (Political) Engines

Today is the day that filing papers are available for the City Council race.

Richmond City Council to shrink to seven members in November election

By Katherine Tam
West County Times

Article Launched: 07/12/2008 05:42:52 PM PDT


The race for Richmond City Council, always lively and politically charged, promises to be more so in November as incumbents and challengers vie for fewer seats on a shrinking body.

The council will downsize from nine members to seven at the end of this year. The terms of five members Nat Bates, Tom Butt, John Marquez, Harpreet Sandhu and Tony Thurmond are up Nov. 4, but the smaller council means at least two incumbents will not return.

Thurmond is considering running for the West Contra Costa Unified School District board rather than the council. Father of two young children and the head of a nonprofit organization that helps young people transitioning out of foster care, Thurmond said he wants to improve educational opportunities for youths.

"I love public service on the City Council. So many decisions are focused on land use, public works, and I am considering if I can make a deeper impact on helping kids on the school board," he said.

Thurmond said he has not made a final decision on which race he will enter.

The candidate filing period opens Monday and closes Aug. 8.

But unofficially, the election season has begun as political insiders speculate about who will run and who has a shot at landing a seat.

While several people are considering running, one challenger, Jovanka Beckles, has formally filed a 501 form required to accept contributions or spend money and has begun distributing fliers.

The two-seat City Council reduction stems from the 2003-04 fiscal crisis when officials sought help from state lawmakers. As city operations fell under a microscope, the council's size raised eyebrows among legislators more accustomed to seeing smaller, five-member councils.

State Assemblywoman Loni Hancock, D-Berkeley, wrote a bill to grant Richmond financial aid. In exchange, city officials agreed to look at downsizing. A council majority placed the issue on the November 2004 ballot, and voters approved. The change takes effect this year.

A smaller council will be more efficient, save money and mean less bickering, proponents said. A nine-member council gets unwieldy, they added.

"It was a change that made a lot of sense. We need to be a leaner, more effective operation," said Councilman Jim Rogers, who co-wrote the argument in favor of the measure in 2004.

But Bates worries that a smaller council will be a less diverse council. He points to 2004, when he said the black candidates, including him, would not have been elected if the council reduction already had happened. And he said the hefty issues and workload Richmond faces could be too much for seven people.

This is the first major change in Richmond elections since 1985, when voters began electing the mayor instead of having council members take turns.

No other Contra Costa city council has more than five members. Concord, which has 20,000 more people than Richmond and is the county's most populous city, is governed by a five-member council.

Nearby Berkeley, which has a slightly larger population than Richmond, has a nine-member council. Other larger cities, such as Oakland and Sacramento, have nine members. Los Angeles has 15.

Council members serve four-year terms and are paid $16,830 a year, City Clerk Diane Holmes said. They are elected at large.

In 2004, some residents proposed shifting to district elections instead, but that idea was not included in the ballot measure.

For the first time this year, candidates are eligible for as much as $25,000 in public financing under a law passed in 2004 that goes into effect this year. The law is aimed at helping candidates without much money or many contributions compete, and to reduce candidates' reliance on special interests, said Rogers, who wrote the legislation.

Reach Katherine Tam at 510-262-2787 or ktam@bayareanewsgroup.com.

Richmond Council Race

  Candidate filing period: 8:30 a.m. Monday through 5 p.m. Aug. 8

  If an incumbent does not file for re-election by Aug. 8, the filing period will be extended to 5 p.m. Aug. 13

  Nomination papers must be picked up in person at City Hall, 1401 Marina Way South. The fee is $25.

  Candidates are eligible for as much as $25,0000 in public campaign financing under a new law.