Faced with a still-precarious city budget situation and uncertainty over the direction of city waterfront development, Richmond voters last Tuesday re-elected virtually the same City Council that created the situation, with one notable exception: newcomer Gayle McLaughlin.
McLaughlin said her election demonstrated that “the voters wanted somebody with principles and ethics and they wanted somebody who brought a fresh perspective.”
Out of 15 candidates running for five at-large council seats, Richmond re-elected three incumbents (Tom Butt, Mindell Penn, and Nat Bates), one former city councilmember who voluntarily gave up his Council seat to run for mayor three years ago (John Marquez) and McLaughlin. One councilmember, first-termer Gary Bell, was defeated and another councilmember, Charles Belcher, chose not to run for re-election.
Missing the cut by a little over a thousand votes was Andrés Soto, who was the target of several last-minute hit-piece mailings sent out under the name of the Richmond Firefighters’ Association. Soto and winning newcomer Gayle McLaughlin ran as endorsed candidates of the Richmond Progressive Alliance (RPA). McLaughlin, who was one of the co-founders of RPA along with Soto (whom she called her “colleague”) and several other individuals, said the organization “has brought together many different groups from different backgrounds, including Greens, progressive Democrats, Peace and Freedomers, some Libertarians. It’s a unified progressive group whose purpose is to educate and facilitate progressive discussion, as well as to endorse candidates.”
McLaughlin said she was able to “fly under the radar” of the hit pieces because, “apparently, [the groups putting out the hit pieces] didn’t realize how much support I had among the base. That was their error, I guess, to my gain.”
She said that despite the fact that so many incumbents were returned to City Council, the election demonstrated that Richmond voters wanted a change.
“The majority of voters cast votes for new people, but because there were so many new people, it got diluted over so many of the challengers,” she said. “Those incumbents that did win put a lot of money into their campaigns, and bombarded voters with mailers, circulars. I think, unfortunately, the voters need to be educated further to make sure they know who is the right kind of change to have. But clearly the people in Richmond were so fed up with the incumbents and with the state of the city that they were looking out for new people, and it took the kind of campaign that we ran to engage them.”
Asked what she expects to accomplish when she takes office in January, McLaughlin said that “because I am the only independent progressive voice on the council at this point, I will pretty much be doing resistance. We don’t expect to be able to put forth the full program that we want to until there are more progressives on council.”
She said that the RPA expects to be running another slate of candidates in 2006.
As for what she will be fighting for, McLaughlin said that among other things, “the utility users tax cap should be removed. And I will push for pollution regulation and an environmental justice ordinance. But because most of the council will still be in the hands of corporations and mega-developers, it will be an uphill battle.”
Veteran Councilmember Tom Butt, who garnered the most votes last week in his re-election bid, said “Probably the biggest surprise in the election was that McLaughlin won and that (incumbent) Gary Bell didn’t. I just would not have anticipated those results.”
Butt said he thought it helped McLaughlin that she was not a target of the city’s usual last-minute hit pieces, “but that can’t explain it all. Anyway, I’m glad to see it. I’m looking forward to working with her. She shares a lot of the same political things that I have. Of all the people on the council, I’m probably closest to her political interests than anybody.”
Butt defined those interests as “environmental issues, planning issues, getting away from influences of industry and developers and large business and doing what’s right for the neighborhoods.”
Richmond voters also decided to limit the nine-member City Council to 7 members, effective November 2008.
Meanwhile, the Nov. 3 election did provide some financial relief for Richmond, as city voters easily approved a 0.5 percent sales tax increase for use in the city’s general fund with nearly 60 percent of the vote, and state voters approved Proposition 1A, a measure designed to limit the state’s raiding of city revenue sources.
Richmond’s city finances hit bottom earlier this year with projections of a $21.3 million per year structural deficit and widespread rumors that the city might have to declare bankruptcy. Since then, according to City Finance Director Pat Samsell, the council did “yeoman’s work” in cutting the deficit, including a series of layoffs and position eliminations that cut 40 percent of the city’s general fund budgeted workforce, and dropping the city’s general fund budget from $114 million in fiscal year 2003-04 to $96.8 million in 2004-05. In addition, the city’s labor unions are currently voting on negotiated givebacks that could save the city even more.
But in debates leading up to last week’s elections, council opponents continually pointed out that it was the current council that got the city in its fiscal difficulties in the first place. And Samsell cautioned that while Richmond was currently “over the major fiscal hump,” maintaining that position was dependent on the newly-elected council maintaining fiscal discipline. “They still have to be fiscally conservative,” he said.
According Councilmember Butt, however, Richmond’s budget “is still a disaster” despite substantial progress made by the Council and City Manager Phil Batchelor last year in attacking the city’s fiscal problems.
Butt said that assertions that Richmond has balanced its budget are only true if you leave out revenues still owed from years past.
“[The city’s finance department] has said that we have a balanced budget for this year,” Butt said. “But that’s only because there were some one-time revenues cranked into it. I think we’re getting close to being able to adopt a balanced budget in future years without having to go to one-time revenues to do it, but my understanding is that we still have a cumulative deficit that’s going to keep rolling forward of somewhere between $18 million to $28 million, and that needs to be addressed. And until we deal with that, as far as I can tell, we don’t have a balanced budget.”
A major revenue source the city is looking towards to close the cumulative deficit is the sale of publicly-owned land at Point Molate, on the Richmond waterfront. The city is considering two offers. One, from Berkeley developer James D. Levine and his Upstream Investments, comes with plans to turn it into a casino resort complex. The other, from ChevronTexaco, which wants the land for a security buffer for its refinery. Either offer would bring millions to the city. Councilmember Butt says he expects that issue to be resolved by the lame duck council before the end of the year, but if it doesn’t, the Point Molate decision will almost certainly be one of the first orders of business for the new City Council when it meets in January.
McLaughlin said that the vote on the property should be put off, and not just until the new council is sworn in.
“I hold the position that neither of these proposals should be taken,” she said, “but that we should hold onto Point Molate as public property until the right development comes along. We should keep most of it open space. And that was my position throughout the campaign.”›