About 20 people protested late Friday in front of the El Cerrito offices of Contra Costa County Supervisor John Gioia, claiming that the County’s funding priorities have retarded the community’s development and contributed to crime among local youths.
“Since you don’t care about the problems of North Richmond, we’re going to bring the problems of North Richmond to you!” Rev. Kenneth Davis, the North Richmond activist who led the protest, yelled into a megaphone. “You’re not going to have your county budget riding on our backs anymore.”
Friday’s protest was the latest episode in a simmering feud between activists and county leaders over how to spend money from the community’s mitigation fund, money that comes from a nearby waste transfer station and is marked for community development in North Richmond.
Davis used his Facebook page to announce the protest and criticize Gioia.
“What happened to our money?” Davis wrote. “We smell the dump, then they take our money to Martinez for distribution.”
The controversy heated up last month, when North Richmond Neighborhood House Director Barbara Becnel recommended – and the committee that oversees the funds approved – returning $175,000 her program was initially granted to develop an “eco-academy.” Becnel alleged that community activist Saleem Bey had pressured her to hire him to oversee the program.
Bey, who was one of the protesters Friday, denied threatening Becnel, and said he is being attacked by Becnel and Gioia because he is vocal about what he calls the exploitation of the people of North Richmond by county leaders and program directors.
Bey, has become a fiery leader in North Richmond in recent years, where he coaches a local youth baseball league and promotes community gardens and other “green” programs.
Friday’s protest began after Gioia’s office closed for the day. Since North Richmond is an unincorporated community of about 3,000 people, Gioia is the de facto elected representative for the area, although he also represents a large swath of Contra Costa County that includes Richmond, San Pablo, and El Cerrito.
Gioia dismissed the protest as not representing the community and motivated by personal gain.
“This is about Saleem Bey intimidating the city and the county to give him money without a proposal showing proper accountability for the dollars, period,” Gioia said.
At stake is the mitigation fund that is enriched by tonnage coming through the West Contra Costa Sanitary Landfill transfer station. The money, about $600,000 annually, is overseen by a committee that includes three Richmond City Council members, three community members, and Gioia.
Gioia led the effort to impose a fee on the transfer station and establish the community enrichment fund and its oversight committee in 2006.
Gioia noted that the vote to take back the $175,000 from Bey’s program was unanimous, with the exception of Richmond Councilmember Jovanka Beckles, who was absent. Mayor Gayle McLaughlin and Councilman Nat Bates are also voting members.
Davis and others allege that the mitigation fund is being used to subsidize the County Sheriff’s Office, which they say has welcomed North Richmond’s money, but done a poor job of policing. The majority of the mitigation fund’s annual budget goes toward paying the salaries of additional sheriff’s deputies for North Richmond.
Crime had been trending steadily downward since the mitigation fund added deputies, according to Sheriff’s Lt. Mark Williams, until last week, when the community was rocked by three shootings in three days.
Two men were killed and two others injured. One of the dead was 21-year-old Ervin Coley III, who worked with Bey in the mitigation-funded community garden program.
Coley’s mother, Mariecelle Lowery, was one of the protesters. She said she didn’t know anything about the mitigation fund or the controversy.
“I just think most kids in our community can’t get jobs, can’t get money in their pockets in a positive way,” Lowery said. “Ervin was one of the lucky ones in that way.”
Davis said the garden program, which employs teenagers and young adults in North Richmond, is in peril with the recent transfer of funds back into the mitigation pot.
Gioia defended the spending on law enforcement, which he added was approved unanimously by the committee.
“The money has been spent to benefit North Richmond only, and the residents want to see that added law enforcement,” Gioia said.
Most of the protesters Friday were well-known activists and local leaders, including Henry Clark, Andres Soto, Charles Smith and Juan Reardon.
Soto, who is typically active in matters involving the city of Richmond and its growing Latino population, said unincorporated North Richmond has become an issue of importance to the city.
“What’s going on out there, with a poor community essentially subsidizing the county’s law enforcement, is morally and economically wrong,” Soto said. “Annexation would be good for the city and good for the residents out there.”