It was a long meeting of the Richmond City Council Tuesday night, and it lasted into early Wednesday morning, filled with passionate debate regarding where the SS Red Oak Victory Ship should be berthed—and at what cost.
The SS Red Oak is the only remaining ship from the over 1,000 built in Richmond during World War II. It is owned by the Richmond Museum Association and was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in January 2001. Through volunteer efforts, the ship was restored over the last fourteen years, and is now a fully functioning museum—part of the Rosie the Riveter World War II Home Front National Historical Park.
The ship has been berthed in Richmond since 1998, first at Terminal One and then at Terminal Three since 2004. Earlier this month, Councilmember Corky Booze submitted an agenda item for this meeting to have the staff provide a report on the legality of charging the Richmond Museum Association an estimated $1 million in back rent for berthing the ship in Richmond’s port for the last 13 years. Booze cited the $2.8 million budget shortfall for the city of Richmond as the reason to look into charging for the ship’s berthing.
“I have to do the people’s business,” Booze said to the audience in the council chambers. “This boat represents $10,000 dollars a month. For 13 years you never paid a dime.”
At this point an audience member yelled, “You never asked for one!”
During public comment, speakers were sharply divided over whether or not the ship should continue to be allowed rent free at the port. Those in support of the ship focused on its historical significance in Richmond, and its potential for increasing tourism to the city.
Mark Wassberg, a Richmond resident, said, “As far as I’m concerned, that Red Oak can park wherever it wants and it won’t pay anything. Those ships won the war for us.”
“Every time I see that ship it reminds me of how many people lost their lives,” he continued.
Jackie Thompson, a Richmond resident, said that her problem was not with the ship or the museum, but that she was concerned about equality. “We have to pay to use our community center. I don’t understand what the problem is. If residents have to pay to use the center, you have to pay to park your boat,” she said.
Many of the other speakers opposed to allowing the ship free rent likened it to the legality of a person living in a rental without paying for years. “If I were not to pay rent for 90 days, I’d be out on the street,” said Richmond resident Terri James.
Booze questioned many of the speakers who opposed the agenda item, asking them how they would feel if the ship simply moved to a new location. “This is a simple fix. Pay the rent at $10,000 a month or move down to the national parks area and stay there for free, forever,” he said.
Eduardo Martinez, a Richmond resident and City Council candidate, took issue with this suggestion saying, “People have been talking about moving the ship, but when I look at the item, there’s nothing about moving the ship on the item. The focus is on collecting rent, not on moving the ship, or on helping the Red Oak people find a solution.”
“The important thing is the Red Oak Victory Ship doesn’t have the funds, so if we charge them they’re not going to pay. It’s like beating a dead horse,” Martinez continued.
“If there is a better place for this ship to be, I am open to that,” said Vice Mayor Jim Rogers. “I think we need to stop talking about $1 million, because there is no document that says we have the right to ask,” he continued, referring to the back rent Booze proposed collecting from the Richmond Museum Association.
Booze and Butt called Lois Boyle, president of the Richmond Museum Association, to the podium repeatedly throughout the night to answer questions about the relationship between the Richmond Museum Association and the city. Boyle said that as a non-profit the Richmond Museum Association could not afford to pay the city rent for berthing at the port but, she said, “I’m looking forward to the opportunity to working with city and creating an agreement that is beneficial to all.”
Debate amongst the councilmembers and between the members and the audience was at times heated, causing Mayor Gayle McLaughlin to twice order an abrupt recess and walk out of the room. After hours of public comment, during which nearly a dozen people spoke, the item was put to a vote. By a 5-2 decision Booze’s directive was defeated, with Booze and Councilmember Nate Bates dissenting, meaning that city staff will not investigate, or pursue collecting money from the Richmond Museum Association.
Councilmember Tom Butt’s agenda item followed the vote. Its purpose was to put in place a formal agreement between the City of Richmond and the Richmond Museum of History on long-term free berthing to the ship at Terminal Three. It passed unanimously, with support from Booze and Bates. The city will now begin the process of legalizing free berthing of the ship in exchange for the Richmond Museum Association’s continued maintenance and public access of the ship. The only amendment made to the item was that the museum would have to provide an annual financial statement to the city council.
In explaining his vote, Booze said, “I voted for Tom’s because they instructed the City Manager to work with the museum to find a solution.”
In the last hour of the meeting, the council, with Booze absent and Bates abstaining, approved an ordinance that changed the status of people with pets in the city from being the pets’ “owner” to their “guardian.” This municipal code amendment provided some comedy to an otherwise tension-filled night, including a moment when Richmond resident Naomi Williams imitation of her dog’s reaction— a confused turn of the head—to her telling him that she may no longer be his owner. The comment drew chuckles from those on the dais and in the audience on both sides of the issue.
McLaughlin’s suggested appointments to the Planning Commission and Veolia Mitigation Fund Committee were also approved by a 5-1 vote with Booze dissenting. Andrew Butt, a Richmond architect was appointed to the Planning Commission. The Veolia Mitigation Fund’s new appointments included Mike Temple of Berkeley, Richmond resident Ronald Paige, Richmond resident and head of the West County Toxics Coalition Dr. Henry Clark, and Richmond resident Johnny O. White.
The last vote of the night approved an ordinance to limit the amount of contributions a Richmond city council candidate may accept, and still receive public matching funds, to $40,000. It passed narrowly by 4-3 with Rogers, Bates and Booze dissenting.