Political differences were—mostly—set aside Tuesday night during the celebratory swearing-in of re-elected city council members Nat Bates and Tom Butt. But beneath the congratulatory speeches for Bates and Butt, and the appreciative acknowledgments of outgoing councilmember Jeff Ritterman, were concerns for councilmember-elect Gary Bell and worries about the council’s potential make-up now that Bell’s seat is formally vacant.
Bell was hospitalized in early November and underwent two neurosurgeries for complications caused by a bacterial sinus infection, his family wrote in a press release last week. According to the press release, Bell is in a medically-induced coma and cannot “serve as many had hoped,” but his family wrote that they are hopeful he will make a full recovery.
City Manager Bill Lindsay and the City Clerk Diane Holmes confirmed that since Bell was not able to attend the swearing-in, his seat is now considered vacant.
Mayor Gayle McLaughlin started off the night by acknowledging Bell’s absence and sending her wishes for a speedy recovery to his family members, none of whom were present.
After a prayer by Pastor T. Marc Gandy for the councilmembers, Ritterman, who was sitting at the dias for the last time, was thanked by all the members for his service. After one term on the council, Ritterman decided not to run for re-election so he could focus on his family and his goal to bring a tax measure—similar to the sugar-sweetened beverage tax that failed in Richmond’s last election—to 14 cities in the 2014 elections. He calls the plan “14 in ’14.”
“Jeff, it’s been an extraordinary privilege to work with you the past four years,” Butt said. “Richmond is better off fiscally and physically because of the hard work you put into the city council.”
Ritterman, a retired cardiologist, was recognized by all the councilmembers as an active city councilmember who lead the city in successful achievements—like convincing the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) to chose Richmond as the location of its new site—and not-so-successful efforts—like the failure of the beverage tax on the ballot last November.
Going into negotiations with LBNL, councilmember Jovanka Beckles said, Richmond was at a disadvantage. “We didn’t have a very good reputation in terms of people seeing us as the murder capital of the United States,” she said. But, she said, Ritterman worked hard to show a different side of Richmond. Through meetings and visits, he explained that Richmond had “moved far from that old reputation to a progressive, attractive community,” she said.
Bates and Councilmember Corky Booze have had a more contentious relationship with Ritterman. They were on opposite sides of the soda tax debate, disagreed over building a Casino at Point Molate in 2011 and Ritterman’s desire to fund construction of more bicycle trails in Richmond.
While their acknowledgements of Ritterman’s work were mostly positive, in their comments there were a few hints at the nature of their working relationship. “I can’t say that it was a great pleasure working with you, because you seemed to be hesitant to vote for some of the projects I was interested in,” Bates said, chuckling.
“Everybody knows that Jeff and I are like Alabama and Notre Dame,” Booze said. “You just don’t know which one of us won.”
“Contrary to what people believe, I respect Jeff,” Booze continued. “He gets fired up and I get fired up.”
Ritterman is a member of the Richmond Progressive Alliance, a group of activists who have historically opposed large corporations—most notably Chevron—and supported green initiatives including bike trails, community gardens and new pest control policies in the city.
Bates, like Bell, ran a campaign that was largely funded by donations from Chevron—a topic he did not skirt Tuesday night. “During this election a great deal of attention was paid to my relationship with Chevron,” Bates said during his speech thanking those who helped with his campaign. “I’d be a fool not to maintain a cordial working relationship with the largest business in this city.”
“In my opinion, Chevron is to Richmond what Yahoo, eBay, Microsoft, Cisco and other companies are to Silicon Valley. Chevron and Richmond need each other,” Bates said. “I do not apologize for working closely with Chevron.”
Butt used his time to briefly thank his family and focus on what’s ahead for the council. “I look forward to continue working with my colleagues on the council,” he said, adding that he hopes to put in action the general plan that was passed last year, which he considers a “roadmap for the future.” Among other things, the general plan will steer development through 2030, supporting preservation of historic buildings like the former Naval depot in Point Molate and designating certain areas of the city as high-density zones for economic and residential growth.
After Bates and Butt spoke, each remaining councilmember was given time to address the re-elected members individually.
Beckles began her speech to Bates by thanking him for his service and saying that despite their disagreements, which in the past flared up over the Point Molate casino plans and the soda tax, she respects him as a representative of the African American community in Richmond. “I do understand and honor what he’s come to represent in his life,” Beckles said, congratulating Bates on becoming the longest-serving elected official in the city’s history.
Turning to Butt, she teased him about his adoration of historic buildings. “I always thought your love for the old buildings was sort of weird,” Beckles said before congratulating him on his success and ability to reach Richmond voters through his popular E-FORUM, a large emailing list Butt began in 2001 through which he frequently sends out information on the city, politics and his opinions.
Booze’s comments to Butt seemed to call for reconciliation—the two often went head-to-head during meetings last year on issues like the berthing of the SS Red Oak Victory Ship, restoration of the Rigger’s loft and the best way to use the money the city received from the Cosco Busan oil spill settlement.
“I have to say this—and I’m sincere about this,” Booze said. “I don’t think that I’ve ever been any closer to any person in my life than I was with Tom Butt in the 30 years we’ve been together.”
Booze went on to say he just wants Butt to “share with the south side of town what he’s done for Pt. Richmond.”
“If I can bring the intelligence and wisdom that Tom Butt has,” Booze told Bates during his remarks to him, “we’ll be unstoppable.”
“Tom, I hope we can work together,” he added.
After the speeches and the oath of office the councilmembers—along with family, guests and Richmond residents—walked across the plaza for a catered reception inside the spacious lobby of the Richmond Memorial Convention Center.
About a hundred people gathered around tables adorned with white tablecloths and simple floral centerpieces to enjoy dinner, celebrate the success of those elected and discuss what’s ahead for Richmond—now that there is one seat left to fill on the council.
This article was amended to correct the location of the reception following the swearing-in ceremony at City Hall.