A meeting that began with warm sentiments as the city council praised Salute restaurant owner Menbre Akililu for her Thanksgiving Day meal giveaway for the homeless quickly spiraled into arguing, showmanship and—at the very end—confusion.
As the time ticked down for the meeting—which according to city bylaws officially ends at 11 pm, unless a majority of the councilmembers vote to extend the session—Mayor Gayle McLaughlin expressed concern that they might not get to her last agenda item: officially announcing a vacant seat on the council.
The seat in question was left vacant by councilmember-elect Gary Bell last Tuesday when he was unable to attend the swearing in ceremony. According to the city charter, councilmembers must be sworn in on the second Tuesday in January. But Bell fell ill shortly after his election win in November. His family has said he is in a medically-induced coma to help him recover from complications from a serious bacterial sinus infection, which caused swelling in his brain and required Bell to undergo two neurosurgeries.
If the council decides to appoint someone to Bell’s seat, they must move quickly; they have 60 days from the date the seat is vacant to make an appointment, or else the city must hold a special election. McLaughlin added an item on Tuesday’s agenda that she hoped would set a timeline for filling the vacancy: Announce it on January 15, establish January 31 as deadline to accept statements of interest from potential appointees and February 12 as the public meeting to fill the vacancy.
So far three candidates have expressed interest in filling the seat since it became vacant: Eduardo Martinez, Don Gosney and Kathleen Sullivan. Martinez, a member of the Richmond Progressive Alliance (RPA), came fourth in the November election and has been recommended as the appointee by the RPR’s steering committee and councilmember Tom Butt. Fellow RPA members McLaughlin and councilmember Jovanka Beckles have also stated that Martinez should get the seat because of his vote tally in November, when he trailed Bell by just over 500 votes.
Gosney is a community activist and regular city council attendee—he is a former co-chair of the Point Molate Restoration Advisory Board and past president of a local plumbers and steamfitters union. Sullivan, President of the Richmond/Contra Costa Chapter of Black Women Organized for Political Action (BWOPA) and longtime Richmond activist, was recently endorsed by the county’s Black American Political Action Committee (BAPAC). Sullivan also confirmed that she would run in a special election if council failed to nominate a candidate before March 8.
Councilmember Nat Bates, like other special election supporters, argues that the only fair choice is to send the vote back to the voters. Martinez, he says, is too far politically removed from Bell. “Gary was pro-business, and if I am going to support a candidate, it should be a candidate whose philosophy reflects what the voters want. So I wouldn’t support Eduardo,” Bates said after last week’s swearing in ceremony.
Similarly, councilmember Corky Booze supports a special election to fill the seat.
The council showed that division Tuesday night as the votes came down over whether to extend the meeting past 11 pm in order to let the council officially declare the vacancy, putting the appointment process into action. “We still have a lot to do,” McLaughlin said. “We have to declare this seat vacant.”
Booze moved to end the meeting at 11 am, and Bates seconded the motion. The rest of the council voted against it, causing the motion to fail.
Next, McLaughlin moved to finish discussion of the item they were on and set the timeline to fill the vacancy. Her motion failed, too, with just her and councilmember Jovanka Beckles voting in support of it.
McLaughlin tried to amend her original motion so that the council would simply hear the announcement of the vacancy and proposal of the timeline– but not listen to any of the public speakers who were there to comment on the vacancy and how it should be handled. That failed, too. Councilmember Jim Rogers pointed out—and the city attorney verified—that it would be illegal because the public has the right to speak on agenda items.
Finally, Bates pointed out that it was well after 11 pm and declared the meeting had to end because there was not enough support in favor of continuing. McLaughlin acquiesced.
The council’s failure to announce a vacancy and set a date for a public hearing created more uncertainty for residents and candidates vying for the seat, who had anticipated that an announcement on Tuesday would kickstart the nomination process.
“I was looking forward to an announcement, what happened to tonight is proof that an appointment needs to be made as soon as possible,” Martinez said after the meeting. “It leaves us in uncertainty for longer than we need to be, longer than we need to be as a city.”
Gosney, who declared interest in the seat last week, said he would run in a special election if the nomination process failed. Gosney, who identifies himself as pro-business, said it was important to prevent the RPA from controlling city council. “It is my intention at this time to follow through with an election if it comes to this,” Gosney said in an email after the meeting. “I’m still in the process of drumming up my support base and securing the financial support I’ll need. If I don’t feel I can run a successful campaign, then I’m not going to waste anyone’s time or money.”
The council also considered several other agenda items Tuesday evening, including proposed reforms to the city’s blight abatement policies and adoption of the updated housing element of the city’s general plan. The housing element is a state-mandated component of the city’s plan that must be updated every five years to ensure that the city is meeting the housing needs of residents from every income bracket. City Manager Bill Lindsay said the plan has to be approved by January 31 for the city to be eligible for $44 million in funding from the Metropolitan Transportation Commission’s One Bay Area grant program.
City staff recommendations and the appointed planning commission’s recommendations differed on four key issues regarding he housing plan: Instituting a local zoning policy that would include specific percentages for low or moderate income housing that must be included in new residential developments, establishing a community land trust program to provide permanently affordable housing, expanding the city’s just cause for eviction ordinance to apply to all rental properties, and creating a rent control board in the city to stabilize rents.
The planning commission’s recommendations were to create a program/board for each of those four elements. The city staff recommended that they research each proposal further. After over two hours of debate and public comment, the council took each of the above points one by one and approved the staff’s recommendations to further research each element and adopted the housing element into the general plan.
The council unanimously decided to give Chevron and General Chemical two years to comply with Richmond’s amended industrial safety code, with the amendment that a company could appeal to the city manager for an extension.
The next item on the agenda—dealing with an ordinance to require registration of vacant buildings with the city—was never resolved. Prior to the public hearing, Bates motioned to postpone the topic for a week to give staff time to discuss the proposed ordinance with other groups, including the public safety committee. The motion was supported by Bates, Booze and Vice Mayor Jim Rogers but ultimately failed. Because the council ran out of time and did not vote to extend the meeting, this item was left unresolved.
In other council actions, restaurateur Menbre Akililu received a city commendation from McLaughlin and Rogers in recognition of her second annual dinner for the homeless last November. “So far her humble efforts have impacted the lives of over 900 people,” McLaughlin said.
Akililu said she was homeless when she first came to Richmond (“From Africa via Italy,” she said) and has never forgotten her beginnings. After getting an entry-level job at Salute, she worked her way up and purchased the restaurant a few years ago. “I really, really appreciate this from the bottom of my heart,” Akililu said, wiping tears from her eyes as people around the chamber stood to applaud her.
“You allowed me to do this great thing,” Akililu continued. “I am the one lucky to be in this great city, Richmond. It’s the most wonderful place to live.”