During Richmond City Council’s special meeting on Thursday, Mayor Gayle McLaughlin formally announced councilmember-elect Gary Bell’s seat as vacant—despite the opposition of absent Councilmembers Corky Booze and Nat Bates—and the council set a quick timetable for filling it, either by appointment in early February or by a special election in June.
The meeting was in many ways both a return to November’s contentious election and a preview of the fight to come. Even the timing of the meeting was controversial. McLaughlin called the special meeting after she was unable to announce the vacancy at last week’s regular meeting, when the council could not agree to extend the meeting past its official 11 p.m. ending to deal with last item on the agenda—announcing the vacancy and setting a timetable for filling it.
After McLaughlin chose Thursday for a special meeting, Booze and Bates announced they both had prior engagements and sent written statements criticizing the timing. “I consider it a personal insult,” Bates wrote in his statement, read aloud by City Clerk Diane Holmes at the start of Thursday’s meeting. “I do not see the urgency at this time.” Instead, he suggested giving Bell, who has been ill for the past several months, more time to recover. “God is still a miracle worker, and who’s to say Gary will not recover and be able to assume his position?” he wrote.
According to a press release sent by his family, Bell was hospitalized in November shortly after the election due to complications from a bacterial sinus infection. He endured two brain surgeries before doctors put him in a coma to help his recovery. He remains in the coma.
McLaughlin said that it’s important that the city council move quickly to either appoint a replacement or announce a special election. State law dictates that a special election must be announced 114 days prior to the election date, and to save money, McLaughlin said the city could split the cost with the West Contra Costa Unified School District, which is holding an election for a parcel tax on June 4.
McLaughlin indicated that city staff estimated it would cost $100,000 to hold a special election on June 4 with the school district, and $200,000 if the city held it separately on another date.
She proposed January 31 as the deadline for candidates to apply and suggested holding a special meeting on February 4 to vet candidates, with the regular February 5 meeting as the date to make an appointment. A candidate must receive at least four votes from the remaining councilmembers to be appointed. However, it’s not clear if any candidate can garner the necessary votes to avoid a special election.
Councilmember Tom Butt agreed with McLaughlin’s proposed timeline, but he asked that audience members refrain from making political appeals for and against specific candidates during the public comment period. “Let’s all go home early tonight,” he said.
Most of the fourteen speakers ignored his plea; one at a time they came up to the stand to either call for the appointment of Eduardo Martinez—the candidate who received the next highest number votes in November, behind Bell—or ask the council to go straight to a special election.
Mike Ali “Raccoon Eyes” Kinney, a former council candidate, opened the comments section. “Let me tell you what the community of Richmond really wants,” he said. “What this community really wants—regardless of the cost—is a fair, reasonable and clean election.”
A few “Um hmms!” echoed around the chamber in response.
Richmond resident Garland Ellis said he wished that the seat could be held to give Gary Bell more time to recover, but that the money for a special election would be well-spent. “I’ve seen the city waste money on things a lot lesser than on an election,” he said.
Bea Roberson, who also ran for city council in the last election, asked just one question: “What’s the rush?” Looking at the four councilmembers present, she added, “Except to get another RPA person up there.”
Martinez, along with McLaughlin and Councilmember Jovanka Beckles is a member of the Richmond Progressive Alliance, a left-wing political group in Richmond that has opposed big businesses like Chevron and large developments, such as the casino once planned for Point Molate. McLaughlin, Beckles and Butt have all stated publicly that the only person they will vote for is Martinez, who ran on the RPA platform.
Bell—like Bates—ran a campaign heavily financed by Chevron, and some residents expressed concern that Martinez is politically too far removed from Bell to accurately represent voters’ views, a point previously raised by Bates and Booze.
“Gary Bell won the seat. Unfortunately he can’t take the seat,” said Richmond resident Rosa Lara. “Let’s let the voters vote. We can’t appoint someone that doesn’t fit the seat,” she continued, alluding to Martinez.
Those who support appointing Martinez argued that a special election would be too costly—and unnecessary when there is another candidate readily available and already approved by a portion of the electorate. “I do not think it is worth spending $200,000 or $100,000 to fill that seat,” said Melvin Willis, a Richmond resident.
“In my opinion, the people already voted,” Willis continued. “You should just go back and look at the charts to see who came next.”
“We saw at the last meeting how difficult it is to get the city’s business done with only six voters on the board,” said Marilyn Langlois—a RPA member and former council candidate—before adding that the she believes the voters already spoke in support of Martinez.
The last public speaker of night was Martinez himself, who agreed with McLaughlin’s timeline—and with his supporters. “I ask you to please appoint someone,” Martinez said. “Preferably someone who is just, who is balanced, and I would propose that that person is … me,” he said, cracking a wide smile that elicited claps and laughs from many in the chambers.
Councilmember Jim Rogers, who will very likely be the deciding vote should the council appoint a new member, was not as enthusiastic about allowing the councilmembers to choose who would fill the vacancy. Following McLaughlin’s motion to set a timeline to fill the seat, Rogers said that while he supported acting quickly on the item, he did not necessarily support appointment. Spending $100,000 to let voters decide who should be on the council is “a very, very small price to pay” for a “better” council, Rogers said.
“I would suggest that the best way to do this is to have a special election,” he said. “I don’t think we should be bullied out of it because Chevron ran a horrible campaign and lied about Eduardo.” (During last year’s general election, attack-ad mailers largely backed by Chevron through an organization called Moving Forward went out to Richmond residents depicting Martinez, clad in a Halloween costume, as dangerous.)
With Bates and Booze absent, McLaughlin’s proposed timeline for an appointment or announcement of a special election passed unanimously. The council will meet February 4 to vet candidates and make an appointment. If the council cannot agree on an appointment, it will announce a special election.
Instructions for candidates, along with the necessary paperwork will be available on the city’s website Friday morning, McLaughlin said. In addition to Martinez, a handful of other Richmond residents have expressed interest in seeking an appointment, including Don Gosney and Kathleen Sullivan, with Mike Ali Kinney announcing his candidacy after the meeting.