Before Tuesday night’s city council meeting, more than 20 people gathered on the chamber steps holding signs—“Richmond needs accountability,” “Investigate little luxuries in Richmond,” and “Richmond United Against Corruption”—in reference to assistant city manager Leslie Knight, who heads the human resources department. The results of a city-funded investigation released last week showed that she had violated city policy by accepting a monthly car allowance while driving a city vehicle, and by using city equipment, space, and employees’ time for things outside of her city duties.
Stacie Plummer, the city’s finance manager for the library and cultural services department, and the person who filed the complaint that sparked the investigation, held a sign that said, “Hold power accountable,” as she stood in front of the crowd and spoke to gathered television news crews.
Plummer said that Knight, her supervisor, asked her to design logos and postcards for her jewelry and gift business. “I said, ‘No’,” Plummer said. While speaking Tuesday night she alleged that Knight retaliated by moving her repeatedly to different positions across the city. She called Knight’s use of city equipment and time a deserving of large fines and possibly jail time. “It’s a felony,” she said, to applause from the crowd.
In a city response to the investigation released last week, City Manager Bill Lindsay stated that it would be appropriate for the city to “take administrative action to correct the situation” but that “the problems did not merit termination of any employee.”
Once the council meeting began, many of the people who had held signs signed up to speak during the public comment period. More than 30 people spoke for a minute each, most of them berating Lindsay for not placing Knight on paid administrative leave, which they said is standard city procedure. “If any one of my members had done any of these things it would have been immediate termination,” said Raymond Dreyer, vice president of Service Employees International Union Local 1021. “It’s a double standard.”
Several people called not just for Knight’s removal, but for Lindsay’s. “Bill Lindsay didn’t grow up here, didn’t go to school here, didn’t go to church here,” Plummer said. “It doesn’t matter to him if his assistant city manager steals.”
Lindsay sat silently at his seat in front of the council and listened to the invectives directed at him.
Saffron Strand Funding
The council moved on to deciding whether or not to sponsor a conference on homelessness put on by Saffron Strand, a local nonprofit. Councilmember Jovanka Beckles said that the conference is nationally recognized, and is worth supporting. Councilmember Jael Myrick, who used to be a board member for the organization, said that the conference would bring in national experts on homelessness and would bring needed attention to Richmond.
Phillip Woods, a formerly homeless man, who works with Saffron Strand, also spoke in favor of the conference. “I had many issues that I no longer have because Saffron Strand has been there every step of the way,” he said. He’s been at his job for four months now, he said, and he has a place to stay.
But most of the conversation focused around a back-and-forth between Beckles and Vice-Mayor Corky Booze, who argued that the city both doesn’t have the money for the conference and that the city shouldn’t support nonprofit groups.
Booze pointed out that Beckles had previously cautioned the council against funding the Half-Steppers youth track team because she was concerned it would encourage other similar requests. Booze said that giving one nonprofit money while passing over another would be unfair.
“You, Jovanka Beckles, stood here and told those children, ‘Don’t come back,’” he said. “I believe in helping the homeless, but I believe also that nonprofits have to take care of their own.”
Booze pressed Beckles on whether or not she’d told the team not to ask the council for additional funds.
She did tell them not to come back, Beckles began, but—
“Uh—“ Booze started to interrupt.
“—No, don’t cut me off!” Beckles said. The circumstances were different, she said—that team had been coming back year after year to ask the city for additional funds, and never knew how they were going to raise the funds to travel.
She started to invoke a well-known metaphor: “If you teach a man to fish, you feed him for a day,” she said. “But if you give a man a fish…”
The audience started laughing and calling out.
“Whatever,” Beckles said, “Everybody knows how it goes. The audience is being immature.”
“I take offense when you tell the audience they’re ignorant,” Booze said.
“I’m asking you please not to call out from the audience,” Mayor Gayle McLaughlin said to the crowd.
“I want to apologize to the audience for the rudeness of my colleague,” Councilmember Nat Bates said, referring to Beckles. “As elected representatives, it’s our responsibility to set the tone.”
Despite the long, testy discussion, the council unanimously voted to sponsor Saffron Strand’s conference, not by donating outright, but by waiving the $5,000 fee to use the city’s conference hall.
Health Exchange Call Center, Chevron’s Richmond Public Relations Campaign
As the meeting continued, the council voted unanimously for the city manager to prepare a letter to the state saying that Richmond still hopes to be considered as the site for a Health Exchange Call Center if the current plans to put it in Concord fall through.
Last week, the Contra Costa Board of Supervisors voted to award the center and its 220 jobs to the city of Concord, even though Richmond’s bid was more than $100,000 lower. It was politics, said District 1 Supervisor John Gioia, speaking at the council meeting. “The Richmond site was the less expensive and better for employees,” he said. Still, he said, he’s working to make sure Richmond residents get a sizable share of the jobs.
The council also unanimously voted to let the city begin planning a study that would lead to a marketing campaign for Richmond. Chevron offered to pay for the study, which will look at how best to improve Richmond’s reputation with both residents and others.
“I believe we should take Chevron up on this offer. We have a lot of potential benefits from this, and actually no downsides,” said Councilmember Tom Butt.
Councilmember Jim Rogers said, “I think it’s a good plan, I think it’s helpful, and it won’t cost us a penny.”
Myrick compared the Chevron–Richmond relationship to a dysfunctional marriage. “This is when one person in the marriage offers to take the other person out for dinner. So we should go out and get steak and lobster on Chevron’s dime,” he said. “We’re going to have some difficult decisions with Chevron further down the line, but this is an easy opportunity to work together on something.”
Booze gleefully pointed out that progressives Butt and McLaughlin were in support of something funded by Chevron. “I can see the headlines now: Mayor Votes For Chevron,” he said, to joking replies from the rest of the council.
Climate Change Action Plan, Bikes and Personnel
With Booze and Bates voting against, the council also authorized the city manager to work on a Climate Action Plan for Richmond, which would address the city’s preparation for climate change, bring the city into compliance with national standards, and serve as a starting point to apply for federal cap-and-trade grants.
Booze called the plan a waste of time, and said that potholes and dark streets in the city are higher priorities.
“Potholes are about today and tomorrow,” Butt disagreed. “This is about our kids and our grandkids. Sure, we’re going to spend a lot more money on potholes than we’re going to spend on this, but that doesn’t mean we just lay this aside and say it’s not a priority to us.”
The debate continued for more than 45 minute; at one point, Butt and Booze shouted their business credentials at each other across the dias. Myrick told the council he was disappointed that the conversation was so controversial. “It doesn’t need to be,” he said. “A climate action plan doesn’t ignore the community, it is for the community.”
The council also debated whether call for new bids on the Barrett Avenue bike lane project, and whether to adopt two second readings of city personnel matters, one a wage increase for city personnel, and the other the creation of a new city position. The bike resolution passed over Bates’ protests (“We’re not in Italy and Germany, where bicycles are a way of travel,” he said), the wage increase was approved, and a decision on the new position was put was put off for a future meeting.