In a contentious meeting Tuesday night, the city council took on gun control and support for a program that works to curtail violence in Richmond after a deadly week that ended with three dead in the city.
Councilmember Corky Booze set the tone for the meeting early on, when he took issue with Mayor Gayle McLaughlin’s re-ordering of agenda items. “This is just to show how we let our personalities get ahead of what’s supposed to happen in our city,” Booze said after McLaughlin overruled his request to move up the item he’d placed on the agenda to instruct city staff to look into options for city-specific gun control laws. “The mayor does not want to hear about the gun issue before we hear about art,” he continued, referring to an item on the agenda that dealt with approval of a new mural for the Richmond Library.
The audience’s response to Booze’s comments varied from whistles and claps of approval to hissing and boos at his characterization of McLaughlin’s priorities. McLaughlin ignored the comments and called for city clerk Diane Holmes to move on to public session. It was the first showdown in the night between Booze and McLaughlin, but it wouldn’t be the last.
Following the public comments—when members of the public can speak on any topic for two minutes at a time—Booze again called for the agenda item on gun control to be heard before any other items. What followed was a heated, nearly two-hour discussion, partly over protocol for discussing the item.
“Point of order,” Booze said, before asking the city attorney if he could call for a vote on moving up the agenda item. While Booze was asking for procedural clarity, McLaughlin moved to end the debate and proceed with the agenda as planned. Booze countered with a motion to overturn McLaughlin’s motion to end the debate. A large contingent at the back of the room broke into loud applause at Booze’s motion, which passed with three councilmembers opposed: Tom Butt, Jovanka Beckles and McLaughlin. Booze then motioned to move the gun ordinance item to the top of the agenda, and that motioned passed with Butt, Beckles and McLaughlin opposed.
Now moved to the front of the agenda, Booze’s item asked the council to direct city staff to look into initiatives to support gun control policies. No specifics were given on what type of policies staff should investigate.
Typically, gun control laws are made at the state and federal level, the addition of this agenda item is timely given that last week Congress failed to pass several reform efforts to tighten gun control laws nationally.
“If we in the community don’t take control of our issues, we are at fault,” Booze said. “It’s African American children out there dying in the streets.” Motioning to the crowd of people that had gathered to speak on the issue—many who were holding signs with “Fight the violence” and “Strong gun control” scrawled on them—he continued. “These are young people who don’t want to die,” he said.
Booze moved from those comments to saying he was “disgusted” that McLaughlin “doesn’t want to hear about gun violence.”
McLaughlin responded by saying that, like others on the council, she is in support of stricter gun control laws. “Many of us have been activists in support of gun control,” she said. “Many of us are extremely in support of gun control. A vote that wanted to reorder the agenda had nothing to with our position on gun control.”
About a dozen speakers crowded around the podium and took turns speaking into the microphone, including an 8-year-old girl who stood on tip-toe to read a quote from President Barack Obama. “We won’t be able to stop every violent act,” she said, reading slowly from a paper she held. “But, if there is even one thing we can do to prevent even one of these events we have a deep obligation to try.”
“If even one child’s life can be saved then we need to act now, it is time to do the right thing for our children, and our communities and the country we love,” she said as the audience applauded.
After the public speakers, each of the councilmembers responded with sympathetic comments or stories of their own experience with gun violence. “I’ve had a gun put to my head,” Beckles said, “put to my son’s head, to my partner’s heart.”
“You’re screaming out for something to be done,” she told the audience.
Yet very little of the discussion focused on what ordinances the city might pass to reduce gun violence. Councilmember Butt questioned Booze on the purpose of the motion, asking for more information about what the council was being asked to decide, and saying that without specifics, he couldn’t approve the motion. “Richmond has done about as much as we can do,” he said. “Almost everything that’s been mentioned is a violation of a law that’s already on the books in Richmond, or California.”
“It’s pandering by my colleague the vice mayor to make a point,” Butt said of Booze’s item. “It’s a national issue and we need to handle it at the national level.”
“You haven’t lost anyone to gun violence,” someone in the audience yelled.
In response to Butt’s questioning, Booze said that organizing a gun buyback program, or day, was his top priority. Butt responded by saying that Booze doesn’t need an ordinance or law to organize a gun buyback program.
A vote instructing city staff to look into possible gun control policies was approved with Butt as the lone dissenter, and with no further details about what these policies or programs might entail. Butt left the meeting shortly after this vote and did not return.
Men and Women of Purpose
The council next heard a status report on projects and programs offered by the Men and Women of Purpose, a local nonprofit that works to reduce recidivism, homelessness, drug abuse, unemployment and violence among the formerly incarcerated and Richmond residents in general.
After Councilmember Nate Bates introduced the group, a half dozen men dressed in black suits and crisp white button-ups walked up to the row reserved for speakers and faced the council. One after the other they spoke from the podium about aspects of their programming and their effectiveness.
“We’re the only nonprofit organization like ours,” Ivory Mitchell said, explaining that their group is the only one who works with the county Sherriff’s Department to counsel men and women in prison.
“It’s be the grace of God that I’m here today, because I should be in Pelican Bay somewhere,” Bobby Jackson said during his two minutes. He said he credits the group with helping him move away from violence and crime. “Men and Women of Purpose is good soil,” he added.
The council, led mostly by Booze and Bates, discussed the possibility of providing funding for the group, but as that was not the purpose of the presentation, no action was taken on the matter.
United Heckathorn Superfund site
Representatives from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency came up next to provide a status update on the United Heckathorn Superfund site—five acres of land and about 15 acres of marine sediment in the Lauritzen and Parr channels in Richmond Harbor. The area is considered extremely contaminated, with very high levels off dichlorodiphenyl trichloroethane (DDT) and dieldrin that, according to the status update, “pose a risk to human and environmental health.”
This is the third time EPA staffers have come before the council to update them on the site and their development of a long term clean-up plan that they are slated to begin in 2015.
Tuesday’s presentation focused on finding a nonprofit to help collect fish samples from fisherman, though the speakers stressed that no one should eat any fish from that area—the samples will be studied to learn about contamination levels. If all goes as planned, the EPA representatives said they will host a fishing event in June of this year and plan to compensate fisherman for their time.
One of the most contentious issues of the night was the presentation and requested approval of a mural entitled “Richmond Identities: Extraordinary Lives/Ordinary People,” by artist Judy Baca.
Funding for the mural was provided two years ago to the Richmond Art Center, and after going through the approval process with the Public Art Advisory Committee and the Richmond Arts & Culture Commission, the final design was brought before the city council for approval. It was designed to hang on the Richmond Senior Center’s exterior wall, near the Civic Center plaza.
After viewing a rendering of the panels that make up the mural, Booze said he could not approve of at least one of the panels, which features the likeness of environmental activist Doria Robinson who founded the environmental group Urban Tilth. Robinson, who has spoken out against Chevron and its refinery’s effect on the environment, is portrayed at the center of a panel, on the far left a group of protestors hold signs stating “Clean up Chevron.” The Chevron refinery is visible in the top left background of the image.
“How you can put a person on it that’s been here for less than ten years is beyond me,” said Booze.
Beckles responded that Robinson was born and raised in Richmond, but Booze did not acknowledge her comments.
After over half an hour of debate, the motion to approve the mural was passed with Bates and Booze voting no and Butt absent.
San Pablo avenue streets project, Miraflores Housing Development and appointment of former city staffers Robyn Kain and Robert Larson
In the last stretch of the meeting, the council heard presentations from city staff on a project to add pedestrian and bicycle access to connections along San Pablo Avenue between Rivers Street and Hilltop Drive. They also voted to deny a sole-source contract to Gonzales Architects for the Miraflores sustainability community greenbelt project—part of the Miraflores housing development that will turn a 14-acre former flower nursery into a complex with over 300 affordable and market-rate housing units.
Booze made the motion to deny the sole-source contract because, he said, of his concerns that the contractor was not really a Richmond-based business and would not hire enough Richmond residents. The representatives from Gonzalez Architects said they have an office in Richmond as well as San Francisco and have consistenly hired Richmond residents on other projects. His motion passed with McLaughlin voting no and Beckles and Butt absent.
The final item of the night was the temporary employment of two former city employees—Robyn Kain and Robert Larson. The council approved the temporary reappointment of the two for a maximum of $10,000, or roughly 100 hours worth of work. City Manager Bill Lindsay told the council it would help with efficiency if the former employees , a personnel analyst and a risk manager, were around to advise on some of the cases they were working on before they left. Rogers, Booze, Bates and Myrick approved the appointment and McLaughlin voted no. Beckles and Butt remained absent.
This article has been amended to correct the job description for Robyn Kain and Robert Larson, who were incorrectly described as former lawyers employed by the city of Richmond.