A push to change the way City Council members are elected appears to have resurfaced in Richmond. If successful, the initiative would draw six new districts in the city, each with an elected representative.
The grassroots group Richmond Citizens for District Elections plans to work on the wording of the initiative and present it to the city next month. After that, placing the measure on the 2016 ballot as part of the Presidential election would only happen if supporters get at least 4,300 signatures. The number could increase if more voters register before the initiative is filed with the city.
“Hopefully this strikes up conversations about neighborhoods that don’t get talked about,” said Cesar Zepeda, the group’s spokesperson and president of the Hilltop District Neighborhood Council. “Even if you feel unempowered, this will give you the power to go up to your City Council member and hold him or her accountable.”
The idea of district elections in Richmond is not new. Unlike previous tries, when vague language might have turned off potential supporters, Zepeda hopes to present a much more straightforward initiative that will be seen as a clear benefit for all neighborhoods.
For years, some residents in Richmond have complained about unequal representation on the City Council. A disproportionate number of representatives has come from affluent Point Richmond, while racial diversity of the city has not been represented.
Today the mix, both in terms of residence and ethnicity, is much more diverse. Many argue that a change to district elections would in fact not help underrepresented areas at all.
“The districts would have to cross a lot of neighborhood lines,” Mayor Tom Butt said. “Point Richmond would probably end up in the same district as the Iron Triangle. That means that the Triangle would probably still not have any representation.”
Voter turnout in the Iron Triangle, a neighborhood that is surrounded on three sides by train tracks, has been extremely low in past elections. Fewer than 800 people — out of a population of almost 13,000 — turned out to vote in the 2012 primary election, for instance.
Jael Myrick, vice mayor of Richmond, has shown interest in district elections in the past. In March he presented the idea to the City Council, suggesting that a study be conducted to understand if the model would be good for Richmond. Fellow councilmembers shot down the idea amid complaints that it was was unnecessary and expensive.
City staff estimated earlier this year that it would cost Richmond some $500,000 to make the switch to district elections, a model that is used in other Bay Area cities such as Berkeley, Alameda, San Francisco and Oakland.
“In Berkeley, a city around the same size, you can win an election for $20,000,” Myrick said. “You can’t do that in Richmond.”
The only way that a first-time candidate can get elected in Richmond, he said, is to raise substantial amounts of money and get support from one of the city’s two big political gatekeepers: Chevron Corp. and the Richmond Progressive Alliance. According to Myrick, running at a district level would be cheaper and candidates would not necessarily need outside backing, opening the doors to new candidates.
In the current at-large voting system, the main way that neighborhood voices are heard is through strong neighborhood councils. According to city numbers, there are about 40 councils, but few of them are really active. Zepeda, from Richmond Citizens for District Elections, envisions councils becoming more active and holding politicians accountable if district elections are introduced.
“If the neighborhood councils were strong it would be a different story,” he said. “The City Council members are all focusing on bigger issues. You want to bring it down to the community level, and most council members are not doing that.”
However, many arguments against district elections actually warn against just this. Having the council concentrating on small issues such as potholes and park benches will take away the spotlight from the bigger issues that are affecting the city.
Mayor Butt has said that instead of dealing with really important issues, the city finds itself dealing with things like space weapons and rent control—and now district elections.
“I don’t think we have the time to deal with these distractions,” Butt said in an interview. “We have some real business to deal with. We don’t have the luxury to continue to be distracted. If we don’t a better job at running the city everyone is going to suffer.”