Candidates for the Richmond City Council sparred over development, rent control and charter schools on Monday night at a forum held in the Nevin Community Center auditorium.
The Iron Triangle Neighborhood Council organized the event, which all candidates except for Cesar Zepeda attended. Radio Free Richmond editor and West Contra Costa Unified School District (WCCUSD) school board candidate Don Gosney moderated the forum, which included questions for the candidates and time for rebuttals.
Candidates’ strategies for development across Richmond—and especially downtown—varied greatly.
“I would start at the end and bulldoze down and come back with brand-new units,” said former Vice Mayor Courtland “Corky” Boozé, who added that he would preserve the East Bay Center for Performing Arts and the Wells Fargo building for their historical value.
Incumbent Vinay Pimplé called for high-density and higher-rent development downtown. He also said cleanup of the chemically contaminated Zeneca site, the former site of a pesticide and pharmaceutical plant, is “absolutely crucial” to getting such neighborhood projects started.
Former Planning Commission member Ben Choi also called for high-density as well as mixed-use development downtown. Former councilmember Jim Rogers said that it was not enough to bring businesses to Richmond. “We need to make sure that we have city contracts with businesses that hire Richmond residents,” Rogers said.
Choi and Melvin Willis, both Richmond Progressive Alliance (RPA) members, said it was important to attract nonprofits as well as businesses to the city. Boozé—and incumbent Nat Bates—in turn accused the RPA candidates of “killing” the Global Campus.
Choi, in a rebuttal, said that the Global Campus plans collapsed because of Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks, who announced his resignation in August following criticism of his handling of the university’s budget and several sexual harassment cases. Willis said that the push by RPA and other organizations for community input on the Global Campus ensured that there would be benefits for Richmond.
Gosney asked candidates their opinions on Measure L, the rent control initiative. Uche Uwahemu, Pimplé and Boozé, all opposed to the measure, directed their criticism at rent-control supporters Choi and Willis.
The measure would protect tenants against high rent increases and unfair evictions and set up a rent board, paid for by a tax on landlords and the general fund when necessary, to carry out the ordinance. In the wake of recent evictions, there have been disputes over claims that landlords are raising rents and evicting tenants in anticipation of the measure passing.
Boozé, Pimplé and Uwahemu blamed the RPA for these trends and threatened they would worsen if Measure L passed.
“Saying rent control causes higher rents is like saying plaster casts cause broken limbs,” Choi said in response.
Willis said that rents were rising well before the debate on rent control started and prove the measure is necessary. Surveys by Rainmaker Insights, a Pennsylvania-based data analysis firm that specializes in the rental market, shows that the average rent for all units in Richmond increased from around $1,100 in September 2012 to $2,100 in September 2016.
Gosney also asked candidates for their opinions on charter schools, which receive public and private funding, cannot require students to enroll in them, and are more lightly regulated than the public schools in their districts.
Speaking in support of the schools, Bates said that charter school Making Waves Academy’s college-ready graduation rate is above 90 percent while Kennedy High School’s is between 10 and 15 percent. California Department of Education data shows that close to 28 percent of Kennedy High’s 2014-2015 graduates completed courses required by the University of California (UC) and California State University (CSU) systems. The Making Waves’ graduation standards meet UC/CSU curriculum requirements for English, history, lab science and other college prep classes, according to their 2014 Western Association of Schools and Colleges self-study report, and the school graduated 95 percent of its 2014-15 class, according to its 2015 annual report.
Other candidates were more skeptical of charter schools. Incumbent Jael Myrick said he doesn’t oppose the schools but was concerned that some families don’t have access to them. Willis said he supports a “parent’s right” to choose their child’s education but that charter schools aren’t “an answer to fix our education crisis.” Choi said he opposed expansion of the charter school system because it would take funds away from public schools.
Pimplé said he was “okay with charters, so long as they comply with the same rules that public schools comply with.”
Candidates now have less than three weeks to campaign before the November 8 general election.