Councilman Butt visits Berkeley, sounds off on issues
on December 14, 2009
Richmond City Councilmember Tom Butt has long fancied himself as a blunt straight shooter.
Butt mostly lived up to his reputation during a recent meeting with student journalists, who barraged him with questions about the city he represents.
The four-term councilman took on a range of key local issues during a 90-minute roundtable interview with Richmond Confidential staff and professors Dec. 9. The interview was held at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.
During the session, Butt took on controversial topics including the development of the Point Molate casino project, the purchase of a bulkhead for a city swimming pool, Richmond’s portrayal in local media and the politics of neighborhood and race.
In addition to 16 Richmond Confidential staff members, a handful of professors and other observers attended the meeting. The interview was set up by the community Web site’s leaders as an opportunity to probe local issues and open dialogue with Butt, 65, the longest-serving member of the City Council.
Butt bemoaned the lack of attention Richmond commands from area media, and the strains on newspapers in general.
“They’re constrained, they don’t have the time and budget to provide any depth,” Butt said of local media. “There’s a lot of people frustrated out there (in Richmond).”
On Point Molate, Butt struggled at times to explain his support to build a casino at the waterfront site, but was firm in his belief that a casino project was the best iteration of the development proposals he’s seen. Butt said the project was probably a “net benefit” to the community.
When pressed to explain how he came to that conclusion, Butt paused for several seconds, then said, “You know, I’ve read a lot of stuff and talked to a lot of people, like everybody else has, and it’s mainly kind of come down to just intuition.”
Butt was, however, clear in detailing his outlook on gambling as a broader issue. He said gambling would occur elsewhere if not in Richmond and compared the practice to playing the lottery, buying tickets to a professional football game, and the housing and stock markets.
“Everything’s a gamble,” Butt said.
When asked by students whether approval for the casino by the City Council was assured, Butt said, “I don’t think that’s true. I think that it’s still a huge question whether it’s going to happen or not.”
On the topic of a controversial $350,000-plus bulkhead at the soon-to-be restored city Plunge, Butt said the expenditure was worthwhile. The bulkhead, a moveable dividing wall for a pool, was met with resistance at recent council meetings.
Butt dismissed the opposition as being part of a small, but vocal, coalition and rejected complaints that the bulkhead was a wasteful expenditure benefitting the city’s more affluent residents, while poorer neighborhoods suffer from deteriorating facilities. The Plunge is located in the city’s Point Richmond neighborhood.
“Probably 90 percent of Plunge use is from minority people in the Iron Triangle,” Butt said, mentioning one of the city’s poorest and most crime-addled corridors.
He also defended the considerable price tag, saying the expenditure was small within the context of the multimillion-dollar Plunge restoration. He did admit, however, that delays and inaction on the project have caused the projected costs of the bulkhead to soar.
Butt later transitioned from discussions about the bulkhead into a broader explanation of his philosophy of economic development. He said he is focused on civic and facility improvement in order to attract private investment, as opposed to an approach focused on luring businesses and jobs in the short-term, which he called “totally wrong.”
“You can’t go out and get people and convince them to come in and do business in the city,” Butt said. “What you have to do is make your city attractive enough so that people will want to come here.”
The veteran councilman’s visit was received with sharp focus and muted enthusiasm by the student reporters, who peppered him with a steady volley of questions.
Some said they found Butt’s answers vague, but virtually all welcomed the opportunity for open dialogue and establishing a contact for future articles about the diverse city.
“A few months ago we were having a hard time getting people to call us back, so it was a big step forward for Richmond Confidential to have a city councilmember come speak to us,” said Phoebe Fronistas, a first-year student at UC Berkeley and Richmond Confidential reporter. “But I’m not sure we gained any extra insights about Richmond issues.”
Alexa Vaughn, who has covered crime and other community news in Richmond during the past three months, hailed Butt’s visit as a success.
“I think it’s great that our staff had a detailed discussion with someone who has a lot of power over how things work in Richmond,” Vaughn said.
Butt repeatedly praised Richmond Confidential, and said he was pleased to see the growth of the Web site. Butt, who maintains his own slickly-produced Web site and writes a popular e-newsletter to thousands of constituents, said both government and media had potential to become more transparent and interactive through use of the Internet.
“There’s several things that I like about it,” Butt said of Richmond Confidential. “I likes that it’s online, I like the videos and photos, I like the Richmond focus.”
Richmond Confidential is funded in part by a Ford Foundation grant, which aims to support “hyperlocal” reporting. The site began publication in October.
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