Richmond City Council reaches consensus on development, environmental issues
on March 2, 2011
In a long meeting Tuesday night during which Richmond’s City Council noticeably voted in lock step, the council took on a number of issues including the rights of corporations in a democracy, whether or not to allow chain restaurants in Point Richmond, Chevron’s once-rejected Renewal Project and the purchase of new air quality meters to be deployed near the Point Richmond wastewater treatment plant.
After voting last month to approve a moratorium on chain restaurants in Point Richmond, city councilmembers voted 5-0 last night to deny a permit to open a Subway restaurant in Point Richmond, saying that it was not compatible with the quaint and historic nature of the neighborhood, which is protected in the city’s General Plan.
The application was appealed to City Council after the planning commission was split evenly on Manoj Tripathi’s application for a conditional use permit to open a Subway franchise at 217 Tewksbury Avenue.
Tripathi, who owns 36 other Subway restaurants, three of which are in Richmond, argued that the planning commission members abused their position and that one member should not have voted because he was active with the neighborhood council and thus had a conflict of interest. He said that racism and elitism were behind the deadlock.
“I would like to ask City Council to tell the people why I am good enough to open jobs in the Iron Triangle,” Tripathi said of his other approved locations, “but I am not good enough to open up jobs in Point Richmond.”
Councilmember Jeff Ritterman denied that elitism was at the root of the decision. “The reason you are being denied is an issue of compatibility,” he said.
Later in the evening, the council turned its focus from the issues facing one neighborhood to the national stage, and adopted a resolution “to free democracy from corporate control.”
Mayor Gayle McLaughlin, who proposed the resolution, said the bill called for state and federal constitutional amendments to reject corporate personhood—that is, the idea that corporations deserve the same rights and protections afforded individuals in the constitution—and corporations’ ability to spend freely in elections. McLaughlin said that the resolution opposes the Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Elections Committee, which removed corporate campaign spending limits on independent political broadcasts and shielded contributors to those committees from public record.
The resolution is symbolic, and has no legal weight, but calls for letters to be sent urging state and federal representatives to propose legislation to change the Constitution to limit corporate rights. It was modeled on a resolution adopted by Berkeley, and similar resolutions have been adopted or are under debate in city councils around the Bay Area.
During public comments, Don Gosney argued that City Council was overstepping its reach by commenting on federal issues and should use its time and resources to deal with local issues. He alleged that limiting the freedom of corporations would also limit the rights of non-profits like the Sierra Club.
In a short but fierce back and forth, Councilmember Jim Rogers responded that the issue was local because the effects of corporate money were felt in last fall’s election in Richmond, noting that Chevron and companies on both sides of the casino issue spent millions to “drown out the other side with their larger megaphones.”
Gosney was heckled, and half a dozen speakers that followed him, including Councilmembers Rogers and Ritterman, rejected his arguments.
The six present councilmembers adopted the resolution unanimously, with Nat Bates absent from the proceedings. Councilmember Jovanka Beckles, who co-sponsored the resolution, said, “I’m really proud that we here in Richmond are taking a stand against this.”
In a strange juxtaposition, councilmembers followed the vote to limit corporate rights with a unanimous vote to encourage Chevron to submit a new application for the Richmond Renewal Project, which the previous City Council rejected last year. The Renewal Project, which aimed to modernize the refinery, was rejected by the previous City Council last year amid concerns about air quality, and was finally halted by a court case brought by private citizens concerned about the project’s environmental impact.
Councilmember Tom Butt, who drafted the resolution, took the transition with humor. “Plenty of people get married thinking they can change each other,” he joked.
Mayor McLaughlin, who voted against the application last year, said that the improvement project would improve public health and create jobs in Richmond, but that it needed to have clear air and water quality protections.
Greg Karras of Communities for a Better Environment, an advocacy group that opposed the project before, said he had no opposition to the resolution. Dean O’Hare, a Chevron spokesperson, called the resolution “very encouraging,” and said the company was looking at how to proceed.
The council also voted last night to purchase six hydrogen sulfide meters to be placed around the wastewater treatment plant in Point Richmond, where solid waste processing has been shut down since October when noxious gas was found to be leaking from degraded equipment at the plant.
Councilmember Corky Booze argued that Veolia, the company that operates the facility, should pay for the meters. City Manager Bill Lindsay responded that the meters were needed now, and the purchase should be approved. He said the city should proceed to recoup the costs from Veolia separately.
Maureen Decombe, a Point Richmond resident, welcomed the purchase of the meters, saying that they provided much-needed independent monitoring of air quality around the plant, which is close to Washington Elementary School. “We were not given the facts when this release of hydrogen sulfide and methane went out into the community,” she said. “People were sick, there was denial of the problem, and we had no way of proving our case with no monitoring.”
On other issues, the council voted to make improving historic buildings near the Point Potrero Marine Terminal, starting with the Rigger’s Loft, a public policy item; green-lighted the purchase of 15 new police cars, discussed recurrent graffiti problems and Recreations Department calendar printing, and authorized the placement of liens for unpaid garbage collection service fees on Contra Costa County property tax records.
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