Community members, leaders meet, cross lines
on July 26, 2011
Roughly 100 residents of Richmond and unincorporated North Richmond gathered at the Civic Center Monday to hear an assortment of city, county and industry leaders weight in on how to ease the unemployment and crime that plagues their communities.
The gathering was hastily assembled by Councilman Corky Booze, who proposed the meeting late last week in response to a restive public troubled by escalating violent crime between central and North Richmond.
This year has already been as deadly as 2010, with 21 homicides since Jan. 1. The latest was July 23, when Alejandro Cardenas, 19, was shot and killed at the corner of 24th and Exchange Streets.
The meeting featured a half-dozen featured speakers, including Contra Costa County Supervisor John Gioia, Mayor Gayle McLaughlin, Richmond Police Captain Mark Gagan, public housing officials and local leaders from trades and community colleges.
Booze stressed the importance of drawing residents from outside the city — specifically unincorporated North Richmond — into the civic discussions. At least 20 of those present Monday traveled in from North Richmond.
“They are not just out there in North Richmond, out in the boondocks or something where we don’t care about them,” Booze said. “No!”
The meeting, which followed a panel format where leaders took turns giving short addresses before the public weighed in, was driven mostly by twin concerns over public safety and persistent unemployment. Several speakers cited city figures showing 17.6 percent unemployment in Richmond, about 50 percent higher than the state average. Although no similar figures exist for North Richmond, local leaders say more than half of the working age residents in that enclave of 3,000 are without jobs.
Many young men who sat in on the meeting said they lived in North Richmond or Richmond and had been chronically unemployed, due in part to checkered criminal histories that tarnish their resumes.
Mike Mahoney, who works as a trainer for plumbing apprentices, invited those in attendance to apply for his program, as did a representative for Chevron Corp., which is looking to fill skilled equipment operator positions. But both cautioned that the training process would be tough, and jobs were no guarantee.
Chevron Corp. employs more than 1,000 people in Richmond, but how many are Richmond residents is unknown. Booze sought to assure residents in attendance that the energy giant might be a viable employment option. “Chevron’s trying to make some changes and get you guys some jobs out there,” Booze said.
Tim Jones, executive director of the city’s Housing Authority, said violence and unemployment were part of the same toxic brew, and that government and private service providers had to better coordinate public safety, housing, mental health, job training and other resources available to Richmond residents. Jones referenced a brazen shootout and triple murder that occurred in one of the city’s public housing projects earlier this month. “Any time I have a triple homicide in one of my housing units I know there are deeper problems than just needing housing,” Jones said.
On the public safety front, Gagan was frank about the city’s crime spike. “We are seeing an increase in violence, outrageous violence,” Gagan said, adding that a shootout in the Iron Triangle Monday morning left an innocent motorist with a severe gunshot wound.
Solutions, Gagan cautioned, must go beyond the work of law enforcement. “About 90 percent of it is the ability of the police and the community to work together,” Gagan said. “It is us as a team that will stop this violence.”
The audience was generally quiet and attuned to the discussion, although a handful trickled outside about midway through the roughly two-hour running time.
But passions were sparked at the end during the public comment portion of the meeting. Local businesswoman and former council candidate Rhonda Harris blasted city and county leaders for not doing more to ensure that public work contracts are used to hire the community’s poorest residents. “Many of the people can’t get with this setting,” Harris said, alluding to panel-format of the event and the portion of the crowd that left near the end. “You tell these contractors to make [hiring local residents] happen”
But the biggest sparks flew during a confrontation between Gioia and two North Richmond activists who have been critical of his leadership in the county area. Rev. Kenneth Davis and Saleem Bey, a former county employee, both demanded that Gioia produce an audit of mitigation funds, about $600,000 collected annually from fees charged to a nearby waste-transfer facility. Bey and Davis believe the funds may have been misallocated, and they have criticized the emphasis on funding the County Sheriff, whose performance they have also criticized.
“The county continues to dominate this money and two county [Sheriffs] jobs are getting all our money,” Bey said, drawing a few yells of approval from the audience.
“When are we going to get the audit we asked for?” Bey added.
Gioia said all the mitigation funds are spent for North Richmond’s benefit, and noted that approval for expenditures are routinely made by unanimous decisions reached by a seven-member committee that includes himself, three North Richmond residents, and members of Richmond’s City Council.
Gioia said an independent audit would be available in “the next month or so,” and he disputed Bey and Davis’ claims that residents are displeased that much of the mitigation funds are used to pay County Sheriff’s deputies’ salaries. “I hear from more residents in North Richmond that the number one priority is extra law enforcement,” Gioia said.
After the meeting, Booze said the gathering was a success. “We were able to address a broad spectrum of concerns of citizens of both the city and county North Richmond, to get information from the people, and connect people with resources that are available now,” Booze said.
Booze dismissed the turmoil near the end. “I have credibility in the community,” Booze said. “People came and were mostly respectful. I was proud of that.”
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