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Council to discuss filling Richmond’s vacant seat

on February 10, 2015

A council seat opened up when former Councilmember Tom Butt was sworn in as mayor earlier this year. By last Tuesday, 18 applicants had submitted statements to fill the vacancy. The council now must appoint one of them, and they may do so as soon as Tuesday night.

Richmond Confidential asked all the councilmembers, including Mayor Butt, to share their thoughts by email on the large number of candidates who applied, what criteria they would use to make the appointment, and if they expect there to be a special election if the council cannot agree on a choice. Councilmembers Jovanka Beckles and Eduardo Martinez, as well as Mayor Butt, replied. The others either declined or didn’t respond by deadline.

Both Butt and Martinez said they were surprised by the large number of candidates. In early 2013, when the council had to appoint a person to fill the vacancy created by Gary Bell’s illness, 12 candidates applied. The number of candidates increased by 150 percent this time.

“I think that the large number of individuals applying for the vacant city council seat is a healthy sign,” Beckles wrote. “All of these people are interested in being part of leading Richmond forward in a positive way.”

The candidates came from a diverse background, including former mayor Rosemary Corbin, former city councilmember Jim Rogers and longtime Richmond Progressive Alliance member Marilyn Langlois.

But many candidates were little known to the community. “I was very surprised by the number of people whom I have not seen working in the community and by some of the people who have stepped out of the past,” Martinez wrote.

While Martinez declined to name the candidate he might support, he described the characteristics he hoped they would have: “I have said in the past that I would prefer a woman of color, but I am not proposing to appoint someone on those attributes solely.  What would have me steer from my primary preferences are personal demeanor, an understanding of Richmond as a city at the community level and at the civic level. I will also consider personal views with a leaning toward progressive values.  I believe the gestalt of an individual will affect the workings of the city council more than any of their individual qualities.”

Butt declined to reveal his choices, but wrote that he is looking for “a moderate progressive.”

Beckles also had her criteria: “I am looking for someone who puts the people of Richmond first,” she wrote. “I am looking for an individual who understands racism and inequality and wants to do something about it. My ideal candidate needs to understand public policy, comes with strong roots in the community and is willing to work with the all aspects of the Richmond community.”

Many of the city councilmembers have started interviewing candidates, according to Butt’s popular E-Forum newsletter. Martinez confirmed that he is trying to “meet with as many of the candidates who have reached out to me as possible.”

It takes at least four votes to appoint anyone to the council. California’s Brown Act limits communication between city councilmembers in private situations, including discussing whom they might select beforehand. Enacted in 1953, the Brown Act requires elected officials to meet in public, and the law defines “meeting” broadly as “… any congregation of a majority of the members of a legislative body at the same time and place to hear, discuss, or deliberate.”

In Richmond’s case, up to three councilmembers could discuss the appointment outside of a public meeting, but would violate the Brown Act if their discussion was conveyed to a fourth councilmember, creating a quorum. By law, Tuesday night will be the first chance the larger council has to discuss candidates and evaluate an appointment.

“The Brown Act limits discussion between councilmembers beforehand,” Beckles wrote in her response. “I am reviewing the statements of all candidates and hope for a full and productive discussion at City Council.”

Martinez added that he has not spoken to any other councilmember about appointments and he will be “working independently” in making his choice.

The council has up to March 13 to make the appointment. If the council cannot decide, a special election will most likely to be held on November 3, 2015, according to City Attorney Bruce Reed Goodmiller. Such election would cost the city an estimated $200,000, according to city finance director James Goins.

Butt, Beckles and Martinez all wrote that they prefer not to have a special election. The city of Richmond hasn’t had a special election to fill a vacant seat at least for the past 25 years, according to City Clerk Dianne Holmes, who has served that long.

But this time might be different. Butt wrote “There is a 50/50 chance there will be one.” Beckles wasn’t sure either. In November last year, she was quoted by The Contra Costa Times saying “Absolutely, this is not going to require a special election.” In her email response this week, she softened that statement, writing: “If a special election is needed to resolve the question I regard that as part of our democratic process.”

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Richmond Confidential is an online news service produced by the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism for, and about, the people of Richmond, California. Our goal is to produce professional and engaging journalism that is useful for the citizens of the city.

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