Mayor highlights business, environment and council meeting improvements in his first 100 days

on May 12, 2015

On April 23, new Richmond Mayor Tom Butt concluded his first 100 days in office. Butt, a longtime councilmember and Point Richmond architect, won the November election to replace termed-out former mayor Gayle McLaughlin, and took office in January.

In politics, the first 100 days is considered an important period in which a new legislator shows their priorities and begins to make good on campaign promises. It’s also a time for voters and colleagues to evaluate the elected official’s performance.

In an email newsletter about what he’s achieved in his first 100 days, Butt listed three categories: business, environment and quality of life. Butt put business at the top of the list. “I think the business sector is something that needs to be nurtured and encouraged in Richmond,” Butt said in an interview with Richmond Confidential, “and that’s something that’s really important to me.” In the newsletter, Butt wrote that he initiated business roundtables, secured final agreements and funding for the ferry service and raised funds to launch a city rebranding and marketing study.

“I have these business roundtables to find out what businesses came to Richmond and why they like doing businesses here, and to look for public policy areas we can learn from,” Butt said. Butt invited three companies to present at the first business roundtable in March. He learned that low-cost rental space in Richmond has attracted businesses, and the companies told him that public transportation needs to be improved. Butt said that he will hold roundtables every other month.

The new mayor is also launching a campaign to raise $100,000 for a Richmond branding and marketing plan. The plan aims to identify the Richmond’s current image, figure out how the community wants to shift its image and design a plan to establish a brand for Richmond and to market Richmond, according to Butt’s e-forum.

“Folks have overlooked Richmond as not an attractive place to do business because of our image and perceptions,” said Amanda Elliott, executive director of the Richmond Main Street Initiative. She said that it has been a challenge to attract developers and investors to open businesses in downtown Richmond. Elliott said that Richmond Main Street Initiative will be the fiscal agent for the mayor’s branding study, and will help engage the community and do outreach for the branding campaign.

Fewer people visit the Hilltop Mall. (Photo by Fan Fei)

Fewer people visit the Hilltop Mall. (Photo by Fan Fei)

Reviving businesses in the Hilltop area is also on the mayor’s priority list. “I’ve been in contact with the people who mange [Hilltop Mall] now. They think that something may start happening in terms of putting it out for sale, maybe within the next month or so,” Butt said. “I’m just kind of waiting to see if anything that develops.”

Cesar Zepeda, the president of Hilltop District Neighborhood Council, said it’s important to have the mayor involved in the project. “Hilltop has always been a stepchild, and we didn’t really get a lot of assistance or recognition up here. We are always by ourselves—at least that’s how we felt,” Zepeda said. “Now the mayor is making it a priority of his. We believe that’s great progress, because now we know that we can count on the city, we can count on the mayor to get assistance with the selling of the mall, with anything else that we may have up here.”

But when it comes to rent control, an increasingly important economic issue in the city, the new mayor disagrees with other city councilmembers and community groups. Butt said that he’s no believer in rent control and that a better solution would be to expand both affordable and market-rate housing stock in Richmond. “I’m a person who believes in expanding economic activity, expanding jobs, expanding opportunity and bailing out Richmond. That’s where our future is,” Butt said. “I think people who are into rent control and these other things, they don’t want to go anywhere. They just want to stop time right here.”

Councilmember Jael Myrick said that Butt’s solution doesn’t solve the whole problem. “Better supply is going to reduce prices, which is true,” Myrick said, but it “takes a while to put into effect. And in that time period where we will get that into effect, how many people could be displaced?” He said a comprehensive policy—that would include not just rent control, and not just expanding housing stock—is needed to solve the problem.

Long time Richmond Progressive Alliance (RPA) member Mike Parker said he agrees with Butt that building more affordable housing is the ultimate solution. But, he said, “we need to have some form of rent stabilization, some form of keeping rents affordable in the housing that people already live in while we are building [affordable housing].”

Tenants protest in front of the apartment buildings on Wedensday evening. (Photo by Larry Zhou)

Tenants protest in front of an apartment building in April. (Photo by Larry Zhou)

In his newsletter, Butt also highlighted his environment and sustainability achievements within his first 100 days. Butt wrote that he sponsored the bill that banned the use of pesticides in municipal operations, helped draft an urban agriculture ordinance and restarted the Urban Forestry Advisory Committee to encourage tree planting in the city.

“His environmental record is really one of his strong suits,” said former councilman Jeff Ritterman. Ritterman said the mayor has a personal appreciation for the environment because he grows a lot of his own produce and raises his own goats. “He was really the driving force in Richmond becoming part of the Marin Energy Authority which was a very smart move for the city environmentally,” Ritterman said. After the city joined the authority, Marin Clean Energy—a renewable energy provider—became the main electricity provider in Richmond.

Butt said urban forestry is important because it helps sequester carbon dioxide and relieve global warming. He also said that neighborhoods with trees have lower crime rates and higher home values. “Streets that have street trees on them, the homes on the streets are worth anywhere from 15 percent to 20 percent more than the same homes on the streets without trees,” Butt said. He added that he’s against pesticide because enough evidence shows that pesticide is unhealthy, and he hopes to create a healthier environment for Richmond residents.

Linda Schneider, executive director of the Richmond-based environmental non-profit Self-Sustaining Communities, said the city’s ban on pesticide might be copied by other communities and cities. “If you have any kind of leadership role, and you set an example, a positive example for the benefit of many, it’s a very powerful message to send,” she said.

Andres Soto, Communities for a Better Environment (CBE) Richmond community organizer said the group expects that the new mayor will support them on some issues, but not others. “We know that he’s going to be good on some things, and there’s going to be something that we disagree upon,” he said. “We think on some of these no-brainer issues like petcoke and coal, he’s going to be with us.” CBE is one of the groups that have been fighting against the transportation of crude oil and petroleum coke (“petcoke”) in Richmond.

Soto also said that urban agriculture and urban forestry are good, but it remains to be seen how the new mayor will interact with Chevron. “The biggest thing coming up is the lawsuit against Chevron, that was filed in 2013,” Soto said. The city filed a lawsuit against Chevron seeking unspecified damages after the Chevron refinery fire. “We are hoping that he will stand with the community and demand the highest possible amount for a settlement against Chevron,” Soto said.

Reader Toni Hanna took this on Marine St. in Pt. Richmond just west of 580 on August 6th, just after the Chevron refinery fire.. "It seemed to take forever for the sirens to sound and for fire trucks to get there," she writes.

Reader Toni Hanna took this on Marine St. in Pt. Richmond just west of 580 on August 6th, just after the 2012 Chevron refinery fire.. “It seemed to take forever for the sirens to sound and for fire trucks to get there,” she wrote.

In his newsletter, Butt took credit for changing the demeanor of city council meetings. The previous council used to have numerous fights during meetings that stretched long into the night. But with the new council, “not a single meeting has extended past 11:30 pm, and most have ended substantially earlier,” Butt wrote.

Don Gosney, a longtime Richmond resident who attends nearly every city council meeting, said that Butt has done a good job conducting the meetings. “He’s expediting the agenda items,” Gosney said. “He’s trying to stop conflicts before they become major issues.”

Myrick agreed, with a caveat. He said Butt has an easier job than the last mayor, because the make-up of the council has changed. “The council right now is more collaborative than it was last year,” Myrick said.

Ritterman said the new council should not only be respectful of each other, but also work hard to solve problems and advance a progressive agenda. “That was a really low bar,” Ritterman said about the past council. “We want a really high bar.”

Councilmember Jovanka Beckles said she appreciates having shorter meetings but there is now a “sense of anxiety” because the mayor sometimes cuts other councilmembers off. “He might shut me down for asking questions,” Beckles said. “That seems disrespectful.”

Being the mayor for the first 100 days has been a learning experience for Butt, he said in an interview. He never had a staff before, and now he has three people on his staff. “I have had to learn how to use that staff efficiently, and two of the three people on my staff have never done that either, so we are all kind of learning together,” Butt said.

Another challenge is time management. Butt said right after he took office, everybody wanted to meet with him, but he learned he doesn’t have enough time to sit down and talk to everyone. He has to pick and choose whom he meets with, and how long he meets with them.

When asked what’s the long-term challenges will be during his four years as the mayor, Butt cited the city’s economy. “Our revenue sources are limited, the needs are unlimited, so trying to match up limited resources with unlimited needs is a huge challenge,” he said.

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