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Richmond’s city commissions trudge onward with limited participation and engagement

on November 1, 2017

Myrtle Braxton-Ellington keeps busy for a 90 year old. As chairperson of Richmond’s Commission on Aging, she coordinates workshops, educational trips and special events for the city’s senior population with the help of six other commissioners.

The commission has organized excursions to the Monterey Aquarium, Old Sacramento and the de Young Museum in San Francisco. The bus is packed every time, she said.

There’s also the annual Senior Night Out and the Senior Winter Ball, which will have live entertainment this year. It’s a lot of work, and a big challenge Braxton-Ellington faces is that six of the commission’s 13 seats are currently empty.

“We’re all seniors,” she said. “It’s very difficult to put on events when you have just a handful of people.”

Her story is representative of a larger challenge when it comes to civic participation in Richmond. Twenty out of Richmond’s 25 city-based commissions and committees currently have empty seats, resulting in an approximately 30 percent vacancy rate.

Many of Richmond’s boards and commissions — such as the Youth Council, Economic Development Commission and the Commission on Aging — act in an advisory capacity for the city. Though the number of seats in each commission varies, the majority of them have a city staff liaison and a councilmember liaison, which gives both residents and members a chance to address specific issues and concerns to elected officials.

Yet these groups are currently operating at anywhere from one-half to two-thirds capacity. For Braxton-Ellington and her fellow commissioners, this means more work and fewer opportunities to engage the public.

*Data on vacancies taken from the City Clerk’s Website

City Manager Bill Lindsay knows the mayor’s office has been trying to get the word out, but he doesn’t understand the cause of the high vacancy rates. He said effectiveness of any given group depends on how well the commissioners work together.

“That, I think, is the problem with vacancies: It’s harder to get the cohesiveness and continuity of participation,” Lindsay said.

Mayor Tom Butt’s office is responsible for recruitment. Since he took office in 2015, he said he has made 231 appointments. At every fourth city council meeting of the month, Butt announces the various vacancies and resignations.

“The biggest problem is getting people to apply,” the mayor said. “With most of the boards and commissions, we appoint everyone who applies.”

But during the last city council meeting, the mayor was criticized by both residents and fellow councilmembers for allowing every seat on the Point Molate Community Advisory Committee to remain vacant since May of this year.

The mayor said this was because the committee had fulfilled one of its main objectives — citizen oversight on the cleanup of the point — and its second — providing advice on future development — is now delayed due to an ongoing lawsuit between the city and a developer, Upstream Point Molate.

“We’ve gone from a time where we were anticipating getting into the development phase quickly, to a time where it could be years away,” he said.

Councilmembers, though unable to make appointments themselves, opened their doors to the public and encouraged any concerned or involved citizens to reach out and discuss the matter. But the Point Molate group is just one of many committees that Richmond residents say needs more attention from the city.

Brianne Alleyne works two jobs, but that doesn’t keep her from serving on Richmond’s Youth Council. As a pre-law major from UC Berkeley, she sees a lot of opportunity and potential for youth engagement on the council. But her 21st birthday is coming up, at which point she will be unable to hold a seat.

“Whatever we talk about during our meeting is often brought to the whole Richmond council,” Alleyne said. “It allows for the young high-school and middle-school ages to really say what they believe is important and what the city council should be focusing on.”

Alleyne is one of five other residents on the Youth Council, which accepts applicants between the ages of 14 and 21. Six other seats remain empty. She doesn’t know if the council will ever be completely filled, but she believes that “more advertisement needs to be happening.” Alleyne herself didn’t even know about the council until her mother brought it to her attention.

But in the current vacancies, Alleyne sees potential.

“With those vacancies, we can really touch up on the different ethnic backgrounds that are part of the community,” she said. “Different genders and different economic backgrounds will make it more inclusive.”

Amanda Elliot, chairperson of Richmond’s Economic Development Commission, shares those thoughts. She sits at the head of Richmond’s second largest commission, what with 15 total seats — and five empty.

Elliot said that the vacancies don’t impact the commission’s work, but filling them would provide the opportunity to hear more opinions and ideas on Richmond’s various economic-development initiatives.

“It’s always great to have new voices that can bring in different ideas and expertise around economic development,” she said. “We’re always looking for people with great ideas.”

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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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