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Dissension grows among RPA supporters over councilwoman’s ‘egregious violation’ on Point Molate vote

on October 15, 2018

The Richmond City Council vote to move forward with plans to develop a pristine piece of the city’s shoreline has sown some dissension in the ranks of the Richmond Progressive Alliance, potentially weakening the political organization that has transformed city politics over the past decade.

Some think the divisions within the alliance could affect the outcome of the November election. Two alliance members are running for re-election to the council and another, Vice Mayor Melvin Willis, is trying to oust incumbent Mayor Tom Butt.

The alliance has come to be the most dominant political force in Richmond in recent years. With a sweeping victory in 2016, the alliance captured the majority on the city council and was able to pass landmark legislation, including a rent control ordinance.

But a division surfaced several months ago, after the city council voted to approve a settlement with the developers of a proposed casino at the scenic Point Molate, which voters had rejected in 2010.

The settlement agreement stipulates that a minimum of 670 houses be built at Point Molate, which opponents of the settlement say would hurt the environment, among other qualms. Two council members backed by the progressive alliance, Ada Recinos and Ben Choi, voted to approve the settlement.

Opponents of developing Point Molate say the vote was done behind closed doors in violation of the Brown Act, a law intended to ensure transparency in the public process. The fact that two candidates backed by the progressive alliance voted to develop the shoreline prompted outrage from some members.

The city council went on to narrowly vote on Oct. 2 to approve a shortlist of developers for Point Molate. The same two council members supported by the alliance, Recinos and Choi, voted to move forward with development. The other two alliance members on the city council, Eduardo Martinez and Melvin Willis, voted against the shortlist. They were the only opposing votes on the council.

The vote set in motion a timeline for the planning and development phase. The council is expected to receive development proposals in the coming weeks.

Despite her votes to move forward with the settlement agreement, Recinos retained her endorsement from the alliance for the upcoming election, as a part of a slate of candidates that also includes Willis and Martinez. But not all within the alliance agreed with the decision to keep her on the “Team Richmond” slate.

Andres Soto, a co-founder of the alliance and an organizer with Communities for a Better Environment, a nonprofit environmental organization, has been unambiguous in his feelings about development at Point Molate—and the position the alliance should take on the issue.

“I was one of those that said that this was such an egregious violation of a principle of the RPA that they should rescind their endorsement of Ada Recinos,” Soto said in an interview.

“I see the settlement provision around turning the land over to developers for housing as a violation of the principle of public lands,” he said.

But Mike Parker, a member of the alliance’s steering committee, said that while Recino’s support of the Point Molate settlement may be a deal breaker for some voters, he believes her positions on other major issues, like rent control, outweigh her position regarding the development of the scenic shoreline.

Parker said some members and supporters of the alliance, “feel very strongly about Point Molate,” and that some have indicated they “are not willing to support Ada.”

But he said that, “there is a lot of us, though, who feel that we made a decision to support Ada, we don’t agree with her on this one question. But you know, the question of running the city is a lot more than just the question of Point Molate. And we feel we have a lot more in common.”

Brenda Williams, co-coordinator of the alliance, echoed Parker’s point of view, saying she, “would never make a decision on a single issue that would call for support to be withdrawn.”

“The issue is important to me, and it’s important to many people, but it’s not a deal breaker as far as I’m concerned, in terms of endorsement,” Williams said.

Williams praised the “amazing job” Recinos has done since being appointed, despite her relative inexperience in politics.

Parker added that the alliance endorsed Recinos before the issue of Point Molate came up, and that though some disagree with her decision, there has been no consideration of the endorsement.

Although Recinos was not the only alliance-backed candidate to approve the settlement, Parker said that discussions hadn’t really been focused on the other candidate backed by the group, Choi, because his term doesn’t expire until 2021.

Soto said he had initially tried to meet with Recinos to convince her that she didn’t have to approve the Point Molate settlement agreement.

But sadly, Soto said, “she chose not to listen.”

Parker said that the alliance, “is committed to voting for and supporting the Team Richmond slate,” despite the fact that some members, “strongly disagree with her on Point Molate.”

Williams added that the alliance “can’t take a single issue and make that the only issue that’s important in the election. It doesn’t make sense as a strategy, since there are so many issues that are important.”

But for some in the alliance, this answer is not satisfactory.

“From a practical standpoint, I can understand the logic,” Soto said. “But from our movement’s direction, I think it challenges what it means to be progressive in the RPA.”

A person who is progressive would never in the past have voted in favor of, “destroying an environmentally sensitive area for high end development that most people in Richmond would never be able to afford anyway,” he said.

Recinos said she understands that some people won’t vote for her based on this issue, but said “that’s the wonderful part about a democracy,” adding that disagreements can be a healthy part of the political process and that she remains committed to progressive values.

Choi did not respond to requests for comment.

Though the alliance will continue to endorse Recinos, Soto said he hopes it turns a critical eye to how the issue of Point Molate plays out at the polls in November, when Richmond voters will be asked to choose from a crowded field of 13 candidates for city council.

By not “cutting Ada loose” and refusing to endorse her, the alliance was “disaffecting a significant part of the base which includes people who care about Point Molate,” Soto said.

“We’ll see what happens in the election.”

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