City council votes to not annex North Richmond
on March 20, 2019
On Tuesday, the Richmond City Council voted to not proceed with annexing the unincorporated area of North Richmond, with only Mayor Tom Butt voting in favor. Additionally, Butt removed three proposed appointments to the Citizens Police Review Commission from the agenda—one of them highly controversial. Until the appointments are finalized, it leaves the commission to operate with only five out of nine members.
City attorney Bruce Goodmiller also announced that the city is beginning negotiations with developer SunCal to build at Point Molate. The vote for choosing SunCal, which happened during closed session, was 5-2, with Councilmembers Melvin Willis and Eduardo Martinez voting against.
North Richmond is an unincorporated area surrounded by Richmond; its governance is provided through the county. Since the 1960s, several studies have been made about whether or not to annex it to Richmond, which would mean that North Richmond would officially become a part of Richmond and be governed by the city government. The most recent push began in 2018, when city and county officials decided to let North Richmond residents decide for themselves whether to be annexed.
Tuesday night’s discussion was introduced with a staff presentation which outlined the research and outreach process done to understand the feasibility of annexation. The presentation listed both benefits and potential concerns, and concluded with a recommendation to not annex.
Core to the decision—and listed first among the concerns—was that a majority of surveyed people from North Richmond said they weren’t in favor of annexation, a conclusion drawn from several outreach efforts. Mailers, 3,505 of them, each containing a single yes-or-no question on annexation preference, were sent by city officials to North Richmond residents last year. According to the city’s presentation, there were 235 responses, and 85 percent of respondents said no.
Other potential concerns included the fiscal impact to residents of North Richmond, who would have to pay higher sales, property, and utility taxes, as well as a cost to the city of $2.2 million from its general fund. Potential benefits included improved government efficiency, more local representation for residents, and increased coordination of land use planning, government services, and infrastructure resources.
During the meeting, Butt outlined his reasons for voting for annexation. He talked through the history of segregation in North Richmond, mentioning how during and after World War II, it was one of the only places in West Contra Costa County where African Americans could buy property. He felt that the area hadn’t been annexed by the city in the past for racist reasons.
Butt said that annexing North Richmond was one of his top goals when he was first elected to the city council in 1995, and that he took inspiration from past councilmembers who had attempted to annex the area but could never find the needed majority of votes. “It didn’t go anywhere because there was not the political will to go there,” Butt said. “I’m just following up on a commitment I made several decades ago.”
Councilmember Demnlus Johnson compared the annexation to a marriage, in which both sides have to agree before the process can go forward. Eduardo Martinez agreed with the marriage analogy, prompting Butt to refer to the tradition of “shotgun weddings,” which, he said, “didn’t all turn out that bad.”
“What I don’t believe in is colonization,” Johnson said. “And that’s what it sounds like we’d be doing if we annexed North Richmond right now.”
A few people from North Richmond also showed up to the meeting. All of them, including environmentalist Henry Clark, were against annexation. “I encourage you to live up to your words and vote no to proceeding with the annexation of North Richmond,” Clark said.
The mayor pulled the three police commission appointments from the agenda at the start of the meeting because of a controversy over the appointment of software developer Catherine Montalbo, whom critics have alleged—in a petition and at the meeting—would be an “unacceptable addition” to the commission. Much of the criticism of Montalbo stems from comments she has made on Facebook regarding immigration. Montalbo helps moderate the Facebook page Everybody’s Richmond California. The petition, gathered by the Richmond Progressive Alliance (RPA), includes screenshots of Facebook comments and posts she had made.
For example, in response to a comment about undocumented immigrants theoretically losing their green cards for possessing a joint, a screenshot included in the petition shows Montalbo responding with: “I’m having a hard time mustering sympathy for people with tenuous immigration status who then break our laws.” In another post included in the petition, she wrote: “We are a welcoming country which is why we don’t detain immigrants; we detain ILLEGAL immigrants. What would you have us do with people who enter this country illegally?”
In the petition, critics wrote that they felt that Montalbo has demonstrated “a lack of understanding about the history and continuing impacts of anti-black racism in the US” and an intent to treat undocumented residents in a “punitive and unfair manner.” According to RPA spokesperson Sue Wilson, the petition had 70 signatures at the time of the meeting.
Earlier in the day, Montalbo had published a letter on Radio Free Richmond’s website to defend herself. In the letter, which was sent to each of the councilmembers, Montalbo clarified her perspective on illegal immigration, arguing that individuals entering the country should do so legally, but also that current immigration laws are “broken and badly in need of reform.” In regard to Richmond’s sanctuary city status, she wrote: “While I am conflicted in regards to these types of laws, it IS the law and it should be respected by everyone.”
At the meeting, a few public commenters supported Montalbo, and she spoke near the end of the public comment period. She claimed that much of what had been said about her had been based on distorted, out-of-context or false information. She also said she had never met the people who are criticizing her, and argued that good faith and civility among those with whom you disagree are important parts of the democratic progress. “It’s true that my political beliefs in general do not align with the majority of people who live in Richmond, or even those in the Bay Area,” Montalbo said. “I would hope that rather than counting that as a strike against me, it would be seen as an asset.”
About 15 members of the public—many affiliated with the RPA—spoke against appointing Montalbo to the commission, including former councilmembers Jovanka Beckles and Ada Recinos.
Kabir Kapur, a member of the RPA, also more generally criticized the way immigration is discussed in the United States while overlooking the country’s responsibility for many of the political and economic situations that are provoking immigration and refugee crises. He said that people who want to protect others because they’re human beings are needed on a police oversight commission, and that he felt Butt’s decision to not move forward with appointing members to the commission indicated that he wanted to play politics over ensuring community safety.
“In a racist society, it’s not enough to be a non-racist. We must be anti-racist,” Kapur said, quoting activist Angela Davis. “We live in a racist society. I hope that most of the people on the city council are anti-racist, but, unfortunately, I’m not so sure about the mayor.”
Councilmember Jael Myrick suggested the council move forward with the two other appointments and table the one for Montalbo. Butt re-expressed his intent to not move forward with any appointment, and tabled the entire item. “I’m not going to let the Richmond Progressive Alliance decide who’s going to be on the police commission,” Butt said.
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