Catherine Montalbo speaks before the City Council.

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.

6 Comments

  1. Catherine Montalbo on March 20, 2019 at 9:24 pm

    I’d like to thank Mr. Bloom for his story, which I feel is a very fair representation of what happened at the meeting, as well as an accurate portrayal of my remarks.

  2. John on March 21, 2019 at 5:42 am

    This is is pretty much case in point for why the RPA is such a danger to the health of our community.

    I’ve seen Catherine’s posts on Everybody’s Richmond and while I don’t agree with her stance on immigration or several other topics I certainly don’t begrudge her her opinions. I most definitely do not think that anything she has posted, especially not anything quoted in this article, is outside the normal political debate that we’ve had about immigration.

    For the RPA to take those statements and oppose her service as a resident on a local board in her community is disgusting. Democracy isn’t about silencing your political opponents. It’s about engagement, discussion, and compromise. It’s clear however that the RPA’s vision of democracy is about monopolization of power and destruction of its perceived enemies.

  3. Nathan on March 22, 2019 at 4:36 pm

    I have to agree with John on this one, at least partly. I was glad to support a “progressive alliance” when it began in the city, and still am very proud of our stance overall against intolerance, injustice, and the degradation of the environment. I’m frankly torn about what I think the best immigration policy would look like at a national level (I’ll try to explain this more in a moment) — but these local tactics of bullying and intimidation are repelling me. If positions are defensible, their rightness can speak loudly enough to be convincing. Calling names and shouting people down only splits the issue, so instead of evaluating one thing, in this case whether Ms. Montalbo’s views are disqualifying, we have this separate problem distracting us: whether we can get to good ends through bad means.

    In my case, my starting position is that police power abuse hits black and brown people hardest, so we need police oversight either by someone deeply in sympathy with communities of color, or far better still, by someone from those communities. Ms. Montalbo is neither of these things, so if this were a voting matter, I’d be voting against her.

    It was 20 years ago last month when Amadou Diallo was killed in a storm of 41 bullets while in possession of nothing more threatening than a wallet. All officers acquitted. If we were furious then at the injustice, how much more enraged are we now, after countless repetitions? I say countless, because I can think of so many examples offhand without even properly scratching the surface of the victims list. Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, Oscar Grant, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Philando Castile, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray. Hundreds more.

    At the same time, we have since 2016 been forced to witness or experience this horror show of criminalizing refugees from Central America and elsewhere, forced separation of children from parents, and the deeply stupid and shameful harnessing of anti-immigrant bigotry for political fuel. Targeting of gays for mass shooting in Orlando. White supremacists mass killing more innocent people only this week.

    All right, just thinking about this is getting me so angry that I want to start throwing things and shouting. But I’m trying to take a deep breath, because my original point still stands. Being furious, justifiably furious, at injustice, does make sense. And having a local police oversight commission that we can finally have some control over is at least a tiny spark of hope in this vast and dispiriting landscape.

    But! We can’t quell inhumanity except with humanity. And while we desperately want somewhere to vent our pent-up outrage, I think we can conclude that Ms. Montalbo is not right for this commission, and speak this clearly to city council, without ascribing more malice and ill-intent to her than exists. Nobody should reduce anyone else’s worth by calling them “illegals”. She’s too comfortable in herself, and if she “can’t muster sympathy,” this may be because she’s never had to bother to try. The habit, the imaginative effort, of considering those in difficult circumstances different from your own, seems like a prime requisite for the job. So let’s not support Ms. Montalbo as a commissioner. But her offering her time, energy, and service is, by itself, something we can appreciate her for. She hasn’t been swinging the baton, firing the gun, or covering up crimes. Let’s point our outrage at people who deserve it. There are plenty.

    I’ve gone on far too long, and I didn’t get back to immigration policy. So I’ll try to be brief. First, and definitely most, I feel that if my low-skilled great grandfather was allowed to come in from Sweden, and work as a servant / driver for rich people, then for the U.S. to deny this opportunity to others now is just shutting the door after we’re inside. It’s hypocrisy. (My great-grandfather worked very hard. His children spoke English as a first language, his grandchildren got college degrees, and his great-grandchildren are middle-class professionals.) And since the anti-immigrant people seem willing to let in white people more than non-white people, they’re obviously motivated by bigotry. Giving people no legal path forward and then branding them criminals for walking is like punching someone in the face and then arresting them for fighting. Furthermore, what kind of people emigrate from other countries? Motivated people. Whether you speak Swedish, Spanish, Amharic, Vietnamese, … — you have to struggle to make it in a new place with a new language. These people are the ones we want. Also, we as a nation are still relatively well-resourced for our population size. While our population is still growing, its rate of growth is dropping, and immigration is the only reason our population isn’t shrinking every year. Our fertility rate (number of babies born per population) isn’t keeping us at replacement levels. And apart from all that, our population is aging and our population of working age people would be insufficient to support the economy — especially the entitlements we want to sustain or grow — without a continued influx of workers becoming American and contributing.

    That’s not to even touch on the extremely dubious nature of our claim to all the resources, from sea to shining sea. Why do we have all this? Maybe because of genocide and hundreds of years of profiting from slavery?

    So overall, I’m very much pro-immigration. There is a small part of me that says, “but you can’t have completely open borders, because then we simply will run out of resources.” Enough resources for a population of 320 million people is very different from enough resources for a billion people. This is based on fear, not on real information or on what’s ethical. I don’t know that we would really get 700 million people pouring in. But I do suspect that a compromise at least, where we let in many times more than the 1 million per year currently, would be a good thing: both closer to the “right” thing, and actually good for the most people.

  4. Liberty Chu on March 25, 2019 at 6:15 am

    The people didn’t realize how important to be combined to city of Richmond. We will have cleaner roads and street, more impact to implement the City codes and violations like no parking sign, abandoned vehicle, vehicle street repairs etc. more government assistance like police officers not just sheriffs.

  5. […] with only five of nine members. Parker said that, for these reasons, he thought Mayor Tom Butt’s decision to not appoint new members to the commission last week was a big […]

  6. Don Gosney on April 4, 2019 at 1:52 pm

    One of my biggest concerns about the annexation process involves the fact that neither the City Council nor LAFCO are even considering asking the people of Richmond if they want this to happen. No one is asking the people of Richmond of they want to take on an extra $2+ million per year in expenses. No one is asking the people of Richmond of they want to see their police services stretched even thinner than they are now. No one is asking the people of Richmond if they want to take on the MANY broken down public housing complexes strewn throughout North Richmond.

    As a matter of fact, did anyone hear where the City went out to the many parts of Richmond to even let them know about the meetings in North Richmond? Were there public meetings anywhere in Richmond to get feedback from the public?

    Did anyone listen to some members of the Council who want to invalidate the straw poll where 85% of the North Richmond respondents said they did not want the annexation? They argue that because the turnout was so low, the count shouldn’t be considered. But, when we host a regular election and the voter turnout is low, do they demand that the count be ignored?

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