Controversial appointment to Richmond police commission fails; city workers protest wages
on April 4, 2019
The Richmond City Council denied a controversial appointment to the Community Police Review Commission on Tuesday, prompting Mayor Tom Butt to promise the public that he won’t be appointing anyone to the commission for the remainder of his three-and-a-half-year mayoral term.
“This is a line in the sand,” Butt said.
In addition, a protest over city worker wages was held at the start of the meeting, and the council also changed the name of the policing oversight body from the Citizens Police Review Commission to the Community Police Review Commission, or CPRC.
The commission currently seats only five of nine members. This means that if one commissioner is absent, the commission won’t have a quorum and will be unable to take action.
Much of the committee appointment process is controlled by the mayor, who interviews and selects applicants, who are then affirmed by the council. Catherine Montalbo, a Point Richmond-based software developer, was Butt’s controversial pick for the seat.
Her opponents, including many members of the Richmond Progressive Alliance (RPA), have alleged that she is biased against undocumented immigrants. Much of their argument is contained in a petition arguing against the appointment, which was first circulated about two weeks ago, and an open letter dated April 2. The petition contains screenshots of several comments and posts Montalbo made on the Facebook page Everybody’s Richmond California, which she helps moderate. In a series of posts, Montalbo argued against the assumption that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials round up “law-abiding” people, and wrote that “ILLEGAL immigrants” were targeted in previous raids.
Her opponents’ open letter goes on to say that because of recent allegations of misconduct against the Richmond Police Department regarding an officer-involved shooting on February 27, a functioning commission is especially important.
At a meeting two weeks ago, Montalbo’s appointment was listed on the agenda alongside two other appointments. But every appointment was tabled by Butt, who argued, prior to a storm of anti-Montalbo public comments, that he didn’t want to let the RPA decide who was on the commission.
At Tuesday’s meeting, this time Montalbo’s appointment was the only one on the agenda. Before the vote, Butt guaranteed that he wouldn’t appoint anyone to the commission if she was voted down. This meant that the commission, with one member absent, could convene at their planned meeting Wednesday only if Montalbo’s appointment went through.
Former Councilmembers Ada Recinos and Jovanka Beckles were among those who argued against Montalbo’s appointment at Tuesday’s meeting. Recinos said that people appointed to the commission should represent the values, experience and diversity of Richmond residents, and said that—as someone whose parents came to the US illegally—the proposed appointment of Montalbo would be extremely hurtful to her. “People have died at the border, and the justification around these actions has been that they deserve it because they came here illegally; they are illegals, they are criminals,” Recinos said. “When one part of our community lives in fear, we all suffer.”
A few audience members defended the appointment, including Montalbo herself. Montalbo said that most of the people who had spoken against her had formed their evaluation from a handful of social media comments, and that those who know her personally—including people who disagree with her—speak of her fairness and integrity. She also said that she’d provided opportunities for people to speak with her personally, including a meet-and-greet event held by community advocate Rodney Alamo Brown expressly for that purpose on Sunday.
“I can be a fair, objective member of the CPRC,” Montalbo said. “Every person in the United States, regardless of immigration status, has the right to be treated fairly by the police.”
Butt argued that differing points of view are valuable on commissions, and attempted to compromise, making a promise that if Montalbo or any other commissioner should turn out to biased in an unacceptable way, he would not hesitate to use his mayoral powers to pull them off the commision. “I just think you ought to give her a chance,” Butt said. “Everybody deserves a chance.”
Similarly, Councilmember Nat Bates argued that those speaking against Montalbo’s appointment should compromise to “maintain the respect of working together.”
But the rest of the council opposed the appointment. Councilmember Eduardo Martinez argued that appointments should be more about process than politics, that the council vote serves as a check on the mayor’s power to appoint commissioners, and that the best course of action would be to look for applicants everyone can agree on.
Councilmember Ben Choi said he didn’t agree with Montalbo’s argument that her comments were taken of context, and told a story about how, despite living on US soil since he was three months old, he’d been what some people would consider “illegal” for most of his childhood. He argued that calling human beings “illegals” should be considered disqualifying.
“I became what some people call an ‘illegal’ from the time I was 6 years old to the time I was 18 years old,” Choi said. “And for God’s sake, we don’t even call murderers ‘illegals.’”
Councilmember Jael Myrick was critical of Butt and suggested he take his own advice on compromise by accepting defeat, and appointing the two remaining candidates—neither of whose candidacy has been controversial—to facilitate a working commission. Myrick argued that a functioning commission should be their highest priority, and that Montalbo’s appointment would be counterproductive to this goal.
Myrick added that he was fine with appointing a conservative member to the commission, or someone with views that differed from the norm, but that he was against having a person on the commission who refers to portions of the population using disrespectful terms, especially if those people are among those most in need of a working police commission.
“If i’m an undocumented person and I have an issue with the police and I look up the police review commission and … I find out that the most recent appointee calls people like me ‘illegals,’ am I going to go?” Myrick asked. “Of course I’m not going to go. I’m going to be scared. And that’s the point. That’s what this is about. This is about: Are we going to have a functioning commission or not?”
But the vote for Montalbo failed 2-5, with only Bates and Butt voting to appoint her. That meant that a commission meeting planned for Wednesday was cancelled.
In other council business, before the meeting and not on the agenda, about 100 union members from the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers (IFPTE) Local 21, which includes engineers and accountants, and Service Employees International Union (SEIU) 1021, which includes various public employees, rallied before the meeting and then moved into the council chambers. They were protesting four years without a cost-of-living salary adjustment for city employees, even though they said annual 3 percent increases had been provided to employees in other cities.
The room was filled with union members waving signs like one—with white text upon a blue background and gold trim—which read: “I teach my kids to stand up for themselves, here’s my turn.”
Another—green, blue, and adorned with the image of Rosie the Riveter—proclaimed: “Equal pay for equal work.”
A third, yellow and brown with red type, read: “This is not a war, it’s a compromise. Pay up.”
“We’re not asking for the moon,” said Gregory Everetts, President of the SEIU Local 1021 Richmond chapter. “We’re just asking for a small piece of the pie. Pay us what you owe.”
Because the issue wasn’t on the agenda, the council took no action.
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