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District elections, department shuffle, adult-use cannabis sales all in, Council says

on October 23, 2019

Richmond’s City Council declared its intention to transition the city’s election system from at-large to district voting following a resolution passed Tuesday night.

Richmond’s at-large system, by which voters across the entire city have elected each City Councilmember and the mayor, has recently exposed the city to potentially expensive lawsuits claiming the old system violated federal civil rights law. The new system will be phased in over a period of three years.

Michael Colantuono, Richmond’s outside counsel, on Tuesday recommended voluntarily switching balloting methods to avoid a lawsuit, which he said could cost at least half a million dollars. The city of Palmdale lost a suit over its at-large elections system to the tune of $4.5 million. Walnut Creek attorney Scott Rafferty in September sent the city a letter on behalf of the Bay Area Voting Rights Initiative threatening a lawsuit over the at-large system’s alleged unfairness to Latino, Black and Asian voters.

“By making its City Council more representative and physically closer to its neediest constituents, Richmond will elect officials who will, over time, look more like the increasingly diverse neighborhoods they serve,” Rafferty’s letter said.

“Richmond is extreme,” Rafferty said at the city council meeting. “You’re almost one of the largest cities left in California that’s not districted.”

The federal Voting Rights Act banned racial discrimination in voting, and the California Voting Rights Act (CVRA) law outlaws at-large systems if there’s evidence that they diminish minorities’ voting power. Under the laws, city governments must create “majority-minority” districts if possible, Michael Colantuono, the city’s outside counsel, said. A February case upholding the CVRA opened the floodgates for threats of litigation against at-large cities across California if they didn’t adopt the district system.

“My sense is that you should certainly start down this path,” Colantuono said.

City councilmembers questioned Rafferty’s claims that the at-large system suppressed minority votes and highlighted the potential drawbacks of districting.

“If anybody’s underrepresented on the council, it’s the white community,” Councilmember Nat Bates said. “You’re going to come forward with districts that are going to wipe out …this whole intent…the results is going to be less [councilmembers of color], which seems rather stupid if you want diversity,” he added.

“If we go to district elections…I see a lot more horse-trading on policies,” Councilmember Martinez said. “We’re going to end up with little coalitions who are scratching each other’s backs to get their policies past.”

“Mr. Rafferty doesn’t give a damn about this community period…it’s about money,” said Ben Therriault, president of the Police Officers’ Association, during the public comment period.

Councilmembers and community members also saw potential benefits to district-based elections. “Reducing the cost is why I’m actually open to this,” Councilmember Jael Myrick said.

“District elections is about accountability,” said Cesar Zepeda, president of the Hilltop District Neighborhood Council. “It’s about people, wherever they live, they get to choose that person.”

Creating districts would require current councilmembers to propose a boundary map drafted in consultation with community members throughout several public meetings. Richmonders could also pitch district maps. The professional demographer that would be hired to advise the councilmembers would make Richmond’s population data public online, Colantuono said. There would still be six council seats and the mayor would still be elected at-large, he said.

Mayor Tom Butt, Vice Mayor Ben Choi and Councilmembers Demnlus Johnson III, Jael Myrick and Nat Bates voted yes on the resolution. Councilmember Martinez voted no, and Councilmember Melvin Willis abstained.

Also at Tuesday’s meeting, Interim City Manager Steven Falk established a departmental reorganization of the City of Richmond, requesting the allocation of $125,000 from the general fund to create new departments and new management positions. 

The city manager is currently in charge of 16 departments, supervising 21 direct reports. 

Apart from that, the plan requires a study conducted by an independent outside consultant to establish new job classifications and determine their salaries. The employees who are not satisfied with their reassignments can choose to voluntarily “opt out” and leave the job receiving a one-time payout of $25,000.    

The proposal appeared to be controversial as the majority of the public commenters were not convinced by the fact that the plan entails an increase in salaries for managers. 

During the open comment period, some residents complained that some department heads in the city are paid excessively. Falk, however, promised that the salaries of the new managers will not exceed the market pay rates. 

“While there is a perception that management employees may be overpaid, the honest answer is that nobody knows whether the employees are overpaid or underpaid…it is a matter of good management, we should know whether the salaries of the managers and all our employees are consistent with the market,” Falk said.  

The opposition from the speakers prompted the City Manager to suggest to move the discussion of the matter to the next meeting. Mayor Tom Butt, however, said that “there’s no reason not to give the City Managers the tools he needs to get started.” 

Councilmember Martinez, in turn, emphasized that all the new positions should be thoroughly evaluated. The plan could affect up to 22 jobs. 

In spite of the controversy, the council backed the organization plan with Councilmember Martinez saying no and Councilmember Willis abstaining. 

The City Council also voted on Tuesday that Richmond cannabis businesses can grow and sell their product for recreational, adult use, amending city rules that had allowed only medical cannabis operations and some limited adult-use activities.

The resolution also established an additional permit for cannabis companies and created a new class of cannabis deliverers that will be allowed to operate in Richmond. Currently, only three traditional dispensaries are allowed to operate there. The city will award the new deliverer permits based on a competitive application process, the resolution said. Only Councilmember Bates voted against the resolution.

During the public commentary, a group of speakers expressed dissatisfaction with the upcoming Tenant Opportunity to Purchase resolution (a type of law called a TOPA nationwide), which the city council last month agreed to draft. It would allow tenants the first opportunity to buy their homes before landlords put them up for sale. However, some speakers said the measure wouldn’t adequately protect all parties’ rights. 

Correction: This article has been updated to correct the spelling of Richmond Police Officers Association President Ben Therriault’s name. The updates also clarify that Councilmember Nat Bates voted against passage of the City Council’s cannabis resolution.

The City Council vote regarding Richmond’s election system declared the council’s intent to initiate the shift from at-large voting to district voting. A previous version of this article suggested that the vote had instituted the district system.


  1. Don Gosney on November 2, 2019 at 7:11 pm

    The facts don’t seem to matter when it comes to the California Voting Rights Initiative.

    In the past 25 years, 75% of those sitting on the Richmond City Council were minorities yet Attorney Scott Rafferty is telling us that we’re keeping minorities down by not allowing them to serve on the Council.

    He’ll stand on his soapbox demanding social justice when what he’s really saying is “where’s my money?” He gets $30,000 just for sending his Threat Letter.

    What he’s pushing isn’t district elections so neighborhoods can be represented from someone in their neighborhood. What he’s pushing are district elections based on a person’s ethnicity. Just how did this go over when it was done to ensure that only white people got elected? Wasn’t it called discrimination? But when we exchange ‘white’ for ‘minority’ it’s no longer discriminatory. Someone has to explain that to me.

    If Attorney Rafferty really cared about social justice he would have come before the Council or the neighborhood councils and pointed out the inequities and offer to work with the people of Richmond to fix whatever real problem existed. He didn’t;t do that, though.

    Attorney Rafferty did to Richmond what he’s been doing to other cities and school district’s and sending his certified Threat Letters starting the 45 day clock. If the cities or school districts don’t go along with his demands, he sure them. That’s where the big bucks start rolling in. Win, lose or draw he’s entitled to attorney fees and since he’s his own attorney, the money goes straight into his pockets. Last year he took $318,000 out of the classrooms to line his pockets. That’s on top of the half million or so in district attorneys and staff time.

    If you want to see how well this has worked in larger cities, look at Sacramento and Modesto where there are FEWER minorities serving on the Council and school boards since district elections were forced down their throats.

    When you get a chance, do what this reporter failed to report on: do a search on BAVRI (the Bay Area Voting Rights Initiative)–the group Attorney Rafferty claims to represent. No web site, no list of members–nothing except references to it in his Threat Letters and in newspaper articles (like this one). Could this be a one man operation posing as a grass roots community group?

    And when you get a chance, ask yourself (as this reporter surely must have asked) who would have partnered with Attorney Rafferty it institute a radical change in the electoral process that is largely unpopular and is fraught with the potential for problems. There are rumors that a twice defeated community leader that unsuccessfully ran for the Council feels that if he only has to run in his own neighborhood he’ll be successful the third time around. He’s been amassing megabucks in his campaign coffers for his run next November.

  2. […] October, the City Council said it would start the district-drawing process following a litigation threat claiming Richmond’s […]

  3. […] a demand letter – from Walnut Creek attorney Scott Rafferty – in September, and the council declared its intent to switch to district elections in […]

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