Tense Council session covers Molate judgment updates, district election hearing
on November 8, 2019
Tuesday’s City Council meeting – called “long and raucous” in an email missive by Mayor Tom Butt — mimicked a battleground with locals and lawmakers firing off dissenting opinions over issues from the proposed Point Molate development to the prospect of district council elections.
At the meeting, the Council backed changes to the controversial court judgment that ended a lawsuit a Native American tribe and a development company filed against the city over the parties’ aborted Point Molate casino project. The changes state that the city’s settlement deal ending the suit did not grant entitlements for any firm to develop on Point Molate, countering claims in a new suit that the deal included de facto approvals for developer SunCal to build at least 670 housing units there.
A Pomo Native American tribe and a developer, Upstream Point Molate, sued Richmond in 2012 after voters and the Council rejected their proposal to build a casino at the point. The city, the tribe and Upstream resolved that lawsuit through a settlement in 2018. Now, a new lawsuit by environmental groups claims that the original suit in essence granted development entitlements to SunCal. The suit also asserts that absence of a public vote on the settlement broke a state law guaranteeing publicly-open legislative meetings.
“The Judgment does not grant any entitlements for development at Point Molate,” the amendment approved by City Council reads.
“You made a private land use decision that closed off the public. Pure and simple, that’s against the law,” countered former two-term Berkeley mayor Shirley Dean, disputing the amendments during the public comment period.
Dean and other community members criticized the original settlement deal. “Return to mediation to work out a real solution to the casino lawsuit,” Dean said.
“The settlement agreement should explicitly call out the three open issues” of unforeseen environmental, safety and financial issues that may arise throughout review and planning, and it should become void if unfixable problems turn up in those areas, former Richmond planning commissioner Jeffrey Kilbreth told Richmond Confidential by phone.
Shouts of dissent from the audience met Councilmember Nat Bates’s charge that opponents of building at Point Molate “don’t give a damn about” employment and sometimes don’t hail from Richmond.
Minutes later, Mayor Tom Butt ordered the gathering to clear the chamber over mounting shouts. “Anybody from the press stay here. Everybody else leave,” Butt said. Other councilmembers voted to keep the audience in the chamber.
“There have been literally hundreds of meetings and hearings on Point Molate,” Butt said after the yelling had abated, disputing accusations that the city hasn’t handled Point Molate transparently. “This particular project has been hearing’d to death,” he added.
Assistant City Attorney Rachel Sommovilla recommended that the Council approve the amendments, and it did in a 4-3 vote. Mayor Butt, Vice Mayor Ben Choi and councilmembers Demnlus Johnson III and Nat Bates voted yes. Councilmembers Eduardo Martinez, Jael Myrick and Melvin Willis voted no.
That wasn’t the end of the evening’s contentious issues. Opinions heated up further as the council moved to consider the implementation of voting districts in Richmond, which will draw zoning lines that would break the city into six areas. The Council and Shalice Tilton, a representative from the redistricting consultancy National Demographics Corporation (NDC), held the first of two mandatory public hearings discussing ways to design Richmond’s future voting districts.
The California Voting Rights Act (CVRA) prohibits cities from using any ‘at-large’ method of election, meaning people running for office run city-wide rather than through a district. If a city refuses to conform to this state-wide mandate, they’re exposed to potential litigation by the plaintiff and ensuing monetary damages.
In October, the City Council said it would start the district-drawing process following a litigation threat claiming Richmond’s current at-large voting system disadvantages minorities and violates the California Voting Rights Act. The threat, brought forth by Scott Rafferty, an attorney, was met with unanimous disdain from the City Council.
Rafferty has “started this process to enrich himself through an arcane state law, (and) supported the concept of district elections,” Mayor Butt said in his e-forum after the hearing. He went on to add that “attorney Rafferty was clearly the most despised person in the room and managed to offend almost everyone, particularly City Council members.” Councilmember Jael Myrick voiced his resentment during the hearing, saying, “we do not follow these old racial guidelines.”
In a direct response to Mayor Butt’s email, Rafferty responded by saying, “I haven’t received a dime, and I’ve spent far more time (on this) than the city council will compensate me for.” He went on to add, “my motive is to enforce federal civil rights laws in this country, and civil rights laws require attorney’s fees…you don’t get to break the law in this country for free.”
Councilmember Melvin Willis spoke out against Rafferty’s battle as well, saying the process was being rushed and was “inadequate” as so many communities, especially non-English speakers, would be left out by this sectioning-off. Willis went on to say that “this whole timeline is impossible,” adding that the city “either agrees or gets sued by Rafferty.”
Rafferty argued during the open forum that implementing district elections would directly benefit marginalized communities, saying “it’s about the voters.” He went on to say his campaign is in the interest of “equalizing (the) voting power of (the) Latino Community…it’s not about the incumbents.”
Council members have appointed a demographer, as required by the law, and will have until November 21 to submit maps that clearly display divided districts. Under state law, the city must hold two public hearings to consider district-drawing priorities. It will also hold three additional town hall meetings to elicit maximum community input, according to a motion it passed at Tuesday’s meeting.
Community members may pitch their own district map proposals, which they can create using NDC’s online mapping tools, the NDC representative, the redistricting consultancy’s Tilton said. Generally speaking, Richmond will have six voting districts of about 17,000 residents each, according to her presentation.
At the meeting, several people used the open forum as an opportunity to speak out against the Tenant’s Opportunity to Purchase Ordinance (TOPA), citing that the bill works unfavorably for renters. TOPA states that landowners looking to sell their space must offer first bid to low-income residents before opening it up to the larger market. About 50 members in the audience spoke out or demonstrated against the plan by displaying “OPPOSE TOPA” posters.
Previously the council has voted 6-1 in favor of beginning to draft plans for TOPA, with Mayor Butt voting “no.”
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