Richmond progressives won decisively in the November election. Now comes the hard part.
New Councilmember Ben Choi describes himself as a "practical progressive."
Photo by Carl Posey
Richmond voters swung hard to the left in the November election and put the city’s future firmly in the hands of the Richmond Progressive Alliance, which for the first time holds a majority of city council seats. Now the question is: Will the plucky, oppositional organization be able to pivot from battling Richmond’s traditional institutions to being the face of city government? The answer will likely come in the spring when the RPA will have to make tough decisions on Richmond’s ongoing budget problems.
The RPA’s rule may be defined by how it deals with a projected $3 million budget deficit looming over the next fiscal year. If the alliance is going to hold true to its social justice and equity values, the new council will likely put the majority of cuts on the backs of department heads, upper tier managers, and police officers and firefighters, which is something that members say they are prepared to do. “If we have to make cuts, the lowest wage earners should be cut last,” said RPA spokesperson Marilyn Langlois. “Higher earners can better afford cuts and that’s a more fair and equitable distribution of resources.”
However, the Bay Area job market for experienced city employees is very competitive and some city leaders, including Mayor Tom Butt, warn that cutting management and public safety salaries could cause seasoned city employees to seek jobs elsewhere, creating a drain of experience and institutional knowledge, which could result in higher training costs as well as legal expenses related to botched or delayed city projects and poor job performance. “There aren’t really any good options,” said Butt. “I think the police union will go ballistic if there are more cuts, but the RPA doesn’t think the crime rate will go up. I hope they’re right.”
The RPA took control of City Hall by winning two additional council seats on Nov. 8, giving the organization a majority of five councilmembers on the seven-member council. The new RPA members are Ben Choi, 45, an account manager who has served on the Richmond Planning Commission for six years, and Melvin Willis, a 26-year-old community activist who won the highest number of votes. Choi and Willis were buoyed in the campaign by the endorsement of liberal favorite, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders. Choi and Willis will join RPA Councilmembers Gayle McLaughlin, Eduardo Martinez, and Jovanka Beckles to form a majority-voting bloc.
The remaining two council seats are held by Butt, a good government moderate who has been on the council since 1995, and Councilmember Jael Myrick, a liberal who often votes with the RPA.
Voters also cleared the council of its more conservative members—Councilmembers Nat Bates and Vinay Pimple, an attorney who was appointed to the council in 2014. Bates, a steadfast Chevron refinery supporter who was first elected in 1967, lost his seat by a mere 500 votes.
Since the RPA was founded in 2003, the organization has steadily gained political influence through a series of social-justice related victories. The RPA effectively challenged the Chevron Richmond Refinery’s decades-long primacy in the city. Working with the council, the RPA forced Chevron to pay its fair share of utility and property taxes, submit to city inspections, upgrade refinery safety features, and pay the city $2 million in restitution for a massive refinery fire in 2012 that resulted from a corroded pipe.
The RPA also led the charge against bank foreclosures during the recession of 2008, rallied against crude oil transportation by train, lobbied successfully for minimum wage increases, and most recently, succeeded in passing a rent control ordinance designed to protect low-income renters and slow gentrification in Richmond.
While the RPA will no doubt continue its pursuit of social justice, the organization must now transform from challenger of government policy to the enforcer of government policy. The RPA will also have to balance the city’s overall health with achieving its ambitious agenda.
The organization’s first major test will come this spring when it has to cut $3 million from the city’s already slimmed-down $151 million general fund. Last June, the council slashed $10 million from the budget through reductions in overtime pay, part-time and temporary staffing, professional services, workers compensation allocations, department operational costs, and utilities. If Richmond is going to maintain an effective level of city services, the council will have to look to employee salaries and benefits or staffing levels for the additional $3 million in cuts. The RPA’s job was made more difficult by city voters in November when they overwhelmingly rejected Measure M, a property transfer tax initiative that would have generated about $3.6 million a year for the city.
Choi, a self-described “practical progressive,” said, “I would hope that we can find an equitable way to make those cuts. I don’t like the idea of making arbitrary cuts to salaries without looking at the full picture. Where, for example, are there two or three managers when there could be one?”
RPA strategist Mike Parker took a harder line. He argues that most high-earning city employees are overpaid. “What’s good for the city is what maintains the city,” Parker said. “To lay off people in the lower categories is not fair. They are the ones on the front lines and know how to do their jobs better than the top people. If the top people decide to go elsewhere, we might be able to attract job applicants at lower salaries.”
Willis said he would like to cut the police department’s budget and reallocate some of its remaining funding to city youth programs. “I would like to redefine public safety,” Willis said. “We need more investment in youth, our libraries and rec center are rundown. The RYSE youth center and Urban Tilth are viable programs that help prevent crime and violence.”
But that economic approach is particularly worrisome to Richmond Police Chief Allwyn Brown. The department’s operating budget has already been slashed $1.9 million, and it cut 11 jobs from the duty roster. Richmond police officers are among the highest compensated in the Bay Area. In 2015, officers earned, on average, $167,000, including benefits, retirement, bonuses, and overtime. But, according to Brown, the city expects a great deal from its officers. In recent years, the Richmond Police Department has earned national acclaim for its commitment to community policing and so-called 21st Century Policing policies, which resulted in a dramatic drop in violent crimes and improved community relations.
“We ask a lot of Richmond officers and the Bay Area market is very competitive,” Brown said. “Quality police officers are very much in demand, and if their pay is cut, we may keep a few officers that enjoy the nature of the work here, but others will leave for other departments where they can make more money and not work so hard.”
Brown added that if police salaries are reduced, Richmond won’t be able to attract higher quality officers who are able to multitask in challenging situations. Richmond expects its police officers to both protect the public and perform the duties of social workers. “If salaries are lowered, we won’t be able to attract the class of officer the city has become used to.”
Butt, who has frequently been in opposition to the RPA in recent years, said he won’t have as much sway as he did during the first two years of his four-year mayoral term. “In any case, the RPA can’t blame anybody else now. If crime goes up and the city goes to hell, they’re responsible.”
Published online on Jan. 3, 2017 at 8:00 a.m.