Some major civic drama has been unfolding over the last couple months across the Bay in Richmond, and it looks likely to continue Tuesday night as the City Council will once again face off with Mayor Tom Butt over his refusal to make new appointments to the city's Community Police Review Commission.
The background to this story is deeply local, tedious, and somewhat drawn out, and somewhat analogous to the Democrat-on-Democrat wars that happened in the last decade between then Mayor Gavin Newsom and a progressive-led SF Board of Supervisors. Suffice it to say that it's bubbled up enough in local Facebook circles that it made it, via a college friend who lives in Canada, to this SFist editor a couple weeks ago, and the situation continues to escalate and unfold. Long story short, Butt — a Democrat and longtime Richmond council member who first began serving in 1995 and who was just reelected in November — has proposed some controversial appointments to city commissions and boards, and he's at a standoff with the City Council which both dislikes his appointments, and needs him to make new appointments to the Police Review Commission in order for its work to move forward. Specifically, there are two officer-involved shootings from the last few months that have yet to be investigated because the commission doesn't have a quorum.
As KPIX/CBS 5 reports, the latest escalation in the standoff may have begun at an April 2 meeting at which Butt put forward a controversial candidate for the Police Review Commission, Catherine Montalbo, whom opponents said used some problematic language about immigrants on social media. Butt gave the Council an ultimatum, saying either Montalbo gets approved or he refuses to make any more appointments until his term is up. The Council voted 5-2 against him.
Two weeks ago the Chronicle picked up on the dustup, after the May 21 city council meeting blew up even further. At that meeting, Butt put forward 28 appointees to five local boards and commissions, including a landlords' lawyer whom he wanted to appoint to the local Rent Board. As Richmond resident Sue Wilson tells SFist, that appointment would mean that the Rent Board was composed of entirely landlord advocates, and no tenants or tenant advocates.
"Over 60% of Richmond residents voted for rent control, just cause eviction protections, and a Rent Board to enforce those rules," Wilson says. "By appointing a professional tenant adversary, [the mayor] is making a mockery of all that."
Some 48 people got up to speak in opposition to the mayor at the May 21 meeting, and when it became clear that Butt's slate of appointments was going to lose a vote by the council, he attempted to withdraw it. The council then voted instead to take a vote, and Butt then overruled this, and threatened to use the police to clear the room when he was widely booed.
City Attorney Bruce Goodmiller told the Chronicle that week that the city was now in "uncharted waters." Butt has vowed to make no further appointments to the police commission for the next three years, the length of his term, unless some compromise is reached.
It's unclear whether Butt is actively trying to undermine the police commission or whether this is simply the playing-out of some long-standing grudges against other council members. Writing in a newsletter in recent weeks, Butt says, "In the more than four years I have been mayor, I have made plenty of compromises on appointments, perhaps more than any previous mayor, but I’m not sure the City Council has made any." Wilson suggests that all of this drama and grandstanding is simply punishment for the Council's earlier rejection of Montalbo.
There has been a lot of "what's the point of having a democracy" commentary surrounding Butt's behavior, and it doesn't look to be cooling off soon.
As the Chronicle noted:
The [police] commission has met once in the last five months and as a result, at least four complaints against the Richmond Police Department have gone uninvestigated by the commission.
The commission has also been unable to investigate two officer involved shootings that have occurred over the past several months, including one from February when officers shot and injured an armed man, who was intoxicated, and a fatal shooting in April when officers said they shot a man who was slashing family members with a knife.
Speaking to the Chronicle, Butt said of his slate of appointments, "It is all or nothing. Because frankly, that is the leverage I have to get the appointments I want."
Let the provincial drama play on! Or, actually, someone please wrap this up in a reasonable fashion. This is embarrassing for everyone.