On October 7, I shared a letter written on behalf of Firefighter Local 188 asking for an investigation into the residency of two candidates (Candidates' Residency Questioned in Letter to City and DA, October 7, 2020).
One of those candidates was Melvin Willis, who responded on his Facebook page:
In case you missed it, Mayor Tom Butt and and the union that represents Richmond firefighters filed a complaint letter about me with City Clerk Pamela Christian and District Attorney Diana Becton. They think I lied about where I live in order to run for city council this year. I’ve been accused of this in previous elections, and once again I can tell you I live at the District 1 address where I am registered to vote.
I think there is a cultural misunderstanding at the root of these kinds of complaints. Tom and some others think that people get married and buy a home, live in it for 40 years, and, and then pass it down to their children. Their address stays the same for most of their lives.
But like half of the people in this city, I don’t have the salary or family money needed to buy a house and put down roots at one address. So I rent. And occasionally I move.
To be clear, there are strict residency rules governing where a person has to live in order to run for city council. I am in full compliance with all of them - that actually gets checked before you are accepted as a candidate. I invite the city clerk and district attorney to do any further investigation they need, because I have nothing to hide.
But also be clear, what’s happening here is wrong. This is a one-two punch from the firefighters and Tom Butt to try to disenfranchise not only me, but all people like me. In addition to being the main promoter of this bogus complaint, Mayor Butt is planning to introduce a regulation saying, and I’m not kidding here, that a person cannot run for city council unless they have a statement from their landlord vouching for them. Butt's proposed regulation will violate the right to hold office for homeless, young, and low-income people trying to survive in this economy. We are the people who should be holding public office, not barred from it, or harassed with legal complaints when we try.
Luckily, this race will not be decided by Tom, who lives outside of District 1 in Point Richmond, or the firefighters, most of whom don’t live in Richmond at all.
Instead it is my neighbors in District 1 who will determine whether I am local enough to elect to represent their interests. Districting is a new concept in Richmond, but District 1 is not new to me. I attended Chavez Elementary School, learned to play baseball at Wendell Park, and I’ve bought so many Phila burgers in my lifetime that they know my order when I walk in the door.
I love living in Richmond, and in District 1, and I hope voters will give me the opportunity to represent their interests again on City Council
First of all, Melvin erroneously identified me as a filer of the letter. This is not true. The letter speaks for itself. He also attributed the concerns to a “cultural misunderstanding,” which is apparently a failure to appreciate that some people are not subject to the law while others are.
Second, while Melvin may, in fact, be staying at 2369 Lowell Street, he is apparently living in an illegally constructed and illegally occupied backyard studio apartment that is was never permitted, never registered with the Rent Program, never registered with or inspected by the City’s Rental Inspection program, and never recognized by the Contra Costa County Assessor. In other words, the owner, Melvin’s landlord, is profiting from renting the unit while cheating the City of Richmond and Contra Costa County out of hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars a year in fees and taxes.
The director of the Rent Program wrote:
Yesterday, I conducted an inspection on … 2369 Lowell St. 801. 2369 Lowell St. is a single family home with a small studio apartment in the back. The main house is owner-occupied. A live-in caretaker lives with the property owner. The small studio in the back, which included a small bathroom and kitchenette was occupied by a tenant. The property owner is working with our Billing and Registration Unit to enroll the property, register the tenancy and pay the appropriate Rental Housing Fee for the back unit.
Sound familiar? This is close to the same scenario with Melvin’s RPA running mate, Claudia Jimenez, who was caught several years ago doing the same thing with a backyard studio. As an author of Measure L, Jimenez should have known better. When confronted, she provided the following excuse:
In emails and Facebook posts, Jimenez and Moore acknowledged they are renting out their house and have not registered with the city since moving to Colombia in July, as required by law.
“We rent out our house to a beautiful family we are friends with, and another friend,” the couple said in one email response, adding, “We have nothing to hide. We are looking into whether there are some forms we need to file.” (https://richmondstandard.com/richmond/2017/10/09/mayor-rpa-members-who-pushed-for-rent-control-are-unlicensed-unregistered-landlords/)
While Melvin may not have personal and legal responsibility for his landlord flouting at least four different laws related to his domicile, you would think as a city Council member, candidate for reelection and a former candidate for mayor, he would have some concern about whether the place in which he lives conforms to the law, particularly Measure L, which he was paid by ACCE to advocate for. His attitude is, “not my problem.” If nothing else, Melvin is probably benefitting from a lower rental rate than he would have if his landlord was law-abiding.
This is the problem with RPA people. They have no problem passing extreme laws that they expect everyone but themselves to conform to.
Najari Smith, candidate for City Council in District 5, defended the complaint that he does not actually live in District 5 as follows:
Public Statement: District 5 Residency
Hello members of the community.
Short Statement: I do live in District 5, and would never deceive our community.
Longer Statement: As many are likely aware by now, there has been a targeted political smear campaign against me, accusing me of election fraud and not living in the district I’m currently running to win a seat in for Richmond City Council. I was just as confused as everyone else, when opening an odd email from Sutton Law Firm on the behalf of the International Association of Firefighters, Local 188 - while in my home within District 5. It was quite concerning seeing I, a Black male, was once again being criminalized for a crime that didn’t happen. This email was directed to the Contra Costa County DA’s office, and Richmond City Clerk, and cc’d myself and another Black candidate. That said, my statement speaks for myself. My remarks do not represent that of the other candidate. One can imagine the level of anxiety and mental stress when being accused of felonious activity. What was more disturbing, was reading what can be interpreted as me being stalked, and my every movement and interactions being monitored. Once more, as a Black male in this socio-political climate, I find this extremely uncomfortable. Can a Black person not freely visit their partner who lives in a different section of the city? Are Black people not allowed to be intimate and have relationships? Or are we supposed to allow ourselves and our bodies to be policed and monitored at all times? I had no intention on making this a public issue, as I already addressed the issue directly with the DA’s office reply email. I seldom ever make matters public, which is common for many Black and Brown people. Otherwise, we are considered combative and aggressive. In summary, I highlighted to the DA that this was a frivolous political attack, and slandering. None of which I appreciated. I kindly requested that the harassment stop, and that the DA dismiss the issue, as the complaint was also a call to waste precious resources and time. However, I made it clear to the DA, that should they feel a need to seek proof, that I would gladly comply. I have never misrepresented myself, nor ever will. My commitment to this community proves that. Nor do I sling mud in the public to cover the smoke. Hence, I had no intention to make this a public issue
However, our mayor decided to make this a public issue, when it did not involve him. I’ve had fruitful engagements with him in the past, and never had a reason to have any hostility. We may disagree on some policies, but we seem to both love Richmond. I was happy to have his support when I was wrongfully criminalized for biking while Black in Oakland. So I am quite surprised to see that he posted a piece that illustrated false accusations of election fraud - actively participating in the criminalizing of a Black person. I would have hoped that he would have contacted me first to see what’s going on, before carelessly posting something without vetting facts. I hope he learns from this dangerous mistake of harming Black and Brown community members in this manner. Intention doesn’t matter, when impact is the paramount issue.
I’m left with the only option of now having to make this a public spectacle, to clear my name. It is unfortunate that People of Color in our community are constantly subjected to having to prove our innocence, but not recognized for our excellence. If the mayor’s intent was to point out a potential issue of criminal activity, then that is a reflection on lack of oversight in leadership to properly check candidate documents when applying to run to city council. It may have felt like harmlessly sharing information, but it is far more than that when it’s a mayor sharing information that can greatly harm and negatively impact a candidate’s political campaign and their personal life. I would expect nothing more than a public apology, as this is perceived as problematic activity to subvert the progress of my election campaign. I have no reason to escalate the issue or perpetuate any form of toxicity, when the focus should be on empowering our community members in Richmond, California. However, an apology is warranted nonetheless.
We Are Richmond, and We Can Do Better.
Let’s #ReimagineRichmond together. It’s not me, it’s we
Despite self-righteous outrage, Najari never has confirmed that he actually lives at 801 Marina Way South other than registering to vote at that address. The property is not permitted for residential use and, like 2369 Lowell, is not registered with the Rent Program or the Rental Inspection program. There is no other evidence that Najari actually occupies 801 Marina Way South as a domicile.
The inspection of 801 Marina Bay South was less successful. The property appears to be or have been some type of industrial shop, with three separate doors. There appeared to be occupants living behind the middle door… It does appear from the initial inspection that there is at least some of the space at this property being occupied for residential purposes, which would trigger the requirement to enroll with the Rent Program. The Rent Program will need to conduct further investigation and outreach regarding 801 Marina Bay S. to determine whether or not the property is in compliance with the requirements of the Rent Ordinance.
I have been recently excoriated by numerous individuals for suggesting a more rigorous verification of residency for candidates, including verification that properties rented by candidates or City Council members be incompliance with the Rent Program. Some people believe this is neither important nor anyone’s business. I can tell you, however, that every Rent Program scofflaw drives up the fees for those who are obeying the law, which is a form of theft.
If the RPA thinks this is okay, voters should know this and take it into consideration when choosing who to represent Richmond residents on the City Council.