Today, I have two months and five days left as mayor of Richmond and only four more regular City Council meetings to attend. I am Richmond’s sixth elected mayor and the longest continuously serving City Council member in Richmond history. A new mayor will be sworn in January 10, 2023.
Figure 1 - Victory party 2014
I get four questions multiple times a day that I will try to answer here.
- What will you do when you retire?
- Will you continue the E-FORUM?
- What accomplishments are you most proud of?
- What are your regrets and disappointments?
What will you do when you retire?
I am not retiring from life, only elected office -- involuntarily, I might add. After eight years as mayor, I am termed out. Technically, I could run for City Council, but after 27+ years, it’s time to make room for some new and younger representation and leadership. Along with leaving the office of mayor, I will also be forced to retire from multiple board and committee positions on MCE, LAFCO, BCDC, CCTA, WCCTAC, ABAG, Contra Costa Mayors Conference, US Conference of Mayors, Climate Mayors, and the League of California Cities, leaving a scramble among those aiming to replace me. These regional and statewide appointments have been critical in bringing many benefits to and for Richmond, including hundreds of millions of dollars in grants, public works projects, legislation and a seat at the larger table. In my final year as mayor, it has been my privilege to chair both MCE and the Contra Costa Mayors Conference. Previously, I have chaired CCTA, LAFCO and CivicWell (formerly Local Government Commission). Serving on these regional boards and commissions has been a joy; they all have outstanding staff, and, in contrast to the Richmond City Council, my fellow board members respect me and practice collegiality among themselves.
Most people who do not know me well are surprised to hear that I am and continue to be a practicing architect in my firm, Interactive Resources. I serve on and will continue to serve on the boards of two nonprofits, East Brother Light Station, Inc and Rosie the Riveter Trust. I have also been asked to remain on the board of CivicWell as the designated emeritus member for the coming year.
As a personal note, Shirley and I have five grandchildren who live only a few blocks away, six goats and three dogs. People always ask, “Will you travel?” I hope so, but Shirley and I have not let political life interfere with the opportunity to travel. We just got back from 10 days in Japan. As a City Council member and mayor, I have traveled to all three of our sister cities in China, Cuba and Japan, attended numerous conferences in dozens of cities, visited Burning Man as a guest of the mayor of Reno, and attended COP21 in Paris with a delegation from MCE. In the last 27 years, we have travelled extensively in Europe, Asia and New Zealand.
Figure 2 - Tom and Shirley at Burning Man
Figure 3 - At Dinner with Paris Mayor Ann Hidalgo in the Eiffel Tower
Figure 4 - At dinner with Shimada Mayor Kinuyo Someya
Will you continue the E-FORUM?
I don’t know. What do you think?
What accomplishments are you most proud of?
It’s been quite a journey! In 27+ years, changes in Richmond have been dramatic. When I was elected in 1995, the population of Richmond was 90,452; today it is 115,901, a 28% increase of more than 25,000 people -- more than the population of Pinole or El Cerrito, and close to the population of Hercules or San Pablo. I have attended or chaired thousands of city council meetings, hundreds of regional board and commission meetings, been through six city managers, a dozen interim city managers, three mayors (four if you count me), two city halls (three if you count both the old and rehabilitated Civic Center) and dozens of City Council members. When I started, the City Council had nine members – now it has seven. Two years ago, we went from election of City Council members at large to election by districts.
The demographics have also shifted dramatically as the Latino population became the dominant demographic. In 2021, Richmond was rated the Most Diverse City in the United States.
My original motivation for running for City Council included frustration that special interests, notably Chevron, industry and Darrell Reese, exercised excessive influence over both staff and the City Council. A Richmond City Council predecessor, the late David MacDiarmid, a good government and sound planning advocate, was turned out of office following a blistering and vindictive negative campaign directed by Darrell Reese. If MacDiarmid had not been defeated, I might not have ever run for City Council. Today, Reese is long gone, and Chevron’s grip on the City has pretty much evaporated, having reached its high-water mark before 2014 when Chevron spent $3 million on a full slate of candidates, all of whom were defeated.
The last eight years have seen the lowest average homicide rate of any mayor in recent history, and in the last 15 years, residents’ perceptions of Richmond have improved dramatically,.
Figure 5 – Richmond homicides over the years
Figure 6 – Residents’ perceptions of Richmond over the years (Richmond Community Surveys)
Looking back at some of the things we have accomplished in the last 27 years in which I participated or played a significant role, I would list, in no particular order:
- Building out Marina Bay, Richmond’s showcase mixed use waterfront redevelopment project that turned a polluted former WWII shipyard into a vibrant new neighborhood where thousands reside, work and play.
- Rehabilitating Richmond’s historic Civic Center. It was built in 1949-50 when Richmond was still flush from WWII and optimistic about the future and described by Architectural Forum as America’s “first modern civic center built in any American city.” Some people wanted to tear it down and build new one, but it was important for continuity of our local heritage to preserve it while updating the interiors to modern standards. “In restoring its Civic Center, the residents and government of Richmond didn't simply save a piece of the past. They also placed a vote of confidence in the future – again” (John King, San Francisco Chronicle May 26, 2009)
- Establishing a $35 million Richmond Promise Program to boost a college-going culture for Richmond high school graduates, the largest such program in California. To date, the Richmond Promise has 1,948 active scholar recipients and $7.92 million in pledged scholarships. 72% of scholars are low-income and 68% are first generation college students. 129 Richmond Promise scholars have been hired as Year-Round Near-Peer Access Supporters since 2016. This was part of a $90 million Environment and Community Investment Agreement (ECIA), a community benefits agreement negotiated in concert with approval of a $1 billion Chevron refinery modernization project.
- A significant increase in how residents rate their quality of life in Richmond since the Community Survey started in 2007.
- Cleaning up Richmond government by hiring Bill Lindsay as city manager, who in turn, hired Chris Magnus as police chief. I look back on this as sort of a golden age for Richmond. Lindsay was not perfect, but he was honest, respected and fair. He had lunch once a month with every City Council member to discuss priorities and concerns. While the City Council could be contentious at meetings, Lindsay promoted a collegiality we haven’t seen since. Whenever a City Council meeting ended before 9:20 PM, he would take us out for drinks where we would discuss everything but City business. Gayle was the only one who never joined us.
- Establishing more railroad Quiet Zones than any city in California
- Adopting the General Plan 2030 and Climate Action/Adaptation Plan, cutting edge documents supporting both significant growth and sustainability.
- Completion of the Richmond Greenway and other environmental and quality of life projects in Central Richmond, which has most recently been the recipient of a $35 million Transformative Climate Communities Grant.
- Expansion of the Bay Trail to have more miles completed than any city on San Francisco Bay.
- Completion of the Richmond Ferry Terminal and operation of Richmond - San Francisco ferry service.
- Establishing Rosie the Riveter WWII Homefront National Historical Park and Rosie the Riveter Trust. Although City Council member Donna Powers initiated recognition of Richmond’s WWII heritage with the Rosie the Riveter Memorial, I spearheaded the effort to establish a national park, authoring multiple items of supporting local legislation, founding Rosie the River Trust, testifying before Congress and negotiating a place for the Visitor Center in the Ford Assembly Plant.
- Adopting a Historic Preservation Ordinance, getting Richmond’s historic preservation program certified by the State Office of Historic Preservation (Certified Local Government), establishing the Historic Preservation Commission and saving and rehabilitating Richmond’s most iconic historic buildings. I provided the successful National Register nomination that saved the Ford Assembly Plant from impending demolition. I successfully advocated for rehabilitation of the historic Civic Center, raised $8 million in grants and tax credits to rehabilitate the Maritime Child Care Center and wrote successful grant applications and advocated for rehabilitation of the Riggers Loft, the subject of a bitterly contested City Council decision, and fought for a permanent berth for the Red Oak Victory. I facilitated rehabilitation of the Santa Fe Reading Room (Point Richmond Mechanics Bank Branch) -- a complicated, multi-party deal involving City-owned land that resulted in moving an abandoned building in the BNSF trainyard to become Mechanics Bank’s most profitable Richmond office. Richmond has received many awards for its historic preservation program, including designation as a Preserve America Community in 2006. Along with recognition, historic preservation has brought tens of millions of dollars in grants and tax credits to Richmond and created hundreds of jobs.
- Joining MCE Clean Energy as the first expansion city outside Marin County, saving Richmond residents millions of dollars on electricity and reducing greenhouse gases significantly. The MCE Solar 1 installation in Richmond is the largest publicly operated PV facility in the Bay Area and another result of the Chevron ECIA. A high point for me was attending COP 21 as part of an MCE delegation and actually watching, in person, the adoption of the Paris Climate Accords. I currently chair the board of MCE, which serves half a million accounts in four counties with a budget of half a billon dollars.
- Winding up our expensive and frustrating experience with HUD and the Richmond Housing Authority. The Section 8 program has been transferred to the Contra Costa Housing Authority, and all public housing projects have been or are in the pipeline to be privatized. One of my first acts as mayor was a visit to Washington DC with Congressman DeSaulnier to secure Section 8 vouchers for Hacienda. One of my last acts will be opening a rehabilitated Hacienda for occupancy.
Figure 7 - Richmond Ferry pulls into the terminal adjacent to the Craneway
Figure 8 - MCE Solar 1 produces 10.5 megawatts, serving 7% of Richmond's electrical load
Figure 9 - Richmond Promise - By the Numbers
Figure 10 - Chevron ECIA Budget. Another $10 million was credited for the land donated for Solar 1.
What are your regrets and Disappointments?
My biggest disappointment is the deterioration over the last eight years of the relationship between the Richmond Progressive Alliance (RPA) City Council members and me. When the RPA first emerged in the early 2000s, I both welcomed and supported them. I endorsed them in their campaigns for office. We had much in common, notably environmental issues, climate change, reining in the power of Chevron, cleaning up government and promoting sustainable growth. But things started seriously going south eight years ago and deteriorated dramatically about four or five years ago. The RPA excommunicated members, including Jeff Ritterman, Ada Recinos and Ben Choi, who did not toe the party line and wanted to collaborate with non-believers. RPA City Council members refused to listen to anyone outside their hard core or compromise on anything. They adopted a radical and aggressive, social agenda pushing unproven polices, became NIMBYs and turned arrogant mean spirited, nasty and vindictive. They turned on the business community and the police. It has become worse than the time Corky Booze was on the City Council, but Corky’s antics were directed at Gayle and Jovanka, not me. Last year, the RPA City Council members, in an unprecedented act of malice, voted to both condemn and censure me and wasted hundreds of thousands of dollars in public funds investigating and suing me, all to no avail. Having to deal, as mayor, with the RPA City Council members with their constant interruptions, rambling speeches, filibustering, unending stupid questions and breaches of parliamentary procedures has been, to say the least, frustrating.
My second biggest regret has been Point Molate. I worked for the last 27 years towards saving and reviving the Winehaven Historic District, planning for public access and deriving significant City revenue from Point Molate. The RPA City Council members wiped all that out, ultimately selling the developable areas for $400 to the Guidiville Tribe and Upstream. There is no plan for the future of the historic resources at Winehaven, no public access (except the beach park), and no known prospect for City revenue. The Winehaven Historic District buildings continue to seriously deteriorate. In fact, instead of revenue, the City is spending millions on litigation, security and maintenance. And, the RPA City Council members were aided and abetted by a pandering and incompetent city attorney and several elected officials, including Senator Skinner, Supervisor John Gioia and EBRPD Director Elizabeth Echols. The RPA City Councilmembers also continue to try to and kill the Campus Bay project that is currently entitled for some 4,000 housing units.
Figure 11 - The future of Point Molate is uncertain
I miss the stability of the Bill Lindsay years. After over a decade of stability and good (but not perfect) management from 2005 to 2018, Richmond became a revolving door, with two city managers fired, multiple interim city managers, one city attorney forced out, and too many incompetent people working at top management positions. We are still finding our way out of the woods, but it has been neither easy nor pleasant.
From the beginning of my first term, I wanted to annex the unincorporated areas of the El Sobrante Valley and North Richmond, which are already designated by LAFCO as being in Richmond’s Sphere of Influence. I was and still am convinced that residents of those areas would receive better and more efficient services from the City of Richmond than from Contra Costa County. I made two runs at annexation, one in 1996 and another in 2019 (North Richmond only), but alas, the residents were not interested, and the City Council voted to pull the plug.
Although I am a licensed architect and contractor and founder of an architecture-engineering firm (Interactive Resources) that will celebrate 50 years in 2023, serving hundreds of federal, state and local public agency clients for hundreds of millions of dollars in projects, I am disappointed that over the years neither staff, nor especially City Council members, have taken advantage of, or even acknowledged, my expertise and experience in planning, building and public works. When I first ran for City Council, I thought that my experience and knowledge in planning, design and construction was the most valuable thing I had to offer as a City Council member. Federal, state and local public agencies continue to pay me well for my expertise, but when I offer it or free, it is routinely rejected by staff and Council. A lot of what the Richmond staff and City Council does is related to land use, development projects, and public works contracts. My input and opinions have been routinely ignored in favor of those from individuals with less or little expertise and experience. I will always remember the City Council and staff rejecting my plea for operable windows in the Civic Center rehabilitation, recalling “A prophet is honored everywhere except in his own hometown and among his relatives and his own family.”.
I am disappointed that new housing development is stalled out in Richmond because of Rent Control and Just Cause, the anti-business bias of the City Council and lack of staff with the expertise to manage and negotiate with developers. The city attorney has also interfered with the Design Review process, allowing degrading design changes that take projects from superior to mediocre. Neither staff nor the RPA controlled City Council is sensitive to this.
I want to thank all the incredible individuals who have staffed the Mayor’s Office these last eight years – Terrance Cheung, David Gray, Irene Lozano, Alex Knox, Sequoia Erasmus, Ruben Hernandez Story, Dominique Roache-Green, Christopher Whitmore, Leisa Johnson, and Vernon Whitmore, plus several great interns. They have all risen to every occasion, responded cheerfully and creatively to complaints and requests from hundreds of constituents, done great research, supported other City staff, and often worked nights and weekends. I will miss them.
It was a pleasure to work for 13 years with City Manager Bill Lindsay, and I continue to be impressed with our newest city manager, Shasa Curl. I’m glad to see Police Chief Bisa French back on board. Former Planning Director Richard Mitchell had a vision and a refreshing directness that greatly improved Richmond’s built environment. His successor, Lina Velasco, is also smart, hardworking and responsive. Interim City Managers Steve Falk and Henry Gardner were great to work with. I won’t mention the others who were not so memorable.
I appreciate the staff of Interactive Resources who filled in for me and supported me when I was off doing City business. They even often even fielded constituent calls when people were looking for me about Richmond issues.
Thanks to the many people who have supported my political campaigns over the years as campaign staff, consultants, donors, volunteers and endorsers. Together, we won seven elections!
Finally, I couldn’t have done any of this without the support of Shirley, my wife of 51 years, and my other family members, one of whom, Andrew, is running for City Council in District 2.
Figure 11 - Andrew Butt for City Council