Richmond council tables district elections issue following opposition from members, residents

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Richmond City Council expressed opposition Tuesday night to switching to a district-based format of elections rather than the current “at large” system, then voted to table a proposal to study the possibility.

By a 6-0 vote, with Vice Mayor Jael Myrick abstaining, council agreed to set the issue aside for another time rather than set aside funds to study it. A handful of residents spoke in opposition to district elections at the meeting, while none spoke in support.

Several councilmembers indicated the proposal for district elections was a “solution looking for a problem.”

“I think it’s a waste of time and effort,” Councilmember Nat Bates said.

For years, some residents have called for the change to district elections, where voters can vote only for the candidate who represents their designated area of the city. They say the current “at large” system — where every Richmond voter votes for every candidate for council no matter where the candidate lives in the city — favors candidates from wealthier areas or those backed by powerful special interest groups. They argue at large elections encourage under-representation of certain neighborhoods, particularly those where minority groups reside.

Though several Southern California cities are moving to switch to district elections, particularly those where neighborhoods are racially segregated, Richmond councilmembers and residents said Tuesday their city would not benefit in the same way.

Richmond “does not have demographic isolation,” Mayor Tom Butt said, adding there is diversity on council with three black members, one Latino, another white and the other Indian American.

Richmond councilmembers also agreed the district system pits neighborhoods against neighborhoods at the expense of citywide goals, as districts would “fight among themselves for scarce resources instead of working for the city as a whole,” Butt said.

Bates also pointed out if one councilmember is not liked by others, “he wouldn’t get a dime in his district.”

“My perspective is when you are elected to represent the city of Richmond, you are elected to represent everyone, including those who didn’t vote for you,” Bates said.

Other opponents of the move to district elections cited the potential for corruption when attempting to divide the city into districts. Public members pointed out the city already has 37 neighborhood councils that are effectively advocating for their areas by lobbying council members.

Yet another concern was the cost to study and implement district elections in a city that is running a $7.9 million deficit. As the change would have to occur at the ballot box, the cost could exceed $500,000, according to information from Richmond’s city clerk and the city of Merced, which is examining the issue.

The issue of Richmond’s small size was also brought up, and some say the proposed system would reduce the quality of candidates elected to council, as a losing candidate in one district may be more qualified, and desired by more voters citywide, than a winning candidate in another.

In 1991, a ballot measure to switch to district elections failed, Butt said.

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