The Richmond City Council took on a packed schedule last night at its first scheduled meeting for the month of June. There were 24 items on the agenda and that did not even include the 18 citizens who stood up to speak during the open comment forum alone.
Two major matters were the focus of attention: the first reading of the newly drafted minimum wage ordinance. The second, items relating to the Planning Commission’s review and approval of the Chevron final environmental impact report (FEIR).
The first reading of the new minimum wage ordinance took place. Council approved a second reading for the next meeting. The minimum wage ordinance appears full steam ahead.
As currently formulated, the minimum wage will be raised in stages over a period of years, finally reaching thirteen dollars per hour in 2018 at which point further increases will be tied to a cost-of-living adjustment index. Businesses that pay for fewer than 800 hours of billable labor over a two week period will be exempt from the Richmond wage ordinance as will those businesses that see more than 50% of their points of sale outside of Richmond.
Two items then came up around the FEIR that may have big future ramifications. First, the Council approved a resolution urging the Planning Commission to move through its approval process for the FEIR as expeditiously as possible. Second, the Council amended the Richmond Municipal Code to allow the Council to bypass the approval authority of the Planning Commission for items that have been previously approved by the Council but subsequently ordered back to the Council for re-review and approval by a judge.
The first two items are rather self-evident in their importance to the community, but it is the latter item – the one that relates to previously approved project proposals that have been subjected to litigation and sent back to the Council by writ of a judge – that could become extremely contentious in the upcoming months.
On first look, the item appears somewhat pedestrian and bureaucratic, but the actual importance of the amendment is that the current Chevron EIR is, under the law, a redrafting of the 2008 Chevron EIR. The EIR had been approved by the Council and rejected by a judge only to then be returned to the city by order of a writ. In short, this means that if the City Council decides that the Planning Commission is taking too long or is being remiss in its duties to review and approve or deny the new FEIR, the Council may take matters into its own hands. The Council could approve or deny the FEIR modernization proposal by itself, relegating the Planning Commission to an advisory role.
Councilmember Tom Butt, who sponsored and introduced the ordinance amendment, called it the “plan B” approach to getting the FEIR moved through the review process should the resolution urging the Planning Commission to move quickly prove ineffective. If the Planning Commission fails to move forward at a pace that is in line with the Council’s expectations, then the Council will now have the power to bypass the Planning Commission and take it out of their hands.
Mayor McLaughlin voted against the amendment. She accused some of her fellow council members of intending to rubber stamp the FEIR for Chevron.
She received fierce retorts both from some of her colleagues and members of the public who said that the Planning Commission and the RPA members on the Council are in a holding pattern to stall the approval of the FEIR in order to push it into election season. They are accused of attempting to hold it up for the foreseeable future for political gain.
The views of Butt and his supporters on the Council are not without merit according to several of the public speakers who addressed the Council on the issue last night. They pointed out that the Planning Commission is largely packed with RPA supporters. Speakers argued the commission is unlikely to quickly approve anything that Mayor McLaughlin and Vice Mayor Beckles oppose.
Vice Mayor Beckles, however, was not present for the vote on the ordinance. She left the meeting earlier when it was extended by the Council specifically to address this matter.
Whatever the future deliberations of the Planning Commission hold for the FEIR, it is clear that the clock is ticking toward a major confrontation this summer between the RPA, which opposes all things Chevron, and the members of the Council who see the jobs provided and the improvements in safety conditions with modernization are a net positive for the community.