Contra Costa Times: City Hall flaps shake faith in Richmond's leaders

blogimage.jpgRe-posted from The Contra Costa Times: This blue-collar city has drawn nationwide attention in recent years for trying to take a lead role in attacking societal problems such as childhood obesity and the foreclosure crisis.

But as focus has centered on first-in-the-nation efforts to enact a soda tax and seize underwater mortgages, a string of City Hall controversies surrounding mismanagement and misuse of public funds has shaken some residents' faith in Richmond's leaders.

"There is a lack of leadership," said Joshua Genser, an attorney based in Point Richmond. "Rather than focusing on their responsibility of paving our streets and taking care of our residents in public housing, our council pursues a global agenda."

Accusations of poor performance and unethical behavior have rocked the city's housing authority, forced the resignation of the No. 2 city administrator and drawn scrutiny of the city's port operations. While city leaders and staff have taken expensive trips around the globe and confronted global behemoths such as Wall Street mortgage bankers and Chevron Corp., some of the city's poorest residents complain that they wait months for faucets to be fixed in their public housing units.

"Government is not operating well in some respects," said City Councilman Nat Bates, who has vocally opposed some of the city's bold social initiatives. "While we are pursuing these national headlines, the simple chores of day-to-day government are left unattended."

Some argue that the city's recent missteps have been exaggerated and point to significant strides in recent years in improving public safety and spurring economic development. However, there's no denying the past year has been rocky at City Hall.

The latest flap centers on the city-run housing authority, where a series of recent news stories by nonprofit The Center for Investigative Reporting revealed that the agency ranks among the worst in the nation, with decrepit conditions at one of the authority's public housing complexes. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development also deemed Housing Director Tim Jones "ineffective."

The news coverage also revealed that an agency official had steered housing authority contracts to his brother and that another official had charged personal expenses to the authority that were later repaid.

The revelations of mismanagement of a key city program tasked with serving the housing needs of some of Richmond's neediest residents stood in stark contrast to the council's focus in recent months on a plan to rescue distressed homeowners by seizing and refinancing underwater mortgages using eminent domain.

"The city of Richmond itself has been a major purveyor of blight and substandard housing, so it is absolutely the height of hypocrisy that they pursued an eminent domain scheme blaming others for housing conditions," said Jeffrey Wright, a member of the Contra Costa Association of Realtors, which opposes the mortgage-seizure plan.

In June, Human Resources Director Leslie Knight resigned after an independent report revealed that she improperly received at least $400 monthly in a car allowance while also using a city vehicle; used paid city staff to make trinkets; and ordered a subordinate to access a whistleblower's emails after she lodged a complaint against Knight. City Manager Bill Lindsay for months resisted calls to fire Knight, and credited her for helping "steer a path that provided for fiscal responsibility."

Problems also remain at the city's Port Department. A 2011 audit found pervasive mismanagement, incomplete record keeping and heavy debt to the city, but Lindsay stuck with Port Director Jim Matzorkis and has said the port's management deficiencies are on the mend. Thus far, he has stuck with housing director Jones as well.

Lindsay, who since his hiring in 2004 has been credited with helping restore the city's fiscal health and confidence in local government following a disastrous budget crisis, has come under fire as the city's top executive overseeing subordinates accused of misconduct and incompetence.

"It is extremely unfortunate that we have had personnel issues that have may have shaken the public's confidence in the city, but when they do come up, it's important that we deal with them, and I believe that we have," he said.

In December, elected officials and city staff were criticized by the public -- and each other -- for racking up nearly $50,000 in taxpayer-funded trips to sister cities in Japan, China and Cuba.

Meanwhile, the city's eminent domain plan has consumed dozens of hours of council meeting times, drawn lawsuits from Wall Street and made it harder for the city to borrow money on the bond market. Recently, the City Council has been considering whether to put a measure on the November ballot that could raise the minimum wage in the city to the highest in the Bay Area.

Councilman Jim Rogers said that while he is concerned about the housing authority, he doesn't think issues such as eminent domain and the failed soda tax proposal, which voters overwhelmingly rejected in 2012, have sapped the city's energy.

"I don't think there is any distraction," he said. "When you have a large organization like Richmond, there are going to be some hiccups over the years."

The city's struggles haven't been limited to high-profile management scandals. When the 2012 Chevron refinery fire caused a plunge in the assessed value of the city's largest tax engine, it opened a $6 million budget hole and raised questions about why city leaders had failed to anticipate the drop. The city is suing Chevron for damages stemming from the fire.

In a lengthy post on his website last week, Councilman Tom Butt urged caution and decried the "feeding frenzy" of critics. Butt, who thinks the housing authority problems have been blown out of proportion by sensational news coverage, praised Lindsay as a "good manager and a good leader" and drew parallels between the current controversies and those that beset the city years ago when top police officials sued the city and Police Chief Chris Magnus for suspected discrimination. Lindsay stood behind Magnus, who ultimately prevailed in court.

"Several council members suggested it was time for Magnus to go and that the city should bite the bullet and pay millions to make the problem go away," Butt wrote. "But Lindsay stuck by his chief, as ultimately did the City Council. Magnus was exonerated."

Others also have urged less outrage as damning reports trickle in.

Resident Don Gosney, who has attended every council meeting for years, called the city's mounting problems "fixable" and said that replacing Lindsay would compound its problems.

"We have a mob mentality in Richmond, and a small group of people provide select information to the public and try to whip them into a frenzy," Gosney said.

But in the wake of the housing authority flap, another resident, Charles Smith, had harsh words for city leaders who pride themselves on standing up for disadvantaged residents.

"Regardless of all the talk of a Richmond renaissance, Richmond remains a corrupt city," Smith said at a recent council meeting. "Lindsay and the progressive leadership on the council have condoned a culture of corruption, incompetence and lack of accountability."

By Robert Rogers, Contra Costa Times

Copyright © 2014 Contra Costa Times

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