Most times the Richmond City Council meets, it can't get out of its own way. Spectators bellow at the council. Council members bicker among themselves. Everyone yammers, and Mayor Gayle McLaughlin pounds her gavel to declare a recess. Agenda items are routinely delayed.
The circus atmosphere draws large, rowdy crowds, especially when hot-button tickets such as the housing authority or eminent domain are on the docket. That's what made last week's session, at which the Chevron refinery's modernization plan was approved, such a pinch-me-I'm-dreaming moment. Sure, it went on for hours, and there was no shortage of opinions or speakers. But the council arrived at a rational decision, without rancor or histrionics.
"It took a lot of time and effort to get to where we got," Councilman Tom Butt said, "but I'm satisfied with it."
In exchange for approving Chevron's plans for a $1 billion upgrade that will include replacement of a half-century-old hydrogen plant, the city secured guarantees for no increases in greenhouse emissions, a cap on the amount of high-sulfur crude oil processed and $90 million in what's called voluntary community benefits. Thank-you money, if you will.
The terms were hammered out over weeks and months in what Councilman Jim Rogers called "an up-and-down, rocky, sometimes ugly negotiating process with a lot of stops and starts. I can't really defend the process. I can defend the results."
Environmentalists will always nitpick air safety standards -- even though Chevron acceded to state Attorney General Kamala Harris' stringent emission terms -- but there's no debating the overall benefits.
The 10-year funding commitment will pay for college scholarships, job training, public safety projects, sustainable transportation, rooftop solar, youth programs, urban forestry, a solar farm and a community climate action plan in a deal negotiated by Butt, Rogers and colleague Jael Myrick. (Some argue that Doctors Medical Center should get a cut of the bounty, but that's a discussion for another day.)
"This project will get people in the trades back to work," Councilman Nat Bates aid. "It'll mean 1,000 new jobs."
Rogers said council members met almost daily in recent weeks, fine-tuning the agreement.
"We had people bombarding us from inside and out," he said, "pushing us to vote yes or no. I was just fried at the end. There was the big picture to understand, and then the money and then the specific programs."
Bates, who noted that the benefit package climbed from $30 million to $60 million to $90 million, said that's because the project was important to Chevron. But he never forgot it was also important to Richmond.
"A lot of positives came out of it," he said. "It was a win-win."
McLaughlin and Vice Mayor Jovanka Beckles, fervid Chevron critics, notably abstained in what ended as a 5-0 vote. But that seemed like unity for a council that routinely produces split votes.
"For the first time in several months, this council came together and supported what was in the best interest of Richmond," Bates said.
"It's not all that often," Rogers added, "that you can feel you're part of doing something that actually matters."
Environmental groups threatened a legal challenge because that's what they do. But the image that lingers is of a rare circus-free night for the Richmond City Council.
Contact Tom Barnidge at firstname.lastname@example.org.