Since January, the new Richmond City Council has been effective in moving the city in a positive direction, though bickering and some spite votes have caused setbacks.

"Yes, there has been a lot of personal stuff," said Councilwoman Maria Viramontes, a leading member of the council majority. "But we actually made a lot of hard decisions together, and if all of the fighting, crying and whining are part of that, I guess we'll have to work with it."

The council's summer break began July 31, and its next meeting is scheduled for Sept. 11. When they return, council members will consider the expansion of the Chevron Refinery, a potential scandal involving the city's wastewater management company, Veolia Water, and the ongoing process to update the general plan.

The council's composition changed dramatically after the November election, with Green Party member Gayle McLaughlin winning the nonpartisan mayor's seat after serving two years as a councilwoman. With very little money, McLaughlin unseated Mayor Irma Anderson, who had a formidable campaign war chest stuffed with contributions from Chevron.

McLaughlin's membership in the Green Party has had no effect on her ability to find common ground with her council colleagues, who have been like-minded on many environmental and social issues.

McLaughlin also has been successful at increasing grass-roots participation at City Council and community meetings, which has helped to somewhat loosen the stranglehold industry, developers and city unions have long had on city policy.


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Council neophytes Ludmyrna Lopez and Harpreet Sandhu still are finding their way on the council and largely have voted in lockstep with their council mentors, Viramontes, Councilman John Marquez and, to a lesser degree, Vice Mayor Nat Bates.

Those five form the council majority and often vote in opposition to a loose-knit rival faction of McLaughlin and Councilmen Tom Butt, Tony Thurmond and occasionally Jim Rogers.

Despite the dustups, the council has successfully continued to regain the respect of city residents and the Bay Area.

Perhaps most significantly, the city regained its favored bond ratings from both Moody's Investor Service and Standard & Poors thanks to the council's consistent fiscal discipline. The favored bond rating is doubtless a sign of financial recovery from a $35 million budget crisis in 2004 that resulted from six years of gross mismanagement under former City Manager Isiah Turner.

The council also doubled the annual funding for critically needed street repairs and launched the $111 million first phase of the Civic Center renovation.

Under McLaughlin's leadership, Richmond has become more environmentally friendly. The council rolled out the welcome mat to green businesses by declaring Richmond a Green Economic Development Area, reduced solar fees to the lowest in the Bay Area and approved the Green Building Ordinance, which governs construction of all city-funded projects greater than $300,000.

The council formed the Office of Neighborhood Safety to coordinate anti-violence programs among city departments, the West Contra Costa Unified School District and nonprofit groups.

And the council took steps to get the Chevron Refinery to verify its annual utility users tax payment. In July 2006, the refinery suddenly and without explanation reduced its payment by $4 million, dealing the city a financial blow as it recovered from its budget crisis.

Although the council was thoughtful and effective on the majority of issues, there were times during the past seven months when good government took a back seat to personal bickering. Name-calling and spite votes were costly for residents, employees and the city's long-suffering image.

The best example is the council's 5-4 vote against windows that open -- also called "operable windows" -- in the renovated Civic Center. In June, the council majority voted down operable windows despite a presentation by a nationally respected environmental engineer on employee health and productivity benefits of an operable-window system.

Operable windows have been popular in civic buildings across the country and particularly in the Bay Area. The council's narrow rejection reaffirmed an image of petty personal politics and backwardness the city has been struggling to overcome.

Frustrated by the majority's vote, Butt fired off a nasty installment of his popular e-mail forum denouncing the council majority for a series of what he called heavy-handed votes on commission appointments, the dissolution of the Design Review Board and the formation of a blue-ribbon committee to consider amendments to the City Charter.

Viramontes responded by covering Butt's City Hall office with funeral flower arrangements, each bouquet festooned with the quotes of prominent women such as Eleanor Roosevelt, Elizabeth Browning and Helen Keller.

Viramontes' colorful response seemed to have a calming effect, and the final few council meetings before the break took a more collegial tone.

"There's always going to be debate on any city council," Butt said. "I guess in my dreams, I would like to see a council that's rational and less political and less personal. If we can do that, we'd have a pretty good functioning council."

Reach John Geluardi at 510-262-2787 or jgeluardi@bayareanewsgroup.com.