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Turner's six-year reign as Richmond's city manager was characterized by incompetence, mismanagement, and influence peddling. In 2003, he suddenly announced that his doctor had advised him to resign for undisclosed health reasons. Just days after he moved to another state, it was discovered that he had left behind a hidden $35 million budget deficit. The impact on city services was devastating. The county took over the city's management and was forced to close senior centers, community centers, and libraries. More than 250 city employees were laid off, roads and public buildings fell into disrepair, and the city lost its credit rating, which made it impossible to invest in the future.
When the California State Auditor issued a report looking into the crisis, the conclusion was that the major cause of the city's financial catastrophe was excessive police and fire union contracts.
Richmond voters first elected McLaughlin to the council in 2004, when the city was struggling to recover from this economic devastation. It would be inaccurate to credit McLaughlin with the city's remarkable recovery, but her election was a strong indication that city voters were fed up with the political cronyism, special-interest greed, and lack of transparency that nearly ruined the city.
In 2005, Orinda City Manager Bill Lindsay came to work in Richmond. He hired all new department heads, including Finance Director Jim Goins. Under their leadership, the city is now in better shape than most others in the Bay Area. Working with the council, city officials have brought new business to town. Most significantly, the city cut a long-term, lucrative deal with Honda to offload cars from ships at the Port of Richmond and transfer them to trains. The city also negotiated a utility tax deal with Chevron in which the refinery will pay $115 million to the city over the next fifteen years.
The result is that while San Francisco and Oakland fret over their inability to hire police officers, Richmond has added ninety new officers to its ranks. The city also has regained its double-A-plus credit rating and has a reserve of $9 million. The city has completed numerous public works projects such as the $100 million renovation of its civic center and a retrofit of "The Plunge," an 87-year-old enclosed public pool that is considered one of Richmond's architectural gems.
Over time, the old guard began to lose influence over city politics. The public safety unions and Reese, who was convicted of felony tax evasion in 2001, could no longer handpick city officials or dictate their own salaries and benefits. Chevron lost influence as well. The international oil giant was no longer able to conduct its own inspections of refinery construction projects. And its special deals, such as paying a greatly reduced utility tax, were openly challenged by McLaughlin and others on the council.
With Richmond's renaissance, city leaders were able to redirect their focus to issues such as crime, blight, and instituting more sustainable practices. Today, homicides are down by about 60 percent, the city is thriving economically, and the city's roads, public buildings, and parks are now well maintained and a source of civic pride.
It is on green issues that McLaughlin has had her most significant impact. McLaughlin has championed expansion of youth job-training programs, raised the percentage of Richmond residents to be hired on city-contracted work projects, and taken a leadership role in challenging Chevron to be more environmentally responsible and to increase their tax base. But her largest accomplishment has been expanding Richmond's solar capacity. She co-founded Solar Richmond, which has trained hundreds of city residents, mostly disadvantaged youth, to install solar panels on homes and businesses. The program offers solar installation at reduced cost to low-income homeowners and has won numerous awards. Richmond now ranks among the top fifteen cities in the state for highest solar capacity.
While her critics admit her dedication to solar issues has paid off in green-collar jobs, they say she is too much of an opponent to traditional business. Bates said that she voted against the Honda port contract, which will bring in $88 million to the city over the next fifteen years, and that she voted against the new Target outlet that has brought hundreds of jobs to Richmond. "She's green and green only," Bates said. "We need jobs in Richmond and I'm for creating green jobs and more traditional jobs. I want to explore all possibilities."
According to Butt, McLaughlin voted against the Honda port deal because the environmental impact report was flawed. As a result of a subsequent lawsuit, a court required failures in the report to be addressed. Once they were, Mclaughlin supported the contract, Butt noted.
Ziesenhenne said that creating jobs will be his main focus if he is elected mayor. However, Ziesenhenne has not taken a public stand on a large casino proposed for Point Molate, a scenic stretch of mostly undeveloped shoreline on Richmond's northwestern shore. He said he is waiting for voters to have their say in an advisory vote this November. "I am waiting for them to have their say and I will 100 percent stand by their wishes," he said. Bates supports the casino and McLaughlin opposes it.