Mayor and Council Clash Over Police Commission Appointments

By Abené Clayton

After two months of rejected appointments and heated city council meetings that went late into the night, Richmond Mayor Tom Butt continues to struggle to get council approval of his appointees to the Community Police Review Commission (CPRC).

“The CPRC has not been able to meet for months,” councilmember and CPRC liaison Jael Myrick said during a May 21 meeting. “There’s a backlog of four complaints, including an officer-involved shooting that the commission is not able to discuss.”

The group — formerly known as the Citizen’s Police Review Commission  — was established in 1984. Members, including an independent investigator, look into residents’ complaints of “excessive or unnecessary force and racially abusive treatment” from Richmond police officers.

While the group has existed for three decades, it’s received more attention from the public since 2015 when they began investigating the death of Pedie Perez, who was killed by a police officer in south Richmond the year before. In May 2018, the CPRC found that the officer used “excessive force,” and no subsequent action was taken.

Since then, the membership has dropped to 5 members, which means if one commissioner doesn’t show up they don’t have a quorum and the meeting can’t proceed. In March, Butt tried to appoint Catherine Montalbo, whose nomination to the CPRC led to contentious conversations in city council chambers and on Richmond Facebook groups.

After the mayor failed to get the three council votes necessary to approve Montalbo, Butt temporarily refused to make any CPRC appointments.

“It really wasn’t about her at all. It was about the process,” Butt said in an interview. “I’ve been on the city council for almost 25 years, and I’ve never seen the city council turn down a mayoral appointment to a commission, but over the last couple years, the city council has gotten more and more bold.”

Eventually Butt settled on four new appointees and put their approval on the May 21 city council agenda. He also combined appointments to the rent board and planning commission into one agenda item. While Butt says that his predecessor Gayle McLaughlin would regularly combine multiple appointments, this move was repeatedly critiqued during public comment.

“You set it up a certain way so you can win,” resident Kabir Kapur said.

“I’m asking you to reconsider bundling these appointments,” another resident said. “Please give these people a chance to be appropriately spoken on by the community.”

“I think the mayor is crafty and vengeful when anyone dares defy him,” resident Deborah Bayer said.

Many came to vent their frustrations with individual appointments and the limited time allotted for community dialogue. Others just wanted the saga to come to an end.

“I’ve been in Richmond more than half my life, I just wanna be appointed,” potential CPRC appointee Randy Joseph said during public comment. “I just wanna help my community.”

Myrick said during the meeting that the council can try to get the mayor to make better appointments, but they don’t get to control who he appoints.

“I’m not excited about this but we need a CPRC,” he said. “In the meantime, let’s try to get some working commissions.”

Myrick moved to break up the appointments and just vote on the CPRC. In response, Butt removed the item entirely. After that, the meeting briefly devolved into contradictory motions and questions about the Butt’s legal leverage to control appointments.

According to city ordinances, the mayor has the power to appoint residents to the CPRC and city’s planning commission, and the council, as a whole, makes appointments to the rent board.

Ultimately, all of the appointments were removed from the meeting agenda.

“I’m not gonna participate in this little game because this is unfair to citizens,” councilman Melvin Willis said before leaving the council chambers. “If we’re just gonna allow him to do what he wants and control this process, then what’s the point of having a democracy if people can’t even participate.”

All appointments are scheduled the June 4 city council meeting agenda.

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