10 Sep Q&A: Melvin Willis: ‘We Can All Find Solutions’
Interview, Joel Umanzor Jr.
Name: Melvin Willis
Job: City Council member
Public service: City Council member (2016-18 and 2019-20) and former vice mayor (2018)
Highest education: El Cerrito High School graduate / Former Contra Costa College student
RP: Why are you running for City Council?
Melvin Willis: I was born and raised in Richmond and have been a community organizer for nine years. A lot of it has been fighting for more affordable housing, supporting undocumented community members, homeless issues. I have been able to take some of that work I have been doing in the community and represent it already for a term on the City Council. I want to continue to do that work and continue to be involved in the community as much as possible as I work on neighborhood issues.
RP: What are the two most pressing issues in the city, and what do you propose should be done about them?
MW: Right now, the budget deficit and getting new revenue to fill in that deficit. I am advocating for Proposition 15 to close a commercial tax loophole that would gear about $12 billion a year to California services. Cities and counties would be able to reap some of the benefits and add more revenue as well to expand on services. One of those is going to be recovering from COVID-19 debt. We have a lot of residents that have not been able to work since the shelter-in-place orders. I’ve heard stories of people who have not paid rent since they lost their jobs back in March so working with city and staff to see what services we can provide residents facing that kind of debt. I’ve supported and pushed for on the council a moratorium on evictions that’s extended till the end of September, and they have a one-year grace period to start paying back rent.
RP: What is the most pressing issue in your district and how should it be addressed?
MW: Illegal dumping, speeding, road repair, homelessness and crime. There was just a RYSE Center youth killed in Belding Woods past 17th and Roosevelt. There has definitely been a spike, and I think a lot of it has to do with the job loss, the isolation and shelter-in-place. My main approach is working with residents within the district and neighborhoods to see what exactly is the issue. Is it district-wide? Is it in one corner of the district? We see who is being impacted and how and bring those residents into the city services and departments.
RP: How can the city help residents and businesses survive the COVID-19 pandemic and then recover?
MW: We still have a moratorium on the books that includes businesses. We just put a gross receipts tax measure on the ballot, which is switching from a payroll tax where employers would basically be paying $45 or so per employee and then the more employees you had, the cheaper it was to a gross receipts model, so you pay taxes based on how much gross receipts you’re generating on any given year. My hope in switching to that model is that, especially for smaller businesses hit by COVID-19 [that] have to keep their employees and keep up with taxes, this would alleviate the burden. We as a city should be responsible for making sure we are disseminating information on services, staying in close contact with our county and taking whatever feedback residents are feeling and advocating strongly with the county health department and those resources as well.
RP: What changes, if any, to policing would best serve the community?
MW: Really the creation of a mental health unit. I have been in meetings with police officers and I’ve heard them during City Council public forums where they say they are not metal health providers, but we’re still having them respond with those individuals dealing with homelessness or those having a mental health or substance abuse issue. We need a mental health service unit who can respond to those various issues because they have more expertise on how to go about these different disputes without a “slapping the lawbook in people’s faces” type of approach. With all of the agitation around policing and police brutality hitting the country, folks get a tense in the presence of police officers. So the creation of a non-police presence and [to] approach it from a holistic and mental health point of view would be essential. And it would help out a lot of the call times if we have a unit of folks responding to those types of disputes.
RP: Why are you the best person to represent your district?
MW: I’m running because of all the work I’ve been doing in the community. From implementing rent control, just cause for eviction, increasing the minimum wage to $15 an hour, strengthening and upholding our sanctuary city ordinance and getting rid of vendors that share information with ICE. I have been a part of that, and I have been able to build trust with people who have been impacted by those issues, not only in Richmond but countywide as well. I feel a responsibility to run and give it my best shot to continue the work and rapport that I have built with those folks because there still is a lot more work to be done. I know we can all find solutions if we work together. That’s why I’m running again in 2020.