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But Lindsay has not only managed a steep learning curve, he has kept the city on a sustained course of community and financial recovery and helped make Richmond one of the most remarkable stories in the Bay Area. During a recent interview in his office at the newly renovated city hall, Lindsay was modest about his role in Richmond's turnaround. "A lot of it is just not screwing up," he said.
Despite the fact that Richmond has been producing balanced budgets and maintaining upper-tier bond ratings while sitting atop $10 million in reserves, Lindsay is only modestly optimistic about the city's financial health. He pointed out that property tax revenue has taken a 30 percent hit — the worst in Contra Costa County — and sales tax income dropped 12 percent. The city is facing a deficit next year in its $120 million general fund, but it's relatively small — $5 million. Lindsday added that a 2012 ballot measure to increase sales tax is vital to the city's continued financial health.
He also grudgingly admitted that Richmond is doing well compared to other Bay Area cities and that the troubled city is experiencing a new sense of optimism for the first time in sixty years. "We have a strong credit rating, which is nice because five years ago we didn't have one at all," he said. "I can't say we're doing swimmingly, but I can say we are swimming effectively upstream. It's a bit like 'been down so long, it feels like up.'"
Modesty aside, Richmond has accomplished some impressive redevelopment projects thanks to its high bond ratings. More than two hundred city employees have now reoccupied the historic Memorial Civic Center after the six-acre complex of three buildings and spacious quad underwent a $100 million seismic retrofit and remodel.
The city's downtown corridor also has undergone an extensive makeover and now boasts new sidewalks, crosswalks, lighting, and 130 new trees. Nevin Park, once the focal point of violence in Central Richmond, has had a $3.7 million facelift that includes a new, fenced-in playground, upgraded community center, and the installation of police surveillance cameras. The city also has contributed to the retrofitting and remodeling of important historic buildings such as the Winters Building, which houses the downtown East Bay Center for the Performing Arts and The Plunge, an 85-year-old warm water, indoor swimming pool.
"And our roads," Lindsay added with a hint of pride, "our roadways were once rated the worst in the Bay Area, and though there's still work to be done, they are much better."
Lindsay has enjoyed city council support on most issues since he took over the city's affairs a half-decade ago. The council was reduced from nine members to seven in 2008, which helped streamline the process of governing. And after the 2010 election, the council was further stabilized with a majority of progressives who endorse Lindsay's good-government policies.
Lindsay rebuilt city government from the ground up following the colossal mismanagement of the previous city manager, Isiah Turner, who plunged the city into financial crisis in 2003. Turner had been the mediocre director of the city's Employment and Training Department when fire department Captain Darrell Reece, a legendary behind-the-scenes power broker, political consultant, and union boss, essentially installed him as city manager in 1998.
Turner was born and raised in Richmond, which made him a popular choice despite his lack of experience and dodgy background. Several years earlier, Turner had quit a government job in Washington state when an auditor discovered he misused $22,000 of taxpayer funds. Nonetheless, at Reece's insistence, a divided Richmond City Council voted to put Turner in charge of the city's bureaucracy. Once he took the helm, Turner set about hiring many of his friends and associates as department heads and doled out numerous no-bid city contracts for up to $10,000, many of which were said to have gone to his supporters.
"Isiah Turner used to play different council members off of each other," said longtime Councilman Tom Butt, who voted against hiring him. "He played political favorites and he had his buddies around town that he looked out for. It was a very unhealthy situation."
Turner's reign lasted until 2003 when he suddenly announced his resignation, citing doctor's orders. The city threw him a lavish retirement party in the 3,000-seat Memorial Convention Center. Then, shortly after he moved out of his office — and the state — it turned out that Turner had left behind a hidden $35 million budget deficit that was largely the result of fat contracts with the police and fire unions, according to a subsequent state audit.
The result was devastating. The city was forced to lay off hundreds of employees, libraries were closed, senior and community centers were shuttered, and services were drastically cut back. Contra Costa County's former administrator Phil Bachelor stepped in temporarily to run the city. Bachelor, a no-nonsense manager who is highly respected for his fiscal responsibility, performed emergency triage and was able to stanch the city's financial bleeding. But, more importantly, he recommended Lindsay be brought in as permanent city manager.
There were several longtime council members, chief among them former Councilwoman Maria Viramontes, who publicly doubted whether Lindsay, the mild-mannered suburbanite, would be able to last in rough-and-tumble Richmond, with its chronic urban crime, complex network of industries, and engrained political dysfunction. But Lindsay's accomplishments have been impressive, and last December, the council renewed his contract for five more years at an annual salary of $271,000, which makes him one of the higher paid city managers in the Bay Area.
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