The Man Behind Richmond's Renaissance 

Crime is down, business is up, and the city is avoiding major budget cuts thanks to Bill Lindsay, perhaps the Bay Area's best city manager.

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The financial rise of Richmond and its potential as a center of green industry also has given residents a new sense of independence from the traditional power-brokers in town — developers, public-safety unions, and heavy polluting industries. During the 2010 election cycle, Chevron spent about $1 million in an effort to defeat the city's Green Party mayor, Gayle McLaughlin, and to put candidates friendly to its agenda on the council. But McLaughlin retained her job and Chevron's three council picks lost to more progressive candidates. Voters clearly reaffirmed their desire for leadership not beholden to large industry.

The council and city residents also are exhibiting a new sense of Richmond's self-worth. The council, for example, recently voted down a longstanding proposal to build a $1.2 billion Indian gaming casino and resort at Point Molate, despite promises of new jobs and tax revenues. When the casino was first proposed six years ago, the city was in financial chaos, and the project appeared to be a done deal. But in 2010, 58 percent of Richmond voters said they no longer wanted it.

And so when the council finally nixed the proposal several weeks ago, it represented another clear sign that Richmond residents have a new image of their city and its future. In March, KQED's Forum aired a debate over the casino proposal. A woman who identified herself as a Richmond resident called in to challenge casino developer Jim Levine's argument that the city desperately needed the jobs and tax revenues the casino would provide. "I want to tell the developer that Richmond is undergoing a renaissance; we have a progressive leadership, cutting-edge solar businesses, and new contracts at the port," she said. "Even though Richmond has been downtrodden in the past, the days of developers telling residents that 'beggars can't be choosers' are over!"

McLaughlin, who has been the city's foremost proponent of solar business and solar job training, echoed the caller's sentiment. "There's a new understanding that the community has a right to state what its wishes are," she said. "People in Richmond are not going to be spoon-fed. Now they are saying, 'We can do better.'"

From Lindsay's perspective, the city's renaissance is vitally linked to the health of its residential communities. With that in mind, he has required all city departments to shift any discussions of city services into a context of community health. "The effect is to restructure communication with community members and look for solutions for problems that can be easy to fix," Lindsay explained. "For example, if parents express concern that there is no safe walking route to the local elementary school, the city will make improvements, such as blight removal, lighting, repaving, landscaping, etc. — things relatively easy to achieve."

But Richmond's problems over the years have been much more serious than the need to make crosswalks safer. Indeed, the most critical public health problem facing the city has been its notoriously high violent-crime rate. So one of the most important decisions Lindsay has made as city manager is the selection of a new police chief. After a nationwide search, he chose Chris Magnus, a little-known chief from Fargo, North Dakota. At first, the pick was a head-scratcher. Magnus, after all, did not seem a likely candidate for chief in a city whose most prominent civic distinction was regularly ranking among the nation's top ten most violent cities. Perhaps the doubt stemmed from the fact that Magnus is white and gay, and much of his crime-fighting experience took place in a city where criminal ambition is largely suppressed by sub-zero temperatures and relentless snowstorms.

But Magnus turned out to be exactly what Richmond needed. Despite an entrenched department culture that was resistant to change, he has instituted a major reorganization of policies and procedures, including a series of long-term, community policing strategies. He broke the city into three geographic zones and redeployed officers into specific beats within those zones. The beat officers' familiarity with the neighborhoods they patrolled enabled them to more easily spot crime trends, from graffiti and public drinking to drug dealing and assaults. Magnus also required zone commanders to provide active community members with their cell phone numbers, which helped establish a bridge to neighborhoods that had long mistrusted city cops.

Magnus said it's unusual that a police chief has the opportunity to develop long-term plans to reduce crime, and it's even more unusual that they are allowed to commit to them. "People want immediate solutions to problems so it's not uncommon for cities to do crime management by press release, always coming up with a new program and constantly being in a reactive mode," Magnus said. "It was Bill who allowed me to make a longer-term investment in problem solving and that is very rare, to tell you the truth."

After four years of sticking with the community policing strategy, there is cautious hope that it's paying off. In 2009, Richmond had the second highest per capita homicide rate in the country with 47 killings. But in 2010, the number of homicides plummeted by more than 50 percent to 22. This encouraging statistic was accompanied by other encouraging trends, such as a 30 percent reduction in violent crimes overall.

Captain Mark Gagan is quick to point out the police department cannot take full credit for crime reduction. Gagan said almost as soon as Lindsay became city manager, he made it a requirement that crime reduction and public safety were to be the No. 1 priority of every city department. That directive has factored into library and after-school programs, graffiti abatement, code enforcement, redevelopment projects, and economic revitalization. Over the past four years, there has been a coordinated and sustained effort on the part of multiple city departments to reduce crime, Gagan said. City programs like the Office of Neighborhood Safety, the Main Street Initiative, and Literacy for Every Adult Person have been major contributors to crime reduction. Gagan also commended the faith-based community for being a particularly important partner.

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