Richmond Councilman-elect Gary Bell's illness leaves future of council seat uncertain

By Robert Rogers

Contra Costa Times

RICHMOND -- A contentious battle is shaping up over who will assume the City Council seat won in November by Gary Bell, who remains hospitalized in a coma.

Bell's family confirmed Thursday that he won't be sworn into office when the new council is seated Tuesday. Bell, 54, remains in an undisclosed hospital following two neurosurgeries in November, after a severe sinus infection and brain swelling threatened his life, according to the statement released by his family late Thursday.

Bell was sick for several days before he was rushed to the hospital after losing consciousness Nov. 10, four days after he was elected to the third and final open seat on the City Council.

"We offer our regrets that my husband is now unable to serve as many had hoped," his wife, Shelley Ross-Bell, said in the news release. "We thank each of you for your cards, support, love and prayers."

Meanwhile, the jockeying for his vacated City Council seat has begun.

The Richmond Progressive Alliance, which supported Bell's opponents, and the Black Americans Political Action Committee, which backed Bell, both scheduled leadership meetings Friday night to discuss how to move forward.

Progressive leaders are intent on getting Eduardo Martinez, the next-highest vote-getter behind Bell, appointed to the council. BAPAC leaders were mum Friday on what they planned to do with their favored candidate struck down by illness.

"It's disappointing," said BAPAC Treasurer Joe Fisher, adding that his group worked hard to elect Bell. "At this point, my foremost concern is just hoping and praying for Gary's health."

The city charter gives the council 60 days to appoint a successor or call a special election. An appointment would require four of six council votes.

There have been several instances over the years in which council members vacated their seats and the rest of the council appointed a successor, most recently in 2007 when Harpreet Sandhu was selected to replace Gayle McLaughlin, who had been elected mayor.

City Clerk Diane Holmes said she could not recall any instances in which a special election was held.

"A stand-alone, special election held by the city would cost us at least $200,000," Holmes said Friday.

But Bell's supporters may argue for just that, knowing that the current council composition may be likely to support Martinez, who shares progressive, anti-Chevron sentiments with McLaughlin and council members Jovanka Beckles and Tom Butt. Also in the running could be Marilyn Langlois, a longtime progressive activist and former aide-de-camp to Mayor McLaughlin who finished fifth in the council race.

While Martinez is the next highest vote-getter, his politics are starkly different from Bell's. Bell won in part thanks to support from Chevron, which poured more than $1 million into the local election, as well as other local business interests.

Martinez, a former schoolteacher, opposes expansion of operations at Chevron's Richmond refinery and supports tougher environmental standards and civil support for worker cooperatives and community gardens.

When Sandhu was appointed in 2007, it was over Corky Booze, who at the time was the next-highest voter getter but was passed over by a council that he often berated as a community gadfly.

Booze, a councilman after his 2010 victory and a Bell supporter and Martinez critic, said he wants a new election rather than another RPA member taking a seat won by a pro-business candidate.

"I will not be party to an appointment," Booze said. "This has to go back to the voters of the city."

Butt, who will be sworn in to a new term Tuesday after winning re-election along with Nat Bates, noted that the council has not appointed the next-highest vote-getter since the early 1990s but added that Martinez will surely get consideration. Butt scoffed at Booze's insistence on a new election.

"It's not his choice," Butt said. "The charter outlines the process."

RPA newsletter editor Mike Parker said Friday that Martinez is the "logical choice" to replace Bell.

"Martinez got almost as many votes. He has been vetted by the public," Parker said. "Also, the council does not have sufficient representation of the Latino community, which is now the city's largest group."

Most political observers think Councilman Jim Rogers is the key to any four-vote majority appointment. On Friday, Rogers said he was noncommittal, and added that Martinez's standing as the next-highest vote-getter was "one factor among many factors" to consider.

"I'll get the whole picture and have the opportunity to talk to people and think about it and then make a decision," Rogers said.

Contact Robert Rogers at 510-262-2726 or and follow


What: City Council swearing-in ceremony for Tom Butt and Nat Bates, who were re-elected Nov. 6
When: 6:30 p.m. Tuesday
Where: City Council chamber, 440 Civic Center Plaza, Richmond