Gov. Kaine Grants Wilder Permission to Woo Agency Head 

click to enlarge sheilachristianhill100.jpg

It seems Mayor L. Douglas Wilder scratched some lucky numbers when he dialed Sheila Hill-Christian to offer her the city's long-vacant top administrator's job.

But first he had to dial the number of the man he replaced. Wilder sought the permission of Gov. Tim Kaine before wooing Hill-Christian away from her current post as director of the Virginia Lottery.

After calling to invite himself over to the Governor's Mansion, Wilder met face-to-face with Kaine on Monday to ask the governor's blessing.

"Wilder called me and asked to come to talk to me. He said I really need to bring someone into City Hall right now, and he mentioned Sheila Hill-Christian," Kaine says. "I told him that I loved the city and I thought she would be great."

Wilder announced he is tapping Hill-Christian as his nominee for the post of chief administrative officer at a press conference Friday, taking the opportunity to paint his failure to win a council confirmation for acting-chief administrative person, Harry Black, in a positive light.

"There's no change in the thing at all," Wilder said, indicating that he'd never intended to install Black permanently in the position. "We have never nominated anyone before. Mr. Black was nominated as acting [CAO]."

Black's service as acting CAO was roundly praised during the press conference, ignoring the bad blood Black helped create between Wilder and council over the administration's decision to attempt to evict Richmond Public Schools administration from City Hall, and over Black's attempt to dismiss en masse the members of City Council's legislative staff.

But in nominating Hill-Christian, Wilder acknowledged the deadlock and dark pall that has descended over City Hall since Black became his chief sidekick.

"The city government can't operate in a vacuum like that," Wilder said. "The more important thing is that the people's business be done."

Speculation on Friday among some City Hall insiders was that Wilder's abandonment of Black -- who will remain at the city as chief financial officer -- was due to pressure from outside the administration, from interests frustrated at the political relations debacle Black's tenure has brought.

Black called Wilder's decision the "inevitable" right decision.

In attendance at Friday's announcement was at least one prominent member of the business community with ties to Wilder, Laura LaFayette, of the Richmond Association of Realtors. She was also a former staffer to Wilder when he was governor.

Wilder acknowledged that Hill-Christian did not apply for the post. He approached her after "her name was advanced and suggested" by someone he declined to name.

To the public -- and to council -- Wilder's announcement of Hill's nomination was unexpected, with the hastily called press conference immediately following his equally hasty called meeting with council members. Sources at the city say even those close to the process weren't certain of Hill-Christian's decision to return to the city until the eleventh hour.

And Hill-Christian's decision to leave the state was met with plenty of questions about why she would want to return to a city government in such disarray.

"It's a little different than when she was here before," a smiling Wilder acknowledged to the chuckles of city staffers and the media.

But Hill-Christian said her decision was an obvious one.

"In many ways, all roads have led to this," said Hill-Christian, who before her move to the state, had held a variety of city agency jobs, including a recent stint as head of the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority. She also served as chief of staff under former City Manager Calvin Jamison.

"I'm not a miracle worker, but I'll do this job to the best of my ability," she said, deferring to Wilder on questions of whether she would allow better communication between council and the city department heads.

Wilder agreed the relationship between the elected legislative body of the city and those charged with its day-to-day operations should be "clarified."

Hill-Christian's nomination, once Wilder officially submits it, is expected to sail through the City Council confirmation process.

"I cannot imagine a scenario where I would not support this nomination," Councilman Chris Hilbert said, also clearly surprised at the city's fortune in courting Hill-Christian back. "Her willingness to come back is very exciting."

He speculated on the dawning of "a new day in Richmond."

City Council President Bill Pantele concurs.

"There is a pervasive feeling of excitement and hope. Sheila Hill-Christian is someone who everyone on council knows very well," Pantele says. "I suspect her confirmation will move through smoothly."

As to the various pending lawsuits against Wilder and his administrators, all parties indicated that today's announcement likely changes little.

Black's actions as acting CAO remain a matter of contention -- and of potential personal financial liability for both he and the mayor.

Pantele warned that the lawsuits surrounding Wilder's interpretation of the charter aren't going to disappear with "a single hire."

"Where we've been in the last six months is basically purgatory. I mean you couldn't have a more hostile city administration," Pantele says. "We hope that this is a meaningful change in a new direction, and we'll see."

Scott Bass contributed to this report.


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