While fire alarm claxons blared, Mayor L. Douglas Wilder unleashed his own torrent of fiery rhetoric during a midday press conference called to return fire against Richmond City Council.
The false-alarm evacuation of City Hall was just coincidence, but seemed apropos as warning to the latest incoming salvo in the ongoing war of words and deeds among Wilder, City Council and the School Board. This week's victim was the city's recently minted chief administrative officer, Sheila Hill-Christian.
Next week, if Wilder gets his way, it will be City Councilwoman Ellen Robertson.
Wilder called the press conference in response to a Street Talk
in the March 5 issue of Style Weekly. In the story, Robertson claimed that Hill-Christian's use of hotel tax surpluses to pay for the city's accidental lease at 3600 W. Broad St. was a criminal act.
Declaring, figuratively, that he didn't believe in showing an opponent his gun before shooting them, Wilder promised that Robertson's comments would not go unpunished.
"We don't tolerate this
nor do we accept it, nor will it go unaddressed," Wilder told reporters, blaming City Council for allowing its members to level "slander" against his administration officials. "Either you ratify this conduct or you condemn it," he said.
Hill-Christian was absent; she and Chief Financial Officer Harry Black were making their way out of the building while the conference was being held, stopping only long enough to card-key reporters into the second-floor conference room where Wilder was holding court.
"Sheila has tried to give the council the benefit of every doubt," Wilder said, adding that Hill-Christian was hurt by Robertson's charge in Style. "I knew it was just a matter of time before [Sheila] saw it."
To pay for the 3600 W. Broad St. lease, Hill-Christian told Style two weeks ago that money had been transferred from hotel tax proceeds into a line item that had been unfunded by City Council in its 2007-08 budget. City Budget Director Rayford Harris confirmed that the fund transfer had taken place.
In an e-mail, City Council Chief of Staff Daisy Weaver questioned Hill-Christian's re-appropriation of the funds without City Council approval. Robertson's comments came in response to that e-mail.
Robertson's accusations had a "chilling effect" on Hill-Christian, Wilder said.
Asked by reporters whether he planned to take some particular action against Council or Robertson, Wilder was less forthcoming, talking around the question.
But he speculated that by leveling such charges Robertson may threaten everything from the city's ability to attract business prospects and residents to its credit rating on government bond issuances.
Wilder made passing reference to a City Council investigative committee's plan to consider asking for a special prosecutor to investigate Wilder administration officials' Sept. 21 attempted eviction of the Richmond School Board from City Hall. That move also involved spending more than $500,000 in funds Council had budgeted for other purposes.
Wilder called on Council to put up or shut up -- and if they decide to shut up, he said they should be prepared for hellfire to rain down for having leveled such serious charges without facts to back them up. "Bring the charge or consequences could very well follow," Wilder said.