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In its 400-year history, Virginia government has borne witness to its share of threatened governmental upheaval, but these moments have generally confined themselves to times of war or military occupation.
Control of the state's capital city government was in serious question Friday night, Sept. 21. An armed force of Richmond Police officers, at the direction of Mayor L. Douglas Wilder and his acting chief administrative officer, Harry Black, seized control of City Hall, marking it off with yellow police-line tape and denying public access to a Richmond School Board meeting.
Ranking police officials, who repeatedly denied a public meeting was taking place, threatened the public with arrest including a representative of Style Weekly likely in violation of the state's open-government laws.
Wilder and his administration may have also violated federal privacy act law which could endanger federal funding to Virginia by sending an army of professional movers to dismantle Richmond Public Schools' central office. Moving company employees had access to confidential student and employee records protected by the Federal Educational Rights and Privacy Act.
The act provides both civil and criminal penalties for individuals or entities found to have knowingly violated its tenets.
Wilder and Black may also have violated the city charter and state law by not following proper procurement procedures when they hired moving companies to move School Board property without going through the normal contract award process. Sections of the city code provide for removal from office of both appointed and elected officials for violations of procurement procedures.
One high ranking city official called the potential code violations "very damaging" to Wilder and his lieutenants.
Kent Willis, executive director of the ACLU of Virginia, responding to media reports of Friday night, said there was a clear violation of the state's government open meetings law.
"In this entire farcical episode, at least one open meeting was sacrificed," Willis said. "Clearly the government entity that caused the violation of the open government law was the police. It certainly appears the School Board tried to do the best they could with a bad situation. The public should never have been closed off from that meeting."
Willis also called the moving of confidential student records "very suspicious," suggesting that "there may have been a violation of FERPA."
The farce to which Willis refers began promptly at 7 p.m. Friday, when a caravan of more than a dozen moving vans of firms contracted by Wilder's administration began pulling up in front of City Hall. At the same time, Richmond Police officers forcibly denied access to news media and the public arriving to attend an emergency School Board meeting being held on the 17th floor.
Shortly after 7 p.m., School Board Member Carol Wolf emerged and attempted to force police to acknowledge state law and the public's right to attend the meeting that had been convened upstairs. Richmond Police officers and brass surrounded Wolf, and angrily demanded that she back down, and threatened to arrest her.
"Go ahead, arrest me," Wolf retorted. Feet planted, she stood her ground against the officers, who didn't take her up on the offer.
"Who's going to uphold the Constitution and the rule of law in this city?" asked Sababu Sanyika, a resident who also attempted to enter City Hall to attend the School Board meeting. He was turned away by police threatening to arrest him as well.
"I would not want to be in your shoes, for nothing," Sanyika told a police officer.
Reporters, including this one, were also threatened with arrest. Throughout the melee, Wilder spokesman Linwood Norman stood in the foyer of City Hall watching. When he finally emerged it was to read a brief statement defending the mayor's decision to act against the schools. That action violated a City Council ordinance directing Wilder to enter into a lease agreement with schools officials for their City Hall space at a rate of $10 a year.
Norman's statement said Friday's move, which was planned to be completed by Monday morning, was to the 3600 W. Broad St. space. He reiterated Wilder's past insistence that moving the offices would save $1 million annually. click here for related article
The city's procurement services Web site shows no awards for services to the city's hired moving contractors, and no emergency procurement announcements or requests for proposals for moving services. Procurement personnel referred requests for documentation of contracts related to the move to Norman, who on Friday declined to answer questions or provide documentation related to the procurement procedures.
Calls to Hilldrup Commercial, one of the companies contracted to do the move, were referred to Greg Moyer, general manager of the company's Richmond office. He did not return Style's calls by press time.
Rodman Mason, owner of Mason Moving and Storage Inc., another company involved, declined to provide details of his company's city contract. Mason couldn't say if any of his employees had been subjected to background checks prior to handling confidential student files. "All I do is move what my contract called for," Mason said Monday.
Television cameras at City Hall were too distracted Friday night to catch the arrival of State Sen. Henry Marsh, who attempted to cross the police barricade and join the School Board meeting upstairs.
Marsh, a former Richmond mayor who once shared law offices with famed civil rights attorney Oliver Hill, was stopped by a threatening phalanx of city police officers ordering him away from the building. It took a flurry of cell phone calls by Marsh that lasted about 10 minutes before he was finally admitted.
Assistant Chief of Police Ray Tarasovic declared to television cameras that "there is no public meeting."
Moments later, School Board Chairman George Braxton emerged from City Hall, flanked by his sometimes-sparring partner Wolf, to beseech police to allow news media into their meeting.
"We are having a meeting," Braxton said. "We are having an open meeting. The police for some reason believe it's right to keep you out of this."
Just minutes after Braxton re-entered the building, School Board member Kim Bridges arrived late for the meeting at 7:47 p.m. Police initially refused her admission.
"I've been told by the Richmond Police Department that I can't go up and participate," Bridges said. It took another 10 or so minutes before she was granted access to join fellow School Board members, who had by then been joined by at least two City Council members.
Eventually, the School Board, flanked by Councilwoman Dolores McQuinn, Councilman Bruce Tyler and Sen. Marsh, emerged from the building, crossed the street and held the end of its meeting on the sidewalk on the north side of the Library of Virginia, surrounded by a crush of reporters.
Citing concerns over potential federal Privacy Act violations, the School Board voted by a unanimous voice vote to engage Marsh as its lawyer. A few hours later, around midnight, Judge Margaret Spencer issued a temporary restraining order, ordering Wilder's movers to stop immediately and return everything that had been moved. She ordered the Richmond Sheriff's Office to enforce the order around 1 a.m.
The full hearing on the matter is scheduled for Sept. 26. Spencer, along with all of Richmond's Circuit Court judges, were scheduled to be gone at a legal conference Monday and Tuesday, leading to some speculation that Wilder had hoped to skirt the injunction by the judges' absence. SClick here for more News and Features