Peaceful Submission 

Is the conciliatory air at City Hall creating an apathetic power structure?

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Oh, what a difference a year makes.

Before last January, one issue of critical governmental importance led to overcooked political stews between Mayor L. Douglas Wilder and Richmond City Council: Who's the boss of three of the city's top administrative posts?

Wilder held nothing back, slamming City Auditor Umesh Dalal as a “political lap dog” to council when the city's top accountant gave his dispassionate reports on administrative fiscal mismanagement and government waste.

Wilder summarily dismissed the city attorney's legal opinions when they favored City Council after Wilder evicted school officials from City Hall. He ordered an expensive outside audit to root out incompetence in the real estate assessor's office — an audit that eventually gave the office near-perfect marks.

But since Mayor Dwight C. Jones's arrival, all is peaceful and calm. So much so, that the burning constitutional crises over City Council's authority to hire and fire the assessor and auditor and the shared authority with the mayor over the city attorney have all but evaporated. Richmond officials have chosen not seek changes this year to the city charter, which went into effect just five years ago, to clarify just who is in charge.

As they do each year, City Council and the mayor met in mid-November with members of the city's General Assembly delegation in advance of the January legislative session. At the meeting, city leaders covered a broad range of issues — including such issues as school funding and Jones' wish to close the state's so-called gun-show loophole allowing undocumented sales of firearms by nondealers.

They did not discuss city charter changes to clarify who has the authority over the assessor, city attorney and the city auditor.

The decision not to seek clarification on the three positions was one agreed to earlier this month by Jones and council, but still came as a surprise to some lawmakers who watched from the sidelines during Wilder's four years of thrashing against the system. Delegate Joe Morrissey, D-Richmond, who sat at a table with Councilman Bruce Tyler during the presentation by City Council President Kathy Graziano, called Tyler aside and asked it there was an oversight.

“That won't happen this year,” Tyler says, despite a year of committee meetings to review the charter in the wake of expensive court battles and internal city strife during Wilder's tenure.

Wilder was the city's first at-large elected mayor and insisted throughout his four years that the city's new government structure was that of a strong-mayor government, an assertion dismissed by the charter's architects, which meant that the mayor had final authority over the assessor, attorney and auditor.

For now, the recommendations of the Charter Review Commission, made up of government, academic and business leaders, are on hold. The commission recommended City Council continue with its authority over hiring the assessor and auditor, with the addition that the mayor approve their appointments. Conversely, the mayor would hire the attorney, subject to City Council approval.

The broad conciliation between the mayor and council also has spread to the mayor's dealings with the School Board. Where Wilder sought to control schools by force — seeking first hire and fire authority over the superintendent of schools and then clandestinely campaigning to do away with an elected School Board — Jones is working hand-in-hand with the board and the superintendent.

With Jones seeking $150 million in new school construction — likely to soar by millions beyond the estimate to build four new schools — the School Board, to some critics' minds, has abdicated its state-granted authority over the process. Current state law dictates that school boards oversee and approve all school construction contracts, but Jones's school announcement last week also came with word that he'd already put in place some design contracts for the buildings.

Meanwhile, City Council is giving more ground. The most sweeping change it will seek during the January General Assembly session is one that boosts the mayor's influence over legislative matters by providing him with veto power.

At the legislative dinner, Graziano asked legislators to provide Jones with “the power to veto any legislation that is put forward.”

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