Former Gov. Doug Wilder’s swearing-in ceremony was likened to a rollicking tent revival, with gospel music, prayers and a fiery speech from none other than Wilder’s close millionaire friend, celebrity Bill Cosby.
The comedian used hellish visuals to describe city officials at the time. “Devilish people do devilish things,” Cosby said. “When you remove devilish people from their seats, you got to carry them out sometimes.”
Wilder vowed to clean house in what was widely viewed as a fattened and corrupt bureaucracy. Cosby, now dogged by allegations from multiple women that he drugged and raped them years ago, backed up the new mayor, offering a warning: “Don’t be surprised when he fires the whole city.”
Next month will mark 10 years since that roof-rattling party at the Greater Richmond Convention Center, where the first mayor elected under the city’s current form of government took office.
The creation of mayor elected by the people — rather than chosen by City Council members from among its ranks — and the swearing in of the larger-than-life Wilder brought a sense that things would start changing for the better in Richmond.
Proponents of separating the office of the mayor from City Council and filling the position in a citywide vote hoped it would give future office holders a mandate to bring a larger vision of change to the city.
For the previous 56 years, the city’s leadership was composed of nine city council members, a mayor they selected from among them, and a city manager. The mayor served in a mostly ceremonial role, and council could hire and fire city managers with a majority vote.
The result was a medium-sized city run by a council with varied interests and individually answerable to a small swath of voters.
“There was an agreement that the city needed a strong voice,” says longtime political observer John Moeser, a senior fellow at University of Richmond’s Bonner Center for Civic Engagement.
“The city manager could speak but had to get authorization from council,” he says. “The mayor could speak but didn’t have any authority. The city needed someone who could negotiate with the business world, talk to the counties and develop a citywide vision. That all culminated in a charter change.”
Roy West, who served as mayor in the ’80s, once put it: “I always felt that there was a dearth in the mandate that I had. I was elected by the council and not the people.”
A decade since Richmond’s grand experiment in governance, is City Hall delivering the change its residents wanted?
The idea had been batted around since the mid-’80s, and in 1995, Richmonders voted by a 2-1 margin for an elected, at-large mayor.
It was a nonbinding resolution of support, and it wasn’t until 2002 that the drive toward a new form of government began in earnest. Former Gov. Doug Wilder announced he wanted to see the city’s first elected mayor in office by 2005.
The city had been dogged by charges of corruption and mismanagement. Wilder said there was “no question” the system was broken: “It needs to be fixed — now.”
Wilder and former Congressman Thomas Bliley Jr., also a former mayor, formed an ad-hoc, nongovernmental committee to study possible changes to the city charter. Following a series of community meetings, the group settled on a set of proposed reforms.
The mayor would be elected by a citywide vote, but would need to win five of the city’s nine council districts to take office — a nod to Richmond’s history of intentionally disenfranchising black voters, and an effort to mitigate the possibility that the change would dilute the voting power of the city’s black majority.
The new mayor’s main power would be his or her ability to hire and fire the city’s chief administrative officer, meaning that the city’s chief executive wouldn’t answer to nine individual council members — described by some people under the old system as “mini-mayors.”
City Council would approve the mayor’s candidate for the job, but the administrator would serve at the pleasure of the mayor. The mayor also would be responsible for putting forward the city’s annual budget, with City Council getting the final say.
In Virginia, the General Assembly must approve changes to city charters. And later in Wilder’s term, the state legislature amended the city charter to give the mayor veto power over ordinances passed by council. But a mayoral veto can be overturned by a vote of six council members.
Through a petition drive helmed by Wilder’s longtime adviser, Paul Goldman, the proposed changes went directly before voters and were forwarded to the General Assembly for approval.
While proponents hoped the new form of government would allow a chief executive to bring more vision to the city, opponents — including the current mayor who was then a state delegate, Dwight Jones, — worried the change would be a step back for black voters.
Those fears weren’t completely unfounded: The city’s first black administrator took power in the ’70s, only after the U.S. Supreme Court’s involvement forcing the city to move to a ward system rather than at-large elections.
“It was new,” Jones says now. “It was different. We just didn’t know.”
But Moeser is skeptical that was the real reason for the opposition. He attributes the concern of the city’s legislative delegation to a feud between Wilder, the country’s first elected black governor, and former State Sen. Henry Marsh, the dean of the black caucus in the General Assembly, who’d served as Richmond’s first black mayor.
“I think when it comes right down to it,” Moeser says, “it was a power struggle.”
Voters were unfazed by the objections that opponents raised, approving the charter change in 2003 with an 80-percent vote — an even greater margin than the earlier nonbinding referendum. The success meant Wilder would meet his goal of seeing an elected mayor in office by 2005.
Naturally, Wilder was ecstatic, and it didn’t take him long to decide he’d be the perfect candidate. He beat out three other candidates, including the sitting mayor under the former system, lawyer Rudy McCollum Jr.
Marsh was less enthusiastic. “It’s a power grab by wealthy business interests, who have been sitting at the table with African-American leaders for 20 some years, sharing the power, and all of a sudden they decide to seize the power,” he told the Times-Dispatch on election night.
The concern that the change would disenfranchise black voters proved unfounded.
“I’m not sure it’s been the controversy people expected,” says Julian Hayter, an assistant professor of leadership studies at University of Richmond.
Wilder easily won election to the seat. The results were, well, mixed.
Wilder’s first term was marked by bitter fights between himself, City Council and the School Board, the latter of which he famously attempted to evict from City Hall, going so far as to hiring a moving company.
“To say that I was anything other than disappointed would be a mischaracterization,” says Delegate Manoli Loupassi, who served as the first City Council president under the new system. “It did not go well at all.”
Through his secretary at Virginia Commonwealth University, Wilder declines to comment for this article — but the ups and downs of his term are well chronicled.
Jones took office in 2009 and set about restoring calm to the system.
“We’re still transitioning 10 years later,” Jones says.
Indeed, all parties acknowledge that they’re still figuring out how council, the School Board and the mayor should share power.
But Jones and most others say the city has seen progress it never would have achieved under the old system: If the argument for the change was to have a mayor who could bring a broader mandate and a citywide vision to the office, it’s been a success. Even the mayor’s opponents concede the point.
“The city’s on a roll,” Jones says. “It’s almost like a renaissance. I’ve been here for 40 years and I’ve never seen this kind of energy that the city has now.”
Jones notes his emphasis on poverty mitigation: City Council had worked on the issue before he came into office, but not much had been done. Jones created an office dedicated to addressing the issue and funding a plan created by the city’s anti-poverty task force.
Jones lists his other successes: Closing the old city jail and building a new, modern facility — something that eluded city leaders for years. And there are the economic-development projects he’s championed. Like them or not, he brought the Washington Redskins training camp to town, and next year, the city will serve as host of the international cycling championships.
Those developments wouldn’t have materialized if left to council to debate, Jones says. “When you micromanage stuff and try to do economic development by committee, it takes a long time,” he says. “I have an opportunity to grab an idea and make it happen.”
While Jones has flexed the power of his office, City Council has been struggling to define its role, especially when considering marquee economic-development projects.
Outgoing City Council President Charles Samuels says council’s job is to vet deals such as the ones that brought the Redskins and Stone Brewing Co. to Richmond. But he says that’s proven difficult when the mayor’s employee, the chief administrative officer, controls the flow of information about projects.
“We get more of a sales pitch than an honest production of fact for us to decide what’s right for the city. And a clear example of that is the stadium,” he says of the ongoing debate over a ballpark development. “Under scrutiny, those numbers just fell apart.”
There’s nothing council can do to compel city staff to come forward with information, Samuels says: “We grin and bear it and try and get the facts in other ways.”
And when they get information, members don’t necessarily have the staff or expertise to vet it. In the height of the ballpark debate, council members Michelle Mosby and Ellen Robertson offered legislation asking the mayor to free $50,000 so council could hire its own consultant to analyze the plan.
Jones acquiesced, but the proposal never got that far. Five members indicated they wouldn’t support the plan and Jones withdrew it.
In effect, council exercised its check on the mayor’s power.
“If you want to look at it theoretically,” Jones says, “it’s the process at work.”
City Council has exerted influence on other deals. In the case of the Redskins, in response to pressure from council members, Jones amended his proposal to draw more revenue for the city and include concessions for schools.
But the process hasn’t come without frustration on the mayor’s end. “The separation of policy and administration is a struggle at this point,” Jones says.
He thinks council should stick to setting policy while he oversees the administration of city affairs. “City Council is kind of inching toward administration sometimes and not giving the executive branch the freedom to make deals to push economic development in the city,” Jones says.
Others, such as Moeser, Loupassi and Goldman, question whether council has been assertive enough.
“We have a system where we have one person who’s answerable, and that’s a good thing,” Loupassi says. “But there’s been a very strong swing of the pendulum, and it appears to someone who’s an outsider that there’s not as strong an oversight as there could be.”
Others think the whole system has been an abysmal failure. Among them is King Salim Khalfani, who was the director of the state branch of the National Association for the advancement of Colored People when it campaigned against the charter change.
In the old system, Khalfani says, voters were closer to their council representatives, who were the only decision-makers in the city. “The access was incredible compared to other places,” Khalfani says. “People can’t get to the mayor now.”
Khalfani also says the money required to run an at-large campaign for mayor, and the nature of the voting pool, have made the office more beholden to corporate interests.
Goldman disputes that claim. He says the office has shown that it comes with the requisite cachet, and now it’s up to voters to elect people who share their views.
“I think it’s proven the fact that we now have a mayor who can do stuff,” Goldman says. “Am I disappointed in the mayor? Absolutely. But could you change it overnight? Just elect a reformer to the office.”
The kinds of tweaks the system might need depend on whom you ask.
Jones says he wants to see at-large representation added to council. He says if the number of wards was decreased, then those seats could be filled by council members elected in citywide contests.
“We need some people who, in addition to me, are accountable to the whole city so they can’t dig in,” Jones says. “That would give us more of a cosmic view of what needs to happen.”
Not everyone’s on board with that proposal. Moeser says a fundamental difference between legislative and executive representation is that members of the legislative branch, in this case City Council, represent smaller districts.
“As long as we have separated powers in Richmond,” Moeser says. “We should retain single-member district representation for City Council members.”
Other proposed changes are more esoteric. Council members and Jones have expressed frustration with having to share one lawyer.
That’s led to awkward situations. During the negotiation of the Stone Brewing deal, the city attorney’s office drafted much of the legislation on behalf of the mayor. It was presented to council, whose members are left to rely on the same attorney for advice on the ordinance.
Councilman Parker Agelasto has repeatedly expressed frustration with the setup. But not all his colleagues have an appetite to address it. Councilman Chris Hilbert says he doesn’t think that when voters approved the charter change that they were asking the city to set up two separate, opposing administrations. He says council members can always seek advice from lawyers they know outside the system.
On the other side, Jones’ senior policy adviser, David Hicks, says that having your own lawyer is a hallmark of power, and the current setup does a disservice to the mayor’s office by not providing one.
Hicks and Jones also expressed a desire to see the mayor’s office get more appointive authority. Council is responsible for filling vacancies on virtually all city boards and commissions. Jones questions why, if he’s the one who’s charged with working with the city housing authority, for example, he shouldn’t be able to fill some of the seats on that board.
Samuels, the council president, has another idea about what might make Richmond government run more smoothly: Get better candidates to run for City Council.
He proposes accomplishing that by increasing council’s salary from $25,000 annually to something that would allow council members to take on the position as a full-time job. Samuels says council members already put in full-time hours, it’s just that they’re juggling their responsibilities around other jobs.
“There are some really good people who don’t run just because they realize they can’t make it work financially,” Samuels says.
Jones says he doesn’t oppose that idea but offers a counterpoint: “It would attract people who don’t have a job who see this as a way to get some money.”
Moeser says he thinks council salaries, which can be raised only through an act of the General Assembly, at least should be on par with what the counties pay members of their boards of supervisors. In Henrico, the highest-paying county, supervisors bring home upwards of $54,000 annually, depending on their board appointments.
There are others who question whether any changes are necessary.
Professor Hayter says it’s too much to expect a political system in and of itself to address problems that have plagued Richmond for decades.
“I think critics of Dwight Jones might like to blame the actual system itself,” he says. “Richmond’s got problems that go beyond the structure of the City Council or whether the mayor is elected by City Council or the people.”
Hayter cites Richmond’s 26-percent poverty rate and its inability to take action beyond what the state legislature approves — a situation that’s left it “impossible for the city to work with its county neighbors to address schools and poverty.”
Goldman, who drafted the charter changes, says that because it’s been only 10 years, it’s too soon to know how much of the system’s successes and failures can be attributed to the system and how much falls on the people who have held the office.
An outspoken critic of Jones, Goldman says the kinks need time to work themselves out: “No one’s saying let’s get rid of the governor because the last one was indicted.” S