War and Peace 

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Richmond City Council is going nuclear with its rebuke of Mayor L. Douglas Wilder in the wake of his attempted removal of city school administration offices from City Hall last month

Meanwhile, Wilder is attempting to call back the lawyers with the implied concessionary move of removing Harry Black as the city's chief administrator, and by launching his own salvo in his fight for unilateral control of the city. In a letter sent out early last week, Wilder began shopping for state legislators to carry his proposed changes to the city charter.

So far, council appears unfazed, even after Friday's announcement by Wilder that he will nominate Virginia Lottery head Sheila Hill-Christian as CAO. In court papers filed last week, City Council's outside legal team outlines a legal strategy that focuses on the legitimacy of the actions of Harry Black, the city's chief financial officer, who currently is acting on behalf of the mayor as the city's chief administrative officer.

Called into question, says Brian Buniva, a member of the council's outside legal team, is the validity of every act taken or contract signed by Black in his assumed role as chief administrator during the past seven months. Their pleading requests that the judge end Black's reign, force Wilder to nominate a new chief administrative officer and hold the two of them personally responsible for any "unauthorized and/or unappropriated [sic] expenditure of public funds."

Last May, council twice declined to confirm Wilder's nomination of Black as acting CAO, which council's lawyers contend disqualifies him from continuing in any duties reserved for that office during the months that followed.

"Quite simply, you have the charter requiring the mayor to nominate [a CAO] and the City Council required to give its advice and consent," Buniva says. "The person can not take the office unless the majority of council give their consent.

"When a nominee … is rejected by the council, how can that person who has been rejected — not once but twice — then exercise the powers of the office from which he's been rejected?" Buniva asks, answering his own rhetorical: "He can't. Or the charter means nothing, which seems to be the behavior under which this administration is acting lately."

The council's filing also attacks the mayor's disregard for a City Council ordinance that instructed him to sign a lease with schools for $10. Buniva says that Wilder is intentionally ignoring the well-defined limits of the city charter. Those limits require him to veto or sign legislation within 14 days of council sending it to him.

In the case of the school lease, Wilder didn't use his veto pen, instead his advisors wrote a lengthy opinion stating that the ordinance was invalid.

In that opinion, also released as a statement from Wilder's office on Aug. 30, his chief policy advisor, Kim Neal, concludes that council can't order Wilder to sign a lease with schools "otherwise, council could order the Mayor to do anything!"

The opinion did not explain the legal basis for Wilder's decision to take no action on the ordinance.

Among the powers of the president of the United States is the pocket veto. Rarely employed, it allows him under certain circumstances to kill legislation passed by Congress simply by not signing it. The Richmond charter spells out no similar authority granted the mayor.

The council filing also accuses Wilder of unlawfully directing city employees, acts that Buniva says, involved Wilder going "below the head of" the CAO position in violation of the charter.

City Council's lawyers aren't the only ones sniffing out potential administration violations. City Auditor Umesh Dalal's office is currently investigating the administration's withholding of schools funds appropriated by City Council.

At a Sept. 20 City Council finance committee meeting, both schools officials and the administration verified that not all of the funds appropriated for schools by City Council are being sent, though each gave different figures for what percentage of funds were requested and what were provided.

Schools say they've asked for $18 million and received $17.1 million. Black says schools asked for $19.3 million and he gave them $15.9 million.

The administration has previously claimed that the city is facing a cash shortfall during a certain part of the year that has prevented it from reimbursing School Board budget requests, though Black now says this is not the case and that his portioning out school money is "cash management."

"You do cash management to avoid a cash shortfall," says Black.

In addition to a concern over the differing numbers presented to council, Dalal says he's worried that if there is a shortfall, Black and others within the administration may have failed to notify council.

"What are schools' needs and what is the city's cash flow situation," says Dalal, explaining his line of inquiry. "This issue is how much money schools really needs — and how much money the city is paying. If they're not paying 100 percent, why not? Are there any constraints that compel them not to pay?"

A City Council ordinance accompanying this year's budget appropriations says reducing payments to the school district constitutes a Class 3 misdemeanor, also spelling out the removal from office of anyone found in violation.

Dalal expects to complete his inquiry by Oct. 18, in time for the next council finance committee meeting.

While City Council lawyers and Dalal are busy parsing the administration's past actions, Wilder is launching his latest strategy with a letter to various Richmond-area legislators requesting one-on-one meetings to discuss possible city charter changes during the upcoming General Assembly session in January.

"I think we can all agree that none of this [ongoing litigation] is productive," writes Wilder in his letter, dated Oct. 3. "What would be productive, however, would be to initiate a discussion of what aspects — if any —of the Charter need to be clarified through the legislative process."

In a meeting with City Council on Oct. 1, Wilder asked council to join him in seeking charter changes, but his letter appears to do an end run around that. Council and the School Board already are scheduled to meet with state legislators on Nov. 8, an annual meeting that Wilder has previously avoided.

Last Friday, after announcing his plan to nominate Hill-Christian, Wilder reiterated his belief that charter changes are necessary.

Delegate Jennifer McClellan, a Democrat who represents part of Richmond, agrees that Wilder's letter appears to be an attempt to exclude council from his personal meeting with legislators.

But, McClellan suggests, the General Assembly would be unlikely to act on any request for charter changes that Wilder might propose "without council's input — or without some sort of public input."

Also likely to give the General Assembly pause in acting to amend the charter are the pending lawsuits against the Wilder administration. At least two of those suits address disputes over the limits of Wilder's authority under the charter.

"Typically, the General Assembly likes to wait until litigation is over before they get in the middle of it," McClellan says. "But I think clarity would be good. I think the charter, when it was revised (last year), left more questions than it answered. I don't know what specific changes we should adopt, but I think changes are needed."

Whether those changes would benefit Wilder — or future Richmond mayors elected under the city's new at-large system — is perhaps the bigger question. McClellan says Wilder's recent statements about wanting to bring all city departments and government branches under the control of his office likely won't fly with legislators.

"I don't think that's at all what the General Assembly intended when they revised the charter to create a popularly elected mayor," she says. "I think the intent was for there to be coequal branches of government. That's what a democratic government is about." S

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