Harry Black Gets an Earful at Lunch Chat

Financier S. Buford Scott played host at a lunchtime lecture series last week, introducing the guest speaker as a “rainmaker” — financially and, considering the state’s drought, weather-wise too, he hoped. But after Harry Black, Richmond’s chief financial officer, finished his talk, the audience made clear they thought he was all wet.

Immaculate in his pinstripe suit and monogrammed cufflinks, Black reminded the roughly 50 lunchtime attendees at downtown’s St. Paul’s Episcopal Church that “transitioning from one form of government to another is never a smooth process,” although acceptance of the change “seems to be somewhat challenging to some.”

That “some” might include City Council, which is suing Black for exercising authority they say he doesn’t have, such as withholding council-approved funds from the School Board. He urged the audience not to mistake these “natural tensions” for something more nefarious.

Black’s reassurances did not soothe all concern about tensions, natural or not.

“I’m horrified about the move — the cost of the move” said one older man, referring to the administration’s unannounced $300,000-plus overnight removal-and-return of the contents of the School Board’s offices in City Hall Sept. 21.

“I’m even more horrified about what this means about the level of communication in city government,” he said. “It was ridiculous. Just ridiculous. How can we work together to make sure that kind of idiotic thing does not happen again?”

“Somehow,” Black responded, “I think that’s not going to happen again.”

“Why is it that you feel everything has to be a fight?” another woman asked.

“Anywhere in the country that has changed their form of government, it has taken time to work out the kinks,” Black said, adding that neither he nor the mayor approached governance from a “conflict perspective.”

A man in a back corner tossed a relative softball, asking Black how he felt the news media has performed.

“I’m learning about the media from the mayor,” he said. “The best approach is to have zero expectations. They’re selling what they’re selling. There’s a fixation on negative and bad.”

That remark prompted NBC 12 reporter Sean Muserallo to ask Black to cite a positive story his office had sent out in the last two weeks.

Check with the administration’s press office, Black replied.

That’s the answer we get for everything, Muserallo spat back.

After the talk ended, Muserallo corralled Black into an on-camera interview. An auditor’s report released Oct. 18 found Black had no grounds for withholding funds from schools. City Council is preparing to press criminal charges if Black continues to withhold them. (Black told a council committee the same day he planned to do just that.)

Black told Muserallo he wasn’t worried, then darted for the exit.

By the time he left, it was raining outside.

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