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OPINION: The Mayor’s Final Exam 

His ambitious equity agenda offers opportunity, but dangers as well.

click to enlarge Mayor Levar Stoney

Scott Elmquist/File

Mayor Levar Stoney

Mayor Levar Stoney introduced what he called an “equity agenda” during his state of the city address in February. Technically, the agenda is merely a resolution for the City Council to endorse, a bit of political theater. But as a laundry list of the Stoney administration’s recent accomplishments and future plans, the equity agenda suggests what the mayor considers to be the city’s priorities for the rest of his second term.

Organized into 10 categories including “addressing and preventing health disparities,” “reimagining public safety” and “telling the real history of Richmond,” these priorities offer opportunity, as well as some danger, for both the mayor and the city.
Why opportunity? There may be a crass marketing function at work here. But a slogan can also signal a more substantive, guiding principle for governance.

We have learned some painful lessons from the federal government the past few years. From the pandemic to Puerto Rico, the cost of disengaged, uninformed and inattentive leadership can be measured in thousands of lives. To address our most pressing problems, we need sustained attention from the executive branch, all the way to the top.

The stakes may be lower in Richmond, but not by much. Racial inequities in our city impact everything from our educational system to economic opportunity to – most egregiously in the case of criminal justice – the life and liberty of our residents. The energy of last year’s protests may have faded somewhat, but the demands for action that address these fundamental inequities remain urgent.

Some of the proposals and programs on the mayor’s equity agenda offer promising responses. As part of the “building community wealth to combat economic inequality” category, for example, the mayor includes the Richmond Resilience Initiative, a universal basic income pilot program he launched last year. This program, if successful, holds real promise for helping combat the persistence of poverty in the city.

But while from one perspective the equity framework provides focus, from another it might suggest a city pulled in different directions. This mayor likes plans! Labels and programs like One Richmond, Richmond300 and RVA Green 2050 can help drive excitement and engagement around an issue of local governance. But too many frameworks can divide attention.

Within its 10 categories, the equity agenda includes several past and present bureaucratic structures formed by the administration, including:

• An infant and maternal health task force.
• A racial and health equity community team.
• An eviction task force.
• A homelessness advisory council.
• The Education Compact.
• The Shockoe alliance.
• A community ambassador program
• The task force to re-imagine public safety, which, while completed, needs its recommendations implemented.
• A future youth advisory council
• A future civilian review board, with structure and function partially determined by a City Council commission.

The agenda also notes that the mayor has established four offices for equitable transit and mobility, children and families, professional accountability, and equitable development, plus a proposed fifth office of public engagement.

That’s a lot.

Bureaucracy by itself is no evil: You need to properly staff and fund problem solving, especially in an era of increased government capacity. We demand more from local government these days and the mayor wishes to meet these demands through this expansion.

But Stoney also needs to follow through. This equity framework must stand with vigorous and sustained commitment from his administration. It cannot give way to a new one next year or become diffused through a bewildering array of offices and task forces abandoned once their novelty wears off.

Recently in these pages, members of Richmond Together offered a plan for using federal pandemic relief funds, referring to the equity agenda. They were right to do so. If we are truly committed to such an agenda, then everything we do in the city needs to be viewed through that lens. How do we use federal funds to advance equity? How do ordinances, tax laws, and – to name a current topic of heated conversation – casino development advance this agenda? City Council can help by taking this agenda seriously and backing it up with budget votes.

It can sometimes be hard to evaluate public officials. They do a difficult job with many variables, not all of which are under their control. And yet Stoney may have just handed us what would be, if he were back on James Madison University’s campus, his final exam. The mayor deserves credit for proposing this equity agenda as a bold and ambitious framework for his administration. But its existence means that we should judge his actions and accomplishments through it. It would be unrealistic to expect 100% completion on every priority area. But we should hope the mayor has the fortitude and focus to at least earn a passing grade.

The city invites public comments, which have been extended to April 18, on the equity agenda here: https://www.rva.gov/rvaequity.

Richard Meagher teaches politics at Randolph-Macon College and is the author of Local Politics Matters (Lantern Publishing and Media, 2020).

Opinions on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

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