Sheila's Big Test: Saying "No" to Wilder 

click to enlarge street41_sheila_hill_christian_100.jpg

Once City Council says "yes" to Sheila Hill-Christian as the city's new chief administrative officer, her most important job may simply be saying, "No."

The two men who have held the post under Mayor L. Douglas Wilder failed to establish their independence from the mayor's day-to-day directives, critics say.

In the case of William Harrell, his clashes with Wilder led to his frustrated exit seven months ago. In the case of Harry Black, it led to multiple lawsuits from City Council and the School Board challenging the mayor's authority.

"Any mayor really should be establishing policy, should be establishing the direction in which the city should be going and really establishing the agenda," says John Moeser, an urban studies professor at the University of Richmond who helped draft the current city charter. "The CAO is the one who decides if the agencies are in line with that agenda, and needs to have the confidence of the mayor."

The system works best when the CAO is "somebody who can say no," Moeser says. "Where you want to draw the line is the micromanagement, where the mayor is telling the CAO … how to deploy the garbage trucks."

City Council President Bill Pantele says Hill-Christian's backbone must be less pliable than her predecessors.

The position "is a critical function and requires someone with the professional strength and security to say no," Pantele says, looking to Hill-Christian to be somebody who "is not afraid to be fired."

Easier said than done. In the case of Harrell, saying no to a mayor fresh off an 80 percent electoral mandate proved a challenge. Hill-Christian comes at a time of political vulnerability. In many ways, she's Wilder's peace offering in the wake of his failed eviction of Richmond Schools from City Hall Sept. 21.

Gov. Tim Kaine, who granted Wilder permission to approach Hill-Christian about the job last week, says his former agency head has the skills to pull it off.

"She knows the governor very well and has worked with him in the past and feels it's the right thing to do," Kaine says of Hill-Christian's decision to become CAO. "I think she's kind of what is needed at this time."

As for changing the charter to clarify the roles of the executive and legislative branches, Kaine says he doesn't see the need. "The structure is in place, and it's time for everybody to come back together and get the focus on the right issues," he says.

Tell that to one former member of Wilder's administrative staff, who says the proof of the charter's inherent flaws is in the pudding. The city charter gives the CAO authority to give directives to city employees, not the mayor.

But there were instances when Wilder gave direct orders "and instruction to city employees," the staff member says, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "Some of those things pushed my ethical boundaries and I felt very uncomfortable."

Can Hill-Christian restore the credibility of the CAO position and resist Mayor Wilder if he pushes the legal boundaries of the city charter?

Pantele hopes so, but isn't sure.

"William Harrell is a really good guy. He's a pro, very well-respected, and you know he got chewed up. Maybe he never had a fair chance to really manage the way the charter contemplates the way a CAO should," Pantele says. "I really can't tell you how Sheila sorted through this." S

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