City Council's “Power grab” might help mayor

The city of Richmond’s government is about to finalize its budget for the next year. It’s been a painful process, with City Council holding a marathon 18-hour meeting last week that didn’t even finish the job. But most of the political talk this week is about a spat between the Mayor and City Council over rebudgeting authority.

Just to be clear on what we’re talking about here: "rebudgeting" is the ability of administrative departments to shift funds around. Let’s say your Department of Unicorn Regulation doesn’t need as many paper clips as you originally thought, so you want to spend that paper clip money on stapling instead. You "re-budget" the money, shifting it from the paper clips category to stapling, and everyone gets shiny new red Swinglines.

City Council doesn't care about the paper clips or staplers. But they do care if a big chunk of money allocated to leaf collection goes instead to road paving, or -- as happened with the outgoing Jones Administration -- if funds suddenly get allocated for severance payments for the mayor’s staff. So in the next budget period, if the Administration wants to move money around among major programs, they would need an ordinance to be approved by a majority of the Council.

Mayor Levar Stoney blasted the move as "a clear overreach of legislative authority." Richmond Times-Dispatch columnist Michael Paul Williams called it a “power grab," and worried that the City Council would end up "robbing City Hall of the flexibility it needs to be responsive."

Stoney also complained that no other locality in Virginia has implemented such restrictions. That appears to be true. However, unlike some of the state’s other cities, Richmond hasn't been the best model of financial transparency and accountability.

I often tell my students: budgeting is at the heart of politics. If you can understand budget documents and the budgeting process, you’ve got a leg up on any everyone else in the political world. Unfortunately, like most people, my eyes glaze over when staring at spreadsheets, so I'm not much of an expert myself.

Still, like most RVA residents, I’ve been frustrated with the city’s financial bureaucracy. Just in the past few months, we’ve seen infighting between the City’s Finance Department and Auditor, a mysterious $13M budget surplus, and a history of late financial reporting. And just this past week we found out the Finance Department sent out thousands of property tax bills with an erroneous $20 charge.

These problems are not Levar Stoney’s fault, and he’s in the process of conducting an extensive performance review of his administrative departments. But the dynamic I described a month or two ago still holds: in reforming Richmond’s government, Stoney is trying to turn an oil tanker. Sure, he has a right to be concerned about City Council interfering with his ability to govern. But he also has to worry about an entrenched and dysfunctional bureaucracy doing the same. It's possible that having City Council hounding his administrators over funding might actually be a useful tool for reform. Why not let them do the dirty work for him?

Plus I’m not convinced the new requirements will be as restrictive as Stoney and his staff are warning. Apparently the Fire Chief was already worrying "whether he would be able to move an employee from the Fire Department’s training program to its broader operations without having an ordinance drafted and put before the City Council." This seems like an overreaction – a budget does not control every moment of city employees’ time. The Fire Chief, and other department heads, will figure it out. But they’ll at least have to explain major moves -- and major mistakes -- in front of City Council. That might shine some much needed sunlight on the workings of our government offices.

The other thing to note about this brouhaha is that we’re watching political rules get written, in real-time. I wrote this back in 2014:

Richmond's government is relatively new; the city only went to a "strong-mayor" model, with a separately elected Council and mayor, in 2005. The rules for power-sharing among branches are not well-developed, especially because Doug Wilder's rocky term as Mayor did not really establish any precedents.

So there aren’t well-established roles for City Council and the Mayor under our current system of government. It’s almost inevitable, particularly after a change election like the one we just had, that there would be tensions between branches as they work out governing arrangements.

I suspect that after this flare-up, we’ll go back to seeing sunnier relations between the Council and Mayor. Budgeting might be the toughest part of city politics, and this year’s battles are almost over. That’s good for Mayor Stoney, because he’s going to need the Council’s help -- especially against his own people.


Amateur Hour at Richmond School Board

Big news this weekend in Richmond: Superintendent Dana Bedden will be leaving Richmond Public Schools as of June 30, with two years left on his contract. Nobody really knows why, except Bedden himself and the nine members of the School Board. And they are not talking.

According to WTVR-6 News, Board Chair Dawn Page offered the usual "new direction" boilerplate language with little details. So there’s little evidence of any kind of scandal or impropriety. But the timing is still odd, and the way the decision was made and announced is odder still.

The decision to oust Bedden was apparently reached in an emergency meeting Friday evening. According to the meeting minutes, one member, Scott Barlow, even had to participate by phone from Barcelona, a break with precedent that required a vote from the Board beforehand. Why the urgency?

The decision becomes more mysterious in light of the launch of Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney’s education “compact” earlier this year. Stoney and his team want to see greater collaboration between city administration and the school system, and they are planning a series of working groups to help reduce tension over funding and, hopefully, improve student outcomes.

I wrote a few weeks ago about how this move could be interpreted (perhaps cynically) as an attempt by the Mayor to gain greater control over city schools, usurping a democratically elected School Board. The ouster of Bedden, with no clear explanation, let’s people speculate still further. (The Richmond Times-Dispatch editorial board wondered darkly, "Did the board face pressure from other power centers – such as the mayor’s office, the business community, or the teachers' guild?")

I actually do NOT think power consolidation is Stoney's goal: all evidence suggests he has a much more collaborative vision. But Bedden's departure at least puts tremendous pressure on the Compact, and the Mayor, to succeed. Without clear leadership from a permanent superintendent, getting every stakeholder in the city on the same page for education is an even greater challenge.

Instead, what we’re seeing today is the downside of a change election. Last fall’s voting brought new faces to eight of the nine School Board seats. The one holdover, former Chair Jeff Bourne, departed for the House of Delegates in February. The result is an entirely new School Board, all of whom seem like neophytes at running a large bureaucracy and, significantly, managing the politics that results. I warned in December that the lack of continuity and experience on the Board would make it hard for them to meet the tough challenges they face; the announcement this weekend might justify such warnings.

[UPDATE/CORRECTION: One astute Twitter follower reminded me that Current Board Chair Dawn Page was previously on the board in 2009-12, eventually serving as Chair.]

On one level, the ouster of Bedden is not all that surprising; his predecessor was also forced out by a new board, although she had gotten five years on the job to be evaluated, not just three. Many Board members had criticized Bedden during their campaigns and at least one, Jonathan Young, had promised to try to remove him.

Instead, what makes Bedden's removal troubling is how the ouster occurred: in a rush, with two years left on his contract, and little explanation or clarity to assuage the fears of taxpayers, teachers and, most importantly, families with students in public schools. (Unsurprisingly, they’re not happy.)

This is Amateur Hour, folks, and the stakes could not be greater. The ailing school system is probably the biggest challenge to the city’s renaissance, beyond its criminally high levels of concentrated poverty. (Of course, both of these challenges are connected.) The city needs a School Board, and a tenured Superintendent, that has a shared vision on how to meet this challenge.

The worry should not be that the Board didn’t share Bedden's vision. Instead, the worry is that they don’t have a vision at all. Richmonders need to see evidence of their plan for the future, and soon. Otherwise we’ll all be looking forward to when the next "new" board comes along.

RVA Education Compact or Coup?

This week the City of Richmond will hold the first of a series of public meetings on a new education "compact" between the city government and its schools. This sounds... not terribly exciting. But the city's plan actually offers a tremendous opportunity for both the young Mayor and Richmond as a whole - but with lots of hidden politics threatening the city if it goes badly.

In past years, Richmond Public Schools (RPS) had developed a tense relationship with the City, characterized by fruitless meetings with City Council and continual sparring with former Mayor Dwight Jones over funding. When he was elected last fall, incoming Mayor Levar Stoney realized he did not want to spend precious political capital by continuing these old battles.

Instead, Mayor Stoney released in February a draft proposal for an "Education Compact." This proposal establishes a framework and infrastructure aimed at accomplishing three goals: better coordination between city government and RPS; setting and achieving goals for educational achievement and poverty reduction; and a funding strategy for the city’s schools.

Garet Prior at Richmond Forward has an absolutely essential breakdown of what the Compact means, including a rough timeline of how, as he puts it, "the next 24 months determines our next 20 years." Prior is a fan of the Compact, but he also raises some important questions about transparency and staffing. For example, will the compact provide opportunity for real input from community stakeholders often left out of citywide initiatives like these -- especially parents in poor sections of the city?

As far as transparency goes, the city is already having some trouble getting the word out. The compact will be discussed this week as part of a district meeting held by City Council member Andreas Addison, but there’s nothing obvious on Addison’s Facebook page about the Compact. The city’s website has separate announcements about the Compact meetings and Council meetings even though they are held at the same place at the same time. And while there was a small item on the meetings in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, it was buried in the Metro section. I'm sure Stoney’s administration is sincere about soliciting public input, but this first public meeting is woefully under-promoted.

But there might be an even bigger concern, one that might only show itself over the long term: power imbalance. With the Compact, the mayor will have extraordinary impact upon and -- a cynic might say -- control over the city schools. Part of the point of having a directly elected School Board, as Richmond does, is to insulate the school system from such political control. The Compact could operate to lessen the School Board’s input into its own operations.

Maybe this is a good thing; the Board's track record in recent years hasn’t been great, as seen in part by this year’s mysterious appearance of an $8M surplus. (That's more than a few coins in the couch cushions.) And Stoney was elected in part because of his endorsement of new ideas like this compact. The overwhelming majority of Richmonders voted last fall for either him or Jack Berry, who ran even more directly on a platform of reforming city government.

But the reform wave that swept Stoney into office also produced an entirely new School Board. With the recent departure of former Chair Jeff Bourne to the General Assembly, every member of the Board is a political neophyte. If the institutional reforms produced by this Compact wrest control of schools away from the Board, and Stoney’s benevolence fails him -- or, if he leaves for higher office, as his critics have often suggested he will, leaving the city to a less reform-minded Mayor -- does anyone on the Board have the political heft to try and wrest it back?

The good news is that the Compact is clearly participatory in intent, and seeks to bring in all stakeholders, including both the Board and parents. (The hands of Thad Williamson, Stoney's senior policy advisor and head of the previous mayor's anti-poverty task force, are clearly all over the proposal.) But activists like Prior and the citizens behind him had better keep a close eye on how the Compact is implemented, and ensure that coordination does not become mere consolidation of power.

Stoney's Reform Strategy?

A dust-up between Mayor Levar Stoney’s Finance Department and City Auditor Umesh Dalal may shed some light on the Mayor’s management style – or show he’s over his head.

First, the story: the City’s audit office asked for Finance Department records to see how the city has been doing on its tax collection. Recent financial reports suggest that the city is owed $58M in uncollected revenue. (That’s not small.) Dalal, the head of the audit office, had conducted a similar review back in 2012, and made headlines last year with a report on a handful of businesses that owed $750k in back taxes.

One problem: the city wouldn’t play ball. The Finance Department, led by the improbably named John Wack, wouldn’t release records to Dalal. (For good or ill, the lack of a true NY Post-style tabloid in Richmond means that we miss out on some great headlines: “Finance Director Wacks Auditor”; “Denial of Audit is Wack”, etc.)

Dalal’s office is an odd one: imbued by authority by the City Charter, it exists largely outside of the rest of city administration. Auditors are outsiders by design; they exist to serve as a check on city governments that often have single sources of power (a “strong mayor” or an unchecked City Council dominated by one or two key members).

I’ve heard grumblings from some city employees before about Dalal. The sense among some in city government is that he’s a grandstander, interested more in garnering press coverage than making city government more efficient. In Dalal’s defense, though, an ossified bureaucracy can be a tough nut to crack. Quietly working behind the scenes doesn’t always produce results. Running to the press can make it seem like you’re a glory hound when you’re actually bringing your best weapons to bear: media scrutiny and public pressure.

And those weapons seemed necessary this week. Why did the Finance Department resist Dalal? Wack’s justification was that Dalal’s office had misued “taxpayer data” in the past. Dalal tried to figure out what this meant, and instead showed that a staff member in his office had voluntarily shared his tax info as an example for others.

Translation: the Finance Department didn’t want to help Dalal. (Maybe partly because he called out a Finance Department employee last month for doing church work on city time?) So Wack made up some BS story to try to make the audit go away. Dalal, who has seen this kind of crap before, pushed back and exposed the story. So after the bad press, the Mayor eventually made the Finance Department cooperate. Dalal wins – and so, likely, do city taxpayers.

Where was the Mayor in all this? Mostly staying out of it, until he apparently brokered this week’s deal between the Finance Department and Dalal. It was a bad look for the reform-minded Mayor – stonewalling from city administration was supposed to be a Dwight Jones thing.

And originally I thought this was an unforced error by a young, inexperienced Mayor dealing with a canny office of bureaucrats who might hope to outlast him. Stoney’s campaign promise to reform city government is not an easy task; even well-meaning civil servants can get caught up in protecting turf and lose sight of the overall mission.

But who knows? I have no inside information here, but maybe Stoney is highly aware of entrenched bureaucrats, and is letting Dalal do his dirty work here. Let the City Auditor’s office expose incompetence and resistance, while the Mayor can technically stay loyal to his people while still seeing where change is needed.

Still, if Stoney is serious about this “comprehensive performance review” of city government, it seems like he now knows a good place to start: the Finance Department.

Gillespie: Confidence and caution

This morning, I got to chat with Jimmy Barrett at 1140-WRVA about the Virginia Governor's race. I attended the Republican candidate’s debate on Saturday, hosted by the Hanover County GOP in Mechanicsville. And the story, as I told Jimmy, was less about what happened about the debate but who showed up - and who didn’t.

Only two of the four major GOP candidates appeared: Virginia Beach State Senator Frank Wagner and Prince William County Supervisor Corey Stewart. Each candidate showed off their strengths (and weaknesses), but it was the absence of frontrunner Ed Gillespie that really defined the event.

First, the two men who did show up demonstrated a clear contrast in styles, if not substance. Stewart is the blowhard who offers confidence and energy. (He summed up his message for the crowd as "I'm a fighter; and I'm a winner.") Wagner is more subdued, coming off as the wonky career politician and businessman who knows how things work and how to fix them.

Wagner is clearly positioning himself as the economy guy, touting his own experience as a businessman and pushing a platform of reducing regulations and investing in technical education and transportation. Stewart's braggadocio probably played better, even for the mostly-elderly crowd, as he promised "the biggest tax cuts in Virginia history" and touted his record on immigration.

Stewart is trying to ride Trump's coattails, even though he was famously fired by the Trump campaign last fall. (Wagner took a shot at Stewart on this issue, almost on his way out the door.) No matter who the President’s preferred candidate is (he's not saying so far), Stewart has at least adopted Trump's political playbook. He threw plenty of conservative red meat to the crowd, with some of his biggest applause lines coming when he talked about Charlottesville moving a statue of Robert E. Lee.

Both candidates had plenty of time to communicate their message and even answer some questions about their past. But their answers were overshadowed by the no-show from Gillespie, who was trapped under something heavy -- I mean, campaigning up in northern Virginia (at least according to his twitter feed) even though, Stewart claimed, Gillespie’s campaign had essentially dictated this particular date and time.

(Debate organizers noted that some kind of family emergency did sideline the fourth candidate, longshot Denver Riggleman. This wasn't good timing for him; he had way more to lose than Gillespie by not showing up. A woman in front of me at the event couldn't even remember his name until a campaign worker reminded her.)

The problem for both Wagner and Stewart: Gillespie is way ahead in early polling. Yes, we need to emphasize the "early," with close to 50% undecided in a January Christopher Newport poll. But Gillespie has much greater statewide visibility than his opponents thanks to his 2014 near-defeat of Mark Warner. The frontrunner is clearly feeling confident enough that he felt he could sit this one out without any adverse consequences.

But Gillespie's absence can also be seen another way: as a sign of caution. As the clear frontrunner, Gillespie has a lot more to lose and less to gain than the other guys at these events. Stewart's potshots are particularly a problem. His arguments with Gillespie defined the first debate, and journalists are happy to portray the race using an insurgency vs. establishment vibe that follows the narrative established by last fall's national election.

The question remains, though, whether Stewart's red meat conservatism will play as well among Virginia Republicans as Trump's did among the country as a whole. As much as the media might overplay the story, there IS an establishment wing in the VA GOP, and they have already decided that Ed Gillespie is their best shot at defeating the Democrats in the fall. It’s hard to see how Stewart can convince them to abandon Ed, no matter how many nicknames his campaign comes up with. (#EnronEd and #ChickenEd were two that showed up in his twitter feed during the debate.)

So in the end, nothing about this weekend changed the underlying dynamics of the race. Gillespie is still the most likely nominee to emerge on the GOP side, with the other guys, mostly Corey Stewart, hoping they are doing more than waging a battle for second place.

Dave Brat: Liar, Coward

I’ve been writing a lot lately about poor Dave Brat, who has had a rough couple of weeks.

I don’t mean to harp on Brat’s troubles dealing with the rise of liberal activism in his district. Dave was my colleague at Randolph-Macon College, and by all reports was a great teacher and was certainly fun to talk to over lunch. But he’s bringing these troubles on himself, in part by being a big fat liar.

To be more specific: Brat is talking out of both sides of his mouth, misleading his constituents and, along with his cowardly Republican colleagues, helping to undermine democracy. (Sorry, Dave, but it’s true.)

Brat, like many Congressional Republicans, is getting hassled by constituents who want him to host a town hall meeting. He’s referred to these folks as “paid protestors,” which is the new Big Lie the Republicans are spreading.

Brat held a virtual Town Hall on Facebook earlier this week where he backed off his comments about “women up in his grill.” According to the Richmond Times Dispatch, he claims “he never said all of his constituents were paid protesters, noting that ‘the majority of the folks who are contacting us are sincere folks with policy questions.’”

That would be a nice admission, if it weren’t for the fundraising letter he sent out the VERY NEXT DAY. Entitled “The Left is on the attack,” Brat’s letter claims that “left-wing billionaire George Soros is spending millions of dollars to fund groups committed to organizing perpetual protests. Protesters are being encouraged by Democrat operatives to be ‘angry’ and disrupt public meetings held by Republicans…. In California, one Soros-backed group even turned violent — smashing windows and assaulting citizens.”

Sure, he’s not claiming outright that protestors are getting checks from Soros, but he’s certainly implying it. This is part of a clear GOP strategy to dismiss opposition as illegitimate, as the “paid protestor” lie has been used by Brat, Rep. Jason Chaffetz, Senator Cory Gardner and others. So Brat might be following a GOP playbook here, one shared by the President himself. That still doesn’t make his dishonesty any less galling.

Yes, of course there are groups helping to organize protestors against Trump and the GOP. That’s how political organizing works; operatives, activists, and organizers engage in efforts to educate people on issues and spur them to action. But the recent wave of Democratic and progressive activism is growing organically due to fear and anger at the Trump victory last November. Organizers (and certainly George Soros) are not fabricating this energy; they’re just trying to harness and direct it.

When is Brat going to decry the entire Tea Party movement because their leaders were given training by the Washington, DC group FreedomWorks? When is he going to call attention to the insidious, sinister letter-writing and activism campaigns organized by the right-wing Heritage Foundation think tank? Until he does that, he can stuff his hypocritical complaints about George Soros and “perpetual protest.”

By demanding they face their constituents, progressive organizing groups like Indivisible and are adopting a simple, but powerful strategy: ask Brat and his fellow members of Congress to do their damn job. If Republicans want to repeal the Affordable Care Act, or support the Trump Administration, then they need to defend their actions to their constituents. Sure, those constituents may be hostile or confrontational. But this is the job these guys signed up for.

Brat has responded by scheduling a meeting in friendly Nottoway County, in the farthest southwest corner of his district. Constituents are already complaining about the choice of a smaller venue far away from the center of his district, in what appears to be an effort to try to limit the size of the crowd.

Avoiding scheduling town halls, making them difficult to attend, or even running out the back door when constituents do show up is not how participatory democracy is supposed to work. Every day, the post-Trump GOP seems interested in highlighting the current moral bankruptcy of their party.

If they don’t find a way to respond to constituents, this may turn into political bankruptcy. These newly activated citizens are not going away. Brat may be in a safe GOP district, but even his Tea Party friends might tire of someone who keeps getting exposed as a lying coward.