Mayor Jones’ legacy: Pastor's problems, not fire

A law enforcement officer finishes an investigation into a public official. The officer notes that there is not enough evidence for criminal charges, but proceeds to harshly criticize the official for improper practices. Critics of the official grumble about the lack of political will to prosecute, while the official's defenders argue that justice is done.

No, I’m not talking about the FBI and Hillary Clinton’s e-mails. (Please God, no more about Clinton’s e-mails.) But Richmond residents can be forgiven for feeling a little deja vu this week when Commonwealth’s Attorney Mike Herring completed his investigation into Richmond Mayor Dwight Jones’ administration. Herring found that Jones was guilty of “cronyism” -- hiring too many pals from his church and not disclosing enough information about ties to contractors and employees -- but not guilty enough for a criminal prosecution.

Unlike Clinton, Jones is now retiring from office, not running for one, so Herring's rebuke does nothing to dent his political prospects. But as Jones prepares to leave City Hall this month after eight years as Mayor, the critique does raise questions about his legacy. What kind of mayor was Dwight Jones, and what kind of city does he leave behind?

The Mayor's power base in a local church might have suggested that he could connect local civic institutions to city government. Instead, his tenure demonstrated the conflicts of interest that can arise when public officials do not separate their public and private roles. (A lesson some of our national officials might want to take to heart.)

But mixing church and state was not a singular problem in an otherwise stellar tenure. The Mayor described in Herring’s report might represent Jones' administration in a nutshell: insular, tight-lipped, even tone-deaf, and certainly paying little attention to public perception or even the views of others within city government. (For example, Jones long maintained a $400,000 security detail in a city strapped for every dollar.)

Jones' limitations were prominently displayed in the signature moment of his administration:  the failed Shockoe Bottom stadium proposal. Jones, hoping to keep our local Flying Squirrels team (Go Nutzy!) in town and free up the current stadium’s site for stronger economic development, announced a proposed ballpark to great fanfare in 2013. One problem: he forgot to line up the necessary votes in City Council to approve it. The proposal went down in flames the next year, and his administration never really recovered.

Some sources have suggested that Jones wasn’t ever strongly committed to the Shockoe stadium -- that he was persuaded to add it to the deal to get an attached slave memorial off the ground. If true, that almost makes him look worse; he lost complete control of his message, and the politics involved, as talk of baseball overwhelmed everything else.

Instead, we might look to other sources of bricks and mortar for Jones' legacy. Four new schools were built under his tenure, and a new jail replaced an old albatross; a pedestrian bridge across the James opens up this week. Mayors are human beings, and it is understandable that they might want to see their names on buildings when they leave office. But this impulse helps feed the tendency for cities to favor shiny projects over the hard work of governing. Exhibit A: Richmond's training camp deal with the Washington Redskins, which is so unpopular that mayoral candidates used it as a “punching bag” this year.

But Jones managed to avoid this trap in at least one major policy area. The Mayor's establishment of an Office of Community Wealth Building (OCWB) may only pay off down the road, but it could be his biggest actual legacy. The OCWB does the hard work of combating poverty, using a multi-pronged approach that focuses on everything from workforce development to affordable housing. It's an admirable investment in the city’s future, and the Mayor should be lauded for his commitment to it.

Still, even this effort shows the Mayor's shortcomings as a politician. Jones talked about poverty a lot -- the New York Times even covered his anti-poverty efforts in 2013 -- but two years later, Style Weekly was asking, "Where are the mayor’s initiatives, exactly? It’s difficult to say." Even when his administration was doing something important, the Mayor couldn’t seem to get the word out. (I think Richmond residents heard more about the OCWB from this fall’s mayoral candidates than they had in the previous four years.)

Jones' quiet leadership style was certainly an antidote to the city's first mayor under a newly christened "strong mayor" system of government: Doug Wilder governed through "bare-knuckle brawls," which was nobody’s idea of how to run a city. But in the end, Jones may have lacked the dynamism that a developing city needs; he never seemed able to harness a pastor’s fire and use it to lead.

The city must have noticed. The incoming Mayor, Levar Stoney, seems to have energy in spades. He’s already been everywhere in Richmond since the election, bouncing from event to event (and even personally feeding city coffers by picking up a parking ticket). Added bonus: he's a full-time mayor, with no external job like Jones' pastor gig. Stoney’s already learned that lesson from his predecessor; we’ll see what else he learned, starting next month.