RVA Politics is a blog about politics in the state of Virginia And the capital city of Richmond.

The author is a political scientist. Please don't hold that against him.

 

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.

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