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.