Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney offered his first State of the City address on Tuesday night.
Stoney can be forgiven if the speech seemed a bit like a victory lap; he's had a good first year.
There have been some hiccups, of course. Some issues from the past year arose from Stoney’s ambitious agenda – an early budget fight with the City Council, for example, or the need to scale back his plans for a citywide Education Compact. Other city problems have come from mostly outside his purview, like the recent flap over mismanagement and neglect at the city’s housing authority, whose Board is appointed by the City Council.
But Stoney, probably wisely, spent the first year in office clearly trying to accomplish two goals. One was to present a more public face for the City, being present and available at public events and city programs around the city -- a welcome counter to his famously aloof predecessor, Dwight Jones. The other goal was more challenging: to essentially make the city work again, at least in the minds of its residents. That meant getting financial reports completed on time, easing a broken permitting process, and filling potholes. (Thousands of them. Sometimes personally.)
Stoney actually made this strategy plain in his address this week; the theme of the whole thing clearly was that his first year was designed to ensure the city "did the little things." Now, the Mayor claimed, it was time for some bigger challenges.
Like what? Stoney outlined four key areas of emphasis: education, housing, public safety, and poverty mitigation. More encouragingly, he pointed out that these problems were all related, and that they could not be treated as single problems in particular “silos.” Unfortunately, the mayor was a little short on specifics, clearly looking to use the speech to lay out a vision and fill in details later. And so “One Richmond” requires “One Plan” that would create “Communities of Opportunity.” That’s all fine; but as one commenter noted on Twitter, is there really just ONE plan?
In fact, Stoney's administration has announced a dizzying array of initiatives over the past year:
- The Mayor’s Education Compact, which commits the School Board, City Council, and Administration to work together on the city’s public schools
- Richmond 300, an update to the city’s master plan
- RVA Green 2050, a plan to reduce the city’s carbon emissions
- Vision Zero Richmond, a national plan to make streets safer for drivers, bikers and pedestrians
- The “One Richmond” agenda, which encompasses an ongoing restructuring of city government in response to a performance review conducted by VCU
These different plans aren’t necessarily bad – I praised the city government overhaul just last month – but the overlapping initiatives present at least two problems.
The first concern is relatively minor, and might be at heart a marketing problem: too many brand names to choose from. What should Richmonders get behind in the coming year? When confronted with these various programs, with their attendant slogans and initiatives, will the city's residents comprehend, remember, or even care?
A more important question concerns administrative efficiency and diverted efforts. What is the MAYOR getting behind – where are his priorities? Can he and his administration actually accomplish all this stuff? All of these initiatives are exciting on their own, sure. But when you put it all together, is it a bit TOO exciting? Do the Mayor’s many plans just seem a little too... plantastic?
One welcome initiative that may help address this problem: the Mayor promised an overhaul of the city's Kafka-esque website. More communication will help; and in communicating all these many initiatives to the public, maybe the Administration will gain focus as well. (A one-stop landing page for all these initiatives would be a good start.)
Stoney’s speech wasn’t entirely without specifics, either; most of the attention has been focused on his call for a hike in the city meals tax, but he also mentioned programs to create more affordable housing and after-school programs for kids. And he’s committed (through the Rose Fellowship, yet ANOTHER program the city’s become involved in) to properly commemorate the Lumpkin’s/Slave Trail sites in Shockoe.
Stoney has done enough to earn credit for his first year, and optimism for his second. But he and his administration need to be careful to keep track of all the ways they are going to take on these big challenges, if he wants a similarly warm reception for next year’s State of the City address.