Why Is This So Hard? Structure. (Part 3 of 3)
This post is second in a three-part series on the City of Richmond’s budget.
Part III: Why is this so hard? Structure. (today)
It looks like Richmonders have got ourselves a budget! In Monday’s productive work session, City Council amended the Mayor’s budget to fund many of his priorities, but managed to protect their own chief goal: holding the property tax rate steady.
Still, it was rough going for a while there; the process included threats from the Mayor to withhold funding, threats from Council to sue the Mayor, and a lot of citizen angst. Does this process have to be so hard?
Maybe so. There are at least two big structural reasons why budgeting – and policymaking in general in the city – seems so challenging.
1. City Government is a Toddler
As I have noted before, Richmond’s city government is relatively new. The city adopted what is called a “strong mayor” model, with a separately elected Mayor, in 2005; before that, the Mayor was drawn from City Council, with largely ceremonial duties. Proponents of strong mayor systems favor this model for Hamiltonian reasons; the growing challenges of modern city government, they claim, require an “energetic” executive with significant power and direct accountability to the people.
Levar Stoney, then, is only the third “real” Mayor we’ve had, and he’s certainly the most ambitious one. There are not a lot of rules or protocols for dealing with a separate executive branch, especially when the Mayor is looking for change of one kind or another. So maybe it shouldn’t be surprising that his time in office has been characterized by some occasional brushes with Council, especially over the budget.
The City has also embraced non-partisan elections, as many municipalities do. The idea is to keep much of the ideology and partisan bickering that characterize national politics away from city elections and government. But that also means that there are no party connections to help mayors govern and councilmembers to legislate.
So to some extent, we are just watching people embedded in evolving institutions trying to feel out how things should work. Of course this process would not always be smooth, or look pretty.
2. Trees vs. Forest
We have nine City Council members, each representing a different district in the city. And like most Southern cities, Richmond is still segregated. Wealth is concentrated in a few districts; district lines reflect racial divides, based in part on decades of discrimination.
In their analysis of the budget process (which really helpfully informed this blog series), former Stoney advisor Thad Williamson and VCU professor Ravi Perry note how even well-meaning Councilmembers get caught up in parochial interests:
Given our council system, we cannot be surprised when representatives from the more affluent 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th districts express deep reluctance to raise taxes. We are surprised when a representative in the 6th, 7th, 8th, or 9th district opposes change that is bluntly redistributive in a progressive direction. The 5th district, as ever, remains a swing district.
That’s the expected logic of Richmond politics. As long as we are trapped in that logic, however, we won’t have systemic change, but at best marginal, incremental improvements.
The result may be adversarial, almost by necessity. The Mayor presumably represents the interests of the city as a whole, with councilmembers focusing more on their district. But this sometimes leads Council to see themselves as almost defending their citizens against their own city government: how do we “hold the line” against the “greedy” folks downtown? And again, this dynamic is literally colored by the city’s racial divides, as I argued in Part 1 of this series.
Ironically, the district system was put in place only after federal courts had placed city elections on hold for half the 1970s. The system avoided any at-large councilmembers specifically to ensure minority representation, and byzantine mayoral election rules (a Mayor must win 5 of 9 districts) was designed to ensure a mayor who does not just represent the city's wealthiest (and whitest) citizens.
After a chaotic budget season, is there anything the city can do to make this a little easier? There may be a few things:
The Mayor’s Education Compact is supposed to help address some of this tension. The Compact has its problems, but the Mayor argues that it has already led to unprecedented cooperation between the city and schools administrations. The hope is that some of the more reluctant City Council members will see some value in it and start engaging more.
The budget process seems to need some revising, particularly on the part of Council. There is no standing Budget committee as some other cities have, which means that work sessions often involve the Council negotiating with the administration and amongst themselves at the same time. Council also could consider ways to gather more public input, beyond a single dramatic meeting.
Another complicating factor is that the city has a separately elected School Board that spends millions of city dollars on a public school system, but that has no budgeting authority. This current board hasn't exactly inspired confidence, but other cities have let some of the tension of the budget process this way.
If the Mayor is going to embrace the role of an energetic executive branch leader, he might consider naming or even hiring a legislative liaison. At the national and state level, it is typical to assign someone the job of lobbying the legislature on behalf of the executive branch. Stoney may have someone doing this informally, but he could consider beefing up that position, which might be a good model for subsequent mayors to follow.
I met recently with a long-time Richmond politico. His takeaway from his experience was that rules, institutions, and structures matter much less than leadership. Your city’s system of government -- strong mayor, weak mayor, whatever – doesn’t matter as much as having the right people in place to lead.
I suspect there’s a lot of truth to this. But rules can help make this leadership easier or harder. And if you thought this year’s budget process was tense, wait until 2020: that’s an election year.