City Council, the Mayor and Change
Given that I polished off a bag of microwave popcorn just last night, there’s a strangely chemical taste in my mouth this morning after seeing reports over the holiday weekend about PFOA, a likely cancer-causing agent that’s apparently coursing through the veins of most Americans. And, yeah, it’s said to be abundantly present in items such as microwaveable popcorn bags.
Small mercy, then, that today brings some distraction in the governmental realm. This afternoon, Richmond City Council will meet at 3 p.m. in City Hall in a “special hearing” to talk with Mayor L. Douglas Wilder’s administration about the panel’s rejection of Harry E. Black as the city’s chief administrative officer. Then, in its regular semimonthly session, at 6 p.m., the Council will vote on a package of budget items for the upcoming fiscal year, beginning in July.
In our May magazine, contributing writer Greg Weatherford wrote about Black’s career and professional reputation in light of Council’s confirmation vote, which was pending at time of publication. In considering Black for the CAO job, some Council members questioned his communication style and his qualifications.
Richmond Magazine spoke with City Council President William J. Pantele on Thursday, and the Councilman reiterated the panel’s concerns over Black. In our May article, our editors inserted some clarified numbers regarding the projected cost of two “emergency” outside audits by a Washington, D.C., firm that Wilder’s administration ordered to examine the schools and the city’s assessor’s office. The contract to audit the assessor’s office was for $269,000 while the schools audit was $224,000.
At the time, in mid-April, Black told our magazine that he projected the city would have to pay the D.C. firm about half of the total bill for those two audits, which would put the city’s outlay somewhere around $250,000. Weeks later, during one of the mayor’s town hall meetings, Black told a District 1 resident that the total outlay was expected to be $89,000. I confirmed this figure with Black last week, who said that the entire issue was enough of a moving target that he originally cited the best cost estimates he could at the time.
But the issue of changing numbers is what concerns Pantele, who says that in Council’s dealings with Black’s office it’s often “hard to get a straight answer.”
While Black’s resume shows experience in D.C. city government, Pantele says he thinks that Richmond needs a more seasoned senior figure — in the image of Chesterfield’s retiring county manager, Lane Ramsey — to help guide the city’s operations.
In the meantime, Council’s budget amendments, which face a final vote tonight, include another effort in the city’s general push for accountability. In light of City Auditor Umesh V. Dalal’s audit of the city fleets, Pantele pointed out last week that the Council has, so far, given a nod toward creating a new position, the Office of the Inspector General, to investigate and prosecute fraud and corruption in the city’s governmental ranks. It’s an idea borrowed from other localities in the nation, and according to Pantele, it’s a function that could help identify tens of millions of dollars in fraudulent city spending.
It’s an idea that’s likely even to get wholehearted approval from the mayor, especially given his assurances of keeping an open door and open mind.