The Blue Raccoon

Monday, September 24, 2007

Dismemberment Plan

Matthias Grunewald didn't realize that in 1510 he was
describing recent events at Richmond City Hall.

To hear the exasperated and put-upon-sounding Governor-Mayor on Jimmy Barrett's WRVA morning program this ayem, the confusion at City Hall is all just a real estate transaction gone awry. The School Board--says Wilder--takes up too much room at City Hall in outsized proportion to the schools and children that the education division administrates. The School Board has no lease and has--so Wilder and his camp explain--no boilerplate arrangement with the City of Richmond for occupation of its five floors of offices that began in 1972.

Wilder wants other offices, like Economic Development, returned to the fold. Some members of the billion-eyed audience may reall that ED was in 2000 spun out and put in the Maggie Walker Business and Technology Center, 501 E. Franklin St., with the Industrial Development Authority and the non-profit business incubator known as Advantech.

This was back in the day, as the kids say, when John Woodward ran the city's ED and came across as one of the few people in Richmond who knew what they were talking about. Here was a guy who could've gone anywhere, but he carried unabashed allegiances to Richmond, so, of course, the Governor-Mayor ejected him from the game. Woodward is in Atlanta, now, doing quite well, thank you, as Director of Foreign Investment for the City of Atlanta Department of Economic Development. Slacker.

Councilman Bill Pantele sought to create a small business incubator in a dinged-up downtown office building. From a development point of view, seemed to make sense to have new enterprises, the IDA and ED all in one place.

For the past two years, the Governor-Mayor has had other plans, and wants to kick the education department up the street to 3600 W. Broad St., the former Seaboard Railway Building.

[Historical aside: this massive Scott's Addition office builidng was designed by James William Breed (1911-1973). While with Baskervill & Son, he also created the elegant brass grille depicting eight significant personalities in the advancement of medicine, from Hippocrates to Joseph Lister, on the Medical College of Virginia West Hospital. Breed also designed Richmond Memorial Hospital and the Robert Shaw Controls building near Willow Lawn, the latter he considered his masterpiece. He was a Modernist, but not without a sense of humor; 3600 was supposed to look like a caboose for Southern Railway, and when you pass by the builidng on 195 or stand on a Scott's Addition rooftop and take in the view, you can see Breed's wit at work. Breed also designed the decorative wood grill, of cherry and mahogany, to cover the organ pipes of the Richmond Christian Science Church on Monument Avenue.]

So it was that I read the tempering and mediating views of Jon Baliles at River City Rapids, who says, in summary, that the media needs a time out and that this wasn't a coup.

The Governor-Mayor didn't violate the circuit court judge's orders and proceed with moving the School Board offices. Though if they'd shown up at 3600 with their piles of boxes, they wouldn't have been able to gain entry. Nobody on the School Board was given keys. Balisles does see that at the very least, Wilder violated a city ordinance allowing the School Board to remain in City Hall, but the courts now must determine if the ordinance applies under the new regime.

To my mind, In the awful and absurd zero sum game of politics in this nation these days, the maneuver of the Governor-Mayor was, at best, ham-fisted and unpleasant, and, at worst, unconstitutional. He committed a public blunder in that he angred vocal opponents and bullied the media. Then there's that whole idiotic naming of names against Council President Bill Pantele, which is just...inexcusable.

Wilder doesn't care what any of us thinks. He cares about poses and drama. So, he's moved up a timetable from November about who has control of City Hall. But at what aesthetic and psychic cost -- never mind the money. What unfortunate impression has his bollixed overreaching made on those who live here and view Richmond from beyond?

Full disclosure: Through the past several years I wrote and advocated for the direct election of a mayor and the need for a chief executive who would provide a face and voice for the city, a person in whom people could see the emobdiment of Richmond's aspirations and the better aspects of our city's character. I also wanted a decisive but fair leader who could create coalitions and make compromises in the name of getting things done and moving Richmond into a 21st century released from its 20th century baggage of race and economic injustice. That would mean empaneling a dynamic group of advisors from across the spectrums of politics and philosophies and letting them reimagine what this city could become. I wanted us as Richmonders to strut with pride at what was happening at City Hall, not hide our eyes in shame at newspaper headlines and blaring television coverage.

I wanted to vote for a dragon-slayer, not the dragon; I sought a much-needed shake up at City Hall, not a shake down, my expectations were for an unexpected exhiliration about our city's government, not a disheartening and demoralizing debacle. My idea was to restore to Richmond the idea of a civic and cultural beacon; not a mediocre melodrama funded by tax dollars.

I'd hoped for someone who'd addres the Dilllon Rule (and more of it here) and the ridiculous city-county split that is perpetuated by the General Assembly that prevents metropolitan and regional unificaiton. The concept is often used as a boogey man by county adminsitrations -- and Wilder doesn't help matters much. And I so hoped that he would have an opposite effect. He's had no vision, "City of the Future," or no, he's just engaged in turf fights and mud-slinging while claiming this was what the people of Richmond elected him to accomplish.

I wanted somebody like Charleston, S.C.'s Joe Riley to emerge out of the sudden opportunity for Richmond to govern herself. Charleston now has a unique challenge: Riley has been mayor for almost 30 years--he is the longest serving mayor in the nation's history--and is so well liked and competent, that the fear is that electoral politics won't provide another like him, and Charleston may want to return to a City Manager/weak mayor government (!)

But as a friend of mine counseled me a few years ago, who knew City Hall and the system here, be careful what you ask for. He asked me to look around: where was this potential healer-uniter-leader that I sought? Where in the field could he or she be found? If Richmond would be willing to support someone left of center, or--scratch and forget that-- even get excited about somebody with half a clue, instead of becoming infatuated by over-used tropes and applause-line rhetoric. Mind you, I still support the mayor-at-large -- just not this one.

His Excellency said this morning, I thought in rather interesting way, that if City Council doesn't want him vested with the authority of running City Hall, then they need to get sombody else. It was one of this throw-away lines, but, maybe he's right. But for now, we're stuck with him, just like we are with another resident at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

You know, people complain about Richmond's old system of courtesy--which was often used to deflect from real bad things that were allowed to occur and also prevented actual tough decisions and discussion--but in this case, we could use some of that politesse. This brusque kicking around of people and the dismissal of their complaints is no way to run a municipality, and I dare say, I'm not the only one thinking so on this fair Monday.

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At 11:31 AM, Blogger RVA Foodie said...

When I wrote up my Friday midnight reaction to the chaos at City Hall I layed the blame (in part) with those who demanded an at-large Mayor and fueled Wilder's obvious ego by granting him a mandate to wreck shop. I guess that includes you. However, your clarification of what you're really hoping for in an elected at-large Mayor is eloquent and reasonable and I was inspired in reading it. Who doesn't want leadership they can be proud of? What voter doesn't want to have influence and access with their representative after they are elected? Unfortunately, that's not what we've got in Doug. If the behavior of McQuinn/Pantele/Jewell or the Ukrops are any indication, those who are waiting in the wings to take Wilder's place are probably every bit as opportunistic. I hope that we are able to articulate clearer pre-requisites of our next Mayor before handing the reigns over next time around

At 12:02 PM, Blogger HEK said...


Greetings, and thanks for visiting.

Yes, indeed, I am one to blame for my advocacy of an at-large-and-in-charge mayor. One must remember that at first, the Governor-Mayor said he wouldn't run, then when he did run, he started not showing up to debates because I guess he thought they were beneath him.

But, yes, I didn't expect or want this kind of arrogance and opportunism delivered to me. I guess I should've known. I was here and old enough to vote for him as Governor, and that went oh so smooth. Problem is, to become the first African American Governor of Virginia, he had to out-politic the usual politicians, and thus, become worse than the ones he defeated -- by that I mean, in how they handled their implementation of policy, and their machineering.

But after Doug, what? Does someone out there, who has heretofore not leaped to the front, possess the ability and talent to rise above the petty, the picayune and the silly, bringing to us instead graciousness and clarity, and holding an immense gift for diplomacy and an almost second sight for the future?

I wanted the "The West Wing" and instead I got "Gasoline Alley." But at least "Gasoline Alley" was funny, and even sometimes poignant. This is more like "Spin City."

At 8:31 PM, Anonymous Elizabeth said...

This isn't to the point, but what is this painting called???
I've been trying to find the name everywhere and can't.

At 2:54 PM, Blogger HEK said...


Thanks for visiting. If you click on the artist's name, you'll see that it is part of an altar piece, and this piece is the far right painting; "The Temptation of St. Anthony."


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