Ma­jor de­ci­sions loom at half­way point in cur­rent four-year term

While dis­cord is noth­ing new, some mem­bers worry it has dis­tracted from achieve­ments

Richmond Times-Dispatch - - FRONT PAGE - BY MARK ROBIN­SON

As the cal­en­dar flipped to 2019, Rich­mond City Coun­cil mem­bers came to the half­way point of their four-year term and marked the mile­stone with a rare mo­ment of sol­i­dar­ity.

The coun­cil unan­i­mously el­e­vated 7th Dis­trict rep­re­sen­ta­tive Cyn­thia New­bille to the po­si­tion of pres­i­dent last week and tapped Chris Hil­bert, who pre­vi­ously served in the role, as vice pres­i­dent.

New­bille promised to work “col­lec­tively and col­lab­o­ra­tively” with coun­cil mem­bers who have seen their fair share of squab­bles dur­ing their terms. Through two years, they have passed a con­tro­ver­sial meals tax in­crease, de­bated and ul­ti­mately re­jected a cig­a­rette tax, and twice de­cided against ask­ing the state for con­trol of the Con­fed­er­ate stat­ues lin­ing Mon­u­ment Av­enue. Even big­ger de­ci­sions loom.

In its third year, the coun­cil is poised to re­view a 20-year fund­ing plan that Rich­mond Mayor Le­var Stoney in­tro­duced late last year to cover $650 mil­lion worth of con­struc­tion and im­prove­ments to Rich­mond Pub­lic Schools’ build­ing stock.

Also im­pend­ing is a $1.4 bil­lion plan to build a new Rich­mond Coli­seum and re­de­velop a vast swath of down­town.

Stoney is push­ing the project in con­cert with a non­profit headed by cor­po­rate lead­ers in the city, in­clud­ing Do­min­ion CEO Thomas F. Far­rell II. Stoney could in­tro­duce leg­is­la­tion for the deal Mon­day, when the coun­cil con­venes for its first full meet­ing of 2019.

The de­ci­sions made by the coun­cil will de­ter­mine whether its mem­bers keep prom­ises that vaulted them into of­fice in 2016. Vot­ers then called on can­di­dates to turn around city schools and ig­nore the lure of flashy eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment deals that dogged past ad­min­is­tra­tions.

For his part, Stoney has sought to sell the pub­lic on the Coli­seum project as a ve­hi­cle to fix­ing pub­lic schools, say­ing it could bring in new money and ex­pand the city’s lim­ited bor­row­ing power to ad­dress RPS’ build­ing needs.

He has also made the project cen­tral to his agenda for im­prov­ing pub­lic trans­porta­tion, build­ing more af­ford­able hous­ing, and sup­port­ing mi­nor­i­ty­owned busi­nesses.

Coun­cil mem­bers are skep­ti­cal. In De­cem­ber, they split with Stoney by es­tab­lish­ing a com­mis­sion of cit­i­zen ex­perts to study the plans once he un­veils them.

The idea was hatched by Coun­cil­woman Kim­berly Gray, 2nd Dis­trict, who has emerged as the chief critic of the Stoney ad­min­is­tra­tion on the coun­cil. She said she saw the de­ci­sion as a turn­ing point for a coun­cil that has of­ten fol­lowed the mayor’s lead.

“I think that peo­ple were will­ing to vote to have a com­mis­sion rather than to push through and rub­ber­stamp this deal is a sign of bet­ter days to come,” Gray said.

But even an 8-1 vote be­lied dis­agree­ment among the coun­cil mem­bers about the com­mis­sion, ex­pos­ing fault lines.

Dis­cord on the coun­cil is not new. A ver­bal con­fronta­tion at a com­mit­tee meet­ing in the spring be­tween Gray and Coun­cil­man Michael Jones led Jones to leave the room in the mid­dle of a meet­ing.

An al­ter­ca­tion at City Hall be­tween Jones and Coun­cil­woman Reva Tram­mell be­came the fo­cus when Jones later re­ceived a threat­en­ing text mes­sage from a phone num­ber he didn’t rec­og­nize. Po­lice ques­tioned Tram­mell as a part of their in­ves­ti­ga­tion into the threat.

Coun­cil­man Parker Age­lasto moved out of the dis­trict he was elected to rep­re­sent, prompt­ing a round of crit­i­cism and calls for his re­moval. He has said he has no plans to re­sign. Hil­bert has called the sit­u­a­tion em­bar­rass­ing.

On the com­mis­sion vote, some coun­cil mem­bers who are al­lies of the mayor — New­bille and 1st Dis­trict Coun­cil­man An­dreas Ad­di­son — sup­ported the idea only af­ter seek­ing un­suc­cess­fully to amend Gray’s or­di­nance and de­lay a vote.

Gray snuffed the at­tempt, say­ing in the process that Ad­di­son, who mounted the ef­fort, hadn’t first con­sulted her.

He didn’t have to, Ad­di­son said af­ter the vote.

“I didn’t feel like, given how coun­cil works, that [con­sult­ing Gray] was a re­quire­ment,” Ad­di­son said. “I can in­tro­duce and dis­cuss an amend­ment at any point. I don’t know why that’s such an of­fen­sive act by me, but ap­par­ently it is to her.”

While some mem­bers seek to down­play the in­ci­dents, oth­ers worry they have dis­tracted from the coun­cil’s work to this point in the term.

“You get re­marks that are made that of­fend some­body and you go back and forth on that in­stead of con­cen­trat­ing on the is­sue on the floor,” Hil­bert said.

Tram­mell, the 8th Dis­trict rep­re­sen­ta­tive, of­fers a more can­did as­sess­ment.

“We’re not on the same page,” she said. “We’re not.”

New­bille’s of­fice said she was not avail­able for a phone in­ter­view be­fore this story went to press. Ellen Robert­son, the 6th Dis­trict coun­cil­woman, said she was ill and could not take ques­tions via phone. Jones and Age­lasto did not re­turn re­quests for com­ment for this story.

The coun­cil is sched­uled to meet at 6 p.m. Mon­day.

Vot­ers in 2016 called on Rich­mond coun­cil can­di­dates to turn around city schools and ig­nore the lure of flashy eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment deals that dogged past ad­min­is­tra­tions.

New­bille

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