Major decisions loom at halfway point in current four-year term
While discord is nothing new, some members worry it has distracted from achievements
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.