Last month, Mayor L. Douglas Wilder "accepted the resignation" of Chief Administrative Officer William Harrell, formerly the city's top bureaucrat, who left to take over as city manager in his hometown of Chesapeake.
But Harrell had been on the outs with the mayor for months, according to insiders. In the course of a year, he'd slowly been replaced as top decision-maker and mayoral confidante by another man: the city's chief financial officer, Harry Black.
Harrell was known as Mr. Nice Guy. Black is more in the mold of Wilder, a hard-nosed manager who doesn't mince words and isn't afraid to ditch the kid gloves. He's taken the lead in the city's battle with the School Board, which appears headed to court, and says his primary job since taking over in November 2005 is undoing the mess previous administrations left behind.
True to form, Black has moved into Harrell's second-floor office even as City Council debates the legality of his appointment. According to the city charter, the Council must approve the interim chief administrative officer.
Black, a Virginia State University graduate, has worked in and out of government and the private sector, where he put in time as director of budget and finance for the Council of the District of Columbia and as assistant director of special projects at the New York City Mayor's Office of Contract Services, where he oversaw $7 billion in acquisitions annually.
Admittedly, Black's reputation is preceding him. And more than a few City Hall employees are a little nervous about his new role.
"I haven't fired anybody who hasn't fired themselves," Black says. As for the new nickname, "Baby Wilder"? Black considers it a compliment.
Style: What was the transition like? Have you worked for someone as demanding and politically astute as Wilder before?
Black: There are two things that make issues complex here. One is you're transitioning to a new form of government, one in which most people in the government are totally brand new to it. Because you're transitioning, you've got a very young government right now from a form perspective and people are still adjusting to it. Secondly, these are very interesting times in Richmond. I think that the times reflect tremendous opportunity. The economy is going well, the city is solvent, we've got a solid bond rating. This is a window of opportunity to really take advantage of that. The window will not always be there, because it's never always there. So, what's important for us is to recognize that, and do all that we can collectively to take advantage of it. I think we'd all agree that right now Richmond is a very bankable place.
How much of it is that people are still adjusting to this change of government, and how much of it is still adjusting to Mayor Wilder and his style?
So once again we have to keep in mind that you're in a strong mayor-council form of government. Why do they say strong mayor, or strong mayor-council form of government? Because the impetus of that form of government is a strong executive presence. And I think people are still adjusting to that, whether it's Mayor Wilder or someone else. If the position is going to be effectuated the way that it's designed, you're going to have some adjustment. Particularly in a city that has traditionally been a council- manager form of government.
Clearly, Mayor Wilder adds another dimension to it simply because he's very pragmatic. He's very charismatic. He has high expectations for everyone. It doesn't matter who you are. He has high expectations. And he's extremely demanding, but that's a good thing.
Do you think at times it can be not a good thing? A lot of people would say since Wilder's taken over all we've really had is a lot of turmoil. William Harrell is gone, and there's been a constant fluctuating in terms of administration, in terms of a lot of the City Hall directors.
Once again, I go back to the whole notion of we're transitioning to a new form of government. I think that plays a lot into this. People are still trying to get their legs under them. Turnover is going to be a natural part of any organization, and government is not exempt from that. Do we want to minimize turnover? Without question. One of the things that will be a focus for me as the interim CAO will be to be working with our human resources department to look at ways that we can be more innovative and creative with respect to workforce retention, as well as attracting people to work in the city of Richmond government.
Harrell had been viewed by some City Hall managers as sort of a buffer from Wilder. Now that he's gone, there's a lot of fear out there as to the unknown. Instead of having a good-cop/bad-cop, we may have kind of two bad cops. Do you get a sense that people are on edge right now?
I think people might be on edge, but for a variety of reasons. ... Any time you have any changes in leadership, it's going to make people somewhat uneasy. I think that's natural, though. As I mentioned earlier, one of my priorities will be working with our human resources department to look at ways in which we can boost staff morale, improve and enhance employee retention as well as recruitment. If the Council were to pass that bill that I submitted to them over a year ago, that would go a long ways in helping us. We wanted to convert classified employees to unclassified [classified employees are protected under the Fair Labor Standards Act and the city's civil and personnel rules; unclassified employees aren't], which would give us a bunch of flexibility that we just don't have right now.
That proposed ordinance would also leave them unprotected to some extent.
I mean they would not necessarily have an entitlement to a job, you know. But to what extent should one have an entitlement to a job? The key to dealing with morale in my view and what my plan would be is to work with human resources to work with the various department heads to innovatively and creatively look at, "How do we engage the whole staff development issue and need?"
What would be your message to city employees who are on edge right now?
This is what I tell people. I took the entire portfolio of the CFO and we met in City Council chambers. And this is what I said to folks
(Reporter interjects) These are the managers?
Everyone. Secretaries on up. I had everybody in the Council chambers because I wanted to convey a message. The message that I conveyed to them is the same message that I will convey to every city employee. And it's just basically these three or four things: One is come to work. Come to work on time. Get the work done. And don't be disruptive.
That's all I look for. That's all I ask for. If you can do those four things you're always OK with me. It's pretty simple, isn't it? But you'd be surprised how simple it may not be for some people.
Don't be disruptive? What's the message there?
What I meant by disruptive, and please qualify that, and that is don't come to work harassing other employees, disciplinary problems, productivity problems. That's what I mean. Myself, since I've been here, I've not fired anyone who has not actually fired themselves, for legitimate reasons. (Reporter laughs.) No, no, seriously. If somebody's going to miss 54 days of work in a six-month period, obviously they're going to be terminated. And I've terminated someone like that, you know? Two people getting into a physical altercation on the job. What am I supposed to do? There's no arbitrariness to this thing. We need all the people we can get our hands on. We don't have enough people in the government right now. One of the things that, once again, we'll be working with the human resources department to improve [is] our vacancy rate, which is not unique to Richmond. A lot of communities right now across the country have unacceptable vacancy rate because the economy's going so well.
Well, what is the rate?
I don't know the exact number. I've asked the HR director to start working on it, but it's not alarming - but [what] I'm saying is, we need all the help and support we can get our hands on. So any vacancy is one vacancy to many in my view, because we have so much work that needs to be done across the board. But that speaks to our need to make some investments in our labor force, in our work force. And that's one of the things that I'm committed to, working to try to do.
What would you say about the state of the city, what was left behind by the administration of Calvin Jamison. We've heard a lot about the cleaning up of bad deals that happened on his watch. How much of your job has been cleaning up?
A big part of my job so far has been working with the remainder of the administration to right a lot of wrongs in the past. Literally.
I'll let you intuitively fill in the blanks on those. I don't want to be quoted, but we know what they are.
Have you heard anything about the (Miller & Rhoads) Hilton, whether it's going to be full-service Hilton or not?
I'm still not clear on that. If not, it's going to be very disappointing. That would be tantamount to a bait-and-switch scenario.
From what we understand, it's going to be a Hilton Garden.
Then that would be very disappointing to me. And it will make us very hesitant in terms of how we address and approach future deals.
You have some background in economic development.
I've written a book on it ["Achieving Economic Development Success: Tools That Work"]. Here's a copy of it for you. It was written a long time ago, but the principles and practices are still the same.
Wilder his strong suit was not economic development, some people would say, when he was governor. He did not have a great track record. Since he's been mayor, what has occurred in terms of economic development?
I would say that premise is wrong in terms of there not being economic development. First of all
In terms of luring big companies?
Well, Philip Morris has a multi-hundred-million-dollar facility over there [on Leigh Street, behind the Richmond Coliseum].
But that was in the works way before Wilder came along.
But the mayor closed the deal. And that's important for people to understand. That deal may have been under way. However, when he got here, it took him to be involved to close the deal. MeadWestvaco: They're coming. They signed on the dotted line. That's a corporate headquarters relocation. Not very many of them occur during the course of the year anywhere. We resolved the performing arts/Carpenter Center issue. That's happening. That's going to stimulate further economic development. The Hilton deal [in the former Miller & Rhoads department store downtown] is a done deal. That, to me, is quite a bit of economic development. And there's more to come.
So you don't buy into the idea that [Mayor Wilder] just isn't good at courtship? That Mayor Wilder does not have a good track record in terms of courting businesses?
Is it a matter of courting business or letting business exploit the city? ... I think the city of Richmond has been exploited enough by a variety of different entities and factions. That's not going to happen on our watch. We're going to do responsible economic development, whereby the city puts up some investment, but the return eclipses that investment. No hocus-pocus, abracadabra economic development. MeadWestvaco represents sound, responsible economic development. The Philip Morris biotechnology facility represents sound and responsible economic development. Stony Point is another example of sound and responsible economic development. The city put up some money, and the return is already in excess of our projections.
But [Stony Point] was a Calvin Jamison deal, though.
But what I'm saying is as an example of good economic development.
So [former City Manager] Calvin Jamison was good at economic development?
No, that's not what I'm saying. Understand what I'm saying: The bottom line is that the mayor is not for hocus-pocus, abracadabra development. Because the city has gotten burned in every single instance of that approach to economic development. We're not doing that anymore.
Do you think at all that the political fighting that we've seen in the past two years has any impact on your ability to do that, to bring businesses to Richmond?
Thank goodness, no. And I'll tell you why: because the city of Richmond by itself is so strong, the lure is so strong for business interests to want be in Richmond now. Would greater stability in terms of the full adjustment to the new form of government be helpful? Yes, it would be helpful. But Richmond is so strong, thank goodness, that the city of Richmond is going to prevail regardless.
Why not tear down the Richmond Coliseum, just as a thought. Ten acres right downtown. We're already talking about expanding it. If you put this thing out in the suburbs somewhere, make it a truly regional project, it might actually draw more people. Plus, it you were to put something on the tax rolls, tax rolls downtown, could be boon?
Would you support something like that? If you tore down the Richmond Coliseum and made it into some private development?
(Black clears throat loudly.) We view the Coliseum as being a vital asset to the city from a public amenity standpoint.
I understand [a city council member] has mentioned this already to the mayor. And he sort of was kinda maybe receptive to it.
Obviously, we're open to hear and to discuss any idea. Ah, I believe that meeting places such as the coliseum are vital, or are central to vibrant communities. Just like our parks. They are amenities, but they make the community what the community what it is. I'm just of the view that you need certain kinds of venues. Will the discussion continue regarding the Coliseum, I'm quite sure. We will engage those discussions.
Have you heard that yet, or is that totally out of left field.
I've heard something to that effect.
You don't agree with it, it's pretty clear.
What I'm saying is that I don't think it's a clear-cut definitive view at this point. I don't think that you just make a very quick and hasty observation that just do away with a venue like that without really looking at it in the context of the total community.
Sure. The idea of opening up land. I mean, you have the convention center, which is how many blocks, six blocks. If you open up some of this property that's really not on the tax rolls, and not generating any revenue for the city in terms of real estate taxes, or really anything else for that matter?
What about the convention center. I've heard talks that at some point they want to expand it. Was that a mistake?
Is what a mistake?
Expanding the convention center to what it is today.
I mean, it's a fantastic facility. You know, the convention center is very much like the coliseum, it's another community amenity. Uh, is it designed to really make money? I'm not sure. But we we've got to look at is some of these venues have other types of purposes, which may not make them profitable venues. If you look at convention centers across the country, particularly in Virginia right now, the competition is so stiff that I'm not quite sure that any of them are making money.
How do you define making money?
You want to further explore that? The key is, once again, I would communicate about the convention center the way I would about the coliseum. If you think the coliseum should go away, then your same argument would come into play about the convention center. Because what's the difference between the two things?
One, it's got a ton of bonds sitting on it and you can't just tear it down.
Maybe you could do it with the coliseum. You're not still paying for that, right?
The situation with the School Board: I sat in a meeting last week where they said, "We're willing to cooperate with the city, but we don't want to play this press-conference game. How can we respond to the city's request to come inside and do an audit when we haven't received any formal communication with the city itself?" How would you respond to that? Do you think that the style of communication with the mayor and the School Board and with the City Council in the past is conducive to good government?
Healthy debate and dialogue can be and is normally good. This administration has reached out on numerous occasions with schools and administration, with the School Board
Am I wrong on that? Has the city communicated with the School Board?
You're wrong. You're wrong.
So there's been a formal communication with the School Board that "we want to come in and audit"?
Yep. Well, no. We're going to be sending something to them first thing Monday [March 19]. But let's be clear: But who else in this city, period, from its inception to this very day, has said, "The young people of this city are important to me. I'm prepared to make a $200 million commitment to them." Who else has come forward with that? This mayor has done that. And he's been blocked every step of the way. Mayor Wilder has done that no one else. This guy needs to be given credit for what he is doing.
We've actually gone out, and the money is literally in the bank. Here it is. [Pulls out picture frame with bond issue certification for $150 million.] The money is in the bank, the deal is done. The money is waiting to be used. He did that.
What I think the School Board would say is, "(A) We haven't been given a plan to analyze and look at, and( B) The mayor has forced incredibly unreasonable demands."
How is having a school system built to support 50,000 students and 60 school facilities, in the beginning, and now you've got less than 23,000 students and the number is going down every day, and you're still maintaining those 60 school facilities? Do the math. Is this reasonable?
So you think it's still realistic that they can still close these schools this year?
I think it's realistic that any of us, individually as well as collectively, we can do anything we want to do provided that we want to do it. Emphasis on "provided that we want to do it." We are our only impediment.
So how come the city hasn't communicated with the School Board in relation to the audit. What's the rationale behind that?
I've had two conversations with Dr. [Deborah Jewell-]Sherman, [superintendent of Richmond Public Schools]. I've had one conversation with Thomas Sheeran, [assistant superintendent of finance and operations]. So that is an absolutely false accusation.
So you picked up the phone and called the superintendent, Dr. Sherman, and said, "We want to come audit the school administration" ?
Twice. We actually had the kickoff meeting already scheduled. This was maybe a week and a half ago. I said, "Our team is ready. I'd like to coordinate when we can come in and get started." We actually scheduled it for this past Monday [March 12]. Then she called me Monday morning, at 9:35, that she and her people would not be able to attend until they received further direction from the board. We were all set. Had my team here ready to go.
Why are we auditing the city assessor's office in the middle of appeals season?
Would there be any good time to do something like that? Probably not.
There could be bad times.
Well, there could be multiple bad periods to do something like this.
But why now?
We've made it clear to the assessor, our team has made it clear, that we will work with him directly to be as flexible so as to minimize the impact on his operations.
But the reason for doing it now?
Because the administration believes that there's a need for the public to better understand why assessments are increasing at such an exponential rate. And how is that the case? It's merely a verification and validation exercise to look at the processes, the systems, the people to determine the overall validity and accuracy of the work product.
The need for doing it now is what?
The timing is just merely coincidental.
A cynic would say that maybe it's a show of strength, that "I'm serious about auditing whomever I want to audit. City Hall isn't playing around."
We don't deal with cynics. Cynics reflect negativity. That's not what we're about. This is not a matter of bravado. We would not waste our time and resources, nor the resources and time of the city assessor's office.
[Photographer shows Black a digital photo he's just taken of him.]
[Laughs.] That's going to really start breathing life into the whole thing of "Baby Wilder." I heard that one the other day.
Would you be offended by that?
Not at all. This guy's a living legend. That you get to spend time with people who are already in the history books, and they're still alive. And will further be in the history books. So it's a pleasure. It's a compliment. The guy's a trailblazer.
The withholding of funds from the schools: School Board Chairman George Braxton has said that's illegal. Have you looked into that, and do you concur or not?
I don't know whether it's legal or illegal. A decision has been made. And we're following through with the decision. It'll be up for whomever [is] qualified to opine on the legality of it to do so.
What about those who would say this fight with the School Board is going too far. It's hurting the kids, it's hurting the schools. And when you start doing that, you're stepping over the line.
There's another question that should be asked: Are we not currently hurting our kids? That's the fundamental question.
The City of the Future: We're now at this point where the only thing on the table are the two new high schools. Is that shortchanging the students? Originally, the issue was the infrastructure we have in place, not building two new schools.
Where I believe the focus really needs to be is that, once again going back to the mayor, in the history of this city, who has put forth a commitment and demonstrated that commitment by way of finding the money, devising a way to find the money to make a $200 million investment in public education? Who has done that?
So, in keeping with and being consistent with that, what has been proposed as a part of our capital budget process, which the City of the Future is a component of, makes the recommendation for these two campus environments you know, two high schools. Is it carved in stone? I would probably say no. The mayor's been alone on this from the beginning. I believe what we put in the budget is his way of saying, "Please come and join me." But he seems to have no takers.
Considering the clout that Wilder has, the reputation and his success as governor, at the end of four years if we don't have the City of the Future plan under way or in place, would it be unfair to say that Wilder wasn't able to get it done? He is the mayor. He is by far the most powerful political figure in the city. How does one not come to that conclusion?
My response to that would be, No. 1, only the people can determine that. The people as they always do will make that determination. Secondly, the mayor is highly effective, he is highly charismatic, but he doesn't run schools. He doesn't run City Council. He can only do the best that he can to work with them. He doesn't control them.
Why haven't we seen more push in terms of regional cooperation?
I'll answer the regionalism thing in general. I mean regionalism is a good thing, where it can work and when it can work. Regionalism makes good dinner conversation. However, demographics are essential to achieving successful regionalism. Too often, the urban component of the regionalism piece, depending upon the demographics of it, may make regionalism a risky proposition.
What do you mean?
It means sometimes the urban component can run the risk of getting the short end of the stick. It's that simple.
Is the city administration serious about making regionalism, or regional cooperation, a key component of its agenda over the next couple of years?
We see it as a key component, but the city, the administration, will proceed and engage it with caution and responsibility.
Regional buses. Expanding GRTC so that it more aligns bus stops with jobs
We would love to do that, but once again the counties have to be amenable to that, and not all the counties are currently amenable to that.
Do you want to be mayor one day?
I don't believe so.
But you're not completely closed to the idea?
I don't believe that I could afford to be mayor. I've got two kids and wife and a mortgage.
He makes decent money.
Not enough. Being mayor is not on my agenda. I'm enjoying working for the current mayor. I'm doing what I believe is my calling.
William Harrell said to me once that he sees himself as a career administrator. Do you see yourself also as a career administrator?
Neither. I see myself as a person that moves in and out of the public sector and private sector, adding value to both environments.
So one day you could see your relevance in terms of being mayor?
No, no. I'm a nuts-and-bolts guy. That's what I am, that's what I do. Nuts and bolts. S