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District Dice

For the first time anywhere, an incumbent mayor has been given the power to veto the key components of the very system used to determine whether he gets re-elected.

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Six years after abolishing the old city charter, moving from an elected City Council that picks the mayor to the current elected-mayor government, should Richmond now do the full monte and make the complete transition to an elected mayor picking his own City Council? Truth is, we might already be there, de facto at least, given the new law that went into effect July 1, further suggesting substance to the rumor that Disney is going to film “Honey, I shrunk the City Council” in Richmond.

What new law you ask? Hold on, first as legendary comic Jackie Gleason might have said, a little traveling music. Not long ago, Delegate Dwight Jones and City Council opposed changes to the city charter allowing Richmonders to elect their mayor. Their opposition was allegedly based on how the new city charter would give too much power to the new mayor. They worried about diluting the black vote, but for those who aren't fluent in political speak, let me translate: We don't like Doug Wilder.

Now, whoever coined the adage “Where you stand depends on where you sit” is laughing. Once in office, Mayor Dwight Jones reversed this prior position and instead has been on a 24/7 push, with some impressive success, to amass more power. Some credit “Boss Henry,” aka state Sen. Henry Marsh; “Mayor David,” aka former Richmond Commonwealth's Attorney David Hicks and Jones' senior policy adviser; former Gov. Tim Kaine administration bigwig Deidra Trent; Jones' chief of staff, Suzette Denslow; or Chief Administrative Officer Byron Marshall. Realistically, the plot resembles Agatha Christie's classic “Murder on the Orient Express.” One person couldn't possibly have administered that much chloroform of conformity to all nine council members. 

Politically, however, one can't blame the mayor for understanding the truism that “politics abhors a vacuum.” Question: When was the last time City Council had an original idea, much less pulled together to present its own real proposal on any major issue? If you study the history of Richmond, there has never been a more passive City Council than the current one. 

Even Jones' expected 2012 opponent, Councilman Bruce Tyler, has given Hizzoner basically a blank check, along with the other eight council members, choosing peace at any price by the normal standards of the political science profession. 
 
The latest case in point: giving Mayor Jones an unprecedented veto power possessed by no other president, governor or mayor in American history. This new power was added to the city charter at the urging — unbelievably — of City Council. The original mayor-at-large city charter intentionally denied the mayor the veto to preserve some semblance of legislative pushback.    

It is true that soon after the original law was passed, I worked with the then City Council President Manoli Loupassi — now a state delegate — and then Lt. Gov. Tim Kaine to enact a limited mayoral veto over certain financial matters in hopes of getting the most expensive city government in the Commonwealth to stop wasting tens of millions of dollars. Later, as part of the Wilder-City Council disputes, they agreed on a different form of limited veto. However, starting July 1, the limited veto is gone, replaced by unlimited power allowing the mayor to reject any ordinance passed by City Council.

On the surface, this seems traditional. But there is a catch here in Richmond: Due to the 2010 Census, the nine city council districts must be redistricted, the new boundaries enacted by ordinance. Thus, for the first time anywhere, an incumbent mayor has been given the power to veto the key components of the very system used to determine whether he gets re-elected. Richmond doesn't elect its mayor truly at large; the winning candidate must secure five of the nine city districts.

Accordingly, Mayor Jones can now veto a redistricting plan that may be good for the city but wrong for his re-election hopes. He can now use this power to convince allies on City Council to pass a plan that favors him at the expense of a fair process.

Perhaps Mayor Jones won't utilize his veto power and do the right thing. But entrusting a politician not to act on the natural impulse of self-preservation is a risky proposition. Given Richmond's politics, what is the benefit of risking even the appearance of such a cloud hanging over the 2012 election? Fortunately, the city charter can be amended next year to fix this problem or better yet, create an independent, nonpartisan redistricting committee to redraw the district boundaries in a fair, nonpolitical manner.   

Normally, a legislative body could be counted on to have at least some interest in understanding such issues. But not here, where our system is slowly evolving into the first elected-mayor-appointed-council government anywhere in America.

Paul Goldman is a longtime Democratic strategist and former senior policy adviser for former Mayor L. Douglas Wilder.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

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