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Downhill

Sheila Hill-Christian's abrupt exit as Wilder's top lieutenant leaves the city in a legal quagmire - again.

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Sheila Hill-Christian's second-floor City Hall office remained sparsely decorated in January, three months after she accepted the offer from Mayor L. Douglas Wilder to become the city's chief administrative officer. It looked like the office of a short-timer: A purple beanbag turtle sat on an end table. A few ceramic jugs decorated shelves. A giant Virginia Lottery check from her last job sat on the floor in the corner. No other significant personal effects - no more than could fit in a cardboard box.

Hill-Christian's sparse office may speak volumes about her brief tenure as Wilder's top lieutenant. Last week, she abruptly resigned.

In January, her boss was still on-the-ropes after his Sept. 21 attempt to evict the School Board from its offices 13 floors above her. Hill-Christian's arrival had been trumpeted from nearly all corners of the city as an answered prayer: finally, a level head. Someone who could bring Wilder to his senses. Someone to rein him in.

Her appointment even had the blessing of Gov. Tim Kaine, literally and figuratively. Wilder had met with him to ask for permission to extend the offer. Others speculated that powerful hands in the business community had persuaded her to take the job, perhaps assuring that they'd run interference with Wilder while she righted the city's course.

During an interview with Style in January, Hill-Christian rebuffed these notions, insisting she was not there to change Wilder.

The high hopes brought on by Hill-Christian's arrival got their first reality check not long after she unpacked that beanbag turtle. Her office was quiet for weeks, then in one of her first visible acts, Hill-Christian sent a Jan. 8 letter to City Auditor Umesh Dalal denouncing him for delaying the City Council investigation of the schools eviction and wasting taxpayer money.

The letter was signed by Hill-Christian, but had Wilder's fingerprints all over it.

"She had all this juice because [Wilder] asked her to take this job," says Delegate Manoli Loupassi, who served as City Council president before stepping down in 2006 to run for the House of Delegates. "The reality is ?Ý he's in charge. No one is in charge of Wilder but Wilder."

It is this basic flaw in the popular assumption that Hill-Christian would temper Wilder's leadership style that had observers questioning her decision to leave her safe state appointment with the Virginia Lottery for the "hell" of City Hall in October.

First there was the fact that Hill-Christian had been chief of staff to former City Manager Calvin Jamison. Some say Wilder perceived her - at least when he took over while she was head of the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority - as part of the problem.

University of Richmond professor John Moeser calls Wilder's nomination of Hill-Christian as chief administrative officer "not quite truth in lending," because Wilder let her think she'd "be the CAO instead of him."

"For her to have any integrity at all, it seems to me she would have to resign," Moeser says, assessing some of the public actions Hill-Christian has taken on Wilder's behalf. "Particularly if she found herself having to support positions that she personally found repugnant. That is the point at which you begin to slowly lose your soul.

"I don't know what went on. ?Ý but I can say that many people who watch City Hall have been asking questions about where is Sheila Hill-Christian? Does she really support the kinds of initiatives and positions that the Wilder administration has taken?"

Answers are scarce on the question of why Hill-Christian abruptly quit, giving just two days notice to the boss who'd allegedly come pleading for her services. The question of why she left is the buzz of City Hall, and Hill-Christian isn't talking, other than the statement she released July 29 explaining that she felt compromised in her ability to live up to her definition of leadership.

One ranking City Hall official says a recent conversation with Hill-Christian reinforces the sentiments in the statement. The city official, speaking on condition of anonymity, says Hill-Christian was concerned that Wilder's interpretation of city ordinances and the city charter may have begun to skirt the letter of those laws.

"In the past she had expressed concern about legality the things she was asked to do, and her liability," the official says. "This was a few months ago."

The official speculates that her departure may indicate a recent incident that left her in no doubt that she had to leave: "It appears to me she was asked to do something she could not do."

A number of City Hall insiders tell of strange encounters with Hill-Christian in her final weeks - conversations in the hall and on elevators in which she made veiled references to her leaving.

One city councilman says she told him bluntly that she didn't know how much longer she'd be able to continue in the job, citing frustration with the way business was conducted.

Among other theories: a reported altercation with other top administration officials over her supposed opposition to a rumored plan to once again withhold school funds that had been budgeted and approved.

And then there was Wilder's order to Hill-Christian to use his own budget rather than the budget adopted by City Council, and whether signing off on expenditures meant using the Wilder budget would expose her legally.

The City Charter spells out penalties for misappropriation of funds, though in the case of Wilder moving funds intended for Battery Park residents to pay for his School Board eviction, Hill-Christian sent a letter in March to City Council defending the transfer.

"What happened with the budget is a very serious matter," Moeser says. "It's perhaps the most serious usurpation of power by the mayor that we've seen - just summarily declaring his budget the budget of the city. This must have been just agonizing for [Hill-Christian]. It could have been the straw that [made her say] I'm out of here, I can't stomach this anymore.

"This was just an outright power play, plain and simple," he says. "She's not known to engage in this kind of behavior."

Members of City Council say they also wonder if Hill-Christian's personal liability for city money spent illegally - or at least outside of whatever budget proves in court to be the legally adopted budget - might have caused the final break with Wilder.

In the wake of Hill-Christian's departure, Wilder once again flits close to the edge of the law. He announced last week he would not seek to replace Hill-Christian in the remaining five months of his term, planning instead to split the duties of her position between two deputy administrators.

Once again chief financial officer and former interim chief administrator Harry Black resurfaces. That's despite his previous extralegal status as acting chief administrator - the position must be approved by City Council, and Black wasn't. That status was central to Richmond Circuit Court Judge Margaret Spencer's ruling that his approval of funds to pay for Wilder's Sept. 21 schools eviction attempt was illegal.

Though City Attorney Norman Sales is reportedly researching Wilder's legal requirements with regards to appointing another acting administrator, his office previously issued an opinion on the matter in June 2007. Black was appointed acting chief administrator in March 2007.

"Harry [is] still calling the shots, which is amazing," Moeser says. "It really was quite remarkable that he was able to keep his job past December. If he really continued to be the de-facto CAO, then that is even more remarkable still. For someone to have fared so poorly in the fall and was so excoriated by the council and the court to keep his job. ?Ý is just truly amazing."

Maybe less amazing is the relief of Hill-Christian's supporters and friends at her decision to hit the eject button.

"Sheila has demonstrated a Colin Powell-like restoration of credibility," says David Hicks, comparing her acts in office to the former secretary of state's soldier-like allegiance to President George W. Bush in defending the Iraq War and his eventual public redemption when he resigned. "[Powell] was a soldier, but he didn't drink the Kool-Aid. She did the Colin Powell."

Back in January, when she spoke to Style, Hill-Christian was adamant about the importance of personal integrity.

"You don't make decisions because you're afraid of losing your job," she said. "You make decisions that are the best decisions - you know, I don't ever want to be in a position where I have to decide something because I'm afraid that I'll get unappointed or somebody will decide they don't want me to work for them anymore."

She continued, "You should always know where your line in the sand is." S

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