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Enter the Veto

City Council appeared to win the latest city charter skirmish, but lawmakers handed Mayor Wilder another big stick.

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A meeting last week between council members, the mayor and the legislator who sponsored the bill, Sen. John Watkins, R-Powhatan, resulted in what appeared to be a compromise. The council got the language it wanted, saying the mayor must perform duties "which may be required … by ordinances or resolutions adopted by the council." Wilder agreed to the charter change in return for the power to veto any ordinance passed by council, which can then overturn the mayor's veto with at least six votes, or a two-thirds majority.

The Richmond Times-Dispatch put it thusly: "Mayor L. Douglas Wilder, not entirely happily, agreed to accept the additional power as he stopped fighting a bid by the City Council to change the city charter."

But was the mayor really unhappy to accept this new power? Some say the veto is what he wanted all along.

If the legislation passes as expected, the mayor also successfully erases from the proposed charter change a section that says his chief administrative officer, William Harrell, must attend council meetings, a sore point with council members. The council also gained the power to exclude the mayor from its executive sessions, which are closed to the public, when members are discussing business related to the mayor's office.

Councilwoman Kathy Graziano, who was one of those who negotiated the terms of the revised legislation, says she's happy with the final result. "That's the way it should be," she says. Regarding the mayor's new veto power, she says: "I see it working. It completely lines us up with what we've done," meaning the council's efforts to establish the new bicameral system of city government.

Sen. Watkins says it's important that the balance of power be worked out in Richmond because "this is a new way of setting up city government in this state." Other Virginia cities that wish to adopt a similar system may look to Richmond as a model, he says. The Senate subcommittee on local government voted unanimously last week to report the bill to the full Senate.

University of Richmond professor Dan Palazzolo, chair of the department of political science, read over the bill with interest. As far as he could tell, Palazzolo said in an e-mail, "this revision in the charter would definitely strengthen the role of the Executive with respect to city ordinances."

"That veto power is looking pretty important," Palazzolo adds. It gives the mayor, for the first time, a legislative role, he says, allowing him to participate in the process of making law rather than just carrying it out.

Currently, the mayor needs the support of five of the nine council members to block a particular ordinance; if he gets his veto power, the mayor will need only four council members to get things done. This "numbers game" is important to keep in mind, Palazzolo says.

Council President G. Manoli Loupassi, who's repeatedly expressed his frustration with the mayor's hardball politics, says he's happy with the legislation. Still, council never should have had to fight for wording that expressly says the mayor must execute the decisions of the council, he says. "I don't believe that's within his power" to refuse, he says of Wilder. "And I don't believe that's the law of the United States of America."

The balance of power between the legislative and executive branches is "innately part of our existence as a government," Loupassi rails. Otherwise, he says, council meetings would consist of nothing more than awards ceremonies and public comments.

UR political science professor John Moeser, one of the architects of the current city charter, says he's long felt the charter ought to include a mayoral veto power and the ability of the council to overturn that veto with at least six out of nine votes.

But it took the election of a strong mayor to bring the matter to a head, he says. "So what you have now is kind of a standoff with no veto power, no power to override, which essentially has become a veto for the executive branch of government," Moeser says.

Sen. Watkins, who co-sponsored the 2005 legislation that outlined some of the mayor's powers, says Wilder originally denied the need for veto power: "He said no, I don't need that."

The mayor demonstrated his unofficial veto power recently by blocking the council's sale of a city-owned lot for $1 to a nonprofit housing organization.

In November, the council approved the sale of a 2.5-acre vacant lot in Highland Park, the former site of a blighted apartment complex that was bought and razed by the city in 2003. Council members voted to sell the land for $1 to the Highland Park Community Development Corp., a nonprofit that seeks to buy and rehabilitate blighted properties — even though the original development agreement between the CDC and the city had expired while the nonprofit raised money for the project.

Two weeks ago, however, the mayor declared he would not have his office carry out the ordinance, calling it "illegal." The land should have been auctioned to the highest bidder, he said.

Loupassi says the council decided to sell the land cheaply to the CDC because Highland Park residents said they'd rather see more expensive single-family homes built there than another low-income apartment complex.

The city charter grants the council the powers "to sell, lease or dispose of … land, buildings and other property of the City" and "to control and regulate the use and management of all property of the City."

While the legislature hashes it out, there remains one way to solve the Highland Park land impasse: the courts. "No one wants to see this happen — no one, citizens most of all," Moeser says. "But the reason you have a third branch of government is to resolve disputes like this." S

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