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The Pageantry of Pleasantry

In his first six months Mayor Dwight Jones eschews the bully pulpit for a kinder, gentler approach. Is it a lack of leadership or a savvy opening salvo?

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Not even the rapid-fire, high-pitched potshots of Charles Hughes, a regular City Council gadfly, could disturb the calm over City Council chambers. The silence is deafening. A little more than two dozen people, many of them city officials, sit quietly while the clerk runs through the evening's abbreviated agenda. It prods no real discussion, no debate. It takes all of about 15 minutes for the council to unanimously approve Mayor Dwight Jones' biggest decision since taking office six months ago: the hiring of Chief Administrative Officer Byron C. Marshall.

In stark contrast to the confrontational politics of former Mayor L. Douglas Wilder, the Jones administration has instituted a new era of cooperation — of reaching out to council, of reconciliation. Council seems to have accepted the offer. Some people might see a dangerous omen in pleading no contest to approving Jones' choice of Marshall. He carries considerable baggage from stints in Atlanta and Austin, Texas, and by mere association from seven years working for former Washington Mayor Marion Barry. City Council oozes cordiality.

“If the mayor, you know, um, the mayor has chosen you and my colleagues — I have talked to all of them — we want to give you a chance,” says a rambling Reva Trammell, the only council member to speak before the vote last week, an omen in and of itself. “So again I want to thank you for choosing Richmond and for trying to help us, you know, get our quality of life issues back in the right direction. Thank you.”

Where Wilder governed through media and publicly forced his policies down the throats of City Council members, Jones reaches out to build consensus almost exclusively behind the scenes — whether it's facilitating one-on-one meetings with his presumptive pick, Marshall, or bringing opponents and proponents of a Shockoe Bottom ballpark development to the table to hash out differences.

Jones' pick to run the city's day-to-day operations is also a stark contrast to Wilder's similarly confrontational No. 2, Harry Black. During a quick, two-question press conference after the council vote last week, Marshall is so soft-spoken that Jones is prone to speak up for him before quickly ushering him into the mayor's offices.

Has City Hall become too polite? Unlike the always-castigating Wilder, the Jones administration is so bent on keeping the peace that some people worry City Hall is becoming leaderless at a critical juncture. Revenues are dwindling while real estate values plummet, and like the rest of the country Richmond attempts to navigate through the worst economy since the Great Depression. The two most controversial issues facing the city during the last six months — the Shockoe Bottom ballpark plan and the downtown master plan — were settled without Jones' visible leadership, or anything resembling an official position from the mayor's office.

If the Wilder adrenaline rush was too much too fast, one high-ranking official at City Hall sees danger in puttering along upstream without vigorous public discourse about where exactly the city is going. Debates have had a tendency to end without much direction from Jones: The Shockoe Bottom ballpark proposal died because Highwoods Properties withdrew it; when controversy bubbled up over the downtown master plan earlier this year, the mayor's office remained largely silent.

“What is happening is the cooperation is going too far,” the source says of the extended honeymoon that's descended over City Hall and over Jones' relationship with City Council. “The city administration and City Council; they're supposed to be checks and balances, but they're not acting as checks and balances.”

What's unsettling, the official says, is that the opposite is true, with some elected officials seemingly more interested in promoting Jones' agenda than scrutinizing it: “There are certain council members … they're pretty aggressive about making sure the mayor's agenda is carried out. Other council members are stepping back and not offering any push back.”

Many people read the mood as simply an aftershock of Wilder. In due time, Councilwoman Ellen Robertson says, there will be plenty of debate between Council and the mayor. Robertson, after all, was the first council member to publicly stand up to Wilder four years ago, and she says she'll do it again if the occasion calls.

“I am the first to say that we won't forget what was necessary to be done the last four years,” says Robertson, a close ally of Jones. “If we forget, we are likely to repeat.”

There's not much that overwhelms when Mayor Dwight C. Jones enters the small, wood-paneled conference room adjacent to his second-floor office. Dressed in a monochromatic, almost safari-themed outfit of tan slacks and matching silk shirt, his understated, friendly demeanor doesn't crowd the room the way Wilder's jocular, giant presence could.

 “I think that we have first of all changed the tenor of the conversation in the city,” Jones says, reflecting on his time in office. “That was one of the things that was important to me.”

Both cheerleaders and critics of Jones say that getting along and playing nice has become the single defining achievement of the new administration.

“Dwight is like a cruise ship. … Wilder was like a speedboat,” says Terone Green, a vocal critic of Wilder's administration who has loose ties to Jones through marriage. “I think [Jones] is being very methodical so we don't have any mishaps.”

Richmond residents aren't used to such an approach, Green says: “That's the problem: Everybody always wants something to happen right away, fast. He's taking his time.” Wilder's speedboat may have been fun to watch, Green says, but it “was dangerous, it was fast, it had the potential to flip over.”

Much of Jones' slow pace can be attributed to the state of the bureaucracy post-Wilder, according to City Hall insiders. They say it's simply taken this long to clean up the mess. The Wilder autocracy left key positions unfilled for much of the last four years, not to mention the multiple crises that ensued on his watch — most notably the breakdown that came with the attempted eviction of the School Board from City Hall in 2007.

Jones counters critics of his administration's seemingly slow start with a list of accomplishments or in-the-works projects. Most of them are not sticks-and-bricks like what dominated Wilder's list of largely never-completed City of the Future proposals. Instead, Jones says his accomplishments are less tangible.

“It takes time to lay that framework,” Jones says. “We have not been slow off the block. You're not going to get flash.”

First District Councilman Bruce Tyler appreciates the approach, and says that council has not sacrificed its legislative independence in the sunny, get-along atmosphere that's the daily forecast at City Hall.

“When I look at the difference between the two administrations, this administration has gone out of its way to communicate with me the issues at hand,” Tyler says. He's scornful of Wilder's approach in which “I learned about it in the news or from an irate citizen, so I had no way to respond.”

Tyler also dismisses criticism that Marshall's confirmation came at the expense of a thorough vetting process. He was allowed privately to do all the vetting he needed to, he says. That the laundry wasn't then aired during Wednesday's council confirmation should speak well of the process, Tyler says — not ill of it.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, it has been an action-packed six months of Jones, Tyler says. Jones “inherited a disastrous budget mess” from Wilder, he says, recalling the dispute over whether a budget passed by council or Wilder's own budget was the legal operating budget for the city, and saying that for Jones it meant “three months of cleanup.”

Others counter that flash isn't the prerequisite. The great promise of the new city charter and an at-large mayor was a gain in leadership and a vision — a mayor who could help set an agenda not only for the city as a whole, but also regionally. To this end, Jones' reaching out to the boards of supervisors in Henrico and Chesterfield counties earlier this year was a positive step forward, some people say. Indeed, regional cooperation is a central theme for Jones, who says he's working to rebuild fractured ties with Henrico and Chesterfield. “That's our theme,” Jones says: “collaboration, cooperation and communication.”

But that's only the first step. What Richmond and the region need now is a clear vision from the mayor, some say — a mission from the capital city.

“I give him A-plus for reaching out the way he did. He's very sincere. I don't think like Wilder there are any hidden agendas,” says a longtime observer of city politics. “He started off beautifully. He now needs to use the reservoir of good will he has to move the city forward. That's going to require taking a position.”

Some people worry that Jones' rebuilding process is too narrowly focused and could take the city backwards. Shockoe Slip restaurateur Mike Byrne was a close confidante to Wilder, but he's also been a longtime business community partner with past city administrations.

For Byrne, the defining moment of the Jones administration came within just a few weeks of the new mayor taking office in January, when Jones announced he would drop two of Wilder's legal appeals to the state Supreme Court. One was related to the administration's supremacy over City Council in city employment matters, the other was about the failed eviction of School Board from City Hall, related to the mayor's authority over city real estate. The resolution of those cases might have helped better define the role of the mayor in this new “strong mayor form of government,” Byrne says.

“But what Dwight said was peace was more important than action,” says Byrne, who worries that the peace came at the expense of certainty. “We still don't know who's in charge.”

Byrne is wrong about the lawsuits, Jones says. “At a certain point you just turn the faucet off,” he says. From that spigot flowed hundreds of thousands of dollars and continued ill will that was too expensive, he says. “Some people believe that everything is a [law]suit. … I'm not one of those people.”

As for the questions of the mayor's role, Jones says, “We [now] have a commission that's looking at the charter.”

Of the lawsuits, Tyler sees both sides. He acknowledges the wisdom of walking away, but says so much had been invested already — more than $1 million in taxpayer dollars spent on legal fees. “I would have liked to have had the answers,” he says — answers that may have come with just a bit more spent. “But I also didn't like all the rift that was coming with it.”

A close Jones adviser at the time the suits were dropped told Style that the city's charter review panel was the proper venue for deciding mayoral authority.

Byrne says that dropping the suits did more than delay a final verdict on authority: It undermines the entire premise of the new government system, which was supposed to provide for clear leadership by a strong mayor and a subordinate City Council. “Dwight basically dismantled it by dropping the suits,” he says. “What we're left with is really no form of government.”

Jones sees it differently. Without saying it, he seems to imply that the last four years of puffery is so different from his era of normalized governmental relations that it's become difficult for Richmonders to know what normal is when they get it.

“[We're] not being impulsive and not running the city through the news,” Jones says. “How can you have a good relationship with City Council when you're issuing broad dictums every day?”

In the absence of broad dictums, however, comes uncertainty. Jones' careful treading on hot-button issues, such as the Shockoe ballpark and the master plan, left some people filling in the blanks on their own.

For the business community, which got behind Wilder early and then spent four years trying unsuccessfully to rein him in, Jones' affiliation with state Sen. Henry Marsh is troublesome. Not only was Marsh said to have been on the payroll of the Highwoods Properties team, He's also is a mentor of Jones.

And then there's the recent re-emergence of Saad El-Amin, the former city councilman who spent two and a half years in federal prison for tax fraud, who spoke against a Shockoe Bottom ballpark. El-Amin, still considered a hero in some quarters of the black community, felt compelled to enter the debate because he feared Jones was cozying up to the ballpark developers.

Jones dismisses such criticism. He's been working to strengthen the city's economic development efforts, he says, citing a need to change the tone of the conversation so that the city's development agency isn't a flaccid entity with no real budget or power. “I can't remember when the city last had a serious economic development department,” Jones says, a hint of long-held distain creeping into his voice.

Marshall may well be another part of Jones's cooperation, collaboration, communication theme. In Atlanta, where he was chief operating officer, Marshall established a reputation as a bridge builder.

“Even though he reported to the mayor, he was always very responsive to the city council,” says Hazel Jacobs, retired director of research for Atlanta City Council who also happens to be Richmond Councilman Marty Jewell's cousin. “That's sort of unique among city administrators. They don't really have to respond to the city council, but Byron always did.”

With his administrative team now in place, Jones says City Hall's approach when it comes to projects such as the Bottom ballpark won't simply be reactionary. “We want to get to the place where the developers are responding to our vision and we're not just responding to the developers' desires or plans,” he says.

As for Marsh, those who know both Jones and the senior senator say it's too early to read between the lines. Former state Sen. Benjamin Lambert, who lost his seat in 2007 to another Marsh protAcgAc, Donald McEachin, says Jones is “too bright” to be led around by Marsh or anyone else, for that matter.

“I don't think Dwight would be a very strong person if [Marsh] was guiding him,” Lambert says, adding that Jones' critics need to give him a little more time. “I think he's trying to cooperate with council, and the School Board and different organizations. He's not trying to run over anybody. He's listening.”

With the hiring of Marshall, Jones says the real work is only just beginning. But don't expect any broad dictums to define his term as mayor. Improving the city will have to take place without big politics and buildings, and instead with a block-by-block, neighborhood-by-neighborhood approach.

“We're not out there ringing the bell and beating the drum to make people like us,” he says, calling into question what was accomplished by all the pomp and circumstance under Wilder. After four years under the Jones administration, he says, “We want to have some evidence that we've been here.” S

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