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We Never Talk Anymore

City Council members face a communication breakdown with the mayor.

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The city planned to buy the building for $12 million, so what was the other $8 million in bonds for? At the Sept. 26 meeting, council members asked the mayor's administration for more information, "and we couldn't seem to get a solid answer," says Councilman Bill Pantele. So Pantele recommended council delay voting on the issue until they could make an informed decision.

Trouble is, some council members say, information from Wilder's administration can be hard to come by these days. Under the old administration, the city manager would attend council meetings with ordinances accompanied by PowerPoint presentations and binders of information, itemized breakdowns and cost analysis.

No such luck under the Wilder administration. In fact, communications with the mayor often are carried by go-betweens and can take on a petulant air. And in the past few months, the lack of info-sharing has reached a boiling point. In fact, only after much hemming and hawing did council members receive copies of the city's 2005-2006 budget two weeks ago. The budget was approved in July.

Councilwoman Kathy Graziano, who serves on council's finance committee, says conducting routine committee business during the summer was nearly impossible without a budget to reference. "We should be in some kind of information loop," she says.

The lack of communication, some say, is making it impossible to support the mayor's initiatives. At the Sept. 26 council meeting, Vice-President Jackie Jackson asked Patrick Roberts, Wilder's council liaison, to "at least let us know the desire of the administration" regarding what additions Wilder wanted to make to the council's legislative wish list.

Was the mayor planning to present to council the 10 items he discussed with gubernatorial candidates earlier this summer? Or was he just going to let council members read about them in the media? Jackson asked. "It's not our intention to just throw that into our packet," she said, sounding a bit miffed.

And again at the meeting, after several Battery Park residents complained about prostitution in their neighborhood, Councilwoman Ellen Robertson said Wilder's office had not answered her previous complaints about the problem. "So I want publicly this time to ask the administration to be responsive to our requests," she declared.

When it came time for Roberts to give the official report from the mayor, he discussed only three mundane matters: leaf collection, voluntary water use restrictions and the new household hazardous-waste collection site.

Leaves and trash? "That's not no report from the administration as to what's going on and what they plan to do!" an incensed Robertson said after the meeting.

"It is a complete shutdown. There is no communication," she says.

Other council members say that's not their experience. Councilman Chris Hilbert, who says he's "pretty judicious about calling" the mayor's office, finds that Wilder or his staff always respond in a reasonable amount of time.

For his part, Wilder says, "My office is open to anybody all the time." Roberts and Chief Administrative Officer William Harrell represent city administration at council meetings, he says. And as for council members' complaints that the administration is unresponsive, Wilder asserts, "No one has ever asked for any information from us."

The mayor doesn't attend council meetings. Requests for information from the administration often go unanswered for weeks or months, some council members say.

"To give you an idea of the scope of lack of communication," Graziano says, "the city of Richmond adopted Moss Point, Miss., as our sister city" after Hurricane Katrina struck. "The way the council discovered that we had adopted Moss Point was, we read it in the newspaper."

More could have been achieved if council and mayor worked together, Graziano says. "To me, I think that with a concerted effort of council and administration, we probably could have rallied citizens, even to give money to send. … I think together we could have helped Moss Point out even more."

Wilder defends his decision to adopt the town without consulting council, pointing out that the city had to react quickly to the hurricane's devastation. "That was an emergency situation," he says. "They weren't even going to be meeting!"

The mayor also criticized council's hesitation to issue approval for the $20 million in bonds for Marshall Plaza. Wilder says he has already had to "rescue" the whole purchase deal after "the city messed that up" by failing to exercise its purchase option before it expired. Now, he says, "We're losing $5,000 a day. We are. Because of the rent that we are paying for that."

Council "should know this," Wilder says, that "the amount of bonds will always be more than the amount you're going to spend, because it's in the event you need to." It would be impossible to tell council how much renovations will cost "to the penny," adds Paul Goldman, Wilder's senior policy adviser.

Pantele disagrees. This sort of argument feels like the old way of doing things, he says. In other words, "Trust us on this one, don't worry about it."

A memo council received regarding Marshall Plaza said essentially that no in-depth analysis had been done on the building's condition, Pantele says, and that the author's estimate of the cost of renovations "was more or less guessing at a number." Pantele wanted more information. "Eight million dollars is a lot of money," he says.

Pantele, however, says City Council can't expect Wilder's administration to update them on everything going on, he says. Under the new at-large mayor system, he says, the council is responsible for fiscal affairs and ordinances, no longer the day-to-day operations of the city.

"Understanding the structure and the framework of our government have changed, you know, the communication protocols are bound to change," Pantele says. Under the old system, the city manager reported directly to council and was bound to answer all members' questions.

Wilder doesn't have to. "That's not his job, to manage all that," Pantele says. "He doesn't report to City Council." Does Pantele himself get enough information from the mayor to make decisions? "In some measure yes and in some measure no," he replies. "But I really think that, I really believe that that gets straightened out as we move along."

Council members now work on ordinances in committee, and those committees have the legal power to obtain any information they need, Pantele says. Wilder has made it clear, Pantele says, that he will not provide extra staff to aid the committees. "I think that as we're maturing more into the system, I think that the committees will become stronger yet and require legislation coming through to be properly supported, adequately defended."

Of course, Pantele says, more freely flowing information between Wilder and council "would do a lot to help build relationships."

Graziano agrees. Sure, the mayor doesn't owe every council member a regular heart-to-heart, she says. After all, the governor doesn't meet with every senator and delegate. "But I know from being a lobbyist that the governor does talk with the minority and majority leaders," she says. "Even if they're not on the same page, at least they know what page they're on." S



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