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Wilder Loses in Legal Fight With City Council


Round one of Mayor Doug Wilder's most recent courtroom match-up against [fill-in-the-blank] goes to Richmond City Council.

In her often strongly worded opinion, Richmond Circuit Court Judge Margaret P. Spencer rejected Wilder's request that she dismiss the suit. The judge also opined that "Council is the 'governing body' of the city of Richmond," according to state law -- an opinion that stands in stark contrast to Wilder's pronouncements.

The decision marks the first in a string of lawsuits brought against the mayor by various branches of city government in which a judge did not find in Wilder's favor. Minority contracting consultant Al Bowers stands alone among plaintiffs who have successfully sued the mayor.

The decision also comes as vindication for City Council, says Council President Bill Pantele.

"The opinion makes it very clear and the judge emphasized that City Council is the local governing body — and as such exercises the power of city government," Pantele says. "That's been an issue underlying many of the actions that we've had to endure this year."

Despite the judge's decision, which also disregarded Wilder's argument that as a city official he is immune to lawsuits, Pantele says, "only time will tell" if Wilder will accede to council's authority.

In a statement, Wilder defended the actions of his administration that are the basis of council's suit: that he and his deputy, acting-Chief Operating Officer Harry Black, do not have the authority to hire and fire certain city employees, including legislative aides to City Council members.

"Hence, if the case is decided on its merits, the Administration is confident that it will prevail — as it has in the two Schools' lawsuits and the Council's lawsuit over the public safety building," the statement reads, indicating that Wilder is weighing whether to appeal Judge Spencer's ruling on his request to have the case dismissed.

"This lawsuit is absolutely not about City Council trying to beat the mayor or trying to beat some other person — it's about the rule of law," Pantele says. "When a law is passed and survives [the mayor's] veto, that is the law of the city of Richmond."

The judge's decision also raises new questions about recent pronouncements made by the mayor regarding his amendments to the city's 2007-08 budget, which include property tax relief for the elderly and disabled, extension of CARE paratransit services and a cost of living increase for city retirees, and a police youth cadet program.

Regarding those amendments, council members already have been asking questions — such as which budget Wilder has attached them to.

Last year, after amendments sent forward by Wilder failed to win council's support, a letter from the city's chief financial officer, Harry Black, stated that the decision meant the operating budget for the city automatically reverted to the budget initially proposed by Wilder to council.

That interpretation, Pantele says, "frankly drew laughter."

"The charter makes it very clear that the mayor delivers a proposed budget," Pantele says. "The mayor does not have the power to legislate or appropriate." S

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