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City Charter Crisis Looms As Judge Orders Movers Return



A city charter power crisis looms over Richmond after Mayor L. Douglas Wilder staged the local government version of a military coup d'état Friday -- an orchestrated attack on city schools administration, City Council staff and the personal habits of City Council President William J. Pantele.

In the process, Wilder appears to have violated state and federal law and least one court injunction.

Putting into action months of threats, Wilder began Friday his eviction of Richmond Public Schools from City Hall only to be stopped at midnight by a court injunction issued by the same judge who recently ruled that City Council could sue him.

Hours after city-contracted movers loaded a half-dozen trucks with files and furniture in a controversial eviction of city schools administration from City Hall, Richmond Circuit Judge Margaret P. Spencer ordered a temporary restraining order.

At about 2 a.m., the movers were unloading the trucks and moving city schools belongings back into City Hall.

"I'm satisfied that [Richmond Police Chief Rodney Monroe] is going to comply with the order," State Sen. Henry Marsh, R-Richmond, told reporters gathered outside City Hall at 1:50 a.m. Marsh, a lawyer, is the School Board's legal counsel.

A caravan of more than a dozen moving vans with moving firms contracted by Wilder's administration began pulling up in front of City Hall promptly at 7 p.m. on Friday evening. At the same time, Richmond Police officers cordoned off the building and, in some cases, forcibly denied access to media and the public arriving to attend an emergency School Board meeting being held on the 17th floor.

Shortly after 7 p.m., School Board member Carol Wolf emerged and attempted to force police to acknowledge state law and the public's right to attend the public meeting being held upstairs. While attempting to escort this reporter, a reporter from the Richmond Free Press and a private citizen into the building, Wolf was surrounded by Richmond Police officers and brass, who angrily demanded she back down. Threatening to arrest her, they pressed closer attempting to use their physical size to force her to back down.

"Go ahead, arrest me," Wolf retorted in a loud, firm voice. Feet planted, she stood her ground against the officers, who didn't take Wolf up on the offer.

"Who's going to uphold the constitution and the rule of law in this city?" asked Sababu Sanyika, a resident who also attempted to enter City Hall to attend the School Board meeting. He was turned away by police threatening to arrest him. Sanyika, standing toe-to-toe with an officer blocking his way said simply: "I would not want to be in your shoes, for nothing."

Moments later, a reporter from the Richmond Times-Dispatch was threatened with arrest by a police officer brandishing handcuffs and physically guiding her down the sidewalk.

Throughout the melee, Wilder spokesman Linwood Norman stood in the foyer of City Hall watching. When he finally emerged it was to read a brief statement defending the mayor's decision to take action against schools -- and in violation of a City Council ordinance directing him to enter into a lease agreement with Schools officials for their City Hall space at a rate of $10 a year.

Schools officials say they sent a check to the city earlier this month for $10, but acting Chief Administrative Officer Harry Black disclosed recently that he'd already entered into a lease agreement for a space at 3600 W. Broad St. for schools and had already paid the owners $91,000 for the space. The contract, for in excess of $350,000 annually, was done without the knowledge of City Council or schools officials.

Norman's statement said Friday's move, which was planned to be completed by Monday morning, was to the 3600 W. Broad St. space. He reiterated Wilder's past insistence that moving schools administrative offices would save $1 million annually. Various requests for documentation proving this estimated savings have been ignored by Wilder and his administration.

School Board Assistant Superintendent Tom Sheeran, who was also denied access by police to the School Board's Friday night meeting, says he had taken recent bid proposals in an effort to get a cost estimate for moving the schools offices from City Hall and suggested that the cost for Wilder's operation could run as high as $1 million.

The city's procurement services Web site on Friday showed no awards for services to the city's hired moving contractors, and posted no emergency procurement announcements -- or even requests for proposals -- for moving services.

As Norman's impromptu press conference unfolded across the street from the west entrance to City Hall, no cameras were there to capture the arrival of State Sen. Henry Marsh, who attempted to cross the police barricade and join the School Board meeting.

Marsh, a former Richmond mayor who once shared law offices with famed civil rights attorney Oliver Hill, was greeted by a threatening phalanx of city police officers, who refused to allow him through and ordered him away from the building.

It took a flurry of cell phone calls by Marsh that lasted about 10 minutes before he was finally admitted.

A police official, speaking to a clutch of media who had again gathered near City Hall's west entrance, declared "there is no public meeting."

Moments later, School Board Chairman George Braxton emerged, flanked by his sometimes-sparring partner Wolf, to beseech police to allow press into their meeting.

"We are having a meeting," Braxton said. "We are having an open meeting. The police for some reason believe it's right to keep you out of this."

School Board member Kim Bridges, who arrived late for the meeting at 7:47 p.m., just minutes after Braxton reentered the building, was also initially refused admission by police.

"I've been told by the Richmond Police Department that I can't go up and participate," Bridges said. It took another 10 or so minutes before she was granted access to join fellow School Board members, who had by then been joined by at least two City Council members.

Eventually, the School Board, flanked by Councilwoman Dolores McQuinn, Councilman Bruce Tyler and Sen. Marsh, emerged from the building, crossed the street and held the end of its meeting on the sidewalk on the north side of the Library of Virginia surrounded by a crush of reporters beneath television camera lights.

Citing concerns over potential federal Privacy Act violations -- included in the tons of boxes, furniture and files being moved are student and employee records that include sensitive personal data and Social Security numbers, information on special education classifications, health information and personal financial data -- the School Board voted by a unanimous voice vote to engage Marsh as its lawyer.

The group departed, heading for Marsh's law offices and in search of a judge from whom they hoped to get an injunction to force Wilder to end his forced move of their offices.

Mayoral spokesman Norman declined to answer questions or provide documentation for the press proving the moving company's employees had been subjected to any background checks, or that they'd been legally engaged by the city following proper procurement procedures.

A ranking police officer, when asked if city police planned to stop trespassing on the 14th through 17th floors of City Hall by Wilder's contracted movers, responded: "What trespassing?" Schools officials had posted "No Trespassing" signs in their offices Friday afternoon, attached with a copy of the City Council ordinance leasing their space for $10.

Finally, at 1 a.m., Judge Spencer issued a temporary restraining order, ordering Wilder's movers to stop immediately. Among those providing information to Spencer was City Attorney Norman Sales, who vouched for the legality of the $10 lease, which he drafted.

In addition to stopping Wilder's moving vans, the judge also ordered the immediate return of school board property to City Hall, to be enforced by another city elected official, Richmond Sheriff C.T. Woody.

The full matter will be heard Wednesday at noon.

The actions topped off a day that began with a morning news release by Mayor Wilder's press secretary that stopped just millimeters from directly accusing City Council President William Pantele of sexual perversion on government time through "a pattern of 'porn site' visits" using his city computer log-in.

The press release -- which was not sent to Pantele's office and which he was not informed of prior to its release by Norman's office -- comes on Pantele's 16th wedding anniversary.

"We will expect the fullest cooperation from Mr. Pantele," Black says in the press release, "as he himself has been quoted as saying that such behavior is inexcusable." Earlier this month, Wilder's office announced it had discovered city contractors had used city telephones to place "sexy calls" to singles lines found in the classified advertising section of Style Weekly.

Just before 7 p.m., even as police were cordoning off City Hall, the department issued a press release that seemed to back away from Black's inferences that a criminal investigation was looking seriously at Pantele.

"The sole purpose of the Richmond Police Department's involvement is to determine if any sites visited or images downloaded contained child pornography," the release said. "Once the Department's [sic] initial investigation is concluded and no evidence of child pornography is discovered the case will immediately move to an administrative personnel matter."

The personal attack on Pantele occurred simultaneously with other City Council members' office staff. Just after noon, council liaisons began receiving calls from an assistant for Wilder's appointed acting chief administrative officer, Harry Black. The caller demanding that the council liaisons schedule appointments with Black to re-interview for their jobs.

That demand, suggest some City Hall officials, violates a previous court injunction that put a halt to Wilder's removal of council liaisons and a number of other city employees that were considered employees of council. That injunction was also issued by Judge Spencer. A hearing on the City Council's full lawsuit against Wilder and Black in the matter has been set for Nov. 20 and 21.

According to one liaison who asked not to be identified for fear of reprisal, Black's assistant informed him that failing to schedule the interview would remove him from consideration for the position. It would also result in termination from city employment. No indication was given whether that termination would be immediate, the liaison says.

Earlier this summer, Black informed City Council employees that they would have to reapply for their jobs or be terminated. All but one employee, the city's legislative liaison to the Virginia General Assembly, who was fired, reapplied on the advice of City Council's lawyer. Another Council lawyer, according to some liaisons who received today's notice, advised them to set their interview appointment, but to remind the Black's office that the matter is being litigated.

Late in the day -- but long before he emerged arm in arm with schools officials from their City Hall meeting -- Councilman Bruce Tyler declined to speculate on whether Wilder's latest moves were politically motivated, except to say that there was a clear attempt to move the focus away from more important city business.

"No one elected anyone on council or the mayor to create this kind of havoc," Tyler says. "They elected us to move this city forward and it's extremely unfortunate that one person has chosen not to go forward with that mandate. I hope when another day comes forward and we have an opportunity to elect new officials for the city of Richmond, I hope the voters will think long and hard about who they are electing and why."

His thoughts were echoed by Councilman Chris Hilbert, who is out of town, but who called Style to leave a comment on events: "This is mean and vindictive and something that would be worthy of George Bush or Dick Cheney."

Even Wilder's former policy advisor, the man whose petition drive helped bring about Richmond's switch to an at-large elected mayor, and the man who drafted most of the city charter changes that made it possible, Paul Goldman, says he saw little sense in Friday's events.

"It's a pretty sad day when the leader of a city and the top administrative offices of a city use the police to keep reporters -- school officials -- locked out their offices," Goldman says. "It's just important for people to realize that this is not what the city of Richmond stands for. Those of us who worked hard to improve things are just so disappointed. People are abusing what so many of us worked so hard to accomplish."

Goldman went further, calling Black's apparent use of police force and potentially illegal contracting of movers "an utter failure of leadership -- and an inability to solve problems in a constructive fashion." Goldman questioned "whether Harry Black should be in a position where he has any say over any law enforcement official."

Councilwoman Dolores McQuinn, asked if council had ever entertained taking steps to remove Wilder from office, said no. But "in my personal opinion," McQuinn says, "even though Council has not had that discussion, people in the community are having that discussion. People are angry."

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