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Could Wilder Be Removed?


In earlier print and online versions of this story, the total number of voters in the 2004 mayoral election was misstated. The total number of votes was 72,460.

Mayor L. Douglas Wilder and his acting Chief Administrative Officer Harry Black have come under a firestorm of criticism in the aftermath of the aborted and potentially illegal attempt to move Richmond Public Schools' administrative offices from City Hall Sept. 21.

Wilder was already waging a two-theater legal battle against City Council and the School Board, circumstances that were straining cooperation among the branches of city government. After the events of the weekend, the chances that Wilder's remaining 15 months in office will be productive are looking bleak.

"No one is going to trust anybody now at this level," says Thomas Shields, director of the Center for Leadership in Education at the University of Richmond. "Maybe it could be fixed, but I think it's best that we start talking about the next election. This has just gotten to the point of absurdity."

Others are taking it a step further. Former Richmond Mayor Roy West suggests that Wilder's term should be cut short: "He needs to be recalled for malfeasance and misfeasance in office."

Virginia has no traditional recall process. To remove a mayor from office, citizens must produce a petition with signatures equal to 10 percent of the total votes cast from each district. In the Nov. 2, 2004, general election, according to a report from the Richmond registrar's office, a total of 72,460 votes were cast in the mayoral election. After rounding up to avoid a fraction, 10 percent is 7,246 -- the number of signatures needed.

If enough signatures were gathered, Richmond Circuit Court would have to agree that the mayor was incompetent, negligent or misused and had produced a "material adverse effect upon the conduct of the office" before he could be removed from office. Then a special election would be held within 60 days of the mayor's removal.

"I don't think we can stand and wait until the next election," West says. "By that time the city will be in shambles."

West stops short of offering to spearhead such a process but says that he and a "group of well-regarded citizens" are "looking to" former Commonwealth's Attorney David Hicks. Hicks says he hasn't made up his mind about running for mayor in 2008.

City Councilwoman Ellen Robertson echoes West, though she doesn't foresee any action from City Council in seeking to remove Wilder from office. "It needs to be a citizen-driven action," she says. "I would hope citizens realize it's not unrealistic to mobilize, to bring order to the chaos."

Former Wilder adviser Paul Goldman says talk of a full-blown removal from office is just theatrics. "I think people are thinking some Shakespearean thing that even Shakespeare would have rejected as a plot line," Goldman says.

Goldman is quick to note that "there's no such thing as irreparable harm in politics. It doesn't happen that way. I do think he's taking an enormous risk to his reputation and legacy," he says, adding, "I do think his staff operated from the pretense that nobody can beat him, and I do think this explains these situations. That 'if you don't like it, sue me' attitude, which is what we literally have here."

School Board Vice Chairwoman Lisa Dawson says she's heard mention of removing Wilder, but sees it more as an expression of people's immediate shock and frustration.

"A lot of people have said it — a lot have questioned the mayor's sanity," Dawson says. "What you are really hearing is the astounding degree of shock and outrage at the mayor's decisions. If they had the energy [to start the petition process], I'd be happy to sign it."

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