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It's Her Party

As the city slogs through a new government and Mayor Wilder, council district meetings, er, parties, are all the rage.



Councilwoman Ellen Robertson is having a party. She organizes the catering, arranges for a band and invites several hundred of her closest friends — along with a few local celebrities — to a chic downtown destination Saturday, June 9.

When she strides into the glass-encased lobby of the Bank of America building Saturday morning, she wears a sharp gray pantsuit with a funky handbag, and sports strappy, pointy heels. Turnout, however, is a little low. The musician couldn't make it, and the room she booked was locked. But none of that fazes Robertson.

She's having another party next month.

Robertson's been holding meetings for the 6th District on the second Saturday of each month since she was elected to City Council in November 2003. There were only about two dozen people on hand June 9, mostly African-Americans past retirement age, eating yogurt and cinnamon buns from modest catered platters. Many of them are heads of neighborhood civic associations. Robertson says she typically averages twice that. Once, she says, about 150 people showed up.

Amid the increasingly tense political battles with Mayor L. Douglas Wilder that have accompanied the city's new form of government, the district meeting has become an important weapon in City Council's arsenal. Wilder, a master at manipulating media via press conferences and irresistible, if over the top, quotes and outfits, has forced council members to consider their media strategies as well. Council now has a press secretary who sends out almost daily e-mail blasts, such as notices of district meetings for council members, which routinely involve high-school cafeterias and visits from, say, the public utilities director or the assessor.

Councilwoman Robertson, however, has had a standing once-a-month meeting since she was elected. Automated calls leave messages with all of her constituents about the event. She uses the meetings to hear concerns from constituents and get the word out about what's going on with the city.

During the June 9 event, the Rev. Ben Campbell from Richmond Hill, the historic monastery and retreat in Church Hill, gives a ranging discourse on his view of the city, education, literacy and unemployment. City Auditor Umesh Dalal follows up with a detailed description of the recent investigation into the city's vehicle fleet.

Almost everyone seems to be taking notes. "This is the forum that drives her," says John Westbrook, Robertson's council liaison. "She's a true bottom-up politician."

The 6th District cuts a narrow slice of the city. It runs from the city's northern border with Henrico County, down through Highland Park, across downtown from Second to 19th streets, along Hull Street and into Manchester, through Bellemeade and out to the Chesterfield County line. The district is a microcosm of the city and represents a diverse spectrum of constituents.

"Irrespective of the rather strange boundaries, she's trying to get the north Richmonders and the south Richmonders who are part of the same district to get together and talk about what they have in common," says longtime urban studies professor John Moeser, a visiting fellow with the University of Richmond's Center for Civic Engagement. "It's strategic planning that is authentically grassroots. I commend her."

One idea that grew out of the Saturday meetings was to start a citywide voter registration drive, which started in February. Robertson partnered with the Crusade for Voters, the NAACP, Virginia Union University and the University of Richmond. She helped organize training and helped send people into the city jail to register voters.

Typically at the beginning of the fiscal year, Robertson will use the meetings to set her legislative priorities. She uses a projector and electronic remote controls that allow participants to dial in their votes for the issues they'd like to see addressed. These include crime, school dropout rates, the concentration of poverty and unemployment.

Under the old city manager form of government, City Council members could take their problems — potholes, gas bills, social workers, you name it — directly to agency heads. Now those agency heads fall under the mayor — they routinely tell council members they cannot talk directly with them — and council's role has been narrowed to writing laws.

"It's a role shift," says Westbrook, Robertson's liaison. "The citizens have to be told that council's job is to make laws. They still see it as able to directly deliver city services."

Robertson has no shortage of ideas. "The challenge that we have right now is implementation," she says.

Implementation, of course, is the job of Wilder's administration. But there are procedural realities too, realities Moeser knows a thing or two about.

Moeser is one of the primary architects of the new city charter. In 2004, Richmond changed from a city government run by council, which elected a city manager to run the city, to a system wherein the voters directly elect a mayor who shares the responsibility of governing with City Council. The struggle between the mayor and council has a contentious battle ever since.

While council's role has changed, Moeser says, "[the change] has placed an additional responsibility on members of council to be visible. And not just visible — but to deliver to the constituents. Now it's more complicated because all of the services — social services, public works — are provided by City Hall so members of council kind of have to negotiate. It's not ready-made for them."

The shift has left council members with tools for governing that are somewhat at odds with their public identities.

"We are the elected officials closest to the people, and our role is to be their advocate," City Council President William J. Pantele says. "The day-to-day needs of the constituents and their more micro quality-of-life issues are the oxygen or the life's blood of a local elected official."

He recalls meeting with the mayor right after Wilder was elected and brandishing a thick folder of correspondences with one of his constituents in the Fan. One city department had torn up some sidewalk to repair a gas main and improperly repaired the concrete walkway. The citizen complained and was told that it would take six years to fix. Then the wrong department got assigned to fix it.

"I told [Wilder] at the conclusion that all council wants is for city services to be provided well and economically," Pantele says. But the execution of the work done by city agencies is no longer in the council's domain. That's Wilder's work now. All council members can do to help the individual needs of their constituents is try to influence city policy and pass laws.

Robertson questions the force of the laws they pass, however.

"There is no provision for punitive damages if the administration does not act on a city ordinance," Robertson tells the group on Saturday. "All the recourse council has is to take the mayor to court, and the court is not going to become the management system for the city. The only recourse that's immediate is citizens coming to council chambers."

For City Council members to get specific services into the hands of their constituents, whipping up public interest in the issues is more important that ever. Indeed, council needs its constituents just as much as the voters need council.

That's where Robertson's parties come in.

"What you get from the council chamber and the newspaper should be just enough to get you interested in looking deeper," Robertson says. S

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