The members of Richmond City Council recently had a big week. They voted down a proposed tax on cigarettes that would have generated $5.3 million a year to fix the city's dilapidated school buildings.
And then our elected officials basically stole $2.15 million from the city's fund for public art. To be most kind, it should be noted that the fund had $3.15 million in it and that City Council didn't wipe it out altogether — it left $1 million. As if that makes it all better.
Still, council's actions reveal a singular lack of vision and misaligned priorities. Unless members reverse course, last week's actions will serve as proof to the world that people in Richmond value cigarettes more than kids and that we clearly don't give a fart about public art.
Council's vote on the cigarette tax was not surprising. It was a safe bet that in a showdown between keeping Altria happy or making sure our kids are in buildings that are safe and well-cared for, Altria would win. Further, it doesn't take a genius to look at some campaign contribution data from the Virginia Public Access Project to predict how those votes were going to roll. Council member Kristen Larson of the 4th District deserves credit for voting her conscience rather than her campaign bank account.
Council's vote to raid the public art fund, however, was a shocker.
More's the pity here that members and Mayor Levar Stoney do not appear to be playing nice or working well together, despite all their campaign promises to comport themselves with dignity for the greater good of Richmond. Yeah, right.
Council President Chris Hilbert tried to get Stoney to work with the council to identify $1.2 million in cuts to the capital budget. Stoney, however, rebuffed him with some officious language in a letter saying he could see "no requirement to identify reductions that could be used by council to shift priorities, typically to new projects within their various districts." Smack-down!
Lest there be any doubt in the mayor's mind, these council members were also elected by the people to represent us. Any disrespect he demonstrates to them, is disrespect to us, the voters who put them in their positions. No one expects them always to agree and sing "Kumbaya" together, but it is fair to say that we expect a certain degree of decorum and that all this drama is a waste of time and money.
To be sure, it was disappointing to see City Council members collectively lack the political courage and common sense to push back on Stoney's budget and propose some cuts to put the mayor into a negotiating frame of mind.
And it was doubly disappointing that these officials decided to raid the public art money, kind of like taking candy from a baby — except worse. They got played. Instead of refusing to do the mayor's dirty work and demand that he give them a balanced budget, council hurt itself and now will be forced to watch Team Stoney save the day and restore the money.
Since before the golden age of ancient Greece, it has been a given that cities need public art. Monuments, murals and memorials, from the Parthenon to the pyramids, Stonehenge to the Statue of Liberty, the Spire of Dublin to the Sydney Opera House and all parts in between, people make public art to be a part of something bigger than their individual selves.
Council needs to give back this money so it can be used to sponsor competitions for public art that will enhance our city. Perhaps some of the money can be used to create art that will help put those Confederate monuments in context, art that will make manifest the American creed: e pluribus unum. As surely as Paleolithic men and women made the first public art by drawing on the walls of the Lascaux caves in southwestern France, humans feel the need for art. No matter what other needs press upon the city coffers, we need art to show the strength of our society, the strength of women and children, art that honors teachers and leaders of various faiths and political views, art made by the people, for the people, that will tell the whole story of our city and inspire us to create a far greater vision of our future.
We don't need a new coliseum or a new baseball stadium, but we do need the art that will show the world we are more than a repository for the artifacts of the cult of the Confederacy — art that will herald a new beginning for a town too long stuck in the muck of yesterday. S
Carol A.O. Wolf is a former newspaper reporter who served on the Richmond School Board from 2002 to 2008. She writes regularly about the Richmond Public Schools at saveourschools-getrealrichmond.blogspot.com.
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