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If sanity is a virtue, then City Hall was anything but virtuous in the early morning hours of Sept. 22: Bizarre, amplified recordings of tropical birdcalls emanated from the public safety building while a foggy mist fell over a cluster of TV camera lights stationed just beyond yellow police tape and a fleet of moving trucks.

In the pre-dawn hours following a wild day of porn investigations, job threats and forcible evictions, the block around City Hall provided a picture of a city overcome with chaos. A preordained crisis that everyone knew was coming, but somehow still shocked witnesses. The ordeal left dazed city leaders and public officials meandering in wonderment: This time, Mayor L. Douglas Wilder had gone too far.

More than a week after the fact, news of that day is starting to wear thin. Here's an abbreviated recap: Wilder attempted to forcibly evict the School Board and city schools administration from City Hall; a judge intervened and called the movers back; several days of confusion and bemusement from business leaders and City Council members followed, along with a day-long court hearing. All the while, Wilder appeared unaffected. He showed up at a cemetery unveiling and a sister-city-mayor function. He danced a jig near Main Street Station with a glowing band wrapped around his head, charming his way past reporters and TV cameramen with his trademark jollity.

Looking beyond the city's latest episode of infighting and insanity will be difficult because the courts have yet to sort out the latest city charter crisis. But one thing seems certain: Citizens will see no cooperation among their leaders, and the city's branches of government will not come together to achieve any substantial progress. Not now, at least. For the remaining 15 months of Wilder's first term as mayor, Richmond must wait for the next shoe to drop. A recall petition is circulating to remove the mayor from office -- a process ultimately decided by Richmond Circuit Court — and City Council is gearing up for another year of legal maneuvering and court battles. (As of August, taxpayers had already racked up $304,635 in outside lawyers' fees in the legal battle between the mayor's office and City Council since Wilder took office in 2005, according to a Style Weekly analysis of public records.)

The one thing Wilder's most rabid critics and staunchest protectors agree on is that the chaos and combat is a classic Wilder strategy. His supporters say it's his way of solving problems. His detractors say the operational aggression and resulting disarray are Wilder's only real goals. But if the tendency to stage a flurry of confrontational episodes is not just personality but strategic leadership, when will it pay off for the city?

The Wilder administration is involved in litigation with City Council, the School Board and the state of Virginia. At the heart of the many-headed legal monster is Wilder's simple contention that he derives power from his interpretation of the new city charter. It took effect in 2005, and the city converted from being governed by an elected City Council that hired a city manager to execute its instructions, to having an elected council and an elected mayor who appointed a chief administrative officer who executed the mayor's instructions.

Wilder says the change was made "almost with a paste-over of city manager with mayor" and that "it doesn't really outline and stratify the relationship between council and the mayor." Wilder says there's nothing he really wants changed in the charter; it's everyone else's view of it that needs modification.

"What has to happen is you have to have the interpretation of the charter," he says. "I interpret it as I see it." In Wilder's view, the city turmoil flows from a disagreement over how the new government should work.

Others disagree.

"This is a political catastrophe," says John Moeser, an urban studies professor at the University of Richmond and one of the architects of the city charter. He dismisses the notion that the current stalemate simply is endemic to the "growing pains" that accompany a change in city code — in Richmond's case, from a city manager form of government to that of an elected mayor.

"A lot of cities change their charter. It's not that unusual. And sometimes there is a period where you have to work out and negotiate the new relationships," Moeser says. "But there is no charter change in all of the United States that has led to the kind of catastrophe we saw in Richmond."

Moeser, who declines to discuss the personalities involved — i.e., Wilder — says the struggle appears to be centered solely on "who's in charge." And contrary to what Wilder has projected repeatedly since taking office, the city charter wasn't designed to give the mayor authority to ignore City Council ordinances, something his lawyers will no doubt argue in Richmond Circuit Court in the coming months. "We didn't go to a unicameral system, where only the mayor is in charge," Moeser says. "We adopted a system of separation of powers. There was built into this structure a system of checks and balances."

Moeser is joined in his disappointment with the way things have played out by another architect of the charter, Paul Goldman. Goldman not only helped write the charter, but also campaigned for the referendum to make the change possible. He's also a surprising ally of Moeser's; he was a close adviser to Wilder but now says the mayor has gone over the top.

"Wilder's problem is he doesn't want to be a strong mayor — he wants to be an unchecked mayor," says Goldman, who has transformed over the past several months from an occasional Wilder apologist to a staunch mayoral critic.

Goldman, too, says the charter's goal was an "at-large mayor — not a strong mayor. I don't know where he got that."

Wilder is now striking a conciliatory tone, pushing for a fresh look at the city charter to iron out his authority and that of council in the next session of the General Assembly.

Clarence Townes is a longtime Wilder associate who signed the recent letter from 26 business leaders to the mayor asking him to switch from an elected to an appointed School Board. And Townes thinks there is an underlying method to what Wilder is doing.

Virginia's next legislative session in January presents the earliest possibility for the city charter to be amended. "I think all of this is a designed combat to influence the General Assembly when they have to make the decision in January," Townes says, referring to the expected tweaking by state lawmakers.

Though charter defenders say the document is perfectly clear, the turmoil surrounding it has spurred discussion about its seaworthiness, and an amendment process could open the opportunity to do a little governmental shopping — a chance to pick up a few things, like a city attorney who reports to the mayor.

Delegate Dwight Jones, D-Richmond, is on the legislative committee that would be responsible for hammering out the changes.

"I think it's quite evident that the hopes of the city have been dashed as far as what we thought was a turn for the city," Jones says. When the new charter was before him in committee in 2003, he says, "I knew this cake was half-baked." Jones voted for the charter anyway, but says he knew there would need to be revisions down the road. He declines to speculate whether the charter is insufficient to define the new office of mayor or if the officeholder is stretching his powers beyond its limits.

"We've got to sharpen the charter up and get it crystal clear, and force people to cooperate with each other," Jones says, adding that the charter is designed to work no matter who's elected mayor. "You could get Attila the Hun," he says. Or you could get Doug Wilder.

That Wilder is the first to hold the office of mayor under the new system also makes it nearly impossible to gauge how the system might work under normal circumstances. If anyone is still shocked and dismayed by the mayor's penchant for political theater, they shouldn't be. Wilder has promised all along to stir the pot, to confront the various boogeymen afflicting the city and to rid City Hall of its "cesspool of corruption." He loves confrontation.

"You should never be surprised when he takes dramatic action — he has a history of it," says Larry J. Sabato, a professor of political science at the University of Virginia, referring to the School Board eviction party. "This is not a mealy-mouthed politician who is going to sit back in the office."

With Wilder, it's almost an endearing quality. In his first year in office, his dismantling of the performing arts center project and his public dress-down of Jim Ukrop, the project's chief booster, felt uncomfortably righteous and long overdue, even if Ukrop seemed like the wrong target. Wilder also stripped his first city budget and forced such entrenched organizations as the Greater Richmond Partnership and Richmond Renaissance to prove their worth. He attacked the business community at large for wanting to recklessly spend the city's money, chastising it for ignoring more important issues, such as education and public safety.

Wilder challenged everyone and kept the bombs coming even as the white flags went up. But it also became more difficult to decipher the vision behind the fights. Take Wilder's City of the Future plan, unveiled in early 2006: He never produced a detailed plan and demanded that city schools start closing facilities without a coherent construction timetable.

When schools provided a timetable, Wilder ignored it. He demanded an audit of their books, giving schools officials a deadline to agree. But days before they could vote as a body to accept an audit, Wilder declared them uncooperative, chopped them out of his City of the Future plan and began withholding schools funding — leading to payment shortfalls to vendors who worked with schools.

It's a persistent theme. Amid all the roughhousing, critics say there has been no coherent vision from Wilder — of where the city needs to go and how to get there. Those who've been on the inside say Wilder's modus operandi is to "poke people in the eye" and dare anyone to challenge him. From day one, Wilder and then-sidekick Goldman ignored procedure and protocol, as well as city ordinances, almost daily, say people who worked closely with Wilder.

"Action is policy," says a former top aide who worked in Wilder's inner sanctum at City Hall, speaking on condition of anonymity. Of Wilder, the aide says: "There was a complete disregard of the rules, procedure or law up to the point that he is legally challenged. As an attorney, he knows the bounds of the law, but he also knows that he can overstep those bounds daily until someone takes him to court."

In one instance, the former aide recalls that Wilder wanted to ignore a court order and move General District Court judges from the basement of the former police headquarters on Ninth Street to the Manchester Courthouse. He wanted to blame it on City Council, the aide says. Wilder's attorney, Richard Cullen, and William Harrell, former chief administrative officer, tried desperately to persuade the mayor to go along with the court's order to leave the courtroom where it is.

"He was steadfast up to that point that he was not going to do it," the aide recalls of the August 2005 meeting. "You could kind of sense it in the air. There are times you can't say anything or challenge or disagree. The plan: He wanted to do nothing. He wanted to defy the judge's order and blame it on City Council."

In the end, it was one of the rare times when Cullen and Harrell persuaded Wilder to play nice, and the aide says there was a collective "sigh of relief." Wilder went along with the judge's order.

While cooler heads won that battle, there were plenty of other times when they didn't. Sources say that Harrell, a career government bureaucrat, became so frustrated with Wilder's methods that he left for a job in Chesapeake. Harrell, a deeply religious man, was often the target of Wilder's wrath at City Hall, and often prayed at work to help him through it.

"I guess there was a moment of realization for me, when I was in a one-on-one meeting with [Wilder], that I had a full awakening that there was absolutely no strategy or vision that was being created at all," the former aide says. "The operating policy was daily whim. I think oftentimes, the very reason [behind his actions] he doesn't know himself until the whim of the day strikes him."

What's not whim for Wilder is that his plans work best when he can find the gray area of the law or the glitch in the system that prevents others from acting swiftly to counter his plans. That strategy was laid bare at the Sept. 26 Circuit Court hearing where Judge Margaret Spencer extended her order to temporarily delay his eviction of the schools' administrative offices.

At the hearing, schools attorney State Sen. Henry Marsh closed his arguments by bashing Wilder's refusal to sign a $10-per-year lease ordinance ordered by City Council and his flouting of the law. Marsh read verbatim into record the section of the city charter that requires Wilder either to sign an ordinance or veto it within 14 days.

Wilder did neither, Marsh told the court: "At some point, the mayor should have to follow the charter and city ordinances."

Responding to Marsh's plea to the judge, Wilder's lawyer, Scott Oostdyk, reminded Spencer that the limits of the case precluded her from ruling on whether Wilder had broken the law by ignoring the ordinance.

In an e-mailed press release from Wilder's office the following day, retracted quickly but not before a number of recipients had opened it and saved its contents, mayoral spokesman Linwood Norman recast Judge Spencer's inability to rule on Wilder's authority as an unspoken agreement with Wilder's policies:

"It is clear that the judge did not rule that we did not have the authority to take the actions we took," read Norman's statement. It also ignored the judge's finding that Wilder's crews had caused "actual harm" to schools property and confidential student records by denying that any such records were moved or tampered.

The courtroom scene last week was public theater, but the spectacle it provided plays out nearly daily at City Hall, where Wilder has pushed the envelope and dared City Council to defy him throughout his first two and a half years in office.

The day of the forcible eviction, Sept. 21, was a far more brazen public act. It came a little more than a week after Wilder met with City Council and attempted reconciliation, which led to council supporting a Wilder-backed proposal to fund renovations at the Carpenter Center.

Many who were there on Sept. 21 have compared it to a Soviet-style crackdown.

Klieg lighting illuminated the entire exterior of City Hall while a fleet of moving vans arrived to encircle the building. A line of yellow police tape had been strung along the sidewalk to deter entry. Those brave or confused enough to approach were turned away by police officers, who repeatedly warned citizens and reporters to back away.

Inside, a public meeting was under way — an emergency meeting of the School Board that had been hastily called to determine a course of action and to hire well-known civil-rights attorney State Sen. Henry Marsh. When School Board Chairman George Braxton discovered the public wasn't being admitted, board members began going downstairs to try to bring citizens in. At least one School Board member and various members of local media outlets were threatened with arrest.

Braxton pleaded with a police official to allow the public into the School Board meeting: "There is no public meeting," the official growled, and Braxton went back inside to move the meeting to closed session for the purpose of hiring Marsh.

In the schools offices, movers broke locks, entered secured areas and scattered student and employee files.

The mayor's plans were derailed only by Richmond Circuit Court Judge Margaret Spencer's emergency order, given as the clock ticked past midnight and well past the point of what she later called "irreparable harm" to the School Board's offices.

That civil rights were violated on Sept. 21 seems likely. And that state, local and federal law were similarly disregarded seems equally certain. Wilder has denied knowledge of much of what occurred, and in the days following, he and Black played a game of hot potato with blame for the incident.

Some think the attempted schools eviction is too much to overcome. A petition to recall Wilder as mayor is circulating (see sidebar), and the business community is trying its best to downplay the episode. One ranking business leader, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, says the School Board knew the move was coming and could have prevented Wilder's ambush Sept. 21.

Wilder's chief lieutenant, acting Chief Administrative Officer Harry Black, told Judge Spencer that after initiating the surprise Sept. 21 move, he'd hoped schools would "become a partner in the move" and "take it over."

But schools officials say they were largely unaware, other than that Wilder had reiterated a Sept. 30 deadline for schools to get out of City Hall. Administrators say they first became suspicious that Sept. 21 would be the day when the office of the mayor's press secretary sent out a notice that City Hall would be closed at the end of the business day. Further questioning of press office staff revealed ominous undertones to the building's closure, with schools Superintendent Deborah Jewell-Sherman testifying that she was told to take with her "anything we wanted to see again."

Under cross-examination, Black — whose brush-with-the-truth testimony frequently elicited laughter from courtroom spectators — failed to explain to the court how the schools could have participated. He also acknowledged that he'd never even provided a key to schools officials for their new building.

Now with Judge Spencer's order firmly in place until Nov. 30, and with the various parties left to simmer a few days over the events, some people, including Wilder, are again calling for good old-fashioned sit-down.

"I think [Judge Spencer's] ruling is an opportunity for everybody to sit down and talk," Wilder says. "That's what the people want." But when pressed on when he would participate in a meeting of the minds, he replies, "I didn't say that."

"Until the city's administration, City Council and the School Board agree to communicate cooperatively, no significant progress will be made to the city's future," says Beverley "Booty" Armstrong, co-owner of The Jefferson Hotel and close partner of billionaire William H. Goodwin Jr. Armstrong — who gave Wilder a meat cleaver and plaque engraved with the words "Cut the Fat," which hangs in Wilder's office — says there's plenty of blame to go around.

Others say the same, including leaders of the Richmond Council of PTAs. That group, however, apportions blame somewhat less evenly than others — perhaps 95 percent of the blame to Wilder and 5 percent split between City Council and School Board members.

"When I think about my interactions with the School Board administration and the mayor, neither one of them have given us very much," PTA president Tichi Pinkney-Eppes says. "But when you think about it, allegedly [Wilder] is the leader. I clearly believe that as a leader, he could have taken this in a whole different direction."

The tally for the past week's actions have begun to roll in. Estimates have the aborted move of schools offices costing close to a half-million dollars. The cost for renovating the property where they were to be moved, 3600 W. Broad St., may or may not be included in that estimate, depending on whether you talk to Black or to schools officials who had received earlier bid proposals for the same move.

Add to that the cost of lawyering after the moving trucks moved in. Figures were unavailable from schools officials, but city officials estimate the total cost for outside legal counsel for all of the various court battles being fought between Wilder and City Council at $348,613.

"That sure could fix up a lot of schools, couldn't it?" School Board member Carol Wolf asks. "Sure could buy some teacher aides and some playground equipment. That's ridiculous."

Wolf sees clear patterns in Wilder's actions, in that they hardly reflect his words. When he talks about cutting fat, she says, he often creates it himself. "I've been watching this for years," she says. "When he got in trouble for taking the helicopter to visit Patricia Kluge in Charlottesville while he was governor, people said, Well you've got to understand, that's just Doug. When he got in trouble when his inaugural funds were misused and he blamed his son, people said, Well you've got to understand, that's just Doug.

"Well, I've had enough of 'just Doug.'"

No one is giving the School Board a pass. The school system spends more per pupil than any other district in the region, and even among comparable cities, its per-pupil spending is high. Meanwhile, its student achievement is questionable. Though many schools now are accredited, the system continues to struggle with a 50 percent dropout rate.

And with about 23,000 students enrolled — half of enrollment when its 50-plus school buildings were built — some suggest that operating so many schools simply is a waste of money and resources.

When Wilder sensibly suggested an audit of the school system's finances, School Board members balked. And when City Auditor Umesh Dalal attempted an audit, schools administrators refused to cooperate. In some cases, they even obstructed Dalal's initial efforts.

Wilder's over-the-top methods, however, have clouded any kind of honest discussion about such inefficiencies. Even his closest aides were against moving schools offices out of City Hall more than a year ago because the numbers simply didn't make sense. Wilder's eviction attempt has aligned the School Board and City Council as never before. Earlier this summer, the board voted on its now-infamous $10 lease for schools to remain in City Hall, cutting the lease from the previous $550,000-plus schools had paid for the space. Over the weekend, Wilder changed his tune once again, admitting that moving schools out of City Hall wasn't about saving money, but about his primacy.

On Sept. 24, responding to Wilder's attempted eviction, City Council voted to join the School Board in its lawsuit against Wilder. Council also is legally challenging Wilder's appointment of Black as his de facto chief administrative officer.

Because Black wasn't approved by City Council, as required by city charter, council contends that most of Black's decisions as top administrator, including the aborted eviction of Richmond City Schools, have been made illegally. It's a mess that will take months, maybe a year (perhaps a delay Wilder counts on, some observers agree), to sort through.

"It would take a great deal of trust and repairing of the bridges" to bring the sides together, says Thomas Shields, director of the Center for Leadership in Education at the University of Richmond.

But Shields thinks it's probably too late: "When do you start saying that enough is enough? Maybe this has gotten to the point of ridiculousness. Maybe we need to start thinking about alternatives. When you get to this point that you've had enough with this leader, what's our recourse?"

Wilder could be removed from office — an unlikely scenario — or challenged in the next election if he decides to run for a second term in 2008. While he hasn't committed himself either way, there have been hints throughout that Wilder, who turns 77 in January, would run again.

In an interview with Style in December 2005, Wilder acknowledged that his work "changing the status quo" couldn't be accomplished in a mere four years. "As I said in the inaugural address," he said, "I wouldn't expect things to be changed in a year or even four years."

If Wilder decides to run for a second term, Sabato says there's no reason he won't be elected, probably overwhelmingly.

Wilder's past campaign adviser, Goldman, says the same thing, suggesting that there's plenty of time to repair the damage — either by action or by distraction — of the past weeks in preparation for an election more than a year away.

Wilder is a deft politician who has shown repeatedly a knack for turning on the charm and winning votes, even in the wake of political tragedy. And who could match him in political stature?

There are a few names that have emerged as potential challengers, none of whom has committed, including former Commonwealth's Attorney David Hicks, City Council President Bill Pantele and fellow council members Bruce Tyler and Ellen Robertson. The most intriguing name to emerge has been Viola Baskerville, a former City Council member who is Gov. Tim Kaine's secretary of administration.

"You can't beat somebody with nobody, and this is somebody with a capital S," Sabato says. Sabato says he doesn't see anyone on Richmond's horizon to seriously challenge Wilder, who still appears to have the support of the business community.

Wilder wouldn't be the first mayor to turn the system upside down and still come out on top. "Frank Rizzo in Philadelphia, Mayor Daley in Chicago — oh God yes, very strong mayors with fierce personalities have been known to do things like this from time to time," Sabato says of the aborted eviction.

"And remember, most if not all of those people were re-elected," Sabato says, "most often repeatedly. We're a long way away from the election."

Thirteen months and counting.

The Mysterious Petition

Found: A petition to remove Mayor Wilder from office, discovered on car windshields Sept. 24 at the John Marshall Courthouse.

Looks like: An official State Board of Elections form, accompanied by sections of state code and the city charter.

Is it real? It could be. The form appears to be in order, General Registrar J. Kirk Showalter says. The number of signatures needed for such a petition is 7,246, or 10 percent of the votes cast in the mayoral election. (The signatures must be evenly distributed based on the number of votes cast in each of the nine districts.)

Then what? A Richmond Circuit Court judge would determine whether Wilder has had a "material adverse effect upon the conduct of the office." If the answer's yes, a special election is held 60 days later.

Is a recall even worth it? Not really, former Commonwealth's Attorney David Hicks says: "Come '08, that decision will be made." Paul Goldman concurs: "It's crazy," he says. "That's not the way to go about this."

Who's responsible: Nobody has claimed credit.

We've heard this before: School Board member Carol A.O. Wolf says she received an identical recall petition during budget season this spring. "I figured, hell, nobody's going to get any traction on that."

Throwing down the gauntlet: "I don't think Richmonders really have the stomach for that sort of courageous effort," former Mayor Roy West says, making "a dare" to voters to show "that kind of courage."

— Chris Dovi S

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