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Sheila's Mountain



With the dust still thick after a politically disastrous attempt to evict the Richmond School Board from City Hall, Mayor L. Douglas Wilder took a bold step to jump-start his fledgling administration with the appointment of a new chief administrative officer: Sheila Hill-Christian.

With the blessing of Gov. Tim Kaine, Wilder asked the former director of the Virginia Lottery if she'd like a turn in the hottest hot seat in town. To the near-unanimous applause of City Council and local civic and business leaders last month, Hill-Christian, whose administrative experience ranges from corrections officer to executive director of the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority, accepted the post.

Now that she's had a few weeks to take the city's pulse, Style Weekly asks for her diagnosis -- and what her prescription might be to heal a fractured city government.

Style: There are people who say they can already see a lot of your style in how Mayor Wilder is presenting himself since you've arrived.

Sheila Hill-Christian: He didn't have to hire me. If he is looking for a change, I think he hired me with making a change in mind. So if you see a change, it's something he desired to do, not because I came and changed Doug Wilder. Who does that?

Do you think we have a workable government right now within this framework?

I don't know that I'm familiar enough with the charter to say that if everyone was acting in accordance with the specifics of it that everything would be OK or not. I'm just not familiar with the details. I will say that I'm guessing that the average citizen thought the mayor had powers that he doesn't when they were voting at the time. So now they're kind of scratching their heads trying to figure it out. Because I'm guessing the average citizen thought the mayor could approve leases. Certain things that they would have thought were day-to-day operations of the city government, I'd think they would have thought he had the authority.

Do you think they thought he had the authority to do some of the things he's tried doing? One of his early clashes with the schools was over whether he could hire or fire the superintendent.

No, I don't think those are the kinds of issues. To give you an example, at the time this change occurred, one of the things that was made clear to me in meetings and discussions with directors around the country such as Atlanta, Chicago, Philadelphia — places where they deconcentrated poverty, revitalized public housing communities — was that major change in their communities could not have occurred without a strong mayor. And that one of the real benefits of that form of government was to have one voice that kind of set the vision and the tone for the community and the direction. And I would guess that the average citizen kind of thought of those models when they supported the [elected mayor] concept. I guess I can't get too caught up in the details of what he can or cannot approve, but I think there was some thought that he would serve as the visionary leader for the community.

It just seems like some people are a little disillusioned, especially after the attempted School Board move. It was universal throughout the city. There was just this kind of 'Awwww, why did he go and do that?' …Things like bringing in a police force to act like something a bit more than a police force. I got to see that firsthand.

I didn't, and I wasn't here. All I can say is, in my mind, that was a moment in time. I think where that relationship is concerned, there is years of history on both sides that got us to a certain place in time. What the housing authority incidents [a federal investigation into the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority's finances was among Hill-Christian's first experiences as director there] taught me are that these are small, small things, all things considered. Even with a city this size and a budget this size, to argue over a few hundred thousand dollars when we've got the future of the city at stake, I don't want to get caught up in that so much as how are we going to start working together to move forward? OK, the audit report says there are some functions that are duplicative between the city and the school system. Superintendent and I could have some discussions about that. We don't need 20 audit reports and a council ordinance to say, "OK, let's go to lunch and see if there's something we can do as a team to try to address some of these issues."

You're talking "Let's be practical" instead of "Let's have some reports generated and hold committee meetings and subcommittee meetings," because there are some things we can come to together as people?

Right. And it's never as bad as we imagine when we're in the moment. When those first audits occurred over at the housing authority, they were talking about "Oh, $6 million! The housing authority's got to pay back $6 million." I don't remember the exact figure, but I think when all was said and done, it was maybe $200,000. We get caught up in the moment and we have press coverage and we have meetings and we have task forces, but at the end of the day, it's people sitting down around the table and saying, "Look, we're going to work this out." That gets us where we need to go. That's what we did at the housing authority. That's what I've done every other place that I've been. That's what's going to happen here in the end.

Too often it doesn't happen. Often when you see failure, it's because people don't want to talk.

That's because it gets emotional. When it gets emotional, that's when things break down. I don't have that baggage, so hopefully we can have a conversation.

Why did you take this job in light of your earlier decision to leave [Richmond city government]? A lot of people looked at it and said you made the right decision when you left and then you did an about-face and came back just when things seemed the worst.

But they don't seem the worst to me, because I was here before. I was here when there were nine council members calling the shots on a daily basis. While we get much more media attention because of who's in that office over in the other corner, it's still not as interesting as the first time with nine members of council … reminding the city manager that he needed five votes. I'd just have to disagree that this is worse.

But people say you said you felt you'd done the right thing when you left.


Then why did you come back?

Because a person that I admired tremendously asked me to. I'd had enough opportunity to interact with him that I thought our personalities would mesh — not always agree — but not be oil and water. And the personalities on council I knew well enough, that whatever I bring to the table as an administrator, they're going to allow me the opportunity to use it to help them. And it was just — it would have been difficult to say no and sit on the outside and watch it continue, thinking maybe there was something I could do. It really is simple, and I am not as afraid as people would probably think, because I've been here before. I can remember working for the state and sometimes getting the impression the rap Richmond received was less about its performance than the fact that it was a predominantly African-American community, and I was kind of bothered by it.

You know, some of the jobs I've taken have given me the opportunity to see how much of that was reality and how much of it was the faces sitting around the table representing the city.

How much of it is reality?

The issues have very little to do with race; however, the perception of the reality is. Some of that perception, I think, is based upon who you see, which is kind of sad sometimes. I think that's why I stick it out and get involved with different boards.

Is the race thing something that's close to your heart or just something that bugs you when people don't get the respect due to them?

I think it's more of an issue when it's the elephant in the room and we tap dance around why an issue doesn't move forward — and the real issue is people aren't going to trust each other and work together because of it. When I have the opportunity — I'm sitting at the table and I know the elephant is sitting in the room — I sit him in the middle of the table.

You call him out…

The real challenges are not about race. They're about economics. It's about money. I think people of any color, if they're really honest, have more of an issue with the financial position of the person who moves in next to them than what color.

The issue of regionalism and whether or not we can find a way to collaborate and help each other — everyone likes to look at Richmond as the problem. Is Richmond the problem?

Richmond is not at all a problem in the region, but Richmond has taken unto itself many of the problems in the region. The fact that Richmond created a housing authority is the reason that Richmond has the concentration of poverty. They took on public housing, and because of it, it appears, took on a lot of that burden. We have social services available far and beyond what's available in other areas. We have the homeless shelters. Because it is the city taking on many of the burdens of the region in ways that the counties have not, because of that … we spend more money on social services programs, we spend more money on programs for the homeless, on public housing. When you create a community where you've taken on so much of this burden, then of course the schools are going to be burdened, because where are the kids coming from?

Institutionally, Richmond has been magnetized to attract these problems.

There is a need throughout the region, but it hasn't been dispersed throughout the region. I think when you start having a conversation about affordable housing it's difficult, because when you talk about really lower-income housing and really sharing some of that burden, everyone starts to back up.

Can you demagnetize Richmond?

You can see that some of it's changing. Some of it's changing because you have an influx of younger people who want to live downtown and they are from other parts of the state, other parts of the country. They are used to catching a metro and getting to wherever they want, and they're starting to demand some of the things that we haven't been able to afford because we've had to support such an overwhelming burden.

The Crupi Reports, both of them, touched on this, Richmond's … self-loathing. It's like a guilt kind of thing.

I think it's changing. I think it's changing despite everything that's gone on over the past year or so. It's a good thing some people are mad. Some people are upset, but at least they're starting to say, "I don't like this and this is my town and why don't we have X,Y and Z?" People are getting energized.

Is it a new attitude?

Whether or not you agree with everything the mayor has or hasn't done, people are paying attention. And whether or not you agree with everything in that letter from the [26] business leaders, people are paying attention. When you talk to people who are younger, who are hanging out in Carytown or the Slip or the Bottom, they are very positive about this city and are getting more involved, and there is an energy that I'm starting to see that I think is going to be very positive.

Wilder has really been testing this city charter and running to see what it can do.

I haven't really talked to him in specifics about the details of the charter changes.

Is that your business to get involved in that?

Not really. I think as mayor, certainly he needs to be focused on that. And I need to be focused on the day to day, so that he can. Our jobs are very different.

There's been some [indication] that the mayor has been very hands-on in terms of day-to-day operations. Have you changed that dynamic?

It's hard to say because I wasn't here before, but he hasn't done that with me. I check with him from time to time to see where his head is. I try to check in with him in the mornings and sometimes in the evening to see what's come up.

And he doesn't tell you, "I want schools moved out of City Hall"?

No, he hasn't asked me that [laughs].

How would you have handled [the attempted eviction of the School Board]?

I can't imagine. I would have just told him what I thought.

What would you have thought?

I don't know the specifics of how he came to that decision. I reserve the right to put my signature on documents and tell employees what to do. I don't know what I would have done. I might have gone ahead or I might have said no.

Having observed what you observed, do you think the proper course was followed?

That wouldn't be fair for me to say. Having not been here in the heat of the moment, I don't know why certain people made certain decisions. … You should always know where your line in the sand is. S

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