City Council recap: The meeting after the meeting

Late last night, like really late, City Council heated up over the new city jail. Charles Samuels’ vote for the jail left him with an option that more vocal jail opponents didn’t have: the option to introduce a motion to reconsider the contract. Things got exciting from there.

Even up until 10 minutes ago this was a very uninteresting City Council meeting, and I left the chambers an hour ago. This turned out to be a pretty good move on my part, because most of that time was spent during the show and tell portion of the meeting when Council gets to talk about their favorite subject: themselves. I had plenty of time to drive home, change clothes, sneak a peek at America’s Got Talent, and consume a piece of birthday cake (Happy Birthday to me!). Only I and a few others in the audience knew that Charles Samuels had an ace in the hole that could reopen the jail debate.

Last July, Samuels voiced his displeasure with the Mayor’s handling of his new city jail. While being in the works for over a year, the Mayor gave City Council just a few months to consider the largest public works contract in City history. Samuels’ vote for the jail left him with an option that more vocal jail opponents didn’t have: the option to introduce a motion to reconsider the contract. So, the jail debate has been cracked wide open, at least for now. Council is now grilling Vicky Rivers from the Office of Minority Business Enterprise. Let’s focus on this briefly.

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I’m anything but an expert on this subject, but here are a few observations. The idea of setting aside tax dollars for MBEs (Minority Business Enterprises) is a noble one, which is to:

  • Fairly distribute tax dollars
  • Develop business leadership in minority communities
  • Provide employment opportunities for minorities

I think that is a fair role for government to play, but in practice it is a very messy business. Let’s start with who is a qualifying MBE. Essentially it is who we say it is. I don’t have the City’s procurement specs, maybe some policy wonk can wade in, but in this current case the MBE is a general contractor with little or no experience in cement contracting. To fulfill their contract they will take their administrative cut of the multimillion dollar contract and hire someone else to do the work. The minority participation could be limited to the office staff of the MBE, while the rest of the money gets passed on to experienced contractors. The result is an increase in cost, a vast potential for corruption, and a minimal impact on minority employment. I’m sure this is an oversimplification, but there has got to be better ways of going about this. OK, that’s my MBE tirade.

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It’s now 10:00, and this looks to go on awhile. Here’s my 2nd complaint: how is the public supposed to participate in a hearing they didn’t even know was going to take place? While all this has been discussed before, in the six weeks since City Council approved the contract Style Weekly has reported that the city administration outright lied about important facts concerning the jail contract. Now, with just a few days left until this contract takes effect, despite everybody’s best intentions, this issue is going to be decided in the middle of the night. I’m an optimistic person, but I don’t see this ending till after midnight (it ended around 11:00 pm), and there are going to be a lot of bruised egos before they are done. Mayor Jones will never get the respect or consideration he has previously received. The Mayor himself left the chambers three hours ago. How is this going to turn out? It’s too close to call, but I count four solid votes to reconsider the contract: Conner, Jewell, Trammell, and Samuels. Ellen Robertson has been asking hard questions about it, but Chris Hilbert and Doug Conner are against reconsidering, leaving Cynthia Newbille, Ellen Robertson, and Council President Kathy Graziano to cast the deciding votes.

There is a great reluctance to open this up again. Reconsidering would mean reopening the bidding process and delaying construction by months, maybe years. It would be a disaster for the Mayor, put wind in Doug Conner’s sails, and could be Marty Jewell’s finest hour–Lord knows he needs one. It will take a clean sweep of Newbille, Robertson, and Graziano to put this through. Only Newbille, I think, doesn’t have a dog in this fight. By all accounts she’s a serious and nice person, not a pot stirrer, but she’s also close to the Henry Marsh machine. Will she stick with the party line and support the Mayor or will her conscience compel her to pull the rug out from under him? Stay tuned. This may not end till after press time. Little did I know when I took this job, it would be a suspense story.

There really was a City Council meeting tonight with citizen comment, public service awards, and the rest. It was full of small-time drama, heartwarming stories, and a bit of humor, but it deserves more than an afterthought. In case you are wondering, nothing really important happened. And that was the good news. The bad news, some really interesting characters won’t get their stories told. You’ll have to catch it on the reruns on the city government channel.


Ah, movement! Kathy Graziano has declared against reconsideration and called a vote. Very quickly the motion failed and the contract stands. Wow! Poor Marty.


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Paul Hammond

Paul has been writing about life and politics in Richmond for 11 years. You can often find him walking his dog up and down Franklin Street and yes, he does bite, the dog that is.

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