City Council: two meetings for the price of one

How things have changed. Only weeks (months?) ago Council meetings went on endlessly, angry speeches were made, political points were scored. Lately? Barely a whimper. Recaps from both this week’s Council meeting and Public Budget Hearing.

How things have changed. Only weeks (months?) ago Council meetings went on endlessly, angry speeches were made, political points were scored. Lately? Barely a whimper. A few years ago Mayor Wilder surrounded City Hall with police, hired moving vans, and packed the School Board off to West Broad under cover of darkness. Only a late night injunction stymied the Mayor and returned the Board’s possessions, unceremoniously in unmarked boxes, to their former quarters. The following Monday, Council President Bill Pantele made a rousing speech in chambers, railing against the Mayor’s putative coup détat while School Board employees sorted through their personal belongings, furniture, and staplers. Ah, good times.

Now, with just a few exceptions, there is a decided lack of passion. Even Marty Jewell can’t seem to work up a good speech. It’s probably a lull before a storm, but it wants for drama. Monday’s meeting is a good example. Nine items, all on the Consent Agenda, three awards, and four speakers. There were no items on the Regular Agenda. Even I was a no show. I did, though, catch the show on TV. Despite the lack of fireworks there were a few bits of news and one gem that needs reporting.

The one item I was sorry to miss was a public service award to one of the quietest and most enduring of all Council regulars: Ms. Ruby Ethel Giles Turner. The intriguing lady has a semi-permanent seat on the front row of the gallery and can usually be seen behind the speaker’s podium during Council broadcasts. I’ve never heard her say a word, but apparently she does have something to say. She is a regular at Doug Conner’s 9th District meetings and a longtime activist. Per the official award she is the President and Founder of the Greater Richmond Against Gun Violence organization and also a member of the Lewis Ginter Botanical Gardens Board of Directors. Before that she worked as a nurse for 25 years at the VCU Medical Center. Now that I know her, I wish she’d speak more often.

There being no items on the Regular Agenda, Council moved quickly to the Citizen Comment Period. I’ll hit a few highlights. Chris Dorsey had the first turn at the podium. Since he made a more colorful return appearance on Tuesday, I’ll cover him later. An older resident, Jacqueline Toney, gave Council a piece of her mind regarding City services, primarily regarding trash pickup. Next time she says she’s bringing her garbage directly to City Hall and letting them deal with it there. President Graziano directed her to an administration rep who will hopefully make things right. Lastly, the “chicken lady” was back, meaning urban poultry advocate Valery West of Chickunz. She’s waging a good natured campaign on behalf of the right to bear chickens in the City, and to gauge her by her mood, she is making more friends than enemies–an unusual strategy that might just work.

The only business remaining is the Consent Agenda. The only discussion revolved around two items creating the position of Director of Animal Care and Control. Objections were raised by Councilmen Tyler and Jewell when they learned City administration had never concluded a cost sharing agreement with the SPCA, but the rest of Council decided to separate the two issues and create the new position. The rest of the Consent Agenda then passed unanimously.

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Today’s bonus coverage is of last night’s Public Budget Hearing, What used to be a marathon session that generated a lot of heat and smoke, if not light, attracted only a small crowd and a dozen registered speakers. With two exceptions, all speakers were polite and used less than their allotted three minutes–the exceptions being Chris Dorsey and John Reeves who provided a podium slamming tirade on behalf of Richmond Public Schools.

Chris covered many of his favorite topics, including the Federal Reserve Bank, corruption in the Sheriff’s Department, City Attorney’s Office, and the City Council which “enslaves the people through taxes” on behalf of corporations and the ruling class. The budget, he declared, was an abomination.

Others spoke on behalf of their pet causes; blight in Blackwell, sidewalks in Cherry Gardens, affordable housing, Meals on Wheels, a stadium for the Squirrels. Dr. Charles Price spoke on behalf of the Cannon Creek Greenway which has been quietly making progress alongside the Richmond-Henrico turnpike. Phase One is nearing completion and will be dedicated on May 5th with a round trip to Shockoe Bottom and back. If you haven’t seen this little gem you need to track it down and check it out.

By far the largest group of speakers spoke on behalf of the Richmond Public Schools.

They are currently in a tug of war with the Mayor over a $23 million shortfall in his budget. One School Board member admitted their budget was politically impossible, but wanted to force the matter to a public discussion. The Mayor on the other hand deliberately underfunded his budget and called for a panel of local leaders and national consultants to establish goals and priorities for the school system. Virtually all those speaking tonight, including another dozen unscheduled speakers, urged the Council to fully fund the RPS budget. One speaker suggested all city salaries should be cut by $2,000 to make up the budget shortfall. Mostly they spoke in praise of the school system, the children, and those who work on their behalf. Thanks went back and forth between speakers and Council.

Council meets again on Tuesday May 1st at 5:00pm for another working session on the budget. Final vote on the budget is scheduled for May 28th during the regular session. If changes are not approved by May 31st the Mayor’s budget goes into effect.

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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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