What DOES the public want in their next mayor?

The Times-Dispatch hosted a Public Square event today that shed some light on what at least one group of people want to see as a result of mayoral elections this year.

Photo by: mickee1311

The Mayor Jones Administration clock is ticking, and the public is beginning to look forward to the fall, at which point one lucky(?) man or woman will pick up the mayoral hammer and swing it around in the direction he or she sees fit.

The Richmond Times-Dispatch hosted one of their Public Square community get-togethers today to get a read on what the community would like a mayor to be. Mayor Jones, in case you’re wondering, was not in attendance, which is maybe a good thing, as the implied message was that the things they wanted a mayor to be were things that they were currently lacking. Although, really, he’s got several months left and maybe could put some feedback to good use?

The gathering was, in part, a who’s who of People Who Often Publicly Have Opinions on These Matters (that includes us)–urban planners, educators, various city councilmembers, activists, business executives, RPS superintendents, and a whole lot of other familiar names and faces. An event in the middle of a weekday is unlikely to draw a whole lot of people who don’t work at a job that would steer them there. So maybe a random sample of Richmond citizens would have gotten different responses, but a random sample of Richmond citizens probably wouldn’t skew heavily towards even knowing about the election. It may be too early for them. Plus, many of those who spoke up weren’t even Richmond citizens, so that statement wouldn’t even apply.

At any rate, it was a good opportunity for anyone thinking about throwing their hat in the ring to learn what the people want–and many people we suspect will make a bid for the office were in attendance with ears open.

Here are the conversation’s main points:

Really Excellent Vision

Several mentioned having a mayor with a strong vision of what Richmond can be in the future. One specifically said a mayor with vision was unnecessary, as a mayor should be focused more on administration and not developing property via our tax dollars. Figuring out what to do with the burgeoning arts, culture, and food scene was one suggestion, figuring out how to start keeping millennials in town was another.1

The Schools, Dammit, The Schools

A large number of people mentioned the state of public education, and that they’d like to see the mayor make it a priority. Dana Bedden, RPS superintendent, was encouraged by moderator and RTD publisher Tom Silvestri to put in his two cents, which was that he needs help galvanizing the community around schools. Citing as an example MLK Middle, he pointed out that the building is sweet, the staff has been refreshed, but the problems still exist because the surrounding community (both parents of students and just residents) don’t care.

Racism, Poverty, Housing, and the Pipeline to Prison

Racism was mentioned (I think?) only in vague terms by one commenter who just called it the 800-pound gorilla in the room, until another one brought it up as something the mayor needs to understand is behind a ton of our problems. A couple of others noted that neighborhoods stuck in the cycle of poverty, violence, and incarceration need to be focused on at the expense of a lot of other projects, insisting that if you help those who need it most, the rest of the pieces will fall into place a lot more easily. Housing, of course, is a big factor in all of the above, and one commenter sneaked in just before the buzzer, suggesting that housing could be key to all of the above.

Character and Fortitude

He or she who wields the mayor’s mighty hammer must be, according to participants, full of enthusiasm, charm, and smiles. The hammer only swings for those who are noble enough to allow complete transparency and who are willing to stand up to special interest groups, they said. I’m not sure if I care how smiley the next mayor is, but it’d be good to add to that list, “Doesn’t get involved in exchanges or take action motivated by spite.” Because dang, that’s not only embarrassing and a waste of everyone’s time, it’s potentially harmful to the City. This mayor should also not be using the position as a stepping stone, said one, and shouldn’t be concerned with his or her legacy so much as the future of the City.

A Creative Type

Several wanted the new mayor to be able to think about the box. Maybe there are more solutions for raising funds. Maybe there are more effective programs in other cities that we could try to duplicate. Maybe community leaders could be led to collaborate in a different way.

Mayor Without Borders

If I had to pick, “regionalism” was probably the word of the day. Many who lived both inside and ouside the City wanted the next mayor to focus on partnerships with the counties. One commenter said that she dreamed of a day in which nobody had to introduce themselves at an RTD Public Square with their place of residence. ZIP code is important in these conversations so that it’s clear what the counties would like to see, but the jokes about how Henricoans and Chesterfielders (what on earth are the correct terms??) aren’t welcome within City limits are just tired.

Cleaning House

The City government structure as it stands is broken, said many, including the Honorable Ellen F. Robertson, who has been on City Council since before there even was an elected mayor. She pointed out that the way they structured the government back then is no longer relevant now and should be reexamined, and quickly. The mayor’s powers have been untested under the current charter, and many dire faces were made when the consequences of that were hinted at (i.e. the mayor’s hammer could become unstoppable without the proper checks and balances in place). Several mentioned some elected accountability structures. Is it possible to cut down on the number of ribbon-cuttings? Because that sure does seem to take up a lot of a mayor’s time. Just a thought.

View the RTD’s very exhaustive and dutifully recorded list of citizen–and non-citizen–requests here, and take note, mayors-to-be!

  1. It was this moment when I finally realized that “millennial” is really just a 21st century for word for “yuppies!” 
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Susan Howson

Susan Howson is managing editor for this very website. She writes THE BEST bios.

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