"For a Clean Sweep of Richmond, Former Governor, Now Mayor, Wants a Bigger Broom". . . . . The New York Times
By LISA A. BACON
Published: January 16, 2005
L. Douglas Wilder says his push to expand his powers as mayor of Richmond is about accountability. "The buck stops with me," he said.
RICHMOND, Va., Jan. 15 - When L. Douglas Wilder took office in 1990 as the nation's first elected African-American governor, he faced a $2 billion budget deficit. He said then that he could pare the deficit with a butter knife, just by putting "necessities before niceties."
Now, as the first popularly elected mayor of Virginia's capital in 60 years, Mr. Wilder is taking a machete approach to cleaning up a city that he calls "a cesspool of corruption and inefficiency."
This month, he will go before the General Assembly to ask for more power as mayor. And despite lost jobs and pay disputes, it appears that no one is trying to stop him.
Around coffee shops and water coolers, many residents of Richmond, the former Confederate capital, say they are willing to hand over whatever power it takes to run the city efficiently and honestly. "It's about time," said Jacque Chappell, 54, who works part time at a local department store. "I'm not worried about him having too much power. He's just what this city needs."
Bill Cosby, a friend of Mr. Wilder's, said as much in his introduction at the mayor's swearing-in on Jan. 2. "You've elected someone into office who does not fool around," Mr. Cosby said.
There is little dispute that Richmond is due for a cleansing. With 95 murders recorded last year, Richmond earned a position in the Federal Bureau of Investigation's 10 most dangerous cities, a designation that Mr. Wilder attributes to misappropriation and mismanagement in the city administration.
In the last decade alone, three City Council members have gone to prison on charges that included drug possession and influence peddling. And last year, an assistant in the city manager's office pleaded guilty to stealing a million dollars from the city payroll.
Although few are finding fault with Mr. Wilder's approach to cleaning up the city, there are those who believe Richmond is not as bad off as the new mayor contends.
In recent years, the city has received three upgrades of bond ratings, saving almost $25 million, and crime has dropped by 12 percent. And the "rainy day" fund is in better financial health.
"He's inheriting a city that is definitely on the move," said Calvin Jamison, the former city manager, whose job was abolished when last year the General Assembly approved the city's move to a strong-mayor form of government. Previously, the mayor held a largely ceremonial position and was elected by fellow members of the City Council.
For Mr. Wilder, who is also a former state senator, the mayor's job may hardly seem like an ambitious political career move. But Mr. Wilder has long maintained that elective office is not an ambition for him; it is a calling. He frequently remarked during the mayoral race that he could not bear to sit idly by and watch what was happening to his hometown.
Well before his inauguration on Jan. 2, he began unapologetically cleaning house in this city of 200,000. Within a week of his election in November, he told the chief of police to look for another job. And with his inauguration still several weeks away, he killed proposals to spend $700,000 on additional city government staff, including a public relations expert.
When the School Board voted in December to extend the contract of its current superintendent, Mr. Wilder declared the move illegal under state law and pressed for the power to have a voice in such appointments.
After the City Council awarded a severance payout to Mr. Jamison, the outgoing city manager, Mr. Wilder went to court to block it. When the judge ruled in favor of the city manager, Mr. Wilder threatened to take legal action to recoup not only the city manager's severance pay but that of four other city employees.
Now Mr. Wilder wants the General Assembly to rewrite the same city charter that he proposed last year to enable the shift to a strong mayor.
Mr. Wilder is asking the General Assembly to revise the charter to give him the power to veto individual items in the city budget, as well as the right to hire and to fire city officials and department heads, a power that the city manager wielded but that was not passed along to the mayor.
The City Council last Monday approved the revisions, which will be submitted to the General Assembly for approval.
"For us to create a process that so empowers one individual is creating the potential for great governmental corruption," said Rudy McCollum, who was the last mayor elected by the City Council. "In the conservative Richmond I know, this is unprecedented and dangerous."
Sitting in his office, two blocks and 10 years away from his former residence, the executive mansion, Mr. Wilder said he did not want power, only accountability. "If you want me to be the mayor, there is going to be accountability," he said in an interview. "The buck stops with me."
At 74, Mr. Wilder bristles at the suggestion that he has aspirations beyond City Hall. "The people know I am not looking for anything," he said. "Where the hell am I going?"
Mr. Wilder insists there is much more to uncover before Richmond can become a corruption-free, cost-efficient city. His first salvo also took down the city's hospital authority. In a letter last month to the Richmond commonwealth's attorney, David Hicks, Mr. Wilder asserted that the authority had diverted "tens of thousands of dollars intended to care for needy, elderly individuals" for unjustifiable expenses.
Members of the board quickly resigned. But not before it was discovered that the chairwoman of the authority had received more than $1 million from the agency in what she described as management service fees.
Mr. McCollum, who lost to Mr. Wilder in November in a four-way race, says he is not alone in his belief that the mayor's quest for power has no place in a democracy. But given Mr. Wilder's demonstrated penchant for cutting jobs and payouts, critics are not lining up.
"I am very disturbed and concerned about the lack of public response, both by individuals and by the city, to the approach being taken," Mr. McCollum said. "I speak out because I have nothing to hide and nothing to fear. I don't know why others won't stand up."