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City Council To Review Richmond Constitution, Propose Amendments

Building with glass facade
Richmond City Hall in December 2020. (Photo: Crixell Matthew/VPM News)

Richmond City Council’s Governmental Operations Committee is expected to begin reviewing the city charter, or constitution, for potential amendments.

The city charter is Richmond’s governing document and lays out how the local government should function. It also outlines the rules and expectations for elected officials. There have been a couple  one-off charter changes recently, like in 2020 when a clarification was made to the residency requirements for council members following Parker Agelasto’s scandal. The Office of the Inspector General, which investigates potential fraud and corruption within City Hall, was also created through a charter amendment in 2018.

Fourth District Councilmember Kristen Larson, who chairs the committee, said it's time to take a more holistic look at Richmond’s charter.

“There are things that have come up in my time on City Council that have pushed us to want to look at the charter and see what big, overall changes need to be made,” she said.

Charter changes must be approved by the Virginia General Assembly, but first, Richmond’s state representatives would have to agree to bring the changes to the body. Generally, state representatives require the consensus of the mayor and city council when agreeing to carry a charter change bill.

Larson said her committee is hoping to provide recommendations for  the full City Council’s approval by September. Councilmembers Michael Jones and Katherine Jordan also serve on the committee tasked with reviewing the city charter.

Charter-related issues are not the flashiest — top priorities include looking at the duties of the city attorney and who can be in the room for closed-door council meetings — but Larson said the hope is that any amendments can alleviate tensions between city council and the mayor.

“A lot of the changes will be technical, but in the long-run it will hopefully make government more efficient. It will make us more efficient for the people of the City of Richmond even though the process may be like watching paint dry,” she said.

The starting point for discussions will be Richmond’s 2008-2009 Charter Review Commission, the last time a wide-ranging review took place. The eight-member commission was formed to address conflicts between then Mayor L. Douglas Wilder and City Council following the 2004 move to a ‘strong mayor’ system.

John Douglass, a law professor at the University of Richmond, was selected to chair that commission. He said things were tense in local government at the time, with two internal lawsuits flying around.

“We had a fairly specific and limited direction,” Douglass said. “We were directed not to change the fundamental distribution of powers between the council and mayor. We were charged more with cleanup, if you will.”

While some issues the 2009 commission looked at were technical, many were also substantive. Perhaps the most glaring problem the commission highlighted was that the chief administrative officer, the mayor’s second-in-command, had the power to hire and fire City Council staff. That power was removed following the recommendation of the commission.

The body also recommended giving the mayor a larger role in appointing members of task forces and commissions that make policy recommendations.

Bob Holsworth was a member of the commission and is currently a managing partner of the political consultancy firm Decide Smart. Holsworth said the commission saw many issues as holdovers from the previous system, in which the mayor was mostly a ceremonial role.

“Some of these were pretty obvious,” he said. “They create an imbalance of powers.”

One major issue that was never resolved was the dispute around who appoints the city attorney and who that person represents.

Under the current charter, Richmond City Council hires the city attorney who then walks a tightrope of representing both the city council and the mayor’s administration. City Council also has the sole power to remove the city attorney. The Commission recommended requiring the consent of the mayor when hiring a new city attorney, but that recommendation was never acted on.

The Commission also notably declined to offer a recommendation for how City Council and the mayor should resolve their disputes without taking legal action. Holsworth said it was suggested that the Richmond Circuit Court or a third party mediator could step in, but Commission members felt it wasn’t appropriate to bring unelected officials into the process.

“At the end of the day, the political system has to work,” Holsworth said. “”You can’t have some sort of magic solution outside of it.”

The 2009 Commission was put together with an equal number of appointees from Mayor Wilder and City Council.

A spokesperson for Mayor Stoney said he supports a comprehensive review of the charter, but would be opposed to one-off changes. Larson said his administration has been made aware it’s happening and will be asked to participate.

Douglass said in order for another charter review process to be successful, he thinks it must include both parties, and it can’t be expected to solve fundamental, political disagreements.

“It was a useful process in 2008 and 2009, and it will no doubt be a useful process now,” he said. “You just need to be careful not to turn a commission into another sort of political debating society.”

Richmond City Council’s Governmental Operations Committee will have its next meeting on April 28.