Monday, October 29, 2007

Mayor Wilder, Repeat After Me

I just read the mayor’s Visions Newsletter for this week (
The mayor is still making excuses for his disastrous decision to try to evict the RPS administration from City Hall a few weeks back. This, in connection with his treatment last week of the School Board committee and its chair, Betsy Carr, leads me to conclude that the mayor still doesn’t get it. He doesn’t understand that the citizens of this city do not approve of the way he is acting as mayor.

In the interest of saving your administration, Mayor Wilder, repeat after me:

I am sorry. . .

I was completely wrong in trying to evict the school administration from City Hall after the close of business on a Friday afternoon. . .

In the future, I will try really hard not to make mistakes like this again. . .

I need and welcome the contributions and cooperation of all citizens of the city, including the nine members of the City Council, the nine members of the School Board, the Superintendent of Schools, the City Auditor, the City Assessor, and others.

I really hope you can turn things around Mr. Mayor.

It’s Really Tragic

I take no joy from the poll results published in the TD that show that Mayor Wilder’s approval ratings have gone way down. The poll shows that if the election for mayor were held today only 35% of registered voters would vote to reelect Mr. Wilder. I cannot deny that for the past year I have been constantly berating Mr. Wilder for his performance as this city’s chief executive. But that’s not the way I wish it was.

When Mr. Wilder was elected mayor, I was kind of excited. I thought he would provide the type of leadership that any city could use. I have been greatly disappointed. That is the reason that I have felt compelled to criticize him.

Almost from the day he took the oath of office L. Douglas Wilder has been acting as if he had been anointed instead of elected. He has attempted to purge the leadership of the city to remove anyone who doesn't agree with him. He has not acted like a leader. A leader tries to bring about change by persuading other people to follow and by making compromises if necessary. Mr. Wilder tries to lead by imposing his will, by making unfounded public charges against anybody who tries to be independent. And he has never thought himself to be bound by the law.

I think it is tragic that this man, who has earned a place in history, should destroy his reputation in a few short years. Unfortunately, he will be remembered most for his attempt to evict the School Board from City Hall rather than for the things he accomplished as Governor of the Commonwealth.

Hopefully, Mr. Wilder will use the poll results as a wake-up call. He still has a year before the next election to regain the trust and support of the citizens of Richmond. I wish him well.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Entering City, Proceed At Your Own Risk

It is time to award the Maven’s “most wonderful letter of the day.” This time the letter goes to “Keep the City Out of Our Suburbs,” published in the TD on Friday.

This letter has been making me mad since I read it. I have started writing a response several times, but each time I just get too nasty. You know that I am basically a mild-mannered guy and I don’t want to publish anything that will make people feel bad. So, I will not write all the things I wanted to say to the author of that letter. Instead I will write this greeting:

Thank you for the Christo-Judeo-Islamo-Budist love that your letter shows for the unfortunate people who call this decrepit city home. Of course, if we could, we would all run to your suburban paradise. You are always welcome to visit Richmond either for business or pleasure, even though you see no need to pay for that privilege. If you are considering coming to Richmond, however, please heed this warning.

In River City you may come in contact with people who are neither white nor affluent. So, if you’re gonna come here, be sure to wear a surgical mask and bring lots of hand sanitizer. I wouldn’t want you to get contaminated.

Uncle May I?

When I was a lad, back in Brooklyn, USA, we played a little street game called “Mother May I?” The rules were simple. One kid, the mother, stood on one end of the backyard. The other kids stood on the other end at the starting line. The mother would then give instructions on how they could cross the divide between them. S/he might say, “Fred, you may take one giant step.” Fred could do nothing until he asked, “mother may I?” The kid playing mother would then either say “yes you may,” or “no, you may not.” Fred would act accordingly. Mother then would go through each of the other kids, instructing them to take giant steps, itsy-bitsy steps, umbrella steps (you had to spin as you moved), jumps, hops or whatever. Slowly the group of children would advance across the backyard toward mother. If, however, one of the players advanced without asking “mother may I,” he or she would have to go all the way back to the starting line.

According to the TD, School Board member Betsy Carr and Mayor Wilder have been playing this game (now called Uncle May I) and Ms. Carr is not winning. It seems that Ms. Carr, as chair of a School Board committee, has been working on the Board’s revised plan for new and renovated school buildings. A Thursday TD article indicated that the School Board committee was holding a meeting next Wednesday and had invited city officials and community leaders to provide their input. Ms. Carr stated that “[a]s we’re moving forward for a great city and making the schools best as possible, we need to get everybody thinking their best thoughts of how we can make it work together.”

Ms. Carr’s motive seemed pure and her position seemed reasonable but as indicated in Friday’s TD, Ms. Carr has made a fatal mistake. Before she moved, she failed to ask Mr. Wilder “Uncle May I?” It makes no difference that Ms. Carr “thought the invitation [to city officials] met Wilder’s desire for better communication between various parts of city government.” It makes no difference that this meeting would accomplish a great deal. Ms. Carr did not ask Uncle Doug for his permission and now she must return to the starting line.

It is tragic that Ms. Carr had to learn this lesson the hard way. Of course, it would be a lot easier if our regal chief executive employed a protocol officer to explain to us mortals which hoops we need to jump through to make His Excellency happy. Then Ms. Carr would have known how to proceed without offending the mayor.

As you might expect, Ms. Carr’s failure to ask “Uncle May I” has converted our benevolent Uncle Doug into the vengeful dictator that he sometimes becomes. He has listed new rules for playing the game in the future. King Doug now insists that before he will accept any further communications from the School Board on the issue of school construction or renovation, the School Board and the School Superintendent must carry out the recommendations made last winter in the City Auditor’s audit of Richmond Public Schools. His Excellency has indicated that his support for new or renovated schools will depend on actions taken by school officials to save money. “When you do this, we’ll do that. It’s a quid pro quo situation,” the mayor said.

I am sorry that this had to happen to a hard-working, independent minded public servant like Ms. Carr. Of course, she is the exactly the type of person that King Doug has been trying to drive out of city government since his coronation. If there is one thing His Excellency cannot stand it is someone who doesn’t answer to him. Ms. Carr, welcome to the long list of public officials who have drawn the mayor’s wrath for trying to do the right thing. I wish you the strength and courage to keep up the good fight.

Friday, October 26, 2007

It Ain’t Broke, It’s Just Badly Bent

I really have to object to Bob Rayner’s Op-ed in the TD entitled “If the City Charter's Broken, Let's Fix It -- Starting Now.” Mr. Rayner places the blame for the recent chaos in and around City Hall on our City Charter. Mr. Rayner says,

“One clear perception emerged from the recent chaos: The city charter is profoundly unclear about the relationship between the council and the mayor. And that's a sure recipe for endless, distracting, expensive court battles.
Perhaps it's time for the General Assembly -- which oversees local governments -- to help Richmond write a new charter for itself. The mayor's public stance has eased, at least mildly, giving the City Council an opportunity to press for the creation of a city charter that works. Local legislators should offer their services, publicy or privately.
A fight is inevitable. Better to have it settled by the people's elected reprentatives than by the courts. If the rules don't make sense, write some new ones. The mayor, the City Council, and the region's delegates and senators need to sharpen their pencils.
It's time to lead.”

I wonder whether Mr. Rayner has actually read the Charter. I have, and I don’t see why it needs any changes. The people who drafted this charter were capable lawyers and, although I might have written it better, they clearly stated the relationship between the mayor and the council.

Chapter 4 of the charter deals with the City Council. Section 4.02 says,

“All powers vested in the City shall be exercised by the Council except as otherwise provided in this Charter.”

This sounds pretty clear to me. The City Council has the authority to exercise ALL city powers except when the charter grants those powers to someone else. Now who else might the charter grant powers to? How about the mayor?

Section 5.01 of the charter says,

“The mayor shall be the chief executive officer of the city and shall be responsible for the proper administration of city government.”

Section 5.05 spells out the duties of the mayor. The mayor has the duty to:
1- Attend meetings of the council (or send a delegate authorized to answer questions);
2- Keep the council advised of the financial condition and future needs of the city, and make recommendations when necessary;
3- Oversee preparation of the annual city budget;
4- Perform such duties that the Code of Virginia assigns to chief executive officers of cities or that are assigned to the mayor “by ordinances adopted by the council.” (The mayor is given the power to veto such ordinances subject to override by the council.)
5- Issue regulations necessary to carry out the job of mayor.

I think it is clear that the charter creates a city government with two separate branches--the council and the mayor. The council is granted all powers of the city except those specifically given to the mayor (or his subordinates). The powers given to the mayor are clearly stated. Those powers are not unlimited. Clearly, the charter does not give the mayor the authority to ignore the laws of the Commonwealth or the ordinances of the City of Richmond that he does not agree with

The separation of powers in different branches has been a feature of governments in the Commonwealth since we evicted King George’s royal governor at bayonet point and emblazoned our flag with the words “Sic Semper Tyranis”. Separation of legislative and executive functions also exists in the Government of the United States and, I assume, in the governments of the other forty nine states. There are, of course, governments in the world in which legislative and executive powers are vested in the same person. We generally call those governments dictatorships.

But, argues Mr. Raynor,

“Wilder maintains -- not unreasonably -- that city voters overwhelmingly signaled that they want a strong mayor and that they want him to be that strong mayor.”

I don’t know how Mr. Wilder or Mr. Raynor determined that city voter overwhelmingly favor a “strong” mayor. All that is clear is that city voters approved the charter as written. That charter does not mention a “strong” mayor. It provides for a mayor who possesses only the powers specifically given him. All other powers are vested in the council.

There is chaos and dispute over the relationship between the mayor and the council in the City of Richmond only because the incumbent mayor asserts the authority to ignore the provisions of the charter. Mr. Wilder continues to operate under the charter that he wishes the citizens approved, one that gives him complete power. He refuses to follow the actual charter, which clearly limits the powers of the mayor.

So, Mr. Raynor, there is no need to go running to the wise General Assembly and ask it to fix the problem that we the naive citizens of Richmond have imposed on ourselves. The charter that we adopted is not broken. However, it has been bent by the actions of L. Douglas Wilder. Hopefully, in the next election we’ll choose a mayor who will obey the law.

The River’s Back and Now I Can Wash My Neck

Well, it’s official. Our beloved James River is back. I just drove down Riverside Drive between Huguenot and Pony Pasture and there is water flowing over the Zee dam. When I drove by on Monday, the river was so low that most of the dam was dry with only a trickle of water coming over the spillway.

That the river is back is vitally important to me. Since my identity is intimately tied up with the James, this week’s rain came at just the right time. After all, how would it look if I had to change my name to Dry Gulch Maven, or Rocky Rill Maven? No, I like James River Maven just fine and I’m so happy to have it flowing again.

This brings me to a song that my mother used to sing to me when I was a kid:

“It ain’t gonna rain no more no more,
It ain’t gonna rain no more.
How in the heck can I wash my neck
If it ain’t gonna rain no more?”

Well, much to my maveness’ delight, it has rained and I can start lathering my neck

Monday, October 15, 2007

Demand for Payment

"The conclusion then, is, that neither the representatives of a nation, nor the whole nation itself assembled, can validly engage debts beyond what they may pay in their own time." Thomas Jefferson, 1789

Dear American Taxpayer,

We regret to inform you that you that you have been the victim of a major financial scam. You have fallen for the ridiculous assertion that decreasing the federal tax rate will result in increased revenue flowing to the government. Accordingly the candidates you have elected to public office have increased the debt owed by your government to nine trillion, twenty eight billion, nine hundred fifty one million dollars ($9,028,951,000.00).

Until now, we have been willing to let your government pay off its debt in annual payments of nearly two hundred fifty billion dollars ($250,000,000,000). However, over the last six years, your government’s debt has increased at a phenomenal rate and we can no longer protect our stockholder’s interest unless we receive payment immediately.

As the Constitution of your government indicates that it is adopted by “We the People” and because you have benefited from your government’s continued deficit spending we consider it reasonable to hold you responsible for your share of the debt of the United States of America. Your personal liability for this debt is $29,785.35 for each member of your household.

We demand payment of your share of the debt by return mail. Because of the irresponsible credit practices of your government, we cannot accept credit cards in payment. We will accept only cash, money order or certified check in payment.

We regret that we have been forced to take this action. To avoid a similar occurrence in the future, we recommend that your government refrain from spending beyond its means.

Creditors of United States Government

Nor Any Drop To Drink

Scene I.
I was up in northern Virginia this weekend. In Low-down County (i.e. Loudon) there were signs on almost every street reading “NO OUTDOOR WATERING!” You see, because of the drought, the Loudon Board of Supervisors has imposed mandatory water restrictions.

Scene II.
I was back in Richmond last night. (I can no longer call this place River City, ‘cause there ain’t too much river left.) Yesterday, my neighbor across the street turned on his lawn sprinkler and it ran all night. This morning there was lots of water running off his property and down the street. I read in the TD this morning that Chesterfield County’s mandatory water restrictions go into effect today. The restrictions apparently are rather modest: lawn watering only three days per week; car and patio washing two days per week.

As for other jurisdictions in the neighborhood, the TD reported:
· Colonial Heights is scheduled to consider restrictions in the coming weeks.
· Dinwiddie put mandatory restrictions in place earlier.
· Petersburg officials asked residents to begin observing restrictions. City Council may make those restrictions mandatory at an Oct. 23 meeting.
· Prince George put mandatory restrictions in place earlier.

What about the City of Richmond and Henrico County? Well, if it doesn’t rain in a few weeks, maybe there will be a need for restrictions.

[I started this piece this morning. I put it away for a while. Then I drove across the mostly-rocks James for choir practice. But as I left I noticed that a different neighbor was pouring lots of water onto his lawn. My recollection is that under voluntary restrictions, nobody can water on Mondays. Well, I guess my neighbor volunteered not to comply.]

So, comparing scenes I and II, I started wondering: what is happening in Loudon County that is not happening in Exposed-rocks City? Now I know that Loudon County is really crowded. It’s already what Chesterfield County will look like in a few years—wall to wall houses; hundreds of miles of highways, all of them constantly congested; myriad strip malls trying to serve the needs of far too many people. But is that why they need a total ban on outdoor watering? Perhaps they have had a more severe drought than we. Maybe they have lawns that drink up more water than ours. Or, it could be that their newer water mains leak more than our old ones. And, maybe, just maybe, the Potomac is not as mighty a river as the James.

But suppose there are other reasons—so secret that even the TD can’t find out about them—for there being no need for water restrictions in Richmond.

1- It may be that our gaggle of nine has received classified weather forecasts indicating that over the next twenty days ten inches of rain will fall over the city—one half inch per day. Channels 6 and 12 meteorologists, “Eat your hearts out for missing that.”
2- Maybe the mayor has hired a rain maker, using the emergency procurement provisions of the city charter (which he learned to use when he bought an “emergency” audit for the city assessor last winter). We all know that dark clouds have been hanging over this city for months. The rainmaker can seed those and voila we’ll have lots of rain.
3- On the other hand, maybe we don’t need any rain. Perhaps the city has a secret stash of water. It could be hidden under Uncle Doug’s riverside ranch. (There’s nothing like the sun setting over the James.) Millions of acre-feet of H20, on tap for a thirsty city.

So, citizens of Richmond, consider yourselves lucky that we don’t have a City Council that would panic and impose mandatory restrictions (that my neighbor could not volunteer to ignore). Count your blessings that our beloved legislators would not sacrifice our clean cars and green lawns to make sure there is enough water to drink, for personal hygiene, for cooking, for putting out fires and other nonessentials. And, I’m sure we can add to the name of our beloved river. We can call it the Hidden James.

BTW, I advise that you start hording bottled water.

I'm Sorry

I must apologize to my reader. I realize that you rely on me to educate you on what's going on in Richmond and the world. And I realize that I have written nothing in more than a week. However, it's not really my fault. It's all the fault of Uncle Doug (formerly His Excellency).

As you know, the adventures of Mr. Wilder constitute a good part of what I have been writing about. In a rather blatant attempt to deprive me of writing material, L. Douglas Wilder seems to have changed his spots (or stripes if you prefer tigers to leopards). Suddenly, he is acting reasonably. He's acting like everybody's beloved uncle. So, I have to struggle to find something to write about.

I hope that you, my loyal reader, will understand my dilemma. I will soon reward you with more wisdom.

Friday, October 05, 2007

Atta Way Doug!

I really have to stop criticizing Mayor L. Douglas Wilder. Despite his antagonizing most of the city by evicting the school administration from City Hall, it is clear that Doug knows what it takes to placate the voters. What it takes is for the city to spend four or five millions dollars to build a 73 slip marina on the James River at the site of the Intermediate Terminal. How can any one continue to criticize Mayor Doug when he comes up with plans that are so beneficial to the taxpayers of Richmond? Now you might say that you don’t have a boat and can’t imagine why your tax dollars should be used for a marina. Obviously, you are short sighted.

There are many ways that the mayor’s proposed marina will help the City of Richmond:

1- Those of you who watched the HBO series “The Wire” are fully aware how spending millions of dollars for waterfront development will turn around our public schools and cut our crime rate, just as it did in Baltimore;

2- Doug can lure the school administration out of City Hall by offering them floating headquarters;

3- The mega-yachts that will dock at Richmond will provide lucrative employment for our high school dropouts;

4- Our children can go on school field trips to the marina to see the big sail and power boats that they will never be able to afford;

5- Richmond Public Schools can provide accessible classrooms for our handicapped children since the mayor refuses to spend a cent to make school buildings accessible; and

6- When shots are fired in your neighborhood, you can invite all your neighbors to spend the night safely on your family yacht.

If none of these reasons convince you, then I recommend that you borrow fifty or one hundred thousand dollars to buy a boat. You then can be one of the 73 Richmonders who will directly benefit from the marina.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

To Earn More, Ask Your Boss for a Pay Cut!

If you think the title of this post makes no sense, then you’re gonna love “Krugman Ruined a Beautiful Day,” the winner of the maven’s most wonderful letter of the day for October 2, 2007. This letter was written in response to a TD op-ed by Paul Krugman. I don’t remember Krugman’s column, but today’s letter was surely entertaining.

My favorite sentence in today’s letter is “Even students in Econ 101 understand that tax cuts increase the revenue going into the U.S. treasury. This has been proven many times.” Hey, it’s been a long time, but I did take Econ 101 and I never learned this amazing principle. I learned about supply and demand and all that cool stuff that only works in a hypothetical world. But never did my Economics professor have the nerve to suggest to me that lowering taxes increases revenues.

Now, this is becoming crystal clear to me. The more money we want to raise for the United States government, the lower our taxes should be. Over the years my brain has begun to resemble Swiss cheese. However, I still have enough gray matter to extend our letter writer’s theory to its ultimate conclusion. If lower taxes mean higher revenues, then if we eliminate taxes entirely we will maximize the revenues we collect.

How come nobody has thought of this before? Wait, now I remember. Isn’t this what George Herbert Walker Bush called “Voodoo Economics” in 1980? Isn’t this what became known back in those days as Reaganomics? Isn’t this what created huge budget deficits over the past few decades? Aren’t we in mega trillions of dollars of debt because we had presidents who thought you could cut taxes and increase spending at the same time? Despite what our letter writer claims, this inane theory has not been proven; it has been disproved two disastrous times—in 1981 and in 2001—and our great grandchildren will be still be paying off our obscene debt in sixty years.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Open Enrollment + Busses = Segregation

Two weeks ago, I sent a letter to the editor of our beloved Times-Dispatch. I criticized one of the TD’s editorials. The TD chose not to publish my letter. That is no reason why you should be deprived of my wisdom. So here is my letter:

Richmond Times-Dispatch

I strongly disagree with your September 18 editorial, “More Not Less,” in which you criticized the Richmond School Board for eliminating free transportation for students attending out-of-zone schools. The board was correct in eliminating this costly subsidy. In fact, the board should have gone further and eliminated open-enrollment entirely. Over the years, this policy has contributed to the economic segregation of Richmond Public Schools.

Whatever its original intent, history shows that the open-enrollment policy has been used by middle-class parents to cluster their children into a few Richmond elementary schools. The result has been that many neighborhood schools have been left with high concentrations of poor children. For example, south of the river, middle class parents in Forest Hill, Woodland Heights, Westover Hills, Stratford Hills, and other neighborhoods have used open-enrollment (and free transportation) to enroll their children in Fox, Mary Mumford and Fisher elementary schools. The neighborhood schools, Blackwell, Swansboro and Westover Hills, have been abandoned by these parents. The result of this subsidized movement of students is clear from the latest statistics on free or reduced-cost lunches (an accepted measurement of poverty) appearing on the Richmond Public Schools Website:

Blackwell……………………92% of children
Swansboro…………………..87% of children
Westover Hills………………81% of children

Mary Mumford……………...20% of children
Fox…………………………..22% of children
Fisher………………………..30% of children

The February 2007 audit of Richmond Public Schools indicated that “RPS could achieve a substantial estimated annual cost savings by eliminating out of zone transportation for regular education students.” Since this free transportation also contributes to the further concentration of poverty in many of our neighborhood schools, the School Board was right in eliminating it.

When you write a letter to the editor, you have to be short and sweet. You can’t say everything you want to. So, there were some factors that I did not address in that letter.

First, I know that open-enrollment and free transportation are not the only causes of our economically segregated school system. As I have been pointing out this summer, the main cause of this problem is the perception mostly by middle class parents that Richmond Public Schools cannot give their children a quality education. During the summer I said that parents react to this perception by doing one of three things: 1- enroll their children in private schools; 2- home school their children; or 3- move to the suburbs when their children reach school age. Then I was told that there was a fourth mechanism used by middle class parents. The open enrollment policy and free transportation allowed parents to abandon their local school and put their children in the city’s elite elementary schools—Fisher, Fox and Mumford.

Second, I know that it is not only middle-class parents who use open enrollment. As the articles in the TD have shown, the decision by the School Board not to fund out-of-zone transportation has created hardship for families that are not considered middle class and have taken advantage of open enrollment.

Third, I know that to induce middle class parents to use their neighborhood schools we need to make those schools the best schools in the state and we need to convince parents that in fact their children can get a first rate education in those schools.

Fourth, we’ve got troubles right here in River City. We have a very unhealthy demographic pattern that is the direct result of middle class parents rejecting Richmond Public Schools. It is clear in my neighborhood and I assume it exists in other neighborhoods in Richmond. There are many elders in my neighborhood. They are people who have lived in their homes for a long time. There are also many young couples in the neighborhood. They either have no children or have children who have not yet reached school age. In all the neighborhoods in which I have previously lived there have been a large number of families filling the slot between the old and the young. They were families with children who were attending local schools. In my neighborhood in Richmond there are very few families in this last category. We have a vast demographic abyss. I believe that this pattern bodes ill for the future of Richmond. It will lead to a city inhabited by only the very rich and the very poor.

Since the middle of the summer, almost everybody in the Richmond area has expressed his/her opinion on how to bring Richmond schools to greatness. Unfortunately, most of us have been distracted by recent events at City Hall. Now it is time to stop talking about fixing our schools. We need to take action.