Friday, April 04, 2014

What’s With the Petitions in River City?

While we’re talking about Mayor Jones’s proposal to develop Richmond’s Shockoe Bottom, have you noticed there are two petitions floating around the city that stadium opponents think will put an end to the mayor’s madness. As you know the drafters of the Bill of Rights guaranteed the right of the people to petition the Government for redress of their grievances. So I guess that petitions are good. On the other hand there are so many people with grievances, and in this age of instant mass communications, I am asked to sign at least a dozen petitions a day. The Federal Government itself has a website encouraging citizens to submit petitions for the president to address. But, I am sort of wondering why the need for these two new petitions. 

I haven’t seen the petitions physically yet, but I understand that they are submitted under the authority of section 3.06.1 of the Richmond City Charter. That section provides that if a petition is filed containing the signatures of 10% of the highest number of voters who have voted in the city in the past five elections (a number that is estimated to be 9,800) requesting an amendment to the city charter, then the amendment shall be put on the ballot as a referendum question for all city voters. If the voters approve the referendum, the amendment is to be submitted to Virginia’s General Assembly for its approval. The two petitions circulating today request the following amendments to the City Charter: 

1- Proposition A proposes an amendment to the Charter creating a new section 2.04.02, providing that under the City Council’s powers contained in section 4.02 of the Charter, “there shall be created and funding provided for” the Historic East End Shockoe Bottom Commission. The Commission shall prepare (within nine months of its creation) a report to the Mayor and City Council on “how best to achieve economic growth while at the same [time] preserving the vital history of [the] area including the historic record regarding those uniquely significant events having taken place in the Shockoe Bottom area of the Historic East End.” Proposition A also provides that the City Council shall take no further action concerning the mayor’s Shockoe development plan until the Commission submits its report.  

2- Proposition B proposes an amendment to section 3.06.1 of the Charter broadening the authority of a minority of members of the City Council to call for an advisory referendum on issues relating to Mayor Jones’s Shockoe development proposal. With regard to ordinances relating directly to the baseball stadium proposed by the mayor the amendment would allow 3 of the 9 council members to call for an advisory referendum. With regard to ordinances dealing with various funding options for the Shockoe development the amendment would allow 4 of the 9 council members to call for an advisory referendum. Under existing language in section 3.06.1 a Council resolution calling for an advisory referendum requires that the issue be submitted to the voters and that the results of the referendum be reported to City Council for “such further action as it may deem advisable and in the best interests of the City.” 

Reader, to fully understand the significance of these two petitions you should understand the governing philosophy of Richmond’s City Charter, our local constitution. Chapter 4.02 of the Charter provides “All powers vested in the City shall be exercised by the Council except as otherwise provided in this Charter.” This means that the City Council is the governing body of the city. Unless the Charter assigns them elsewhere, all decisions regarding the governance of the city are to be made by City Council. The Charter does create the offices of mayor and chief administrative office of the city and assigns certain functions to the persons holding those offices. It also authorizes the City Council to create departments and other subdivisions of the city and to delegate governing powers to those subdivisions. In short, the City of Richmond is not a democracy. It operates under a republican form of government. We elect our nine members of the City Council. They in turn make the decisions that govern the city. 

The Charter as presently worded provides for three instances in which specific issues may be voted on by the citizens of Richmond. Two of these are in section 3.06.1. The first paragraph of that section authorizes the City Council, presumably by a majority vote, to request an advisory referendum on any proposed ordinance or proposed amendment to the Charter, the results of which are not binding on the Council. The second paragraph permits a referendum, under the procedures I described above, on an amendment to the City Charter itself. The third referendum provision is in section 7B.05. It provides for a referendum on an ordinance authorizing the city to issue bonds if within 30 days after the City Council passes the ordinance a petition with signatures of 10% of voters is submitted to the Richmond Circuit Court. 

I firmly believe that if something ain't broken, it don’t need to be fixed. So what exactly is wrong with the Richmond City Charter that it needs to be amended now? Is the structure of the city government unsound? Is there some inherent inefficiency that can only be solved by what are essentially constitutional amendments? Is the City Council as formulated and empowered under the current Charter incapable of governing? Trusted reader, let us skip through all the arguments and get to the actual reason that opponents of the Shockoe development plan are circulating these petitions. They have been convinced, by people who speak loudly and type in capital letters, that under the current political circumstances they cannot win. They have been told that if the process is allowed to work out as envisioned by our Charter as currently worded, the mayor’s proposal will be approved by City Council. Since they think they cannot win under the current rules, they seek to change the rules. 

But, forgetting motivation, and forgetting that it is generally bad policy to amend a constitution to achieve a single issue (remember prohibition?), what will these petitions accomplish? The first thing you need to understand reader, especially if you are a citizen of River City, is that these petitions will not permit the voters of Richmond to decide whether or not they want a baseball stadium to be built in Shockoe Bottom as part of the mayor’s development plan. If someone asks you to sign either or both of these petitions and tells you it is all about letting the citizens decide whether to build the stadium, they are, to put it politely, deceiving you. There is nothing in either petition that allows that. Both petitions only change the procedures or delay actions by City Council. Nothing more. They will not allow you to decide the stadium question. Do we really want to amend the City Charter just to delay the project? 

And what of the specifics? What exactly will this Historic East End Shockoe Bottom Commission be? The petition says nothing. It says “there shall be created and funding provided for” this commission. It says it is to be created under the City Council’s general powers so I assume that the Council is being mandated to create and fund the Commission. But the petition is silent on how many members shall be on the Commission. More important it does not say who shall appoint them—the Council itself, the mayor, the chief administrative officer. And how much money is contained in “funding provide for”? How much does it need to do this job--$50,000; $250,000; $5,000,000? The proposed amendment is silent. And what will be the effect of the Commission’s report? Are we trading government by an elected City Council to government by an appointed commission? I suspect that the drafters of Proposition A gave this little thought because the really important part of the amendment is not the Commission but subsection (d), which prohibits the City Council from acting until the Commission submits its report. 

With respect to Proposition B, is it really good government to allow a minority of the members of City Council to force the court and the board of elections to put a proposition on the ballot which will only be advisory? Special elections are costly. If it is good government, why not do it for all issues; why limit it to the mayor’s Shockoe development project? Personally, I think it is not good government to allow a minority of Council to have so much power. With respect to the stadium itself, the proposed amendment would allow only three of the Council’s nine members to force a referendum. The proponents argue that the amendment is designed to effect democratic decisions. Dear reader, is it democratic to allow 1/3 of a legislative body to control its actions? 

I could go on, but by now I am probably losing your attention. If you are a citizen of Richmond you will have to decide whether to sign these petitions. In making that decision consider that these petitions will not give you a vote on whether you favor or oppose the Shockoe stadium. Then consider whether you really think that our City Charter needs to be amended so as to delay the City Council from carrying out its assigned functions. As for me, I will not sign them. They are bad government.

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