Church Hill threatened secession. Yet on Nov. 7, 1947, in the largest turnout of any municipal election until then, Richmonders endorsed the decades-brewing alteration to the city charter in a 21,567 to 8,060 victory. Down went the 32-member, two-chamber city government. An at-large elected mayor was replaced by a professional city manager. A nine-member council then elected one of its number as a ceremonial mayor.
This month begins a two-part overview of seven city managers and two acting managers, from 1948 to 2004. Richmond then returned to a popularly elected mayor.
These 20th-century managers confronted a city of declining fortunes and desperate attempts to correct them. New expressways to the suburbs took white and black middle-class residents into neighboring counties. The majority-white, post-World War II council gave way to the first black majority in 1977, and the white establishment and rising black leadership wrestled for political dominance. Through years of trial and error, Richmond learned that changing its structure doesn’t ensure good government; what matters most is the caliber of those elected or appointed to serve.
1. Sherwood Reeder, 1948-1953
Richmond’s first city manager, Sherwood L. Reeder, 42, of Williamsport, Pennsylvania, started the job on Sept. 7, 1948. A husband and father of four, he earned a master’s degree in public administration from Syracuse University and oversaw the development of public housing for workers swelling Detroit during World War II. He arrived in Richmond from Cincinnati, where he’d directed that city’s master plan.
Reeder spent five busy years during which he drew little criticism, guiding city center development and highway construction in support of a 1947 master plan – the city’s first comprehensive guide for its future. He resigned to become president of the Pennsylvania Economy League.
2. Horace H. Edwards, 1954-1967
Raised in Isle of Wight County, the University of Richmond law school graduate built a career in state and municipal government, including terms in the House of Delegates, as Richmond city attorney and as interim mayor.
Council twice came within one vote of firing Edwards, in 1957 and 1958. A council majority signed a 1963 letter removing him as manager for installation as the consulting attorney in the Richmond-Henrico County consolidation case. Somehow that document went undelivered and he stayed on the job longer than any of his successors.
He also hosted a public affairs television program, though he was mostly deaf in his left ear. His pet skunk, Veto, bit him during a newspaper photo shoot.
On Sept. 1, 1967, the Times-Dispatch’s Ed Grimsley quipped that “Edwards walked out of City Hall yesterday under his own power. This may surprise those critics of his who expected him to be thrown out of the place years ago.”
3. Alan F. Kiepper, 1967-1972
The imposing 6-foot-4 Syracuse, New York, native and public administration graduate of Wayne University was remembered in 2009 by the Times-Dispatch as a “a ball of perpetual physical and mental motion.”
Kiepper first took an intern position in the city’s budget office in 1953, then left for administrative posts in Maryland and Georgia, where he honed his skills in regional diplomacy, or in wonkspeak, “intergovernmental cooperation.” And he needed the experience. He managed Richmond through difficult times that included school consolidation, integration and busing, the building of the Coliseum and the annexation of 23 square miles of northeastern Chesterfield County.
During the summer of 1968, Kiepper and Chesterfield County Board of Supervisors member Melvin Burnett started negotiations while meeting in doughnut shops, diners and the homes of friends. Kiepper asked for “50,000 affluent white” people to shore up the city’s tax base. Other officials joined the mix. Mayor Phil Bagley expressed in blunt terms the urgency he felt in preventing black ascension in population and power. The sessions spilled into the newspapers and caused a furor. The state intervened and threatened to make the decision for the localities. Ultimately, the 1970 annexation brought in 40,000 majority white residents for $34 million.
A suit filed by activist Curtis Holt Sr. under the Voting Rights Act proved to the U.S. Supreme Court the annexation’s motivation to curtail black voting power. The court suspended Richmond’s council elections between 1972 and 1977. The court also ordered a change from at-large to ward voting. Annexation was, for practical purposes, dead in Virginia.
Kiepper went on to become president of the New York City Transit Authority. A lover of poetry, he started placing placards with verses in the subway cars.
4. William J. Leidinger, 1972-1978
At City Hall, they called the 6-foot-5, 230-pound native Chicagoan “Bigfoot,” in part due to his 14-D shoe size. He attended Loras College in Dubuque, Iowa, on football and basketball scholarships. He studied history and then earned a master’s degree in public administration from the University of Iowa.
Leidinger preferred action over committee deliberation, and the sharing of authority through “task forces” and “study teams.” He told the Richmond Mercury that cities of this size (then 250,000 people) “will always be in something of a financial swivet.” This chronic condition required hard-nosed financial plans.
In 1977, the new five-member majority black council selected for mayor civil rights attorney Henry L. Marsh III. The next year, council sacked Leidinger. Richmond business leaders, prompted by Leidinger’s cry of foul play, attempted to intimidate Marsh into retaining him. They threatened to move their firms into the counties and hinted at potential violence, which never materialized. The former city manager then sought and won council’s 2nd District seat in 1980 and served until 1990.
Next month: The city manager system comes under scrutiny as Manuel Deese, Robert Bobb and Calvin Jamison wrangle with hydra-headed problems.