Chief Adminstrative Officer Byron Marshall leads the mayor’s mid-week executive-team meetting. Below: Chief of Staff Suzette Denslow and Jones walk and talk. Jay Paul photos
Five years ago, a city charter overhaul paved the way for an elected mayor, the one and only former Gov. L. Douglas Wilder. His hostile administrative style failed to restore public trust and left some surprises on the table.
Now, with Mayor Dwight Clinton Jones Jr. and his entire executive staff finally in position, it's game on. Here's our insider's look at the new team.
Sidebar: The Mayor's Bench
Several members of the mayor's executive staff are months-old to Richmond, or, they've been away for years. And on this Tuesday afternoon, Oct. 6, they are being tested with a field trip to Maymont.
Some wander around in Byrd Park's adjacent maze of streets looking for Maymont's Nature and Visitor Center. One pulls into the Hampton Street gates by the Dooley mansion and must amble down the hill.
All this goes to prove one of the points made by Maymont Foundation Executive Director Norman O. Burns II. During his historical, anecdotal and financial presentation, Burns describes Maymont's three separate entrances. Of the half million visitors a year, 100,000 from outside the city and state get confused.
When Burns asks for a show of hands of those who've come to Maymont before, Jones is among those who haven't. "I must confess to you," he says, "this is my first visit to Maymont."
The city ceded oversight of Maymont in 1975 to a nonprofit foundation, and less than 6 percent of Maymont's almost $4 million annual operating budget comes from the city.
After lunch, the ensemble clambers into the tram that is used for older visitors and special groups — like this one. Burns points out that Maymont must maintain three miles of roads and paths and that the tram, nearing the end of its useful life, would cost about $275,000 to replace.
As the mayor's party leaves, the otters in their habitat tank spin and swim, as though making sport of human concerns and Jones' furrowed brow.
In City Hall's corridors, the lighting is bad and the coffee, fair. In the mayor's executive suite, the electronic latch on the door loudly announces arrivals and departures.
Walk-and-talk West Wing -style meetings occur in halls, elevators and cars on the way to other meetings. There are pre-meetings about bigger meetings, like when Senior Policy Advisor David Hicks and other members of the mayor's staff cram into a small conference room on Tuesday to prepare for Wednesday's meeting with the mayor.
First up is a scheduled trip to Washington, D.C., to view a dormitory-style building for nonviolent offenders.
Hicks recalled what the new administration faced in January: a Wilder plan for a $225 million, 2,000-person jail.
"We didn't know how we were going to resolve this issue with the jail at that moment, but we sure knew we weren't going to do that," he says.
Warehousing violent criminals with those delinquent in child-support payments, the mentally ill and addicts wasn't to the new mayor's liking.
The staff, some of whom barely knew one another, were put in the position of changing that direction. And they got to know one another well, quickly.
Hicks recalls, "Round about April or May, we looked up and said, ‘Oh, we're working together now. Actually, when have I not worked with you?'"
The Capitol Connection
Mayor Jones listens before making a decision, but he can make it quickly. "You might be in the middle of a sentence," he says.
Jones served in the Virginia legislature from 1993 to 2008. During that time, the body became more polarized and log-jammed, and Richmond was, in his view, not getting enough attention. He chose to run for mayor.
The mayor acknowledges he isn't working from a five-point plan. His goals run from boilerplate to aesthetic. One is to take Richmond's municipal bond rating from AA to AAA, as have "our county partners," Henrico and Chesterfield. Triple A attracts investment, and that's what Richmond needs.
A component of gaining AAA status is increasing the city's undesignated fund balance to a higher percentage of the biennial operating budget. The current $47 million is above the city's target of 7 percent; many AAA-rated communities have higher targets, such as Henrico, with 18 percent.
However, the city's meals tax, which was raised to 6 percent to assist in paying for what became CenterStage, and the 7 percent admissions tax — first passed as a bonds fundraising effort during World War II — aren't going away anytime soon.
"I'm not a tax-and-spend guy," he says. "But we have to pay our bills. We're scrambling for every dollar. We've gone through the meat, and we're beginning to hit bone."
Jones wants the proposed East Coast high-speed rail corridor to terminate at Main Street Station, and to get what he wants, the voice of the city of Richmond has to be heard in Congress.
While Richmond lobbies the General Assembly, it hadn't lobbied the state's congressional members in at least eight years.
The Jones team met in March with the entire state congressional delegation, and then in May, discussions were held about Richmond's connection to high-speed rail.
The city also hired the Washington-based firm of Patton Boggs to lobby on its behalf. "We need to keep our agenda not just in front of the congressional delegation, but the administration," Jones says. Earmarks are less frequent, increasing the importance of relationships with the White House.
When President Obama unveiled his transportation plan at the White House in April and emphasized high-speed rail, Jones was not only sitting in the front row, but was acknowledged by the president.
Hicks says, "It's the difference between, ‘Oh, they live in Richmond,' as opposed to, ‘Make it a central point of planning.' If we don't position the city as the capital of Virginia, then who else will? Not having that connection to D.C. is like living next to Yankee stadium and never going to a game."
Jones needed an experienced City Hall team, and he didn't have time to train. So he looked for people achieving success elsewhere, and some with a Richmond track record he liked.
He took as his chief of staff Suzette Denslow. A Richmond native, Denslow has spent a lifetime in and out of city and state governments, beginning as an intern for former City Manager Bill Leidinger. She's worked for three governors. The latest was Tim Kaine, for whom she was legislative director and deputy director of policy.
"My job is to see the mayor gets his vision implemented," she says, "and keep Richmond on the governor's radar."
Denslow says the biggest difference between city and state government is direct service. City government is about collecting the trash, filling potholes and putting up stop signs.
"Where there are 140 individuals in the legislature, here we're dealing with nine," Denslow explains. "They want the citizens to have good services provided, and they want to figure out how best they can make it happen. Everybody appreciates that."
Hicks' responsibility is to keep tabs on the day-to-day implementation of the mayor's directives. Hicks provides a translation:
"So, basically, if I'm told, ‘David, go over there and see if there's a landmine over there,' I go over there. And if I come back with a piece of me missing, I can say, ‘Yup. That was a landmine.'" And he laughs.
Hicks served as Richmond commonwealth's attorney for three terms, during some of the bloodiest years of crime. He's used to rough and tumble.
"The thing we're trying to work out is suspending people's willingness to disbelieve that we want to get things done that they want to have done."
Under previous administrations, the city departments didn't interact, and this was what Wilder was expected to resolve and didn't, Hicks says.
When Jones arrived, he found many department heads serving as interims or with fewer than three years on the job. This was the first leadership transition under the city's adopted strong-mayor format. As happens in other situations, appointments needed to be made, and finding the right fit takes time. "We called this place ‘Hollywood,' because so many people in here were ‘acting,'" Hicks says.
Jones vows not to leave his successor in the lurch. Institutional memory is vital. "I'll leave people behind who know how the place works," he says.
Hearing About It
The Wednesday executive team meeting is sandwiched between two mayoral appearances at the downtown convention center.
The first is to give introductory remarks for the National Counseling Conference, and the other is to sit on a panel of regional leaders in front of the new class of Leadership Metro Richmond.
At the conference, following a rousing keyboard-and-drums band rendition of "Beat It," the mayor's voice takes on the emphatic cadence of the pulpit, and he quotes scripture to underline his points of caring for those who cannot do so themselves. Some of the audience say with him the lines from Genesis about "I am my brother's keeper."
After leaving the stage, the mayor heads straight for the door and to an awaiting black SUV that takes him back to City Hall for that executive-team meeting at 11 a.m, a meeting that begins with Mali.
The mayor of Mali, a Richmond sister city, is coming to the Richmond Folk Festival. They ask aloud about where Mali is and Hicks via BlackBerry determines: West Africa.
"Which reminds me," Jones says. "We need to get gifts. The other day I had a meeting with the ambassador from Taiwan and everybody had gifts but me."
Afterward, Jones, Denslow and public-information manager Mike Wallace walk along Broad Street to the Leadership Metro Richmond panel.
On the way to LMR, Jones is the affable mayor, shaking hands and acknowledging shout-outs. One woman hunkered in a bus stop asks if he'd read the note she left. He assures her he had received it but had not yet reviewed it.
Being a mayor means listening to people's annoyances and praises direct from the source. At the mayor's offices, more than a dozen times a week, correspondence is dropped off or people without appointments come to see him. He's the highest-placed public official they can find, and not everybody has the Internet. The demand is enough that Jones is setting aside a day every month when he can just speak with those who are dropping by.
At the convention center, the LMR group has filled one large meeting room. Jones takes his place between county executives, Hanover's Rhu Harris and Henrico's Virgil Hazelett. Chesterfield's Jay Stegmaier is on the far right.Tom Silvestri, the Times-Dispatch's president and publisher, introduces the group and has them give their ‘Who I Am' introductions without resorting to résumés.
Jones is glad for it. "I've been in Richmond a long, long time, with years and years of community service, which is my passion," he says, and then lists off his chairmanship of the School Board and his Imani Intergenerational Foundation. The community-development center on Hull Street is near the First Baptist Church of South Richmond, where he's currently the senior pastor.
"Last year, I decided to run for mayor, and I won," he says, with a smile, and there is some applause.
Silvestri asks each leader to give a headline with a crisp angle on current events with a regional aspect. But, these are politicians, not headline writers.
Jones responds, "Our region has a wonderful window of opportunity. The leadership in the region is open enough, there are new boards of supervisors. The stars are aligning. The editorial is that the window won't always be open."
The day before LMR, Jones was in a sun-filled conference room with members of his staff, school administrators, School Board members, City Council President Kathy Graziano and Councilwoman Ellen Robertson.
It's a meeting so cordial that it's almost hard to recall a time when the Wilder administration and school administration refused to sit in the same room, and that Wilder tried to evict the school administration from City Hall in the dark of night.
On the table is school-construction planning, and with $150 million earmarked, the question is whether it makes sense fiscally — and politically — to replace the 48-year-old Huguenot High School, even though it wasn't part of a 2007 master plan.
The mayor, wearing a dark-blue suit and tight dot-pattern tie, says that whatever is decided must be done with dispatch and "not dilly-dally."
His voice is warm and each word distinct. The mayor, a Philadelphia native and son of a preacher, was educated at Virginia Union University, a school that he said he came to woefully unprepared. He was placed in a remedial program that helped him catch up, and that experience makes him committed to seeing that Richmond Public Schools students are well prepared.
There's little disagreement around the table about the need for new schools, but earnest concern: You pick a high school, and then an elementary school or a middle school must wait.
One board member observes that to build a school in two years, a five-year projection is needed. This gets into forecasting, and it's tricky, because events don't always follow forecasts.
Still, the mayor says to the School Board members, "You need to tell us what you want." He adds, "My only issue is that this gets done with deliberate speed because we can discuss this to death. These schools should have been built years ago."
There's work to be done with a November deadline for a School-Board decision, and the public needs to have its say.
"Mr. Mayor," Graziano begins, "I just want to say that this discussion has been refreshing."
And everybody agrees.
The Broad Street Barrage
Press Secretary Tammy Hawley spent most of Monday and Tuesday morning fielding phone calls and trying to sort out what happened at Gallery5 on the previous Friday night.
There were fire jugglers. A crowd. A lane of Marshall Street blocked. An officer came up on a Segway and tried to get spectators out of the street, and apparently words were exchanged. Who said what isn't clear. The father of Gallery5's founder is a well-known Realtor, and he dispatched a volcanic mass e-mail. This came alongside the strict enforcement of capacity numbers in other galleries along Broad Street.
Five weeks earlier, Chief Administrative Officer Byron Marshall, Hawley and others had met with Christina Newton of Curated Culture, an umbrella organization that for eight years has provided some cohesion to the burgeoning arts walk. The police weren't at this meeting because Marshall didn't invite them. He admits the oversight. The point then was to show the city's good faith in acknowledging First Fridays' importance.
"It's not that we don't support First Fridays," Hawley says to the room, with an edge in her voice that is a mixture of impatience and exasperation. She was a block away at First Fridays when The Incident went down and didn't know anything about it until the next day.
"But I have to say — the media and blogs — we get ‘Crackdown On The Arts' in Style. The Times-Dispatch this morning ran an unfortunate story, and we have to reposition ourselves and say there's no targeting of First Fridays, we're not trying to direct citizens to CenterStage. We need to move forward with arts-district grants, low-interest loans, and the story — about successes, instead of this kind of thing — will continue to tell itself."
Deputy Chief Administrative Officer Chris Beschler says another meeting with "Newton and her associates" is required — this time with the police invited. But prior to that, a meeting about what happened on the street is needed. Today.
"But they need to know, too, that we're also repaving Broad Street and that," Marshall sighs, rubs his brow, already seeing portents, "may run into First Fridays."
"They repaved Broad Street to interfere with First Fridays!" a staffer jokes.
"The conspiracy thickens," another adds.
"Let's just get everybody together," Marshall declares, patting the air with his hands. "We'll sort all this out and give everybody a win-win." He adjusts his glasses.
Time is found late that Tuesday for the First Fridays damage-control meeting. The police are represented by Capt. James Horn, head of the 4th Precinct, and Maj. Norris Evans, commander of community, youth and intervention.
Marshall asks about the way the officer approached the audience. "He's not an authoritative jerk," Horn explains. "He's from New York and is used to crowds."
"What are the people like who were in the street?" Marshall asks.
"It's mixed, eclectic, people, for a lack of a better term, some stuck in the 1960s. And older people, too. No one kind."
Marshall asks the table, "Do you think it would be useful to have our merchants back in to renew the conversation?"
"Yes, absolutely," says Rachel Flynn, the city's community development director.
The Observation Deck
The end of Wednesday brings a catered reception for the current LMR participants on City Hall's 17th-floor deck. The weather is clear, the late afternoon light exquisite.
Despite the astonishing 360-degree panorama of the city, where in the west one can discern the smudge of the Blue Ridge's foothills, no plaques orient a visitor.
When Jones looks over the city, he's asked about what he sees.
He takes a considerable pause, and while gazing into the bright dusk, he replies, "I think about the successes I want the city to have. The history in those streets and blocks, how I want what we do here to make this the best city we can, and that it won't just come from policies and politics, but in restoring people's trust."
He considers a moment before adding, "And how there's a whole lot of work to be done."