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City commission outlines changes to Richmond charter

Mayor Levar Stoney at a lectern with City of Richmond logo
Shaban Athuman
VPM News
Some of the commission's recommendations would change parts of Mayor Levar Stoney's job.

The nine-member panel recommended 47 specific changes in its report.

A commission studying how to change the structure of city government recommended a “reconceiving” of Richmond’s government structure in a report submitted Friday.

“It's keeping the same system, recognizably, but making some adjustments to try to create what we're calling a partnership model,” said Thad Williamson, a political science professor at the University of Richmond and the chair of the Richmond City Charter Review Commission, which dissolved upon the submission of its report.

“The mayor is acknowledged to be the chief executive of the city, but the council is also acknowledged as being the governing body,” he said.

City Council created the nine-member commission in March 2022 and tasked its members with “finding ambiguities and conflicts, clerical and grammatical errors, and outdated or otherwise inapplicable text.”

Richmond’s charter changes for much of the 20th century sought to preserve white political power, even leading to federal cancellation of local elections. The most recent charter took effect in 2005 as the result of private efforts of former Gov. and Mayor Doug Wilder.

“Equity was very much on our minds,” said Williamson, the first director of the city’s Office of Community Wealth Building. “So the question is, ‘What structure gives us the best chance of moving together as a community?’”

After public hearings, legal research and interviews with public officials, the commission split its recommendations into four groups in the report.

Document optimization

The commission recommends 47 specific changes to the charter — noting that it was first adopted in 1948, which makes it older than the Virginia Constitution (1971). The recommendations ranged from removing items that are already in Virginia General Law, statewide building codes and the state constitution.

It also amended language to allow for electronic votes and electronic versions of legislation introduced in council meetings.

There are also some recommended changes to utility provisions in the charter, like utilities’ accounting practices and how customers are billed. The report noted that there was no consensus among the commissioners on these changes.

One notable exception to the changes was to “planning, zoning, and subdivisions” portions of the charter.

“That needs a lot more community engagement to deal with properly, because we have some very old provisions in the in the current charter,” Williamson said. Richmond is currently in the process of rewriting its zoning ordinance.

Partnership model of mayor-council government

Commissioners outlined the reconceiving of the government in 14 recommendations. Two of the “most critical recommendations” include having the mayor and City Council share the duties of hiring and dismissing two key officials.

One is the chief administrative officer, who is currently appointed by the mayor.

“The average resident might not see a lot of change, at least immediately,” said Williamson of the recommendation for changing the CAO’s role. “[In] our proposal, you're still working for the mayor, but you have obligations to council. They are more explicitly stated than what we have now.”

There’s a similar provision that the mayor has a role in the hiring and firing of the city attorney, who is currently chosen by the City Council.

“Because the city attorney is appointed by council, that's always been a source of frustration, because here's the key person who can influence how fast things get done,” Williamson said.

Another recommendation is to require the mayor to update City Council each month and take questions from councilmembers.

The commission wrote that the mayor and council members should receive higher compensation. The mayor currently is paid $125,000 and under the recommendations by the commission, the mayor’s salary would be closer to $200,000. It also noted that if mayoral salaries raised with inflation, the salary would be equivalent to about $196,000.

Compensation for councilors would rise to Richmond’s median household income, which it listed as $55,000; about double the current compensation.

Elected mayor council-manager option

The third major point noted that the commision was not recommending a change of a form of government, but rather making adjustments to it. Richmond’s system is unusual in Virginia, according to the report. The charter review commission recommended that any discussion shifting to that form of government should continue in the form of a new commission appointed by Dec. 15.

Staggered City Council terms

The final portion of recommendations centered around staggering terms for city councilmembers. The report said that Richmond is the only independent city in Virginia without staggered terms; but it also recognized the difficulty of such a transition.

“Implementation of staggered Council terms in Richmond would require addressing several specific questions, to assure procedural and substantive fairness across Council districts,” the report reads.

The report recommended a process for such a transition to set a goal of staggering terms by 2028.

Ultimately, City Council will need to recommend changes to state legislators, who could then vote to update the charter. The commission suggested that charter amendments be ready for the 2024 legislative session.

Jahd Khalil covers Virginia state politics for VPM News.