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Honeymoon over?

Plans afoot to limit mayor’s spending decisions

Jeremy Lazarus | 5/5/2017, 7:38 p.m.
Richmond Mayor Levar M. Stoney’s honeymoon with Richmond City Council appears to be coming to an end. Asserting that the ...
Mayor Stoney Regina H. Boone/Richmond Free Press

Richmond Mayor Levar M. Stoney’s honeymoon with Richmond City Council appears to be coming to an end.

Asserting that the council needs greater control over spending, two of the newest members, Kim B. Gray, 2nd District, and Kristen N. Larson, 4th District, are planning to introduce legislation that would slap fiscal handcuffs on the mayor and his administration.

If approved, the ordinance would impose limits on the ability of the mayor and his administration to make spending decisions without consulting with and gaining the approval of the council.

In some ways, the proposal addresses concerns that became epidemic under former Mayor Dwight C. Jones. Council members frequently fumed during the Jones era that he kept them in the dark and waited until the last minute to seek their approval on everything from big development projects to the budget.

But even in his first few months, Mayor Stoney and his administration have been losing fans on the council. During the council budget sessions, members complained that they were being forced to make decisions with incomplete or inadequate information.

For example, Councilman Andreas D. Addison, 1st District, was critical of the information he received from the administration about vacancies at City Hall that failed to distinguish between positions backed by funds and those that were not.

Councilman Michael J. Jones, 9th District, repeatedly pilloried the administration for forcing council to find funds to fill critical positions that were left unfunded in the mayor’s budget plan. He said the administration should have provided more disclosure to the council about the personnel needs that could not be met.

Meanwhile, the mayor and his staff has given the green light to the Department of Public Works to spend extra money to fix alleys and mow grass, projects that have been started even before the mayor seeks the council’s approval.

“Maybe that is not the way we would have decided to spend the money,” Ms. Gray told her colleagues.

The conflict over how the mayor wants to spend money and how council would is among the reasons that the Gray-Larson proposal could garner the required five votes to stick.

The proposal that Ms. Gray and Ms. Larson plan to introduce to council, possibly as early as Monday, May 8, would transform the budget from a flexible planning document that the administration can adjust at will into a concrete slab.

The proposal would bar the administration and every department from exceeding the total appropriated “without an amendment approved by City Council prior to initiation of the expenditure,” except in the case of emergencies, according to a statement of principles Ms. Gray has distributed.

That would be a sea change for City Hall. Typically, some departments overspend and some underspend their budgets. For example, the Sheriff’s Office may have unexpected medical expenses for inmates, or the Police Department may spend more on overtime than anticipated.

Other departments may buy fewer supplies or a director might be tight-fisted and end up spending less to show it can be done.