City attorney: City Council has no authority to remove Confederate statues

Jeremy M. Lazarus | 10/6/2017, 7:41 a.m.
Does Richmond City Council have the legal authority to remove or relocate the Confederate statues from Monument Avenue?

By Jeremy M. Lazarus

Does Richmond City Council have the legal authority to remove or relocate the Confederate statues from Monument Avenue?

No, according to City Attorney Allen L. Jackson.

The city’s chief legal adviser asserts that the city’s master plan and at least one provision in the City Charter bar the governing body from taking any action regarding the statues, beyond preserving them.

“Absent a change in the City Charter or the enactment (by the General Assembly) of legislation that overrides all such charter provisions, it is my opinion that the City must preserve those structures as part of its master plan,” he wrote in a legal opinion provided to council members Sept. 18 in response to that question.

The Free Press obtained a copy of Mr. Jackson’s opinion last week — although not from Mr. Jackson or his office, as City Council has not authorized the opinion’s release.

The stunning opinion has emerged as the council is poised to consider a resolution from 9th District Councilman Michael J. Jones calling for the General Assembly to grant Richmond authority to remove the statues.

Mr. Jackson’s opinion is binding on the nine-member governing body until the state Supreme Court issues a contrary ruling in an appropriate case.

Reached Monday, Mr. Jones declined to comment on Mr. Jackson’s opinion.

However, Mr. Jones, who regards removal of the statues as a moral issue, has not withdrawn his resolution in the wake of the opinion.

The first hearing on his resolution to remove the statues is still scheduled for Tuesday, Oct. 17, at City Council’s Land Use, Housing and Transportation Committee meeting.

The resolution is on the agenda, although it is questionable whether the committee, led by Councilwoman Ellen F. Robertson, will take it up in the wake of Mr. Jackson’s opinion.

Mr. Jones previously has said that his resolution “would be dead in the water” if it failed to win the required five council votes for passage or if the General Assembly later refused to give Richmond leeway to get rid of the statues.

Mr. Jackson’s opinion provides a rationale for council members to put off action. A majority of the members appear reluctant to tackle the issue or to deal with the wrath of statue proponents and opponents, who are equally passionate.

Most appear to want to wait for the recommendations of the Monument Avenue Commission, a group established by Mayor Levar M. Stoney, before taking any action. The commission is moving slowly, with its next meeting set for Nov. 16.

Mr. Jackson threw his legal cold water on the divisive and heated statue issue at a time when various groups are making plans for marches and rallies to protest against the Confederate statues or to show support for them.

That includes a march 6 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 10, by a coalition of groups to urge the removal of the Confederate figures and to protest the city’s alleged failure to preserve and protect the Shockoe Bottom area where slave jails and auction blocks once stood.