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Richmond City Council asks Virginia for authority over Confederate monuments

In a symbolic vote, the Richmond City Council has requested authority from the state to decide the fate of its Confederate iconography.

The 6-2 vote came at a special meeting Monday. It is an about-face for the nine-member body, which twice rejected similar requests earlier this term.

The decision came as the Virginia General Assembly prepares to convene its annual legislative session Wednesday. Proponents of removing Confederate statues expect a long-standing state law protecting them to be changed now that Democrats have assumed control.

“It’s not about tearing down statues. It’s not about erasing or changing history. That’s not what this is about,” said Michael Jones, the 9th District councilman who proposed the resolution making the request. “This is about us, as legislators, doing what we were elected to do.”

Also supporting the resolution were Councilman Andreas Addison of the 1st District; Council Vice President Chris Hilbert of the 3rd District; Councilwoman Stephanie Lynch of the 5th District; Councilwoman Ellen Robertson of the 6th District; and Council President Cynthia Newbille of the 7th District.

Opposing it were Councilwomen Kristen Larson of the 4th District and Reva Trammell of the 8th District.

Absent was Kim Gray, the 2nd District councilwoman who represents much of Monument Avenue, on which five Confederate statues were unveiled from 1890 to 1929. Gray said last week that she did not support Jones’ resolution and called it divisive. Gray’s liaison said she was unable to attend the meeting because she was at the hospital with her daughter.

State law limits local governments’ power to remove or modify war memorials. Attempts to overturn the law in recent years, after a deadly white nationalist rally in Charlottesville in August 2017, have failed. The Democratic-led efforts met resistance in what was then a Republican-controlled General Assembly.

But this year, Democrats will control the statehouse for the first time in nearly three decades. Proponents of removing or contextualizing the monuments — Jones among them — expect the upcoming session to spell changes for the state law in question.

At the local level, Jones has led the push on the issue. He has said he views the statues that line Monument Avenue as symbols of racism and white supremacy that need to be removed, a view supporters of his resolution echoed at a public hearing the council held before its vote Monday.

“What was divisive was these monuments being put up in the first place,” said Hilbert, who voted against two previous attempts Jones made to pass the resolution in December 2017 and October 2018.

“There’s a progressive majority [in the General Assembly] that’s likely to pass this,” Hilbert said, explaining his switch.

Others on the council stood pat.

Trammell has opposed each of Jones’ three efforts related to the issue. Asked about her vote Monday, she cited feedback she received from her constituents.

“I was getting calls and I could show you the texts where people said: Don’t we have other things to worry about? Our schools, our streets, our sidewalks, drainage — all of that. Why is this so important when they’ve been up 200 years? And it’s dividing us.”

“What I’ve said: Let the General Assembly decide. Why get us divided like this on council when we have other things that we should be focusing on right now that’s getting ready to come up? And that’s what my people are saying.”

Larson, who voted against the measure, said she didn’t think it had been vetted through the council’s typical legislative process. The resolution was supposed to be heard by the council’s Land Use, Housing and Transportation Standing Committee in mid-December, but that meeting was canceled. A special meeting was scheduled for the council to vote on the resolution before the committee was scheduled to meet again.

“I don’t feel like this was on many people’s radar,” Larson said, citing the holiday season and the number of emails and calls she received in advance of the vote.

Fewer than 10 people spoke at a public hearing the council held before its vote. Opposition to the idea was sparse. Two people spoke against Jones’ resolution, and both identified themselves as residents from outside the region.

One speaker, Wendy Hayslett of Hampton, said Jones and the local branch of the NAACP, which supported his effort, “represent hate” and wanted to “dominate.”

Jones responded: “To say I represent or am for hate is a mischaracterization of who I am and what I stand for. ... I preach the gospel of Christ and the gospel of love and inclusion, not exclusion or hate, and I take offense to that.”

Mayor Levar Stoney wrote on Twitter after the vote: “I’m encouraged that the Richmond City Council has taken this important step to tell the VA General Assembly that localities like Richmond need the authority to determine and control public spaces which reflect their values in 2020, not 1920. Now the ball is in the GA’s court.”

In 2018, Stoney’s Monument Avenue Commission recommended removing the statue honoring Confederate President Jefferson Davis. It also recommended, among other things, adding context to the street’s other Confederate statues.

The council vote pertained to monuments on city-owned property. The Robert E. Lee statue on Monument Avenue is on state property and would not be affected.

'It's time': Comfort restaurant is closing at the end of the month

Running Comfort has been quite a ride for chef Jason Alley these past 17½ years, but now it’s coming to an end: The restaurant will close at the end of January.

“It’s time. It’s been a really good run and we have a lot of stuff going on. I’m ready for phase two of my career. I’ve been a cooking in restaurants since I was 10. I’m 46 now,” Alley said of the restaurant he owns with business partner Michele Jones, who became co-owner of Comfort in 2007.

Alley, along with former business partner Chris Chandler, opened the Southern food restaurant at 200 W. Broad St. in 2002 — years before the section of downtown now known as the Arts District became a thriving entertainment area. It was also years before Richmond was the culinary destination it is today.

Alley was a key player in making both things happen. He was named a Richmond Times-Dispatch Person of the Year honoree in 2017 for his role in developing the local food scene. Since 2018, all of the net proceeds from Comfort have gone to feeding the region’s hungry by way of the nonprofit Feed More.

Comfort was Alley’s first restaurant. His first baby, so to speak.

“My wife painted and designed Comfort when she was pregnant with our first kid,” Alley said.

He and his wife, Mercedes Schaum, would go on to have three more kids and Alley would go on to open five more restaurants, all with Jones.

Last year, Jones and Alley welcomed their latest baby: Alley/Jones Hospitality, a restaurant consulting business, and Alley said the two will now focus on it and Bingo Beer Co., a restaurant, brewery and arcade they opened in 2018 in Scott’s Addition with business partner Jay Bayer.

“We’ve already got a contract to do the food and beverage for Rally,” Alley said of the client they signed on last year. Rally will be a bar and restaurant with a focus on pickleball that is expected to open in Manchester soon.

And Alley said business is starting to pick up.

“We’re getting contracts without really seeking them out. It’s time to make the next step,” he said.

Still, Comfort has played a crucial role in Richmond for many.

In 2018, Alley and Jones changed Comfort’s business model so 100% of the net proceeds would go to Feed More, the Richmond-based nonprofit that serves more than 200,000 people in central Virginia by providing meals and other food-related services. A dollar figure for the contribution was not available Monday.

“With a budget our size, the money doesn’t make or break us, but being associated with the brand — that was great,” said Feed More CEO Doug Pick. “A lot of nonprofits would kill for that kind of association.”

Through Comfort and Pasture — the restaurant on East Grace Street they closed in June after seven years in business — Alley and Jones also have been connected to Off Broad Appétit and Zest Fest, dinners for which the proceeds went to Feed More. The pair also hosted Thanksgiving dinner for foster care children at Pasture and gift drives and toiletry and luggage collections to benefit foster kids through Connecting Hearts.

“It’s been a great run — for him and Michele and the city,” Pick said. “I’m old enough to believe that when a door closes over here, a window opens over there.”

Still, the closing is bittersweet. “It’s home,” Alley said of the restaurant. “It’s always felt like home.”

Jones agreed. “Comfort is the place I met my business partner. It’s the reason I have anything I have today. It’s been the launching pad for everything I’ve been able to build,” she said.

The restaurant known for its plates of meatloaf and mashed potatoes and other comfort foods will close at the end of service on Jan. 31. In the meantime, Jones said to expect some special events throughout the month, such as guest bartenders, the return of the Paulie sandwich pop-up and perhaps even some celebrity chefs.

Comfort will be open daily beginning at 5 p.m. for the rest of the month.

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More than 200 casings recovered from Richmond yard where woman was accidentally shot New Year's Day

More than 200 spent cartridge casings were recovered from the backyard of a North Richmond home where a woman was accidentally shot just minutes into the new year, according to prosecutors in the case.

La-tiyah S. Hood, 28, spent New Year’s Eve with a group at a home in the 2500 block of North Avenue. Law enforcement officials believe the people in the group were in the backyard when they rang in the new year, with some of them firing loaded weapons into the air.

Hood was not among those shooting, according to Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Alison Martin. Martin wouldn’t say the number of guns or people involved, but said “there is a lot of brass found in that backyard.”

From the scene, forensic detectives collected 65 .40-caliber casings, 53 9 mm casings, 35 .380-caliber casings, 53 .223-caliber casings, 17 5.7×28 mm casings and one .45-caliber casing. Various other ammunition and magazines also were found.

It was after the “celebratory gunfire” had stopped, around 12:13 a.m. on Jan. 1, that Hood was shot, Martin said.

According to Martin, one man was attempting to clear what he thought was an empty gun when it discharged and struck Hood. She was taken to a hospital, where she died, marking Richmond’s first shooting death of 2020. Last year ended with 66 people slain in the city; 91% of them died of gunshot wounds.

Mateen B. Johnson, 25, of the 7600 block of Portadown Court in Henrico County, has been charged with involuntary manslaughter.

Martin stressed that Hood’s death was not considered murder in the eyes of the law, but an accidental shooting.

“He was extraordinarily reckless in the handling of his firearm,” she said. Additional charges are expected.

Johnson does not yet have an attorney, according to court records, but is due in General District Court on Jan. 16, when he will be assigned one.

In March 2017, Johnson was found guilty of possessing an assault weapon and a concealed handgun, both misdemeanors, and received no active jail time, online court records show. A week later, he was charged with having a concealed weapon and given a month in jail.

Hood’s is the first death involving celebratory gunfire in Richmond in years, according to longtime homicide prosecutor Learned Barry.

Every year, before New Year’s and July 4, the region’s police departments issue warnings about indiscriminately shooting into the air, invoking the name of Brendon Mackey, a 7-year-old Chesterfield County boy killed accidentally by gunfire at a fireworks show in Brandermill on July 4, 2013. A law bearing his name passed the following year to deter people from firing guns in celebration, and to stiffen the punishment to a felony conviction for those who carelessly discharge weapons and severely hurt a bystander.

Richmond Police Chief William Smith said that the night Hood was killed, he heard “literally thousands of rounds being fired to ‘celebrate’ the new year.”

“It does go back to some underlying issues we have in the community, which is the use of the firearm in a reckless or dangerous manner, or to utilize it to settle an argument is looked at as acceptable by a lot of our young people,” Smith said.

There were no other reports of injuries or structures hit by random gunfire, or promiscuous gunfire, as the city’s department calls it formally. But there were five reports of cars being struck by bullets that night; four of those were within 2 miles of Hood’s death.

Henrico police investigated a stray round that struck through the sunroof of a ride-share car as it was being driven east on Interstate 64 just after midnight Jan. 1.

A home was apparently struck in the 2800 block of Avalon Heights Road in Chesterfield, police there said.

No one was injured in either of those incidents, the departments said. Hanover County authorities had no reports of celebratory gunfire.

The casings, as opposed to the bullets, recovered from the North Avenue yard in Richmond are the best forensic link to the weapons that fired them because they bear the unique markings of the guns’ barrels, Martin said.

But it begs the question: Where are the bullets?

“That’s the issue of community concern,” Martin said. “Everything that goes up, must go down. It is extraordinarily dangerous for the community.”

Yet it happens every New Year’s Eve, law enforcement officials said.

“That feels as though the city of Richmond has been extraordinarily lucky” not to have had another death, Martin said.

Northam budget allows merit hikes for officials excluded last year. Will lawmakers add raises for state workers?

Virginia government agency heads and Cabinet members would get the merit raises denied them by the Republican-controlled Senate last year, but Gov. Ralph Northam doesn’t have money in his proposed budget for general raises for state employees.

That could change when a new General Assembly convenes Wednesday.

“We’ll be looking at some of the concerns people have raised about state employees not getting a raise,” said Del. Luke Torian, D-Prince William, who will become chairman of the House Appropriations Committee after a Democratic takeover of the House of Delegates.

Secretary of Finance Aubrey Layne has heard the same concerns that state employees “would like to be included” for salary increases in the governor’s proposed two-year budget, which seeks $145.1 million to give public school teachers a 3% raise in the second year. Teachers received the state’s share of a 5% pay raise this year.

Northam also included almost $15 million to raise pay for correctional officers, as well as money to address salary equity issues for regional jail officers and circuit court clerks.

The governor proposed funding for more public defenders, district court clerks, assistant commonwealth’s attorneys and support staff.

His spending plan also includes almost $67 million for Virginia’s share of state employee health insurance premiums and more than $32 million for state employee pensions.

But the governor did not propose a general pay increase for state employees, who received a combination of raises and merit pay that totaled as much as 5% at the beginning of this fiscal year in July.

“It’s very disappointing that we were not included,” said Col. Wayne Huggins, a former state police superintendent who is executive director of the Virginia State Police Association. “We’ve been talking with the leadership in both parties about the need to do something to help state employees in general and state police specifically.”

State police have 250 vacancies in sworn law enforcement positions and 150 in civilian jobs, with more than 300 employees eligible to retire this year, he said. “Many of these people see no reason to stay.”

For his efforts, Huggins said, “I have received positive feedback so far — no guarantees.”

Northam addressed an inequity in the current budget by proposing to make agency heads, Cabinet members and other appointees eligible to receive merit pay increases as long as they have at least three years of continuous state service.

Those positions were omitted when the General Assembly proposed last year to add 1% to pay increases of up to 4% in the two-year budget adopted in 2018. The combined increases were divided between 2.75% for across-the-board raises and up to 2.25% in merit pay.

“It was an oversight,” Layne said of the initial omission.

The House voted during the veto session on April 3 to adopt Northam’s recommendation that the positions become eligible for merit pay increases. However, the Senate killed the governor’s proposed amendment on a party-line vote.

Layne said he urged the governor to address the exclusion in the so-called caboose budget for the fiscal year that began July 1 and ends June 30. The change would not cost the state additional money because the pay increases would be covered by “existing funds within agencies.”

“These [employees] weren’t eligible for it and they should have been,” the finance secretary said.