A charter change set to appear on the November ballot may face a legal challenge from the government it would compel to action if city voters have a chance to weigh in on it.
City Attorney Allen Jackson on Tuesday recommended that Mayor Levar Stoney’s administration and Richmond City Council pursue legal action to stop a referendum that would amend the city charter, requiring the mayor to put forth a plan to overhaul Richmond Public Schools’ outdated facilities without levying a tax increase.
The proposal stipulates that Stoney must present a plan within six months of the change, or else inform the council that it can’t be done.
Last week, a Richmond Circuit Court judge ordered that the charter change appear on the Nov. 7 ballot for city voters. The order will be finalized Sept. 5 unless the city challenges it, Jackson wrote in a memo emailed to council members and the mayor’s staff on Tuesday afternoon.
“Given the nature of the proposed amendment, it is my opinion that either the mayor or the council or both could choose to challenge the order,” Jackson stated in the memo. “I remind you that the time to act is very limited, and I will await your guidance.”
Jackson declined to comment on the matter via email Wednesday, citing attorney-client privilege.
In the memo, he cites a 1998 provision of the city charter relating to voter petitions. It requires the court to “determine that the proposed charter amendment pertains only to the structure or administration of city government,” according to the memo.
In Jackson’s estimation, the court failed to make that determination, and therefore could amend its decision if city officials bring a challenge.
Further, he argues that the charter change proposal does not “pertain to the structure or administration of city government,” but instead “directs the creation of new policy,” the memo states.
Not true, said Paul Goldman in an interview Wednesday.
Goldman, a longtime Democratic strategist in the city who worked in former Mayor L. Douglas Wilder’s administration, led a petition drive that collected 10,400 signatures of registered voters between June and August to secure the referendum’s place on the ballot.
“What is the administration of the government? The administration of the government is the exercise of spending the money to fulfill the services the government has to provide,” Goldman said. “That’s exactly what the government is.”
Asked of a potential legal challenge, Goldman replied: Bring it.
“Let the mayor sue. Put it in there. If the mayor wants to sue, I’ll be happy to beat him. Let’s focus on what matters: Fixing up the schools for these kids who have been long denied. It’s time to stop talking and take action.”
Even if voters endorse the change, the General Assembly would still have to approve it for it to take effect.
Jim Nolan, a spokesman for the mayor, said Stoney’s administration had not determined whether it would challenge the order.
Chris Hilbert, the council president and 3rd District representative, said he had not decided either, but the council is scheduling a special meeting on Friday to discuss how to proceed.
At least two council members — Kristen Larson and Kimberly Gray — support taking the matter to court.
Larson, the 4th District representative, is concerned that the referendum, as currently worded, may usurp the School Board’s authority to make decisions about its facilities.
“I’m committed strongly to making sure that school facilities needs are addressed in our city,” Larson said. “But we need to be mindful of the duties, roles and responsibilities of the elected bodies in our city and not undermine what already exists on paper and the reason why people are elected.”
Gray, a two-term School Board representative, echoed Larson.
“We’re all about modernizing schools, but if it’s constitutionally improper and it has all those other issues with respect to the charter, then why let it go forward?” said Gray, who now represents the 2nd District on the council.
Stoney has not publicly taken a position on the referendum. His office has said in the past that his education compact should be the vehicle by which any long-term funding plan for the school system should be advanced.
The council and the School Board signed off on the compact earlier this week, agreeing to hold quarterly joint meetings with Stoney and the division’s superintendent and forming two advisory bodies — a “compact team” and a “children’s cabinet” — to make policy recommendations and coordinate city agencies that work with children.
Many of the city’s 44 school buildings are in poor shape because of decades of deferred maintenance.
The former School Board endorsed a plan, known as “Option 5,” in 2015 that called for closing buildings, combining others and constructing new ones at a cost of $563 million. The council did not fund the plan in either of the past two budget cycles.
Earlier this month, the board asked Interim Superintendent Tommy Kranz’s administration to re-examine Option 5 and present an updated version in October.