A political appointee of Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney who called for a boycott of eateries that do not support his plan to fund construction of city schools by way of a meals tax hike has withdrawn her name from consideration to be a member of the city’s Education Compact team.
The boycott call was in an email circulated on social media late Wednesday, sparking an outcry. The email was sent by Cindy Menz-Erb, a former interim School Board member who ran for election in the 3rd District last November and lost. Stoney supported her campaign, and recently appointed her to an arm of his Education Compact. Menz-Erb confirmed in an interview Thursday that she had sent the email.
“Only patronize restaurants who support the meals tax,” she wrote. “There will be signs for restaurants to display soon but in the meantime, just ask if they support it.”
As tempers flared, Stoney sought to distance himself from Menz-Erb’s email in a statement posted on his Facebook page.
“Let me make one thing clear — I do NOT support penalizing anyone, or any business, for their beliefs,” Stoney wrote in the post Thursday morning. “In fact — I feel the exact opposite. We have an opportunity to rally around our ENTIRE restaurant community to show them that strong restaurants can help us build strong schools.”
In a statement sent to the Richmond Times-Dispatch early Thursday afternoon, Menz-Erb apologized and said she had acted without Stoney’s knowledge.
“I should not have implied a boycott of any restaurants,” Menz-Erb said. “That was not my intent, and I apologize for the wording of my statement. We want all of our restaurants to be successful for the benefit of our schools.”
Menz-Erb also withdrew her name from consideration for the compact team. A council committee was set to weigh her appointment next week. Upon learning of the boycott call, at least one council member decided not to support her participation.
“Politicizing the Education Compact and the difficult decisions to fund the facilities plan is not appropriate for someone on the commission,” 5th District Councilman Parker Agelasto wrote in a message he sent to Stoney. “I particularly find her suggestion that supporters of the meals tax only patron those restaurants in support shows bad judgement.”
At a press event Thursday afternoon, Stoney dined downtown with representatives from restaurants who support his plan. They included: J.D. Young of Cary100 Restaurant and Lounge; Cynthia Matthews of Jackson’s Beer Garden & Smokehouse; Malcolm Mitchell of Lower 48; Alicia Hawkins of Inner City Blues; Lester Johnson of Mama J’s and Vagabond; Amy Wentz, an organizer of Black Restaurant Week; and Helen Holmes of Ms. Girlee’s Restaurant, where the event was held.
The event was organized by the mayor’s political action committee, which has enlisted Capital Results LLC to help push his proposal. The public affairs and public relations firm has donated $5,250 to the mayor’s PAC since his election in November 2016, according to campaign finance records.
A spokesperson for the mayor said Stoney had no knowledge of Menz-Erb’s email before it was made public. Asked about it at the event, Stoney struck a conciliatory tone.
“There’s no need for divisiveness in this debate,” he said.
Stoney has proposed increasing the meals tax by 1.5 percentage points to generate an estimated $9.1 million per year. The new revenue would allow the city to expand its debt capacity and borrow up to $150 million in the next five years to fund school construction and renovations.
Council members are split on the idea. If they approve it, Richmond’s meals tax would increase to 7.5 percent from 6 percent. Currently, the combined sales and city meals tax is 11.3 percent; the mayor’s proposal would increase that figure to 12.8 percent.
In December, the Richmond School Board endorsed a $224.8 million plan to begin replacing and updating some of the district’s overcrowded and dilapidated buildings. Stoney’s proposal would leave a $74.8 million funding shortfall for the plan, but School Board leaders have praised it.
Stoney downplayed the gap Thursday, and instead stressed the urgency of the division’s facilities needs.
“It’s not everything,” he said. “We all know we have more needs beyond that, but we’ve got to start, and we can’t wait another five years.”