Before the reunion of Selena Cuffee-Glenn and City Hall came to ruin, her daughter basked in her mom’s introduction as Richmond’s chief administrative officer.
“I’m so proud of her,” said Alexis Glenn, then a first-year student at Old Dominion University, of her mom’s leap from Suffolk city manager to the pinnacle of Richmond government in 2015. “It’s overwhelming — what she’s accomplished.”
Four years later, Glenn would follow her mother to city government.
Five months after that, her mother would leave City Hall.
Cuffee-Glenn was fired Wednesday by Mayor Levar Stoney after an inspector general’s investigation revealed that five of her relatives were handed jobs in city departments she oversaw.
In 2003, former Gov. L. Douglas Wilder lamented that City Hall was “a cesspool of corruption and inefficiency” and called for change. Voters overwhelmingly agreed to replace the council-manager form of government with our current strong-mayor system, which went into effect in 2005.
But despite flushing the old government, a foul odor remains.
Stoney’s predecessor, Dwight C. Jones, used his public works director as a construction site supervisor for the mayor-pastor’s new church in Chesterfield County. And this latest scandal taints a significant swath of City Hall’s leadership.
The inspector general’s report says the hiring of Cuffee-Glenn’s relatives was facilitated in part by other high-ranking city officials, including the directors of Public Works and Public Utilities, the interim Human Resources director, and Deputy CAO Lenora Reid, now the interim CAO.
Richmond Times-Dispatch reporter Mark Robinson reported in May that Alexis Glenn had gotten a job in the Department of Public Utilities that paid her more than nearly everyone else in the position. Stoney said he learned about it in March.
Last spring, after the news broke, Stoney stood by Cuffee-Glenn. “The mayor’s understanding is that all city employment regulations governing provisional employment were followed,” said his spokesman, Jim Nolan.
Wrong answer. Stoney should have cut his losses then and not attached his credibility to a CAO hired by his predecessor, Jones.
The mayor now owns this mess, which not only threatens his agenda but his political future.
Cuffee-Glenn, meanwhile, sounds unapologetic. In a text message to Robinson, she said the inspector general’s report was based on “mere conjecture without foundation or basis,” and that the hires didn’t violate city hiring policies.
“I stand by my record of service and by the fact that I have done nothing unethical,” she said.
A wise man, nearly a century ago, described true ethical behavior as “obedience to the unenforceable.”
Yes, City Hall needs to tighten its nepotism rules. But you can’t read the inspector general’s report without pinching your nose. Municipal officials need to behave ethically not because they might get jammed up, but because it’s the right thing to do.
Instead, Cuffee-Glenn offered explanations in the report that were utterly implausible.
She said she didn’t know her daughter had applied for a job in City Hall until she had a job offer. As absurd as that sounds, Cuffee-Glenn — as a CAO and as a mother — should have had one succinct instruction for her daughter: “Turn it down!”
Stoney should have acted before the inspector general and news media forced his hand. His response calls into question not only the status of various high-level employees but the efficacy of his downtown redevelopment plan, which was no slam dunk before this bit of news.
There’s something to be said for a city having a mayor with a mandate to carry out a unified vision of what Richmond should be. But in hindsight, there’s an inherent downside.
Having nine bosses under the council-manager form of government required the city managers to constantly look over their shoulder. In the current system, the chief administrative officer answers to one boss — the mayor.
If the CAO is too deferential to an ethics-challenged mayor, there’s potential for abuse. If the mayor in question is inattentive to what his CAO and staff are about, or unschooled in the details of municipal government, things can go sideways quickly.
A city government widely viewed with skepticism did not need a scandal, but this is where we are. Stoney, nearly three years in and looking to build his resume for bigger things, has yet to turn around public education in Richmond — granted, a huge task.
But the mayor who pledged to restore confidence in City Hall got sidetracked in pursuit of the Large Shiny Object project. Inattention has consequences. You can’t successfully rebuild a neighborhood if your own house is not in order.
Stoney must weather a debacle that occurred beneath his nose and refocus his priorities. If you can’t detect the stench of the cesspool, you can’t drain it.