City governments rarely inspire strong emotions from their residents. Yet, the unusual combination of a pricey baseball stadium, its potential placement on hallowed ground, and the chronic ineptitude of Richmond city government engendered a powerful reaction from Richmond residents. At the City Council meeting on February 24th, the Richmond City Council held the official vote on the Mayor’s Shockoe/Boulevard Economic Development Plan. This vote was the first time Council members were forced to go on the record in support of the plan or against it, and thus both sides turned out in force, hoping to influence their council members to vote a certain way.
Before I went to the meeting, I expected high attendance at the meeting, but I completely underestimated how passionate both sides would be. As I drove past City Hall looking for a parking space, the opponents of the Ballpark proposal had lined one block of Broad Street, loudly demonstrating against the plan. Once inside the City Council chamber, I was greeted by a “LovingRVA” organizer, who tried to hand me a sticker to show my support for the proposal. I arrived about 30 minutes before the official meeting began—and the chamber was already about half full. This situation stands in stark contrast to the normal audience of maybe 10-12 people. Over the ensuing half hour, the chamber steadily filled up—to the point where the fire marshal refused to admit any additional observers.
The meeting started slowly. The Council deliberately moved all other agenda items to the front of the meeting, so that they could handle the other business before settling in to hear public comment on the ballpark issue. Once the other issues were out of the way—basically nothing of any note—the ballpark debate began. The Council modified comment rules to allow expanded public comment—each side received an hour-long period to comment, with 2 minutes maximum for each speaker.
The opposition had the first comment period. As the opponents of the ballpark lined up to comment, I couldn’t help but note the incredibly diverse collection of speakers. Young and old, white and black, politicians to the homeless, a striking cross-section of Richmond was present. The speakers varied in quality, but presented similar arguments—from the city’s desperate need to use existing funds for existing needs to the potential desecration of Shockoe Bottom if the stadium were to be built. Passions ran high. For the most part, the conversation was civil and the arguments reasonable. One exception to this rule happened near the end of public comment, in which the speaker spoke about how “Y’all [African-Americans] would be dead if we ain’t bring you over from Africa.” Needless to say, such a comment was met with derision from most of the audience. Yet, the speaker still made his point and it momentarily lowered the tone of the debate.
After over an hour of opposition comment, the supporters finally got up to comment. The difference between the opponents and supporters could not have been more conspicuous. The supporters, all wearing “LovingRVA” stickers, were mainly men dressed in suits. There was a good mix of ethnicities represented. Yet, I got the strong impression that the LovingRVA supporters were from the same old-money power brokers that have controlled Richmond for decades. Once again, the supporters espoused numerous arguments for the plan, ranging from the economic tax benefits of the stadium to the need for Richmond to simultaneously honor its past and move forward. Of particular note was Derik Jones, son of Major Jones and a school board member, who spoke of the plan’s potential to push funding towards RPS.
The rhetoric at last week’s meeting was depressingly fallacious. Unfortunately, many of the speakers resorted to ad hominem attacks, begging the question (“Whatever you do, please make the right decision”), questionable premise, and either-or fallacies (“If you don’t approve this proposal, then there will be no jobs in the bottom.”) Unfortunately, these fallacies allowed the speakers to make a stronger rhetorical point than if they used correct reasoning in the speeches. Furthermore, the city’s actual plan seems to be littered with problematic statistics, since the speakers and the council consistently cited different figures and statistics to support their points. In my view, these problems with statistics and fallacies are unlikely to go away, since they generally benefit the speaker at that moment in time. Unfortunately for Richmond, such errors lower the level of the debate and reduce complex issues into problematically simple ones.
Without a doubt, this meeting was a deep expression of civic engagement. I was simultaneously proud and surprised at the tone of the debate. According to Dr. Howard, this meeting was more civil than many previous City Council meetings. It was a positive sign for Richmond that its citizens could have a civil conservation about the future of the city. Yet, the meeting also raised some grave concerns. First of all, the administration still appears to be confused about the exact figures in the proposal. At the beginning of the meeting, the Council President, Charles Samuels, announced that the administration needed to make an amendment, which involved a changing a number from $59 million to $79 million. As an excuse, the administration cited a “clerical error.” Regardless of the excuse’s validity or not, such a mistake raises concerns about the proposal’s overall validity. Second, Council Vice-President Ellen Robertson noted that the short notice that Council received. Apparently, the Council has had less than two weeks to work with this proposal—not nearly enough time to seriously consider and amend the proposal. As a result, several Council members noted their concerns over the language and content of the proposal, with some, such as Hilbert, still voting for it, while others, such as Samuels, voting no.
Being a City Leader is difficult. In fact, being a civic leader in general is challenging. It seems that everyone ignores your work until something truly contentious comes up—like the Shockoe Ballpark plan—and then the rest of your work is largely forgotten. These council members work for the entire year, yet the general public will probably only remember their actions around this proposal. Certainly, based on the statements at the meeting, this decision could make or break political careers. Thus, the challenge as a leader is to take these comments seriously and attentively, whilst also pointing to the excellent work that you are doing outside of that particular conversation. It is certainly not easy, but it is a necessary chore as a political leader.
Thus, the City Council meeting last Monday represented a glimpse at the current state of public opinion on the Shockoe Ballpark plan. The Council responded admirably to the public turnout—with several Council members welcoming the public dialogue. Indeed, I was impressed to see that the Council listened attentively to the citizens’ comments. Regardless of the outcome of this debate, it is encouraging to see so many people actively engaged in urban and city policy. This engagement is a positive sign for Richmond as the city continues to move forward.