A Richmond City Council debate over whether top administrators should be required to live within city limits ended abruptly Monday when one council member accused another of race-baiting.
Councilmen Michael Jones and Andreas Addison proposed eliminating a residency requirement for more than 20 department heads and other key administrative positions in City Hall, arguing that it would help the city attract more highly qualified job candidates.
The requirement has stood for a number of years, but can be circumvented with a waiver granted on a case-by-case basis. Continuing the ad hoc system of handling the requests opened a Pandora’s box, Jones said while lobbying his fellow council members during a meeting of the Organizational Development Standing Committee.
“I’m just going to be very, very frank, Mr. President. If we’re going to waive it for individuals who are not of color if they don’t feel comfortable living around black folk or they don’t want their kids going to this particular school and we grant individuals the [residency] waiver based on that ... we are on a very slippery slope right now,” Jones said. “We just are.”
As Jones spoke, 2nd District Councilwoman Kimberly Gray stood up, turned to a Richmond Times-Dispatch reporter and said, “That’s ignorant,” before leaving her seat momentarily.
Gray had previously said she opposed the measure, arguing that she believes administrators should have to live in the city alongside residents they serve and amid problems they’re tasked with addressing.
After Jones finished, Gray responded, speaking to the nine-member panel. “The race-baiting needs to stop,” she said.
Jones interrupted her. “That’s not race-baiting. That’s bull. That’s bull. Hold on, Mr. President, that’s no doggone race-baiting. I am appalled by that statement.”
Council President Chris Hilbert, who had arrived in the middle of the 25-minute council discussion on the matter, tried unsuccessfully to calm the tension. Gray continued.
“I’m appalled that this discussion has diminished to race-baiting and we had had a legitimate conversation around a piece of legislation without it coming down to that,” Gray said.
Jones, who by that point had stood up and put on his jacket, turned to walk out of the meeting, ignoring Hilbert’s pleas to restore order.
“I’m out, Mr. President. You can see me later,” Jones said before leaving the chamber.
After Jones exited, the council voted to continue the proposal until its next Organizational Development meeting, scheduled for May 7. Council members then convened a closed session.
Under the proposed changes, the city’s chief of police, chief of fire and emergency services, and chief administrative officer would still be required to live in the city.
Korita Jones, the city’s director of human resources, said approximately 70 job classifications are subject to a residency requirement. She could not specify how many employees fall into those classifications, nor the number of waivers the administration has granted to its employees. She said her office did not track those, a fact that several council members on either side of the debate said they took issue with.
The administration supports the proposed changes, she said, adding that the existing policy is far more stringent than that of the surrounding localities.
In addition to the administrative positions, the proposal would do away with the requirement for certain council-appointed jobs, including the city attorney, assessor, auditor and clerk.
The council has passed resolutions temporarily waiving the requirement for its employees as well. For example, City Council chief of staff Lou Ali Brown received one, as did City Auditor Lou Lassiter and his predecessor, Umesh Dalal.
Monday wasn’t the first time Gray and Michael Jones have been on opposing sides of an issue. Most notably, Gray joined a bloc of council members who voted down Jones’ measure seeking authority from the General Assembly to permit the city to remove the Confederate monuments lining Monument Avenue.
Jones, who did not attend the council’s closed session, said outside of the meeting that he felt Gray’s comments Monday crossed the line.
“I made my statement, and my statement has just as much validity as someone else’s,” he said. “I didn’t charge anybody or attack anybody, but [Gray] always wants to.”
Gray said she stood by her remarks.
“I’m not going to sit back and allow someone to suggest that our employees are racially motivated in their desire to get a waiver. That is unacceptable as an accusation. I can’t just sit back and let that go by.”