Just when you thought issues at Richmond City Hall couldn’t get any more muddled, Byron Marshall vanishes without a trace.
The chief administrative officer has left the building. In his wake, Mayor Dwight C. Jones has issued a terse news release and held disclosure hostage to confidentiality agreements.
Marshall’s hasty departure — or eviction — was as sudden as the final act of Sheila Hill-Christian’s brief tenure as CAO under then-Mayor L. Douglas Wilder, which ended with her grabbing a plant and a few belongings and fleeing City Hall.
Marshall’s last day was Friday, though the mayor’s office didn’t make that fact public until Monday, following an announcement that came curiously close to suggesting that Marshall owed his tenure to the mayor’s political success.
“Mr. Marshall has served in the position of CAO longer than most would have had an opportunity to do so, as a result of my being elected to a second term,” Jones said.
The mayor did wish Marshall well, and added that “the city has benefited in many ways during his tenure.”
The public would have benefited from a clarifying news conference, but that wasn’t forthcoming. Christopher Beschler, deputy chief administrative officer for operations, will serve as interim CAO, a job he has performed ably in the past.
But even for an experienced hand, the timing is less than desirable in a city with a lot on its plate.
An international bicycle race is around the corner. The school district faces major challenges in improving academic performance and in patching up its run-down buildings. The Department of Social Services, on Jones’ watch, has been mired in dysfunction. Poverty remains a defining problem, along with regional incoherence.
There’s a push to increase the reach of mass transit to the suburbs, in part to address the poverty issue. The mayor’s Shockoe Bottom ballpark initiative remains stalled in the batter’s box.
Tammy Hawley, a spokeswoman for the mayor, said the circumstances and terms of Marshall’s separation are confidential, but the mayor would provide a payout figure when it’s available.
What we’re left with is a statement from the mayor that says little, a former CAO who’s said nothing, and a legal document designed to keep the public in the dark.
“Ultimately, it’s not a very transparent departure,” said Bob Holsworth, a public policy consultant and former political science professor at Virginia Commonwealth University. “It’s the kind of statement that raises dozens of questions. And it’s unlikely to stand as it is.”
As for the Shockoe ballpark and the rest of the mayor’s Bottom-Boulevard economic development plan, Marshall’s departure “puts one more hurdle in front of it,” Holsworth said.
But it’s not just the loss of a key negotiator that’s a problem.
“That challenge is that the critics of the mayor have argued that the plan for the stadium had never been fully transparent. And to the extent that this kind of departure reinforces the belief that the goings-on at City Hall aren’t transparent, it complicates matters substantially,” Holsworth said.
Or, maybe it’s akin to kicking a corpse.
“That’s kind of a dead issue,” said Council President Charles R. Samuels, who said he did a partial vote count on the ballpark issue Monday and hadn’t detected anything that would revive the mayor’s proposal.
Samuels acknowledged Monday that he had signed a confidentiality agreement regarding the circumstances of Marshall’s departure, and was limited in what he could say.
“I felt like it was really important for the council president to know what was going on” in case the body needed to respond in some way, he said.
Look, a case could be made on the merits that Marshall needed to go. He made three hires that, to put it charitably, did not work out.
Dominic Ochei was canned as finance director after six weeks for not disclosing a personal bankruptcy. Carolyn N. Graham, a deputy chief administrative officer, oversaw a Social Services Department plagued by allegations of child endangerment. The coda to the tenure of Finance Director Sharon Judkins was an abortive exit package that would have increased her pension payments by more than $400,000 over 20 years, according to City Auditor Umesh Dalal.
Dalal found that Marshall restored more than 800 hours of sick leave just as Judkins’ employment with the city was coming to an end, which would have factored into her retirement benefits. Marshall called Dalal’s report “grossly inaccurate” and said he was already addressing the issue, which he blamed on inaccurate Human Resources Department advice.
But some impressions were solidified by the debacles.
“I think there was certainly uneasiness with the hiring of people he had previously known who turned out not to do well in Richmond,” Holsworth said.
For a guy initially lauded for low-key competence, Marshall was showing up in some unflattering news stories. Perhaps had become a liability for a mayor swimming dangerously close to lame-duck waters.
Under Jones, a perfectly good police chief (Bryan Norwood) was shown the door, and a popular community development director (Rachel O. Flynn) was effectively demoted before her departure. Such power plays are the prerogative of a strong mayor.
But when that power is used to place a cone of silence over elected officials, and to keep the public in the dark, it’s time to question the system we’ve embraced.