Richmond’s seven mayoral candidates gathered at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts last Thursday to discuss education, transportation, infrastructure and the James River System during the Mayorathon forum.
The event was organized by Richmond Magazine in conjunction with five local nonprofits: Richmond Forward, RVA Rapid Transit, The James River Association, Sport Backers and the Storefront for Community Design.
Following a “rapid-fire” style format, each candidate had only one minute to respond to questions posed by the moderators, Associate Editor of Richmond Magazine Susan Winiecki and CEO of TMI Consulting Tiffany Jana.
The forum opened with a focus on what actions the candidates would take to provide Richmond Public Schools with sustainable funding solutions.
“It’s just not about funding the programs,” said former Secretary of the Commonwealth Levar Stoney, who advocated for a holistic approach to the topic, “The mayor has to be the one who recognizes the main number one job is to improve the quality life of the child.”
Former Venture Richmond Director Jack Berry responded by commenting on an unrelated feud with front-runner and former state delegate Joe Morrissey until a chorus of boos drowned out his response.
City Councilman Jon Baliles (1st district, West End) offered the most detailed plan, advocating for 60 percent of real estate tax to go toward education. How he would implement the tax wasn’t clear since, as noted by the moderators, the General Assembly can be “highly unpredictable.”
When it came to transportation and infrastructure, the questions largely centered on transportation inequity, bike safety and what steps each candidate would take in the coming year to develop a Master City plan; Richmond’s current Master Plan was only intended for use from 1999 to 2010.
With the exception of Morrissey, all the candidates agreed Richmond needs to investment more in biking and walking services.
In contrast, Morrissey said he believes in expanding the GRTC line with focus on “axillary arteries,” to help citizens connect with more job and educational opportunities throughout the city.
Bobby Junes, a member of the Park and Advisory commission of Henrico County, said the underlying problem is disconnected street planning.
“Is (the city’s infrastructure designed) for the walker, for the biker, automobilist — is it going to be for public transportation?” Junes said. “All four of these issues have got to hit the table at the same time.”
Junes concluded by pushing for a centralized data planning system.
Stoney summed up Richmond’s bike system issues and safety hazards with a comment that drew a laugh from the crowd.
“There are some (bike) lanes people use which just ends and stops,” Stoney said. “Imagine driving down the street and the highway just stops.”
When asked how many miles of bike lanes the candidates would add to Richmond each year, both Berry and City Council President Michelle Mosby (9th district, South Central) agreed it’s hard to tell without having access to the state and local funds records.
Additionally, Berry said the main issue is an institutional failure regarding how to utilize the city’s six existing transportation grants.
Architect Lawrence Williams said he would fix the bike issues by working with civic city associations and focus on an updated Master City Plan by collaborating with mass transit systems.
In contrast, Stoney and Junes said the results of their Master City Plan would most benefit education. Berry said he would like to see more equitable development of Richmond’s neighborhoods.
Baliles and Mosby said they would model their Plan after the previous Downtown plan, but Mosby emphasized an increased effort to reach people in all neighborhoods, regardless of socioeconomic status.
The forum’s final topic focused on the River Front Plan and the James River at large.
Junes said he would put a hold on any current projects since the Stone Brewery business project is already underway.
Williams said he would focus on beautification of the river and building more housing across it.
Morrissey and Stoney both spoke about antiquated sewer systems and their aim to combat concerns about runoff and overflow if elected.
The event closed on an upbeat note, with each candidate telling the audience what they hoped a newspaper headline would say about their leadership two years into a potential administration.
Jim Thomma, Contributing Writer