Thad Williamson is a professor, writer and civic activist teaching at the University of Richmond. His work focuses on the connection between theories of democracy and social justice and the practice of public policy and public administration.

Fifty Fixes for the Fifth, #1:  Add a Residency Requirement to the City Charter

Fifty Fixes for the Fifth, #1: Add a Residency Requirement to the City Charter

A few weeks ago we launched our “Fifty Fixes for the 5th” initiative. These are specific ideas to address problems and improve quality-of-life here in the 5th District. They can range from solving neighborhood-specific problems to larger-order policy ideas that impact the 5th.

We’ve gotten great feedback so far (but always are looking for more). We’re ready to roll out our first fix:

The City Charter should be amended, as soon as possible, to specifically and unambiguously state that elected officials must maintain residence within the borders of the district to which they were elected, for the entire duration of their elected term.

Lack of clarity and contrasting legal perspectives have led to the current situation, resulting in this year’s special election. Voters in the 5th District, and every other district in Richmond, should never be placed in this position again. And there should never be any doubt among future elected officials as to whether they must reside in the districts they were elected to represent.

I urge the current members of City Council to place requesting an amendment of the City Charter to address this point on the City’s legislative agenda, and to begin identifying legislative allies to sponsor the legislation in the General Assembly in January 2020.  (Councilman Agelasto has already issued a similar request.)

I will leave it to attorneys to craft specific, appropriate language, but here’s a general recommendation: Add a new paragraph, “D,” to section 3.04.1 of the Charter, dealing with removal of elected officials. That paragraph should establish policy to this effect: “City council and school board members in the City of Richmond must maintain their primary residences within the borders of the district to which they were elected for the full duration of their terms, or they shall be considered to have vacated their elected position. The mayor of the City of Richmond must maintain primary residence within the boundaries of the City of Richmond for the full duration of his/her elected term, or shall be considered to have vacated the office of mayor.” The intent of this provision is to establish as law citizens’ common-sense expectation that elected officials live and spend most of their time in the district to which they were elected; further specific language and definitions should be added as needed to fulfill this intent.

This City Charter revision should take effect January 1, 2021 and hence apply, without ambiguity, to all Richmond officials elected to full terms in November 2020.

Let’s take the current situation, learn from it, and use it as an opportunity to get better.

Our current form of city government is relatively new, and we should be open to revising the City Charter periodically based on the test of experience. What’s happened this year in the Fifth District is an experience Richmond should not have to go through again. Let’s be sure that’s the case by amending the City Charter.

Authorized by Thad Williamson for Richmond City Council

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