Alexa Loo is a former Olympic athlete and current city councillor who has witnessed a pull-and-tug over the maximum size of houses on Richmond farmland. She explains what the root of the issue appears to have been for some people.
Q: I must congratulate you on being newly inaugurated to a second council term. Whose idea was it for the men and the women to take separate oaths of office?
A: What ended up happening is the men ended up sitting on the one side of the room and the women sat on the other side. It just worked out that way. On the women’s side, we even sit in alphabetical order. And that wasn’t planned either.
Q: So is this going to be like a seventh grade dance with the boys on one side and the girls on the other for the next four years?
A: Yes! It is what it is.
Q: On your island, you have something called the agricultural land reserve. About 39 percent of Richmond is farmland. Why were some councillors concerned about how long that would last?
A: There had never been a cap or a limit on the size of house that you could have on agricultural land. House sizes started to get bigger. There were starting to become applications for things as big as 40,000 square feet. You can put a skating rink in 40,000 square feet.
Q: In a meeting, your council decided to put a cap on the size of a house on farmland to around 11,000 square feet. I don’t know a lot about farming, but I’m assuming that with my bedroom, my children’s bedroom, my tractor’s bedroom, my wheat thresher’s bedroom, and the bedroom for my livestock–even with bunk beds I’d be pushing it with 11,000 square feet.
A: Well, a wheat thresher is so big, you can’t even drive it on a standard road, so–
Q: I would need a really big bedroom is what you’re saying?
A: You would. There’s a whole bunch of rules that still protect the farmland, so at some point, does it matter if they have a three-car garage or a four-car garage? Does it matter if you have six bedrooms or five bedrooms? Why is it anybody else’s business what they’re doing?
Q: The fact is some people were unhappy with the limit. They thought 11,000 square feet were way too many–
A: And there’s a lot of people that don’t want a proliferation of South Asian people living on farmland.
Q: Their outrage was specifically aimed at limiting a racial or ethnic group from building these houses?
A: Typically those are the people building it. It’s easy to go after the size and shape of things if you know it’s gonna stick it to that group, I think.
Q: You referred in council meetings to the “good old boys” and fairness. Why in the meeting did you couch your language like that?
A: Because standing up at a council meeting and calling other people racist is a bold and dangerous move. Throwing names around like that–we’re not allowed to call people names.
Q: Were there any other councillors who felt the way you did about the racial aspect?
A: Oh, everybody’s well aware of it. The 23,000 square foot house that had been built, it had been built by a Caucasian person in Richmond. And he had a bowling alley in it. So when people are like, “what do you need a big house for?” He needs a bowling alley, apparently. But nobody seemed to have a big problem with it. They were more in awe at the time. But now if somebody else builds one, there’s a problem around it.
Longtime readers may remember that earlier this year, I reviewed a Richmond, Virginia council meeting and discovered something highly unorthodox: a city council host who did pregame and postgame commentary.
The man is Dick Harman. He has anchored the Richmond council meetings for nearly 30 years (one year down, 29 more to go for me, by the way). Nowhere else have I seen a city council with its own Dick Harman, which came as genuine news to freshman Councilwoman Kristen Larson, who I interviewed on the podcast after her very first meeting in January.
Fast forward to this week. The Richmond city council surprised Dick Harman by naming the media gallery in the council chamber after him!
But it was in Councilwoman Larson’s comments that she recalled her initial realization that a city council host was special and unique to Richmond, and then proceeded to call Dick Harman “special and unique” to Richmond:
Thank you for the shout-out and congratulations to Dick Harman! He is, of course, welcome to come on the podcast anytime and tell me where the skeletons are buried. And other city councils are highly advised to recruit their own council commentators during this Golden Age of Live Streamed Council Meetings in which we are living.
This week, we air the newest episode of the “Best Thing, Worst Thing” project featuring a big-name city: Richmond, Virginia. I talked with many different residents about their favorite and least favorite things about Virginia’s capital. Many brought up the city’s ties to the Confederacy and the legacy of segregation. Others talked about the extensive collection of neighborhoods. You’ll come with me to a rally with the mayor, stroll along an island, and visit the pew where Jefferson Davis sat in church.
For an explanation of the project, check out the page here. If you are ready to learn which historical figure had turkey quills shoved up his nose, head to the City Council Chronicles podcast to download the latest episode. Or you can play it below.
Richmond is a city of 220,000 people and the capital of Virginia. It was also the capital of the Confederacy and that legacy still lingers. The James River provides recreational opportunities and the Amtrak station provides a connection to Washington, D.C. and beyond. During our visit, we stand in the middle of the water, attend a rally with the mayor, and visit a restaurant that will be gone in a year. We hear from a real estate agent, some college students, a teacher, a tour guide, people who have moved away and returned, and two political watchdogs.
It is Presidents Days here in the U.S., which means we are taking this day to honor all of the city council presidents/chairs/mayors who make their meetings run like a finely-tuned clock. But more importantly, let’s have a look back at where we chronicled with the January month in review.
Take a moment to find a city council meeting review you haven’t read or a podcast episode you haven’t listened to, then spend your holiday catching up!
We’re doing something different this week: on January 9, four new members of the Richmond, Virginia city council had their first meeting. One of them, Kristen Nye Larson, joined me right before the meeting AND the day afterward to bask in the fresh-council-meeting glow!
January 9, three hours before the meeting
Q: Does it feel like it’s the first day of school?
A: [Laughs] There’s definitely a little anticipation. We have an informal meeting at 4:00 and a formal meeting at 6:00.
Q: Are you worried that the older council members might say to you new people, “just follow our lead. You just got here. We know what we’re doing. Don’t try to rock the boat.”
A: They all seem really receptive. We’ll see how it actually goes. But you’re right. There are a lot of issues out there that we’re [the new council members] definitely going to come in the middle [of].
A: We have four new council members. We have a new mayor. And on the school board, which I just rolled off of, there are eight new members out of the nine.
Q: Wow! You’ve been on the school board for four years, so you’ve got procedure down. Do you feel like there ain’t nothing getting past you in there?
A: The thing that is different about the council meetings is that they are televised live. That will be a bit of an adjustment. School board was taped and it would be showed a couple of days later. You definitely have to be conscious of how you look on camera. If somebody says something that you might think is unusual, you don’t need to show “unusual” on your face. You just need to show, “hey, that’s an interesting idea.”
Q: [Laughs] It’s like being at the State of the Union when they cut away to Congress. And if you’re caught falling asleep, your face will be on the Internet! Now, the meeting is at six, which is an awkward time. You’ve got the classic question: do I eat an early dinner, a late dinner, or do I have my food in the meeting and make everyone hate me?
A: Since we have this 4:00 informal meeting, council members have time to eat in between the informal and formal meeting. They sent around a menu–they bring food in for us. I think it’s, like, chicken and vegetables. I’ll take a picture for you.
Q: Please do!
January 10, 18 hours after the meeting
Q: How did it go?
A: It was short. I feel like the next meeting will be a little more robust. This is something that’s interesting: I was on school board and we sat in numeric order [by district]. But with city council, they get to choose their seats. So there was a whole seating chart that went around and phone calls, like, “what seat do you want?” I didn’t know it was such a big deal.
Q: When people were calling around asking for seats, do you know if anyone said, “I’d like to sit next to Kristen Larson!”
A: I have no idea if anybody requested to sit next to me!
Q: During your first-ever comments at the council meeting, you gave out your cell phone number on live TV. That was a bold move! How many hundreds of calls have you gotten since last night?
A: [Laughs] None! At least in Richmond, I think that’s an expectation [that you give out your number]. I think people feel empowered if they just have your number.
Q: One loose end from yesterday is that you guys had dinner delivered. And you thought it would be chicken and vegetables. You texted me a picture:
A: It was hot! And we had time to sit down and eat it. I know not every night is going to be like that!
Follow Councilwoman Kristen Nye Larson on Twitter: @kristenRVA
When I tune in to a city council meeting, I’m expecting to see a dais, a half dozen fuzzy faces, and an oversize seal of the city staring at me.
What I’m not expecting is a TV host.
“Annnnnd this is Gavel to Gavel. I’m Dick Harman. Well, new year, new mayor, four new members on city council,” boomed a silver-maned announcer holding an old-school microphone that he may have bought secondhand off The Match Game.
With the conviction of a Super Bowl pregame commentator, Harman rattled off the stats about who was sitting next to whom on the council. (And coincidentally, I finally realized what my dream job is.)
“Boy, have there been some changes! So let’s get started,” he barked before reading off all 20 agenda items for my enlightenment.
“That’s the way it stands tonight. The new council is officially here. I’m Dick Harman–stay tuned!”
The new council was seated, eager, and ready to pounce on the People’s Business. But the real star of the evening was city clerk Jean Capel, who fluttered around her desk in a whirlwind of papers and binder clips, speaking like an auctioneer on stock show day.
“I need a motion for expedited consideration of that paper–Ms. Gray will you make that motion?”
“So moved!” Councilwoman Kimberly Gray jumped in without missing a beat.
“And Ms. Robertson, will you second that? Council is voting on expedited consideration of that resolution as read. Mr. Jones?” The clerk tore through the roll call, dispatching with this item in just under 40 seconds.
Everything was running quickly and smoothly. But when Councilman Parker Agelasto politely requested that the city attorney share his opinion on controversial bonuses given by Richmond’s outgoing mayor, Councilwoman Reva Trammell poured some gas and lit a match.
“I guess he was sitting in his office with his feet propped up on his desk, smoking a cigar!” she ripped into the mayor. “Because he KNEW he was not going to run again and he KNEW he was probably going to give those four people–he was already thinking how was he going to reward them?”
The councilwoman pulled out the flamethrower and turned it to 11. “Mr. Ex-Mayor in my opinion did not have the right to do this. How can we stop this? The taxpayers are mad as hell!”
Councilman Agelasto swiveled in his seat and hesitated. “All that we’re trying to accomplish right now is to have the city attorney provide the legal opinion pertaining to the bonuses so that we can fix it.”
Council President Chris Hilbert gazed out at the room and issued a warning. “While I think we can all agree that this was unfortunate from a practical standpoint,” he drawled slowly, “we all took an oath last week to uphold the law.”
It wasn’t quite the torches-and-pitchforks response that Trammell was hoping for. But luckily, the meeting ended on a high note as the camera turned to a friendly face.
“Annnnnnd that is it for the night,” our distinguished TV host announced. “Don’t forget, two meetings a month from now till June. For Gavel to Gavel, I’m Dick Harman. Goodnight.”
Final thoughts: It was hard to pick the best part of this mee–I’m kidding, it was totally the host. A solid 10 out of 10 stars to him. I’m so jealous.