RVA 5×5: State of The City – What The People Think

by Jon Baliles

There is a little-known part of Richmond’s City Code that requires the City Auditor to produce a “Services, Efforts, and Accomplishments” (SEA) Report by conducting a thorough poll/survey of Richmond residents to see what they think about the level of service and performance and deliverability of City government. In other words, it’s the poll that every politician fears more than anything because they can’t B.S. their way past the peoples’ opinions of what they see and experience every day.

Doug Wilder used to say (and still does), “The people are always ahead of the politicians,” and that is never more accurate than with the SEA report presented by the Auditor in February 2022. It received virtually zero attention, but that’s usually what happens with bad news. You try and bury it, label it fake news, or quickly move on to something else.

SEA reports include questions like: Are you satisfied with the overall direction of the City? What is your opinion of the value of services for the taxes paid to Richmond? Does the City do a good job informing residents about issues facing the community? Is the City open and transparent with the public?

The reason this 2022 report is relevant 11 months after it was issued is that tonight, Mayor Levar Stoney will deliver his penultimate State of the City speech that will undoubtedly be an upbeat recitation of his accomplishments and how great the City is doing — in his eyes. His office put out this four-minute video a few weeks ago to tee-up the talking points and set the stage for his speech (and perhaps his next campaign).

Richmond has long succeeded as a City in spite of its government leaders. It has always thrived more outside of City Hall because of pioneering spirits, a can-do attitude of doers, savvy business minds, small and local businesses and shops, and community-concerned neighbors who take action and get it done when others won’t. Don’t get me wrong — there are a lot of good, hard-working people working for the City; I saw that first-hand every day in my decade working there.

But the same can’t be said for those in charge, and the SEA reports are proof of that — people don’t like what they are seeing from 900 E. Broad Street. The leaders are supposed to call the shots, set the policies, and make sure they are funded, implemented and/or adjusted as needed so they work and help residents across the City. When it doesn’t happen, the people take notice and they won’t be fooled by soaring rhetoric and self-congratulatory speeches.

So this deep dive takes a look not only at the mostly dreary 2022 report, but also looks at SEA reports from the City Auditor’s Office from 2016 and 2008, which might serve as a cold shower of reality in advance of the saccharine-filled speech we will hear tonight assuring us that everything has never been better. But it has been better and should be better, and the people know it, even if some “leaders” don’t know it or simply choose to ignore it.

For example, 81 percent of those surveyed in the 2008 report said the City was “moving in the right direction;” the 2022 report says that number has dropped to 45 percent. The 2008 report found 44 percent of residents felt they received a good level of service in relation to the taxes they paid; the 2022 report said that number fell to 31 percent. The “overall feeling of safety” question received a 57 percent favorable response in 2008; the 2022 report shows that number is down to 35 percent.

The SEA Report is basically a City Hall report card and the people are the ones handing out the grades. They ask residents — who pay the taxes and the bills in return for schools, public safety, parks, water, and decent streets, etc. — if they are satisfied with what they are seeing from City Hall and where the government is functioning and where it is dysfunctional or failing. There are many things to look at in all of the reports and this deep dive looks at some of the overall attitudes of City residents; it is not a comprehensive analysis of every data point in the three reports because no one would ever read that.

And in an ideal world, City Hall is supposed to use the information from these reports to focus on where attention is needed, work on what can be improved upon, and show the people that their voices are being heard and make the City run better. But the 2022 SEA report shows “overall confidence in Richmond government” at a lowly 27 percent. So you could come to the conclusion that since no one has reported on the findings (that I could find anywhere online), that those on the 2nd floor at City Hall have been just fine with the report collecting dust on a shelf.

Jon Baliles is a former Richmond City Councilman. This is an excerpt from the original article posted on his blog RVA 5×5. It is posted here with permission.