Where Is Everybody? Don't Ask The Mayor
On September 23, Councilmember Claudia Jiménez asked City Staff to provide her, along with the rest of Council and Mayor Tom Butt, a full list of vacant positions in Richmond’s city government. The vacancies chart returned to Councilwoman Jiménez confirms what Richmond residents already knew: our city is inexcusably understaffed.
Vacancies are both fulltime and part-time positions that have already been budgeted for in this fiscal year. The money has already been set aside for these future employees. When the positions remain unfilled by the City Manager, the cash budgeted for these positions stays tied up; it cannot be moved elsewhere without formal budget amendments or until the next year’s fiscal budget is approved.
Richmond currently has 123 vacant full-time employee (FTE) positions and six vacant part-time positions. This means that roughly one-sixth of our city government functions have been deemed inessential by city management.
Mayor Butt appears more interested in political mudslinging than in contending with the formidable issue of an understaffed city government. He claims that the progressive majority on City Council has prevented recruitment, vaguely citing such causes as “a penchant to launch extensive and expensive investigations of City employees with little justification” for deterring applicants from applying.
The timeline tells a different story from the Mayor’s claims about the current City Council.
For one, these vacant positions have gone unadvertised for months, often over a year. There is no way for people to know these positions are available; there is no way for people to apply to applications that don’t exist. To claim that “the public service grapevine” discourages potential applicants is sheer speculation, as there have been few opportunities to apply anywhere in the first place.
The vacancies issue has plagued the Tom Butt administration. The Richmond Housing Authority, which manages affordable, public housing in Richmond, has six vacant full-time positions of the budgeted seven; this has been the case for 18 months. The Finance Department, which oversees the fiscal functions of our city, has over 20% of its budgeted positions unfilled. Interim directors have remained at the head of multiple departments, some for over a year.
When Councilmembers Jiménez and Willis led a community survey of restaurant owners in their districts to understand the impacts of COVID-19 and publicize a grant for eateries available in the American Rescue Plan Act, proprietors widely cited their years-long frustration with the thinly staffed Permitting Department, and how their inability to reach the office resulted in significant revenue loss.
To blame the progressive majority for this understaffing is, in short, a lethargic attempt to sloppily explain what’s gone on under the Mayor’s nose for years.
These extensive vacancies need to be resolved immediately. The extent of hiring negligence reveals a disregard for the well-being of city staff. Critical government tasks cannot go entirely ignored, simply because no one has been hired to perform them. Instead, the work is shoved onto city workers who must fulfill their role and more, without extra pay, and with the thankless scrutiny of city management and residents alike. Here, the Mayor is right: morale is understandably low.
Now that this issue has been brought to the Mayor’s attention thanks to Councilmember Jiménez, the Mayor needs to redirect his ire into productive work for Richmond. Hiring is orchestrated by City Manager Laura Snideman, and the Mayor can join the long-running RPA efforts to exert pressure on her and to interview community members, city staff, and department heads to figure out what’s truly needed to restore city services and recruit top talent from Richmond itself.