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Candidates lay out plans to improve education, transportation, river at Mayorathon 2016

The city’s seven remaining mayoral candidates answered tough questions from area organizations and residents at the VMFA Thursday night.

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The seven remaining candidates vying for Richmond’s top position took the stage at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts’ Leslie Cheek Theatre Thursday evening for Mayorathon, a forum focusing on some of the city’s biggest issues and how those in the running for mayor plan to address them.

In attendance at the event, which was filled to capacity with an overflow viewing area outside of the theatre, were Jon Baliles, Jack Berry, Bobby Junes, Joe Morrissey, Michelle Mosby, Levar Stony, and Lawrence Williams.

Organized by Richmond Magazine, the event was put on in association with Richmond Forward, the James River Association, RVA Rapid Transit, the Storefront for Community Design and Sports Backers.

Moderated by Richmond Magazine Associate Editor Susan Winiecki and TMI Consulting President and CEO Tiffany Jana, the evening focused on four key areas–improving public education, transportation, strengthening city neighborhoods and protecting the James River.

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Schools & Education Funding

The forum opened with questions regarding the annual fight over education funding and whether candidates would be willing to use the city’s meals tax to fund schools as other localities have. Richmond City Councilman Jon Baliles, who was addressed first, answered that schools “have to be better funded” and that using that particular funding model would provide “adequate funding” and help realize that goal.

Former Venture Richmond Director Jack Berry was questioned on whether his capital improvement plan, which would redirect savings from the city budget to the school system and re-order some of the priorities in the city’s five-year Capital Improvement Program, would be realistic. Berry largely skirted the question, prompting boos from the audience, but vaguely noted that “creative financing” and “tax abatement” would allow increased school funding. He provided no specific details on how the plan would work for the city as a whole, however.

Mayoral frontrunner and former Delegate Joe Morrissey was asked, “How does a ‘fighter’ with your background go about gaining trust in the network of stakeholders in RPS?”

Morrissey responded by touting his experience in municipalities around Central Virginia. “I am the only candidate who has represented five cities and counties; cooperation is required to get legislation passed. I’m amazed there’s such a disconnect between city leaders. If I’m elected I will work to connect School Board and City Council members.”

Bobby Junes, who has held positions in the past such as Henrico County’s Recreation and Parks Commissioner and the Board of Real Estate Evaluation Review, was pressed on his plan to make changes to the state code in order to better fund the school system. Moderators asked, instead, what he would do to take advantage of existing resources. Junes skirted the question and reverted to his plan to affect change at a state level, saying he would “lead a rally or protest to the State Capitol. I’d continue funding as is, but I would take rallies to capitol to change policies.”

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Transportation & Infrastructure

Moving to transportation, Baliles was asked if he would increase funding for bicycle and pedestrian access around the city. Rather than responding to the question directly, Baliles responded that he “put $400,000 towards pedestrian crossing infrastructure alone, and I realize Ricmonders are equally bad drivers, bicyclists and pedestrians.” The quip drew hearty laughter from the audience. “It’s clear we need to work on all infrastructure in equal measure,” he concluded.

Former Secretary of the Commonwealth Levar Stoney pledged to continue building out the city’s network of bike lanes, noting their current fragmented nature needs to be remedied. “There are some bike lanes people use where the lane just ends. Imagine driving on a street and the highway just stops. It just doesn’t work that way.”

Jana noted that the city had plans to add 10 new miles of bike lanes per year in the coming decade but that it had failed to add any new milage within the past 12 months. Berry responded that the city needs to do a better job using grant money. “We need to act on the grant money we’ve gotten and apply to more grants,” he said. “We weren’t granted any additional funding (for more bike lane milage) because we didn’t act on the original funding we applied for.”

Morrissey said transportation priorities would focus on connecting more areas of the city to the forthcoming GRTC Bus Rapid Transit line, The Pulse. Stoney noted that improved transportation infrastructure would be realized by bringing the surrounding counties into the conversation and have them join in on the funding and planning of the BRT and other transportation systems. “I am a proponent of getting every transportation dollar possible and think we need to connect Richmond and Henrico; we all need to be at the table,” he said.

City Council President Michelle Mosby agreed, but quipped that “I won’t get the applause others do (for her similar remarks)” before speaking, drawing boos and laughter from the crowd. “I think we need everyone at the table; people on the south side of the James need jobs and we need to get them to those jobs through the BRT.”

Architect Lawrence Williams said the city should use the BRT as a way to spur redevelopment. “We need to show property owners where to invest; if you look at other cities, they have major urban streets but have an urban scale smaller than Broad Street; shops and retail below residences. We need to develop our city around mass transit.”

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Protecting & Improving the James River

On the subject of the James River, which the moderators described as the city’s crown jewel and arguably its most valuable asset, all candidates generally agreed that more funding is needed to improve the James River Park System and protect it from increased traffic.

Berry, who helped plan many events on the river during his Venture Richmond tenure, called the James irreplaceable. “It’s one of the most important assets we have and it’s straining under the pressure of so many visitors–we need to make [improvement and maintenance of the river and surrounding parks] a priority.”

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Lightning Round

One of the more interesting moments of the night came when moderators asked candidates which competing candidate they’d most like to have on their team or in their cabinet as mayor, a question which brought mixed answers.

Williams began by saying Berry would likely be his economic development chair; Stoney says he’d hire Morrissey as his bodyguard should the mayoral security detail be done away with drawing laughter from the audience. Mosby says she would enlist Baliles’ help in her cabinet without naming a specific position; Junes vaguely and a bit oddly suggested he’d host a “mayoral lotto” to choose his teammates. Berry notes he would draft Baliles to be his planning director; Baliles wrapped up the round saying he’d choose Mosby because “she is really feisty and we need that.”

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Check out our live blog of the event as it happened here for more coverage and photos.

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Trevor Dickerson is the co-founder and editor of RVAhub.com, lover of all things Richmond, and a master of karate and friendship for everyone.

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Senate panel shoots down bill that would make mask and vaccine mandates illegal

Democrats in the Virginia Senate voted down GOP legislation Monday that would have classified mask mandates and vaccine requirements as illegal discrimination.

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Democrats in the Virginia Senate voted down GOP legislation Monday that would have classified mask mandates and vaccine requirements as illegal discrimination.

The measures, proposed by Sen. Amanda Chase, R-Chesterfield, drew unanimous support from Republicans on the Senate’s General Laws Committee.

“It’s time to give people the freedom to breathe and the freedom of choice,” Chase told the panel.

Her bills would have prevented schools, businesses and other public places from requiring people to wear masks or disclose their vaccine status.

Witnesses who spoke in support of the legislation said they opposed masks for a variety of reasons. One mother told lawmakers that masks gave her child nightmares. One man said that masks gave him seizures. A third witness said masks made her dizzy.

“We are being discriminated against,” said Doris Knicks, who spoke to the panel remotely.

On vaccines, Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant, R-Henrico, a practicing OBGYN, called it “egregious and a complete violation of an individual’s right to privacy” for businesses like restaurants to require proof of a COVID-19 vaccine.

“We shouldn’t be using this as a litmus test for people to be able to get into stores,” she said.

Democrats on the panel noted vaccine requirements are not unique to COVID-19 and said businesses should have the authority to take steps to keep their employees safe.

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Downtown

Virginia lawmakers propose decriminalizing psychedelic mushrooms

“It is increasingly a recognized treatment for refractory depression and PTSD,” said Del. Dawn Adams, D-Richmond, a nurse practitioner whose legislation would also decriminalize peyote, a cactus that contains the psychedelic compound mescalin. “It’s changed people’s lives.”

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By Ned Oliver

Two Virginia lawmakers have introduced legislation that would end felony penalties for possession of psychedelic mushrooms, citing the drug’s growing acceptance in medicinal contexts.

“It is increasingly a recognized treatment for refractory depression and PTSD,” said Del. Dawn Adams, D-Richmond, a nurse practitioner whose legislation would also decriminalize peyote, a cactus that contains the psychedelic compound mescalin. “It’s changed people’s lives.”

The legislation would reduce the penalty for possession — currently a Class 5 felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison — to a $100 civil fine.

Sens. Ghazala Hashmi, D-Chesterfield, and Jennifer Boysko, D-Fairfax, introduced similar legislation in the Senate.

The bill would put Virginia at the forefront of a nascent decriminalization movement that has primarily been limited to cities, including Washington, D.C. So far, Oregon is the only state to legalize medicinal use of psilocybin, an active ingredient in psychedelic mushrooms.

The bill likely faces long odds, especially in the House of Delegates, where the newly reinstated Republican majority has historically resisted efforts to loosen drug laws. That said, Del. Rob Bell, R-Albemarle, who leads the chamber’s Courts of Justice Committee, said he is open to hearing arguments in favor of the legislation.

“That is not something we’ve taken up before,” he said. “I’d be interested in hearing what (Adams) has to say.”

Even if the legislation were to pass, the drug would remain illegal, albeit with reduced penalties. That makes it unlikely medical providers in Virginia would embrace psychedelics as a treatment option, but Adams said it would nonetheless be a step in the right direction.

“If we decriminalize it, it allows people to learn,” she said. “It doesn’t egg people on (to use the drug). It tries to open the door for us to continue to study the positive effects on people’s mental health going forward.”

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Government

Richmond 911 switches to Internet-based system to prepare for future advancements

No longer relying on copper wires to transmit calls, the Richmond Department of Emergency Communications switched to an Internet Protocol-based 911 system in late 2021.

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No longer relying on copper wires to transmit calls, the Richmond Department of Emergency Communications switched to an Internet Protocol-based 911 system in late 2021.

The department began preparing for the switch to the digitally adapted system in 2018, and it was deployed in October 2021.

“We are consistently on the forefront of technological innovations,” said Stephen Willoughby, director of the Richmond Department of Emergency Communications. “This advancement to Next Generation 911 allows us to continue to provide outstanding 911 emergency services to the city of Richmond.”

With a vast majority of calls coming from wireless phones, this infrastructure helps ensure that 911 calls are routed to the closest emergency communications center. It also allows call-takers more accuracy in locating 911 callers, because it uses geographic information systems (GIS) in mobile phones, rather than determining callers’ locations based on cell phone towers. In addition, it provides a more direct connection, reducing the time it takes for a call to reach the emergency communications center.

If a natural disaster or other crisis were to render the emergency communications center unusable or overloaded, this Internet Protocol (IP) based system makes it easier and more efficient for the Richmond Department of Emergency Communications to continue operations and recover quickly.

“Next Generation 911 not only improves our system now, but it also will allow us to take advantage of future technological advances,” Willoughby said. These advances could include accepting the transmission of images and videos and communicating with smart devices and sensors in the future.

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