Justin Griffin

 Mayor Questionnaire: Justin Griffin (https://www.griffinformayor.com/)

1. The City of Richmond has a 25% poverty rate, citizens and neighborhoods with enormous unmet needs, as well as public infrastructure such as roads and school buildings that are aging or sub-standard. The City also has the highest local property tax rate in the region. What strategies should Richmond employ to generate the resources needed to better meet the City’s needs? If these strategies don’t suffice to generate the revenue needed to meet community needs, would you be willing to consider revenue increases, and if so, in what areas? Be as comprehensive as possible in your answer.

I will not raise tax rates. Richmond does not have a revenue problem. Richmond’s problems are with mismanagement and misplaced priorities. Even after COVID-19 adjustments, the City’s budget is almost $80 million more than it was 4 years ago. The fact that the City has a $13.75 million surplus for Fiscal Year 2020 even with most of the economy shut down March through June, shows you how much fluff there is in the budget. Add on top of that all the waste I have been highlighting through my daily social media posts and you have plenty of money to fund our priorities. 

If we want to bring in more tax revenue then we can do so by strengthening our city economy. The first step to doing that is restore confidence in the safety of living and doing business in the City. If people don’t want to visit, live, or have a business in the City then we will suffer from a tax revenue standpoint. 

The next step is to create a friendly business environment. Through my small business law practice, I have helped over 500 businesses across Virginia. Richmond is by far the least friendly business environment I have experienced. We must lower BPOL taxes, provide better service at City Hall, and repair our infrastructure. I talked to one Southside business owner who has to cut the grass in the median in front of her business. All of these things drive business and tax revenue away from the City. Finally, we have to take advantage of our niche features as a city. These features are an abundance of history, the only river with class IV rapids in an urban area, and a vibrant marketing and arts community.

2. Richmond’s Office of Community Wealth Building, which helped 600 residents obtain employment in 2018-19, has established a goal of cutting child poverty (now at nearly 40% citywide) in half over the next ten years. It has set a further goal of moving 1,000 additional households a year above the poverty line through living-wage, full-time employment. Do you support these goals? What steps should the City take to encourage employers to train and hire under-employed residents into pathways leading to living wage employment and successful careers? What other specific actions will you support to achieve the goals of fighting poverty and building community wealth?

Of course I support these goals. As a city we can combat poverty and build community wealth through a more robust, holistic education system. 30% of our young people aren’t graduating high school and the ones that do are wholly unprepared for the working world. We must implement job training, life skills education (like financial planning and wealth building), trades training, mentorship programs, and business internship opportunities. Through this expanded education, Richmond’s youth will gain the real-world skills necessary to have a successful career.  Through this investing in our people, we can make sure our residents are lifted up instead of pushed out of communities as development takes place. 

3. Should aging public housing communities be re-developed in the next ten years? If so, how can this be done with genuine community input and support? How can such a process assure the availability of affordable housing does not shrink and that all current public housing residents obtain replacement housing? What funding sources should Richmond seek?

While the quality of the public housing buildings is something that needs to be addressed, my main focus will always be on the people inside the buildings. When we talk about schools and public housing, we always seem to care more about the buildings instead of the people. My priority will be to implement programs and education that help uplift people out of poverty so we can transition public housing from what has become a permanent stop for many into the temporary assistance that it should be. Any redevelopment of public housing should be done with plenty of notice to and with input from those that currently live in the community.

4. In the past decade, two major efforts brought forth by mayors to promote downtown area development have been rejected by City Council and most of the public. Yet the city remains in need of economic development, a stronger tax base, and more quality employment opportunities for residents. What processes do you believe the city should adopt to promote community-supported economic development? How would you define successful economic development, in Richmond’s context?

The reason those proposed downtown developments failed is because they were bad deals for Richmond and incredibly inefficient uses of tax dollars. When you are paying more for the economic development project than you are bringing in through new tax revenue, then you would be better off doing nothing. 

Mayors keep going for the big get-rich-quick-scheme that they can add to their political resume, but those projects always fail. I will not approach economic development that way. The best way to encourage economic development is through incremental growth that is not subsidized by tax dollars. Create a friendly business environment and let individuals develop what they see as the need at the time. Through incremental natural growth you can create an anti-fragile economy where the tax revenue brought in can actually support the required expenditures for city services and infrastructure.

5. What is the role of the Mayor and City Council in supporting Richmond Public Schools and RPS students and families? How can funding needs for the RPS Strategic Plan be met while also assuring accountability for use of funds and for outcomes? What does the City need to do further to meet the need of children outside of the RPS school day?

The role of the Mayor and City Council is obviously to provide the funding and accountability for how Richmond Public Schools spends it. I believe the Mayor should work with the School Board on establishing a City-wide education plan. We need a plan to uplift our people out of poverty and the schools are just one piece of that. The process of education should be incorporated into a grander vision for our City. I have a detailed schools plan on my website that I would work with the School Board to see implemented in the school system that will help combat poverty and set our kids up for a lifetime of wealth building. 

6. How can Richmond better leverage its status as the capital of the Commonwealth of Virginia to gain further support from state government? What priorities for funding and policy would you set?

We need to stop blaming the state government for the failures of our local elected officials. I would make sure we took care of our own house and stop this unhelpful narrative of suggesting that if only the state would give us more money things would get better. Our systems in Richmond are broken and until we fix them no amount of money is going to make things any better. 

7. Do you believe the City of Richmond’s internal functioning has improved over the last four years? Why or why not? Do you believe the delivery of basic services in the City has improved over the last four years? Why or why not? What steps would you promote or support to improve the City’s internal operations and improve citizen confidence in City Hall? Be as specific as possible in your answer.

Absolutely not. People still cannot get any city services in a timely manner. I have met countless Richmonders who cannot get trees trimmed, trashcans replaced, broken water meters fixed, or any other services completed by the City. The Permits and Inspections Office is still completely broken. I have a detailed plan on my website for how I will approach a department by department review that will lead to an overhaul of City operations.  

8. What tangible steps do you envision Richmond as having taken by 2024 to promote racial and economic equity and to tackle systemic racism? How will you use your office to advance these steps, and how will you act to build the public support needed for sustained action?

As we have previously discussed, by 2024 I will have worked with RPS to overhaul the culture and approach to education in the City of Richmond in a way that will begin working towards equal economic opportunity for all. I will also promote entrepreneurship within our communities and work to bring more jobs and opportunities to impoverished areas. 

9. What more should the City of Richmond being doing to reduce gun violence in our communities? What does Richmond need to do to better address the root causes of violent crime?

We have to do three things. First is to not allow lawlessness because lawlessness breeds more lawlessness. One of the causes of the spike in gun violence is that the police are having to focus on the potential riots. They simply do not have the resources to do both.

Second is to promote more robust community policing. Community policing has shown to be effective in preventing and solving crime. When trying to solve any problem, the first step is to establish exactly what the problem is. You must know what and where they are. To do that with policing you must go out into the neighborhoods to find out. Listen to the people that live there. Ask what they think the biggest issues are. 

People on the ground probably have a different perception of the biggest issue because they have different priorities. Building these relationships can break down the current ‘us vs. them’ mentality between the police and residents by showing them that we are all in this together. In the long run this helps police start to prevent crime and allows them to solve more crimes.

Third is to fix our broken education system. Much of the gun violence is driven by young people. We must take a holistic approach to education that provides hope and opportunities to our kids. If we implement life skills training, job skills training, mentorship programs, internship opportunities, and expand other after-school activities it will give our young people something to be a part of or identify with.

10. What changes in policing, criminal justice, and public safety are needed in Richmond, and what is the role of the Mayor and City Council in bringing them about? What more needs to be done to support successful re-entry of returning citizens?

I will bring the following matrix to every City department. It is a simple formula that can be adapted to each department, including the police department.

• Accurate and timely data
• Rapid deployment
• Effective tactics
• Relentless follow up and assessment

We must focus on better policing not less police.

I will implement these approaches if upon my review of the department I find that they aren’t already being done. 

Social Services

I firmly believe that an effective public safety system is driven by the idea that crime can be prevented, not just responded to.

I support increased resources and investments in mental health professionals and social work programs.

We have cut funding to those areas and have the police responding to fill in the gaps. Let’s take some of the burden off of officers so they can do what they are best at and trained to handle.

One example is bringing back the Second Responders program that was cut. Second Responders are social workers assigned to police precincts that arrive at crime scenes to help victims especially young victims or those involved in domestic violence. It allows detectives and officers to focus more on solving the crime while the social workers offer on the spot counseling.

True Community Policing 

Community policing has shown to be effective in preventing and solving crime.

When trying to solve any problem, the first step is to establish exactly what the problem is. You must know what and where they are. To do that with policing you must go out into the neighborhoods to find out. Listen to the people that live there. Ask what they think the biggest issues are. People on the ground probably have a different perception of the biggest issue because they have different priorities. 

Like the multiple moms I have talked to on Southside that have told me they have to sit in the car with their daughters waiting on the school bus because it isn’t safe. Nobody should have to live like that.

Building these relationships can break down the current ‘us vs. them’ mentality between the police and residents by showing them that we are all in this together. In the long run this helps police start to 

prevent crime and allows them to solve more crimes.

Accountability and Training.

The police department will be a part of my extensive analysis of every City government department. After that detailed analysis we will develop a plan of action for changes that need to be made and the standard that is to be met. It is then up to the Mayor to provide the oversight required to hold officers and employees accountable to that standard.

I believe the answer to better policing is not more elected officials, it is better elected officials.

With police it all starts with training. Police are always told what not to do but then aren’t taught how to effectively do their jobs. We say don’t use choke holds but then they are not taught alternatives to subdue. It is not enough just to tell them to not do the wrong thing, but we must teach them how to do the right thing.

We know that Richmond’s police department had no training in riot control before being sent out to handle the recent unrest.

Training should emphasize the policy on deadly force. The highest priority of the police department is the protection of human life. I will make sure our officers are instructed to use every other reasonable alternative before resorting to firearms. The firearm is a defensive weapon, not a tool of apprehension.

Training will also include an emphasis on the fact that police must deal with crime in a lawful and respectful manner. If it is not an emergency police should explain each act before taking it. If they were wrong, they should apologize. The old police motto “to protect and serve” will be taken seriously.

Some specifics in the area of accountability include the reduction of VCU’s jurisdiction and an improved complaint process.

Last year VCU Police’s jurisdiction was expanded to essentially include all of downtown. I believe police patrolling the City should actually be accountable to the city leadership, not VCU.

Police have a very tough job and the vast majority are in it to serve and protect us all. Let’s help them instead of demonizing all officers for the actions of the few.

As for criminal justice outside of policing, I support providing a supplement to the Public Defenders’ Office.

Within our criminal justice system, prosecutors (Commonwealth's Attorney) receive their funding from the state but receive an additional supplement from the city here in Richmond.

For the Fiscal Year 2021 which began July 1, 2020, the City gave the Commonwealth Attorney’s office a supplement of $6,774,763.

This is fine except the City gives the Public Defender’s Office nothing.

This leads to a vast difference in resources between those defending those accused of a crime and those prosecuting those accused of a crime. Prosecutors on average make 40% more a year than their Public 

Defender counterparts. 27 of their 29 attorneys make less than the highest paid administrative assistant in the prosecutor’s office. Many good attorneys start out at the Public Defender’s Office but don’t remain in the office because they leave to go somewhere where they can be appropriately compensated. 

The office has seen 60 percent of their staff leave over the past three years, almost always for higher paying jobs.

Court appointed attorneys exist because the Sixth Amendment to the US Constitution guarantees the accused the right to have assistance of counsel. If we want people to trust the system, then we must ensure that their constitutionally guaranteed attorney has the same resources as the attorney trying to put them behind bars.

The Richmond Public Defender’s Office requested a supplement of $1,000,000 to help even out the disparities. I am supportive of providing that funding to them.

11. What should city government do to assure that economic recovery from the pandemic- induced recession takes place on an equitable basis that includes residents hit hardest by job loss during the spring 2020 downturn? What specific steps can be taken to support Black and Latinx-owned local businesses?

I am the only candidate that has provided specifics for programs to help with economic recovery through my Coronavirus Action Plan published when I announced my candidacy. It is still available on my website. 

12. What have been the strong and weak points of the City of Richmond’s response to the COVID-19 crisis, from a public health perspective? What has the crisis revealed about long-term disparities in health outcomes that should inform future public health strategies? What specifically will you do to support stronger public health (including mental and behavioral health) during your term in office?

The City was slow to act, never defined clear metrics, and never implemented any programs to protect the most vulnerable to COVID-19. The City also provided mixed signals on reopening that actively harmed our small business community. You can find my full Coronavirus Action Plan on my website.