Tuesday, January 27, 2009

A Note on My Blogging

As with so much in my life, it is in my character to be reluctant to do things. I aspire to do nothing but feel compelled to participate in my government to the extent that I do because few citizens engage enthusiastically in our government. Democracy requires active participation and it is lacking in Richmond, as I imagine it is suffering throughout the world. It is not nonexistent, but we could have and should have a much more engaged and well informed citizenry.

Because I feel that the none of the City's newspapers are doing an adequate job covering the local government, I am driven to do a blog. I don't feel as though I have the requisite diarrhea of the hand to be a good blogger.

Though I am lazy and would prefer to do other things; I write this blog with the hope that I may offer some insight into the functioning of our government, to document our history, mark the notable, shame the disgraceful, entertain and educate my city mates, inspire good citizenship and to serve as an example of what can be accomplished by consistent citizenship.

Before my blog entry tonight, I had been feeling negligent in my duties as a blogger. I had attend 6 meetings since my last blog entry. And not written about one. And there are note-worthy things to mention in all of those meetings. I am uncertain for how long I can keep this up, but it is a worthwhile experiment and truly does demonstrate the power of THE PRESS and free speech.

Lack of Open Government, Again?

"Out of their own mouths shall they be condemned."

Listen to this amazing exchange of our city government . The laughter at the beginning is because President Kathy Graziano said "we are going to be interviewing candidates for Ellen's seat" instead of correctly saying Delores McQuinn's seat. Give it a listen, it's just under 15 minutes. This is from today's informal session which began at 3:17 pm, this portion of audio comes from two hours and 12 minutes into the meeting. At forty seconds into this recording Valerie Salaam, Council policy advisor (one of Council's four policies advisors), describes the process that will be used to select the next Council person from the 7th District. Ms. Salaam delivers the bombshell at 2:40 in the recording, "The interviews, as well as any further discussion and consideration of candidates will all be held in Closed Session." The supposed reason for this according to President Graziano (6:00) was that since the same questions would be asked of each candidate there was a chance for a later candidate to get the questions in advance. It is possible.

Then Mr. Bruce Tyler said that Council members should return the draft questions which had been circulated among Council members five minutes before and President Graziano agreed and told Council members not to share the questions.

Mr. Chris Hilbert (8:20) said, "I find this whole process to be distasteful. No one in the 7th District elected any one of us. I find it particularly awkward to have to pick a representative for the residents of that district.... This process is going to be rife with potential pitfalls and pratfalls. And to the extent that it is closed we are going to invite that much more abuse to be heaped upon us. I would say that I rather this process to be open."

President Graziano defended her position (9:50) by saying that such political appointments are "made in backrooms, with no interviews, no questionairres" and cited recent national events such as the Rod Blagojevich scandal.

I would counter, there is not much difference in a decision made by one person or eight people, it is simply undemocratic. And why would you want to obscure citizen participation in the process and the desireable goal of open government. President Graziano says she wants to put the candidates on a level playing field. Why not provide all questions to all candidates. That would test a candidate's ability to prepare and find information. A valuable skill for a politician. If you want to make it more difficult give it to them 24 hours before, so they can cram like students before a final exam.

Mr. Hilbert asked "Is this the only discussion we are going have on the process?" (11:10) President Graziano said it was unless he wanted to have a special meeting. Mr. Hilbert started to offer a motion, but Graziano interupted and offered to do a poll -- 3 polls were performed at the informal session today. Turns out only Mr. Hilbert and Mr. Charles Samuels were the only individuals on City Council who supported an open process. I wonder if the people of the 7th District would prefer? If you live in the 7th District, leave a comment.

Mr. Marty Jewell, my Councilman, said, "It's not going to trouble me one way or the other, I'm just curious about the rationale for the open process."

Mr. Hilbert responded, "I think there's been all sorts of discussions about some kind of backroom deal and blah, blah, blah ... I would rather us just have an open meeting about it... under the principle, Let's be as transparent as we possibly can be about this indelicate situation."

Mr. Jewell doesn't mind the task at hand because "we've a process that appears to me to be a lot cleaner than what we're looking at nationally. So, I'm alright with it."

Mr. Tyler chimed in, justifying that this was the same process he (as former-chair of Governmental Operations along with Mr. Doug Conner and Mr. Jewell) used in the selection of the members to the Charter Review Commission, another public body operating nearly in secret in plain sight and open to the public. He also used the lame defense about the last person to interview having the opportunity of taking notes while others were answering questions (13:40).

Do you know what is seriously lacking in decisions such as this and other Council matters? There are discussions that go on where there is absolutely no opportunity for citizens to tell the Council members where they are going wrong. Without the benefit of public comment, they are neither called out nor held accountable for actions that involve more than just themselves. This is a fundamental flaw in our government and as it is stated I hope others will become aware of the problem.

Well citizens of the 7th District, you certainly don't deserve this.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Land Use Meeting Chaos

Presiding at his first meeting, as chair of the Land Use, Housing, and Transportation committee [formerly chaired by now-Council President Kathy Graziano (4th)], Mr. Doug Conner [9th] called the meeting to order at 4:13 PM. Also present were fellow committee members Mr. Charles Samuels [2nd] and Mrs. Ellen Robertson [6th]. Mr. Bruce Tyler [1st] came in at 4:20 PM and Mr. Chris Hilbert [3rd] joined the meeting at 4:47 PM. Meeting end time, 5:11 PM.

Public Comment

I offered the only public comment at the beginning of the meeting. I suggested that Mr. Conner follow the agenda which has the public comment period before the approval of minutes. Just before my comment the committee had adopted the minutes from the previous meeting.  The purpose being that would give the public an opportunity to offer changes or corrections to minutes before they are approved. Secondly, I requested that the agenda be made available several days in advance in order that the public have the opportunity to know what business would be before the Committee.  For Tuesday's meeting the agenda was not prepared until 2 hours before the meeting.

The meeting lasted just less than an hour and was marred by disorganization, confusion, and procedural wrangling. No other reporters were present at the meeting. Starting with an agenda of 17 items, two were withdrawn by the Jones administration, Ord. 2008-258 and Ord. 2008-259, which had been sponsored by Mayor Wilder. These ordinances sought to create a new Department of Permits & Inspections and to reclassify the Commissioner of Buildings [currently Mr. Arthur "Art" Dahlberg] as an agency head. Ten other items on the agenda were continued until next month's committee meeting.

The remaining agenda consisted of:

Ord. 2008-265 directs the Planning Commission to consider amendments to the Downtown Master Plan. During this discussion, Mrs. Robertson asked about former Tarmac property along the river front and wanted to ensure it had been designated as a development area. Mr. Brooke Hardin, Deputy Director of Community Development, confirmed that had been clarified on page 4.48 of the Master Plan. Mr. Hardin said the development standards would be similar to the standards developed for the New Market site. New Market is the parent company of Afton Chemical, formerly the Ethyl Corporation (which specialized in fuel additives). New Market owns the large white mansion style building, located at 3rd and E. Byrd Streets, just above Tredegar Iron Works on the site of Gimbles Hill Park, a former city park. Mr. Tyler asked about page 4.63 pertaining to the preservation of the Main Street Station site, and in particular the Lumpkins Jail site. He requested that a drawing that accompanies the section be changed to indicate that the area is not a development site. This property is owned by the city. A motion was made my Mrs. Robertson to declare the Lumpkins Jail site a historic site where development would not be allowed.

Ord. 2008-312
requires the mayor's administration to submit within 2 weeks of the ordinance's passage detailed criteria used by the city to determine when trees on city property or the public right of way shall be cut down and provides an exemption from the moratorium on tree cutting, and directs the Director of Public Works to "remove City-owned trees located within the four medians on Kingcrest Parkway, bordered by Antrim Avenue on the east and Willetta Drive on the west."

Ord. 2009-1 transfers the granting of permission to cut down city trees from the Director of Parks, Recreation and Community Facilities to the Director of Public Works;

Ord. 2009-2 enters the City of Richmond into a Maintenance Agreement with the Woodlawn/Kingcrest Association which authorizes the Association to maintain, prune, trim, remove, and plant new trees on the four medians along Kingcrest Parkway. All costs of maintance shall be born by the Association, with the notable exception of Ord. 2008-312 above where the initial removal of trees shall be performed by and paid for by the City.

Ord. 2009-3
accepts $167,298 from the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation to "further establish the multi-modal transportation center at the Main Street Station facility."

Although Ord. 2008-235 was continued until next month's meeting, several citizens (4 or 5) were present and wished to comment but were denied from doing so because the paper had been continued until the next meeting. This ordinance would grant a special use permit for 107 South Colonial Avenue which would allow a new multi-family dwelling of no more than four units. The applicants for the special use permit are Mr. Paul Spears of Richmond Enterprises, LLC and local architect, Mr. Michael Pellis.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Mayor Dwight Jones sworn-in Dec. 31, 2008

Here is a video of the complete swearing-in of Mayor Dwight Jones. According to the Times-Dispatch [01/01/08] it had initially been planned to be "invitation-only" and held in the Clerk's office. Instead it was moved to the Council Chambers and opened to the public. Following the swearing in, Mayor Jones took five minutes of questions from the assembled newspaper and television reporters. The mayor reiterated his support for a 1.5% increase in the Cost of Living Allowance [COLA] for retired City employees.

The ceremony was attended by friends, family, and supporters of Mayor Jones and Congressman Robert "Bobby" Scott, Virginia Senator Henry Marsh, Virginia Delegates Frank Hall, Kenneth Alexander, and Jennifer McClellan.  Ellen Robertson was the only member of Richmond City Council to be present. The oath was administered by Judge Marilyn C. Goss, 13th Judicial District-Richmond, Virginia.