Under the scorching scrutiny of a late July sun, Richmond was on the verge of defining itself again. There was Mayor Dwight Jones, two and a half years into his first term, gripping the bully pulpit with both hands, taking firm command of City Hall. A typically pliant City Council pushed back. In the dead of summer when the city's traditionally in political hibernation, council chambers rocked last Thursday night with debate, denunciations and sermons.
The heat pushed Richmond to the brink. Yes, the city is getting a new city jail — but it's about more than that. During a critical two weeks, Richmonders finally saw their relatively new form of government working as intended, spurring contentious, public discussion about something more than a ballpark or a downtown arts center. For one night, it seemed that everyone — from the mayor to a lost constituency at the jail — mattered.
Moments after Richmond Sheriff C.T. Woody implored members to approve the construction of his shiny, new $116.6 million jail, a homeless man just days out of the old, broken-down lockup commanded the attention of the mayor, nine council members, dozens of sheriff's deputies and countless city officials earning $100,000-plus salaries.
"On the real side, I just came home from jail Monday," said Kelvin Cook, a rail-thin, leathery 50-year-old with bloodshot eyes. "Do the right thing: Give us jobs, man."
The momentum swung from the outrageous to the eloquent: A man dressed in pinstripes carrying a plastic ball and chain as a prop, breaking into tears. From his wheelchair, Donnie "Dirtwoman" Corker lambasting Council President Kathy Graziano. The impassioned oratory of Alonzo Pruitt, chief of chaplains at the jail.
"That a place such as a Richmond City Jail still exists in its current condition is a cancer upon the soul of our city," Pruitt implored in the parlance of a poet. "To ignore the suffering inflicted upon the residents of the jail, over 50 percent of whom must be presumed innocent until proven guilty, and upon the staff who are guilty of nothing more than a commitment to public safety and to feed their families, is like seeing a house on fire — your house on fire."
After three hours of discussion and public comments, City Council approved plans for the jail by a 7-2 vote — Councilmen Marty Jewell and Bruce Tyler dissenting.
But the matter is hardly over. On Friday state corrections officials informed Style Weekly that the project must come back to the Virginia Board of Corrections for approval, which could hold up the city's aggressive schedule: Construction is set to begin in December with the facility opening in January 2014.
It was yet another pivotal misstep that the Jones administration made in the procurement process, which seemed to vindicate Jewell and Tyler, who both called on council to delay the vote Thursday to gather more information.
Unlike any time in Jones' first term as mayor, the last six weeks illuminated much about the state of City Hall. Just as Jones begins to assert himself, his administration bumbles through the process. And just as City Council begins to fulfill its role as legislative counterweight to the mayor, it slips back into the carnival tent.
Why does the jail matter? First, the economics. It's the single-biggest public works project the city has undertaken in decades. Budgeted at $134.6 million, it has the potential to provide a major economic boost to the construction industry. It means jobs — more than 400 during a span of two years. For Jones, it fulfills key campaign promises — bringing jobs to the city through economic development.
But it's still a jail, limited in economic impact. That's why its location was such an important issue. One of the losing bidders, City Central LLC, had proposed building the jail for the same price as Tompkins Builders and S.B. Ballard Construction, the team selected by Jones, on a much larger 60-acre site off Commerce Road and Ingram Avenue on the city's South Side.
The larger site allowed for retail shops, a work-force training center and other development, and proposed job creation was double that of the Tompkins/Ballard proposal. In a report submitted by City Central in July 2010, the South Side jail was projected to generate $112 million in economic impact, creating 807 new jobs. The adjacent retail center would generate another $15 million in annual economic impact and another 150 jobs, the report estimated.
Politically, however, the South Side jail was a much tougher sell. While the city initially accepted the unsolicited proposal in February 2010, the neighboring communities around the site protested — loudly. Louise McQueen, secretary of the nearby Bellemeade Civic Association, began canvassing the neighborhoods near the proposed jail, gathering more than 1,000 signatures on a petition opposing the plan.
The economic argument — that the South Side jail would generate more jobs and tax revenues for the city than the other proposals — did little to sway the nearby residents.
"No matter what they proposed, if they had a jail attached to it, we were not interested," McQueen told Style in June. "If they put a gold mine around it, we still wouldn't."
Ultimately, Jones took the politically safer route. In July 2010 he announced his preference that the new jail remain on the existing 6-acre site off Fairfield Way in the East End. The site was smaller, but the community there had lived with the jail's presence for half a century. It was built in the 1960s.
Another reason the mayor wanted the jail to remain at the existing site was that it already had attained approval from the Virginia Board of Corrections, he told City Council members during a lunch meeting on July 19, 2010. In order to receive as much as 25 percent of the cost from the state, the city had submitted its plans to renovate the old jail and erect a new building on the site, and in October 2009 the state Corrections Board had certified the project. The General Assembly approved in 2010, making the city eligible for state funds.
"The existing approval that we secured includes potential costs reimbursements by the State should funding be available, and we do not want to jeopardize our approval or extend the schedule to obtain another approval for an alternate location," Jones told council members in July 2010, according to minutes from the meeting.
But once City Central's proposal leaked, and it became clear another bidder proposed building a jail off Bells Road, residents in the East End had to be sold on the prospect of building at the old location. So the mayor, with help from City Council Vice President Ellen Robertson, who represents the East End, also promised to redevelop the communities around the old jail, flanked to the east by the Mosby Court and Fairfield Court public housing projects. Those plans include a new family resource center off Cool Lane, with job training and social services.
In the end, the East End bought the pitch. During Thursday's council meeting, there were important neighborhood supporters of the new jail plans, including former Richmond mayor Walter T. Kenney and 2008 mayoral candidate Lawrence Williams, and Edward Shearn, president of the Eastview Civic League. Williams, who just a month earlier railed against building the jail at the current site because it would "lock in" low-income housing in the area for another 30 years — because property values likely wouldn't increase in and around a correctional facility — told council he now backed the project. "Basically, we are in favor of the jail being at its present location," he said, "the timing of when it is done ... is a separate issue."
Obadiah B. White, 82, who lives a block and a half from the jail on Hildreth Street, seemed to encapsulate the political realities of the location debate. As a longtime resident of Eastview, White said he recalled the community trepidation when the city built the existing jail in 1964. But residents learned to accept it.
"We had this discussion about the jail and everything, but they built the jail and we learned to live with the jail," said the raspy, barely audible White. "That jail has not caused us any problem, and they've been good neighbors."
The city managed to get its own way. Location was one thing, but the biggest questions dogging the mayor's selection of Tompkins/Ballard — an announcement that came in early June — had to do with minority contracting, the height of the new jail and whether the city handled the bidding fairly.
These issues were significant for multiple reasons. In its request for proposals, the city outlined a process in which minority participation in the construction of the jail carried the most weight when selecting a winner. The four teams that were allowed to advance into the second phase of the bidding competition would be graded based on nine key areas during the review committee's evaluation, including technical design (worth 15 points), price (worth 10 points) and minority participation (worth 30 points).
That's why Councilman Tyler pressed Tompkins/Ballard for weeks to break out exactly how the minority contracts would be awarded. Also, unsettling to Tyler and Jewell was that the Tompkins team hadn't submitted an official minority business enterprise form, and signed it, guaranteeing the minority participation portion of the work.
The city didn't answer the question regarding the amount of minority contract work until Thursday night, when council voted on the project. It turns out $17 million of the $24 million in minority participation would come from concrete-casting suppliers that may or may not be minority owned.
"Did you also check with the other competitors ... and find out whether they did the same thing?" Tyler asked city officials during Thursday's meeting. "Are we in fact playing games here when we should really ... be about the business of creating minority businesses?"
Vicki Rivers, director of the office of minority business development, told Tyler that because T.K. Davis Construction, a minority-owned contractor, was purchasing the concrete supplies and doing the installation work, the $17 million could be included in the contract.
"You have tried to manipulate this to make a number look more than what it is," said Tyler, who'd pressed for the information for more than a month and a half. "It's clear to me that we shouldn't be counting this."
And then there was the issue of the building's height. The Tompkins/Ballard proposal went above the elevation of the eastern hill behind the jail property, something the city clearly prohibited in its request for proposals in December. In the week leading up to the council vote, the issue had turned into a major sticking point that threatened to derail the project.
The city said it was willing to forgo the height restriction -- it imposed a limit on the building height to ensure the new jail wouldn't block residents' views of the city skyline -- because it felt the overall design submitted by the Tompkins team was vastly superior to the plans submitted by the other three bidders.
But the height of the building was critical. Proposals that conformed to the height restrictions cost significantly more, requiring the construction to be completed in phases, and forcing the project to spread outward on the 6-acre site, consuming more of the existing jail facility. At least two of the teams designed their buildings not to breach the bluff, and their plans were several million dollars more expensive than jail design presented by the Tompkins team.
Jones, in an effort to diffuse the controversy, held a news conference July 25, telling reporters that all four of the proposals were taller than the bluff, with the smallest of the proposed buildings coming in at 157 feet tall. The bluff is 150 feet above sea level.
But the city miscalculated. And on Thursday night, Chief Administrative Officer Byron Marshall told council that two of the proposals actually were lower than the city calculated, one at 151 feet and the other at 153 feet. Those teams, he said, measured the bluff to be slightly higher than the city's estimates, but they were lower than what the city estimated and presented several days earlier.
After the meeting, Marshall said the height issue was irrelevant. "The fact is, it doesn't make any difference because we didn't discard anybody or disqualify anybody because of the height of the building," he said.
But the issue wasn't that anyone was disqualified, but that at least two of the bidders designed their buildings based on the criteria set forth in the city's request for proposals. If they'd known the height issue wasn't a big deal, says a person close to the procurement process, they would have been able to present building designs that would have been significantly cheaper, which would have allowed the teams to meet or come close to the city's $134.6 million budget for the new jail.
"Any one of these teams could and would have been in the same price range as Tompkins given the same latitude not to comply with the performance criteria, such as the height restriction," this source says. "It absolutely changes everything."
And finally, a day after council approved the project, the city learned that it would have to go back to the Virginia Board of Corrections and gain approval for its jail plans. The city was unaware that state corrections officials had reviewed the Tompkins' plan and deemed it wasn't in accordance with the plans that were approved in October 2009.
Sheriff C.T. Woody told council during Thursday's meeting that the current 1,032-bed jail had received the green light from the Virginia Department of Corrections, which is necessary for the city to receive state funds of up to 25 percent for the project.
That wasn't the case.
"This is a whole new jail, so it has to go through the same steps all over again," said Bill Wilson, local facilities supervisor for the Corrections Department. The plans that had been approved were for a 1,032-bed jail that included a new, five-story building and a renovation of the old jail, with an additional 103 beds for inmates in isolation. The Tompkins proposal was for 1,032 beds that included 108 isolation beds in the overall number, and an entirely new jail.
Chris Beschler, deputy chief administrative officer, said the city was informed Friday that the jail plans would have to come back for state approval, and the city was hastily working to set up a meeting with corrections officials.
"They've given you their interpretation of what was approved in October and the city has a different interpretation," Beschler told Style.
While the state may very well approve the new plans, how quickly the city can win approval is unclear. Going through the process — one of the key reasons Jones cited for remaining with the existing site — could wind up delaying construction.
A potential delay may or may not seriously affect the timing of the overall project, but that the city was unaware of the snafu during Thursday's meeting — Councilman Jewell railed about the project lacking state approval, but was told it wasn't an issue — became proof to some that the city administration isn't nearly as efficient as Jones likes to project.
Overall, the missteps during the jail procurement process speak to a larger problem, Tyler says. It cost each of the four teams bidding on the project between $500,000 and $700,000 to prepare their plans, and if the process is perceived as being unfair, will construction contractors be willing to bid on future projects? If the pool of bidders shrinks in the future, Tyler says, that likely would lead to higher costs for the city.
"You not only have invested capital, you've given up the opportunity to pursue other things," Tyler, who is also an architect, says of construction contractors. "That's not fair to me. And that's critical."
During Thursday's meeting, it was also clear that Tyler and Jewell were in the minority during the discussion. Both wanted more time to vet the city's selection of Tompkins/Ballard. Jones painted them as asking questions with an agenda to derail the project, which he saw as destructive. He saw the constant questioning of Jewell and Tyler, and to mention the frequent tongue-lashings from King Salim Khalfani, executive director of the state chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, as questioning the integrity of his administration.
Khalfani and Jones held dueling news conferences on July 25, both at 10 a.m. While Khalfani led a rally protesting the jail contract on the steps of City Hall (He implored: "We're asking, is this just incompetence? Or is this corruption?"), Jones shot back in a second-floor conference room inside. "I don't mind disagreement, I don't mind debate. I'm built for that," Jones said. "But I don't really want to have the administration questioned in terms of its integrity. I think that's crossing the line."
The theme was present throughout Thursday's meeting. Council President Kathy Graziano repeatedly told people that she wouldn't allow "derogatory remarks" aimed at elected officials, even though the comments hardly rose to such vitriol.
But there also was hope that the city was turning the corner. The derogatory remarks might not be allowed, but it didn't stop the people from speaking out. One brief exchange with Donnie "Dirtwoman" Corker seemed to capture the spirit of the night:
"We don't need a jail. You need to go back in the pulpit and keep on preaching," Corker told a smiling Mayor Jones. "You're a good preacher."
"Sir, if you would remember that [you] are not to make any personal statements about anybody that is an elected official," Graziano scolded.
"I wasn't talking about nobody," Corker said. "Mayor, you a good preacher, you need to go back to the pulpit and you [pointing to Graziano] need to retire. You a troublemaker."
The room erupted in laughter. S
Staff reporters Melissa Scott Sinclair and Vernal Coleman contributed to this story.