They can't cover the spread, but the Washington Redskins are providing more than enough political cover for Mayor Dwight Jones. Last Thursday, while a damning audit of the city's Office of Minority Business Development was the topic of discussion in City Council chambers at 2 p.m., Jones skipped over to the James Center.
The mayor's Redskins Summer Training Camp Steering Committee decided to make its final site recommendations public at precisely 3 p.m. If there was any question about which local news item would lead the night's television newscasts — the excitement over the Redskins practicing at either City Stadium or behind the Science Museum of Virginia, or City Auditor Umesh Dalal's dronelike recommendations for improving minority business participation — it was quickly put to rest.
"I want you to know how pleased I am that so many good forces have pulled together to position Richmond to take advantage of this great opportunity," Jones told reporters just before the latest Redskins update. "We believe that we have a wonderful opportunity here, and we want to take advantage of it."
With the NFL season set to kick off this week, it was just the kind of warm and fuzzy news that City Hall needed. Yes, the Redskins will begin holding their two-week summer training camp in Richmond next year, and where they practice is about the best feel-good news the city has to offer these days. It also serves as a convenient public distraction. Even as Jones heads into the fall election season unopposed, angst has been steadily building about some of the administration's most visible hiccups.
Take the new city jail project. The mayor's selection last year of Tompkins Builders and S.B. Ballard Construction to build the $134 million jail generated backlash from the contracting community and the state chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
The issue refuses to go away, even as the project broke ground earlier this year. King Salim Khalfani, executive director of the chapter, charges that the contractor's promise to award 50 percent to minority-owned businesses hasn't happened, and in a letter sent to the mayor, City Council and other city officials in August, wrote that several other projects have failed to meet minority participation goals.
"We need a drastic paradigm shift to bring about fairness and a level playing field in the City of Richmond," Khalfani wrote. "Where is the minority participation?"
It's easy to get lost in the bureaucratic machinations of procurement audits, and all the dickering over who got what contract can be brushed aside as sour grapes. But there's real damage being done, some say, and it has an impact far greater than where the Redskins will practice.
"I think you've got to make sure that you are doing this right," City Councilman Chris Hilbert says. "Procurement is a very difficult discussion. The public needs to have the greatest confidence that contracts were awarded on merit and not because of who you knew and other preferences."
Minority participation in city projects has to do with more than awarded contracts to minority-owned companies. It's one of the key considerations that the city uses when awarding any new work. But City Hall has few ways to ensure that construction contractors do what they say they're going to do after being hired.
"I think we need some tools in place to make sure that these contracts have some teeth in them and try to make sure things go the way they should have gone," Hilbert says. Indeed, Dalal's audit of the minority business office found that what's promised often isn't what's delivered. In a review of 40 contracts the city awarded to five companies, Dalal found that of the $8.4 million pledged to go to minority-owned sub-contractors, only $3.3 million was awarded, or 39 percent.
Byron Marshall, the city's chief administrative officer, says the problem is that there's little recourse for ensuring contractors do what they say they will.
"What stick do I have?" he asks rhetorically. Right now, the best tool the city has is to judge contractors based on past performance, Marshall says. After initially rejecting Dalal's recommendations, the Office of Minority Business Development agreed to implement the auditor's recommendations last week.
But much work needs to be done. And the mayor's decision last week to trump City Council's audit committee with the Redskins announcement sent a signal that the administration has other priorities. The steering committee must raise at least $9 million to build out the property behind the Science Museum or retrofit City Stadium to make way for the Redskins. To date, the mayor only has promised $1.5 million from city coffers.
Meanwhile, Jones will have his hands full getting Richmond ready for the 2015 UCI Road World Championships, expected to cost in the neighborhood of $21 million. Toss in a new $50 million ballpark for the Richmond Flying Squirrels, and it's easy to see where City Hall's focus will be during the next four years.
Indeed, Khalfani says, the mayor's decision to choose the Redskins over economic justice didn't go unnoticed. "His absence was profound," Khalfani says. "It was his intention, more benign neglect, because the issues that are important to us are not important to hizzoner."
But don't expect the issues, or Khalfani, to go away. "We are going to continue," he says. "We will use advocacy, agitation, demonstration, education, litigation, legislation to gain liberation. We have permanent interests, not permanent friends." S
Writer Rich Griset contributed to this story.