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Tuesday, February 24, 2015

City to Pay Former Inmate $2.99M

Posted By on Tue, Feb 24, 2015 at 2:34 PM

Inmates in a ward of the old city jail, which closed late last year. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Inmates in a ward of the old city jail, which closed late last year.

The city has agreed to pay $2.99 million to settle a lawsuit filed by a former inmate who suffered a heat stroke in 2012 in the old city jail’s medical tier, where temperatures were recorded at 108 degrees last summer.

It’s the largest civil rights injury settlement in the state’s history, says Jonathan Halperin, whose law office handled the case. The $2.99 million figure doesn’t include settlement funds being paid by Sheriff C.T. Woody and a medical contractor employed by his department.

According to Halperin, Woody and the contractor requested that the terms of their settlement remain confidential. Style has filed a Freedom of Information Act request with Woody’s office seeking the terms of his settlement.

The incident took place during a heat spell in June 2012, when inmate Stefan Woodson told sheriff’s deputies that he wasn’t feeling well. They gave him two Styrofoam cups of water, according to his suit, which says he was provided no other care and dragged his mattress out of his cell to sleep in front of a large barrel fan.

After suffering a heat stroke, he was taken to Virginia Commonwealth University’s Medical Center. The emergency left him wheelchair-bound and with “severe cognitive deficits,” according to Halperin, who says Woodson now requires 24-hour medical supervision.

Woody implemented cooling measures in the jail after his 2005 election, according to an order filed by Senior U.S. District Judge Robert E. Payne. Among those measures, the office opened windows, placed fans in the housing tiers and gave inmates cold water and flavored ice in plastic bags.

The poor conditions in the old city jail were the subject of frequent inmate lawsuits, a point that Payne makes in two orders he filed in the case. Mayor Dwight Jones frequently referred to the jail’s conditions as inhumane.

Late last year the city opened its new jail, which is air-conditioned.

The Sheriff’s Office didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on the settlement.

“It’s just tragic, but that era’s over,” Halperin says.

Floyd Ave. Bike Boulevard Approved, Coming This Spring

Posted By on Tue, Feb 24, 2015 at 1:00 AM

The proposed Floyd Avenue bike boulevard has bedeviled advocates and opponents alike. On Monday, for better or worse, it finally passed.

Construction on the project should start this spring, according to Jake Helmboldt, the city’s bicycle and pedestrian coordinator.

The Planning Commission voted 4-2 to approve a compromise plan, which leaves the bulk of the proposal intact but replaces four planned traffic circles with raised crosswalks that will essentially serve as speed humps.

Planners say the fix will allow bike traffic to flow unhindered while slowing car traffic. And importantly, planners say the switch to raised crosswalks at those intersections -- Strawberry, Rowland, Plum and Harvie streets -- will ease parking concerns at key intersections.

The possibility of a loss of parking on the street fueled much of the opposition to the project, which will replace most four-way stop signs on the street with traffic circles.

While some supporters worried the plan won’t do enough to improve the street for cyclists, on Monday, after months of public hearings and debate, advocates seemed excited to get the thing passed.

Max Hepp-Buchanan, the director of Bike Walk RVA said he was “happy that the community could come to a compromise.”

Hepp-Buchanan said he hopes the project will be successful as is, but if not, he says, it can always be fixed later.

The Planning Commission is set to review the project after a year.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Activists Block Dominion Office

Two protesters hung from a bridge with a banner. Police forcibly removed nine others blocking a street.

Posted By on Mon, Feb 23, 2015 at 11:56 AM

Police made one arrest and issued nine summonses after a group of protesters refused to clear the road leading to Dominion Resource's headquarters on the James River. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Police made one arrest and issued nine summonses after a group of protesters refused to clear the road leading to Dominion Resource's headquarters on the James River.

A man in a white SUV pulls up to a police officer. “Sir,” he says to the officer, “I need to get in that building. I’ve got an 8:30 phone call to buy aviation fuel.”

About 40 protesters from across the state blocked access to Dominion Resources’ riverfront headquarters on Tredegar Street this morning from 7 to about 9, when police forcibly cleared the roadway. They issued nine summonses and made one arrest.

Dominion employees, like the man in the SUV, were forced to park elsewhere and walk to work through the gauntlet of protesters, who engaged in a generally friendly lobbying effort while they passed. “Excuse me, please invest in solar,” one protester asked two men in suits.

Dominion’s corporate headquarters is a semi-regular target for protesters concerned about climate change, and more recently, the proposed 550-mile Atlantic Coast Pipeline through Virginia. But while previous events have been sparsely attended, Monday morning’s demonstration stood out as particularly intense and confrontational.

Lauren Chartuk, a media liaison for the protesters, said they want Dominion to drop plans for the pipeline, which would carry fracked gas from West Virginia to the coast, and invest more in solar, wind and other renewable energy resources.

Chartuk says protesters decided to shut down the street because other attempts to raise awareness have had no impact. “Personally, I’ve gone through other avenues of lobbying and none are working,” Chartuk says. “And I personally feel driven to take it to this level.”

To that end, protesters waved banners and chanted, “No oil, no gas, none shall pass,” while they blocked the street. An Uncle Sam-type character on stilts waved a flag next to a large puppet of a sad-looking man wearing a Dominion hat.

A pair of protesters, Phil Cunningham and Whitney Whiting, both of Richmond, suspended themselves with a banner over Tredegar Street from the Belle Isle pedestrian bridge. Police shut down the area around the bridge, declaring it a crime scene and excluding media and protesters but allowing Dominion employees and joggers to pass. After about two and a half hours and following talks with police, Whiting and Cunningham rolled up their banner and left.

A police spokesman declined to say how many officers responded to the protest, but more than 30 police vehicles were on the scene, including the department’s mounted unit. Most of the protesters cleared the street when police asked. Those who didn’t were ticketed and released to rejoin the group.

A Dominion spokesman didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. Late last year, Dominion told Style that its proposed pipeline will offer a cleaner, cheaper alternative to coal and give Virginia “direct access to the most affordable natural gas supply in the United States.”

Thrown Stone

With vote on beer deal looming, council members make a quiet trip to Stone Brewing Co.’s San Diego headquarters.

Posted By on Mon, Feb 23, 2015 at 11:41 AM

At a press event in October 2014, Gov. Terry McAuliffe presents Mayor Dwight Jones a check for $5 million in state incentives that will go toward bringing Stone Brewing Co. to Richmond. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • At a press event in October 2014, Gov. Terry McAuliffe presents Mayor Dwight Jones a check for $5 million in state incentives that will go toward bringing Stone Brewing Co. to Richmond.

While city officials rush to finalize a long-delayed deal to bring Stone Brewing Co. to town, two City Council members are keeping details under wraps about their unpublicized trip to the company’s headquarters in San Diego.

The purpose of the trip, which took place 10 days ago, is unclear. The council members, Ellen Robertson and Cynthia Newbille, declined to discuss the visit following a City Council Finance Committee meeting Thursday night and didn’t respond to subsequent requests for comment.

Newbille, in whose district the brewery and restaurant would be located, shook off questions while she left the meeting. “I would prefer to talk about that at some other time,” she said.

When asked if she wanted to schedule a time to discuss the trip, she stepped into a waiting elevator. “Yes, I think I will try to do that,” she said while the elevator doors closed.

While City Council members typically handle questions from reporters directly, Newbille apparently passed Style’s inquiry about the trip to council’s public information manager, Steve Skinner.

At 9 p.m., Skinner emailed Style to ask what questions the newspaper had for Newbille. Style responded but hadn’t received a reply as of Monday morning.

On Thursday, Robertson confirmed she went on the trip and initially agreed to discuss it. But as the Finance Committee meeting ended she said she didn’t have time. She promised to follow up with a telephone call but has been unreachable.

The mayor’s chief of staff, Grant Neely, said the mayor’s office wasn’t involved in scheduling the trip.

Likewise, the city’s top economic development official, Lee Downey, said his office had nothing to do with the trip, but he was aware of it. He said his understanding was that the council members undertook the visit as a show of support for Stone and the deal that will bring the craft brewery to Richmond.

That deal has become increasingly controversial -- particularly its second phase, which calls for the city to finance the construction of an $8 million restaurant near Rocketts Landing.

Numerous restaurant owners around the city have questioned the city’s plan to finance what they view as a competitor.

While phase two isn’t set to begin for five years, City Council is scheduled to vote Monday night on an ordinance integral to the restaurant phase: the transfer of city-owned property at Intermediate Terminal where Stone plans to open its World Bistro.

Because the measure calls for the transfer of city property, it requires the support of seven of nine council members. So far, it’s unclear whether seven members are prepared to move forward with that element.

City officials are presenting the vote as a do-or-die moment. Downey told City Council on Thursday that Stone was unwilling to move forward with any element of the proposal until council agreed to the property transfer.

City Council approved a broad outline of the deal in October. At the time, Stone said it needed construction to begin in November. But Downey says Stone has yet to sign any agreements with the city.

Downey attributes the delay in part to the amount of time City Council has taken to deliberate various elements of the plan and in part how long it’s taken the city to piece together land necessary for the project.

Stone isn’t thrilled by the delays, Downey says, “But they’re working with us.”

He says Monday’s vote will send an important signal to brewery: “It’s us demonstrating that this project is moving forward.”

Monday, February 16, 2015

Legislators Hand CenterStage a Win

Posted By on Mon, Feb 16, 2015 at 1:00 AM

Richmond CenterStage and its parent group ignited a minor furor in October when they revealed they owed $1.75 million in back real estate taxes and wanted the city to cover the tab.

Following a heated public hearing, City Council eventually consented to pay the bill. What was left unclear was whether the performing arts organization — which operates the Altria and Carpenter theaters — would begin covering its own real estate taxes.

As it turns out, that won’t be an issue because Richmond-area state lawmakers have CenterStage’s back. Both houses of the General Assembly passed legislation specifically tailored to exempt CenterStage from any real estate tax obligations.

The measures passed with virtually no opposition.

Outgoing Sen. John Watkins was the patron of the bill in the Senate, with the House version put forth by Delegates Manoli Loupassi and Jennifer McClellan.

“I don’t think that it was ever even considered that the Altria Theater would be taxed as a moneymaking enterprise,” Loupassi says.

The Richmond Economic Development Authority owns the Altria Theater and the city owns the Carpenter Center — neither of which is an entity that normally would be subject to real estate taxes. But the Richmond Performing Arts Center, a for-profit entity, has taken out long-term leases on both buildings, which makes them taxable.

The Richmond Performing Arts Center was created because CenterStage, a nonprofit, was prohibited from taking advantage of federal historic tax credits, which were used to finance the renovations of both theaters.

McClellan says the legislation was written specifically for Richmond. “CenterStage has proven a tremendous benefit to the area,” she says, “and I think we should help them where we can.”

Jim Hester, the city tax assessor, says he’s unaware of any other properties that would be affected by the proposed legislation.

Friend in Need: Could Utility Buddy Face Extinction?

Posted By on Mon, Feb 16, 2015 at 1:00 AM

Utility Buddy, a gas meter sometimes mistaken for a cellphone or a robot, is the mascot of the Richmond Department of Public Utilities.

He appears at elementary schools and in television commercials — a happy guy who can’t talk but nonetheless is tasked with informing the public about natural gas safety.

Upbeat and educational as he may be, Utility Buddy’s days as a mascot could very well be numbered. The city department that birthed him in the 2000s is soliciting proposals for a new marketing campaign — and there’s no guarantee Utility Buddy will make the cut.

“People within the department are divided into two camps about whether or not he should live or die,” says one department employee, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “The re-branding could or could not lead to his demise.”

The department has budgeted $450,000 to market and advertise the city’s gas utility. According to the request for proposals, the city considers it important to advertise gas because it competes with electricity and other energy options.

Department spokeswoman Angela Fountain didn’t return emails seeking comment.

Elsewhere, opinions are mixed when it comes to the giant gas meter.

Heather Price is a local actress regularly hired by the department to wear the Utility Buddy costume at community events. She says the mascot’s primary asset is his personality.

“Utility Buddy loves everybody,” she says. “He high-fives grandmas, grandpas and everybody. He acts a little differently with teenagers. He’s cool with them. And anytime there’s music, he’s dancing.”

But Price acknowledges that the character comes with some pitfalls. For one, he seems to invite hugs, but his boxy shape and hard edges make any embrace relatively uncomfortable.

Then there’s the trouble that comes from using an inanimate object as a mascot: “He doesn’t talk,” Price says. “He doesn’t say anything. He’s cute, but people look at him and can’t figure out what he is. I figure if you don’t know what he is, he isn’t a good marketing campaign.”

Dave Saunders, chief executive of local advertising firm Madison and Main, notes that for years government entities have attempted to replicate the success of the National Forest Service’s Smokey the Bear. None has been as successful, he says.

Saunders, watching a YouTube video of Utility Buddy’s appearance at the 2013 Carytown Watermelon Festival, says the mascot appears lonely.

“It’s sad,” Saunders says. “He’s dancing by himself. I think Utility Buddy could go away and no one would notice.”

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Confidentiality Agreement Says Don’t Talk About Confidentiality Agreement

Posted By on Thu, Feb 12, 2015 at 8:29 AM

Mayor Dwight Jones’ office apparently wasn’t eager for the public to know that it was requiring City Council members to sign confidentiality agreements related to former Chief Administrative Officer Byron Marshall’s sudden departure.

The contract, released by Jones’ office on Wednesday, said council members weren’t allowed to acknowledge that the confidentiality agreement they were signing exists.

The agreement also describes Marshall’s departure twice as a “highly sensitive” and “complex personnel matter.” Otherwise, the document contains no details or information about Marshall, making it unclear why the city fought its release for months.

The Official agrees that he/she shall not disclose to anyone, except as required by court order, subpoena, or law: (a) the contents, subject matter, or existence of any conversation between the Official and the Mayor’s office regarding the highly sensitive information related to the complex personnel matter; (b) to the fact that this Agreement exists; (c) the terms of this Agreement; and (d) the facts and circumstances giving rise to this agreement.

Five council members signed the agreement: Kathy Graziano, Michelle Mosby, Charles Samuels, Ellen Robertson and Cynthia Newbille. Grant Neely, the mayor’s chief of staff, signed all the agreements on behalf of Jones’ office.

Jones’ press secretary, Tammy Hawley, denied FOIA requests from Style in September requesting copies of the agreement. Former School Board Member Carol Wolf filed a lawsuit challenging the city’s denial of her own FOIA request for the agreement and other documents.

A Richmond Circuit Court judge threw out the suit last week, saying Wolf had improperly requested the documents. But the judge also wrote in her order that she had reviewed the confidentiality agreement, and had it been properly requested, she doubted it would be exempt under state FOIA laws.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

City Council, Mayor Report Fewer Freebies in 2014

Posted By on Tue, Feb 10, 2015 at 4:30 PM

State lawmakers — in the throes of an ethics-reform debate — reported accepting 35 percent fewer gifts in 2014 from the previous year. But they aren’t the only ones put on edge by the high-profile scandal surrounding former Gov. Bob McDonnell.

Reported gifts to Richmond officials dropped by half in 2014 compared with 2013, and more than one City Council member suggests that the McDonnell conviction has made them increasingly wary of accepting meals, travel and tickets to events.

That’s not to say city lawmakers ever reported getting a tremendous number of gifts. Council members and Mayor Dwight Jones reported $553 worth of gifts in 2014, down from $1,157 the year before.

“People have to offer you gifts before you can turn them down,” Councilman Charles Samuels says.

In 2013, Samuels reported accepting a $305 flight to Denver as part of an intercity visit organized by the Greater Richmond Chamber of Commerce. In 2014, he reported no gifts, saying he’d have to think “long and hard” before accepting a plane ticket again. Samuels also says he’s stopped letting people buy him lunch during business meetings.

Jones reported receiving no gifts in 2014 and one gift in 2013: a $500 gift certificate to the American Tap Room, a Henrico County restaurant.

Councilman Parker Agelasto accounted for the largest number of gifts in 2013 and 2014. Last year he accepted tickets to Henley Street Theatre and the Virginia Opera and attended a scholarship luncheon put on by Altria. The total value was $255.

In 2013, he accepted $852 worth of gifts — gala tickets, theater tickets and receptions put on by local nonprofits such as Richmond CenterStage, the Fan Free Clinic, the Better Housing Coalition, Hope in the Cities and Keep Virginia Beautiful.

“I support the arts community and it’s helpful for me to keep up the dialogue and see the value they’re providing in the community,” Agelasto says. “While I realize there’s a personal benefit to me seeing a performance, it helps me stay engaged when I otherwise might not be able to.”

Agelasto says he’s comfortable accepting gifts because he reports them. The issue in the McDonnell case, he notes, was that McDonnell accepted gifts but tried to hide them. “If the law changes, obviously I can change with the law,” Agelasto says.

------

Gifts reported by council members and the mayor in 2014:

Parker Agelasto: Henley Street Theater, $60; Virginia Opera, $140; Altria, $55.

Jon Baliles: Altria, $51.96; Richmond International Raceway, $95.74

Kathy Graziano: None

Chris Hilbert: David Bailey Associates, $150.

Dwight Jones: None

Michelle Mosby: None

Cynthia Newbille: None

Ellen Robertson: None

Charles Samuels: None

Reva Trammell: None

Tight Lips

Despite ruling, city won’t release confidentiality agreement.

Posted By on Tue, Feb 10, 2015 at 2:42 PM

A Richmond judge tossed out a FOIA lawsuit last week that sought a copy of the confidentiality agreement that city administrators required City Council members sign before briefing them on the mysterious departure of Chief Administrative Officer Byron Marshall.

The city insisted that the document swearing City Council to secrecy itself was secret.

But even as Richmond Circuit Court Judge Joi Jeter Taylor threw out the case requesting the document, she wrote the she doubts that it’s exempt from disclosure as the city had argued.

She said the reason she dismissed the case against the city was because the plaintiff, former school board member Carol A.O. Wolf, hadn’t properly requested it.

“If properly made the subject of an otherwise valid FOIA request,” Taylor wrote, “the court would be inclined to order production of the document.”

The city argued that Wolf had asked for a list of City Council members who signed the document, rather than the document itself, and that under state FOIA laws, the city isn’t obligated to create documents that don’t exist. (Wolf’s lawyer had argued in court that she had orally requested agreement itself in a follow-up conversation with city staff.)

In either case, Style Weekly explicitly requested a copy of the agreement in September, which the city also denied. And despite Judge Taylor’s ruling, city leaders don’t appear eager to reconsider that initial decision.

The mayor’s press secretary, Tammy Hawley, hasn’t responded to two emails left Monday and Tuesday morning requesting an update on the status of Style’s request.

Balloon-Release Regulations Deflate

Party clown industry, balloon fines and sting operations drawn into Virginia General Assembly debate.

Posted By on Tue, Feb 10, 2015 at 10:58 AM

Introduced as the “dreaded balloon bill,” state Sen. Jeff McWaters’ proposal to ban the intentional release of balloons into the air drew out prolonged debate Friday as his fellow senators worried about the measure’s potential impact on the “birthday party clown industry” and the specter of children getting caught up in “undercover balloon sting operations.”

Currently, state code allows someone to release 50 balloons an hour. The bill would have outlawed any intentional release of balloons, and instituted a $5-per-balloon fine for offenders.

McWaters, of Virginia Beach, said the goal was to reduce coastal pollution. But his colleagues made it clear that they found the prospect both ludicrous and humorous: “Do we really need to go so far as to regulate balloons?” Sen. William Stanley said. “What next, ice cream cones? … Where do we stop?”

The measure failed. Feel free to continue releasing your allotted 50 balloons an hour into the air.

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