Monday, May 29, 2006

Firewalls, good intentions and former Councilor Trammell

Mark Dorroh

There is a reason elected officials are legally barred from attempting to manage the work of municipal employees excepting the city attorney, city manager and city clerk. Skating up to that line and ice-dancing around the intent and letter of the law is neither graceful nor particularly wise.

And it's certainly not evading the notice of anyone who got out of the fifth grade on his own hook. Many people have taken note of these monkeyshines, and some of them could be getting frosted enough to challenge the perpetrators in public. When they do, it will be yet another embarrassment for Hopewell, as the ice-dancers are taken to task and have it explained to them how the law is written and what it's intended to do.

This explanation will probably be done using little bitty words even I could understand. Not a happy sight. And if these same city council members employ their standard gambit of alerting every media outlet on the East Coast, it'll be all over Richmond television, too.

Okay, maybe it's only fair that our cousins in The Big Town get to have a laugh or two at our expense. We sure do get tickled at some of their depredations and follies. Consider the case of the long-suffering former member of Richmond City Council, Reva Trammell.

I only interviewed Ms. Trammell once, while I was working for a Richmond all-news radio station, and was impressed with her savvy, her heart and her wit. Not a dull girl, this one, and chock-full of good intentions. A very successful landlord who was able to treat her council membership as pretty much a full time job, Councilor Trammell delivered constituent services like am avenging angel. Her peeps knew how to get her ear, and they got her good sword arm as well, sort of a package deal.

The lady was darn near a Superhero Council Member, and that's finestkind stuff. Not to put too fine a point on it, public service-wise, the lady rocked. Hard.

Unfortunately, she also had a penchant for romantic involvement with men not her husband … in fact, she was sometimes swept off her feet by men who were married to someone else. Bad scene, Bix.

But the weird thing is, no one would have known except for her public dustup in a custody fight over (no fooling) a vintage American production automobile. She sued her former beau, or he sued her because they couldn't reach an agreement on who got custody of the internal-combustion child.

So some clever reporter went to the clerk of court's office, boned up on the publicly-available materials, and slathered the world's dumbest civil suit all over the newspaper. And the airwaves. And the ever-fairminded blogger community. Bleccch.

Then there's the infamous slapping incident, in which one of her philandering beaus either hit her or was hit by her in the presence of a uniformed Richmond Police officer. She instructed that officer to keep mum, trashing the firewall which, by state charter, is installed in every local government.

In this Commonwealth, elected officials aren't allowed to tell city employees anything, ever. They're allowed to make collective suggestions to the city manager, who will filter the requests through his/her extensive knowledge of what's legal, then deliver that amended, heavily-censored message to, oh say, the city's chief of police.

City council members sticking their busy, personal-agenda laden fingers into the mix is prohibited. Skating up to the edge of legal prohibitions is not advised. It certainly didn't work out so well for at least one famous American elected official and his spouse during the long national nightmare of Whitewater.

Of course in the case of Ms. Trammell, no one got chucked into the cooler, no lies were spun in depositions to a federal judge and no impeachment proceedings were instituted. She just got in a lot of hot water and forced her formerly loyal constituents to toss her out of office.

There's a moral to this story. For me it is that two of my personally favorite Hopewellians of all time need to beware for whom they carry water.

It's disloyal to geek for the state and against the city when you are a (minimally) paid city employee. The state has plenty of accomplished geeks to perform those distasteful tasks which are sometimes part and parcel of the art of good governance. The help of city-paid personnel is neither needed nor desirable, since their constituents (and the city charter) put them in charge of municipal code, not Commonwealth statutes.

These councilors should stick to what they know and avoid what the law proscribes. These two guys are, like Ms. Trammell, too smart and too well intentioned to be playing this, thus.

Like Homie the Clown, they ought not do 'dat.

They also need to look out for that old slippery slope, you know, the one made of good intentions which invariably carries a skater right up to the line beyond which lies perilously thin ice.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Talking to the shadows


Last week, I alluded to persistent rumors of a Hopewell shadow government. I trust the veracity of these tales, especially in a rumor-happy town like The Wonder City, about as much as I trust pop gossip fantasies that dead rock stars are alive, well and partying hard in Brazil.

Still, it is a rumor that's not going away any time soon, so let's deconstruct this puppy and see what we're left with.

Just for the pungent good fun of it, let's assume the rumors are true. Let us suppose a bunch of very successful business types want things in their city to go their way whenever possible. Let us further stipulate that they are willing to deploy their influence when and where they deem it necessary.

Our problem with that would be … ?

Excuse me for not marching in lockstep with conventional wisdom, but I'm one of those punk neo-Capitalists who believes businesspeople are, on average, more realistic and far more optimistic that the rest of us. So the way I see it, if persons who have a demonstrated aptitude for selling people things they need at prices they can afford - in a competitive marketplace mind you - want to assert themselves, their wealth, judgment and vision upon the body politic, what kind of pernicious twit would I be to object?

These avatars of Capitalism meet payroll every week. They provide the necessities of corporeal existence to fellow human beings. They actually get stuff done. Without their hard, smart work, we'd all be less well off.

By way of contrast, consider my chosen career path.

I scribble stories and features on the acts and opinions of others, busting loose once a week to run all that grist through my own peculiar sensibilities and spit out this column.

Do I feed anybody? Do I put roofs over their heads, clothe their nakedness or succor their children? I do not. I also keep no one employed but myself, meet no payrolls and generate pathetically small annual tax revenues.

These are important distinctions. By any reasonable standard, I'm far less connected to the Real World than are these alleged shadow government folk.

So the problem is not with attempts to influence the future of Hopewell. If the tales are true, all I can say is thank heaven some clever persons of wealth and taste are willing to do it.

The problem is the sneakiness.

Virtuous actions taken in the daylight are seldom reviled. Those done anonymously via clumsy, easily detected machinations nearly always are.

So let's get a little daylight on this deal. One supposed member of the alleged shadow government has already opened the conduit. He has presented me with solid, persuasive justifications for his very public record of successfully attempting to affect Hopewell's future.

I invite the remaining Hopewell Shadow Government Ministers without Portfolio to ring me up and unburden yourselves.

It would have to be a deeply satisfying experience for you. It would assist me in telling the "real truth about Hopewell" to my readers.

There is no downside to this proposition.

Gentlemen (and ladies, if there are such), please feel free to download, on this aging, ink-stained wretch, a few of your hopes, fears, frustrations and triumphs. Commiserate with me on the subject of how suspicious minds can slander the authors of good and righteous plans.

But mostly, explain to me how your future Hopewell stands in contrast to the one we had chugging along Monday, May 1. You'll get a sympathetic hearing. No one has a monopoly on wisdom in this or any other town.


One final note. There were no "discrepancies" in any of the publicly available campaign finance information I accessed. I did, in a pre-election story about campaign finance records, state that there were wide disparities in how much was raised and spent by the nine candidates, but as any English teacher will be happy to tell you, "discrepancies" and "disparities" are two different words with two different meanings.

Okay, this dumb-ass rumor is all bloody and battered, but still twitching. The coup de grace is incumbent upon whoever has been bruiting about talk of "discrepancies."

Thank you.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Jimi, Janis and Jim in Rio


God bless Don Parr. The Hopewell realtor finally gave me some answers I'd been seeking for most of a month.

My quest started the day after the May 2 city elections. That's when one of three recipients of Southside Virginia Association of Realtors campaign contributions spoke with me about how Hopewell's pilot Rental Inspection Program might be improved.

Christina Bailey of Ward 1 told me Mr. Parr had been instrumental in helping her procure the SVAR Political Action Committee money, which was fine. But she also shared with me some odd notions of what city council could do relative to residential building code enforcement. For one thing, she seemed to believe that replacement of windows which would not open - or stay open without being propped up - was an infrastructure improvement not every landlord could "afford" to make. She also suggested the city might want to offer tax abatements to landlords with sub-code rental units as a "carrot" to supplement the "stick" of fines.

Don Parr supports neither of those proposals, saying, "I for one would not be comfortable with getting a tax break from the city just for keeping my buildings up to code."

He also, citing safety issues, doubted the wisdom of allowing inoperable window sashes to remain inoperable. "I keep my buildings in excellent shape," he said. "I'm a businessman, and properties are what I buy, sell and lease. Why would I want to let them to deteriorate? That wouldn't make much sense."

Parr said he had personally encouraged the victorious candidates in Wards 1, 3 and 7 to run for office. He was perfectly happy to tell me why he alerted them to the possibility that the SVAR might be willing to support them.

"I thought they were the best candidates for the offices," he explained. He went on to say he thinks Christina Bailey, Kenneth Emerson and Greg Cuffey will do the right thing for all the residents of Hopewell; homeowners, home buyers, home sellers, renters, landlords and, yes, real estate professionals too.

The "real truth?"

Four days after The Hopewell News published a May 4 story about Bailey's suggestions for tweaking the Rental Inspection Program, a pal of mine, acting as an intermediary, delivered a spreadsheet listing all the "Professional Service Expenditures" paid out over the past two years by Hopewell. He told me the spreadsheet had been provided to him by unnamed persons wanted me to grasp the "real truth" about the Wonder City.

I faxed the spreadsheets over to the Virginia Institute of Government and the Virginia Municipal League, asking if they could check them for any obvious waste, fraud or abuse. The response from Associate Director Tedd E. Povar of UVa.'s Virginia Institute of Government, was that it is impossible to tell at a glance whether Hopewell's consultant fees are appropriate for a city our size engaged in projects of the sort Hopewell is.

Povar did also write that the city is audited annually by an outside agency, so the potential for misapplication of tax monies is quite small.

What I find intriguing is that the unnamed persons' response to the May 4 story about Ms. Bailey was not one of concern over her extreme lack of familiarity with the duties and prerogatives of her new job. Instead I was gifted with alleged evidence that the city spends too much money on consultants.

That said, I'm continuing to investigate the possibility that Hopewell is consultant-happy.

Tax abatements?

A bit of research on the subject of tax abatements yielded some interesting conjecture. While I have thus far detected no state law or local ordinance which forbids tax breaks as rewards for fire and/or building code compliance, the experts I've communicated with seem highly skeptical that such would be a legitimate use of tax authority.

Tedd Povar wrote me, "Real estate tax abatements are pretty rare and specific, usually reserved for historic districts or downtown revitalization, enterprise zones, etc. To my knowledge, individual structures not in one of those types of districts or designations are not eligible for that type of tax abatement."

A shadow government?

For over a decade now, I have been treated to persistent rumors about the existence of a "Hopewell shadow government," a small group of moneyed individuals who pull strings and work their will from behind the scenes.

I tend to scoff at such obvious paranoia, just as I scoff at fairy tales about Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison and Janis Joplin cohabitating peacefully and in seclusion somewhere on the continent of South America.

Still, when an intermediary is sent by unnamed parties to deliver alleged dirt on city government, one is inclined to wonder if perhaps a diversionary tactic has been deployed.

One also wonders if perhaps Jimi, Janis and Jim are, even as we speak, sipping Pina Coladas on the beaches of Rio.

Friday, May 19, 2006

PACs, lies and audio tape

Mark Dorroh

Tuesday, May 16, I finally got an official response to a question I asked of the Virginia Association of Realtors back on May 4. I wanted to know the reasoning behind the VAR's $800 Political Action Committee campaign contributions to three Hopewell City Council candidates, so I sent an E-mail to the VAR asking, "why these three candidates?"

A week later, I had received no answer, so I sent a galley proof of the Friday, May 12, Noisy Voice of Reason column to their director of governmental affairs.

That tactic had the desired effect of getting someone's attention. Saturday morning, there was a voice mail message on my cell phone informing me that I needed to talk to the VAR's Southside chapter, the one which had actually authorized the PAC contributions.

Later that same day, during a chat on an unrelated subject, a buddy of mine who works in the real estate profession provided me with the name and cell phone number of a member of the SVAR board of directors. When I called her Saturday afternoon, she was tied up with a client, so I said I'd call her back.

Tuesday morning, I caught up with her via phone and she told me, "The Southside Virginia Association of Realtors has decided to make no comment on our endorsement of those three candidates."

"Those three candidates" are Christina Bailey, Kenneth Emerson and Greg Cuffey, councilors-elect for Hopewell Wards 1, 3 and 7 respectively. The VAR "endorsement" amounted to PAC donations of $2,400 split three ways.

I've said before and will reiterate, I doubt those donations had much of an effect on Hopewell City Council election outcomes. The winners engaged in vigorous G.O.Y.A.A.K.O.D. (Get Off Your [Arrears] And Knock On Doors) campaigns, and their victories had far more to do with hard work and anti-incumbent fever than with the amount of money expended in their respective races.

So my difficulty with this situation is not that I suspect undue influence has been exerted on Hopewell city government by a special interest group. My difficulty is simply that the special interest group representatives I've talked to won't say why those three candidates, out of a field of nine, were singled out to be the beneficiaries of real estate industry campaign contributions.

It's troubling when people won't answer direct, simple questions. It makes one wonder just what it could possibly be that they're unwilling to reveal.

One thing we have ascertained: Ward 1 Councilor-Elect Christina Bailey believes landlords found to have sub-code conditions in their rental properties should either not be required to make repairs at all (she suggests "grandfathering" some buildings; exempting them from code compliance based on their age and/or historical value) or, when forced to improve conditions, landlords might be rewarded with city tax abatements.

I'm not sure if that whole tax abatement idea is legal. The Rental Inspection Program is a creation of our General Assembly, and may include prohibitions against such practices. But Hopewell Mayor Vanessa Justice, for one, doesn't think it would be wise - or fair - to implement.

"If we single out one type of business to reward for complying with city code, what's next?" asked Her Honor. "Why couldn't restaurant owners demand tax abatements as a reward for keeping their kitchens clean?"

Councilor-Elect Bailey made her policy suggestions in a telephone interview with me Wednesday, May 3. Following a rather excited public response, Bailey, according to former Hopewell Mayor Anthony Zevgolis, said the May 4 story in The Hopewell News did not accurately reflect her attitude toward the pilot Rental Inspection Program.

I was pretty sure I had factually reported Bailey's remarks - as well as a second telephone interview with Zevgolis later that same day - but hey, I'm just a rapidly aging Republican media creep w/attitude, trying to keep one step ahead of The Reaper. So maybe I fluffed it. Heaven knows it wouldn't be the first time.

It was in that "keep me honest" spirit that I hand-delivered a copy of an audio tape of our phone interview to Christina Bailey the afternoon of Saturday, May 13. I invited her to listen to it and get back to me when she identified any misquotes, out-of-context paraphrases or plain & fancy lies I might have incorporated into the story.

Just as soon as she shows me where the errors in the story occurred, I'll publish a correction or clarification. As of Thursday morning, my deadline for filing this column, it's been nearly five days since I handed her the tape and I haven't heard a peep out of her. That's okay. I can wait.

A regular reader of The Hopewell News told me last week, "Keep on writing the truth, Mark. My mother always used to say, 'the truth will out.'"


Thursday, May 18, 2006

A couple of questions for the Virginia Association of Realtors

Mark Dorroh

In general, I approve of the work done by Political Action Committees and lobbyists. A lot of people blame those organizations for everything that's wrong with the Republic, but without them, groups sharing interests would have precious little chance to let government know exactly how a given tax regulation or proposed law would affect them, their needs, interests and livelihoods.

So the day before the city elections, I didn't make a big deal out of the $800 contributions given by the Political Action Committee of the Virginia Association of Realtors to three of our Hopewell City Council candidates. (Full disclosure: all three of them advertised extensively in The Hopewell News). I provided the information, then left it to the voters to make up their own minds.

I told you that so I could tell you this: Last week, following up on inquiries from alert readers, I asked the recipients of the PAC contributions their attitudes toward the pilot Rental Inspection Program in Ward 1. Two of the councilors-elect said they needed to give the program closer scrutiny before stating opinions. The third councilor-elect, who, as it happens, will represent Ward 1, declared the program needed some tweaking.

Asked for specifics, she cited remarks from renters who have told her they feel their privacy is violated when city inspectors come into their homes and peek into their closets. The councilor-elect also cited windows which will not open and/or will not stay open by themselves as code violations Hopewell landlords should not be fined for failure to repair. Her proposed solution was that city council might look into a "grandfathering" policy for older rental properties.

She also thought it might be good to reward with tax abatements those landlords who obey city ordinance provisions and make the repairs.

I have a question or two about those opinions.

On the proposal to grandfather in older buildings, one is naturally inclined to inquire, aren't older properties the exact ones which need the most repairs? So wouldn't grandfathering in the older buildings - allowing their owners to violate city code and pay no fines - pretty much gut the Rental Inspection Program?

Also, if these landlords are offered tax abatements as a "carrot," wouldn't the rest of the taxpayers have to make up for the missing revenues?

And finally, shouldn't apartment and rental house parents be secure in the knowledge that their windows will open when necessary? How about window sashes which stay open without having to be propped up with something your average, active six-year-old child might regard as a highly desirable plaything? We all know anything you tell kids to "leave alone" will be the first thing they'll mess with the minute you leave the room.

A window sash unexpectedly falling shut upon a little hand (or a little neck) is a scenario which would give parents, whether they own or rent their homes, a case of the Extreme Willies.

For the record, the Ward 1 councilor-elect claimed she was not beholden to any campaign contributor, and indeed, from what I've been told, the election had less to do with campaign war chests than with anti-incumbent fever and a solid, grassroots, "shoe leather campaign." The winners went door-to-door, they participated in public debates and they prevailed because their voters were motivated to get to the polls May 2.

Even so, I wanted to know if the VAR supported stated positions on rental inspections. So the afternoon of May 4, I E-mailed an interrogatory to John Broadway, VAR director of governmental affairs.

In it, I asked, "Does your association have a policy in regard to the pilot Rental Inspection Program in Ward 1 of Hopewell? [One councilor-elect] indicated in a Wednesday interview that requiring landlords to bring up to city code the properties in which their renters live may impose an unacceptably high financial burden ... She mentioned as remedies grandfathering ... older properties, as well as tax abatements for landlords who comply with inspection requirements. Are these policies of your organization?"

I advised Mr. Broadway I would like a response within 14 hours (Thursday 4 p.m. - Friday, 6 a.m.) so I could try to stitch together a Friday, May 5 story.

When a response failed to materialize, I had nothing on which to base a news feature, so I blew off the Friday story and decided to drop back and punt.

I'm notifying the VAR (as of Thursday, May 11), via an E-mail copy of this column, that Mr. Broadway or his designated hitter is welcome to take as long as necessary in crafting replies to my questions. When those answers hit my E-mail in box, I'll share them with you.

Between now and then, if rent your home in City Point and have windows that don't work so well, you should - especially if you have small children in your home - call your landlord and tell him about it.

Or maybe call the city and invite an inspector over to have a look. Once he's eyeballed it for himself, he'll be sure to get in contact with your landlord.

Also, in coming months and years, if Hopewell City Council considers expanding the Rental Inspection Program into other wards, you might want to show up make comments at the public hearing.

Friday, May 05, 2006

Windfall profits, price gouging and wounded minnows

Mark Dorroh

Here we go again. The price of a vital commodity has shot up due to market pressures so a bunch of people who should know better are looking around for someone to blame.

In point of fact, the law of supply and demand is a lot like the law of gravity. It can be ignored, but it will profoundly affect our lives with or without our approval.

Over the past 50 years, increases in oil prices have pretty much followed the same track as general inflation. Even serious spikes such as the one caused by the OPEC embargo of 1973 tended to flatten out in the fullness of time. During the 1990s, not counting a brief bump upwards around the time of Operation Desert Storm, price hikes were stuck well below the general rate of inflation due to OPEC member nations' inability to stick to production schedules. For a good many years the price of a gallon at the pump fluctuated between $1 and a $1.30. That's about the same dollar amount we paid in 1980. Adjusted for inflation, that would be something in excess of $2.50 in 2006 prices.

Not to put too fine a point on it, gasoline, for most of the 1990s, was a stone bargain.

So what has changed to kick up today's pump prices above the general rate of inflation? Specific contributing factors include:

• Americans love our gas guzzlers. When OPEC couldn't get its act together and the resulting prices for gas stayed artificially low, everybody and his cousin Sam went out and bought a Rampage 3000 SUV or a Mega-Leviathan pick-em-up truck. Even as our sedans and compact cars were getting more and more miles per gallon, the average miles per gallon of all the vehicles in the country were being held nearly static, while a growing population of drivers put more and more vehicles on the road. Thirsty light trucks and SUVs now account for fully one-half of all new vehicles sold. Blame the (recently closed) loopholes in the feds' fleet mileage standards if you wish, but mostly, supply and demand are having their way with us.

• Two socialist nations, China and India, finally realized their command-and-control economies were messing with the workplace practices and ethics of some of the smartest, hardest-working people on the planet. So they've been allowing industry and trade to flourish via relaxed state regulation. Those policies, predictably, have sent productivity skyrocketing. All this is happening in the two most populous nations on earth, and their rapidly expanding economies are now slurping up unprecedented amounts of oil.

And all that brings us back to what, class?

Oh come on, let's not always see the same hands.

Yes, very good. Supply and demand.

But when things go wrong, it is human nature to try to identify the scalawags responsible. So there are now outraged demands for yet another probe into allegations of oil company price gouging. Every single time this has been done over the past 30 years (with the exception of Enron's diddling about in California, which we'll get to in a minute), it has been determined that oil companies were making reasonable, non-gouging profits.*

Then there are the windfall profit tax advocates, those of us who think we ought to take away depreciation allowances and/or otherwise place more tax burdens on the oil industry. I have two questions to pose to those people:

1. Increasing the oil companies' cost of doing business will result in lowering the price of their products ... how?

2. When you sell your house (after enjoying years of substantial tax breaks for your mortgage interest payments) and make a 300 percent profit on its appreciation, should you pay a windfall profit tax?*

If not, why not?

Now, on the Enron-California debacle: The shortages and attendant panic which attracted corporate shysters were caused by a peculiar confluence of circumstances, some man-made, others not.

First, three years of lower-than-usual precipitation in the mountains whose melting snow powers west coast hydroelectric plants left that production sector short of juice. Also, a transmission line bottleneck - left unaddressed for years - was still screwing up delivery in some areas. Then there was the shutdown of several power plants for scheduled maintenance.

Finally, the state crafted the world's worst power company deregulation policies. California created a system that encouraged providers to buy on spot markets instead of locking in long-term rates. Oh yes, and there had been no construction of a single new power plant in decades (NIMBY strikes again).

So California limited its supply of electricity while simultaneously experiencing a huge increase in demand. When that caused prices to go through the roof, predators showed up and took advantage of the situation.

This should surprise no one. As every fresh water fisherman knows, one of the best ways to attract predators to the hook is to spin-cast a lure that thrashes the water like a wounded minnow.

So the big question becomes, "Who wounded California's minnows and attracted all those hungry largemouth bass in the first place?"

* A tip of the Noisy Voice topper to Columnist Barton Hinkle.