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.'"


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