We’re barely halfway into September, and it has NOT been a good month for the city of Richmond’s Navy Hill downtown development proposal.
(My own very brief take on Rao’s role in this much-discussed issue: this isn’t a problem of plagiarism, but one of disclosure. Rao betrayed the public’s trust by presenting a developer’s talking points as his own, dispassionate and disinterested opinion. This is, as the kids say, so not Gucci.)
But there have been other setbacks. For example, this week Ben Campbell and John Moeser publicly came out against the proposal in their own carefully argued RTD op-ed. Although their opposition is not exactly a surprise, the project’s boosters can’t be happy about being accused by respected members of the city's (white) establishment of “cashing in Navy Hill.” (The project’s use of the name of a black neighborhood destroyed by urban renewal has been something of a concern from the beginning.)
And two other incidents in the past week suggest that while the wheels are not exactly coming off, they just might be a bit loose.
At a meeting earlier this week, City Council member Mike Jones proposed adding Virginia Union University President Hakim J. Lucas to the commission that would review the proposal for the Council, presumably instead of one of the applicants selected by the commission chairs.
The problem: Lucas signed his name to another ghost-written op-ed in support of the project. He’s not exactly the kind of impartial expert the Council imagined when they drew up this commission. (I should also point out while he may be a fine university president, he lacks any of the qualifications the Council stated they were looking for in commission members.)
According to the RTD’s Mark Robinson, Jones said he was “concerned about the diversity of the commission, citing phone calls he received from African American ministers.” But comments he later made on Twitter suggest that Jones also worries about some of the relationships the commission applicants had with each other. (Plus there remains grumbling on the social meds about the commission’s impartiality after the commission chair’s wife posted a negative comment online about Navy Hill using her husband’s account.)
But as the RTD’s Michael Paul Williams pointed out in a column this week, there’s another interpretation of what’s going on here: Jones looks like he’s fronting for the developers and/or the Mayor. It’s not like the developers would mind it if the council commission becomes mired in political infighting or concerns about objectivity; anything that could call the commission’s results into question, assuming it has anything negative to say about the deal, is good for the project.
As Williams admits, the Jones-as-frontman idea sounds conspiratorial, and is pretty unlikely. But I wonder less about Jones’ motivations and more about the fact that four of his colleagues — Addison, Hilbert, Newbille, and especially Ellen Robertson — seemed to endorse the selection of Lucas. So a majority of the council is unhappy with the makeup of their own commission, selected according to their own criteria? Williams points to the op-eds to note that “the behavior of the project’s boosters has become increasingly heavy-handed.” In that context, people will begin to wonder about how many council members have already made up their minds about the proposal.
And speaking of heavy hands, the other big development of the week is the city’s decision to appeal a FOIA case against local gadfly Paul Goldman to the Virginia Supreme Court.
The first thing to note about this case is that Goldman has already won it! Goldman used a Freedom of Information Act request to demand documents related to the city’s Navy Hill proposal. While the city had already provided these to the RTD for a nominal fee, they wanted to charge Goldman almost $2,000. This is obvious stonewalling, and a bad look for the Stoney administration, especially since the negotiations with the developers had already been concluded.
And look, I get it: Goldman can be a grandstanding pain in the ass. But he’s also a citizen of the city, and transparency is important. The whole point of FOIA is to expose things that government would rather keep secret (and shady).
So if the city already lost their case to Goldman, and the Navy Hill documents are now out in the public domain as Goldman intended, why appeal the case? The city says they want to set a precedent, to help protect future negotiations. Maybe that’s a good idea going forward – although I doubt it. Again, most governments prioritize secrecy over transparency way more than is healthy for a functioning democracy.
But here again I wonder about the politics of this move. Even if you think it’s a bad precedent, does the Mayor really think this is the best time to prove a point? Dragging Goldman into court to continue to punish him for challenging the deal again looks petty and vindictive, not to mention like a warning to anyone else who would “cross” Navy Hill.
There are probably mostly coincidences here, but they overlap with that “heavy handed” approach from the Mayor and developers. Add everything up, and you get the sense that the boosters of Navy Hill can’t just let the debate about the project play out, and feel the need to goose things a little bit. Maybe that’s a sign of strength, and that they will eventually win out. Or maybe it’s a sign of desperation; as the hits keep on coming, and the longer this drags out, the more the boosters stand to lose. We’ll see soon if the hands get heavier.