Baseball all but dead in Richmond

I've written a number of times about the stadium battle in Richmond. But some new developments in the past week or two have quietly put what is likely the final nail in the coffin for baseball in Richmond.

Quick recap: the Richmond Flying Squirrels (one of the most minor leaguish names ever) are the double-A affiliate of the San Francisco Giants, and play in an aging stadium on prime real estate in the center of Richmond. Back in November of 2013, the Mayor Dwight Jones revealed a plan for moving the stadium to another part of the city. The idea had little political support, though, and eventually was withdrawn.

Lately, city officials seemed to be leaning more towards a private plan that would redevelop the current site and build a new ballpark there. But developments in recent months suggest that even that plan is unlikely to end up on the city's agenda.

City Council member Kathy Graziano sent a newsletter to her 4th district residents in January that quietly reflects this shift. Graziano's particular political genius is constituent service, and her newsletter is usually full of the minor details of city living - meetings, recycling information, and tax rebate reminders. But this month's issue included an unusual page-long explanation of her position on the stadium issue.

The key problem for Graziano: revenue for the city. Of the current stadium site, she wrote, "Presently used for 71 baseball games a year, this over 60-acre site produces less revenue than one block in the fan." So how best to develop the site in order to fund services for a growing city?

Graziano is absolutely right here, by the way. Urban politics are all about development - economic development in the broad sense, certainly, but land use above all else. Cities have it particularly hard in the sense that they serve as economic and cultural centers of their regions, but the surrounding localities (I'm looking at you, Henrico and Chesterfield County) don't want to contribute to any of the costs of those central activities. And so it should be no surprise that Graziano calls out these counties: "Is it the responsibility of the city to use its most valuable revenue-producing tract of land to provide a non-revenue producing amenity for the region?"

Back in November, the Mayor's Press Secretary conveyed a similar sentiment when she wrote this in an e-mail: “Let’s be clear that our starting point of the Boulevard conversation is what is the best use of that property for the citizens of Richmond, not whether it is the best site for baseball." This suggests that the Mayor, often the loudest proponent of keeping baseball in Richmond, may not be paying attention anymore.

The Squirrels clearly do have local support; even with all the rumblings about the stadium, they led the league in attendance in 2015 (for the third time in six years). But if the Mayor has all but abandoned his stadium plans, and even strong supporters of the Mayor like Kathy Graziano are moving on, the best bet is that the Flying Squirrels will soon do the same.

RPS needs data

My friend and fellow academic Craig Larson published an op-ed in the Richmond Times-Dispatch earlier this month. His simple claim is that Richmond Public Schools administrators are missing something essential when educating the city's kids: data. According to Larson:

What is needed are good intentions based on knowledge — knowledge of what works (and what hasn’t worked) — and this can’t be accomplished without research.

Earlier in the year, I pointed out to a School Board member that Richmond Public Schools Superintendent Dana Bedden’s Academic Improvement Plan (AIP) did not appear to be based on any research. The superintendent’s office ultimately sent us both a list of bullet points and notes culled from various educational experts — but with no data or analysis. With a $271 million annual budget, RPS should be doing more substantial research.

Coincidentally, the day after Craig's op-ed was published, the Mayor came out and essentially blamed the City Council for breaking the city's budget by throwing money at schools. By shifting money for hiring to schools instead, Jones argued, the city is now having trouble with basic services like trash pick-up. Council member Chris Hilbert called it a "manufactured crisis," and of course Jones should not be pointing fingers about finances considering the city's recent track record. But it raises the question how RPS is using the money, and whether the school system has any idea of what best practice might be.

One of the best -- and ONLY -- sources of data we have on RPS is John Butcher's Cranky Taxpayer blog. Butcher has been doing this for a while (see this 2011 Style Weekly profile), but he seems as ignored as ever. I don't necessarily agree with Butcher's assumptions or approach. He emphasizes test scores too much for my liking (see here for a few million reasons why that's a problem). But in his defense, that's the data we have, and at least Butcher is looking at it. Of course, his results aren't good for Richmond's schools.

So RPS needs more data. This is exactly the kind of opportunity that a smart academic -- or academic center -- could take advantage of, because it's the kind of thing we do well. There are experts in education and education practice that could conduct this research - or even just disseminate the research from other localities that might seem applicable. (I'd ask for the job myself, but my gig is politics.)

Court intrigue at RVA City Council?

Richmond City Council President Charles Samuels has made his political bones by opposing the Mayor, particularly on the Shockoe Stadium project. Is it coming back to bite him?

The Richmond Free Press reported on Tuesday that first-term Councilmember Michelle Mosby was organizing what amounts to a coup against Samuels. She apparently has enough votes to become the Council's first African American female President when council members elect new officers in January. Reporter Jeremy Lazarus quotes a source as saying that "the votes are firm."

In a follow-up article on Wednesday, Style Weekly's Ned Oliver couldn't confirm the report. But if true, this could dramatically change the nature of the Council's relationship with the administration. Just a few of the dynamics going on here:

  • Mosby is a bit of an unknown. She's inexperienced -- fellow RVA politics watcher Silver Persinger calls her "easily flustered" -- and it's not clear what her goals might be as President. She's focused somewhat on social justice issues, and had a big victory this summer when the Council approved her "ban the box" legislation, eliminating the requirement that felons report their convictions on many city job applications.
  • Longtime Council Veep Ellen Robertson probably wanted the job, Lazarus reports, but couldn't find the votes. She's apparently willing to step down in favor of Chris Hilbert and support Mosby if she can gain a leadership position on a Council committee, where she might have more influence over policy matters.
  • Interestingly, Mosby fired Robertson's former liaison, John Westbrook, earlier this year. (She replaced him with Uzziah Harris, who she described as her pastor and life-long friend, but is also her roommate, which raised eyebrows at the time.) Whatever was going on there, there's apparently not enough bad blood to prevent Robertson from getting behind Mosby.
  • Samuels seemed to be positioning himself as a contrasting voice in city leadership to Jones -- and possibly a mayoral candidate. He can certainly continue to speak out against the Mayor, but losing the President's chair means he heads into the next election cycle in a much weaker position.
  • Parker Agelesto was another of those opposition voices during the stadium battle who seemed to have his eye on the Mayor's office. But he's named by the Free Press article as one of Mosby's supporters. It's possible to see this as a move to weaken Samuels, but it's hard to know; he, like other council members, may just be tired of feeling "short-changed" by Samuels, who Lazarus' sources say seems to favor some members over others.
  • Finally, there's the role of Mayor Jones. His M.O. in the past has been to help place favorable allies in powerful city positions. Whether he has anything to do with Council intrigue is unknown, but he certainly would favor a Council run by Mosby, who has been much more conciliatory towards the administration than Samuels. A change in leadership could lead to another push by Jones to revive his dormant stadium plan. (Urban politics are, above all, the politics of development.)

Things Fall Apart

Can it get any worse for Richmond Mayor Dwight Jones? He's been outmaneuvered on his pet stadium project, sparring with the school board over budget priorities, and was even dinged in his role as state party chair.

Now the city's head administrative official, Byron Marshall, has been pushed out. Marshall, whose job was Chief Administrative Officer, was supposed to be the power behind the throne for the Mayor. (Style Weekly once called him the Mayor's consigliere.)

 Marshall had been criticized for mishandling the Mayor's stadium proposal, particularly by the City Council, for not releasing enough information. If the Mayor was counting on Marshall to come up with a complete plan for him, that did not work out well.

Why is Marshall gone? Style Weekly's Ned Oliver suggests the Mayor might be shifting blame to Marshall over the stadium debacle. Marshall also was investigated, although legally cleared, of monkeying with a colleague's pension plan. (No one is saying anything clear about Marshall's relationship to former city finance official Sharon Ludkins. But when Marshall was forced by the mayor to fire Ludkins, he tried to improperly add a sick leave payout to her compensation.)

Marshall's departure is the Mayor's tenure in microcosm. The city's administration is in disarray, with a complete lack of information and transparency. (So complete a lack, in fact, that City Council members were asked to sign a confidentiality agreement before being briefed on Marshall's departure.)

The mess even has some, like RTD columnist Michael Paul Williams, calling for reforms:

Under Jones, a perfectly good police chief (Bryan Norwood) was shown the door, and a popular community development director (Rachel O. Flynn) was effectively demoted before her departure. Such power plays are the prerogative of a strong mayor.

But when that power is used to place a cone of silence over elected officials, and to keep the public in the dark, it’s time to question the system we’ve embraced.

But let's not be too hasty. Before changing our governmental structure, I'd like to wait until we have a mayor who actually seems to know what they're doing. The problem here isn't the strong mayor system, but our not-so-strong Mayor Jones.

RVA stadium battle is also about legislative power

The big issue in Richmond politics these days: squirrels. Flying ones.

A short recap: late last year, Mayor Dwight Jones introduced a plan to create a publicly-funded minor league ballpark in the historic Shockoe Bottom district in downtown Richmond. The Flying Squirrels, a double-A affiliate of the San Francisco Giants, plays in a somewhat-decrepit stadium elsewhere in the city. He tied the plan to the development of both the Shockoe area around the stadium, and the Boulevard site where the current stadium stands. Ostensibly to gather further support for the plan, he threw in a museum commemorating historic slave sites in Shockoe.

The big problem: to get the plan passed, the mayor needed at least a majority of the City Council to support it. And he didn't have the votes. So he had to withdraw the plan, supposedly for re-tooling. It was a huge political defeat for the Mayor. He staked his entire second term on this proposal, and he doesn't seem to have a Plan B (although according to Paul Goldman, he's crafting a plan to get the 5th City Council vote he needs).

Now a private developer has introduced a new plan to build a stadium at the original Boulevard site, using private funding. (Although also including lots of tax dollars through incentives and paybacks. Nothing in stadium financing is ever entirely private.) This makes it even harder for the mayor's plan to go forward.

As I told the Richmond Times-Dispatch last month, the stadium battle presents a political opportunity for City Council members looking to distinguish themselves. Both the First District's Jon Baliles and Council President Charles Samuels seem to be using their opposition to the mayor's proposal to build a bigger profile in the city. (To be fair, they may also think it's a bad idea. Not everyone in politics is a Frank Underwood.) Today, Baliles continued to outflank Jones by suggesting that, in a separate deal, the city buy some Shockoe land for future development.

Richmond's government is relatively new; the city only went to a "strong-mayor" model, with a separately elected Council and mayor, in 2005. The rules for power-sharing among branches are not well-developed, especially because Doug Wilder's rocky term as Mayor did not really establish any precedents. This means that entrepreneurial legislators like Baliles can seize the initiative from the supposedly more powerful Administration, particularly if the head of that Administration doesn't line up either Council votes or public support for their chief policies.

So while we're walking the usual terrain for urban politics - development and more development -- we're also watching two branches of government fighting for the upper hand. It might be fun to watch if you're not on the hook for the resulting tax bill.