A $36,000 desk is at the center of the latest Richmond controversy. I’m dubbing it ”Deskgate“. Technically the desk cost $11,000 to build. (technically it’s not finished, is the wrong size and needs to be re-built) (technically the desk cost 11,000 because of overtime). You get to that $36,000 figure if you count the $25,000 the city had to pay when one of the people building it suffered a groin injury with a saw. (not going to get into more detail about that). Seriously, I’m getting a headache and as Councilman Chris Hilbert said today, “You absolutely can’t make this stuff up.”
Deskgate started yesterday evening when City Auditor Umesh Dalal released his latest investigation. Two scathing reports that blast the city’s department of Parks and Recreation for mis-use of taxpayer money. Then came word that the department’s director of five years, J.R. Pope, resigned. I’m told by multiple sources the auditor’s report played a role in his resignation, but was not the only reason.
A new desk was ordered up for the Pine Camp Community Center in North Richmond. Two employees spent 135 hours of overtime to build the desk. The hours were approved by several levels of management, including the Superintendent of Citywide Maintenance, the Operations Manager and the Director of Parks, Recreation and Community Facilities, J.R. Pope. The city auditor estimates the desk could have been built-in 40 hours by a trained carpenter. The auditor calls the whole ordeal “unnecessary” and alleges it was “made to collect overtime pay.”
The report also highlights the mis-use of city owned vehicles. The undercover investigation revealed that over 20 days a vehicle was taken outside City limits to Henrico or Chesterfield 18 times, 16 trips were made during work hours. One trip was made to Chesterfield County so the employee could look at buying a new car. The auditor says there appears to be a lack of management oversight.
Mayor Dwight Jones responded to the report immediately saying the allegations are of “great concern. We hate to see these kinds of problems take place, and we want to act quickly to correct and improve operations. Thus far, we have placed the Department of Parks and Recs under the interim direction of Deputy CAO Dr. Carolyn Graham. A national search for a new director will take place immediately. Disciplinary hearings have been ordered for the employees involved in the improper incidents.”
Pope was appointed by former Mayor Doug Wilder and has been with the city for 5 years. We’re told Pope is not interested in speaking publicly at this time. The date of his resignation is not known, and I’m told it is partly to do with the investigation, but that there are several other reasons for his departure.
The $36,000 desk was for the Pine Camp Community Center in Councilman Chris Hilbert’s district. He says, “it’s outrageous!” Hilbert has been fighting for years for lighting to be added to the parking lot for the center. “A registration desk means nothing to the people who come to Pine Camp. If we waste money on a desk, we can put in lights out there to secure the safety of the people.” He went on to say, ” We need lighting, We need performing arts programs and fine arts programs.”
City Council President Kathy Graziano is also upset at the waste of time and resources. She says, “Clearly there was a management problem here and it’s the responsibility of the Administration to address that. This is why we have an auditor and that’s why we need to keep going into these departments, making sure that our management team has management skills and that taxpayer dollars are being put to the best use.”
And some who worked closely with Pope say the wrong man was let go. They question why Pope resigned, but no other people who signed off on overtime or actually abused city resources is gone. Chris Hull is the president of the James River Outdoor Coalition. He says, “No one supports the mismanagement of city funds, money is tight, but we’d also like to recognize the many tremendous things that he (Pope) has done for our city over the years.”
Maureen Egan is the President of Friends of the James River Park, a volunteer organization. She says, “I honestly think the wrong guy has left. I’m saddened by his leaving and I wish the Mayor had not accepted his resignation.” She says Pope was honored by a state agency in September for his work on city parks. His department was also honored by the Alliance to Conserve Old Richmond Neighborhoods, (A.C.O.R.N.) just last week. Egan sites Pope’s work on the Forest Hill lake restoration as an example. “That is a project that came in under budget, $145,000 dollars under budget, and ahead of schedule.” She goes on to say, “He understood that people want to take pride in their parks and he brought that to Richmond in a way that hadn’t been obvious before.”