Noise Ordinance Found Unconstitutional

Rachel DePompa – bio | email

Attorney Steven Benjamin has been leading the charge for months now, consistently lambasting the city’s new noise ordinance as “unconstitutional”. He gave countless interviews to media outlets and even took up a case for free to fight it. Sure enough, a judge agreed with him this week.

Richmond General District Chief Judge Robert Pustilnik declared the ordinance unconstitutional. He ruled it was  too broad and unfairly promotes religion.

The ordinance prohibits noise that can be heard 50 feet away after 11:00 at night. Violators face a class 2 misdemeanor and up to 6 months in jail. The ordinance allows for religious music, church bells and organs to be heard at anytime.

Steven Benjamin said after the hearing, “The city’s ordinance is completely unconstitutional on its face. It criminalizes noise that one makes within one’s own home and it advances religion and religious noise. The ordinance makes it impossible for people to know whether the sounds they make in their daily living are lawful sounds or not.”

Judge Pustilnik gave the city until December 14th to appeal his ruling to Circuit Court. If no appeal is made then Pustilnik will dismiss the charges against the four band members. Either way, it appears City Council will have to take up the issue again.  Assistant City Attorney Greg Lukanuski says the city will take its time deciding whether or not to appeal.

Steven Benjamin said, “I hope the city will make the responsible decision and not waste anymore time defending this ridiculous thing, and will instead go to work and give us the noise ordinance that we deserve.”

In a statement issued shortly after the ruling, Councilman Charles Samuels (who led the way for reforming the noise ordinance) said he was, ” disappointed by the outcome, but respects the judge’s decision.” Samuels went on to say, ” Much has been made of the issue with our city’s current noise law. After the Virginia Supreme Court’s Tanner decision nullified the “unreasonably loud” standard in 2009, I worked with the city attorney’s office to review what other options we had. Since April I have been meeting with a workgroup to craft a new noise ordinance which I hope to introduce in December or January of 2011. ”

Here’s a link to a blog with more information on the “Tanner Decision” from the fine folks at VA Lawyers Weekly.

Advertisements

2 Comments

Filed under City Council, City Hall, Noise Ordinance

Richmond’s Deskgate 2010

Rachel DePompa – bio | email

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.

The Allegations:

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.”

J.R. Pope:

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.

Reaction:

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.”

2 Comments

Filed under Audit, City Investigation

City Loses Financial Guru

Rachel DePompa – bio | email

One day after I write about the lack of stability in the city’s “Economic Development Director” position, we lose another one. Marcus Jones, the city’s Chief Administrative Officer for Finance, is leaving for a BIG promotion. He’s been hired to run the day-to-day operations of the city of Norfolk.

In a statement released late this afternoon, Mayor Dwight Jones (no relation to Marcus) called Jones’ new job, “bittersweet”. Mayor Jones went on to say, “When I recruited Marcus to Richmond, I knew what a great talent we were bringing to our city. The work that he has done over the past 16 months has met or surpassed every expectation that I had…. This is clearly an important  move for Marcus’ career, and he deserves this opportunity to ascend to the city manager role.”

Marcus Jones

Mayor Jones tapped Marcus to be his CAO of Finance soon after taking office. Marcus Jones came to Richmond from Norfolk, so it’s not a surprise he’d want to go back.  Marcus is leaving, just as the city is about to embark on its all important budget process. Mayor Jones says Marcus Jones will be missed. No word tonight on how long the city plans to take to fill this new opening.

1 Comment

Filed under Breaking News, City Hall Talk

Search Continues for Economic Guru

Rachel DePompa – bio | email

Help Wanted:

The job’s been open for more than a year. The city is still  looking for a “Director of Economic Development”. We learned today that a candidate was flown in, interviewed and offered the job, but was unable to accept for personal reasons. So, the city’s moved on to another person. 

The news came out today at a lunch between the Mayor and City Council. Councilman Chris Hilbert wanted to know why the job has been so hard to fill. He credited the Mayor’s ability to keep people in their jobs and stop the turnover, but wondered if that particular position had a “reputation”. The Mayor and Chief Administrative Officer, Byron Marshall, admitted it’s because that position has not been stable for years. Marshall said, “prior to this administration and even the last administration, there have just been a number of Economic Development Directors. It’s like a revolving door and that gives people pause.”

Mayor Jones urged patience and said the city is close to finally filling the position. And he said, “we ought not to imply that economic development is not going on. It will be great to have that one other person in the shop as another tool in our tool kit, but economic development is aggressively taking place.”

Marshall added that he’s been looking for a specific set of skills. He says this job is not just about attracting big companies. It’s also about bringing in small businesses and growing the ones that are already here.

I hear there could be an announcement by the end of the month.

1 Comment

Filed under City Council, City Hall, Dwight Jones, Uncategorized

Mayor Wants New Budget Deadline

Rachel DePompa – bio | email

It seems like I need an office at City Hall because I’m about to start spending a lot more time in the building. Fall proposals and deadlines are ramping up and budget time is already here. Mayor Dwight Jones officially began the process today, by asking City Council members for more time to put together his 2011 budget.  He said, “This will be the first, truly, outcome based budget that Richmond has ever had. We’re not just putting numbers together. We have goals and priorities to meet.”

The Mayor is asking the council to allow him to present his final budget proposal on April 7th. By law, the council has to pass a budget by May 31st. The  mayor is also offering to hold more joint meetings with council members during the budget process.

Councilman Marty Jewell says he doesn’t mind extending the Mayor’s deadline. He said, “It’s a good idea. Usually we wait until February/March to get his budget. Well, this way we’re able to input into that budget all year-long.”

Council member Chris Hilbert says he’s concerned about not having enough time. He said, “This is a big, thick, document that we have to go through line by line and we owe it to the taxpayers to be able to deliberate over that.”

Bruce Tyler also says April 7th is too late to wait for the budget report. Tyler added, “It’s going to be very difficult for us to ask questions and get good answers back. So, I believe we need to roll it back to the traditional date.”

City Council members will have the final say on this issue. The mayor must formally submit the proposal and it must be approved by the council.

Leave a comment

Filed under Budget, City Council, City Hall, Dwight Jones

Summer Vacation Over, Council Falls back into Action

Rachel DePompa – bio | email

I took a little vacation from blogging since there were no City Council meetings in August. I’m back and ready to keep you up to date on the goings on at City Hall! And there’s much to talk about. For one, that 6.7 million dollar surplus. Mayor Dwight Jones says, “I think it’s wonderful news for the city. We want to be a triple bond rated city and that’s going to require us to be very fiscally responsible.”  The Mayor recommended the money go towards a few programs and that two million was set aside for an emergency fund, which City Council approved on Monday.

Also announced this week, Richmond was awarded $2.4 million in Neighborhood Stabilization funds from the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development to address foreclosed and abandoned properties in the Highland Park, Barton Heights and Church Hill neighborhoods. Twenty foreclosed properties are being renovated with the hope of getting them rented out or even possible sold.  According to a release from the city, marketing and sale of the properties will be provided to income qualified households for homeownership at a discounted price.  Down payment and closing cost incentives will be available to qualified buyers.

And here’s a list of  the homes being renovated…

Church Hill:

2616 P Street /1309 N. 23rd Street/ 822,824,826 N. 27th  Street/ 1220 30th Street/ 1435 N. 32nd Street/1305 N. 37th Street

Highland Park:

3600 Delaware Ave/3315 Florida Ave/1030 Fourqurean Lane/3020 Garland Avenue/ 509 Gladstone Ave/1805 Rose Ave/1700 4th Ave/ 1201 Spruce Street/1203 Willow Street

Barton Heights:

206 Home Street/ 1802 Monteiro Avenue/ 3023 Montrose Avenue

Leave a comment

Filed under City Council, City Hall Talk, Dwight Jones

City’s Noise Ordinance Challenged

Rachel DePompa – bio | email

The city’s new noise ordinance went into effect February 22nd. Since that time, Richmond Police have handed out 105 citations to homeowners and motorists. Today, the law was supposed to face its first major challenge in court. The members of the band, “Little Master” were ticketed April 4th. Tim Morris, 29, bass player Leah Clancy, 28, and drummer Michael Bourlotos, 24, were playing at a house party on West  Clay Street. The home was rented by Rozalia Janicki, who was also cited. Their attorney, Steven Benjamin, says, “Police essentially forced their way into this home, where they had no permission to enter and without a search warrant.” He goes on to say that the police, “demanded identification, questioned everyone and over the protest of the owner, they searched every room of the that house.”

Benjamin is arguing that the city’s noise ordinance is too vague and violates first amendment rights. In court today, Nicholas Simopoulus with the city attorney’s office, said the ordinance is not unconstitutional and indicated the city plans to fight the challenge.

The ordinance was passed by the City Council under the guidance of the City Attorney. Under the ordinance, any noise after 11pm and before 7 am should only be heard by the person making the noise. Violators face up to a thousand dollar fine and 6 months in jail.

The band was charged five  months ago and the case has been delayed three times. Today, an assistant city attorney showed up and asked for a continuance. Judge Phillip Hairston was upset and said, “the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office could have been more prepared,” but he faulted the City attorney’s office for not being ready. Legal arguments were supposed to have been filed months ago, but the city did not file anything. The judge said he would consider dismissing the charges against the band, but the members asked him not to.  Tim Morris told me outside the courtroom, “It’s important that we get a ruling from the judge, so that we all know in the future as, citizens, musicians and artists, what this ruling means to us as individuals and what it means to our city.”

Judge Hairston rescheduled the case for October 18th. He says he wants arguments from both sides and plans to make a ruling.

Leave a comment

Filed under Noise Ordinance