GOLDMAN: Does Jones’ plan for Monroe Park break the law?

Posted at 9:59 AM, Dec 26, 2013
and last updated 2013-12-26 09:59:00-05

RICHMOND, Va. (WTVR) – Is Mayor Jones and his Administration secretly scheming for ways to break the law? According to the website, they intend to lease Monroe Park – the oldest in the city sitting on first acquired by Richmond in 1851 – to the Monroe Park Conservancy for 30 years at a nominal rent. Let me see if I understand: The Mayor says the city can afford to build a “free” baseball stadium for the Squirrels but we can not longer afford to pay for the upkeep and operation of Monroe Park without having to lease it to a private entity.

What the heck is going on in Richmond under the Jones Administration? We have the most expensive city hall in the state, costing us $10 million a year at least more than comparable according to the State Auditor. Even the Richmond Times Dispatch finally joins me in echoing concerns about how this Mayor goes about these kinds of things.

Fact: The Mayor’s people have been adding $millions in jobs for friends, and in contracts for those with political connections, the money is staggering when you add it all up. If you just cut some of this fat, cut out some of this influence, we could fix up Monroe Park and the other parks without getting on a very slippery legal slope as will be discussed below. .

So I ask again: What the heck is going on in Richmond? I see where it has been suggested that City Council only meet once a month. Why have them meet at all at this rate?

Back to the law: A 30 year lease may very well violate the Virginia State Constitution assuming of course the capitol of the confederacy actually takes constitutional law more seriously today than it did in 1860.

The following is from Article VII, Section 8:

“No franchise, lease or right to any kind to use any such public property [parks] …in a manner not permitted to the general public shall be granted for longer period than forty years. Before granting any such franchise or privilege or a term in excess of five years…the city or town shall, after due advertisement, publicly receive bids therefor.” [Emphasis added.}ah]

Legally speaking, the language is a little cryptic in terms of “in a manner not permitted to the general public.” What does this mean exactly? But this constitutional provision clearly is meant to prevent the Mayor and City Council from giving a private entity a 30 year NO BID lease to operate public park land. Any lease should only be granted AFTER a public bid process where all groups and/or individuals can compete.

Why? In this particular situation for instance, there are hints that the lease deal is really part ruse to allow a private group to remove the homeless and others from Monroe Park. If this is considered to be the real hidden purpose, then it may violate the constitution since a public body can not delegate a public function to a private group with the aim of letting a private citizen do things the public power is restrained by law from doing.

For example: The 4th Amendment restricts police power. They can’t therefore get around the constitution by authorizing a private person to do stuff because the 4th Amendment protection doesn’t apply to a private person doing the same thing. Yes, it might be a crime for a private person to do it based on state law: but since the police asked you to do it, you would have a solid defense if charged by the Commonwealth Attorney for having violated a state statute.

BOTTOM LINE: What exactly is the Jones Administration doing with their public power behind the scenes, are they trying to cut a “sweetheart deal” with the Monroe Park Conservancy?.It doesn’t matter whether it is Pope Francis I: it is not the way you do the public’s business.

This is yet the latest example of the newest and among the most disturbing of the “Jones'” that seems have addicted Mayor Jones and his posse.[The word “Jones” is hipster talk for an addiction or habit].

But don’t take my word for it: Finally, the Holiday spirit appears to have finally gotten the gray hairs at the Richmond Times Dispatch to give WTVR their due. This column is unique in local TV land because it is allowed to discuss the inner workings of government and politics by someone who actually know how things work without having to first check to make sure no “powerful but sensitive” toes might be stepped on.

We don’t always get it right here. But we do always respect your intelligence and write based on fact and fair inference from those facts. We aren’t afraid of an honest discussion, we reject the “might makes right” philosophy of public governance.

Welcome Aboard we say to the Richmond Times Dispatch. Will it be a one way “Ticket to Ride” as The Beatles sang? Only time will tell.

But at least for this one time, the RTD publicly acknowledges that Mayor Jones and his posse have a fondness bordering on the obsessive with secret, behind-the-scenes deals to sell/lease or otherwise dispose of City property to their favored friends/organizations/influence peddlers whatever.

Okay, they phrased it different in their editorial today: “Mayor Dwight Jones’ administration seems to have a fondness for the fait accompli.”

That is French, by etymology. In street talk, it is my way or the highway.

ENTER NOW: The “selling” of Monroe Park by the Jones Administration.

Technically, it is a “lease” we are told. They sold parkland last year as part of a deal to give the second most valuable sports franchise in America They want to sell more public land as part of the Mayor’s deal to build a “free baseball stadium” for the Richmond Squirrels at tax payer expense.

Besides, the State Constitution would require the Mayor to get 7 of the 9 City Council votes to sell the land. City Council President Charles Samuels promised in his campaign to NEVER, EVER allow Monroe Park to be sold. I can’t imagine Council members Baliles, Hilbert, Alegasto and Trammell voting for a Jones plan to sell or otherwise cede ownership to the City’s oldest park.

So even if they wanted to sell the park as they did before, even this City Council would not roll over for that!

But a 30 year lease, depending on the terms, can amount to something akin to de facto ownership for a lot longer than most people will own their current house or condo. Moreover, the constitutional language is a little cryptic as indicated above, so that gives more ways to get around the “no sale” provision.

Remember: If you have mortgage on your house, you don’t yet owner free and clear. But you do “own it” practically speaking. Thus, the sale v lease divide is not as clear as we assume since we are talking ownership rights and a long term lease holder operates as a owner in that regard depending on the lease.

Back in 1850, Richmond only had the Capitol Square as a public park. City Councilman Charles Dimmock therefore proposed acquiring land for more parks. At the time, Richmond city boundaries were far smaller, but Dimmock knew the town was growing. So they bought the 7.5 acres now called Monroe Park, then west of the city’s western boundary.

The area served as a campground for a Confederate South Carolina unit during the Civil War, later as a tent hospital for federal troops. By 1870, the park land and surrounding acreage were annexed into the City proper.

By 1890, the walking paths and other basic current designs were laid out.

By the 1950’s, the powers-that-be decided they wanted Monroe Park for commercial development, proposing, as Joni Mitchell sang in her hit record “Big Yellow Taxi”, to “pave[d] paradise to put up a parking lot” among other things including a hospital.

Fast forward to 2014.

The RTD is right: secrecy cannot possibly be in the best interests of Richmond in this matter. The public needs to have their say before given what may be a fait accompli.

To quote singer Lorrie Morgan: “What is there about NO that the Jones Administration doesn’t understand?”

Paul Goldman is in no way affiliated with WTVR. His comments are his own, and do not reflect the views of WTVR or any related entity. Neither WTVR nor any of its employees or agents participated in any way with the preparation of Mr. Goldman’s comments.