Author Archives: James A. Bacon

More Mob Rule in Charlottesville

Charlottesville City Council loses control.

Charlottesville City Council loses control.

On Monday the Charlottesville City Council broke down in disorder. Sean Tubbs, reporter for Charlottesville Tomorrow live blogged the anarchy but the incident got little media attention otherwise. Louis Schultz, who attended the meeting to address the council, emailed me this account of the event. Although he did not write with the intention of having it published, I reproduce it here with his permission. — JAB

A large group of people fresh from a march on D.C. went to the meeting to talk about police contact with minorities, racial profiling etc. Their message was one that I wholeheartedly agree with. My viewpoint is general left/center with a few radical deviations in both directions.

Council allows for 12 people to sign up for matters by the public. Each is alloted 3 minutes to speak.

Wes Bellamy, an African-American high school teach and former City Council candidate spoke first. His time ended and he was allowed to go on for several minutes over time.

Second (pretty sure, but my memory may not be perfect) was a girl who said she was 12 years old. She spoke on a similar topic from her perspective as a kid. She also went several minutes over time with nothing but smiles from Councilors.

no_justice_no_peaceBoth Bellamy and the girl were loudly cheered on by the crowd including me, which, by the way, is not really allowed by Council rules.

John Heyden, a Council meeting regular, spoke third, maybe fourth. He at times asks interesting questions, but frequently couches them in racial terms that I think interferes with his message, which is never a popular one. I generally disagree with his position, even if I think the questions should be addressed. At the very least, I believe he ought to be free to ask them if he pleases.

As Mr. Heyden walked to the microphone, audience members who recognized him began to yell at him. Mayor Satyendra Huja very weakly tried to quiet that, but it quickly escalated as he spoke. He was completely shut down by yelling but he tried to speak over it and said he intended to finish. The crowd started to yell that his time was up even while time remained for him to speak. I did not participate in any of that, I thought it was way out of line.

heydenAs the three-minute mark arrived, Councilor Kristin Szakos (self described community organizing advocate and wife of Joe Szakos of the VA Organizing Project) started saying that his time was up. Mayor Huja also said that. Mr. Heyden tried to continue until he was finished and at that point, Mayor Huja called the police officer who is supposed to keep order at meetings to the front to take Mr. Heyden away.

Comments continued with many more people going over time, myself included. No one else was called out for going over time and no one else was taken away by the police. After the regular comment period ended, the mob essentially took over the meeting, with no effort by the Mayor other Councilors or the police to restore order. The mob took over for somewhere around 30 minutes.

I heard a snippet of a radio interview with Councilor Kristin Szakos on Monday. She said that she didn’t think the mob takeover was a problem since they said things Council needed to hear. No mention that I heard of what she did to Mr. Heyden.

December 15 2014 Charlottesville City Council meeting archive on video here.

This episode reveals a little-remarked schism in the progressive-liberal coalition. Charlottesville has one of the most liberal governing bodies in Virginia, yet African-Americans are dissatisfied with the way the city treats them. They’re unhappy with the police and with the social services department. I have no idea whether their grievances are justified, although, I have to say, their disruptive behavior and disrespect for the rights of others does make me question their objectivity.

The top concern of many white Charlottesville residents is the cluster of issues surrounding global warming and the environment. That’s far from a top priority of African-Americans. As one speaker said, “I don’t want to hear any more about making the city green until we get this [race] problem solved.”

– JAB

Presumed Guilty

UVa fraternities -- guilty until proven innocent? Photo credit: www.andrewkouri.com.

UVa fraternities — guilty until proven innocent? Photo credit: www.andrewkouri.com.

by James A. Bacon

Suspending the social activities of University of Virginia’s sororities and fraternities is a violation of student rights, said the National Panhellenic Conference (NPC) earlier this week in a statement to the Washington Post. The suspension, put into place by UVa President Teresa Sullivan in response to now-discredited allegations of a gang rape at Phi Kappa Psi, is scheduled to last until January 9.

While stressing the organization’s commitment to combat sexual assault and improve campus safety for women, NPC protested the indiscriminate nature of the shut-down: “The sanctions imposed on the sorority and fraternity system, particularly at U-Va., have punished all members with no cited wrongdoing and their rights have been violated.”

Admittedly, the ban is largely symbolic. Greek-system organizations hold few social functions during exams and the Christmas holidays. But the symbolism is important. It’s a sign that the UVa administration holds sororities and fraternities collectively accountable for a presumed epidemic of sexual assault. The administration is effectively saying that the Greek system, as opposed to specific fraternities, is responsible in whole or in part for the problem.

The university’s persistence in sanctioning sororities and fraternities is all the more remarkable given the fact that the Rolling Stone gang rape story that ignited the controversy has been thoroughly discredited. While it remains possible that the young woman, “Jackie,” who told the story may have experienced some kind of traumatic event, there is almost no way at this point of knowing what happened, where it took place or who was responsible. The evidence suggests that Phi Kappa Psi, where the gang rape allegedly occurred, was not involved at all.

There is a generalized upwelling of angst and concern at UVa about unhappy sexual encounters, some of which may legitimately be called “rape” but some of which may not. Many women have told stories of being coerced into sex, usually in the context of binge drinking and hook-ups. Undoubtedly there is a very real problem that needs to be addressed — women should not be coerced into having sex under any circumstances, period, end of story — but there is much that we don’t know. We don’t know how many of these incidents occurred while both participants were drunk, and we don’t know whether consent was given or implied, and we don’t know how many episodes constitute “regret sex” — women waking up in the morning and going, ewwww, I did what? or waking up in the morning and being shabbily treated by the man she’d just slept with.

We don’t know how many of these incidents took place in fraternities, as opposed to sororities, dormitories or off-campus housing.  We don’t know how many incidents involved physical coercion by males or how many involved social coercion — women engaging in sexual activity solely to avoid ridicule by their peers. I don’t know the answers to those questions, and neither does anybody else.

But who needs facts? At UVa, anti-rape activists are imposing an ideological template that conflates every form of sexual transgression — from pinching fannies to stalking, raping and murdering someone — as “sexual assault.” We also have a prevalent mindset, that extends into the faculty and administration, that views issues through the prism of gender, race and class and is primed to blame “white male privilege” for every evil under the sun.

Perhaps an unbiased investigation will show that some UVa fraternities are dens of orgiastic depravity. Anything’s possible. Even so, we must hew to the fundamental American principle that we don’t punish the collective for the sins of an individual. Insofar as sexual assaults occur at particular fraternity houses and it can be demonstrated that the fraternities knowingly created an atmosphere of permissiveness that allowed the assaults to occur, the University is arguably within its rights to shut them down. But the idea of punishing innocent fraternities for the sins of the guilty ones is reprehensible. The idea of punishing sororities is beyond reprehensible, it’s ludicrous. Has there been a single documented incident of rape at a sorority house?

A century ago, white segregationists dealt with rape — especially if a black man allegedly raped a white woman — by stringing up a rope and hanging the guy on the spot. Who needs facts? Who needs a court of law? Thankfully, no one is being lynched in the literal sense anymore. But we still have mob rule energized by emotion and prejudice. University administrators need to to address the problem of sexual assault within their community, but it should not be part of the mob.

End Student Subsidies for College Athletics

Hey, Wahoo soccer team, congratulations on winning the national championship this year! We're proud of you. Now, figure out how to make your team financially self-supporting and stop dunning the general student population.

Hey, Wahoo soccer team, congratulations on winning the national championship this year! We’re proud of you. Now, figure out how to make your team financially self-supporting and stop dunning the general student population for your most excellent college experience.

by James A. Bacon

House Majority Leader Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, is intimately acquainted with the high and rising cost of higher education in Virginia. His two oldest have graduated from Longwood University and James Madison University, and he has two high-schoolers on the way. Not surprisingly, he describes himself as “stressed and anxious” about the increasing cost of higher education.

Unlike most of us, Cox is in a position to do something about it. In a Richmond Times-Dispatch op-ed, he said that he plans introduce legislation this year that will place caps on mandatory non-educational student fees at Virginia universities.

Student fees are only one factor driving up the rising cost of higher education, but they are the fastest-growing factor. Mandatory fees unrelated to education now represent one-third of total tuition and fees, or about $3,500 per year on average, Cox says. That’s up 99% since 2003. Writes Cox:

These fees are used to pay for a number of functions, but a significant portion is used to fund intercollegiate athletics. Only 3 percent of Virginia students play intercollegiate sports, but student fees fund approximately 69 percent of expenditures in athletic programs at Virginia’s four-year schools. In other words, non-athletes and their parents are paying about two-thirds of the cost of intercollegiate athletics. …

Athletic programs are an important part of the college experience. Virginia is fortunate to have competitive college athletic programs that make students and alumni proud. But we simply cannot ask students who will never play a minute of college sports to bear such a disproportionate share of the costs associated with these programs.

I totally agree, but I’d go farther. Male football and basketball programs pay their own way. No other sports program does. If students want to participate in volleyball, soccer, tennis and the like as part of their college experience, let them pay for it themselves. I studied Korean martial arts at the University of Virginia many moons ago. Everybody kicked in to pay an instructor to drive down from Northern Virginia to teach us. We didn’t think anything about it. Obviously, traveling sports teams with full-time coaches would cost a lot more. Perhaps they should emulate the non-profit soccer and Little League programs here in Henrico County (and many other places) that raise money from parents, bequests, fund-raisers ticket sales and the like.

Once upon a time, it may have been appropriate for colleges and universities to pass on the cost of college athletics to the general student population. But Boards of Trustees simply have to re-think priorities when the cost of education becomes unaffordable to most. Why should one student be compelled to rack up additional student debt to subsidize the amateur athletic experience of another? And not to go all Al Sharpton on the issue, but let’s consider the social justice ramifications. How many  poor and minority students participate in lacrosse, golf, rowing, swimming & diving and field hockey? Is it fair to ask poor and minority students to subsidize the college experience of preppy white students?

Runaway student fees deserve a much closer look. Personally, I’d give public universities ten years to put their athletic programs on a self-funding basis and phase out subsidies from student fees entirely. But Kirk Cox’s proposal, though modest, is a good start.

Easy Savings: LED Street Lights

LED street lights in action -- China

LED street lights in action — China

by James A. Bacon

Installing LEDs  in street lights may be no panacea for municipal budget woes, but the payback is so high that one can’t help but wonder why every local government in Virginia isn’t doing it.

It’s heartening to heart that Virginia Beach, Virginia’s most populous city, is taking the plunge. Well, dipping its toe might be a more accurate description. According to the Virginian-Pilot, Highway Electric of Chesapeake will install about 180 LED street lights in the median of the newly expanded Princess Anne Road beginning January 5.

The main drawback of LEDs (light emitting diodes) is that they are more expensive than the high-pressure sodium lamps they replace: $6,600 compared to $4,800.  But fewer LEDs are needed to light Princess Anne Road — 182 compared to 257 of the sodium lamps —  so the total project cost is lower.

Moreover, maintenance and electricity costs are lower. An LED street lamp lasts five times longer than conventional lights. Over time, that saves the cost of buying new lights and the cost of sending crews to replace them. They also consume about half as much electricity as a sodium light. Virginia Beach spends about $5.4 million a year lighting all of its street lights, according to the Pilot. The city expects to be saving $650,000 annually within ten years by phasing in the LED lights.

Arlington County had converted 85% of its street lights to LEDs by August. But only a few Virginia localities have implemented the technology.

Bacon’s bottom line: The payback is so high that any citizens ought to get up in arms if their locality is failing to take advantage of this cost savings. But why not go a step further? Local governments can save even more by attaching sensors that detect the movement of cars and people. The lights turn on when someone is walking or driving nearby and turn off when no one’s around. As a bonus, burning less electricity reduces carbon dioxide emissions and power-plant pollution.

Admittedly, in Virginia the picture is complicated by the fact that Virginia Dominion Power owns many street lights. I’m not clear on how much say-so local governments have over how those lights are maintained. With that caveat, smart LED street lights is low hanging fruit that every local government should be plucking.

Sex, Genes, Love and Rape

Rape protest at UVa

Rape protest at UVa

by James A. Bacon

Emotions are running high in the discussion of the “epidemic of rape” at the University of Virginia. I get the sense that we’re wandering in a fog.  Not only are there wildly conflicting numbers regarding the incidence  of rape (a worthy topic for another blog post), making it difficult to gauge how extensive the problem is, people are talking past one another. There is considerable conceptual confusion about what is happening on college campuses and why.

As I see it, there are three broad frameworks for approaching the issue of sexual relations and sexual assaults at UVa. The first reflects the perspective of traditional morality, which recognizes the flawed nature of mankind and applies traditional norms for regulating sexual behavior. The second, the Darwinian outlook, seeks to understand the relationship between the sexes from the perspective of evolutionary biology. In this view, the male and female sexes have evolved different reproductive and mating strategies to maximize their genetic fitness, and often want different different things from sexual encounters. The third, the deconstructionist view, strips God and biology out of the equation and asserts that gender and sexual norms are purely social constructs.

In the United States, I would argue, we have transitioned from a set of institutional arrangements based upon traditional morality (pre-marital sex on campus is to be stifled) to institutional arrangements based upon the deconstructionist philosophy (anything goes… except for violence against women) without paying much heed to the biological basis of human behavior.

Traditional morality recognizes the power of the sexual impulse, generally framing it as a temptation to be resisted outside of marriage. The emphasis on chastity, especially female chastity, made sense in the era preceding the sexual revolution when sex was inextricably joined with procreation. Chaste women did not get pregnant, they did not bear children out of wedlock and they were not saddled with the financial and psychological obligation of raising a child (or children) alone. Traditional sexual morality was entwined with the traditional view of the family: that children are best raised in the same household as their biological parents. Traditional morality extended to the campus as well. Men did not always act behave like chivalrous “gentlemen” towards ladies, but society expected them to and condemned them when they didn’t. While rapes did occur on campus, they were relatively rare and they were regarded as scandalous. As a consequence, there was no “epidemic of rape.”

The sexual revolution of the 1960s brought an end to traditional morality on campus. Once upon a time, men and women lived in segregated dorms, colleges restricted men’s access to women’s dormitory rooms, fraternities had house mothers and parties were chaperoned. All of those restrictions and inhibitions have been cast away. Much to the delight of students, colleges got out of the business of enforcing traditional sexual morality. The attitude of college administrators became one of moral laissez-faire: What the students did was their own business.

Reinforcing the relaxation of traditional standards were pervasive changes in society at large. Divorce became common. Out-of-wedlock births were de-stigmatized. Acceptance of gay sexuality spread. Perhaps most important, many proponents of traditional morality updated their values for the age of birth control. When men and women frequently delay marriage until their 30s, it is unrealistic to expect them to remain chaste for 15 years or more. Most Baby Boomer parents of college-bound children are comfortable with channeling sexual relations channeled into loving monogamous relationships outside marriage. These neo-traditional relationships need not be life-long but they are underpinned by a strong conviction that committed partners do not cheat on one another. Promiscuity is frowned upon. Among families of college-bound men and women today, the ideal of serial monogamy is arguably the dominant ethos. Thus, serial monogamy is the default moral setting for most college-bound kids when they arrive on campus.

But college culture is very different from the culture of broader society. For one, colleges are jam-packed with 18- to 22-year-olds at the peak of physical attractiveness and desire. They have more freedom and less responsibility than at any time of their lives, and many have every intention of taking full advantage of the fact. They are ready to party and have fun. They are also much more precocious about sex than their Baby Boomer parents. While Boomers learned about sex by sneaking peeks at “dirty magazines,” young people today are exposed to ubiquitous online pornography. To a significant degree, relations between the sexes has been pornofied. Because the dominant market for pornography is sex-obsessed young males, the id-driven fantasies of sex-obsessed young males has become the template for modern-day sexual coupling. Women are treated as objects whose purpose is to provide sexual gratification to men.

Concurrent with the revolution of ubiquitous pornography has been the feminist revolution, asserting female rights and prerogatives in a male-dominated society. In society at large, feminism was associated mainly with such workforce issues as equal pay, sexual harassment and the glass ceiling. Many women deemed themselves feminists even while adhering to neo-traditional norms of serial monogamy. But colleges and universities have become a petri dish for all manner of radical offshoots. Rejecting traditional morality associated with an oppressive male patriarchy, one strand of strand of feminism insisted that women should be free to explore their sexuality as freely as men supposedly do — seeking a variety of partners in expectation-free, guilt-free encounters. This strand of thought is underpinned by the conviction that traditional gender roles and sexual preferences are purely social constructs. There is no “human nature.” Men and women should be free to define their own sexuality however they please, whether they are straight, gay, bisexual or transgender. (I would hasten to add that some feminists abhor pornography for its objectification of women. The feminist movement is hardly monolithic.)

So, three broad cultural trends have intersected in college campuses: the laissez-faire approach of college administrations; the pornofication of sexuality, especially though not exclusively among young men; and the spread of feminist views of sexuality among young women. This would be a combustible mix under any circumstances. But colleges add two more ingredients: binge drinking and a fraternity sub-culture that celebrates male bonding and solidarity, which at its best can lead to long-lasting ties of brotherhood but at its worst can descend into misogyny. Continue reading

Express Lanes as Precursors to Ubiquitous Road Pricing

express_lane_simulation

I-95 Express Lanes simulation

by James A. Bacon

After years of anticipation, 95 Express Lanes opened its Interstate 95 HOT lane system to the public Sunday. Drivers get to use the lanes for free outside of rush hour, when the lanes remain restricted to high-occupancy vehicles (HOVs). Tolls will go into effect around the end of the month.

The nearly $1 billion project converts existing HOV lanes along I-95 into tolled HOT lanes while letting HOVs continue to drive for free, and extends the lanes to Stafford County. While the project won’t do much to shorten the commute for most commuters, it will give them an option when they place a high value on their time, said Matthew Click, vice president-national director of price-managed lanes for HNTB, an engineering firm that worked with 95 Express Lanes on the project.

“We expect most people to use them sometimes, when they really need to get somewhere and they need to get there now,” said Click in an interview with Bacon’s Rebellion. Click took issue with the description of HOT lanes as “Lexus” lanes. Tolled lanes provide a valuable option for less affluent drivers, he said. Someone making $25,000 a year could use the express lanes to pick up their kid at day care to avoid the $10-per-minute late charges. Plumbers might use the lanes to squeeze in an extra call, or taxi drivers an extra fare.

That was the predictable part of the interview, entirely in line with the business case for building HOT lanes. I have written extensively on this blog in support of HOT lanes. They come as close to a “win win” arrangement politically as it’s possible to devise in the transportation realm. They conform to the principle of “user pays,” they use market mechanisms to ration scarce capacity, and no one has to use them if they don’t want to.

Traffic forecasts. The conversation got much more interesting when we veered into the topic of demand for the HOT lanes. Will the volume of traffic on the Beltway and I-95, both of which are public-private partnerships, generate sufficient revenue to pay the back the billion-dollar investments?

The revenue forecasts for express lane projects are “very sensitive” to demand, Click said. “In an express lane situation, the competition is three feet away in the general-purpose non-tolled lane,” he said. The worse the level of service in the general lanes, the greater the traffic — and revenue — in the tolled lanes. An increase in demand for the tolled lanes does two things. It increases the number of cars being tolled, and it increases the toll rates, which are dynamically priced according to demand.

Click conceded that 495 traffic volumes are lower than forecast. “You’re seeing some initial birthing pains getting up and running,” he said. “It’s taking a little longer for volumes to ramp up during peak hours. … We’re seeing the impact of the recession of 2008., the greatest downturn in the economy since the Depression.” As the economy recovers, he said, he expects traffic demand to increase. The public-private partnership has a 75-year time horizon. “It’s warranted to give a couple or few years” for traffic volumes to recover.

But there are risks over the mid- to long-term as well, Click acknowledged. Demographic pressures may dampen Vehicle Miles Driven (VMT) overall and demand for HOT lanes specifically. Members of the Millennial Generation tend to drive less than predecessor generations. The population is aging, and the elderly don’t drive as much. Also, technology and the sharing economy are scrambling long-term demand forecasts.

“Imagine a future when people don’t own a car,” Click said. “I’ve got my mobile phone. I walk up to a subscription car, and it recognizes me. The car starts driving. I see my buddy Tim two blocks over. I pick him up. He bumps his phone to mine, and we split the fare. … Destructive creativity is really coming. It’s real.” And it means that VMT will not grow in the same linear relationship with population and the economy as in the past. “I see a future where [demand] is flat.”

Transformative technology. Click sees express lanes as the “precursor” of a world in 25 years “in which all lanes are priced.” The main barrier to such a future is not technology, it’s political will, he said. “The American public has a 50-year relationship with the fuel tax and the federal Interstate program. Peoples’ reaction to tolls is, ‘I’ve already paid.’ But I say, once you’ve paid off the mortgage on your house, you still have to fix the roof. You have to maintain the roads.” As fuel taxes decline and infrastructure degrades, express lanes will look better and better.

“We will fondly look back on express lanes as the first step toward the new transportation paradigm,” Click said. Charging drivers for usage of all roads on the basis of dynamic pricing will be the greatest driver of urban transformation since the invention of the elevator. “The next generation will change everything.”

Facing the Problems at UVa: a Wake-up Call

uvaby Gerald L. Cooper

President Terry Sullivan is the lead person in facing the problems at the University of Virginia, which include sexual misconduct and assault on innocent persons. Sadly, some of these behaviors have lurked around the Grounds of the University for 60 or more years.

President Sullivan is not, however, the only leader who must step up and see that justice is done and that new solutions and attitudes are achieved, both on the Grounds and around the university community.

Dr. Sullivan’s suspension of fraternity and sorority social events is, at this point, a step toward dealing with the problem. It is not some sort of mass punishment. Those who are experienced in college administration — and, hopefully, many level-headed students, alumni and parents as well — will recognize President Sullivan’s actions as unprecedented steps toward collecting as many facts and viewpoints as possible, and then moving toward solutions that will also be previously untried but in a new era both effective and productive for all.

We who love the University expect the Board of Visitors to demonstrate high levels of good judgment and selfless leadership in taking their part of the responsibility for student behavior and safety at UVa. That will be demonstrated if the BOV stands firmly behind the president and her administration, making the appropriate inquiries of the president in official meetings, being assured of appropriate steps as proposed by the president’s operating team, and supporting the president’s proposals to move the University of Virginia forward in the areas of student behavior and safety — especially where violations may have occurred in the past.

I for one will be grateful if all parties — board, administration, faculty, students and alumni — are able to show remarkable restraint in what they/we say in the midst of this time of crisis. Specifically, one or two members of the Board of Visitors in the past, dating back to the repugnant attempt to oust President Terry Sullivan, have shown bad judgment in assuming and promoting self-serving public positions. This activity is contrary to the best practices of university governance nationally and to successful precedents at the University of Virginia specifically.

If those individuals continue to function unilaterally and to stir up questions about the University’s president and her colleagues, then the University is diminished and subject to ridicule in the broader public view. (Note: To be avoided are organizations that are notorious for their right-wing agenda and efforts to destroy many of the traditions, practices and opportunities in America’s leading universities.)

When I was working on a book, “On Scholarship,” especially a chapter titled, “Leading to Diversity at the University of Virginia,” back in 2001-08, I was most favorably impressed by how much information was available on the Web and Internet about the University of Virginia. (And it still is.) As I see it, virtually no aspect of UVa is left out of public access, including Board of Visitors’ meetings, which are live-streamed and watchable online in real time.

At a UVa web site, one can watch President Terry Sullivan give her Address to Students, on Dec. 1, 2014, and also read her words of care and concern about students and the UVa community. This web site also provides links to other useful info, including the Rector of the Board’s statement on these troublesome revelations, and a formal board commitment not to tolerate such behavior in the future. The Board (BOV) meeting was live-streamed for Web reception, and perhaps one may retrieve it for delayed viewing.

The steps UVa’s administration is taking appear to be solid, workmanlike responses to problems that have lurked around the Grounds of the University — and clearly at other universities — for generations. Such situations demand unusual treatment; with full commitment and thorough application, let’s hope that a more productive lifestyle will soon be achieved.

Similar to mass murders on other campuses, this is a wake-up call at the University of Virginia which must be answered.

Gerald L. Cooper (BA, MEd, UVa) spent his 43-year career in education as an administrator, counselor and teacher.

Learning from Buena Vista’s Golf Course Default

vista_linksby James A. Bacon

In 2005 the City of Buena Vista in the Shenandoah Valley issued $9.2 million in bonds to pay for construction of the Vista Links golf course.  To obtain financing, the city purchased insurance for $400,000 and pledged the golf course, police station and municipal building as collateral.

The city made its debt payments for several years but encountered difficulties in 2010 when the annual payment was scheduled to increase to $660,00 and the golf course was still operating in the red. The city went into default and entered into an agreement with its insurer, ACA Financial Guaranty Corp., to make half payments for five years. ACA remitted the other half but added it to the principal. The agreement calls for the city to return to the full $660,000 annual payment in 2016 and continue for 27 years.

On the logic that the city will be unable to make the full payment in 2016 if it continues make the half payments today, City Council voted earlier this week to default on its bond payment due in January 2015. Needless to say, ACA is unhappy with that decision. “The unilateral act by the current city council demonstrates an unwillingness to act in good faith to negotiate a solution,” said ACA in a press release. According to the Roanoke Times, ACA could foreclose on the golf course, police station and the portion of city hall that does not include the courts.

What possessed the City Council of Buena Vista, a city of less than 7,000, to go deep into hock to fund construction of a golf course? The Roanoke Times provides some background:

Vista Links was viewed as an economic development project that would move the city away from its industrial base and spur commercial and residential development while attracting visitors and their money.

“In the 1990s we were struggling to find an economic driver to enhance our aging housing base and diversify our economy,” [Mayor Frankie] Hogan said. “So we hired some consultants who showed city council projected numbers for a golf course that exceeded reality. Little did we know. But we should have.”

Bacon’s bottom line: Three lessons here. First, beware economic-development Hail Mary passes based on municipal debt. The city is far worse off now, saddled with debt and a ruined credit standing, than it would have been had it stuck to more prudent policies. Second, beware consultants. Maybe they know what they’re talking about, maybe they don’t. Third, beware fads. Other municipalities turned to golf courses as a development elixir. Many of those have fallen short of rosy projections. Indeed, the entire golf industry, public or private, is hurting.

The only people who should build golf courses are those who really understand the business and are prepared to handle the risk of failure — which excludes just about every municipality in the country. The lesson applies not just to golf courses but convention centers, baseball stadiums and other speculative “economic development” ventures. Local governments should stick to core competencies like education, public works and public safety at which they can excel.

Chopra Pushes “Open Innovation” in Hampton Roads

Aneesh Chopra

Aneesh Chopra

Aneesh Chopra took his message of “open innovation” on the road to Hampton Roads yesterday, pushing the case for making government data more readily available to the public for transformation into commercial products and services. Perhaps the single best example of wealth creation that can flow from government data, the Weather Channel, came from Hampton Roads, he noted. Norfolk-based Landmark Media Enterprises, which owns the Virginian-Pilot, launched the Weather Channel, which grew into a company of more than $500 million a year in revenue.

“Weather is a $5 billion-a-year industry,” said Chopra, “but the source data that fuels that industry comes from the Department of Commerce, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which funds the satellites and the sensor networks that produces the raw data, which is open to anyone to consume, to build weather apps and other products and services.” (See story in the Pilot Online.)

A former Secretary of Technology for Virginia and former chief technology officer under President Obama, Chopra touted the “democratization of data” as one of several strategies for increasing entrepreneurial opportunity. Citing data showing the Hampton Roads had the lowest rate of new business start ups of any Virginia region in 2013, he also discussed ways of building the entrepreneurial talent pool by recruiting from the immigrant community, establishing regional early-stage capital and tapping the skills of tech-trainable veterans.

“No one’s going to come here – a white knight – saving the region while you sit back and observe passively,” said Chopra, a co-founder of Hunch Analytics, a Northern Virginia big data firm. “This requires active participation.”

– JAB

Spotlight in McDonnell Trial Shifts to Judge Spencer

Judge James Spencer

Judge James Spencer

Hmmm…. It turns out that Judge James Spencer, the judge who presided over the trial of former Governor Bob McDonnell, is married to Judge Margaret P. Spencer — whom McDonnell voted against in 1997 when she was nominated in an unsuccessful bid for appointment to the Virginia Supreme Court. Republican/ conservative bloggers are wondering if Mr. Spencer’s overwhelmingly consistent rulings against McDonnell on points of law and his framing of jury instructions reflect personal animus on his part. At the very least, they are asking, did the judge have a conflict of interest?

I don’t know enough to say one way or another. I’d like to know more about that 1997 vote. If McDonnell had been prominently involved in defeating Ms. Spencer’s Supreme Court judgeship, the conflict-of-interest idea might have merit. If he was but one of fifty or so members of the House of Delegates who voted against her in a party-line vote, it’s more difficult to imagine that Mr. Spencer bore a grudge.

What’s also interesting is that in the wall-to-wall coverage of the trial — including the judge’s rejection of the McDonnell defense team’s numerous legal gambits — none of the media took note of this potential conflict. The issue came to light only when raised yesterday by Will Houp at WAVY TV. (His story here contains some details of the 1997 nominating controversy.)

It’s also worth asking why the story surfaced now, just a month before McDonnell’s sentencing. Did Houp just pick up scuttlebutt in the legal community? Or did McDonnell’s defense team leak this information to apply pressure on Spencer to stop leaning so hard against McDonnell?

– JAB