Category Archives: Efficiency in government

No PAC for Disaster Preparedness and Response

By James C. Sherlock

Why is this man smiling?

Virginia’s responses to COVID were a continuing national embarrassment. 

  • Individual Virginia department and agencies had no operational pandemic response plans.  They ignored specific and prescient directions to build and exercise such plans in the dormant Virginia Pandemic Emergency Plan.  VDEM then attempted a coverup.
  • No PPE stockpiles.  Last in testing.  Last in vaccinations.  Hospitals first, physicians last in every decision by the VDH. 
  • Last in distribution of unemployment checks. 
  • The General Assembly was given and took no role in pandemic response for 15 months.
  • The Canterbury nursing home scandal.  State nursing home inspections that failed to report staffing shortages.  The directly related shortages in staffing of state inspectors.
  • The failure to sanction teachers unions for strike threats in Northern Virginia during COVID.  The officially sanctioned lapse in school accountability.
  • Poorly prepared official press conferences that often added confusion rather than clarity.

This was in its totality the biggest government scandal in Virginia history.

We should have learned from COVID, but I see no evidence of it, that we need to aggressively address the problems that led to those failures and build resilience in our state and local governments.

Any chance we are now preparing for the next one?

Has anyone seen an after-action assessment and plan of remedial action?  Has anyone seen any indication that there will ever be one?

Any possibility these issues will be talked about by candidates for state offices in the fall election?  Do they even know what happened?  Or if they know, will they  pretend the scandals never happened, ensuring they will happen again?

Looking for underlying causes, I note there is no PAC for disaster preparedness and response.

Continue reading

Fredericksburg’s Tree Tyrants

Sallie Daiger sits on the porch of her pre-Civil War home on Caroline Street in Fredericksburg.

by James A. Bacon

I was driving up Interstate 95 to Fredericksburg one Saturday in April when I got a call from my mother. Pick up a rental chain saw on the way into town, she said. She wanted me to cut down a crape myrtle in front of her house. I knew well the tree she was referring to. She’d planted it as a sprig twelve to fifteen years before, and it had become a nuisance. Branches slapped against the telephone lines overhead, draped over the sidewalk, and shed debris on cars parking in the street. My sister, a housekeeper and I had taken turns pruning it, but the branches quickly grew back. I agreed that it was time to take the wretched thing down for good.

I’m no expert with a chain saw, but it wasn’t a difficult job. I lopped off the branches previously amputated with a hand saw, and carved out chunks of the trunk to chest-high level. Then I attacked the base of the tree, cutting around the rim as deep as the chain saw blade would go. I’d made it about 60% of the way through the trunk when a neighbor approached me in a state of alarm.

Frank Widic was a tree steward with Tree Fredericksburg. I had to immediately stop what I was doing, he told me. The crape myrtle was located on city right-of-way, and I was forbidden by ordinance from cutting it! I protested that the city had done nothing to maintain the tree, and that it needed to come down. That didn’t matter, Widic said. He  put me on his cell phone to talk to Anne Little, president of the nonprofit Tree Fredericksburg organization.

Little was even more emphatic. City rules were very clear, she said. I had to stop. If I didn’t, she was obligated to notify the police. Whoah, thought I. This was way above my pay grade. I handed the phone to my mother, who was watching events unfold from a perch on the porch. Continue reading

Is DOJ’s Focus on Healthcare Monopolies Coming to Virginia?

by James C. Sherlock

The Acting head of the Justice Department’s Antitrust Division, Richard A. Powers, yesterday delivered a speech that described the Justice Department’s new goals, strategies and resources for criminal antitrust enforcement.

The clouds have darkened over Virginia’s healthcare monopolies.

The Commonwealth. Virginia has failed in its duty to oversee its healthcare industry.  The full extent of that failure has been detailed in previous columns.

It has failed in two major ways:

  1. The Virginia Department of Health (VDH) has been captured by the healthcare provider industry that it regulates. Indeed VDH has been actively complicit in industry evasion of antitrust statutes through its administration of Certificate of Public Need (COPN) law.
  2. The Commonwealth’s regulatory structure has a strategic vulnerability. Neither the VDH that regulates providers nor the State Corporation Commission that regulates insurers can adequately oversee integrated health care delivery and insurance companies to prevent or detect what amount to internal conspiracies in restraint of trade. In the wrong hands, integrated provider monopolies and regionally powerful insurers can serve as weapons against competitors to both.

Continue reading

Richmond Schools’ Flawed Data Threatens Federal Funds


by James C. Sherlock

The massive flows of federal and state funding to local school districts are based largely on data reported by the schools to their districts, the districts to the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE), and VDOE to the U.S. Department of Education.

In Fiscal Year 2018, the U.S. Department of Education sent more than $820 million to Virginia in support of K-12 education. Every dollar was allocated based on data collected and quality assured at the local, state and federal levels. 

The City of Richmond Public Schools (RPS) has massive problems that result in outsized contributions by the federal government. One of those problems — a serious and potentially consequential one — could imperil federal funding.

We will explore a recent event that illustrates that issue. Continue reading

Martinsville and the Reversion – Part 2

by James C. Sherlock

Dick Hall-Sizemore yesterday gave us a rather bloodless, bureaucratic, and relatively positive description of the upcoming shotgun marriage between Martinsville and Henry County. He could not seem to understand the angst on the part of Henry County.

I’ll try to help him out.

It was good to have the historical perspective that Dick always brings, but I am going to take the opportunity to offer a bit of the human side of that merger.

First, these are two profoundly poor areas. The people, white and black, are also much less healthy than the rest of the state. The tale, however, doesn’t stop there.

Selected differences

Martinsville

  • The 2020 population of Martinsville was 13,821. The median age was 42.7 compared to the state average of 37.8. The population was 53.5% female. Percentage in civilian workforce 54.9%.
  • The median household income in Martinsville, VA in 2019 was $35,405, which was 115.9% less than the median annual income of $76,456 across the entire state of Virginia.
  • The FY 2021 budget for Martinsville was $103 million, of which $27.6 million is school-related for 1,881 pupils. Totals: $7,452 per citizen, $14,673 per pupil. Black student 2019 SOL pass rates: Math, 74%, Reading, 59%.
  • Persons under 18 years: 25.4%
  • Persons over 65 years: 18.1% because of much lower life expectancy
  • Building permits 2020: 1

Continue reading

More on the Martinsville Reversion

Uptown Martinsville

by Dick Hall-Sizemore

Like Jim Sherlock, the decision of the city of Martinsville to revert to town status caught my interest.

There are several  clarifications, as well as context, needed in response to his post on this subject, which would be too long for a comment. Therefore, I have decided to use a separate article.

To begin with, Martinsville has not led the way in its decision to revert to a town. As noted by several commentators,  the City of South Boston, now the town of South Boston in Halifax County, was the first city to revert to town status. The reversion was effective in 1995. The city of Clifton Forge (Alleghany County) followed in 2001 and lastly, there was the city of Bedford (Bedford County) in 2013. All three former cities are now towns. Here is the list of reversions, along with the reports of the Commission on Local Government regarding these reversions.

For detailed analyses of the reversion process in Virginia and how it works, see here and here. Continue reading

The One-Sided Decision in the Reversion of Martinsville – the Start of a Trend?

by James C. Sherlock

The Martinsville Bulletin, perhaps the best remaining newspaper in the state for local coverage, published a must-read article on the reversion of Martinsville from city to town and joining Henry County.

Overview

Martinsville’s current city logo, above, was perhaps prescient. Martinsville has been hemorrhaging population, losing more than 18% in the past 10 years, and was financially stressed before that loss.

Reversion in Virginia is a one-handed game. The small cities hold all of the cards.

Henry County is vocally opposed but feels helpless to stop it. The Henry County Supervisors voted to skip the legal process to avoid the costs. They called the reversion MOU “the best we could hope for and voted for it to avoid years of court battles”.

They are right  What they avoided was the special court that would have overseen the reversion under Virginia law had they not come to an agreement. The county would have been a defendant in a trial.

The rules for that court specified in that law give the small cities every advantage in a trial. That same special court would have overseen the transition for a decade. Every decision.

The changes reversion portends for city and county residents are massive. Now that his has happened, does anyone think this will be the last reversion? Continue reading

Vertically Integrated Health Providers/Insurers – Weak State Oversight But New Federal Authority

by James C. Sherlock

In the contest between Virginia’s disorganized attempts to oversee vertically integrated health care and health insurance businesses, Sentara being the most prominent example, and Virginia’s regional monopolies’ defenses against effective regulation and legislation, the monopolies have won.  

This piece discusses Virginia’s failed legislative and regulatory oversight structures. I will recommend structural changes to both to deal with the issues that fall between the cracks.

There is, however, very recent good news.

A new federal antitrust law gives federal courts full authority over integrated healthcare/health insurance business structures operated in restraint of trade. I will briefly describe the potential effects of that change. Continue reading

The Day-Late-and-a-Dollar-Short Administration

Image pulled from the VEC website.

by James A. Bacon

So much dysfunction…. at so many levels.

The federal government has been throwing trillions of dollars into COVID-19 relief. Many billions have flowed into Virginia. Despite this unprecedented peace-time spending, thousands of Virginians are being evicted from their homes, and thousands more are lining up at food pantries and soup kitchens. Why? Because government agencies can’t get the relief money to them in a timely fashion.

Look, I understand. Times of crisis require time to adapt, whether you’re a government agency or a private company. There’s no magic wand to wave to make massive economic dislocations painlessly disappear. But we can legitimately compare the performance of Virginia to other states. And by the basic criteria of handing out unemployment insurance payments to people who have lost their jobs, the Commonwealth appears to be doing a colossally poor job.

“Virginia continues to rank last in the country in key performance metrics tracked by the U.S. Department of Labor,” reports The Virginia Mercury. “The federal data shows the situation has only gotten worse as the pandemic continued, even as businesses have begun reopening and new claims have dropped.” Continue reading

VEC Gets the Booby Prize

By Dick Hall-Sizemore

There has been considerable discussion on this blog as to which agency has been the biggest failure in the face of the pandemic. Many have placed the heaviest blame on the Department of Health. I would award the prize for the being the biggest failure to the Virginia Employment Commission (VEC).

The Department of Health certainly has had its problems and failures, but it has had to face a complex environment. For examples, it was dealing with a disease about which little was known at first, including its major method of transmission; the most vulnerable citizens were those in nursing homes, which are controlled by private owners; and it is dependent on other actors, such as hospitals and local health departments, for its data.

On the other hand, VEC has one primary mission—get out checks promptly to people who have lost their jobs. It largely failed at that job. Continue reading

An Important Challenge to Employees of the Commonwealth

by James C. Sherlock

I ask the employees of the Commonwealth of Virginia to be agents for its positive change. I will address you directly.

The issue is state readiness, or rather lack of it, for the COVID epidemic. You are in the best position to know that your agency was surprised and overwhelmed when COVID struck.

It did not need to be that way.

I have written here extensively of the failure of state departments to prepare for a pandemic flu emergency as they were directed to do by the state emergency operations plan published in 2012. Those directed preparations included planning, training and exercises that involved you, the professional staff of state agencies.

Many of you know that none of that happened in your organizations.

I filed complaints with the Office of the State Inspector General who is employed specifically to investigate such issues. But I think the complaints of an outsider will go nowhere.

The fault for lack of preparation lies with so broad a swath of the executive department of the state that only a high volume of inside complaints will drive the investigation and thus the changes that are necessary.

I am going to ask you as employees to engage to fix the system from within. Continue reading

Confessions of a Virginia Whistleblower

by James C. Sherlock

State Inspector General Mike Westfall

I decided last week in a paroxysm of good citizenship to contact the Virginia Inspector General (IG) to report wrongdoing by state officials.

I have a considerable list centered around the failure of many state officials to carry out their longstanding, formally-assigned duties pre-COVID to plan for a pandemic emergency and exercise those plans to mitigate the effects of such an occurrence.  

My complaints are based on Virginia Executive Order No. 42  Promulgation of the Commonwealth of Virginia Emergency Operations Plan and Delegation of Authority. It was issued by Governor McDonnell and reissued by Governor Northam.

An actionable component of that Order is Hazard-Specific Annex #4 Pandemic Influenza Response (Non-Clinical) was published in August of 2012 (the Annex).  It contained prescient predictions about the course of a pandemic and directed specific agencies to prepare and exercise specific plans. Despite the clear language of the Annex, the plans were not written, personnel were not trained, exercises could not be conducted and systems were not tested under simulated stresses of a pandemic.

Those failures cost unnecessarily severe losses of life, suffering and economic distress among the citizens.  

Continue reading

OSIG: Virginia’s Watchdog for Waste, Fraud and Abuse

Number of cases opened by OSIG’s Investigations Unit.

by James A. Bacon

The Northam administration is embroiled in its biggest scandal since the blackface blunder: a flap over an Office of the State Inspector General (OSIG) report into the allegedly improper release of prisoners by the Virginia Parole Board.

Here’s what went down: OSIG wrote highly critical draft findings of the parole board… which were leaked to the Attorney General’s Office… which allegedly redacted and watered down the report… which was released to the public… inspiring senior Northam administration officials to summon Inspector Michael Westfall and investigator Jennifer Moschetti for a round of allegedly hostile questioning… which prompted Moschetti to file a lawsuit alleging that the meeting “was intended to intimidate the State Inspector General and the investigators tasked with making fact findings related to members of the Parole Board.”

I hope I got that right. Read the Associated Press summary here.

That got me to thinking. What does the OSIG do? Continue reading

Certificate of Public Need’s Hall of Mirrors

by James C. Sherlock

Versailles Hall of Mirrors

In Versailles’ Hall of Mirrors, everything is reflected hundreds of times.

The mirrors were also a commercial. They represented an effort of Louis XIV to establish for France monopolies on the production of luxury goods.

Virginia’s Certificate of Public Need (COPN) law and regulations represent a similar structure.

Everything in the process reflects back on itself. Those reflections both reinforce the structure and cement monopolies. Though it represents the intrigue of Versailles, COPN lacks beauty and grace. But, in another similarity, neither Louis nor Virginia’s General Assembly tried to represent the interests of the people in these enterprises.

This essay will help explain how COPN works. It would be shorter if the tentacles of COPN were not so completely enveloping and self-reinforcing. This is in its entirety both legal and a scandal, as with much else in Virginia politics.

Two recent COPN decisions affect my home area of South Hampton Roads. Those cases pointed to the systemic roadblocks to successfully challenging Sentara Healthcare’s dominance here which will never be surmounted while COPN stands as is. Continue reading

Virginia Pandemic Emergency Plan Was Never Exercised


by James C. Sherlock

As we suspected, Virginia did not exercise its Pandemic Emergency Plan from the time it was published in 2012 until COVID-19 struck.

I received the following response today to a FOIA request I sent to the Commonwealth of Virginia Department of Emergency Management:

The Virginia Department of Emergency Management (VDEM) received your February 13, 2021, email regarding a document request. In that request, you seek:

“Existing VDEM records of Virginia state, regional, and local participation in the National Exercise Program since 2012 at every level of training and exercises that addressed Infectious Disease and Biological Incidents.”

VDEM does not have any documentation that meets the requirements of your request. As a result, pursuant to Va. Code § 2.2-3704.B.3, VDEM notes that no records or data exists in response to your request.

Is “oops” a good enough response for the Governor? It appears so.