Embarrassing Non-Action

Word from the City of Richmond? Crickets

by John Baliles

The EnRichmond saga continues and it’s not a good read. In fact, it’s pretty awful.

To recap, the EnRichmond Foundation was founded in the early 1990s and had grown to support more than 80 small, local, all-volunteer groups that worked to help Richmond in various ways, many of which focused on keeping the City green and clean. EnRichmond allowed the groups to use their insurance coverage and raise tax-free donations, served as a fiduciary for the funds each group raised, and distributed those funds as directed by the groups.

Suddenly in June, they announced a cessation of operations, and left no transition plan. The Board voted to dissolve the Foundation but left no accounting of the funds it had in its accounts, and then within weeks, the lawyer representing the Board stepped away from their role as counsel.

Here are some headlines (and links) to stories that have appeared since this summer. They are in order both chronologically and from bad to worse:
Enrichmond Foundation’s status is unclear (June 30)
Enrichmond Foundation board votes to dissolve nonprofit (July 7)
Enrichmond Foundation money in limbo as lawyer steps away from case (July 22)
Richmond community groups still searching for answers after dissolution of nonprofit (August 29)
McEachin Demands Answers During Enrichmond Dissolution (Sept. 8)
Enrichmond Foundation expected to face criminal complaints (Sept. 9)
Still no answers for missing $3 million the Enrichmond Foundation was managing for local groups (Sept. 17)
• ‘We are still completely in the dark’: Enrichmond Foundation (Oct. 9)

Note the theme of the headlines, which is: no one knows anything about what is going on and no one has answers. It is reported that there is about $3 million missing, two cemeteries in land-title limbo, and no one knows where the money is or the documents or the minutes of recent meetings or anything else. All this is money, time and resources from volunteer groups and donations that compliment the work of City crews to help improve our City.

What’s worse is the that the 80+ organizations that trusted their funds to EnRichmond were mostly green groups and collectively they helped maintain one-third of the City’s green space though their efforts. Groups like the Richmond Tree Stewards had (according to sources) close to $30,000 in their account managed by EnRichmond. And even though they can’t access it, they found a way to move ahead with this weekend’s tree giveaway, where demand was so high they had already “sold out” of the 2,000 trees for residents to plant in their neighborhood.

They put out a statement you can read here. It sums up the experience of the other groups that used EnRichmond as a fiduciary: “RTS had no advance knowledge or warning of any problems at Enrichmond prior to the announcement of the dissolution. Until the pending dissolution became public, we were unaware of any issues at the Foundation.

In the meantime, RTS activities continue as before the dissolution. When the RTS board met to discuss the dissolution impacts, the board voted unanimously to continue business as usual. We are still pruning trees, removing invasive plants, watering trees, educating the public at farmers’ markets, and working with Richmond’s Urban Forestry division to improve the City’s tree canopy.”

RTS had all their money vanish and yet they keep on plugging and working and volunteering until it gets sorted out. So do the other groups. That’s dedication and service.

You can also look at Richmond Cemeteries, which is a whole other sub-drama. The two long-neglected African-American cemeteries in recent years finally got the attention they deserved and had funding identified for restoration efforts. Chris Suarez at the RTD reported in May, just about six weeks before the drama began, that EnRichmond and The Descendants Council (a group of descendants of those buried in the cemeteries) had some differences of opinion over stewardship. The properties were transferred to an LLC in recent years and that remains as much a mystery as the missing funds.

Evergreen, founded in the late 19th century and recognized by the United Nations as “a site of memory” in the UNESCO Slave Route Project, is the resting place of thousands, including Maggie L. Walker, the first African American woman to charter a bank in the U.S.; John Mitchell, the crusading editor and publisher of The Richmond Planet; and Dr. Richard F. Tancil, who rose from enslavement to become a successful doctor and founder of the Nickel Savings Bank.

U.S. Congressman Donald McEachin (D) took special note of these properties and in February 2022 introduced the African American Burial Grounds Preservation Actto establish a program at the National Park Service to provide grant opportunities and technical assistance to local partners to research, identify, survey, and preserve these historic sites.”

Now we aren’t even sure who owns them.

McEachin also sent a letter to the now-dissolved board of EnRichmond, but no one associated with this is uttering a word. He notes the “lack of communication and engagement with local stakeholders regarding next steps, and a lack of clarity regarding the accounting” and wants a full accounting of the lack of accountability.

As Henry Graff reported this week, the put-out groups have no idea where they are and not really sure what to do next.

“We are still completely in the dark,” said Mac Wood, Friends of Pump House Secretary, which had $30,000 with EnRichmond. “We would like access to the money that the people of Richmond donated to us in good faith to fix the pump house,” said Wood. “We can’t fix the pump house the way that we want to because we don’t have access to the money that was donated to us.”

So, where are the “leaders” of the city on all this? Well, it’s hard to say because hardly anyone has said anything. Leland Pinder at CBS 6 reported that Councilwoman Stephanie Lynch has been the most vocal of anyone at City Hall and not only called for a criminal investigation but also litigation, and hopes to find the money that was absconded with or replace it as soon as possible. The City’s Parks & Recreation Department has been able to assist some of the organizations, but there are more than 80 all-told that lost their donations.

There has been nothing from the Mayor’s office. Stoney has found the time to write a lot of letters about subjects that concerned him recently, though. He wrote a letter to the federal government about Bon Secours’ lack of investment at Richmond Community Hospital; he wrote to the GRTC Board about proposed service cuts; he wrote a letter to the School Board about the future of George Wythe High School and Fox Elementary; he wrote an acerbic letter to Richmonders Involved to Strengthen our Communities (RISC) about gun violence; and he wrote a letter to The New York Times about removing Confederate statues. There are others, but you get the point.

In 2017, the Mayor paid a visit to Evergreen Cemetery on a clean-up day. In 2019, he returned to deliver a speech on Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, along with a proclamation from the city to create a conservation easement limiting development; and in February 2020, Stoney gave a speech at the Maggie Walker House in Jackson Ward about the new $19 million restoration plan for Evergreen: “It is long overdue that we protect these spaces … and it is our commitment as a city that we will step up and do our part,” Stoney said that day.

Time flies.

Can you imagine the reflexive reaction of someone like Mayor Richard Daley, Jr, or Joe Riley or Maynard Jackson if a board entrusted to hold the money for dozens of volunteer groups’ donations from residents suddenly and inexplicably disappeared? Action — decisive action — not idle words, would clear the way and rule the day. But in our case, we don’t even have idle words.

Pinder noted in his story that, “For the city’s part, Lincoln Saunders, the city’s chief administration officer, said the city will be looking at options, including possibly making money available through general fund non-departmental funding.”

Sadly, the suggestions that the City could make these organizations whole in next year’s budget are pretty insulting. That process would require the groups to apply for funding (that disappeared through no fault of their own) and get scored and ranked as all non-departmental funds are; and on top of that, the funds would not be available until July 1, 2023, when the new budget takes effect. The only other option would be a mid-year budget amendment that can only be introduced by the Mayor and then voted on by Council.

How can these small groups do the important work they do in the meantime if they can’t access their donations? How will they raise more money if they have no place to put it? Will they lose volunteers and work scope because of the City’s foot dragging?

Why the city is not taking the lead on this is just mind-boggling. It’s a total embarrassment that news story after news story keeps mentioning these small, all-volunteer groups that have no idea what to do, no way to get information, can’t afford attorneys to pursue their interest and recover their money, no one helping them get answers, and meanwhile, they still keep working to fulfill their organizations’ goals and missions.

Good for them. And shame on the city.

The city ended last year with a $22 million budget surplus. We also received tens of millions of dollars in federal funds (with various restrictions and strings) in the last two years. There is no reason at all — zero — that the city should not make these groups whole, and do it with haste.

Not in next year’s budget, not after breakfast — NOW.

But all the city can muster to date are vague promises to possibly recover their funding in nine months if they go through the bureaucratic circus of applying for funds in next year’s budget. Pardon my French, but wtf?

City Hall should put this burden on their shoulders and be out there leading the way to make these groups whole ASAP and then demand and push for a thorough investigation, litigation, and whatever it takes to find out what happened to the money and recover it or pursue any legal recourse. The city has the resources and the money — not to mention the responsibility — to make it happen, but after almost four months, we have nothing but crickets.
Shameful and embarrassing. That’s our middle name these days.

Jon Baliles is a former Richmond city councilman. This column has been republished with permission from his blog RVA 5X5.