Tag Archives: Jon Baliles

RVA 5×5: Annual Crime Briefing Numbers

by Jon Baliles

The Richmond Police Department held its annual crime review briefing this week and the numbers were positive on the surface, a little mixed in total, and almost miraculous considering the force has more than 150 vacancies.

Mark Bowes writes in the Times-Dispatch that “The good news for the city of Richmond from a crime perspective last year was a 37% drop in homicides (from 90 to 57) and a 17% reduction in robberies of persons.” The numbers of reported rapes, aggravated assaults and commercial robberies rose in 2022 over the preceding year, but overall violent crime was flat, [Acting Police Chief Rick Edwards] said, dropping about 1% from 1,099 reported offenses to 1,087.

However, a more disturbing trend was the 33 incidents of shootings with more than one victim (80 people total in 33 shootings – recall the one shooting last summer on Broad Street with six shooting victims). That was up from 31 multiple shootings in 2021 with 68 victims. Also, the number of non-fatal shootings increased from 244 in 2021 to 256 last year.

“The numbers would have been even higher,” Edwards said, if not for police initiatives during the final quarter of the year that reduced by 12% the number of shootings during that three month period. They dropped from 69 to 61. “We were on track to have a much higher increase in non-fatal shootings,’ the chief said.”
Continue reading

RVA 5×5: Redefining 100 Percent Compliance

by Jon Baliles

The recent stories from the City Jail have been anything but good — inmates dying far too often, staffing shortages leading to dangerous work conditions,  deputies quitting, and the lack of leadership that can’t fill the vacancies while conducting lie detector tests on some of the staff that remain.

Tyler Layne at CBS6 reports: “In December 2022, Richmond Councilperson Reva Trammell sent a formal letter to the Board of Local and Regional Jails requesting an investigation into the facility for compliance with state regulations. Several of Trammell’s colleagues on Richmond City Council said they supported her efforts.”

Few people beyond Trammell sounded much of an alarm about the jail until recently, when it became far too obvious that something needs to be done. Families, advocates, and elected officials have finally started raising the volume in recent weeks.

Layne went to the meeting of The Board of Local and Regional Jails (a state board charged to oversee, regulate, and investigate facilities across Virginia) to try and get some answers as to what, if anything, the state is doing. At the meeting, the board discussed ten different cases but found no violations (each case’s location were not revealed), but Layne was told after the meeting that Richmond was not one of the ten cases discussed.

Board Chairman Vernie Francis, Jr. told Layne “We’ll handle all the investigations of any facility the same way, through the process, treat every facility the exact same way.”

Francis told Layne that once an investigation is concluded and reported back to the Board, the facility must develop a corrective action plan if violations are discovered; the action plan can be approved or rejected by the Board.

CBS6 submitted a request under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) for the board’s recent email communications related to Richmond’s jail. Ryan McCord, the Board of Local and Regional Jails executive director wrote Layne that “the board withheld 50 records, citing a FOIA exemption that applies to information about imprisoned people. The board withheld an additional 75 records, citing an exemption that applies to working papers of the Governor’s Office.”
Continue reading

Symphonic Tribute

by Jon Baliles

The Richmond Symphony has a long and great history of collaboration and performances that you would not normally think of when you think of Beethoven, Mozart, and Bach. But next weekend, get ready to experience two performances that will continue that tradition of unusual marriages of sound that produce magic.

The Richmond Symphony is honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s message with two shows that will honor him and inspire you. You can catch the symphony with local musician Butcher Brown on Saturday night at the Carpenter Theatre.

Locally famous and internationally talented, Butcher Brown hears the history of jazz and fuses it with funk, hip-hop, rap, rock, soul…and now with the entire orchestra of the Richmond Symphony. This concert represents a truly innovative venture that adds a new dimension of quality, inclusive music and artistic development for audiences of all ages to enjoy.

This show is going to be an unforgettable and oft-talked-about collaboration.

If you can’t make that show, the Symphony will also be at the Perkinson Center for the Arts in Chester next Sunday, performing with Brown Ballerinas for Change. Their “diverse repertoire features spirituals, hymns and other stirring compositions by black musicians of the past and present.”

If you have not seen the Symphony in a while (or ever), this is a great opportunity to check them out as they expand their boundaries and your mind through your ears.

This piece first appeared on RVA 5×5 and is republished with permission. 

RVA 5×5 — Who Really Voted Down The Casino Referendum?

by Jon Baliles

The casino referendum is the issue that won’t go away — kind of like a desperate or compulsive gambler who stays put because the next hand is the winning hand, or the slot player who is completely convinced the next pull of that handle will deliver the jackpot. At some point, you need to walk away.

The relentless effort to build a casino in Richmond and revive the referendum for the third time in 2023 (it failed in 2021 and tried but failed to return to the ballot in 2022) is about to become the hottest potato tossed around the General Assembly session when it opens next week. I won’t bore you to tears with recapping the details from the past few months — this is a look back at the vote in 2021 and what it means in 2023 — but you can read more about the non-stop casino drama here, here, and here, if you so desire.

The people voted the casino down in 2021 in a referendum that was required by the state, but Mayor Stoney and others looked at the results and concluded the easiest and most convenient explanation of the final tally could be explained by race. Except, what Stoney and others maybe didn’t realize is that the voting data show that the referendum failed because a huge number of Terry McAuliffe voters also voted against the casino.

The Stage

Before we get into the data, however, let’s set the stage. Richmond is lobbying the legislature hard as we speak and will stop at nothing to get the referendum back on the ballot in 2023. Petersburg wants to have a shot at a casino referendum next year and make Richmond wait a few years since they already tried and failed. If Richmond does get approval for another referendum, the casino applicant in Petersburg has said it will not move forward with its plan and there would be no need for a referendum in Petersburg. So, the stakes are clear and the battle has already been joined. Stay tuned.

The inability of Richmond’s leaders to get the casino application/selection process completed and on the ballot for the 2020 election (like the other four casinos in Virginia did) cost them dearly. In a presidential year, that referendum would have been approved easily given the high level of turnout (the other four cities approved their referendums in 2020 with at least 65%). We saw a tight gubernatorial race in 2021 (with a record voter turnout for a gubernatorial election, but still lower than a presidential year), and the casino referendum went down to a very narrow defeat. Continue reading

Thawing the Brain Freeze at City Hall

Richmond City Hall

by Jon Baliles

We can be thankful for a weather warm-up this week after last week’s bitter cold. Maybe it will help thaw the brain freeze at City Hall and enable them to fix the shelter situation before the next bitter cold arrives (hint, it’s coming back).

Last week, after Tyler Lane at CBS6 filed a cringeworthy report about the failure of the City to provide enough shelter and people being turned away, City Hall was opened at the last minute for the two days over the Christmas weekend for people to warm up. But then those in need were turned back out into the cold at 4 p.m. each day just as the temperature fell back into the teens.

The City did get two shelters open in Manchester with a capacity of about 100 beds in November (with about 450 needed total) through two non-profits. The excuses from the Administration for not opening the other shelters and expanding capacity were legion. The City is still quibbling with one non-profit over contract terms before they can get funding and open for the winter (they opened last week briefly with private funds to get through the cold spell). Continue reading

RVA 5×5 – New Year’s Nuggets

by Jon Baliles

Left In The Cold

The Richmond Free Press Editorial Page ends the year batting 1.000 and goes two for two this week. The main editorial covers the disgraceful lack of attention, urgency and concern by the mayor and the administration for those in need of shelter during last week’s arctic blast. It opens with two sentences any “leader” should be ashamed of:

“Here’s the good news: So far, there have been no reports of unsheltered people freezing to death in the arctic blast that hit the Richmond area just before Christmas. With private and city-supported shelters full, people were left in the cold.”

It goes through the debacle over the past few months (you can read more here and here) and questions why zoning and special use permits were held out among the excuses as to why shelters in certain parts of town were unable to open. I recall a time not too distant when the mayor used “emergency powers” for numerous other issues during the pandemic; I guess emergency shelter for the homeless in 10-degree weather does not qualify.

The editorial also notes that the Council approved a special use permit two years ago for a shelter by a different operator in the same spot on Chamberlayne Avenue in Northside, but this year they are still waiting to get through the red tape.

“It would seem simple enough to create a legal fig leaf that would have allowed CCC (Commonwealth Catholic Charities) to fully open. No, it was more important that CCC gain its own permission slip, even if that took forever and left desperate people in the cold.”

And then, the brilliant denouement:

“Mayor Stoney has lectured everyone about how this city’s goal is to create One Richmond and equity for all. Apparently, you had to read the fine print on his messaging: Legal niceties are more important than people. Alas.”

Jon Baliles is a former Richmond City Councilman. This column was published originally in his blog RVA 5×5 and is republished here with permission.

RVA 5×5 – Holiday Briefing

by Jon Baliles

It’s Friday! Which means this newsletter would normally be filled with stories and analysis about what is happening in the RVA region (not all of it good), with an honest and insightful take (so far as that is possible). For instance, this week we could have stories about:

A non-profit that presented a homeless shelter plan to the City in June and still hasn’t received the go-ahead or money to open; so they raised $30,000 on their own this week to open a shelter this weekend because the Mayor and City haven’t been able to get their head out of the sand for SIX MONTHS to execute a contract. If a timeline helps your perspective, the City sent the latest contract to the non-profit on November 13th, which returned it to the City within two days. The non-profit did not receive a response until December 20. Temperatures will get down to ten degrees tonight and won’t get above 32 degrees until Monday. The only explanation has been another word-salad buffet from the mayor’s press office. Shameful.

The first concepts are coming into view about VCU’s 42-acre athletic village across from what will become the Diamond District development. This area is exploding!

At least eight to 10 very old and huge trees (some close to 100 years old) in Mosby Court were razed to the ground this week. Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority said that the trees were being cut “as part of a curb appeal improvement request that came from the City of Richmond to RRHA for several of our public housing sites.” The Mayor’s Office replied that “The city requested RRHA to pick up trash and remove brush — not trees.” This has got to be a government operation. More breadsticks, please. Continue reading

The Trophy in the Middle of the River

by Jon Baliles

Some great news this week about the one thing most everyone can agree on: the James River is awesome, and the heart of the City just got a LOT more awesome. Or at least it is pointing in that direction. Mike Platania at Richmond BizSense reported that The Capital Region Land Conservancy (CRLC) is under contract to buy Mayo Island with the ultimate goal to create public green space. The “CRLC has made an initial security deposit on the island and is currently in the due diligence phase” and expects to close on the property next year.

“If successful … Mayo [Island], that has been long-discussed and long-envisioned for a public space, can now become that in the future,” CRLC Director Parker Agelasto said. “…Mayo is truly going to be the green space that everybody has been yearning for, with a nice walkability from the Hull Street corridor.”

Agelasto added that the CRLC is waiting to hear back from the Virginia Land Conservation Foundation about a grant it applied for that would help fund the purchase. The grant money would come from the state’s Community Flood Preparedness Fund.

“It’s not a guarantee,” Agelasto said. “[But] we feel very good about where we are at the moment.” Continue reading

RVA 5X5: A Five-Part Series of Stories

by Jon Baliles

STORY #1 — The Pot Overfloweth

There have been a lot of stories this week about the $21 million surplus announced by Mayor Levar Stoney and what he is asking City Council to endorse and how to disburse it in a budget amendment vote scheduled for a Monday evening vote. “The growth of the real estate market has caused the taxable real property revenue to exceed the budgeted amount,” the mayor wrote in a letter to Council.

Dean Mirshahi at WRIC reports that out of the $17 million, $5 million would be used to improve pay scales for first responders and $3.1 million for inclement weather shelters — two things that are definitely needed and long overdue.

There is an allocation of $1,750,000 to the Department of Economic Development for “contractual increases” involving Richmond’s Diamond District and City Center projects. No one knows what this means, but the Diamond District developer made it clear to VPM News that they were not recipients of any of that allocation (so put away the conspiracy theories). Maybe an explanation is forthcoming Monday night (or maybe not).

Some of the other funding includes $1.1 million for traffic calming projects; $1 million each for the nonprofits HumanKind and Homeward to provide family crisis services and homeless services; $500,000 to NextUP RVA, a free program for Richmond Public Schools middle school students; $2 million would go to a reserve fund to help offset rising health care costs for city employees; about $450,000 for employees assisting with added translation and interpretation services; and $400,000 for the YMCA’s Help1RVA helpline for people in crisis or considering suicide.

The biggest item is $5 million for first responders, which includes $2.6 million for the Richmond Police Department, $1.9 million for the Richmond Fire Department, and $559,000 for the Department of Emergency Communications for pay adjustments that the city says were not accounted for in the pay raises approved last May.

VPM noted that “a press release from the mayor’s office said those pay adjustments would be for employees not accounted for in a $17 million increase in first-responder wages in May’s budget.” Continue reading

RVA 5X5: Enrichmond and the City’s Radio Silence

Photo credit: Flickr

by Jon Baliles

I won’t do a “Top Stories of 2022” list for this newsletter, but if I did, one of them would surely be the collapse of the Enrichmond Foundation and the radio silence on all fronts concerning its finances, the groups that depended on it, their assets, and the two historic Black cemeteries in its portfolio — Evergreen and East End Cemetery.

The important question is not so much what happened in 2022 (although that is important); the critical next steps — should anyone decide to take them — are what will happen in 2023?

A brief recap from the October 14 newsletter: “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, the Foundation announced a cessation of operations, leaving 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 his role as counsel.

None of the “leaders” at City Hall has said anything about this. Not. A. Word.

The City’s Parks & Recreation Department has been able to assist some of the organizations, but there are so many they can’t do it all themselves. That’s why the Foundation existed. It is known that the amount of money held in trust for the various “Friends Of” groups is anywhere from $300,000 to $3 million, though I have been told recently that it is closer to the lower estimate.

While the City dawdles, how are these small “Friends Of” groups to do the important work they do (much of it is environmental) if they can’t access their donations? How can they raise money if they have no place to put it? The more this drags out, it is a safe bet those groups will lose volunteers, who will put their time toward other causes. Continue reading

Double-Standard Bonds

by Jon Baliles

One of the eternal mysteries of the Commonwealth of Virginia’s governing structure is the separate treatment of counties and cities. We are the only state in the country that has the screwy system of independent cities that are not part of a county government or structure. But that’s not where the screwiness stops.

For some reason, the state treats bond referendums for cities differently than those for counties. A county can issue bonds for major projects (usually for schools, roads, fire stations, libraries, etc.), but it has to be put to a voter referendum for approval. The state doesn’t want localities to spend what they don’t have, and then come to the state for a bailout.

Cities, however, can authorize major bond issuances with just the approval of the governing body (i.e., City Council). State code section § 15.2-2636 states: “The governing body may authorize and issue bonds in accordance with the applicable provisions of this chapter, without submission of the question of the issuance of the bonds to the voters for approval.”

So what? It is important to remember that this different “standard” allows cities to make bond referendums much more susceptible to politics (and shenanigans) because you only need a majority of votes of the governing body. That’s a much easier bar to clear than having to convince voters.

I bring this up only to point out the difference in referendums and what localities use them for. What we saw this week in our region were two huge referendums pass overwhelmingly: Henrico ($511 million); and Chesterfield ($540 million). Continue reading

Sanctuary Sell-Out

Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney

by Jon Baliles

If you time warp all the way back to early 2017 (which on some days seems like 30 years ago), then-newly-sworn-in Mayor Levar Stoney issued a directive that Richmond would be a sanctuary city in opposition to then-newly-sworn-in President Trump’s executive orders on immigration (that were later struck down). Many cities across the country issued similar orders/directives.

City of Richmond employees, including police, would not ask anyone about their immigration status or cooperate with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in deporting anyone in the country illegally. Stoney said on the day of the announcement, “That is not the country we are. That is not the city we will be.”

The Mayor’s directive said, in part: “in the interest of public safety and protecting communities, will maintain its policy of not inquiring as to the place of birth or immigration status of individuals with whom it comes into contact.”

If you recall the hubbub surrounding this, the directive did not actually use the term “sanctuary city,” and Richmond for years had been not working cooperatively with ICE on immigration matters. The same applied to Henrico and Chesterfield and Hanover — none of the regions’ governments or law enforcement had any such working arrangement. In fact, nationwide in 2017, there were only 38 police departments that had a signed working agreement with ICE, and only one in Virginia (Prince William County).

Why does that matter now, in 2022?

Well, that’s because the directive and sentiment from 2017 was voided by the Mayor when he and the former police chief took credit for stopping the July 4th alleged mass shooting that wasn’t, but which made them both stars for a few days on cable TV news about stopping gun violence. Continue reading

Now It’s Time to Get It Right

Former Police Chief Gerald Smith

by Jon Baliles

We can all take some comfort in the fact that Police Chief Gerald Smith has resigned, not because there is comfort in someone else’s downfall, but rather it gives the city a chance to start over with new leadership in public safety and repair the damage that has been done. Smith did not have the confidence of the officers under his command; he did not build on the foundation other chiefs before him had built; he did not seem to listen to his officers or the community; he seemed not to worry about anything other than pleasing his boss (the mayor); and, he perpetuated a lie about an alleged mass shooting and stayed with it beyond all evidence to the contrary.

It’s time to move on and do so in a hurry but with a process that is done right. The damage is done and crime is surging across the city (and the region) and we have vacancies in the police department that are not easy to fill and even harder when there is no confidence in leadership. So the trends we are seeing won’t improve right away, but at least we now have a chance to get it right.

We have seen this car wreck happening in slow motion — it began even before the summer of 2020. Mayor Levar Stoney had ignored the police department for most of his first term. He paid lip service to salaries and pay structure that became uncompetitive with surrounding locales, which was a repeat of what happened in the late 90’s and early 2000’s; he nudged a good, hard-working and well-liked police chief (Alfred Durham) into retirement; there was little concern shown for any workers in the public safety sector (Police, Fire, Emergency Communications, etc.). Continue reading

“The City Is Shaming Itself”

Photo credit: Richmond.com

by Jon Baliles

It was cold at night this week but not as cold as it will soon get, and a warming trend over the next week looks likely (never trust the weather forecast more than 48 hours in advance). That is good news for those who seek a warm place to sleep at night, since the city can’t seem to get its act together in regard to a warm weather shelter. Actually, it’s difficult to discern whether or not the city is having a hard time or if it even gives a damn whether the shelter opens or not.

VPM noted that last week at City Council’s Education and Human Services Committee meeting, Councilwoman Stephanie Lynch said, We are not meeting our moral obligation. We are failing.”

Since the closing of the city’s main shelter at the Annie Giles Center in Shockoe Valley in 2020 during the pandemic, there has (barely) been a patchwork of band-aid solutions and fits and starts at opening another shelter.

The Free Press reports this week that the city opened two shelters this week as temperatures dropped into the 30’s — one with 50 beds for men and another with 50 for women — but no space allowed for adults with children. And apparently, not many people knew about it. Continue reading

“Violence Is Spinning Out of Control”

Richmond crime scene. Photo credit: WWBT NBC 12.

by Jon Baliles

On Wednesday, CBS6 Crime Insider Jon Burkett gave an interview to John Reid on WRVA about the rising and scary number of shootings happening all over the region, most of them in the city.

He noted that as of Wednesday morning there had been 12 shootings in the previous 7 days, and 10 just in the previous 5 days, with two murders.

He talks about how a lot of it is driven by feuds on social media and then gives a scary quote: “Credit the surgeons at VCU — if we didn’t have them, we’d be in really big trouble,” while also noting that their job in the ER is the “equivalent to a combat surgeon.”

He goes into more detail and talks about one woman who was interviewed whose brother had been murdered and she wondered why he was even out on the street – he had 13 serious felonies on his record. Burkett also said he was threatened by someone in a passing car while he was conducting an interview following a shooting. Does it feel like we are turning or have turned things around? Continue reading