What the Heck Did Norfolk’s Planning Director Say?

George Homewood

by James A. Bacon

Norfolk’s planning director, George Homewood, has left his post, and city officials aren’t saying whether he resigned or was fired. But The Virginian-Pilot says the parting of the ways occurred after the American Institute of Certified Planners (AICP) Ethics Committee suspended him for violating the group’s ethics code.

Reading the headline immediately set off my woke-o-meter. Was Homewood, a city employee since 2011, guilty of truly horrendous behavior, or was his career tarnished because he offended someone with a “micro-aggression?”

We’ll probably never know.

In a letter published on its website, the AICP declared that Homewood had violated Rule of Conduct #6, which states that a certified planner “shall not deliberately commit any wrongful act, whether or not specified in the Rules of Conduct that reflects adversely on our professional fitness or the planning profession.”

The letter goes on to mention “vivid descriptions of inappropriate conversations” during meetings of the Virginia Chapter cited by AICP’s ethics officer. The alleged “wrongful acts” reflected on both the planning profession and Homewood’s “professional fitness,” the AICP statement said, adding that “many” planners withdrew from Virginia chapter activities as a result.

Update: An updated Pilot article states that the charge against Homewood was sexual harassment. Apparently, Homewood had appealed the finding of wrongful acts. The Pilot obtained a letter from AICP to Homewood explaining that three character witnesses who testified on his behalf added now new evidence to refute the charges.

The phrase “professional fitness” resonated with me. It reminded me of the fate that befell University of Virginia medical student Kieran Bhattacharya who publicly called into question assumptions underpinning the concept of “microaggressions.” A participant in that event took offense and filed a “professionalism concern card” with the medical school, precipitating a tangled series of events that eventually led to Bhattacharya’s suspension and departure.

Norfolk city officials refused to elaborate on the charges, and The Virginian-Pilot was unable to contact Homewood.

Ralph Willmer, the AICP’s ethics officer

The AICP Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct requires members to pursue the public interest with integrity, safeguard the public trust, advance the public understanding of planning, and “work to achieve economic, social, and racial equity.” Among other topics, the rules address “discrimination/harassment.”

The term “harassment” in this context usually refers to comments or actions of a sexual or racial nature.

We don’t know what Homewood said, so we don’t know how egregious his statements were. If they were of a sexual nature, was he crudely misogynistic? Did he tell off-color jokes? Was he unartfully trying to complement women for their appearance? 

If his remarks were of a racial nature, were they akin to something that a Neo-Nazi might say? Did he commit a series of mildly offensive microaggressions? Or did he just espouse views that don’t blame every ill befalling the Black community on white supremacy?

These are fair questions to ask because American institutions are becoming more aggressive in policing “inappropriate” language even as the definition of “inappropriate” is continually mutating and advocates of “equity” classify an increasingly broad spectrum of thought as sexist and racist.

No one knows the rules anymore. Anyone, at any time, can offend without meaning to. As the AICP itself says, words and behavior can been declared harassment “whether or not specified in the Rules of Conduct.”

Additionally, one might ask if Homewood was ever given a chance to defend himself, either before the AICP or in the City of Norfolk There is no indication in either the AICP statement or The Virginian-Pilot article that he was (although the silence of those two sources does not constitute proof that he was denied an opportunity to do so).

In any case, Homewood has been pilloried by his professional association, his employer, and his community newspaper. Perhaps his remarks were so horrendous that he deserves this fate. But maybe, just maybe, he was unfairly vilified. I can understand his desire to remain mute and hope the controversy will go away. But Mr. Homewood, if you wish to tell your side of the story, feel free to contact me at jabacon@baconsrebellion.com.

Update: New information provided by the Pilot indicates that Homewood had an opportunity to defend himself but his three character witnesses provided no evidence to refute the charges. The balance of evidence now suggests that my conjecture that Homewood might have been unfairly vilified was unfounded.

I stand by my statement that the rules governing acceptable discourse are continually changing. However, that larger point, as true as it might be, may not apply in this instance.

Jim Bacon is executive director of The Jefferson Council. The views expressed here are entirely his own and do not reflect the position of the Council.