When Does a Deal Become a “Side Deal”?

Albemarle County Supervisor Rodney Thomas takes issue with my characterization in the story, “Gentleman’s Agreement,” of the access-management agreement reached with the Virginia Department of Transportation as a “side deal.” He was so upset by the article that he asked me to never contact him again. I tried to explore how he would describe the understanding but he refused to talk anymore.

For the record, I did not mean to imply anything secret or underhanded by describing the understanding as a “side deal.”  I didn’t know how else to describe it. I invite readers to give their reaction. Did I blow it? Was I unfair? If so, I’ll publicly apologize to Mr. Thomas.

By way of context, the original deal was one that Thomas and fellow Albemarle Supervisor Duane Snow reached with Transportation Secretary Sean Connaughton: If the two supervisors helped overturn a previous Albemarle County vote to oppose the Charlottesville Bypass, Connaughton would come up with the money to pay for the Bypass and smaller, high-priority projects in the U.S. 29 Corridor (as well as rebuilding the Belmont Bridge in Charlottesville). Thomas and Snow made good on their end of that deal, and Connaughton partly made good on his end, getting Commonwealth Transportation Board approval for the Bypass plus a widening of a stretch of U.S. 29. However, the CTB did not address the status of the other projects.

Before the Bypass project could be approved, Thomas and Snow, who also sat on the regional Metropolitan Planning Organization (Thomas is chairman) had to reverse an earlier MPO vote opposing the Bypass. That was trickier. The Southern Environmental Law Center had put them on the spot by publicly distributing a letter to the Albemarle board asking it to get concrete commitments from Connaughton. “It is essential that the County have clear, firm, and legally enforceable conditions in place as part of any vote to amend the Metropolitan Planning Organization’s transportation plans to allow funding for the bypass,” the letter said.

Whether motivated by the SELC letter or not, Connaughton wrote a letter to the MPO board specifying precisely what he was willing to do to advance the priority road projects, including the Berkmar Drive Extension, the Hillsdale Drive project, the Best Buy ramp and the Belmont Bridge. He also stated his expectation that the MPO would cooperate in curtailing direct access to U.S. 29 by developers and property owners in accordance with the state’s Corridor of Statewide Significance policy. In a Friday interview with me, he described that condition as a “quid pro quo” and expressed his desire to make Charlottesville-Albemarle a “test bed” for the state’s access management policies.

That condition was not part of the original deal with Thomas and Snow, at least not as the two supervisors publicly described it. But Connaughton’s letter was vague about what he expected from the MPO and Albemarle County. Those expectations were clarified, at least to some degree, in a meeting that Thomas had with VDOT Commissioner Gregory Whirley yesterday. Thomas shared those details of the conversation with me, and I wrote the article yesterday.

In my article, I variously described the access-management arrangement as a “side deal,” a “handshake deal,” and an “informal understanding.” What else could you call it? Thomas and VDOT had reached an understanding separate from the original agreement. This one stemmed from the original deal but it was distinct from it and it addressed a totally different topic: access management.

If readers believe that by “side deal” I conveyed the impression that it was reached in secret or was in any way sinister, then I apologize to Mr. Thomas.

It has since occurred to me that Thomas may have participated in the meeting with Whirley in the company of other Albemarle or MPO officials. When I interviewed him, he never mentioned that anyone else was in the meeting with him, so I mentioned only him in the article. Readers may have drawn the conclusion that Thomas met with Whirley alone. A more astute reporter would have clarified that point and also would have made clear whether Thomas was acting in his capacity as an Albemarle supervisor or as chairman of the MPO. I don’t know the answers. For those oversights, I beg readers’ forgiveness.

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11 responses to “When Does a Deal Become a “Side Deal”?”

  1. adarwinian Avatar

    As someone who was actually present at the end of the many-hours-long BOS meeting where Mr. Thomas and his fellow Tea Party buddy Boyd pulled this fiasco, I can speak to this.

    Here are the facts:

    1. The bypass was not an agenda item. There was zero public, much less inner-board, notice of the motion.
    2. The BOS had to vote to suspend their own parliamentary procedures to vote on any bypass-related motion.
    3. Mr. Boyd waited until almost midnight and a virtually empty gallery to mention the motion.
    4. There was zero public comment or review.

    This is not a side deal, it is a back room deal. Those BOS members behind this move should be embarrassed on many levels not to mention it is an outdated boondoggle that will not accomplish the stated goals.

  2. I think the characterization was appropriate. There has been ample opportunity here for explicit disclosure of the elements of the agreement – to the public – and it appears to me that that has not occurred and none of the folks involved in the discussions have seen fit to insure the public does understand what is really going on.

    We know this. A tremendous amount of new money – not coming from Charlottesville and Albermarle County taxpayers – but instead from taxpayers across Va has been promised – in exchange for something that is so far – murky – and again.. the folks involved in the “deal” do not appear to be the least bit inclined to clarify details.

    the man won’t speak to you? an elected official who is making deals with VDOT ..questions your role to ask questions?

    uh huh…. we know this technique… this is exactly why people distrust the process….

    no sympathy here… if the man had disclosure in his heart to start with.. the questions would have been easy to answer….

  3. Groveton Avatar

    You did nothing wrong. And neither did Rodney Thomas.

    This whole episode represents a victory for people of action over people of words.

    Rt 29 through Charlottesville has been a traffic disaster for decades. People of words have debated and studied the matter endlessly. Yet one thing is always true about the people of words – there are never enough words to compel them to action.

    Enter the Southern Environmental Law Center. People of words have a problem – most voter / taxpayers want to see progress rather than an endless spouting of words. So, politicians who want to stay in office have to do what politicians are supposed to do – represent their constituencies. And most of their constituency wants progress – especially after 20 years of listening to the empty suited people of words. So, people of words have developed a vaccine against progress – lawyers. They use lawyers to thwart the will of citizens as expressed by elected officials. If a group of politicians actually threatens to replace words with action then the people of words go looking for a judge to stop them. Because nothing upsets the people of words more than action.

    Eneter Sean Connaughton. Like all men of action Sean Connaughton has been battling the people of words most of his life. And like all successful men of action, Sean Connaughton has learned how to “bypass” the people of words. Connaughton apparently decided that 20 years of words was enough. He cooked a deal to take action. Yeah, he probably cut a few procedural corners but if the people of words really had a legal recourse against him they would be parading their yuppie lawyers in front of the media right now.

    Good for all the men in this episode who defeated the people of words. They remind me of a quote from Teddy Roosevelt …

    ““It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again; because there is not effort without error and shortcomings; but who does actually strive to do the deed; who knows the great enthusiasm, the great devotion, who spends himself in a worthy cause, who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement and who at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly. So that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.”

    Bully Mr. Connaughton! Bully Mr. Thomas! Bully Mr. Boyd!

  4. ” a victory for people of action over people of words”

    that’s Groveton-speak for skulking around in the a.m. making decisions that you lack the courage to do in front of the public.

    I wonder how Groveton would feel if that process was used by the Clown Show in Richmond to scheme on ways to fleece NoVa of it’s decisions?

    A man of principles stands up for what they believe in – and is not afraid to do so in the light of public scrutiny. If they vote you out for your principles, then that’s the price of being courageous enough to follow your principles.

    there are no “principles” when it comes to ad hoc votes taken in the a.m. hours IMHO.

    this is also an example of how an elected person can take votes that have long-term consequences with little or not involvement by the public.

    but HEY.. if I had my way – I’d vote to restrict NoVa from crapping up the Interstates so bad that people up and down the East Coast are essentially held hostage to NoVa blatant co-opting of interstate highways that were originally intended to serve the traveling public and not folks like Til Hazel and company.

    The people of the US paid for I-95 just like the people of the US paid for US-29 through Charlottesville (and Lynchburg).

    All 3 got crapped up by local economic development that essentially co-opted the mainline roads in each case.

    Now.. Charlottesville owns the 29 congestion… Lynchburg owns their 29 congestion and NoVa owns their I-95/I-66 congestion.

    is the answer to this to have VDOT folks in Richmond – make early morning deals with local officials?

  5. Groveton Avatar

    Dear Mr. Larry Words:

    “A man of principles stands up for what they believe in – and is not afraid to do so in the light of public scrutiny.”.

    There were 20 years of public debate. 20 years of scrutiny.

    “The people of the US paid for I-95 just like the people of the US paid for US-29 through Charlottesville (and Lynchburg).”.

    Comparing I-95 through Washington with Rt 29 in Charlottesville is pretty absurd. How many red lights and curb cuts are on I-95?

    “All 3 got crapped up by local economic development that essentially co-opted the mainline roads in each case.”. Those are the words talking there Larry. It really doesn’t matter how they got crapped up. What matters is how they get uncrapped. And here’s a hint – after 20 years of words more words won’t uncrap anything.

    “that’s Groveton-speak for skulking around in the a.m. making decisions that you lack the courage to do in front of the public.

    I wonder how Groveton would feel if that process was used by the Clown Show in Richmond to scheme on ways to fleece NoVa of it’s decisions?”.

    If being fleeced means have funds for road improvements committed to NoVa – PLEASE fleece us. We’ve been begging to be fleeced like that for years.

  6. Groveton Avatar

    Also, a quick question …

    Does the state own the right of way required to build the Rt 29 bypass? If so, is that ownership permanent? Is there a timeframe beyond which the rights of way would have to be returned or sold to the original owners?

    You see, this is a trick question.

    The first parcels of land for the Rt 29 right of way were purchased in 1991. State law requires that property acquired by VDOT be offered back to the original owners in 21 years if the road isn’t built. Let’s see 1991 + 21 = 2012!

    And what happens to the money the federal government has already given Virginia for the road if the road isn’t built? Attorney General Bob McDonnell was asked that question and he opined that Virginia would have to give the feds back their money. In fairness, Pierce Homer disagreed. He felt that any federal money allocated to the bypass but not spent on plans, studies, etc could be spent elsewhere in the Culpeper District. Of course, Mr. Homer got his law degree at …. well, he doesn’t actually hold a degree in law.

    You see Larry Words, people of words never let you know all the words. If they did, word time would end and action time would commence.

    Had the people of words only managed to drag their feet just a year or two longer, the rights of way would have been sold back to the original owners, the plans would have to be scrapped and the approved funding returned to the federal government.

  7. all those words… Groveton.. and you never answered the question of top-down govt…. dictating to localities what they can do with land-use and transportation.

    It’s TRUE that Rt 29 is not I-95 but in both cases what happened was very similar.

    Despite the best efforts of the Feds.. NoVa has effectively co-opted a national asset paid for by all taxpayers and converted it into a local transportation asset and essentially degraded it severely for north-south East Coast travelers.

    What NoVa did was a king-sized version of what Charlottesville did – AND the PROPOSED solution to the the NoVa region “issues” is what?

    A NEW Bypass… and a NEW Potomac River crossing – to be paid for – not by NoVa taxpayers but by Va taxpayers.

    how about those apple/words Groveton?

    do you support Va and the Feds doing the Interstate version of access management to I-95/I-66 to return the usefulness of those roads to people outside the NoVa area?

    or do you support building a new western bypass to get around and through NoVa?

    right now.. I-95 in NoVa is like a Giant obstacle to almost anyone who is trying to get from Florida to NY or points in between.

    Even the worst of the worst interstate roads NORTH of NoVa are usable for East Coast travelers to use… but not I-95 in NoVa which is a formidable obstacle to such movement.

    Whose fault is it and whose job is it to fix it?

    re: Rt 29 right of way…. yes I suspect a timetable on that issue also….

    but VDOT being VDOT… they’re not going to give r/w back if it’s still in an active plan… they’ll just get the GA (the clown show) to extend the deadline.

    oh.. and anyone who has traveled south Rt 29 to the NC border can tell you that Lynchburg has a very similar issue to Charlottesville and yes.. they are doing some access management but unlike Charlottesville the state did not offer Lynchburg a big bag of money to build a bypass for their problem.

  8. let’s cut to the chase here – should the people who live in a locale have the right to deny the State or the Feds from putting a road through that is for the travelling public to have reasonable egress through that locale?

    I’m looking for a consistent answer here – one that is the same no matter what locale is specified.

    Should the State and the Feds have the right to tell NoVa that I-95 is to be preserved and protected as a north-south corridor for East Coast travelers?

    or for that matter – Route 7 which is a state designated primary road.

    or for that matter – Rt 29 itself which USED to run through NoVa but was long ago completely co-opted for local purposes.

  9. here’s US 29 through NoVa:


    and here is US 29 through Charlottesville:


    bring them up in adjacent tabs and flip back and forth and then tell me which one has been most impacted by local actions……

    YO Groveton. What say you?


  10. Groveton Avatar

    “let’s cut to the chase here – should the people who live in a locale have the right to deny the State or the Feds from putting a road through that is for the travelling public to have reasonable egress through that locale?”.

    Irrelevant question. The duly elected local officials in Charlottesville and Albemerle voted “yes”. The state, in the form of the transportation secretary, voted “yes”. The taxpayers of Virginia who have elected 20 years of governors (any one of which could have killed the project) voted “yes”. The citizens of the United States who elected Congressmen and Congresswomen who provided federal transportation funding for the Rt 29 bypass voted “yes”.

    The naysayers here seem to be people from both sides of the lunatic fringe. Some Tea Party types who don’t like government spending of any sort and a shrill set of eco-whiners who figure that never building additional road capacity will eventually lead to their vision of settlement patterns.

    As for Rt 95 – you live in a fantasy world. Sadly, I have to drive it both north and south from Washington. Richmond, Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia are all bottlenecks. I wonder why? None of those cities existed when Rt 95 was built, right? Oh wait! They were all there hundreds of years before Rt 95 was built. Your brilliant, all powerful, all knowing government built a north/south highway right through each and every city on the East coast. Now, you wonder why highways which go through one city after another are congested. You and the government are meant for each other.

    I’ll be driving from NoVa to South Carolina next weekend. I’ll send you a report.

  11. ” Your brilliant, all powerful, all knowing government built a north/south highway right through each and every city on the East coast.”

    actually Groveton – no…. they initially did that but eventually they decided that “belts” would help through travelers “around” the urban areas but places like NoVa simply used the beltway as a backbone for development.

    Remember Rt 29 ?

    Route 29 runs through NoVa.

    and let me ask you .. Did NoVa screw up Rt 29 any worse than Charlottesville did?

    Would you agree that because Route 29 through NoVa has been really messed up that we should build a bypass like Charlottesville is – through their residential areas?

    seem like what’s good for the Goose… and all that rot, eh?

    so what about Rt 29 in NoVa? what happened? Did NoVa screw it up like Charlottesville screwed up – but they did it decades before Charlottesville screwed up their part?

    Did the taxpayers of Va pay for Rt 29 and NoVa then used it for a development venue?

    SHAME! and you have the nerve to accuse the State/Feds of screwing up.

    all I can say Groveton – is POT, KETTLE, BLACK!

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