The main event in Richmond last Monday wasn’t, as one might suspect, at the National, nor at the Mosque, nor even the Diamond where the Squirrels played baseball well past 9 p. m. No, if you wanted real entertainment Monday evening in this ex-capital of the Confederacy, nothing could beat the exquisite interplay of egos and angst, and downright old town villainy that was on display at City Council Monday eve.
At issue was a resolution put forward by the council at the behest of Mayor Dwight Jones and certain powers behind the scene (hint: VCU) that wanted to ‘better’ Monroe Park. The idea was to lease Monroe Park (the city’s oldest park) to an entity called the Monroe Park Conservancy and thus create a private/public partnership with 3 million coming from the city and another 3 million that the Conservancy will “attempt to raise from private sources” to spruce up the place. The lease would run for 30 years. Sounds great, except the lease, that is the money the city would get out of this act of singular munificence runs to—wait for it –one dollar a year. Let’s repeat that for those of you just joining us: that’s one dollar a year, for thirty years. Or, thirty bucks. Or the price of a dinner for two at one of Richmond’s less stellar establishments. Without a bottle of wine, either.
So city real estate, assessed at 9 million dollars, or so, is leased to a private conservancy in a deal that will net the city exactly -2,999,970. Note that this is a negative figure.
There’s more, of course. The Checkers House which will be renovated to accommodate a restaurant/cafe will in turn be rented out….and that rent (possibly $100,000.00 or more per year) will not go to the city to help pay off the 3 million the city chipped in for renovations, but rather, it will go to –wait for it– the Monroe Park Conservancy! And no, even though the Conservancy will be sitting on real estate valued at 9 million dollars, it will pay exactly zero (0) in property taxes back to the city. Now, in all fairness, Mayor Jones, in a rare display of fiscal sanity, actually tried to work property taxes into the deal, but VCU, et. al. said ‘meh’ and so sadly, he folded because there was no other entity besides the Monroe Park Conservancy that would happily take such a deal, right?
Well, no. That’s not right, either, actually. There are probably hundreds of entities that would take such a deal. I would, for example. So would Enrich Richmond. So would Renew Richmond. So would activist, Mo Karnage, who tried to put in a bid on the park to delay the vote. The competing bid(s) for Richmond’s oldest park were all summarily rejected without explanation or notable delay. So there is the faint whiff of a sweetheart deal here, which, of course, tends to embolden activists. Or, just citizens concerned that the city is selling their public wares off faster than a street hooker who has decided to pay a really high price for the privilege of getting screwed.
Nevertheless, City Council President Charles Samuels assured everyone at the meeting that the park will remain open for all. As a passing note, Samuels is the district councilman for the park and he co-patroned the resolution to lease Monroe Park to the Conservancy along with Mayor Dwight Jones who is, yes, on the Board of the Conservancy himself, soon to be joined by councilman Samuels, if he so chooses. Funny how all this works out.
Despite such assurances from Samuels about public ‘openness’, the writing on the wall (and in the lease) is not nearly so blithe. The Conservancy will establish a list of “acceptable activities” in the park. If you qualify under their policy, you may apply for a permit to pursue said “acceptable activities” which costs $35 per event/activity. The Food Not Bombs folks, represented by activists like Mo Karnage, who regularly feed the homeless in the park, are not especially rich and $35 a pop to do volunteer work in a quasi-public park is not exactly a step in the right direction for them. That is, of course, if the Conservancy views their humanitarian efforts as an “acceptable activity” which it may very well not do because many on the board consider the presence of the homeless in the park to be a “security issue”; one of the main reasons for establishing the Conservancy in the first place.
Now, if you were to read the press accounts of these events you would be forgiven for taking a dim view of the activists who were reported to have ‘disturbed’ and ‘frustrated’ the smooth running of our erstwhile Democracy. Here’s Channel 8’s big takeaway: “Richmond City Council was supposed to vote on the future of Monroe Park, but people continued disrupting because they didn’t like the plan. Things got so out of order that at one point, council members got up and walked out.” Right. And the reason for this unruly disturbance of order? “All the commotion stemmed from disagreement over a plan to allow a non-profit to manage Monroe Park. People against the ordinance are worried about what will happen to the homeless people who live in the park.” Well, yes, that and the fact that the city is once again involved in an alliance with private entities to strip away control of public property for the satisfaction of the already quite well to do; and they are using approximately 3 million dollars worth of public funds to do it. And the fact that the City of Richmond apparently has yet to have a successful audit of property it’s already leasing and may be as much as a million dollars or more in the hole. And that the Mayor’s budget cuts the city parks’ budget by 7%. And that every single public commentator allowed to speak was against it, including ex-council person Martin Jewel who said, “You are creating an environment in which the people will revolt… And I’m going to join them.”
Activists shouted, one person was handcuffed and dragged away. Disruptions occurred throughout the meeting. Mo called council person Samuels a dingo or dingus when he tried to cut off her public comment, and council person Mosby pleaded for the attendees to show more respect, accusing them of wanting people in Richmond to remain homeless; which honestly made no sense at all. Not that the rest of the meeting was a profile in lucidity.
In the end, none of it mattered. City Council finally went on to approve the plan. Unanimously, I might add (which brings up another oddity: why were there no dissenting votes? Not one?)
At any rate, the evening was quite entertaining, in a gallows way, for a Monday, that is; a kind of opéra bouffe which was much better than the Squirrel’s game, whose stadium, by the way, the Mayor wants to move to Shockoe Bottom through another public/private partnership, I hear. Yes, Virginia, there are many people making money on these deals, but it’s not the City of Richmond.
So, maybe in lieu of all these ideas about private partnerships taking over our historic urban parks and plunking stadiums on slave auction sites and slave jails and draining our public coffers for the benefit of a very few, maybe we could just sell tickets to City Council meetings?
Ten dollars a head. Ten dollars and you, too, can bear witness to great theatrics, deep lessons on human greed and venality and cowardice. All in one night.
Now there’s a public/private partnership I could get behind.
~Jack R. Johnson
A day earlier it would have been April Fool’s day and everyone would have understood the McCutcheon decision that recently came down from the Supreme Court was a joke. Now, it’s still a joke, only no one is laughing.
How bad is it? Striking down the aggregate limits will flood our political system with new cash, but the seven-figure checks will go directly to candidates instead of super PACs. Without aggregate limits, one candidate, through the use of joint fundraising committees, can solicit contributions of more than $3.6 million from a single donor. For the record, $3.6 million is more than 70 times the median family income in America. Effectively one person will have the ‘voice’ of 70. This isn’t free speech, of course, it’s very expensive speech, and those with large bankrolls will continue to wield unwarranted influence throughout our political structure—only now it will be legal.
In the romantic version of our culture, we like to think that the United States will eventually get it right, but our nation has spent a long time maintaining income inequality and allowing our politics to reflect a kind of infantile belief in the ultimate goodness of aggregate cash. Steinbeck once famously said that there are no poor people in this country, only temporarily embarrassed millionaires, which at least explains the voting patterns of red states whose dire poverty levels should make them keen on redistribution, but who, inevitably, side with the wealthiest members of our society that so delicately place the boot upon their throat.
The justices—at least the five who voted out this decision—have no such conflict. They appear to earnestly approve of our growing plutocracy. “What world are the five conservative Supreme Court justices living in?” asked US Senator Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont. “To equate the ability of billionaires to buy elections with ‘freedom of speech’ is totally absurd. The Supreme Court is paving the way toward an oligarchic form of society in which a handful of billionaires like the Koch brothers and Sheldon Adelson will control our political process.”
McCutcheon, of course, has partnered with the Republican National Committee to bring this case before the Supreme Court, and fittingly, the Republican worldview is the ultimate winner. The message from the bench is pretty clear: if you want to have a voice in our society, become a millionaire. For those not lucky enough or ruthless enough to acquire wads of extra cash, your voice will be drowned to a whisper, and your wishes and needs will be addressed if and when they align with the needs of your friendly neighborhood Robber Baron.
Ari Berman writing in The Nation notes that the same people, like the Koch brothers, who favor unlimited secret money in US elections are also the ones funding the effort to make it harder for people to vote. The net effect is an attempt to concentrate the power of the top 1 percent in the political process and to drown out the voices and votes of everyone else.
From the Nation magazine, consider these stats from Demos on the impact of Citizens United in the 2012 election:
“• The top thirty-two Super PAC donors, giving an average of $9.9 million each, matched the $313.0 million that President Obama and Mitt Romney raised from all of their small donors combined—that’s at least 3.7 million people giving less than $200 each.
• Nearly 60 percent of Super PAC funding came from just 159 donors contributing at least $1 million. More than 93 percent of the money Super PACs raised came in contributions of at least $10,000—from just 3,318 donors, or the equivalent of 0.0011 percent of the US population.
• It would take 322,000 average-earning American families giving an equivalent share of their net worth to match the Adelsons’ $91.8 million in Super PAC contributions.
That trend is only going to get worse in the wake of the McCutcheon decision.
Now consider what’s happened since the Shelby County decision that eviscerated the Voting Rights Act: eight states previously covered under Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act have passed or implemented new voting restrictions (Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Mississippi, Texas, Virginia, South Carolina, and North Carolina). That has had a ripple effect elsewhere. According to the New York Times, “nine states [under GOP control] have passed measures making it harder to vote since the beginning of 2013.”
So we live in a country that expands the rights of the wealthy and powerful to dominate the political process, but does not protect fundamental rights for all citizens to vote. We live in a country that applies a legal veneer to this duality under the ridiculous assertion of “free” speech, or conversely voter ‘fraud’ (where none exists). Dos Passos said this years ago in his epic USA trilogy and I’ll pass it along as a reminder to those temporarily embarrassed millionaires: “America our nation has been beaten by strangers who have turned our language inside out, who have taken the clean words our fathers spoke and made them slimy and foul.”
The legal wrangling at the Supreme Court obfuscates what’s happening on the streets of this country, so it’s past time to speak plainly again. We can start where Dos Passos ends: “all right we are two nations.”