Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Council refuses to release urban renewal archives: Jefferson School conflict of interest: Blighted House has until Feb 15

Charlottesville, Va.—Monday night the 5-member city council refused my plea to “investigate what happened to the archives of urban renewal.”

This, the Jefferson School update, and the blighted house come almost one year to the day (Nov 21) after the Council passed 4-1 a city charter amendment to expand eminent domain to include “affordable housing.” A state Senate committee stripped out this language.

During the Council response period following the public comment, only Kendra Hamilton responded to my 3-minute speech. She said I should talk to the Housing Authority’s new executive director since 2005. The concern may not have been passed on. Hamilton is the Council’s staunchest supporter of urban renewal.

At first glance, it all seems fine…unless you know the back-story. Acting executive director in early 2004 and assistant city manager, Rochelle Small-Toney was the person I contacted then, who is now in charge of the Jefferson School project. ( “Housing Authority archives out on loan for preservation”, Mar. 30, 2004, www.cvilleindymedia.org, reproduced below.)

When a new director was hired ( Paul Chedda Aug. ’04, Noah Schwartz July ’05), Small-Toney continued to claim control of the archives in June of this year when I spoke with her at a Council meeting.

At the end of tonight’s meeting, I spoke with her again about the archives. She wasn’t happy because I made her look bad in my speech at the beginning of the meeting. She watches the meeting in her office and comes to the chamber when it’s her turn to speak.

Small-Toney said archive preservation is taking so long because they are adding to the archives and writing new histories and stories. I said they were re-writing history. She said she would explain it to me in a letter. I said I would publish any correspondence. She said that’s fine.

As I was leaving City Hall and headed to the parking garage, I spoke with newly elected Councilor Dave Norris. I told him some of what I just told you. Norris is a former chairman of the Housing Authority’s board of directors and supported last year’s amendment to expand eminent domain.

Tonight Norris did not offer to make a phone call or use his connections to find out what’s going on. When I spoke with him, he claimed to be uninformed on the archive issue.

During the final agenda item, the blighted house at 610 Ridge Street, Norris asked George Jones point-blank: Why don’t you sell this house? Jones said his family doesn’t want to sell and they will fix up the house immediately. Cost estimates totaled $115,000 on a house assessed at $166,000.

Somebody wants this house. We don’t know who, but City Council does.

Mayor David Brown warned Jones that, if repairs are not made by the deadline, the Council will move to take the house as a consent agenda item without any new public hearing or discussion.

City attorney Craig Brown said the resolution before Council tonight does not allow eminent domain as long as the owner “voluntarily” negotiates to sell. The next resolution would be an invocation of eminent domain, which would be resolved in a judicial process.

The Council extended the deadline until February 15.

The big story behind Jefferson School is they must sell the land and buildings to a private entity in order to qualify for tax credits. Council has set aside $5 million for renovation including $1.2 million for restoration of exterior brick work.

The first Jefferson School opened in 1865 across Commerce Street. The 1926 building is the school’s third school house. The school closed in 2002 when the School Board voted to split the preschool among the six elementary schools.

Council was only two weeks from selling Jefferson School for redevelopment and a possible downtown civic arena when public outcry influenced Council to nix the plan.

“$1 million Jefferson School makeover: Council hears 3 B.A.R. appeals” Jun. 19, 2006

"An inconvenient truth": Report from Housing Authority: Update on archives, HUD request
July 17, 2006

“Council to rule on ordinance violation: 'Blighted' house to be seized” Nov. 2, 2006

Blair Hawkins public comment November 20, 2006

Streaming Video of the meeting, I’m the 4th speaker

I’d like to address the allegedly blighted house at 610 Ridge Street and ask City Council adopt a plan or resolution that does not involve the possibility of eminent domain and move this case to a court of law.

In 2001, the city passed a blight ordinance. Before then, blight was not a crime even though the city routinely seized blighted property for the purpose of selling it to someone who can afford to fix it up, which of course is not a public use.

Secondly, I’d like to ask the city attorney a civics question about our system of government.

We have three branches of government. The legislative branch (city council) passes laws and ordinances. The executive branch (all city employees including police) enforces the laws. And the judicial branch interprets the law.

Is it true, in our system of government, only courts can seize and sell property?

They do it all the time.
- when you’re found guilty of a crime
- foreclosures—when you can’t pay the mortgage
- judgments and breaches of contract—when you don’t comply with a legally binding contract

Can the legislature authorize the executive branch to seize and sell property? Or is that the exclusive role of the courts?

Lastly, there are two lines of argument against urban renewal using eminent domain:

(1) The first is that the unintended negative consequences outweigh any promised benefit. This argument has been made many times in this chamber during the last four decades. And most recently The Tribune newspaper alluded to it the week before election.

(2) The second argument is Constitutional—that seizing and selling property without due process is the definition of theft.

Please ask Rochelle Small-Toney, who will speak later about Jefferson School, which of these is the reason she still hasn’t released the Housing Authority archives since my first request on March 25, 2004.

How can she be trusted to preserve Jefferson School if she cannot be trusted to preserve and protect our history and heritage recorded in the archives.

I like Rochelle. She’s not a bad person. Maybe she’ll address this.

But is there any member of City Council who will investigate what happened to the archives of urban renewal?

Thank you for your consideration.

"Housing Authority archives out on loan for preservation"
She said she didn't know where the archives were, but they're not here.

On Thursday afternoon shortly before 4 p.m. March 25, 2004, I paid a visit to the office of the Charlottesville Redevelopment and Housing Authority in the basement of City Hall. My purpose was to photograph a picture of South Downtown before urban renewal. I was thinking they must have photographed this area as well as Vinegar Hill. ( Aerial photo of Vinegar Hill 1960 )

[The secretary, Jamie Robinette, said that the archives were out on loan to be digitized, preserved, and published on the internet. She said she didn't remember seeing any photos of South Downtown when she last looked through the archives. She also said that documents have disappeared from the archives over the years, and that was the reason they were out on loan now, to be preserved. She asked me if I was only interested in the pictures. I said the text documents were more important.

Acting CRHA director since last April and assistant city manager, Rochell Small-Toney said the office has received more requests recently to view the archives, principally from UVa students. She also said they have had a problem with shrinking archives. I asked if any of the archives would be available or online by May 4. She said the archives would be closed to the public longer than that.

So I left. But then I started to wonder: who has the archives? I would feel better knowing they're at Alderman Library Special Collections rather than on some student's coffee table. So I called the secretary. She said she didn't know where the archives were, but they're not here. She referred me to the director's voice mail. Ms. Small-Toney called me back and left a message saying that the archives belong to the CRHA, not to city hall, and she reassured me that the archives are "in the custody of the Housing Authority."]*

This was my first visit to the office of the Housing Authority. They may want to consider adopting a system of safeguarding documents similar to the one used by the City Assessor's Office. The assessor's archives include information such as annual assessments in pencil, addresses, names of property owners, deed references for tracing the history of a property. Apparently someone borrowed the Vinegar Hill assessment records and never returned them. The assessment records of South Downtown is several thick folders.

Here's how the assessor safeguards documents: You sit at a table across from the secretary. You are under direct supervision at all times. Furthermore, you sit sideways to the secretary so she can clearly see if you alter or steal any document. No one can borrow the archives to take elsewhere.

"Knowledge is power. And withholding knowledge is an abuse of power." ("Public policy and honesty," Mar 28 2004, The Daily Progress)

*[These three paragraphs accidentally left out when I copied from my archives and pasted with this article. Corrected Nov 24.]


Secretary responds

by Blair Thursday, May 6 2004, 5:45pm
To: healcville@earthlink.net
Subject: CRHA Archives
Date: May 4, 2004 5:57 AM

Hi, Blair, I just read your article about the archives.

Just speaking for myself, I think in all fairness one might mention that many of these photos have suffered damaged from handling and/or are fragile--they are irreplaceable and have to be preserved...



add your comments

public correspondence

by Blair Friday, May 7 2004, 6:59pm
To: 'Heal Cville'
Subject: RE: CRHA Archives
Date: May 7, 2004 6:21 AM

Sorry, Blair, but that info was never given to me. All I know is that they are in the care of our very capable and very pro-preservation interim executive director.


-----Original Message-----
Subject: Re: CRHA Archives


Thanks for the correspondence. But where are the archives? Who is safeguarding these fragile documents?
I posted your response as a comment on the internet story.



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