Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Asst city manager Small-Toney resigns, blocked access to public records

Charlottesville, Va.- A native of Greensboro, N.C., Rochelle Small-Toney has accepted a job in Savannah, Ga., to begin July 9 for an annual salary of $137,000.

In her new position, she will oversee eight city departments dealing with affordable housing, property maintenance, and economic development, and will "manage some aggressive neighborhood redevelopment plans all over the city" (Savannah lands new assistant city manager).

In her wake, Small-Toney leaves a legacy of unfulfilled commitments and calls by Council candidates for more accountability. Her secret to success is charisma. She sounds so sincere and thoughtful when she speaks. But on followup, she does not keep her word.

As director of the Jefferson School renovation project, Small-Toney is leaving at a time when continuity is most needed. The City Council has decided to sell the school again, this time to a foundation whose directors the Council helped pick to direct the redevelopment. Council first tried to sell the school in 2002 after the school board dispersed the preschool among the six elementary schools. But public outcry forced Council to reverse itself two weeks before closing the sale.

Five years later, the all-black school that opened in 1865, now at its third location since 1926, remains abandoned. The school, founded by Ana Gardner, educated freedmen at First Baptist Church at 632 West Main, which at that time was the converted Delevan Hotel torn down for the 1883 church builing. Jefferson School was the model for all public schools in Virginia when the General Assembly created public education in 1870.

But Small-Toney misled the public on the date of Jefferson School, preferring the 1894 date of the second school house. At first, I thought she was misinformed. But on February 24, she said she's known all along the earlier date and its signficance. But to the audience at the Historical Society that day, she repeated the 1894 date.

Why would she seek to minimize local black heritage and the significance of Jefferson School?

I first met Small-Toney March 25, 2004. She was still acting as interim director of the Housing Authority. The previous director Del Harvey resigned abruptly a year earlier during my campaign for House of Delegates on this issue.

This is when Small-Toney began blocking access to public records, eminent domain documents, urban renewal archives; or more accurately, the files that contain more black history in Charlottesville than can be found at any other single location. And she has been a poor steward of that history.

At that time she said the archives of the Redevelopment and Housing Authority were out on loan to be digitized. Fifteen onths later, when she presented 17 photos for me to photograph, she said she had requested from City Council funds for a museum-grade scannner for the documents. So at that point she must have had all the archives back. Two months later she presented 8 photos of 6 houses. December last year she claimed in a letter that the full archive had been made available.

These events were documented in Charlottesville Independent Media, defunct since early 2006. More recent events relating to urban renewal are documented here on my blog.

In the final analysis, Small-Toney had the opportunity to help heal festering political wounds in this community. Instead she chose to deny medication. What keeps this issue alive is the officials who refuse access to publicly owned historic documents. On November 20 the entire City Council refused to release these archives. So Small-Toney was acting on approval of Council for 3 years leading up to the Council's refusal.

But finally I was allowed to photograph 287 of the photographs. Small-Toney does not know the total number of documents in the collection. She has donated these archives to the Carter G. Woodson Institute, ironically named after a black historian. Along with a donation of assessment records, the number is 6,845.

If there's a bright side to this story, it's this. Small-Toney donated the archives to someone who is more likely to follow through on promises she was unable to keep.

First Baptist Church site of first Jefferson School, Feb. 25, 2007

Update on urban renewal archives: 287 more photos, Feb. 12, 2007

Urban renewal archives now open to public by appointment: Letter from assistant city manager, Dec. 11, 2006

Council refuses to release urban renewal archives: Jefferson School conflict of interest: Blighted House has until Feb 15, Nov. 21, 2006

"An inconvenient truth": Report from Housing Authority: Update on archives, HUD request, Jul. 17, 2006 Includes Mar. 28, 2004 artcile "Housing Authority archives out on loan" documenting first request to view the archives.

$1 million Jefferson School makeover: Council hears 3 B.A.R. appeals, Jun. 25, 2006

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

The buck stops with McKeever

McKeever, Edwards, moderator Santowski, Seaman, Huja
Four of the five announced candidates for City Council responded to questions from the public Tuesday night. About 50 people attended the forum sponsored by the Fry's Spring Neighborhood Association at the Fry's Spring Beach Club. Three of the candidates will be nominated June 2 at the Democratic nominating convention.

As I was leaving tonight's forum, I spoke with Satyendra Huja briefly. I have been a harsh critic of Huja's record as the city's urban planner. But still he asked for my vote. I said I can't vote because I'm not a Democrat. He said you don't have to be. There are no Republican candidates. The convention pledge requires you support the Democratic nominees, not be a Democrat.

Huja stood in contrast to Jennifer McKeever although both are eyewitnesses to Charlottesville's recent history.

Huja said he's been here since 1973. He provided some healing on the urban renewal issue by saying he has a record and that record goes both ways. You get credit for the good things and blame for the bad things. He said he's been in public service most of his life because he cares about the community and can make a difference.

McKeever said she's lived here fore 22 years and was 13 when her family moved here. She knows "how dramatic the changes have been." She attended public schools, PVCC, UVA, and left for law school and to work for legal aid. She's on the board for Community Development Block Grant funding and Parks and Rec. She has a law practice and two small children.

Linda Seaman is also running for City Council. She's been here for 33 years and has two daughters who went through city schools. Seaman has been on the school board for 9 years and 2 years as chairman. She's now chairman of the board directing CATECH.

Holly Edwards came here 16 years ago for nursing and had intended to stay one year. But she never left. She has several degrees including nursing and psychology. She's been helping to connect people in public housing with available services. So she is familiar with public policy from the customer's perspective. She now believes it's time to move to the next level- the policy level, where rules and regulations are formulated.

Mayor David Brown did not attend but did send his responses to the association's 2 questions it had asked the candidates in advance. When the moderator announced that those responses were posted in the hallway, the crowd laughed in ridicule at the mayor for avoiding the hot seat. The association has packed several Council meetings on different issues since the mayor was elected May 2004.

A theme echoed by all the candidates was accountability and followup and enforcement. Huja explained that Council tells staff what to do. Staff does not tell Council what to do although it may seem that way. Seaman said Council is responsible to hold the city manager accountable, who oversees all the departments. Edwards said we need a mechanism to followup on staff. McKeever said we should follow the plans we create. We must rebuild trust between city neighborhoods and city government. On accountability, she declared "the buck will stop with me."

In response to audience questions about Neighborhhood Development Services, Huja said "it bothers me" since he basically was that department.

One person complained about his Section 8 neighbors and asked if the the candidates would continue to fund it at the expense of blue collar workers. This was an interesting question. None of the candidates could say they support it or that they don't support it. All the candidates support welfare in its various forms.

Also tonight, Sean McCord asked me to sign his petition to put his name on the ballot for school board. Alvin Edwards is the other announced candidate for the 4 seats up for election November 6.

Finally I wanted to dispell a myth created last year by Councilor Kevin Lynch, who was present at tonight's forum but not running for reelection after 2 terms.

One audience member tonight was concerned about losing parkland and cited 2 examples: McIntire Park for Meadowcreek Parkway and the trails surrounding the Ragged Mountain Reservoir to be inundated when the 1885 reservoir is expanded again. The speaker claimed the city will lose park land to the reservoir expansion. But that is not park land. The land was aquired for water storage and is now being used for recreation. Back in the 1800s the town was planning ahead.

Take this example: I buy a piece of land to build a house. But I can't afford or need the house for 10 years. Meanwhile I let people use the land for picnics and soccer games. Then when I build the house, people say I'm taking away park land. Change the 10 years to 120 and change the house to a reservoir; then you have the same thing.

Fry's Spring Neighborhood Association