City Council Recap-February 13, 2017
Monday night’s City Council meeting demonstrated the surge in active citizenship and civic activism taking place in our city and our nation. The scene outside of City Hall was just as vibrant and vocal as the scene within the Council chamber. Citizens rallied in front of the Broad Street entrance of City Hall to protest President Trump’s immigration ban and other immigration policies. The President’s controversial travel ban that affects several Middle Eastern countries and his proposed construction of a wall on the Mexican-American border has spurred a desire for Richmond and other cities in the United States to become sanctuary cities where immigrants, minorities, people of color, and other marginalized groups can feel safe, welcome, and included.
The citizens moved the rally inside of the Council Meeting to show the Council just how important of an issue this is to them. The chamber was packed full of passionate city-dwelling activists. . One woman who was having a conversation prior to the commencement of the meeting commented that “No president has to do deal with as many protests as Trump. If I lived in D.C., they would see my face every day.” Citizens held up signs that read “NO BAN, NO WALL!”, “SUPPORT SANCTUARY CITIES & LOVE ALL THY NEIGHBORS” and “NO ICE.” ICE refers to the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement, who have been conducting raids within the city. Mayor Stoney has already released a mayoral directive decreeing that Richmond is an inclusive city that will protect all of its people.
What this demonstrated was that Richmond is a city in which people take action on the issue they care about. RVA comes out to stand up for what they believe in, which is extremely essential to an active and democratic society. Even the invocation prior to the official start of the meaning requested that people promote justice, equality, and inclusivity, and that people treat each other with respect and dignity and that we respect each other’s opinions. The invocator prayed that all of the night’s speakers and activists would have strength and courage as they stood at the podium and addressed the council.
A Concerned Citizen
Marie Morton Hart, a resident of the 8th District, came forward to talk about the city. She expressed concern about Chesterfield taking credit for the City of Richmond because when she goes to get her medicine from the doctor, the labels say that she lives in Chesterfield. She worries that the money is going into Chesterfield, instead of Richmond. “Richmond need’s the money,” she said. “The firemen and policemen need money. The streets are terrible and there is no response to my complaints.” Ms. Hart said that because of the holes in the streets, she has had to have her car aligned twice. She also complained about the trees in her yard, which are hanging and causing her to trip. “I don’t want these trees to fall on my house or in the street,” she told the Council. “Something needs to be done, especially because I am handicapped but still have to go out and rake the leaves.”
Read Across America
Lola McDowell invited the Council to come out during Richmond Public Schools’s celebration of Read Across America. McDowell retired from RPS three years ago, and has taught in Richmond for 47 years. She has served as an educator for a total of 51 years. Currently, she works with ExCELL (Excellence in Children's Early Language and Literacy) to encourage students to read and promote literacy. Read Across America is the nation’s biggest celebration of reading, and Ms. McDowell often celebrates this by dressing up as the Cat in the Hat in honor of Dr. Seuss’s birthday. “Oh, the places the children will go if you read to them,” she said. Ms. McDowell will be having reading events at Woodville Elementary School and Oakgrove Elementary School. There will also be celebrations of this event throughout the schools in the month of March. “I know you are busy people, but I hope you will come out,” she entreated.
Friends of the James River Park
Mary Catherine Martin spoke to the Council on the behalf of the Friends of the James River Park Board. The James River Park consists of 600 acres of urban wilderness and is the most visited park in Richmond, with over 1.4 million visitors in 2016. Hikers, cyclists, walkers, kayakers, and many other people come to the park to enjoy the environment and the recreational activities available there. This park has made a significant economic contribution to the City. That being said, the park is in need of improvement and new equipment due to deterioration. The park’s only funding source is from City Council. Ms. Martin encouraged the Council to go out and visit the park for themselves. “The park needs and deserves your attention,” she said.
The Big Three
Vanessa Johnson of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Inc. brought three legislative issues to the podium for the Council to address. The first issue was that of voting rights, and the fact that African Americans are disproportionately disenfranchised. The women of AKA have been working hard for the Restoration of Rights of these African American citizens. The second was the education system, which the AKA’s strongly believe needs to change, as “Education is key to healthy and wealthy lives.” The third issue was healthcare, specifically the promotion and protection of healthcare for women.
The GRTC Plan
Carmen Terrell of the 7th District spoke to the Council about the current state of the GRTC planning and its effect on the school children in Richmond. “The new plan does not work and is not fair,” she said. Ms. Terrell is worried about the proposed changes to the bus routes in the city that would make kids have to walk farther to get to bus stops or through rough, violent areas where students could get into fights, get killed, or otherwise harmed. Ms. Terrell claims that she has attended the meetings on the new plan and had suggested to the CAO that the system was better off 20 years ago. “Kids need better than what they have,” she said. “Local kids need transport.” Ms. Terrell asserts that a change of the whole situation is necessary. She also brought up that with a new regional school opening, she is confused as to where the money for this school is coming from. “The City claims there is no money, so…where is the money coming from?”
John Riley from the 4th District expressed to the Council his disappointment with the lack of a new baseball stadium. As nothing has been done on the Boulevard, Mr. Riley feels that it is time for the citizens to have something that the constituents want. “There are no proposals…no demand for the Boulevard property, and we’ve already lost a valuable asset with the baseball teams moving on,” he said. Mr. Riley proposed that the Council can handle both the cost and the location of this new baseball stadium. “Either renovate the diamond or use the Boulevard location,” he suggested. The cost of renovating the Diamond would be about $1 million, according to Mr. Riley.
ICE out of RVA
Carolina Belez, accompanied by a Spanish translator for the Spanish-speaking members of the community, spoke on behalf of ICE out of RVA. “We’re here because communities are under attack,” she said. “This includes immigrants, African Americans, Muslims, and other minority groups in the city.” Ms. Belez asked for commitment from the Council to stand up for members of the community and become a sanctuary city like other cities in America have been doing. “It is time for us to build a city that is inclusive of everyone – LGBTQ, Black, Latino/a, Muslim, etc.” She thanked Mayor Stoney for his mayoral directive and for standing up with these communities, which she says was a good step forward.
Members of these communities are living in fear of criminalization, deportation, and violence. Policing and criminal charging of African Americans and immigrants by the ICE, in addition to the continuous aggression from the Federal government, have negatively impacted these communities of color. Ms. Belez’s request is that the City Council do right by the people of Richmond by using local policy to promote an inclusive community. “These are your citizens,” she said. “Are you going to stand on our side or on the other side?” Ms. Belez expressed her hope that the City Council be accountable to all citizens.
In response to Ms. Belez’s speech, Councilman Agelasto informed the community that the Council had appointed 5 members to a civil/human rights commission in response to everything that has been taking place in the U.S. in relation to the President’s policies.
There was no public hearing on the consent agenda, as no citizens came forward in favor of or in opposition to any of the items before the Council.
Public Hearing on the Regular Agenda
RES 2016 – R092: To express the City’s position on certain policy questions with regard to bus routes and stops in the city raised during the development of a Transit Network Plan for the city.
Many city-dwellers came out to speak on this Resolution during the public hearing. After the discussion was brought back to Council for discussion, the paper was adopted unanimously.
A member of the community who referred to himself only as Omari took issue with the Transit Network Plan, as black members of the community were not included in the planning process for this resolution. Currently, the NAACP has filed a Civil Rights complaint against the GRTC, as the plan reduces the quality of life and availability of resources for African Americans but improves them for other demographic groups. The expansion would not improve or create any employment opportunities, nor would it help the anti-poverty goals of the city. With the majority of Richmond’s citizens being black and 25% of the population being in poverty, Omari said that the Council should “say no to transportation inequality” and “be genuine.” Omari said that the Council needs to be focused on these initiatives and do the right thing.
A second speaker in opposition to the Transit Plan asked the City Council to delay the plan for another two weeks. While agreeing that change is needed, as “we have a bus plan with routes have not been for 40-70 years,” the speaker felt that the Council should exercise caution given the potential impact on vulnerable communities. “Any flaws in the plan will impact people for years,” the speaker said. “Don’t put black folks back on the back of the bus.”
Jonathan Marcus shared the sentiment with the previous speaker that the plan needs to be postponed. Mr. Marcus entreated to Council to ensure that the bus system actually functions for those people who ride the bus. He critiqued the system for providing little to no adequate transportation to get to jobs and also critiqued the Downtown Transfer Plaza. He referred to the Transfer Plaza as a “humiliation” and called for its elimination altogether, as he was unsure of who exactly the Transfer Plaza serves.
A fourth speaker highlighted the exclusivity of the plan, stating that the plan “will disproportionately impact and discriminate against blacks.” This individual pointed out that black people will be the most impacted by this plan and will lead to further discrimination and exclusion of blacks. “Minority communities are used to exclusion,” the speaker said. “Financial exclusion, environmental exclusion, healthcare exclusion, housing segregation, discriminatory policies, and community exclusion via discriminatory actors and public policy making.”
Lonetta Thompson spoke fifth and restated the demand of continuing the vote by two weeks. She asserted that the plan would have a negative impact on the black community and that the Council is not considering who uses and who needs the service. She specifically mentioned the elderly and women with children who may have to walk further if the bus stops are changed. “You don’t ride the bus,” she pointed out. “This plan will disproportionately harm the black quality of life.” Ms. Thompson noted the current Civil Rights complaint that has been filed against the GRTC and stated that people need to know the full implications of the plan. She concluded with the question: “Who benefits from this?”
A sixth speaker from the 6th District stated that “The City has gone from improving housing and transport to actually wiping it away.” This individual said that while the plan may look good on paper, riders are not getting a voice and being fully represented. “You are neglecting the people who serve as a foundation for the City.”
The next speaker, who would only identify herself as Shamika, requested once more that the vote be continued. She spoke against the reduction of coverage in African American communities, specifically the Church Hill route. According to Shamika, people will have to walk farther to the stops and will be unable to bring items onto the bus. She also stated that there will be overcrowding on the buses. “This plan will result in a lower quality of life,” Shamika said. She expressly asked the Council to take into consideration students, the elderly, and mothers, who would be at an increased risk for robbery and violence if the plan is implemented as planned.
Samuel Vinne came to the podium as a representative of “voices of the community.” He was concerned about the coverage of the plan, particularly the big problem of bias and a lack of awareness of the details of the Transit Plan. He conveyed that many residents feel as if they were not informed or were left out of the survey process around the plan. Mr. Vinne said to the Council that “every problem faced must be resolved but no problem can be resolved unless faced.”
Evan Johnson, also known under the alias Brother Evan, concurred with several previous speakers, reiterating that the network plan disproportionately affects blacks and black quality of life. However, his focus was on the lack of jobs added by the implementation of this new plan. “Only 27% of jobs are reachable by bus within ninety (90) minutes,” he said. “Who are we helping? Who are we hurting?” Brother Evan stated that the transit plan is not helping anti-poverty plans and will foment an increase in poverty rather than a decrease.
Dora Callahan of the 7th District, speaking for those individuals unable to make it to the meeting themselves, asked the Council to extend the planning process and allow people to make an informed decision. On a personal level, Ms. Callahan informed the Council that the newly planned routes would personally cut her out of transportation.
Shonda T. Davis was specifically concerned with the 51 Bus Route being eliminated and proposed an alternative. Her proposition was that the route of the 41 Bus be extended in order to give residents more access. She then asked Vice-President Newbille to ride the bus and see for herself. “I’ll even ride with you,” she added.
Lilly Estis told the Council that she supports the NAACP’s Civil Rights complaint against the GRTC. “This city has 60,000 in poverty, no affordable housing, and pitiful transportation,” she said. She also was displeased with the closing of the school that L. Douglas Wilder, the first black governor of Virginia and first black governor of any state since Reconstruction. “Do not harm the people,” she entreated Council. “Work seriously to improve the quality of life.”
Rae Cousins highlighted the lack of community participation in the planning process for the transit plan and criticized the survey that was conducted by city personnel. According to Cousins, the survey did not represent the demographics of the riders. “There are 28,000 GRTC riders and those riders are predominantly African American and low income.” Cousins is in opposition to the plan because “the new system needs to be fair” and the constituents should be informed.
Arthur Lewis Brown asked the Council: “Are we moving as ‘One Richmond’ to bring communities together or are we moving to a plan where black citizens are not welcome?” Mr. Brown acknowledges that there was indeed a request for an improved transit plan, and that the proposal of this new plan had given some indication that the concerns of the community were being dealt with. Now, however, Mr. Brown feels that the community’s concerns “were not even answered.” According to Mr. Brown, the community thought that the plan would “end the humiliation and do no harm.” Those expectations were not met.
A fifteenth speaker concurred with Mr. Brown, stating that they took a look at the proposed plan and “it is not what we asked for.” This city-dweller said that “the plan needs to go back to the drawing board.”
A sixteenth speaker demanded that more time and more thought to be put into the plan.
The seventeenth speaker asked if any of the City Council members “had even been on GRTC.” This citizen stated that the proposed plan is “making things harder for the marginalized and the voiceless.”
Roderick Bullock called the Transit Plan a “horrible plan.” He said he was appalled with and disappointed in the Council for allowing this system. “You’ve done nothing,” he stated. “There are already problems with the Care Van, and you’ve allowed sick and disabled to deal with a flawed system where we can’t even get to the doctor on time. I feel like giving up.” Mr. Bullock spoke against taking away certain bus stops and provided an anecdote in which he was told to “borrow a car” to get where he needed to go. “Poor blacks can’t borrow a car!” he exclaimed.
The final speaker demanded to know “What kind of city are we?” He called the plan ridiculous, spoke against having routes removed, and stated that “This is clearly not the design we need.” He pushed for a revamping of the plan, saying that Richmond needs a “real transit system.”
Julie Art spoke in favor of the plan, stating that “This is as good as you are going to get.” Ms. Art encouraged the Council to vote for the plan, as it would double the frequency of transit. She said that the vote “should be easy.”
Luis Parrales of the 1st District supported the transit system because of its high frequency. “It eliminates an extra half hour on the bus,” he said. He also added that high frequency transit is key to facilitating job and healthcare access.
Stuart Schwartz supports the plan but notes that the Council can still improve policy. He is opposed to the Transfer Plaza and feels that coverage rather than frequency should be expanded. “This is the best bus transit system plan given the tight budget plan,” he said, pointing out that some of the top transit planners had worked on this resolution. He added that the planners could “continue to tweak the system.” In terms of the high frequency, Mr. Schwartz said that the Pulse plan seemed separate to him.
Avis Wright of the 7th District praised the resolution, calling it a “great plan” that is “cost neutral.” His only constructive critique was that the Council “better engage both GRTC and public works” in the implementation of this plan.
Ben Campbell suggested that the plan “let bus lines go out of the city” as “90% of jobs are located outside of the city.”
The final speaker in favor of this plan called the resolution a “good step forward, not an end.” She encouraged everyone to look at the entire system and recognize that the system has not modernized in years. “This network plan will provide improved access to school, healthcare, and jobs,” she said. However, she did suggest that the Council give the plan some time and then present the final plan in March. Otherwise, she was in “strong support” of the Transit Plan.
Vice-President Newbille first thanked all of her constituents for the phone calls and texts she had received, as well as those individuals who had rode on the GRTC with her. “I have heard you and I will continue to hear you,” she said. She stated that transportation is “not a nicety, but a necessity.” She wanted everyone present to note, however, that this plan is “not a minor undertaking but an important piece of work.” Dr. Newbille understands that coverage is more needed than frequency and expressed that there will be revisions to the plan that will handle the coverage issue. There will also be additional revisions and recommendations taken into consideration during the implementation of the plan. She reaffirmed that that this is a piece of work that is “much needed” and is also a “continued work” in progress.
Councilwoman Robertson thanked the members of African American community who came out to speak on this issue. She expressed that she was concerned about their concerns on poverty and bias. “The objective was to address poverty,” she said. She also stated that the Council has “an obligation and responsibility to address these concerns and to be responsible and responsive.” She critiqued the survey that was taken, as it neither reflected not represented the riders. “It is important to be conscious of the people who spoke from the African American community and it is important to hear their voices and address the questions and concerns.” She said that extra effort should be made to go back and hear what they have to say and an over-aggressive effort to address the complaints. Yet, she emphasized that this plan is “not a final plan.” It is a concept. “This is not the end of the day,” Ms. Robertson explained. “We’re still looking at input and saturating the concerned community.” She emphasized the need for the community to come out so that the Council can hear what they have to say and so that GRTC and the administration can adjust the plan to meet needs. “We do not want an exclusive system,” Ms. Robertson stressed. “It should be integrated and inclusive.” She told the community to come to the table and point out what they want to see and what they don’t want to see so that their needs and desires can be incorporated.
Councilwoman Trammel stated that her citizens have been asking her to support the paper. She said that her constituents admitted that the plan is “not perfect” but said that it is “heading in the right direction.” Inclusivity is not an issue for her constituents. “I listen to my citizens,” Councilwoman Trammel said. “And I will be supporting this paper.”
Councilwoman Gray acknowledged that there is a lack of voices from disenfranchised communities and that there is a demand for more input and inclusivity. In order for the plan to implemented, Ms. Gray feels that a transit plan that aligns with the Pulse plan is needed.
Councilman Agelasto was also in support of the paper, though he acknowledges that a balance between coverage and ridership was needed. He said that it is “clear that routes and stops are not approved with the resolution. There is still work going on.” He also said he recognizes that in order to have a wonderful plan under the constraint, there is a need for frequency. Instead of spending time on the bus, there will be more time and freedom of time. “This plan will make a difference and is a step in the right direction,” Mr. Agelasto said. But he did not dispute that there is need for improvement. He also proposed making VCU ride the GRTC in order to make more money for the GRTC.
Councilman Jones’s main concern is whether or not the Council has engaged the community. “I don’t think we have proactively and properly engaged the community,” he said. “We are people with privilege, telling people without privilege, how to get where they are going.” Mr. Jones warned that Council was heading down a slippery slope with this issue and needed to slow down. He understood the need for resources, but was concerned about those who actually ride the bus. He shared that he had met a citizen who rides the bus that has to travel two hours to get somewhere that is eight (8) minutes away by car. “We need to understand and ascertain the needs of the people,” he said. “I do not believe the plan takes into consideration the citizens of the 8th District.” He entreated the Council to look at how this impacts the rest of the city.
Councilman Addison said that his ride on the bus was “eye-opening” and raised the question of “What’s next?” He understood the restrictions associated with the plan, but also stated that it should be taken into consideration that the plan would impact not just this year, but the future as well. He stated that the system does need new routes, but that it is necessary to look at what those metrics should be and look at what those numbers should be in order to ensure equitable access.
Councilwoman Larson pointed out that out of all of the speakers who came to the podium, no one said that the system that the city has now is working. That, she stated, is a starting point. She agrees with Councilman Addison on the idea of a long-term plan and said that tonight is the beginning. Ms. Larson supports tweaks in the plan and acknowledges that the routes do need to be figured out. She also critiqued the Transfer Plaza for being “not good” and said that the Council needs to figure out “where it would be appropriate to the have a new transfer plaza.” She also stated that the Council needs to make sure that it collaborates with the counties. She closed by expressing her appreciation for the public’s input.
President Hilbert said that he heard the messages of the night “loud and clear.” While he did support the paper, President Hilbert acknowledged that “word was not getting out and opinions were not being heard.” He said that the Council needs to double-down on this plan so that Richmond does not become “two separate cities” where there are “the well-to-do versus the not-so-well-to-do.” He said that in order to bring the city together means that everyone needs to be brought along. “Race is a determinate,” he acknowledged. “We have to look the issue in the eye and bridge the gap.” He recognized that the issues associated with the plan are disproportionately shared by the African American community and stated that “I hear you and will make plans to double down and listen.”