Richmond councilman and agency at odds, city manager and others in between
on April 3, 2012
The Office of Neighborhood Safety is in the spotlight at City Hall again, and growing unrest between the agency and its critics threatens to engulf much of the city’s government and hamper larger goals of reducing violence and increasing transparency.
The action has focused in recent weeks on a proposal by City Councilman Corky Booze to have a “forensic audit” of ONS, a city agency focused on street-violence intervention. Booze added the audit to the council agenda on consecutive weeks last month before withdrawing it in the face of opposition from the public and government leaders before it could come to a vote.
While Booze’s push to investigate seems moribund, the divisive issue has inflamed political tensions in the city and raised new questions about the agency, which City Manager Bill Lindsay and ONS Director DeVone Boggan have said they’ll address with a “performance audit” by an independent agency.
“Any council member has a right to ask for financial reports from any department if they have any suspicion there may be misuse of taxpayers dollars,” Councilman Nat Bates said in a telephone interview. “Everyone recognizes that there are some personality conflicts here, but we have to be careful that the volatility does not dismiss the need for an audit of how the taxpayers money is spent, or the fact that department heads should be responsive to concerns of the council.”
The “personality conflicts” Bates alluded to are between Booze and Boggan, strong personalities who have clashed for years, according to people close to both men. The relationship deteriorated further when Booze publicly called for Boggan to be sacked in the days following an October 2011 fight at City Hall between men from rival neighborhoods who work as “fellows” in the ONS program.
“This thing is a hot potato,” Bates said.
Booze had sought to launch an independent “forensic audit” of the Office of Neighborhood Safety, which takes unconventional approaches to violence intervention among Richmond’s sometimes-warring neighborhoods. Booze first put the audit on the agenda at the March 20 meeting, but pulled it in the face of a council chamber packed with ONS staff and supporters. On March 27, Booze pulled the item again, along with a report into ONS he had pledged to issue, this time to avoid a counter vote to table his item “indefinitely,” a move that was suggested by Lindsay.
Lindsay, who directly oversees all city department heads, has sought to address questions about ONS since the October fight, including a growing rift between ONS and some in the Police Department. Lindsay has since promised an investigation both into how information about ONS staff was leaked to the media and a performance evaluation of the agency itself, a move Boggan supports.
But Booze’s move for an audit was met with vocal opposition by ONS staff and community supporters, who showed up in force at the March 20 council meeting. When Booze brought the item back March 27, along with a new report of his own – which he directed a City Council intern to investigate and produce after the October 2011 fight – Lindsay himself stepped in to quell the issue.
“The City Council rules are very clear that an item may be placed on the City Council agenda at any time by any Councilmember,” Lindsay wrote in an email dated March 25 and sent to all council members. “Thus, purely from the perspective of authority and legitimacy, it is appropriate that these items be considered by the City Council. However, I recommend that these items be tabled indefinitely by the City Council before discussion even begins, as the City Council discussion and discourse by members of the public on these issues would be incendiary and would not lead to informed policymaking.”
Heading into the March 27 meeting, Lindsay’s letter held sway within a council wary of more volatility on the issue. On March 26, Lindsay’s letter, along with an op-ed from Mike Parker, a leader in the Richmond Progressive Alliance, made its way into a widely-read e-forum article published by Councilman Tom Butt. The Richmond Progressive Alliance is a growing political force in the city, and opposed to Booze.
Parker wrote, “There are broader implications that can be very damaging to the integrity of the city government. A demand by one Council member to by-pass normal procedure and call for a forensic audit of ONS is effectively asking for a vote of no-confidence in the City Manager.”
Bates, like Booze an opponent of the RPA, accused the political organization of trying to foster division between black leaders and their constituents. Booze, like Boggan and much of the ONS staff, is African American.
“The RPA takes great pleasure in fanning these flames,” Bates said.
Parker dismissed Bates’ allegations, and said his public stance on the issue was based only on the desire to continue reducing crime, which he said was due in part to Police Chief Chris Magnus’ community policing model and strong efforts by ONS.
“The RPA believes the ONS has made a positive contribution to this city and that city leaders should be defending city employees who do a good job for the city,” Parker said in a telephone interview. “That’s the issue, and beyond that RPA believes strongly in the idea of one Richmond, where decisions are made by the citizens and not corporate interests.”
Hours before the March 27 meeting, Butt said in a telephone interview that tensions were running too high for Booze’s report and agenda item to be effective.
“Everybody agrees its a good idea to do a comprehensive review of ONS, and it’s going to happen,” Butt said hours before the council meeting. “But it’s premature to have a trial and convict ONS without having a proper review. It’s just a waste of time to go through this exercise tonight, and passions are running high.”
That night, Booze preempted Lindsay’s idea to table his item by pulling it for the second time in two weeks. Booze complained Lindsay stifled his legislative efforts.
“Lindsay killed it,” he said, while milling about the chambers during the March 27 meeting.
Days later, Booze was still miffed.
“Professionally and courteously, Bill Lindsay should have given me a courtesy call” before sending out the email urging the mayor and council to table his agenda items, Booze wrote in an email March 30. “I also would like to know from Bill Lindsay why he used the word ‘incendiary?’ … This is very insulting to me as an elected official because this was not my intention.”
Booze also said that he has met with Lindsay and Boggan several times since his 2010 election to council, but that Lindsay hasn’t been prompt with information about a department for which he is ultimately responsible. Booze suggested that his audit was a last resort, “forced” by a lack of responsiveness from a city department.
“It would have been a lot simpler if he would just give me what I asked for,” Booze said.
Five days before the March 27 meeting, Booze and public policy intern Anna Johnson first circulated a 40-plus page report to elected leaders and the press. The report was laden with critiques of and prescriptions for ONS.
Titled “A Call for Transparency,” the report called ONS’ documentation “unorganized and inconsistent” and complained that detailed budgets and other information requested of ONS staff were not provided on request, and that what was provided was marred by “discrepancies.”
Among the criticisms, the report stated that Johnson’s attempts to gather information about the agency was “severely hindered by a multitude of factors: delayed response to questions, repeated rescheduling and breaking of meeting times or phone calls, delayed responses to emails sometimes for longer than a months time, discrepancies in documentation, incomplete responses to questioning, lack of fact based information, lack of provision of organized documentation of work, programs and budget.”
The report further complained that the $3.1 million agency did not properly report expenses.
“No Cal-card expense reports were ever provided directly even though detailed travel expenses and reports were requested,” the report says. “Instead a three lined travel and expense report with the overall yearly total was provided. There is no designated spending for evaluation in the ONS budget even though this was proposed as a reason for the position of Director in the February 2008 City Council Meeting.”
The report also stated “concerns” in the “high end-salary provision for the director of $145,152. A smaller directors’ salary could provide for the provision of evaluation services, another hired caseworker, more NCAs to support clients, a grant writer position, or more available spaces for the peacemaker fellowship.”
Johnson’s report, which was organized into a Power-Point slideshow for the public presentation March 27, never had its moment in front of the cameras, thanks in part to Lindsay’s email two days before.
“I want to make it clear that there is some value to the work completed by Ms. Johnson and I appreciate her efforts,” Lindsay wrote in his email to the council. “However, a presentation to the City Council of an ‘investigation,’ not using objective and systematic professional auditing standards, and not completed by one with significant knowledge of the services and objectives of ONS (i.e., violence prevention and street outreach), will not serve a useful purpose toward informed policymaking, and will be needlessly divisive for the City Council and for the community.”
Boggan also attacked Johnson’s report. In an email Boggan sent to Lindsay the morning of March 23, one day after Booze and Johnson distributed their report, Boggan wrote that “(ONS) feels completely disrespected, insulted and injured by how this ‘report’ was developed, and how we and its development were approached by the intern.”
Of the complaints about he and his staff not responding promptly to requests for information, Boggan wrote that “we were all very suspect and cautious about responding to these requests for obvious reasons … it became clear that the report was not objective.”
Of the criticisms into his own salary, Boggan wrote that it they were “insulting,” and that the city has “benefitted bountifully from my leveraged networks.”
ONS was created in 2007 and has enjoyed growing praise as violent crime and homicides have dropped since.
More than 1,500 people have been supported in varying degrees through its services, which include using streetwise staff members to appeal to teens and young adults identified as most at-risk of committing violent crimes. Variations of the approach – appealing to violent crime offenders with methods beyond direct police action – have been in use in the United States since at least the mid-1980s, when the Community Youth Gang Services was funded by the city and county of Los Angeles to mediate between rival gangs and discourage young people from joining them.
Weeks before Booze first proposed his audit on March 20, Boggan announced he would seek at least $375,000, most in private donations, to fund an evaluation exploring the effectiveness of his agency’s programs. Boggan has denied that his announcement was aimed as a pre-emptive strike against Booze’s efforts for his own audit, as Booze alleged.
Even with an independent audit, it may never be clear precisely how effective ONS is in its mission of reducing gun violence in the city.
In an annual report released by the agency last month, Boggan noted a 26 percent reduction in homicides since his agency’s 2007 launch compared to the four years prior. In response to those who question how ONS “measures success,” Boggan wrote, “Our answer is simple … of the 43 fellows that the ONS has served, since becoming a fellow 42 are alive today, 39 have no gun related hospitalization or injuries, 36 have no new gun charges, and 33 have no new gun-violence related arrests.”
None of the other six members of the council have expressed support for Booze’s audit, but Bates says he is concerned with how his colleague’s requests for information have been handled.
“I would have hoped that Lindsay could sit down with Booze and Boggan and settle this in-house,” Bates said. “We’ve got to sit down and get this thing resolved and move on, because the fact is that there is a lot going on inside this taxpayer funded agency that are questions that need to be answered.”
Bates added, “A lot of this is about respect. That’s what ONS is fighting for all their lives, and that’s what Booze feels he is not getting when he gets stalled when he requests information. From my perspective, it is important for ONS to succeed in curtailing the violence because it is Councilman Booze and my constituency that is most affected as victims.”
Resident Don Gosney, who regularly attends council meetings, said he was concerned about how the issue has played out.
“The issue of looking into the dealings of the Office of Neighborhood Safety has imbued an unhealthy fear in the minds of some members of the community and the City Council,” Gosney said.
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