The Commonwealth Iconoclast

A site dedicated to covering issues relevant to the Commonwealth of Virginia, and nation at large, plus other interesting things too, as I see fit...

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Cowboy George and Virginia's 2006 Senate Race

Soon, Democrats in the Commonwealth will turn their attention to determining who will take on George "I might just be dumb enough to be President" Allen. Just think, a couple of years ago Mark Warner really hadn't distinguished himself as a poltical force in the Commonwealth, and it almost appeared that in 2006 Cowboy George would coast to victory unchallenged.

Fast forward two years - Mark Warner is now a formidable poltical force in the Commonwealth, and Warner's heir apparent, Tim Kaine, is getting ready to be the next Governor after defeating George's "mini me" candidate Jerry Kilgore. Wow, things have changed so much in the Commonwealth over the past two years that even the caustic Cowboy George has had to eat a little humble pie.

Therefore Democrats in the Commonwealth have good reason to believe that Allen might be somewhat vulnerable as the 2006 elections approach. Senator Allen makes no apologies for being in line with President Bush lock-stock-and-barrell, even during the embarrassing Terry Schiavo fiasco. When you consider that Bush's approval rating has been in the mid-forties in the Commonwealth for much of the second half of 2005, Allen's fierce allegiance to Bush could be a liability (see Jerry Kilgore). But the 2006 elections are still a solid 11 months away, therefore lots could change for Bush in the Commonwealth by then.

Ok, back to George Allen. Here are a few observations and anecdotes about the former UCLA student turned good old boy:

  • George should be happy with the decision to transfer (from UCLA) to the University of Virginia instead of the University of Maryland when his dad took the Redskin's coaching job. I guess George figured that he would have an easier time competing for the 4th string quaterback position at Virginia, rather than at Maryland. George would have never had the same success in Maryland politics, as he has had in Virginia.
  • Speaking of football, hell I love football as much as anyone, but Senator Allen's incessant football analogies are getting extremely stale.
  • It's interesting to note that the bureaucy hating Allen, has one of the highest staff turnover rates on the Hill since 2001. In regards to working for Allen one of his former staff members was anonymously quoted, "It's a huge bureaucracy for a guy who claims to hate bureaucracy."
  • I get tired of Allen's constant use of the word "Jeffersonian". Ok, maybe he thinks using the word Jeffersonian at the Bent Fork's Ruritans Annual Pig Roast will make some of his supporters think he's really smart, but trust me, they haven't any idea of what Jeffersonian means. Was Allen's support of Federal intervention in the Terry Schiavo fiasco indicative of his staunch adherence to Jeffersonian principles?
  • Do all of George's campaign e-mails/letters have to give the impression that anyone who dares to challenge him is nothing more than a diabolical disturbance in the celestial battle between good old boys and evil Volvo driving, NPR listening leftist?
  • Could Sentoar Allen tone down the cowboy gear a bit? We all know that Senator Allen is a Southern California native, and would probably be more comfortable with a surfboard and a pair of Converse All Stars on his feet, and a Van Halen concert t-shirt. The cowboy imagine is nothing more than a carefully (and silly) attempt to "ruralize" his image. Job well done!

You'd be fooling yourself (even with Allen's apparent contradictions) to dismiss Allen as a political light weight who just happened to luck his way into the U.S. Senate. Allen is a fierce competitor, and loves nothing more than a partsian knock-em-down-drag-it-out fight. But there is no doubt that George and his supporters are acutely aware that in 2006 he could ineed be in for a fight, and to borrow a football analogy - they are probably drawing plays up in the sand now.

So let's take a look at who might possible challenge Allen in 2006:

  • Harris Miller, a Nova IT multi-millionnaire, former D.C. bureaucrat, and former Chair of the Virginia Democratic Party. Pros: Could tap into his personal wealth , would do well in voter rich Nova, and could cast himself as the next Mark Warner Cons: Can lightning strike twice and send another Nova millionnaire into the poltical stratosphere? What would George say? "Harris Miller is an out of touch northern liberal who has spent an entire career inside the beltway supporing liberalizing immigration, and promting activist Democratic causes. Don't let Harris Miller buy his way into Washington folks."
  • James Webb, another Nova resident, author, political pundit, and former Secretary of the Navy under Ronald Reagan. Pros: Strong military background, would cary voter rich Nova, would likely have appeal to moderates and some conservatives (especially those living in suburban areas) Cons: Other than being Reagan's Secretary of Navy, and a popular author, what are Webb's views on other issues? Is he really interested in rolling up his sleeves and fighting it out with George Allen for the U.S. Senate? What would George Say: "James Webb is an out of touch liberal who has spent an entire career inside the beltway."
  • Creigh Deeds, a State Senator from Bath County, who lost a close race to "Taliban Bob" McDonnell in last years AG's race. Pros: Creigh doesn't have to pretend, or play dress up, to be a true Virginian. Also, he has a fairly high level of name recognition now. During the AG's race the more I learned about Creigh, the more I liked him. Wouldn't it be interesting to see Allen's caustic partsian campaign versus Creigh Deeds, the embodiment of a true Virginia Gentleman? Cons: Nice guys finish last, especially in politics. What would George Say? : "Crigh Deeds is an out of touch liberal from the back woods of Bath County."
  • David Ashe, an attorney, Marine, Iraqi War Veteran, who in 2004 lost a congressional race in Virginia's 2nd District. Pros: See previous comments Cons: Who really believes that a youthful David Ashe could come out of nowhere to defeat George Allen? What would George Say?: "David Ashe was nothing more that a glorified pencil pusher during his service in Iraq. Otherwise, David is an out of touch liberal from the Tidewater area."
  • Chuch Robb, former Governor, and U.S. Senator, who has been active of late - serving on the 9/11 Commission. Pros: Robb has been there and done that. Chuck Robb was well respected and had a solid bipartsian record as a Senator. Cons: In 2000, when Robb lost to Allen, Robb appeared to be exhausted. Why would he choose to enter back into the political fray again? What would George Say: Ok, you can just imagine...
  • Doug Wilder, former Governor and current Mayor of the City of Richmond, who marches to the beat of his own drum. Pros: Mayor Wilder enjoys broad bipartsian support in the Commonwealth. Could you imagine Wilder stirring up shit inside the beltway? That would be interesting. Cons: Wilder would never want to leave the throne he built for himself in Richmond, plus there's plenty of work in Richmond to keep him busy for a while. What would George Say?: He might actually be at a lost for words if Widler were his opponent...

Ok, so there you have it. Depending on how you interperet the elections in 2005, Virginia's 2006 Senate race should be an exciting race to follow. I'm sure we'll have more to say about this in the future, 2006 is shaping up to be an extremely interesting year for politics in the Commonwealth.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

The Town of Elkton: The most dysfunctional town in the Commonwealth?

Ok, the Town of Elkton probably isn't the most dysfunctional Town in the Commonwealth, but I'm sure it would qualify for the most dysfunctional local government in the Shenandoah Valley - hands down. It seems that every week to 10 days some sort of controversy or "dirty laundry" concerning the Town's elected or professional leadership makes its way into the local paper of record.

Therefore when I picked up a copy of today's Daily News Record, it was hardly a surprise to read that the current Mayor of the Town, and a council member are having a "war of words". It appears that Councilman Randell Snow, and Mayor Wayne Printz are at odds because Snow would like to see the Mayor be elected by the Council (thus a sitting member of the Council would become Mayor), rather than being popularly elected as the Mayor is now. Of course Wayne Printz is vehemently opposed to this type of arrangement.

Cities and Towns throughout the Commonwealth use both of these systems to elect Mayors, and I don't know that one is inherently better or worse. But in Elkton it sure does give a good reason to roll up the sleeves, and fight it out! I've only lived in the Valley for just over two years, but from what I've heard this latest "controversy" is small beans when compared to the donnybrooks that have taken place in Elkton over the past few years. Here are just a few that I can recall in my short time here in the Valley:

  • A married Elkton police officer's pregnant girlfriend mysteriously goes missing and to this date has not been found. The police officer is under a heavy veil of suspicion, but as in the case of most missing persons "no body, no case."
  • Since the retirement of a long serving Town Manager approximately 6 years ago (correct me if I'm wrong) the Town has been through NUMEROUS Town Managers. Most have lasted only a few months. The present Town Manager has been on the job for less than a year, and he too has been the subject of numerous highly publicised fueds with some of Elkton's elected officials (namely Mayor Printz). Considering the fate of the past few Town Managers, it's hard to imagine the current Town Manager's fate being differnt from his predecessors.
  • The Town approved Angler Development's proposal to rezone hundreds of acres within the Town's corporate limits with (what appeared) little concern of the impact that 1,400 additional residential units would have on the County's school enrollment in an area already in a pinch for classroom space. This contentious issues was not resolved until a recent ex post facto offer to the County's School Board by Angler Development. (Call me crazy but maybe the Town could have examined this issue before the land was rezoned?)

Please if anyone knows of an Elkton related controversy that I've overlooked that has taken place within the past two years, or if you have an even better Elkton controversy that you would like to share, I'd love to hear about it. When you consider that Rockingham County has seven incorporated Towns (including Elkton) why is it that Elkton is the one Town that seems to receive the most negative attention on a consistent basis?

Thursday, December 22, 2005

'Twas he Night Before Christmas in Prince Edward County

'Twas the night before Christmas and all through Prince Edward County the good old boys and girls were pleased because Dunn Brothers Development had been delivered their bounty.

Citizens throughout the County were tucked in for a long winter night, upset that it appeared that Supervisors Jones, Fore, McKay, Moore, and Simpson could care less about their plight.

See back in 2003 74-acres of County land was sold; now it was time for a private developer to turn it into gold.

The land was purchased for a price that was minimal. Then a mystery person sold it for a profit just two years later that almost seemed criminal.

Dreams of hundreds of townhouses danced through the developers' heads. This deal was going through, no matter what any pesky citizen said!

Though the road condition seemed poor, and not appropriate to accommodate such a site, the County bosses wheeled all their power to make this deal right.

The proposal would pass the County’s Planning Commission too. In order to make it appear they were pressing, a few members even voted against the proposal for a little window dressing.

A citizen pointed out that the Vice-Chairman of the Planning Commission’s son was working for Dunn, could a conflict of interest ruin their fun?

The County Administrator would contact the Commonwealth Attorney like a bat out of hell; she wanted to make sure the Vice-Chairman’s conflict was a matter of ethics, and not something that would send him to jail.

Supervisors Gillifan, Cooper-Jones, and Ward seemed concerned that such a deal violated the public trust, but 5 stone faced men would hear none of that fuss.

Now the deal is Dunn, and the profits will soon follow, citizens are disappointed that members of their local government seem cold, calculated, and hollow.

Democracy in Prince Edward this year seemed sort of down, I guess things still need to change in the County infamous for Board v. Brown!

Merry Christmas!

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Citizens of Prince Edward: Where do we go from here?

For those of you keeping up with the recent blog entries in regards to the on-goings in Prince Edward County, you might know that the "Dunn Deal" is indeed now a "done deal". Of course last Tuesday night, the Prince Edward Board of Supervisors approved Dunn Brothers Development, Inc.’s conditional use permit by a 5 – 3 vote which will allow the construction of 250 townhouse units adjacent to the Crestview Neighborhood located in the Town of Farmville.

As you might know, this request is substantially reduced from the original request a few years ago. The original proposal was for 370 townhouse units (please correct me if I’m wrong) and was subsequently reduced to 270 townhouse units, and final approval was for 250 townhouse units. Therefore, in terms of the impact on the citizens living in the adjoining neighborhood (which all of the traffic will come through) a small victory was achieved by having this request modified from its original form.

Regardless, I think any truly independent analysis of this development proposal would conclude that the development of even 250 townhouse units with no major improvements (or minor improvements) to the existing road infrastructure is extremely poor planning, and generally incompatible with surround uses. The citizens of Prince Edward who I communicated with (who will be directly impacted by these 250 units) stated to me that they were not opposed to the idea of a housing development – one can see the stubbed streets as an indication of future development – but they were opposed to the largest housing development in history of Prince Edward County being served by two small subdivision streets. Therefore when you take into account the questionable circumstances surrounding this 74-acre tract, and the fact that the residents of the effected voting district do not have representation on the County’s Planning Commission (while all others voting districts do) it is easy to see why some citizens are angry and a bit suspicious.

Unfortunately, poor planning happens, even in the most sophisticated communities – period. But the greater issue in Prince Edward is not just about poor planning, but instead about the process in which these decisions were made. Poor planning is sometimes the result of not anticipating undesirable outcomes, which can happen to the best-intentioned individuals or communities. Whereas poor government is often the result of a local government that is unresponsive and unyielding to the reasonable concerns of its citizens.

I’ve received e-mails (and comments on the blog) that suggest that the controversies surrounding the Dunn Development is the result of a few disgruntled citizens who only want to agitate and upset the good folks who work for the County, serve on its Planning Commission, and Board of Supervisors. I DO NOT AGREE WITH THESE SENTIMENTS. The majority of responses from citizens have been positive and supportive. Anyone who feels that that my previous blog entries are misleading, or deceptive, are welcome to post a message in the comments section of this blog, and explain the specifics of what is misleading. Also, if you wish to write a piece discussing my misrepresentation of the facts, source your document, and send to me at the e-mail address provided for this blog and I will post it. (see profile).

Therefore I will bring up a question posed to me by a citizen in Prince Edward – Where do we go from here? Well, my answer would be we go full steam ahead! I truly believe that momentum is on the side of the many residents of Prince Edward who want an accountable and responsive local government. Let’s be happy that the County does have three members of the Board that are not afraid to answer basic concerns posed to them by their constituents. This is a start! (We will discuss elections at a later date, I promise you!)

In regards to future pieces concerning Prince Edward, I already have 3 to 5 "projects" that I’m currently working on that I will soon post on this blog. Future blog entries will discuss the Dunn Development housing proposal in further detail. There are still some troubling questions that remain unanswered that I will write about. Also, I’m considering doing some research related to basic administrative functions of the County, with the help of our good friend FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) - so please stay tuned, and keep the comments coming!

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

God's Politics

Here is something near and dear to my heart. This Washington Post article reports on protests by Christian groups against the budget cuts to programs for the poor. The protesters, led by Jim Wallis of Sojourner Magazine, plan to get arrested in the Cannon House Office Building while they kneel in prayer. The article discusses why the Religious Right is not taking up the mantle of the poor when it comes to budget cutting. Explanations range from there are higher priorities to there is no biblical support for government welfare.

This leads to interesting questions.

Is there biblical support of welfare programs run by the government?

What responsibility do Christians have to advocate for the poor in budget negotiations?

Has the Christian Right sold out its responsibility for social justice to buy the Republican Party's support of abortion, gay marriage and judicial nominees?

And most importantly, What would Jesus do?

(Since this is national politics and not state or local, I will tie it in to this blog thusly.) The Valley Family Forum has made it a legislative priority to oppose tax increases as well as support abortion restrictions and oppose gay marriage.

My view is that taking a position on gay marriage and abortion are easy. These position do not cost a Christian anything because typically, the Christian is neither gay nor likely to have an abortion. On the other hand, advocating higher taxes that would pay for healthcare for the poor would directly cost the typical Christian voter money come April 15th. People who advocate only for laws that would condemn another's sinful behavior but ignores Christ's call to minister to the poor are dangerously close committing the same sin as the Pharisees.

Monday, December 12, 2005

The Dunn Deal: A Family Affair?

Over the past several months, I have been following a developing story down in Prince Edward County, Virginia involving real estate deals, zoning, townhouse developments, and planning commission controversies. You may recall that there have been several articles posted on this matter in past weeks.

This story has some history but I will pick up the story line this past August when a Culpepper, Virginia developer known as Dunn Brothers Development, LLC unveiled a new proposal to develop 270 townhouses on the edge of the Town of Farmville on land previously owned by Prince Edward County. The 74 acre site for the proposed project is subject to county zoning regulations. If and when the project is fully developed, it would have a total value of somewhere in the range of $40 to $54 million.

For the project to proceed, however, the developer must obtain approval of a zoning conditional use permit from Prince Edward County. This is not a simple process. Public hearings are required. Approval is not automatically presumed. (Note: Dunn Brothers Development purchased the 74 acres before the CUP was approved by the County's Board of Supervisors)

Since August, the townhouse proposal has been subject of considerable controversy and citizen opposition. The nature of that controversy has been widely reported in local media including the Farmville Herald and the Crewe-Burkeville Journal. I am not going to go into the details here as they would distract from the point that I am about to make.

This past week, the Prince Edward County Planning Commission held a second public hearing on the Dunn Brothers Development request for the conditional use permit and recommended for the second time approval of the project. The first Planning Commission public hearing on the project was held three months ago (September 7th) and also resulted in a vote recommending approval of the project.

During this most recent public hearing on December 7th, a citizen came to the podium to ask a question regarding the minutes of the September 7th Planning Commission public hearing. I will come back to this citizen question in a moment, but first let me fill in some background on the September 7th public hearing.

Minutes from the September 7th public hearing reported that there were two persons in attendance who both had the same surname – Coleman. One was Mr. Sam Coleman, Vice Chairman of the Prince Edward County Planning Commission and the other was Mr. Chip Coleman who was one of the consultants representing Dunn Brothers Development LLC and their townhouse proposal.

The minutes of that meeting report that “Rob Maxey and Chip Coleman with Maxey-Hines and Associates were representatives for Dunn Brothers Development, LLC.” Mr. Chip Coleman made part of the presentation supporting the request for the zoning conditional use permit.

Those minutes also report that after the discussion of the project “…Mr. [Sam] Coleman motioned to recommend to the Prince Edward County Board of Supervisors approval of the request of Dunn Brothers Development, LLC to construct a 270-unit town home development…” The minutes also report that Vice Chairman Sam Coleman voted in favor of the motion that he had made along with four other members of the Planning Commission who were present at the public hearing.

The Farmville Herald news coverage of the public hearing appeared in the September 9th edition. The article entitled “Townhouses Win Vote” was a long and detailed article and contained statements from numerous individuals who spoke during the hearing.

While several people were reported to have spoken during the September 7th public hearing, the most frequently quoted person in the news report was Planning Commission Vice Chairman Sam Coleman. Vice Chairman Coleman’s statements were consistently supportive of the project. When potential problem issues were introduced by others, Vice Chairman Coleman offered comments to allay those concerns. Traffic concerns, for example, were minimized when Vice Chairman Coleman pointed to Harrisonburg, Blacksburg and Charlottesville and stated that ‘All these places have got streets that weren’t made for the traffic that they’ve developed over the years. They are living with it.”

From the records, Planning Commission Vice Chairman Sam Coleman was arguably the leading champion on the Planning Commission in favor of the Dunn Brothers Development zoning request.
He was the most quoted advocate in favor of the project. He made the September 7th motion to recommend the approval of the project. He voted in favor of project approval – twice on both September 7th and December 7th.

This brings us finally back to the citizen with the question.

The question was addressed to Planning Commission Vice Chairman Sam Coleman. The question sought to learn if there was any family relationship between Planning Commission Vice Chairman Sam Coleman and agent for Dunn Brothers Development Mr. Chip Coleman.

The answer to the citizen question was…yes. The relationship was father Sam Coleman to son Chip Coleman; the first a Planning Commission member and Vice Chairman who sits in judgment on a zoning request and the second an individual making the same zoning request.

I want to be clear: nothing is being insinuated. What I am reporting here are hard facts derived from official minutes, news accounts and the actual video coverage of meetings. These known facts raise questions of judgment and appearances.

While there is no suggestion that there was or is any kind of inappropriate quid pro quo, hasn’t the Planning Commission Vice Chairman exposed himself to the appearance of conflict of interest? And, doesn’t this appearance undermine public trust in the resulting deliberations on the zoning matter.

From the minutes, the news coverage and the video footage, it is pretty clear that Vice Chairman Coleman is not a shy man and he is certainly not afraid to express his views. One could reasonably conclude that he is an intelligent man and a natural leader on the Planning Commission.

But there are still questions: Did the Vice Chairman forget to declare his relationship with the agent for the developer? Did he think that the public may not care about his relationship with the agent for the developer? Did he think that his relationship with agent for the developer was irrelevant and none of the public’s business?

I really don’t know the answers to these questions. So, I would like to get further insight on this situation from the readers of this article.

I am especially hopeful that I will hear from other public officials from around the state who may have experienced similar situations. How were similar situations handled? How should responsible public officials act to avoid the appearance of conflict of interest? What is the proper code of public conduct in such situations?

If Vice Chairman Coleman would care to comment on this matter, I will be pleased to post his comments complete and unedited.

Maybe we can learn something useful from this example.

PS: Thanks to my local sources in the Heart of Virginia including the Farmville Herald, the Crewe-Burkeville Journal, Prince Edward County official records, and citizens of Prince Edward County for background information on this story.

Note: The individuals pictured in this entry are not associated with this blog entry. But rather, they represent two swell guys who are really chummy!

Saturday, December 10, 2005

James Webb for Senate?!

James Webb, Naval Academny Graduate, former Marine, former Secretary of the Navy during the Reagan Administration is considering challenging George Allen for his Senate seat. That race would pit a stereo-type defying Democrat against a popular Rebulican in a, typically, red state. I think whether James Webb in facts run and how he does will speak volumes about the state of the Virginia Democratic Party and Virginia Electorate as a whole. Webb is an author of several military fiction movels, as well as the story that ultimately was turned into the movie Rules of Engagement.

His website has a brief bio articles and interviews that give some insight into his views on foreign policy, Iraq, and to a lesser extent the reason why Democrats continue to lose the southern white vote.

On Iraq, he is very critical of the neo-con movement. It appears that he disagrees with the view that America can export values through the use of military force. In the last presidential election, he was equally critical of Kerry's post-service record after Vietnam and Bush's draft dodging in the Texas Air National Guard.

One of the more interesting aspects of his political views is that he believe the Democrats failure to court the Scots-Irish vote in the south is what is causing it to lose areas like the Shenandoah Valley and other rural areas. He asserts that a ppeal to Jacksonian Democracy can bring this vote back to the Democrats. His views on this were cited in the post-election analysis that Will posted a couple of days ago.

My view on Webb is that while I don't know enough about his views, he is the type of person that can defeant George Allen. I believe that Virginia Democrats need to nominate candidates who thoughtful leaders who promote governance over politics. It doesn't matter to me that a candidate matches my views on all issues, what is more important is can that candidate raise the level of debate. Can that candidate defy the stereo-types and move past slogans. Valley voters don't need to be tricked into voting Democrat, they need someone who brings them a vision they believe in.

With respect to Will, I am nervous about David Ashe. While Webb is critical of Iraq, an Iraq veteran would turn the race into a media circus. While that would bring national attention to the race, I am note sure that would be the best for the race. National democrats will not do well in Virginia, but the last election shows that moderate Virginia Democrats can win statewide. An appeal to voters who are open to voting for governance and leadership is a winnging stategy. Allen and BOlling are wrong, and misinterpret the last election at their own peril. Suburban and Exuraban voters are more concerned with government that works than with unrealistic no-tax promises and a strong stance in the Culture Wars. What remains to be seen is can a Democrat reach out to the Valley voter who does care about the Culture Wars.

Friday, December 09, 2005


Those of us who have regular dealings with public officials, including federal, state and local officials in all kinds of departments, agencies, and offices and in the field, know that most of these people are very hard working, dedicated and honest people who are doing important work so that all the rest of us can enjoy what we have come to know as civilization in America.

Face it, with out these people, we wouldn’t have streets and roads, water and sewer, bridges, schools, much of our health care, street lights, parks, airports, police or fire protection, national defense, the list goes on and on. These people who do the important work to make these things happen are sometimes invisible and they don’t often get the credit they so richly deserve.

Also, I would like to think that here in America we enjoy perhaps the most consistently honest and fair governmental systems to be found anywhere on the face of the earth.

And then, I wake up to my morning edition of the Richmond Times Dispatch and I become depressed and disappointed when I read the latest report from Abingdon and the continuation of the “Coondog Trials.” This is about greed and corruption and the breech of public trust.

This most recent report is only the latest in this long and depressing story about corrupt governmental officials in cahoots with equally corrupt contractors to cash in on federal disaster aid resulting from the 2002 floods out in Buchanan County, Virginia. Thus far, more than a dozen former Southwest Virginia officials and contractors have pled guilty as a result of this mess.

I am not going to rehash the details of this pitiful story about public officials who sold out their integrity and the public interest for cash kickbacks, favorable land deals, NASCAR tickets, bid rigging and coon dogs, but you can read about it in the BRISTOL HERALD COURIER.

The main point I would like to make here is that this bad behavior by a few corrupt public officials undermines public confidence in government and harms all other innocent public officials who are working hard to do a good honest job.

The moral to this story is that all public officials, whatever level, federal, state, or local, and what ever their responsibility, must always keep in mind the sacred nature of the public trust and must strive to maintain only the highest standards of public integrity.

Do it for your self and do it for all your brothers and sisters who serve the public with honor and integrity every day. Also do it so that all of us can continue to enjoy what we know as civilization in America.

Weekly News Round-up

Been too busy to blog recently, but here are some things that I have seen that note mention.

1. AG race recount set for December 20th, so small time legal wrangling over how to handle optical scan ballots. Otherwise, expect an official winner by Christmas.

2. VA Chamber of Commerce endorses raising taxes to fix state's transportation problem. Politically, it is suicide for back to back Democratic administrations to raise taxes. However, how else do we fund the Commonwealth's transportation needs? If Kaine is concerned with governance he'll do it, if he is concerned with politics he won't. If Tim Kaine pushes a tax increase through we will definitely find out how much actual support there is for "good government." Of course expect the Republicans to oppose tax increases without offering any other solution to the problem and all the while happily spending the new revenue.

3. Harrisonburg School Board is changing the penalties for alcohol, tobacco and drug use in school. Pretty sensible to treat marijuana possession differently than heroin and to make tobacco offenses more serious than dress code. I do question why the board would remove discretion from the administration to punish these offenses. Every offense is fact based and should be treated accordingly.

4. The New England Journal of Medicine published a scathing editorial accusing Merck of intentional and knowingly withholding information from the journal regarding that dangers of heart attack to vioxx users. The editor called Merck's explanation "ludicrous." This may give attorney's in New Jersey the right to appeal the defense verdict based on fraud. It is a shame to see such a well respected company and local employer implode. Undoubtedly, there will be some that will continue to blame plaintiff's lawyers for Merck's problems. Ultimately, Merck is responsible for the decisions it made and if it has to pay those it harms, well seems fair to me.

Those are the state and local items that come to mind at the moment. Stay tuned for a profile of James Webb, former Sec. of the Navy under Reagan and considering a bid to unseat George Allen as a (gasp) Democrat.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

The Four Virginias

Here's a good read entitled the "Four Virginias". This research was completed by a couple of professors at Virginia Tech, and it analyzes demographic and voting trends in the Commonwealth's four major regions. If you get a chance give it a read, it's not too long and very interesting.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Real Estate 101: A simple guide to becoming (very) rich!

Here is an interesting little story that comes to me from my readers down in the Heart of Virginia: Prince Edward County, Virginia.

It seems that there are some fabulous opportunities to make a lot of money fast if you know your way round those dusty Courthouses in the Heart of Virginia. The story is about making money the old fashioned way and it goes something like this.

Once upon a time (actually a few years back), the Prince Edward County Board of Supervisors found itself in possession of some real estate that it had no immediate practical use for.

The piece of land in question was 74 acres in area and was covered with mature hardwood trees. The property was adjacent to the Town of Farmville and had access public water and sewer utilities subject to the normal hook-up fees. Town streets were immediately available and stubbed into the site. For those who may be unfamiliar with the area, Farmville is a vibrant and growing community in the Heart of Virginia and the home of Longwood University.

From local accounts, the 74 acre site was a pretty piece of land with a little stream and majestic hardwood trees over a hundred years old. Neighbors in the area reported seeing all sorts of wildlife on the land including deer, turkey, and everything in between. For years, children from the surrounding neighborhood played in the woods on the edge of town like children of yesteryear.

Apparently, sometime around early 2003, the Prince Edward County Board of Supervisors decided that there was no further use for the land and elected to unload it by public sale. The exact circumstances of why are not known and it is possible that this decision was made in a closed meeting for some good reason. We just don’t know what that reason was. It really doesn’t matter (unless someone wants to offer a reason).

In any event, the County published a public notice in The Farmville Herald, a local newspaper, on April 30, 2003 to announce the “Sale of Surplus County Property” and indicated that the Board of Supervisors “will consider offers” not later than 4:30 p.m. on May 12, 2003. A check of the calendar will reveal that the County provided a full twelve days from the first notice to the public to the deadline for bids on the land.

The public notice indicated that there was a timber appraisal available. That appraisal reported that the timber on the land had an estimated value of $166,000. There was no other appraisal for the land in general. Perhaps there was no need for a current land appraisal, but I will leave that for you to decide.

According to a report in The Farmville Herald on May 16, 2003, citizens appealed to the Board of Supervisors and asked many questions concerning the status of the land and its possible uses for the public interest. Citizens also asked for a public hearing on the sale of the land so that current citizen ideas and suggestions could be considered more carefully.

Citizen concerns were acknowledged by the Board of Supervisors Chairman William “Buckie” Fore. However, the request for a public hearing prior to the sale of the land was rejected when the County Attorney Jill Dickerson explained that the County already held the required public hearing to declare the land surplus back in August of 1996. The Board seemed satisfied that the seven year old public hearing was sufficient to fairly weigh citizen ideas and decided that no new public hearing to receive public input would be necessary.

To be fair, it should be noted that the same news report revealed that there was some doubt on the Board about the appropriateness of the hasty sale of the land. In that report, Chairman Fore asked one of his fellow Supervisors who had expressed qualms regarding the sale “…how much of the County’s money he would be willing to spend to answer the [citizen] enumerated issues?” While it appears from this report that there was some honest hesitancy on the part of some Board members, the overriding view of the Board, and Chairman Fore, was to accept the two bids and get on with business.

The low bid was in the amount of $150,000, an amount less than the appraised value of the timber ($166,000). This bidder apparently wanted the County to pay him or her to take the land. You can’t really blame someone for trying…especially under these circumstances.

The high and winning bid was $225,000. This bid was submitted by a well known local land speculator (name withheld). Subtracting out the appraised timber value of $166,000, this winning bidder walked away with the raw land for an estimated investment of $59,000 (remember this number).

A recent report in another local paper, The Crewe-Burkeville Journal, points out that this effective price for the raw land is equivalent to about $800 an acre. Considering that the site is located with immediate access to public water and sewer from the Town of Farmville, this is starting to sound like a pretty sweet deal.

Shortly after acquiring the land from the County, the land speculator harvested the timber. Presuming that the appraised value of the timber at $166,000 was approximately on target, what was left was the raw land that the land speculator obtained from the County for an effective price of $59,000. Consider…74 acres with public utilities available for $59,000 or $800 per acre…indeed, a pretty sweet deal.

Since then, the original land speculator was reported to have sold the land to another party. Most recently the second private owner was reported to have sold the land again. Courthouse records indicate that on May 25, 2005, only two years after the original land speculator acquired from the County the raw land for the effective price of $59,000, the same raw land sold to a new party for $725,000! This deal is getting sweeter by the minute.

Please let me repeat this for clarity: Effectively, the County sold the raw land in May of 2003 for $59,000 ($225,000 total sale price minus $166,000 timber value equals effective price for raw land of $59,000). Two years later the same raw land (with timber harvested) sells for $725,000!

Just looking at these basic numbers (all available in local news reports), this seems like the value of the raw land went from $59,000 to $725,000 in just two years. This seems to be over a 1200 percent increase in two years in basic value (correct me if my math is wrong).

Even allowing for incidental costs for attorneys, engineers, and various other middle men/women, et al, etc, whatever, it would appear that someone made a fairly good return on their initial investment.

I really do not want to speculate on exactly how much money specific individuals made on this deal. Probably there were a number of people in the chain of transactions who took a piece of the action on this little “economic development” venture. It is fair to say that significant money was made in a very short time.

Perhaps there were a number of players who did pretty well on this deal. But, as for the taxpayers who used to own this land, they may not have come out on this deal so well. The big profits by the private investors in such a short time suggest that the County may have given important County assets away way too cheap… way too cheap. (That's what some people might call an "orange jumpsuit" type of deal - you firgure it out!)

Interestingly, this same 74 acre site is now the subject of a highly controversial zoning application in Prince Edward County where the most recent owner is proposing 270 townhouses ( $40 to $50 million in potential value) If approved, the new zoning proposal would permit the largest residential development in the history of Prince Edward County (this matter probably has nothing to do with making a lot of money really fast). I am sure that the Board of Supervisors (the same people who sold the 74 acre site two years ago at a fairly modest price) will look out for the interests of the citizens and resolve this controversial zoning matter satisfactorily.

But back to the main story: I am probably making the idea of easy money too simple. The key to making a lot of money really fast is not as simple as the above basic facts may suggest. If you want to make similarly impressive returns on investments you have to know what to look for. Here are some basic tips.

Look for opportunities in counties where the Board of Supervisors does not bother to appraise surplus real estate before they sell it.

Look for opportunities in counties where the Board of Supervisors will accept seven year old public hearings a satisfactory way to evaluate current decisions.

Look for opportunities where the Board of Supervisors does not want to “waste” tax dollars answering silly questions from citizens.

Look for opportunities where the Board of Supervisors is willing to liquidate hundreds of thousands of dollars in County assets on the basis of a twelve day notice.

Look for opportunities where the Board of Supervisors really doesn’t care all that much about citizen concerns about management of valuable public resources.

One final tip: Where you find the above conditions, you might want to get to know your county officials… get to know them very well… and let them know that you too are interested in getting rich as quickly as possible.

Good luck.

PS: Many thanks go to those who contributed to this piece including The Farmville Herald, The Crewe-Burkeville Journal, my good friends the citizens of Prince Edward County, and those officials who have kindly provided the public documents cited in this article. As always, I want your feedback. If readers have further insight on this story, I welcome further comment and information. Keep those confidential comments coming. I appreciate the material.

Friday, December 02, 2005

Revisting Democracy in the Heart of Virginia

We spend a fair amount of time worrying about spreading democracy around the world these days but often forget about practice of democracy here at home. We tend to forget that democracy is a relatively rare and fragile concept. Even in America, it does not always work perfectly and it is not always pretty. But democracy, imperfect as it may be, is surely better than all the other systems of government we see around the world.

Sometimes, here at home, we see situations that remind us that the principles of democracy have to be constantly guarded by vigilant citizens. A good example of this is the ongoing controversy concerning citizen rights in Prince Edward County, Virginia (see BAD DAY FOR DEMOCRACY, November 24, 2005).

Recently, the Prince Edward Board of Supervisors voted five to three to reject a proposal to restructure the County Planning Commission to give fair representation to all voter districts in this rural community in the Heart of Virginia.

This came about when citizens became frustrated that the Planning Commission seemed to be rubber stamping controversial development proposals. Citizens noticed that the Planning Commission seemed eschew objective evaluations of zoning proposals and to precede with little discussion, and typically no dissent or justification, to approve controversial zoning proposals. Citizen concerns were not only ignored but they were derided by Planning Commission members. It seemed that the County Planning Commission was not functioning as it was suppose to in a free and open democracy.

An investigation this fall by Prince Edward County Supervisor Sally Gilfillan revealed that the County Planning Commission was a relatively stagnant body with the same chairman serving for nearly two decades. Similarly some of the other members of the Planning Commission had served for many long years with apparently little effort to recruit new talent. County records obtained indicated questions about the process of appointing Planning Commission members, its fairness and its accountability to the citizens. Supervisor Gilfillan also discovered that some voting districts were over represented on the body and that one voting district (hers - District 701), which happened to be in a development hot spot, was not represented at all. It was understandable that Supervisor Gilfillan sought to remedy this obvious problem.

One could argue that the five to three vote was an example of democracy in action with the majority position prevailing to keep the status quo. However, there is also evidence to suggest that this might be a case of a “tyranny of the majority” seeking to block true democratic principles of fair representation. The most obvious evidence of this tyranny is the absence of any logical explanation as to why Supervisor Gilfillan’s concerns were left unaddressed. The Chairman of the Planning Commission even made a feeble attempt to argue (with support from some of the Supervisors I might add), that “electoral districts do not relate to land-use planning.”

If such ridiculous arguments are not enough evidence, this tyranny of the majority is also hinted at in the comments of a second member of the Prince Edward Board of Supervisors, Lacy B. Ward who suggested that the problem may be the result of a fear on the part of some members of the Board of Supervisors that there would be a “loss of control” if the Planning Commission were to be reorganized. What does this mean?

Well for starters, the Planning Commission has far reaching influence on all development activities in the County. The Planning Commission is the first step in any effort to change land-use zoning in the County. A zoning change to allow more intense land use development can, with the stroke of the pen, make land speculators, realtors, developers and property owners a lot of money. While there is nothing inherently wrong with people making money, the concept of zoning is to protect against incompatible land use developments. In other words, zoning is not supposed to be manipulated for financial profit… but it sometimes is. The control issue that Supervisor Ward may be alluding to could have some very practical implications for those who seek favorable zoning decisions to facilitate windfall profits.

Because of the great potential for abuse in the arbitrary manipulation of land use zoning, the Virginia legislature passed laws many years ago requiring that zoning decisions need to be made following a logical and open process that assures public participation, objective justification, and accountability. The law divides the responsibility for making zoning changes between two different public entities. The planning commission is supposed to make informed recommendations and the governing body is empowered to make the final decision. These are what we might consider democratic safeguards to prevent abuses.

Local planning commissions have the responsibility of assuring that the public is informed on pending zoning matters and that public input will be fairly considered. According to some of the citizen complaints in Prince Edward County, this has not been happening. Thus, these citizens want a voice on the Planning Commission. This seems to be a reasonable request.

While fair representation of all citizens on the Prince Edward County Planning Commission may not solve all the problems of that body, it certainly is an important and obvious first step. That the Prince Edward County Board of Supervisors has so far refused to take this first step to address the legitimate concerns of its citizens is not a good sign all of the members of that Board truly understand or embrace the basic principles of democracy. Nor are they helping matters by not even attempting to explain their actions.

Making matters worse, Supervisor Ward also expressed concern during a recent meeting about attitudes and comments by other members of the Board and county personnel reflecting “animosity” towards citizens who have complained about functioning of the Planning Commission. What is that about? Why might County elected officials or appointed personnel feel “animosity” towards citizens who they are duty-bound to listen to and serve? Are County officials angry that citizens are questioning their actions?

While Supervisor Ward did not name names or give specifics, he made it abundantly clear that he was concerned by the behavior of certain County officials. Any reader who has some specific insight on this matter please let me know so that I might be able to explore this matter in more depth in the future.

Citizens are a demanding lot. As a general collection of humanity, citizens are admittedly a quite unpredictable group. Indeed, there may be some citizens out there who are crazy. But most citizens are reasonable people who just want their government to function properly.

Whatever the situation, people who serve the public as either as elected or appointed officials are duty-bound to listen to citizens. When county Supervisors are elected to office, citizens are not giving up their rights to express their views. Nor are citizens telling elected Supervisors to do all of the thinking and decision making in total disregard of citizen concerns. Supervisors need to listen to citizens even when election-day is not looming in the near future.

Citizen participation in government is good thing. It should not be discouraged or viewed with disdain by local government officials. Any local government official, elected or appointed, who gets personally offended or feels animosity towards citizens just because those citizens want to participate in the democratic process of governing their own community might want to think about pursuing another line of work.

As a closing thought, I want to thank the young university people in Farmville who did such a great job in making the Prince Edward County meeting videos. As they say a picture is worth a thousand words. These young people are getting some great “real life” insights as to how government works in America. Please keep these videos coming. Anyone wanting to obtain copies of Prince Edward County government videos can send me a note and I will see if I can get you a copy on DVD.

While I am mindful that democracy has its pitfalls, including the messy process of listening to citizens concerns, I think the basic concept has some redeeming qualities that should be considered. There is still hope that the Prince Edward County Board of Supervisors will eventually do the right thing and embrace more enthusiastically the principles of democracy. I will keep you posted on new developments.

PS: I appreciate reader comments on this ongoing story. I am especially interested in factual insights from knowledgeable sources about the details of this unfolding story. Keep those comments coming!