Open Letter to Portsmouth Economic Development Authority

Commissioners Aaron J. Kelley, Chair; Lisa Lucas-Burke, Vice Chair; Charles “Brad” Hunter, Treasurer; Robert P. Beaman; Dean A. Thomasson; and Junius L. Thompson
Portsmouth Economic Development Authority
200 High Street
Portsmouth, VA 23704

Dear Commissioners:

At your previous meeting in January, the secretary of the EDA introduced a last-minute addition to your agenda.  It was not only dropped into your laps without prior notice, but you did not even receive a written copy of what he asked you to approve.  Instead, he read the text from the screen of his Blackberry.  Had I sat in your place at the boardroom table, I would have been unwilling to accept that mode and timing of presentation. I consider it disrespectful to you and to the citizens you serve.

One might argue that the city manager, who was the main spokesperson for this item, had deadline pressure due to the scheduled hearing on Senator L. Louise Lucas’s casino gambling bill, S. B. 19, the following morning.  Although the course of legislation through the General Assembly is not always straight and true, and committee chairs have a great deal of discretion as to when bills receive hearings, S. B. 19 had been in the legislative hopper since December.  Furthermore, your resolution endorsing action that Portsmouth City Council had taken on December 18, 2013, could have been on your published agenda for January 21, 2014.  That would have afforded you the opportunity to investigate and reflect on the merits of the item you took up cold.  Additionally, with appropriate notice of the business to come before you, the citizens of our city would have had an opportunity to express their views on the matter had they wished to do so.  City management foreclosed those options both for you and for us.

I share with you a portion of a letter that I sent to members of the Senate General Laws and Technology Committee in arguing against adoption of S. B. 19:

“On December 17 and 18, 2013, the Portsmouth City Council afforded the public opportunities to express our views on a resolution of support for S. B. 19.  About thirty individuals appeared before council in the two sessions; some people, myself included, spoke both evenings. The recordings of the two meetings are available through the You Tube Portsmouth Channel at the following URL addresses: December 17 at http://youtu.be/z2w-5MPHtf0; and December 18 at http://youtu.be/OpmD_qETjfI. The first recording has a running time of about two-and-a-half hours; the second, around 40 minutes. If you cannot afford the time to watch both programs in their entirety, I would encourage you to sample the comments of the citizens who came out in support and opposition to the resolution in question.

“What the proceedings demonstrate clearly is that our community, as represented by the cross-section who took the time to express their opinions on the issue before council, were closely divided between opposition and support. The 4-3 council vote that followed the public input was similarly divided. Over the course of the two days of citizen presentations, the council minutes (attached) and video records document that thirty individuals spoke, three of whom, myself included, on both occasions. Two of the speakers favoring the resolution came from a neighboring city.  Of the Portsmouth residents who expressed their views, council minutes account twelve as supporting the measure, twelve opposing it, and three others as raising questions or points both pro and con.”

I did not see you in the council chamber on the night of either public hearing.  Although you may have watched the video recordings of those proceedings, I am guessing you did not.  For the city manager to have asserted in the brief discussion preceding your vote to endorse the council action that the city wanted this bill to pass is a distorted interpretation of what occurred.  Yes, in one of the Senate hearings on her bill, Senator Lucas questioned the strength of the citizen opposition to casino gambling if only twelve speakers out of a city of 96,000 turned out to demur.  Her argument, though, cuts both ways: if only twelve people, counting Senator Lucas herself and several others she recruited to argue on behalf of her bill, were present to support it, it appears to have had scant support from our citizens. Additionally, the hearing nights were a week after the final regular meeting of city council for the year and a week before Christmas. From a turnout perspective, it was a less than optimal time for maximizing attendance.  Nonetheless, it does indicate clearly divided, rather than unified, opinion on the matter.  It does not warrant, therefore, a representation that this is what “the city” wants.

In my experience, the overwhelming majority of volunteers who serve on our boards and commissions do so because they care about the future of our city and want to contribute to its success.  Unfortunately, that may make you less skeptical of propositions brought before you by people in authority within the our local government than your good judgment would otherwise dictate.  I encourage you to question all authority – your own and mine, included – and take the time to satisfy yourself that you have all available relevant information before you make your decisions.  The interests of the people of this city are not always aligned with those of its elected and appointed leaders, and “the interests of the city” count for naught if they do not align with the public good.

Please let me know if you need additional information.

Yours truly,

Mark A. Geduldig-Yatrofsky

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