The Richmond Register

June 1, 2013

Permission sometimes easier to get than forgiveness

By Bill Robinson
Register Editor

RICHMOND — Forgiveness is easier to get than permission, an old adage holds. But that’s not always the case.

In local government, however, it’s usually better to let everyone know what you’re doing and offer a convincing justification before taking action.

Why wouldn’t you do that, especially if you’re confident what you want can be justified?

Three times in recent years, under two different administrations, those in control of Richmond City Hall have taken or attempted to take action with regard to city parks without first consulting the Parks and Recreation Advisory Board. Each time things turned out badly for those in City Hall.

The most recent example is the removal of a softball field from Irvine-McDowell Park.

The action appears to have been taken with support from a majority of the previous city commission. However, the move was not fully discussed in a regular session or given much public notice.

More importantly, the advisory board was not informed, much less consulted.

Mayor Jim Barnes says the park master plan adopted by the advisory board and a previous city commission calls for moving softball fields from Irvine-McDowell to Lake Reba Park.

Why then would he not at least inform the advisory board that the city was taking an action called for in the plan? If the board had given its endorsement to the move, a subsequent city commission would have found less justification to reverse the action taken under the city manager’s authority.

Some might say that two current commissioners elected on a platform of reversing policies adopted by the previous commission moved to restore the ball field simply to spite the mayor.

However, if he had given the action a full public airing before it was taken, we would have known where the public stood on the issue. And, those who opposed would be unable later say it was done without proper authorization.

Even some who think ball fields should be moved from Irvine-McDowell to Lake Reba say a new field should have been built there before an existing one was removed from the park on Lancaster Avenue.

While anyone can say hindsight and second guessing come easily, it’s also easy for local government to be fully open about its intentions. That way anyone who may be opposed has a chance to voice objection. And, as I said earlier, no one can claim something was done improperly.

Once the old field was taken out, the issue was no longer the cost of building a new field, just where.

City Commissioner Robert Blythe, who cast the deciding vote to restore the Irvine-McDowell field, said he would reconsider if the cost of restoration proves to be too high. However, restoring the previous field probably won’t cost anymore, perhaps less, than building a new one at Lake Reba.

We can all learn from our mistakes and should learn from the mistakes of others.

Several years ago, a group with the commendable purpose of building a skateboard park in Richmond went to City Hall with a proposal to build one in Betty Miller Park. When the proponents posted a call on their Facebook page asking supporters to attend the city commission meeting at which their proposal would be heard, I suggested they hadn’t done their homework.

The parks department staff had thoroughly investigated potential skate park sites, including Betty Miller Park. Former parks director Kevin Gorman reported his findings to the park board, telling them residents around the park opposed converting even part of its green space into a skating facility. The residents also objected to the potential noise and increased traffic such a facility would generate.

However, proponents of putting a skate park in Betty Miller Park told me they had done their homework. They went to City Hall and were told their idea was good. Simply bring it to the city commission, and it would be adopted, they said they were told.

When the issue came before the city commission, however, what the park board and staff already knew came to light. And the effort, which had raised the hopes of skateboarders, failed.

If skateboard park proponents and the folks at City Hall had been attending park board meetings or at least reading my reports of the board’s proceedings in the Register, they could have saved themselves a lot of trouble and embarrassment.

What’s difficult to understand about this blowup is that Barnes and other commissioners have attended a number of park board meetings.

Of course, you may remember the Camp Catalpa Park fiasco that also could have been avoided with a full public airing that appropriately could have started with the park board.

At least the skateboard park effort cost no money and this latest reversal will cost only a small fraction of what reversing the Camp Catalpa action cost.

Finally, what’s the point of having an advisory board if you don’t seek its advice?