Dissecting aftermath of J.R. Pope’s Parks Department departure

By Phil Riggan – James River News Hub

After dissecting many of the stories that have been written about J.R. Pope’s departure as director of the Richmond Department of Parks, Recreation and Community Facilities, I’ve found many inconsistencies and inaccuracies in the comments, assumptions and allegations surrounding this debacle.

I have many insights as to the reasons for Pope’s “resignation” but this blog isn’t powerful enough to get people on record. One of the best quotes I’ve seen was from 1st District Councilman Bruce W. Tyler in a Nov. 17 Richmond Times-Dispatch article:

“I think there’s more to it than meets the eye, but I can’t prove it,” said Tyler of Pope’s resignation.

I think Pope was pushed out the door. There wasn’t enough wrong-doing in the first release of the findings from the audit for Mayor Dwight Jones to accept his resignation unless Jones was party to some of the shenanigans that I’m hearing about. Maybe there will be more damning evidence when the remainder of the audit comes out later in December, but people I’ve talked to close to the situation allege that something isn’t right.

In articles, blogs and subsequent comments, many have speculated that the proposed Go Ape! ropes course that the City was promoting for Byrd Park was Pope’s undoing. F.T. Rea wrote a commentary for Richmond.com in opposition to the placement of the Go Ape! project in Byrd Park and had a couple of interesting tidbits:

Of the difficulty in getting anyone who works for The City to talk about this project aimed at Byrd Park, [5th District Councilman Marty] Jewell said, “Nobody was in favor of this thing, but J.R. Pope.”

I have heard from smart people close to this issue that Pope was acting on instruction from city administration to carry out the Byrd Park ropes course project.

Rea wrote that Pope had built up a following during his time as director, and much of it stemmed from appreciation for improvements that were made to Richmond’s parks, like Forest Hill and Byrd parks. Pope chose to ignore those same constituencies, according to Rea in Richmond.com:

He seemed to see no value in getting input from the folks who care the most about Byrd Park…Why Pope was so singularly enamored with the ropes course in Byrd Park concept remains a mystery.

Why would a man deviate from a well-walked path to success? Could it be that he was acting on marching orders? Was he set up to be the fall guy? In any case, I doubt the Go Ape! project had enough money, risk pr power involved in it to force Pope from his job.

Maybe the higher-ups in the city were afraid of the cost associated with Pope’s lofty parks and facilities plans? The estimated $8 million in plans to renovate the old Pump House I’ve written about is just a drop in the bucket when compared to the overall department plans, according to a Nov. 30 Style Weekly article:

A parks master plan Pope commissioned, which was drafted two years ago and then set aside, says Richmond needs to buy 554 acres of park space and develop 45 miles of new trails in the next 10 years.

There should be a park within six blocks of every city resident, the plan says. It identifies a need for 38 playgrounds, four skateboard parks, three new recreational centers, two outdoor pools and one indoor pool. These projects, along with other new and upgraded facilities, would cost around $171.7 million, the plan says. (This figure is general and based on average national costs.)

The parks master plan was one of the first projects Pope launched when he became director in 2006. To solicit ideas, 15 public focus groups and 20 meetings with city staff and community leaders were held…The plan was never presented to City Council, and thus never officially approved.

A figure as large as $171.7 million could be a problem in this economy. Also, it is clear that certain city council members wished J.R. Pope and his department would have dedicated more time to programs conducted within the parks, rather than sprucing up the facilities themselves.

When people go to City of Richmond parks, it’s hard to miss the “It Starts in Parks” slogan that is all over many of the signs, trash receptacles, flyers, billboards, etc. I think J.R. Pope believed that the foundation of his department started with the reinvestment and restoration of the aesthetic appearances of the parks, which would in turn make them more attractive and inviting to city dwellers.  He was well on his way, and not just in the most popular parks.

No, I doubt that his parks master plan was his undoing either. Afterall, it never made it to council, and likely was no more than a wish list.

But what about the “Recreation” potion of Pope’s department? After his departure, Dr. Carolyn N. Graham, deputy chief administrative officer for human services, took over as interim director. She is much more in tune with recreation, including overseeing the Mayor’s Youth Academy, the city’s much-heralded program for teens.

From the Nov. 17 RTD article:

Jewell said he had been bothered by Pope’s emphasis on parks over recreation, which Jewell said gets little funding for staffing of youth programs.

Now we’re getting close to the stink. Allegedly, if J.R. Pope had a weakness, it was that he didn’t do enough to support recreational programs.

According to a Nov. 23 article from Style Weekly:

The Mayor’s Youth Academy cost around $678,000, not counting the salaries paid to teens employed in city departments. Corporate sponsorships provided $7,000, and many of the youth gardeners were paid with $81,268 in federal work-force investment money. The rest came from the city’s parks and human services budgets, as well as state funding through the Richmond Health District.

That money was for 471 teenagers who participated and the goal was to employ 90 percent, or 8,100, of the city’s approximately 9,000 14- to 19-year-olds, according to Style Weekly. Additionally, 8 percent of the program kids were later found not to be Richmond residents.

As it has played out in the media, J.R. Pope resigned because of the waste uncovered by the audit of more than $36,000 in cost overruns and medical bills stemming from work on a bogus reception counter for the Pine Camp Community Center.

If you believe that to be government waste, what about the amount of money wasted by the Mayor’s pet project that is the Youth Academy? Even worse, what about the costs the city is facing to conduct a nationwide search for a new parks director? If done properly, Richmond should fly in dozens of candidates and spend exhaustive amounts of time, effort and money to find someone who could outperform Pope in running a department with a $15 million annual budget that employs more than 215 people.

Maybe Dr. Carolyn N. Graham is right where Mayor Dwight Jones planned her to be when he brought her to Richmond from D.C. a year ago. If so, expect that Richmond will see more poorly run, niche pet projects like the Mayor’s Youth Academy and less parks and facilities projects that could benefit all Richmonders.


13 responses to “Dissecting aftermath of J.R. Pope’s Parks Department departure

  1. Great article! Do you know where to find a copy of the parks master plan?

  2. Pingback: Hills and Heights » James River News Hub Examines J.R. Pope Resignation - Richmond, Virginia

  3. Good stuff Phil. I’m nervous about what the future holds for the parks.

  4. Jewell needs to be unelected. NOW!

  5. Nice job, Phil, and thanks for more insight into JR’s unexpected and unfortunate departure. He’ll be sorely missed, and we’ll probably never get the full story, but Bruce Tyler took the words right out of my mouth. (Maybe Mr. Dalal’s next examination should include the Mayor’s Youth Academy?)

  6. Pingback: Dissecting aftermath of J.R. Pope’s Parks Department departure | City Hall Review

  7. Pingback: Byrd Park » A Political Power Struggle Over Parks? - Richmond, Virginia

  8. Pingback: The Fan District Hub » Blog Archive » Why was ropes course on a fast-track?

  9. phil,
    thanks for following up, it looks more and more like the usual politics, agree that the parks will suffer with JR’s departure,
    here’s a link to the park masterplan:

  10. Is there anything we can do to get Pope back?

  11. Allen Harrelson

    If you think that this is something, you ought to read the 2008 Monroe Park Master Plan…How about $300,000 for a carousel that no one will ride, a stage down by Belvedere St. from which you won’t hear the band when a tractor-trailer goes by, and lots more, but especially the loss of 66 trees just for ambiance!

  12. Allen- did you even read the Monroe Park Master Plan? A carousel would be way down the road and is not included in the basic renovations. The stage at Belvedere would be a temporary stage. The city already owns that (or depending on the production, a stage could be rented and erected like at rock concerts. New trees would help to buffer street noise. Finally, there is a major net GAIN in tree stock after renovations. Please get your facts straight.

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