Tag Archives: J.R. Pope

Richmond Parks & Recreation audit shows more trouble

Richmond City Auditor Umesh Dalal released a 24-page report covering Richmond’s entire Department of Parks, Recreations and Community Facilities. CBS6 covered this story yesterday, and while the James River Park was not included in their story, the parks department is still under fire since an incident in mid-November 2010 led to the resignation of the popular former parks director J.R. Pope and the installation of Dr. Carolyn Graham as director. Continue reading


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.

Open letter to Mayor Dwight Jones on J.R. Pope’s resignation

This is the email that I, Phil Riggan, submitted to Richmond Mayor Dwight Jones, city council, Department of Parks, Recreation and Community Facilities interim director Dr. Carolyn Graham and deputy director Roslyn Johnson (among others) in reference to the resignation of J.R. Pope:

I am saddened by the resignation of J.R. Pope as Director of the Department of Parks, Recreation and Community Facilities. My knowledge of his work, leadership and vision through many encounters with the man lead me to believe that he was one of the few department heads in the city that worked efficiently and competently.

I cannot ignore the findings of the report by the city auditor. They are an indicator that improprieties were happening under Pope’s watch and that he should have had better control. However, I don’t find these incidents to have been severe enough for Pope to resign.

The Mayor should not have accepted his resignation. Someone close to the situation has benefitted by Pope’s departure and it is at the citizen’s expense.

J.R. Pope may have been flawed — as the audit seems to illustrate — but the community and volunteer groups are not served by Pope’s absence as parks director.

The citizens of Richmond and the many volunteers that donate their time to help maintain and build trails, facilities, access points, clean trash and guide the future of the parks do not benefit from Pope’s departure. The work we provide to the city is a free community service, one that Pope helped to grow in his short five years as director. It would be a shame to think that inside politics would jeopardize the good work happening outside of the imperfect walls of City Hall. 

My knowledge of J.R. Pope’s time in Richmond has been nothing but positive. I became a volunteer for many “Friends” groups in Richmond in part because people like J.R. Pope and parks department mainstays Ralph White and Nathan Burrell convinced me that the parks were worthy of my time. I have bonded with many wonderful, caring people who together dedicate their free time doing work that would never have been accomplished if left to the City of Richmond.

I hope the City was right in allowing Pope to leave and that after a thorough and successful search we can all be happy with the next director. Please do not allow misguided inside politics or hidden personal agendas to dictate what should happen to our parks, our playgrounds and our river.

-Phil Riggan

I encourage you to send your own emails:


What Richmond loses with J.R. Pope’s resignation

By Phil Riggan – James River News Hub

After five productive and successful years as director of Richmond’s parks, recreation and community facilities department, J.R. Pope has resigned, presumably as the result of a scathing audit.

What does that mean for the “Friends” groups that support Richmond parks? What does that mean for the grand plans Pope had for restoring the Pump House?

If the alleged improprieties listed below are all that Pope is guilty of, then Richmond has lost an effective, popular leader over a rather small, isolated issue. Yes, $36,000 is a lot of money, but I fail to believe that Pope knowingly would condone that type of indiscretion.

I hope Richmond’s parks do not suffer without his leadership. We need keep up the good momentum Richmond. Pope had his department working more efficiently than most any other in the city. He was getting positive results. Citizens have become more invested in our parks, and Pope should get some credit for that.

I spoke with Pope in Summer 2008 after the completion of renovations to the tennis courts at Byrd Park — one of the first phases of many improvements under what was then the “City of the Future” plan. He spoke passionately about parks and communities, and how important it was to him that the city help citizens carry out these projects to help restore people’s pride in Richmond. As we talked, he said something to the effect of “what does it say about a city if it doesn’t take care for its public spaces?”

I have had at least 10 conversations with Pope over the years and I have a hard time believing that he would approve of shenanigans. He had too much personal stake in the improvements.

Take the Forest Hill Park lake restoration for example. The $1.7 million project was reportedly finished the with about $145,000 left in the bank and the project was completed nearly a month ahead of schedule.

Improvements to the walls at Young's Pond in Joseph Bryan ParkIn the past year, the City of Richmond spent $805,000 at 100-year-old Joseph Bryan Park to make improvements to two ponds, including the dredging of the Azalea Garden pond. There are plans to construct a building for concessions and restrooms near the soccer fields and add a gazebo in the Azalea Garden within the next 12 months.

But what about the James River Park System, the largest and clearly the most important park in Richmond? There have been many improvements under Pope’s watch, but likely that can be more attributed to his staying out of the way of the determined JRPS staff under Ralph White’s direction and the many volunteer groups that stake their own claims to improving the facilities, trails and access to the James River.

The Pump House - are the plans out the door?The Pump House could end up being the unfinished crown jewel for Pope. The goal was that the old gothic treasure would become be the new home for the JRPS visitor’s center. If nothing else, it could be a museum, learning center, host weddings, parties, events and the canal could once again be in operation. That was Pope’s vision, and he had been in recruiting mode for the past couple of years trying to rally funding and interest among Richmond’s philanthropists.

The Pump House — which was designed by the great Richmond city engineer Col. Wilfred Emory Cutshaw and built in the 1880s —  has been under renovation for the past decade. It is still considered a stabilized ruin, according to park manager Ralph White. The architectural plans to renovate it have been drawn, but funding the project could have called for more than $8.5 million.

Now that Pope has resigned, is the dream of the restoration of the Pump House gone with him? What about his vision for Bryan Park? Will his eventual replacement respect the strong relationships Pope helped build with the many park “Friends” groups in Richmond? Will the James River Park System maintain its operational freedom?

Several media outlets brought to light the allegations from City Auditor Umesh V. Dalal’s report, starting with Richmond Magazine’s Chris Dovi:

Dalal’s office was in the middle of a scheduled audit of the department when it received a tip about the two employees, who earned a combined total of $18,000 in overtime during fiscal year 2010.

From the Richmond Times-Dispatch report:

 Two investigative reports criticized oversight in the parks department and said the city had spent $36,673 on an unnecessary and still-unfinished project to refurbish a reception counter for the Pine Camp Community Center… The auditor’s Office of the Inspector General chronicled the activities of two parks maintenance employees and accused one or both of unauthorized use of a city vehicle for personal business, sleeping during work hours, inadequate supervision and excessive overtime charges.

From NBC12:

The report also shows an untrained equipment operator was hurt when he mishandled a saw that led to a nearly $25,000 medical bill.

According to a release, Mayor Dwight Jones placed the Department of Parks, Recreation and Community Facilities under the interim direction of Deputy CAO Dr. Carolyn Graham. A national search for a new director will take place immediately. Disciplinary hearings have been ordered for the employees involved in the improper incidents.

J.R. Pope resigns as Director of Richmond parks department

From Richmond Magazine:

J.R. Pope, director of Richmond’s parks, recreation and community facilities department, has resigned, confirms City Auditor Umesh Dalal, whose office today issued an inspector general’s report finding that two employees under Pope had improperly billed the city for overtime while building what may be the most expensive desk the city has ever purchased. A receptionist at the parks department confirmed Pope’s resignation during a call for comment from Pope.

J.R. Pope is one of the best things to happen to Richmond in a long time. I have met him on many occasions, done many stories about his work and have admired his work for years. The work of his department to improve Richmond parks and again get citizens involved in their community gathering places is worthy of praise. The cooperation in recent years between the city and groups working to build better parks was largely due to J.R. Pope’s good work. If Pope really leaves Richmond, we’ll have a tough time replacing him. Let’s not lose the momentum the Parks and Recreation Department has built up — continue to support your Richmond parks and create a better city. Great scoop by Chris Dovi and Richmond Magazine. [Comment from Phil Riggan, James River News Hub]