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.
In 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 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.
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.