8News Investigates: What Are The Mayor’s Commissions Doing For The City?

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Today Mayor Dwight Jones will deliver his annual State of the City. But first — 8News does its own analysis of the progress in Richmond under his leadership.

To really get a good grasp on the state of the city, 8News Investigator Kerri O’Brien is breaking down the Mayor’s commissions.

In his six years in office, Mayor Jones has created six commissions: the Pedestrian and Trails Commission, The Anti-Poverty Commission, The Breastfeeding Commission, The Tourism Commission, The Blue Ribbon Commission on Health Policy and the Food Policy Task Force.

The Mayor’s press secretary Tammy Hawley tells 8News the Mayor sees commissions as a way to be inclusive and get community input on the city’s most important issues. Commissions are made up of volunteers and costs the city little to nothing, Hawley says.

But has their research led to any action?

Peddling their way to the top — the city’s Pedestrian and Bicycling Commission. The goal of the commission is to make the city more bike and pedestrian friendly. 8News finds that the commission stands out.

This year, the World Road Cycling Championships will ride through the streets of Richmond bringing RVA cyclists, spectators and lots of money. It also ties in with the goals of the city’s Tourism Commission to expand attractions and to market the city so it can continually attract new visitors.

“To see my favorite road racers here in person on the same road that I train on is going to be pretty big,” says cycling fan Michael Stoop.

But the commission’s work has won the city more than a race. 80 miles of bike sharrows have been spray painted on many of the city’s streets reminding drivers cyclists share the road. Over 200 bike racks have been added around town. A bike boulevard along Floyd Avenue is in the works and the commission has secured an EPA grant to create more pedestrian crossings and bike lanes along the Jefferson Corridor.

“It will allow us to make it more environmental friendly, more attractive and functional for residents and tourists alike, safer.,” says Councilwoman Cynthia Newbille.

Still some bikers say more needs to be done.

“The city is still not safe,” says Louis Lugo.

“When I do my leisure riding it’s mostly around my neighborhood or park and the park is actually safer you don’t have to worry about getting hit by a car, ” explains Lugo.

Bike versus car collisions are on the decline in the city, but not down enough, cyclists say.

Last year cyclists were struck 66 times. That’s down from 81 in 2013. Still, bikers want their own lanes.

Just last week, city leaders announced that they’re considering barrier protected bike lanes from Monroe Park to the Capitol Square.

The pedestrian and bike commission has made for significant progress.

When it comes to poverty and health commissions, though, 8News Investigative Reporter Kerri O’Brien finds that the Mayor’s commissions fall short.

“The apartments are just so terrible on the inside, the bugs, “ Rayquell Allen describes life in Creighton Court.

She says the public housing community is awful — the units are old, overcrowded and infested with bed bugs.

“It’s just disgusting,” says Allen.

In 2001, the Mayor promised to tackle poverty. He created the Anti-Poverty Commission to find solutions.  A year later, in his State of City address, he vowed to change the face of public housing.

But today O’Brien reveals Richmond’s public housing units still have a 95% occupancy rate and there’s more than 3300 people on waiting list to live in them.

“I can’t tell he’s (the Mayor) done anything,” say Allen.

Five years after the Mayor’s Antipoverty Commission was created more than a quarter of the City’s population still lives in poverty. Nearly 40% are kids.

“People are just surviving, they’re not living,” says a Creighton Court resident who wishes to remain anonymous.

John Moeser with the University of Richmond’s Bonner Center for Civic Engagement was a member of the Anti-Poverty Commission. He believes the City is making progress in its war on poverty because the City is finally talking about it.

Moeser says, “We are heading in the right direction for the simple fact that we have an anti-poverty commission.”

He points out the Commission’s recommendation lead the opening of the Center for Workforce Innovation. The center offers job training and interview skills.

Moeser also says the city created the Office of Community Wealth Building, a City department that is fully focused on poverty.

“We need someone who is focusing on this everyday 24/7,” explains Moeser.

But 8News has learned that head of the office dedicated to addressing poverty, Thaddeus Williamson,  earns a hefty salary of $96,000 a year.

That Center for Workforce Center for Innovation only served 80 people between July and September of 2014. Only 60 of them found jobs. As for those jobs, the average pay was $8.85 an hour.  That’s just slightly above minimum wage.

“Not really where we need to be,” says Moeser.

Even Moeser admits that’s not good enough.

“The objective is to get it up to $13, $14, $15 an hour, ” states Moeser.

But Moeser says there’s no quick fix. “You just don’t overnight create living wage jobs. “ he states.

Former School Board member Carol Wolf believes The Mayor’s Commissions are a lot of talk and a little action.

“I am so tired of studies and commissions,” says Wolf.

Her solution? “Four letter word: JOBS, j-o-b-s, that’s the cure for poverty.”

But they have to be good paying jobs says Wolf.  For that to happen she says the city needs a career and vo-tech center that works with local employers to provide training for the jobs of today. She’s seen it work in Pittsburgh at the Bidwell Training Center.

Paul Goldman, former aide to Mayor Doug Wilder, also believes commissions and study groups are not the answer.

“That’s his go to move for Mayor Dwight Jones, it’s let’s have a commission or a task force, ” says Goldman.

Standing in the City’s East End, Goldman wonders… “where’s the grocery store?” A main recommendation of the Food Policy Task Force and the Blue Ribbon Commission on Health Policy was to lure grocery chains with quality fruits and veggies to the City’s food deserts

“The bus that he had that was taking people around, where is it these days? I don’t see it around,” asks Wolf.”

A shuttle that used to transport people from the City’s food deserts to big grocery stores has stopped running.

Meanwhile, the City’s obesity rate is still holding at 30 percent.

There have been some gains for the food and health policy commissions, too, though.More corner stores in the East End are working with the city to provide fresh produce. There is also an new effort to bring a Farmer’s Market that accepts SNAP benefits to the area.

8News made several request to sit down with the Mayor and talk about his Commissions and their progress. All of our requests where denied. The Mayor’s Press Secretary Tammy Hawley did issue this statement:

“We feel very good about the work of our commissions and they have contributed to measurable progress in all areas. Everyone has a right to their own opinion, including critics. But we are confident those critics are few and far between.”

Stay with 8News for more.

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