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Chesterfield parents rally outside School Board meeting to protest Legionella, mold conditions

Parents gathered outside Tuesday’s Chesterfield County School Board meeting to decry school conditions after revelations that Legionella bacteria had been growing in cooling towers on school property.

Wearing breathing masks and bearing placards, about 30 people gathered outside the public meeting room on Iron Bridge Road amid concerns about the bacteria — which cause Legionnaires’ disease, a type of pneumonia — and mold levels at two Midlothian schools.

Kate Flinn told the School Board that she has tried to look after the health and safety of her children, one of whom is a Chesterfield student and another who has graduated.

“Of course that’s pretty difficult when the health and safety of their surroundings involves microscopic bacteria that with the right set of conditions can grow and disseminate through atomized particulates in the air they breathe, which is what Legionella bacteria does and has been allowed to do in several Chesterfield County public schools by you, our elected board,” Flinn said.

Flinn said that amid the Legionella discoveries, the School Board members should resign and the school system’s chief operating officer, Nita Mensia-Joseph, should be fired.

School officials said they have cleaned all the cooling towers in the school system after several schools tested positive for the bacteria.

“Out of an abundance of caution, we have gone above and beyond health expert suggestions and requirements in order to provide a safe place for teaching and learning,” School Board Chairman Rob Thompson said shortly before Flinn spoke at Tuesday night’s meeting.

Thompson said follow-up tests showed that the cooling towers at two schools, L.C. Bird High and Matoaca High, had been improperly cleaned. Towers at those schools, which had Legionella bacteria, were cleaned again and follow-up tests are pending, he said.

Thompson added that people affected by Legionnaires’ disease are typically not students, adding that they tend to be people who are older than 50, someone with an underlying health condition, or someone with a compromised immune system.

But some parents interviewed at Tuesday’s rally said they were particularly concerned because they have children who have compromised immune systems attending Chesterfield schools.

Concerned by 11 confirmed Legionnaires’ cases in Chesterfield over three months, state health officials tested cooling towers at Greenfield Elementary School, Midlothian Middle School and Falling Creek Middle School and found those facilities had the bacterial strain that causes the disease. In light of those findings, county officials tested towers at five other schools.

This week, some Chesterfield residents have become concerned about mold levels at Midlothian Middle and Midlothian High.

Thompson said the school system has tested the air quality at Midlothian Middle School five times in the past three years, including as recently as last week.

Although mold was found in the school in that recent test, it was not at a level higher than outside air, said Thompson, who added that testing shows that the air has improved in that building over the past couple of years. The school system plans to deal with moisture issues at the school by monitoring roof leaks and doing pipe work, Thompson said.

The School Board chairman said health officials have not received any complaints about Midlothian High.

Megan Bonfili, who has a child attending Midlothian Middle, was skeptical that mold levels were fine at her child’s school.

“I’m not sure that I fully believe the school system, because apparently there were reports that the cooling towers needed [to be] addressed prior to this testing,” Bonfili said at the rally before the meeting. “When you walk in the school, you can smell mildew. ... I’m just concerned that if there is Legionella, there is mold also.”

Colonial Downs says 2019 races outperformed track's final year under previous owner

Colonial Downs Group said Tuesday that the 15-day horse racing schedule that ended Saturday resulted in $17.5 million wagered and $7.4 million in purses for race winners, both increases from the last year of races before the track closed.

The $17.5 million wagered represented a 15% increase over 2013, with 85% of the bets coming from outside Virginia. The purse total was up 55% over 2013, the company said.

“By providing the highest level of purses, you in turn get the best horses and horsemen competing at Colonial Downs,” Jill Byrne, vice president of racing at Colonial Downs, said at a news conference Tuesday in the offices of the Virginia Tourism Corporation.

State officials and representatives from the horse industry appeared with Colonial Downs executives to tout the company’s impact on Virginia since purchasing the shuttered track in April 2018. As of September, the company says it has spent $235 million in Virginia and hired more than 900 people.

“I really think that Colonial’s reopening and the quality of racing that took place really is the best story to happen in thoroughbred racing this year,” said Jeb Hannum, executive director of the Virginia Equine Alliance. “It’s really an extraordinary thing that’s happened. Not a lot of tracks are being revitalized in the United States.”

The revived venture is funded largely through the 1,450 slots-like gambling machines installed in Colonial Downs-operated casinos in New Kent County, Richmond and the town of Vinton in Roanoke County. The facilities — marketed under the brand Rosie’s — mainly offer historical horse racing machines, which resemble traditional slot machines but are powered by an archive of past horse races. The General Assembly voted to legalize the machines in 2018, but Colonial Downs is the only company licensed to operate them.

The Rosie’s facilities could potentially expand to include other types of gambling if state lawmakers choose to legalize full-blown casinos or sports betting.

In August, Colonial Downs saw slight dips in historical horse racing wagers at all three of its locations. The total amount wagered dropped from $142.8 million in July to $138.3 million in August, according to the company’s latest financial report, indicating some of the machines’ novelty may be wearing off.

The report shows that the profit from the machines — divided among the company, state and local governments and, eventually, the racing industry — rose from about $10 million in July to $10.6 million in August.

Several top Colonial Downs officials attended Tuesday’s news conference, but left before reporters could ask questions. Byrne deferred inquiries about the historical horse racing machines to officials who were no longer in the room.

After series of disputes, Trump ousts Bolton as national security adviser

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Audit: Staffing woes, long turnaround times plague Richmond's Permitting Center

Lost fees. Long delays. Employees buried under a growing workload they can’t handle.

These were among the findings of a new audit of Richmond’s Bureau of Permits and Inspections presented to the Richmond Audit Committee on Tuesday alongside more than two dozen potential improvements.

Many of the problems the audit identifies echo complaints from developers, contractors and residents who frequent what is called the permit center on the ground floor of City Hall. The findings in the report are also similar to issues raised a decade ago in the last top-to-bottom review the auditor’s office conducted of the center, which is responsible for issuing building permits for new construction and renovation projects, as well as conducting building inspections in the city limits.

“The problems that existed in 2009 still persist today,” said Andrew Clark, a lobbyist for the Home Builders Association of Virginia, a statewide organization with a Richmond branch that has been critical of the office’s performance.

“Amid a strong and growing local economy — and with several large economic development deals in the works — we can’t afford to neglect the challenges within this department.”

To start, the auditors found that the center was understaffed 86% of the time during the 12-month study period, resulting in longer wait times for customers visiting the office and longer turnaround times for permit applications in process. During the same period, the office issued 13,150 permits and conducted 45,577 inspections.

The center sets a goal to issue 70% of permits in a week. In a sample of 100 that the auditors reviewed, 64% were issued during that time frame. About 1 in 5 took more than 30 days to approve, the report states.

Sharon Ebert, the deputy chief administrative officer of economic development, has supervised the permit center since April, when Mayor Levar Stoney hired her to oversee its turnaround. Stoney also hired Jason Carangelo in July as the new building commissioner after parting ways with Carangelo’s predecessor, Doug Murrow, last year amid complaints about the office.

Ebert said staffing has not kept pace with the influx of new permit applications the office is receiving as development in the city has increased.

In particular, Ebert said retaining staff members is a challenge. Among employees who do stay, she said she has seen the workload take a toll.

“There’s burnout,” Ebert said. “A lot of the time our staff is calling out.”

That leaves the same amount of work for those who remain, and can worsen the backlog of applications and inspections requests.

On average, each of the office’s inspectors completed 11 inspections daily — but only if a supervisor also was handling a portion of the office’s workload. That average rose to 13 per day when a supervisor was not pitching in and the workload remained the same. During the busiest periods, some inspectors conducted more than 20 inspections per day, the auditors found.

“Due to the heavy workload, the inspectors may rush their inspection and miss observations that may result in poor or incomplete construction and safety issues,” the report stated.

Additionally, auditors found the office lost out on $138,000 during the period because it did not charge property owners fees to complete additional inspections more than 3,300 times. Ebert said the department has since begun billing for reinspections.

The auditors drilled down to a specific inspection type: elevators. The city hires a vendor to conduct the inspections that are required under state law. Once completed, the administration is responsible for billing building owners and issuing certificates of inspection.

The auditors discovered the office could not furnish a full list of the elevators it was responsible for inspecting. One list showed 1,555. A list the city’s vendor provided showed 1,520. The new computer system the office now uses shows 2,737.

Despite the discrepancy, Ebert told audit committee members that all inspections that were required had been conducted. The auditors present said that was not verified by documentation they reviewed.

The administration also failed to bill building owners for inspections over a three-year period beginning in 2016. The mistake cost the city more than $1 million during the period, the auditors stated. Ebert said the city had recouped $300,000 to date and is working to recover the rest.

The Stoney administration agreed to complete 28 of the auditors’ recommendations for improving the center’s operations and efficiency. Among those are properly tracking the number of elevators citywide, gauging permit review times more closely and adjusting staffing to meet goals.

After handing over documents on Coliseum plans, Stoney administration appeals Goldman FOIA decision to Virginia Supreme Court

A seemingly decided legal dispute between Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney’s administration and one of its most persistent critics could be headed to the Virginia Supreme Court, exasperating members of the City Council.

In June, a Richmond Circuit Court judge ordered the city to release documents tied to the $1.5 billion Coliseum redevelopment plan in response to a Freedom of Information Act request filed earlier this year. The Stoney administration first denied the FOIA request, then fought in court to keep the documents secret. It ultimately lost the case and agreed to release more than 2,000 records to Paul Goldman.

Seeking to overturn what it views as a misguided precedent that conflicts with existing case law, the Stoney administration filed a petition last week to appeal the Circuit Court’s order to the state’s highest court. News of the appeal caused a stir at the Richmond City Council meeting Monday, as council members expressed frustration that the mayor’s administration was pursuing it.

“I’m disappointed the administration would want to appeal something that’s already been adjudicated,” said Council Vice President Chris Hilbert. “When a FOIA case is decided, documents have already been turned over, the time for litigation is over.”

In a filing dated Sept. 5, a lawyer representing the Stoney administration acknowledged the administration had complied with the original order despite disputing the judge’s reasoning.

“The city acknowledges there exists no active controversy between the parties in this case. … Notwithstanding that the case appears moot, the city urges this court to grant this petition and consider the merits of the underlying dispute,” according to the filing.

A Stoney spokesman declined to comment on the filing, calling it “active litigation.”

Goldman is a former head of the Democratic Party of Virginia and, more recently, a former law partner of Joe Morrissey, a onetime political opponent of Stoney.

Goldman has tangled with Stoney on several occasions during his tenure as mayor. Goldman’s bid to obtain records about the massive downtown redevelopment plan coincided with a petition drive he led to put a question on the November ballot that could stymie the project. The general registrar found that the petition drive fell short, but Goldman is appealing the matter in Richmond Circuit Court.

Asked whether he thought the appeal was motivated by personal reasons, Goldman declined to answer, before saying: “It’s most unusual to appeal a moot case.”

In its filing, the administration lays out issues it said demonstrated how the Circuit Court ruling broke with existing case law.

The Stoney administration believed it could keep the documents secret under a carve-out in the state’s open records law that allows public bodies to withhold documents pertaining to ongoing negotiations. The discretionary exemption is aimed at protecting the bargaining position of the public body.

The Stoney administration applied the exemption to several FOIA requests that sought records about the project during the 18 months of closed-door talks between the city and NH District Corp., the group led by Dominion Energy CEO Tom Farrell II that submitted the plans.

The filing argues that by siding with Goldman, the Richmond Circuit Court weakened the exemption, an outcome that could lead to other localities having to disclose documents pertaining to ongoing negotiations.

“The issues presented in this case are very likely to recur, not just for the city, but other bodies subject to FOIA,” the city’s filing states. “There are and will be negotiations during which bodies desire to keep matters confidential.”

Another issue that arose during the case: The city had provided the same documents Goldman requested to the Richmond Times-Dispatch a year earlier. When Goldman requested them, the administration said it would cost $1,800 more than it charged the newspaper.

The Circuit Court ordered the city to give Goldman the documents it had provided the newspaper for an amount in line with what the newspaper paid. The judge pointed to the prior release as justification for his ruling.

The city objected to that rationale at the time and reiterated its stance in its appeal to the Supreme Court. The records first given to the newspaper were not vetted, the Stoney administration has said. Ordering the release of the same documents based on their prior release curtailed the city’s ability to decide which ones could be withheld under exemptions in the law, the administration’s filing states.

In an unusual move, Councilman Parker Agelasto on Monday dictated a resolution to the city clerk midmeeting stating the council’s “displeasure” with the appeal. The full council suspended its rules to add the resolution to its agenda, then endorsed it as a part of its consent agenda.

Agelasto said the appeal is a waste of money. He sharply criticized City Attorney Allen Jackson, a council appointee, for not notifying the council of the appeal prior to Monday. After the original decision in June, the council held a closed session on the matter and walked away with the impression the matter was settled, he said.

“We are expending city taxpayer dollars every day on hiring our own people or external lawyers to litigate something that the council doesn’t think should be litigated,” Agelasto said.

A hearing is not yet set in the matter.