Petersburg’s Other Fiasco


Petersburg City Hall

by James A. Bacon

Poor Petersburg. The economically depressed Southside city of 32,000 serves as a vivid warning of just about everything that can go wrong for a local government in Virginia. Not only is the city running a massive General Fund budget deficit, it is falling millions of dollars behind in the collection of revenues for its water system.

The heart of the problem is a botched rollout of a meter-reading system that was pitched as a low-risk way for the city to overhaul its aging infrastructure without a tax increase. The city contracted with systems-controls giant Johnson Controls to install meters that would transmit usage figures electronically, obviating the need to send employees door to door to collect the numbers. Supposedly, the overhaul would pay for itself through more accurate readings and personnel reductions.

But something went wrong. First, the $3.9 million project experienced overruns of $1.4 million, bringing the final cost to $5.3 million. Second, it didn’t work properly. A year and a half later, surely enough time to work out the kinks, some people are reporting that they haven’t received water bills for months, while others say they have been billed too often, sometimes to the tune of thousands of dollars.

City officials blame the vendor, Johnson Controls. Yesterday City Council voted to hire an outside attorney to pursue litigation against the company to seek remedy, and has asked for assistance from the Virginia State Police.

While it is possible that Johnson Controls bungled the installation of the meters (Full disclosure: I own 400 shares of Johnson Controls stock), the City of Petersburg’s track record and evidence in the Richmond Times-Dispatch’s reporting of the story suggest that the city itself might have contributed to the problem.

First, the article mentions that more than a fifth of the cost overrun came from a $300,000 change order the year after the contract signed. No mention of whether there might have been other change orders.

Second, the contract was negotiated by then-City Manager William E. Johnson III, under whose watch the city’s General Fund plunged into such chaos that City Council fired him. If his oversight of city books was dismal, the same might well have been true for his oversight of the contract.

Third, it’s not clear from published accounts that the billing problem can even be traced to the meters. Meters report water usage; they do not send out billing statements. Perhaps the billing problem arose from the integration of the meters with the billing process. If so, responsibility gets murky. A successful launch of the system would have required collaboration between Johnson Controls and the city administration.

Fourth, Mayor W. Howard Myers admitted that he and other council members were unaware that the project had experienced cost overruns, or that city administrators had approved Johnson Controls’ work months after the system went live and residents had began complaining about faulty billing. This is the same mayor who declared, after being informed that the city had closed the year with a 20% deficit, “I had no idea. I’m like, wow, where is this coming from?” This is not a mayor who is on top of things, and if he blames the vendor for the mayhem, there is no reason to take his appraisal very seriously.

Fifth, in February, Myers hired Paul Goldman, law partner of former state Del. Joseph Morrissey, to investigate the matter at the rate of $330 per hour. But the city terminated the contract before Goldman could complete his job — more money down the drain. (I would conjecture that Goldman couldn’t finish the job because he found the matter to be an indecipherable morass that would take far more time than anyone had initially imagined.)

The business of government is complicated — and getting ever more so. I admire the everyday citizens who dedicate their time to running for office, helping constituents and overseeing government. They don’t get paid enough for what they do. But many of them, especially in smaller jurisdictions, are ill equipped to master the complexities of the job. Frankly, it’s a wonder we don’t see more fiascos like Petersburg’s.

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3 responses to “Petersburg’s Other Fiasco

  1. well looks like other govt is doing the same… and perhaps better as Henrico appears to be one of the better run counties in Virginia.

    Can’t blame other jurisdictions for wanting to save money but these kinds of upgrades are almost never stand-alone and if they interface with existing business processes – then the county staff is also on the hook to make it work and I suspect Henrico has more staff folks “on the ball”.

    I think what this proves is that Govt actually does try to be more efficient and lower costs – and many more do it successfully than fail.

    but just like companies – some govt is well run, frugal, cost-effective and some is not and corporate culture, professional standards, etc.. play a role.

    I prefer to look at Henrico as representative of what govt can accomplish rather than at Petersburg to cite examples of failures but even Henrico probably has some snafus and skeletons ….

    Oh – and I note (I think) that Henrico turned this whole thing over to a private sector company… and yes.. new software was needed.

  2. James-

    I cannot thank you enough for following the issues of the City of Petersburg. Myself and a few others founded a community “watchdog” group called Clean Sweep Petersburg. It started out as a midnight chat on Facebook with my friend and neighbor Barb Rudolph. We had been discussing the recent and past “mishaps” of our city on another Petersburg-related FB group page. Unfortunately, if the admin did not agree with or if a participant had anything negative to say about this admin, he would delete the posts, then deny deleting them, claiming FB had removed them! Thus the FB page Clean Sweep Petersburg was created. Our mission statement is “This group is a forum for Petersburg citizens, and friends of the city, who seek to shed sunshine on the conduct of Petersburg city government. Our #1 goal is to encourage well-informed and activist citizens committed to rescuing our city from its current decline. We are fearless in our resolve to clean up city government, unencumbered by political or personal agendas. We collectively demand honest, effective, responsive and transparent city leadership. While we don’t adhere to the “wait for change, be patient and it will come” counsel some offer, we do respect the laws of the city and the commonwealth.” The group now has 652 members, started in February of this year.

    We were pleasantly surprised by the extreme interest in a censor-free location to discuss, complain, educate, whine and reveal events going on. We have been publicly shamed by the local paper (if you want to classify it as a paper), The Progress Index. A few citizens have written fairly harsh letters to the editor in opposition to our efforts to educate the citizens and expose the wrong doings of our leadership.

    The Mayor and former City Attorney even tried to stifle Ms. Rudolph, co-founder of CSP, by violating her constitutional rights, they sent a letter to her employer stating she was using State email during business hours to harass the city council. When in reality she was only asking for answers, answers that the council should (if competent) have had readily available, or should have supplied in a reasonable time. Instead she was greeted by her boss with a retaliatory email from the Petersburg City Attorney and Mayor to her employer in an effort to have her disciplined and discredited.

    Thankfully, her boss (an attorney too) recognized that Ms. Rudolph was in compliance with state policy regarding incidental use of the internet, plus her email to council was sent at 6:30 am, outside of state work hours. Barb’s employer cited Va. Code 2.2-3103(10) which provides that no officer or employee of a state or local government may use his public position to retaliate against any person for expressing views on matters of public concern (I believe we have plenty of legit concerns) or for exercising any right that is otherwise protected by law. He closed the letter with: “I will leave it up to you to decide whether you believe the City’s response to the individual’s questioning of City Council furthers the spirit of this rule.”

    Recently at our city council meeting on July 19th, Ms. Rudolph during public comment period mentioned this letter, the mayor nearly jumped out his seat and insisted that her time was up, yelling at her “if you want to have an argument we can do that right here, let me make this clear – Do not come before me and the public and tell a lie” the crowd yelled back at him asking what the lie was and he said “I think she very well knows!” – I encourage you all to watch this disturbing YouTube video of the mayor in action- the first part is Ms. Rudolph addressing council and at the end his blatant display of – well frankly I do not even know what to call it. As Myers walked out of the meeting he glared at us with a “if looks could kill” face, then acrimoniously in a low tone said, “Liar”.

    Myers claims that he never told former city attorney Telfair to write the letter. The email from Rudolph to council did not include Telfair, so how did he learn of the email in the first place? The letter from the city clearly states from Telfair on behalf of Myers. Telfair has denied that he acted solely on his own recourse, asserting that he was simply following what he was directed to do by Myers, his employer. Myers not only declared Rudolph a liar publicly. He also tried to intimidate us after the meeting. I hope that you will take a look at our FB page, Clean Sweep Petersburg, in your spare time and read about the many other disturbing goings on within the city. One of our top goals is to get as much outside public attention as possible.

    A short highlighted summary of Myers’ glorious events.

    Taped, without permission a private communication with State Senator Dance, where he publicly accuses her of threatening him.

    Based on his direction to bar a citizen from speaking at a council meeting, last year the city was sued by the ACLU, causing the city to publicly condemned and fined for violating the Constitutional rights of the citizens. (Linwood Christian)

    Involved in shady land sales, notably the selling of public property, to close friends and family. In one case, deliberately did not disclose the relationship of the proposed purchaser, ultimately resulting in a significant profit to the purchaser (Myers longtime partner) and ultimately a Richmond developer that has a silver spoon issued by the City of Petersburg.

    Invented threats to avoid an angry public by canceling a city council meeting, that he knew would attract hundreds of citizens upset about the water billing fiasco. The so-called threat was so “bad”, that he only informed one other council person, causing the rest of the council members to show up.

    Most recently he has sued his previous employer, Virginia Supportive Housing, a partner in a “quasi-governmental partnership” with the City of Petersburg and The Freedom Support Center. He alleged they thought he was “too black” because he wore a hoody and jeans to a meeting And claimed racial discrimination. (Virginia Supportive Housing places homeless people in housing)

    Falsified his education credentials, denying it, and ultimately admitting publicly he does not have a high school diploma. Yet claims to have completed his GED (this has not been confirmed) and was awarded (this is one of my favs!), an Honorary Associates Degree from Centura!

    Repeatedly exceeded his authority (which is no different than other city council member’s, other than he performs some ceremonial functions and chairs meeting) by acting unilaterally including making legal commitments, scheduling meetings, determining committee memberships, etc., without consulting with all of his colleagues.

    If you do not live here and have not witnessed this upfront, you would never believe all of this and more! I grew up in DC during the Mayor Marion Berry circus. I would classify that as a three ring circus and this as a 6 ring circus!

    Again, thank you so much for shedding light on our issues and I hope you will continue to do so.

    Gina Harrison, Clean Sweep Petersburg

    • Gina, Petersburg is in desperate need of help. I invite Clean Sweep Petersburg to use Bacon’s Rebellion as a forum for advancing your goals of holding city officials accountable. If you’re interested, call me at (804) 873-1543 to discuss. Jim

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