Jan 6, 2021 • 14M

January 6, 2021: Virginia public safety panel recommends elimination of mandatory minimum sentences; Charlottesville Tree Commission prepares for 2021

 
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Regular updates of what's happening in local and regional government in and around Charlottesville, Virginia from an award-winning journalist with nearly thirty years of experience.
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Today’s Patreon-fueled shout-out comes from an anonymous supporter who wants to remind you once again that "We keep each other safe. Wear a mask, wash your hands, and keep your distance."

On today’s show:

  • Another one-day record for COVID-19 cases in Virginia and the Blue Ridge Health District

  • The Virginia State Crime Commission votes 9-2 to recommend eliminating mandatory minimum sentences

  • An update from Charlottesville Tree Commission 

  • The Chesapeake Bay Foundation gives a D+ to the estuary’s water qualityx


Virginia has set another one-day record for COVID-19 cases reported by the Virginia Department of Health, with 5,387 today. The seven-day average for positive tests has increased to 16.7 percent. That number was 10.6 percent on December 6, when the impacts of the Thanksgiving holiday began to show up in the data. 

The post-Christmas surge is reflected in the Blue Ridge Health District which also sets a new record with 193 cases today. That’s 64 cases in Albemarle, 46 in Charlottesville, 26 in Fluvanna, 16 in Greene, 37 in Louisa, and 4 in Nelson. There are no deaths reported today. 

Today, the Blue Ridge Health District will begin administering vaccines at the new location set up at the former KMart at the intersection of Hydraulic Road and U.S. 29. 

“We anticipate 8,000+ people in Phase 1A and will be vaccinating hundreds this week and expanding clinics next week to keep increasing capacity for vaccinating as many people as possible,” said Kathryn Goodman, communications manager in the district. “At our greatest capacity in the Kmart location, we will have 18 nurses vaccinating people in 10 minute appointments from 9am-4:30pm multiple times per week.” 

Goodman said that guidelines for Phase 1B and Phase 1C will be released later this week. Governor Ralph Northam will address Virginia at 2 p.m today. 

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Democrats have held on to two seats in the General Assembly in special elections held yesterday. In the 2nd District race to replace Jennifer Carroll Foy, Democrat Candi King defeated Republican Heather Mitchell 4,386 votes to 4,123 votes, or 51.4 percent to 48.4 percent. In the 90th District, Democrat Angelia Williams Graves won by a more comfortable margin against Republican Sylvia Marie Bryant. Graves got 63.5 percent of the vote to Bryant’s 36.4 percent. That race was to replace Joe Lindsey, who resigned to become a judge. 

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At recording time, Charlottesville City Council is holding an emergency meeting in closed session. The meeting comes a day after news broke that the firm Ralph Andersen and Associates has stopped work on a search for a new city manager.  Let’s hear the call to that meeting from Councilor Heather Hill. 

The official call cites the discussion states it will be for “‘discussion or consideration of one or more prospective candidates for City Council,” “discussion of a public contract involving the expenditure of public funds,” “discussion or consideration of the performance of one or more city councilors,” and consultation with legal council about one or all of the above. 

But that meeting will not be Charlottesville’s first meeting of 2021. That honor goes to the Tree Commission which met yesterday to discuss several items and get updates. One of them was an update on the PLACE Design Task Force, a group created by a previous City Council in March 2012 to advise Council on urban design issues. That body has been pondering its existence, and here’s Mark Rylander, who serves on both PLACE and the Tree Commission.

“The last few meetings have consisted of strategizing among ourselves how to best be useful,” Rylander said. “PLACE was originally charged with reporting to Council and now is sort of under the [Neighborhood Development Services] umbrella which means that without sort of more assertive planning by PLACE itself, as a group it will sort of morph into an advisory body that chases after whatever NDS wants them to look at.” 

In November, Parag Agrawal accepted an offer to be the new director of Neighborhood Development Services, but he decided instead to take a similar job in Prince William County,  according to the Daily Progress.

This year, Council will need to decide what to do with the West Main Streetscape, a project conceived of in 2012 at the request of PLACE members at the time to replace an earlier conceptual design for a street that had been anticipated to see several large buildings constructed. Now, the project has a cost estimate of tens of millions at a time when the city is coming close to its debt capacity. 

“It’s becoming apparent that maybe the city can’t afford everything that was planned for the West Main Street project, and it’s a sensitive topic because a lot of work has gone into it, but that’s potentially what PLACE will be working on,” Rylander said.  

The Tree Commission also discussed their annual report, which will unveil the percentage of the city’s land mass covered by trees, a term known as the “tree canopy.” Higher levels of tree canopy can reduce heat in urban communities and the Tree Commission is working to educate the public on this point, especially as the city works on a climate action plan.

“This Commission really sees its mission as having fully evolved, not beyond its charge, but that we are looking things beyond aesthetics and beauty and even just tree types, that we really are undertaking larger issues,” said Brian Menard, the commission’s chair. 

Menard noted that the Tree Commission celebrated its 10th anniversary, and that the Commission is poised to be part of the conversations on social justice and climate change. The report will be presented to the Council at their meeting on January 19. 

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A 13-member body that makes recommendations on public safety policy has voted 9-2 to advise the state government to remove laws that require judges to incarcerate people for a minimum period of time. Before their vote, the Virginia State Crime Commission was briefed on the topic and learned that there are 224 distinct offenses that require mandatory minimum sentences, 162 of which are felonies and 62 are misdemeanors. (agenda)

The idea had the support of Fairfax’s Deputy Public Defender, Andy Elders. He gave several reasons why he thought all mandatory minimum sentences in Virginia should be abolished.

“The first is that the threat of mandatory minimum sentences distorts our legal process,” Elders said. “Jury trials in Virginia are now extraordinarily rare and in 2019 as we discussed during the special session last year, only 1.3 percent of criminal convictions come from jury trials. One of the reasons for that is because a prosecutor can threaten a five or ten year mandatory minimum in some cases or even life, while simultaneously offering a shorter sentence as part of a plea agreement. The effect on the accused is overwhelming.”  

Elders said there is no evidence that mandatory minimums have reduced crime. However Delegate Les Adams (R-16), said that data is inconclusive and he voted against a motion for the commission to recommend elimination of mandatory minimums for all 224 offense until there was more study.

“To give it sort of the imprimatur of the Commission, I don’t know if that’s appropriate,” Adams said. “I don’t see how elimination of the mandatory minimum sentence would be something that would gain widespread support by our colleagues in the House and Senate.” 

The other vote against the motion was from Norfolk Police Chief Larry Boone, who was opposed to dropping mandatory minimums for assaults on law enforcement officers. 

“In our current environment that we’ve gone through in the last six months or so,  though I have not done the research, I would suspect that assault on law enforcement has probably gone up,” Boone said. 

The next step is for bills to be filed in the General Assembly to turn the recommended changes into law. The General Assembly session  convenes on January 13. 

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A non-profit organization that monitors the ecological health of the Chesapeake Bay has released its annual report and has given another D+ grade. Will Baker is the president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. 

“The Chesapeake Bay system is still dangerously out of balance but there is hope for improvement as pollution levels decline and the dead zone retreats,” Baker said. The dead zone refers to an area where there is no oxygen and thus no aquatic of plant life. 

Six states and the District of Columbia are under a deadline to significantly reduce pollution and improve water quality by 2025 in a process known as the TMDL (Total Maximum Daily Load). In Virginia, that requires all localities to significantly reduce levels of nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment that enter waterways. Locally, that includes investments such as $48 million to upgrade the Moores Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant, a project completed in 2012. 

“The current D+ is a sober reminder that the road ahead remains steep and the clock is ticking,” Baker said.  He said Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, West Virginia and D.C. have all made advances, but Pennsylvania and New York are not on track to meet their goals. (full report)

Albemarle continues to address the issue and will soon kick off the second phase of an initiative to improve stream health with community meetings on January 21 and January 22. Learn more about the county’s efforts here

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Today in meetings, the Albemarle Board of Supervisors meets at 1 p.m. and the Fluvanna Board of Supervisors meets at 4 p.m. Details on both can be found in the Week Ahead newsletter that went out on Sunday. 

One small correction. I had reported that Charlottesville City Council would have a joint work session with the Charlottesville Planning