The Virginian-Pilot © June 12, 2007
Here are two words we ought to hear from Norfolk City Council but probably won’t: “We’re sorry.”
Sorry for our arrogant attitudes.
Sorry for our profoundly undemocratic instincts.
Sorry for wasting thousands of tax dollars in a heavy-handed effort to stifle the taxpayers.
Perhaps you heard that the Bay Oaks Park Committee – armed with nothing more than an excellent pro bono lawyer and a righteous cause – won a decisive victory Friday in the Virginia Supreme Court over the city and its silk-stocking attorneys.
The commonwealth’s highest court ruled that the petition drive to put the future of a chunk of East Ocean View land to a vote was legal after all.
Game, set and match to the citizens.
In the end, what played out in Norfolk was a heartening morality tale. A case of the little people against the power brokers.
Populism against paternalism.
At the center of the bitter battle are 21 acres dotted with oak trees near the bay, the sort of undeveloped parcel that makes developers salivate.
Two years ago, the City Council cleared the way for the Redevelopment and Housing Authority – I give thanks daily we don’t have such a body in Virginia Beach – to litter the land with about 85 houses.
A band of underfunded but determined citizens tried a seldom-used petition process – a people’s veto, actually – to force the council’s decision to a vote.
The underlying issue was whether most of the land would be a sprawling neighborhood park or just another housing development with about eight or nine acres of park land. The petition asked the courts to set a referendum to address the council’s actions.
When City Council members got wind of the grass-roots movement, they were shocked and offended. Scared, too.
No matter what they say publicly, the politicians clearly feared they’d lose at the ballot box.
To keep that from happening, City Hall set its lawyers to work looking for legal loopholes and technical flaws in the petitions. Anything to keep the issue away from the voters.
“Is that the role of city government?” asked Andrew Sacks, the Norfolk lawyer who represented the citizens. “To spend several hundred thousand dollars when all the citizens wanted was to be heard?”
Good question, counselor. The answer is no.
When I talked to Mayor Paul Fraim on Monday, he predicted that in light of the high court’s ruling, the council would act quickly to reverse its 2005 zoning ordinances, which would render the court-ordered referendum “moot.”
“No one wants that sort of divisive” action, he said.
After fighting the city for almost two years, Sacks said Monday that Norfolk officials have a tendency to behave with what he calls “benevolent despotism.”
“There’s a severe disconnect between the government and the people it serves,” he said.
Sacks, incidentally, represented the Bay Oaks folks essentially for free. He charged them just 90 bucks for some copying costs.
By contrast, The Pilot reported Saturday that Norfolk spent at least $140,000 on outside lawyers to fight the folks who brought perfectly legal petitions to the city. That figure may rise as legal bills are tallied.
It was institutional arrogance that fueled Norfolk’s misguided – and hugely expensive – attempt to silence its critics.
Time to apologize.
News researcher Kimberly Kent contributed to this column.
Kerry, (757) 446-2306,
Posted By Valerie Garner