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GRTC CEO shared distaste for sports betting ads before suspension of advertising program over legal concerns

An advertising company executive is questioning the timing of GRTC’s decision to suspend its entire advertising program last month, days after the transit company’s CEO privately shared her dislike for sports betting ads that have been on buses this fall.

The GRTC Board of Directors voted last month to suspend the advertising program based on concerns company officials said they had about litigation in federal court challenging public transit bans on political messages. Many ads will remain on GRTC buses for a few more months as the transit agency says it will honor contracts that have already been inked. The decision, however, prevents the approval of new ad buys.

A few days before the vote, GRTC employees, including CEO Julie Timm, in a private Facebook group shared their disapproval of the large Caesars Sportsbook advertisements on the side of one-third of the transit system’s 140 buses, according to screenshots anonymously sent to officials at Media Transit Inc., a third-party company that arranges advertising sales for GRTC and other transit agencies across Virginia.

Projected advertising revenue covers about 1% of GRTC’s $63.2 million annual operating budget, but the suspension comes as the transit company is struggling with a labor shortage and seeking to maintain a zero-fare policy for its passengers, which would require additional local and state government funding once federal COVID-19 relief runs dry.

“They just don’t seem to appreciate that those are private dollars, not tax dollars,” said Tim Brazil, vice president of Media Transit. “There’s absolutely no reason to suspend the advertising program and all the revenue that comes with it.”

The Caesars ad campaign generates about $25,000 in monthly revenue, Brazil said.

“I agree. I hate those ads,” Timm commented in reply to someone who posted a picture of a bus with the Caesars Sportsbook ad, which features entertainer J.B. Smoove dressed as an ancient Roman emperor in a green and gold costume.

The advertisements, which have also appeared on other transit agency buses throughout the state, according to Brazil, is part of a national advertising campaign for the mobile sports betting application and its loyalty rewards program.

A GRTC spokesperson verified the screenshots that Media Transit shared with the Richmond Times-Dispatch, but denied that Timm or any other employee’s personal feelings about Caesars influenced her recommendation to suspend the entire advertising program.

“Ms. Timm has been very clear no employee’s position on the content of any advertising campaign will have any bearing on the acceptance and installation of that advertising campaign on GRTC assets,” said GRTC spokeswoman Carrie Rose Pace in an email last week in response to questions about Timm’s comments on social media.

Timm said in an interview last month that GRTC officials had been considering changes to the system’s advertising policy for several months before the October vote.

Timm said she proposed the suspension as the transit company remains in litigation over a 2017 lawsuit filed by the White Coat Waste Project, a Washington-based nonprofit and taxpayer watchdog that says GRTC unlawfully rejected its request to place an ad about animal testing at McGuire Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Richmond.

GRTC’s two-page advertising policy, adopted in 2018, says its buses or vehicles are not meant to be a “public forum for dissemination, debate, or discussion of public issues.”

In a letter to the GRTC Board of Directors, Media Transit said no other Virginia transit agencies have abandoned their advertising programs, even as other high-profile cases regarding transit advertising are still being fought in federal court.

“This is a complex issue. There’s a lot around it,” Timm said in a GRTC board meeting earlier this month, addressing the letter. “My feelings around advertising aside, there’s a large opportunity for us and a large risk we are considering.”

“This has been fully vetted through our attorney and we are continuing to do things in a proactive way to try and address both the revenue issues as well as legal issues, especially with our policy.”

Board member Ben Campbell was the only other official to comment on the letter, saying that GRTC and the board are committed to their legal responsibilities and developing a new advertising policy.

“This vendor is free to put out anything they want to put out publicly, but we are not at liberty to discuss much of what needs to be said behind the scenes,” he said.

GRTC employees, according to the screenshots obtained by Media Transit, also talked about adopting policies to limit how much ad space a single company can buy, noting the possibility of more gambling ads if Richmond voters approved the One Casino and Resort in the Nov. 2 referendum.

The casino is no longer being considered for Richmond after the project failed to pass earlier this month, but Rose Pace said GRTC had rejected an advertising campaign for it earlier in the year, citing its ban on political messages.

Brazil also raised concerns about GRTC violating its policy with the Freedom Constellations art wrap installed on one of the system’s buses last month.

Brazil said he thinks it violates the company’s ban on political messages because two nonprofit organizations associated with it, RISE for Youth and Performing Statistics, are involved in activism focused on the criminal justice system, youth and racial equity. The wrap features images of young artists and activists along with messages that read: “We dream of a world where all youth are free. We can love ourselves.”

Two large banners with similar imagery and messages are hanging from Richmond City Hall as part of the public art project.

Rose Pace said the Freedom Constellations bus wrap is not advertising but rather a community-oriented message that GRTC sponsored for $5,000. The wrap is expected to remain until next fall, she said. “It is intended to be one of a small series of wraps that reflect the values of GRTC and community messaging.”

There’s no concrete timeline for when advertising sales will resume, but a few board members said they want to bring it back as soon as possible.

Brazil said the Caesars advertising campaign will end on Dec. 26.

The Turkey Bowl provided an afternoon of food, football and fun for the Mosby Court community

On Thursday afternoon, 4-year-old Laila Washington begged her godsister to take her to the football fields behind Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School so she could eat some Thanksgiving turkey.

Laila and Kh’Asia Mosley not only found tables of food, but also of donated winter coats and books waiting to go home with them and other children at the Turkey Bowl.

The event, hosted by former Mosby Court residents, had football games, a free holiday dinner and a coat and book giveaway. It is one of several events being offered to provide Mosby Court children with fun and constructive opportunities.

Demetrius Williams along with his friend Kevin Harris, both of whom grew up in Mosby Court, have wanted to organize neighborhood events for kids for the better part of a year. This past summer, after teaming up with Von Johnson, another Mosby native who has mentored young children for years, events started happening.

Johnson, who was in charge of the DJ station on Thursday, said events like the Turkey Bowl are important for children.

“Because we know how easy it is to get into trouble out here if you have nothing to do,” Johnson said. “The kids don’t deserve that life.”

They have distributed about 200 donated backpacks to children in September followed by holding a Halloween “Trunk or Treat” candy event at the MLK Middle School track, where more than 300 kids showed up and received treats.

The organizers of the Turkey Bowl are planning to continue the monthly events. A holiday toy drive is being organized for Christmas, with ideas to have job training and instruction on life skills events in the future.

Williams, 29, who goes by his middle name, My’Tay, remembers the Turkey Bowl used to be a big annual event when he attended in his late teen years.

Thursday’s Turkey Bowl was an afternoon of food, football, music and community gathering.

There were turkeys being deep-fried in peanut oil, plus another oven-cooked turkey, a ham and a slew of Thanksgiving sides, including yams, string beans, seafood mac and cheese, traditional mac and cheese, rolls, salad, fruit, desserts, hot chocolate, apple cider and water. That food was donated.

Food Lion also donated boxes of canned goods for families to take home.

More than 100 winter coats of all sizes, hats, gloves, scarves and some pants, shorts and T-shirts were given out to children.

Laila, who loves unicorns, not only found a coat with a unicorn on its hood but also unicorn gloves and a hat.

Children also went home with free books from the Fountain for Youth Foundation. Tables of chapter books, beginner reading books and colorful picture books were available.

For the past five years, Hassan Fountain of the Fountain for Youth Foundation has opened 18 libraries in the community centers of subsidized housing communities including Mosby Court.

Fountain, the son of an educator, noticed that when children were coming from school in Gilpin Court, another subsidized housing community, they weren’t going inside to do schoolwork. Instead, they were staying outside.

Fountain remembers as a child first doing his schoolwork before spending the rest of the evening outside, playing with friends. He wanted to make sure the children in Gilpin Court and others were also getting their homework done. He opened the first community library in Gilpin Court, eventually expanding elsewhere in Richmond as well as to Halifax and to Oxford, N. C.

Angela Lane, Williams’ grandmother, came from Albany, N.Y., to support her grandson’s event Thursday afternoon.

“I’m proud of him. He’s a good kid, a decent man and a great father,” Lane said as she handed out donated stuffed animals and small toys to children.

Thanksgiving is a day to be thankful for what you have, Lane said. But she added, “If you don’t have nothing, be thankful you got up this morning. Not everyone does.”

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Maintenance workers locked out of DuPont plant in Chesterfield after union negotiations stall; some members of Congress are concerned

About 95 employees of DuPont Co.’s Spruance plant in Chesterfield County have been locked out of work by the company for more than a month after negotiations over a new union contract stalled.

The labor disagreement has prompted concern from some members of Congress because the products made at the plant are considered vital to national interests.

The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, or IBEW, described the control equipment technician employees as skilled electrical and instrumentation professionals who perform maintenance on machines that manufacture three of the key products produced at the Spruance plant: Kevlar, Nomex and Tyvek.

Kevlar is a high-strength but lightweight material used in products such as bullet-resistant vests and automotive components.

Nomex is a heat-resistant material used in clothing worn by firefighters.

Tyvek is a water and microbial-resistant material used in a variety of applications, including protective personal garments worn by first responders and medical professionals, packaging for medical products, and protective insulation for housing.

DuPont and the union may return to the bargaining table on Dec. 2, according to a union representative.

“It has had a severe economic impact on these employees,” said Neil F. Gray, a regional representative in Virginia for the IBEW. “These employees are highly skilled and they are well-compensated, but many of them have been forced to find other employment.”

Negotiations started in August for a new three-year contract, Gray said. The initial contract was extended but then expired on Oct. 7 without an agreement. The lockout started the next day, and employees have been without pay since Oct. 11, Gray said.

Among the issues in the negotiations are the union’s request for 5% pay raises for the employees each of the next three years, while the company asked for concessions on overtime pay and more management power in the future contract, according to the union.

“Throughout this time, we have been bargaining in good faith with the IBEW to reach a mutually beneficial agreement,” DuPont said in a statement sent by a spokesperson on Wednesday.

“Unfortunately, we do not have a contract and are disappointed that this matter remains unresolved,” the company said. “To ensure our people and site continue to operate safely, we made the difficult decision to lockout IBEW-represented employees at the site. We remain committed to reaching an agreement with the IBEW as soon as possible that is beneficial to our employees, our site, our business, and our community for the long term.”

In the absence of the maintenance technicians, the company said it is using “experienced and trained contractors” to perform the maintenance roles.

Gray said a mediator with the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service has been involved in negotiations.

The lockout prompted 17 members of Congress to send a letter on Nov. 5 to DuPont Co. Chairman and CEO Edward D. Breen and IBEW President Lonnie Stephenson, urging the parties to work toward an agreement.

Among the Congress members who signed the letter was U.S. Rep. Donald McEachin, D-4th.

“We hope the parties’ contract issues will be successfully resolved in a good-faith bargaining process,” the letter said. “As elected representatives, we believe a good-faith opportunity to hammer out a mutually beneficial contract is in the best interests of everyone involved.”