Post #1096: Sue them

Posted on April 5, 2021

A lot of decision-making in the Town of Vienna just seems to wander around, until it stops.

I think the Robinson estate bequest for sidewalks is a perfect example. I gave up on this one a year ago.  But I need something to post about, and so I thought I might revisit it.

For those who are unaware of this, former Town Council member Maud Robinson left $7M (now reportedly grown to $9M) to Vienna, for the purpose of building sidewalks.  But with a five-year time limit.  Of which, I think at least two years may have already elapsed.

Let me start with where this has ended up.

As I understand it, among the places the Town has prioritized for possible sidewalk construction, using this new source of funding, is Circle Drive.  It’s a tiny cul-de-sac with four houses on it.

Here are two view, via Google Street View:


In any normal town, where there were lots of roads with no sidewalks, you’d have to say, what a bizarre choice.  Why would you prioritize what appears to be a completely safe little four-house cul-de-sac?

In fact, at least one person affected by this has said exactly that.  Why on earth would you make this a sidewalk priority?

But in the Town of Vienna, when granted millions of dollars for sidewalks, and with streets that really could use them, prioritizing this little cul-de-sac makes perfect sense.  Because it’s the Town of Vienna.

In fact, the first street segments to be designated for sidewalks under this initiative weren’t even chosen by the Town, they were chosen by the estate’s executor.  Which, judging from the reaction that got from the Town’s lawyer when that was announced, probably isn’t strictly legal (Post #532).  But that’s how it goes.  Within the context of how the Town of Vienna operates, that makes perfect sense as well.

(And just to show where that’s gone, more than a year after Town Council gave approval, work hadn’t even started on the ones the executor chose.  Or, at least, not Plum Street, which is the one within easiest walking distance of my house (Post #1056).  )

So, how does this make sense?

First, based on all public-facing statements (e.g., anything you’d hear at a Town Council meeting) the bequest was structured so that the Town could not spend the money on anything but the sidewalk.  No curb, no gutter, no drainage.  Just literally the flat thing you walked on.  Further, the bequest was only for new sidewalks, meaning that anything that really desperately needed a sidewalk, as was on some plan, somewhere, slated to get a sidewalk sometime, was off-limits.

The problem is, that’s not actually true.  All of that — no curb, no gutter, and so on  — all of that was the interpretation of the estate executor.  None of that is actually in Maud Robinson’s bequest itself.

And so, it was the estate’s executor who came up with that “Merchant of Venice” interpretation of the bequest, in that the Town could have its pound of flesh, but not one drop of blood.  Which, when you get right down to it, is an interpretation that basically thwarts using the money for sidewalks, to build sidewalks. And the Town, in classic form, did not meaningfully contest that, perhaps because the executor is a Town insider, being a former Town Council member.

And, equally unfathomable to me, the Town refuses to spend any of its own money on this.  This, from a Town that just borrowed $35M (or was it $25M?) in its last bond issuance, making about 7.5M in not-previously-disclosed land purchase out of that.  (But, aha, that finally explains the oddball $7M extra that they borrowed — so those land purchase were probably already in the works when the did the bond issuance).

And so, the Town is effectively scraping the bottom of the barrel to find streets that have curb and gutter, but not sidewalk.  And so, instead of any rational set of priorities — we end up with Circle Drive.

Now, I would not know any of this — about the bequest not actually limiting what the Town could do, about the Circle Drive being on the list — had I not gotten an earful about it from one of the Town Council candidates, David Patariu.  He’s a lawyer, and member of the Planning Commission, and so far, he’s the only one in the Town government from whom I have heard a sensible plan for using the Robinson estate money.

Here’s Patariu’s plan:  Sue them.  Sue the trust, to get a court to compel a less restrictive interpretation of the language of the estate document.  Apparently, this is something that gets done routinely.  So his plan is prevent the executor of the estate from adding all those restrictions that are not actually in the bequest document.  Then use the unrestricted funds to build sidewalks where they are most needed, not where there by chance happens to be curb and gutter already in place.

That sounded rational to me.  But this is the Town of Vienna, so I don’t think that’s going to happen.

As I said, we tend to do decision-making-by-wandering-around.  And now you know why, in the context of Town of Vienna decision-making, Circle Drive is one of the streets where the Town would now like to put a sidewalk.

In linear fashion:  A former Town Council member made a bequest to build sidewalks, the executor imposed numerous onerous restrictions on the use of those funds, the Town would not meaningfully protest those but instead accepted them at face value, nor would the Town spend its own money to work around those restrictions, so the list of possible streets is limited to those with curb and gutter but not slated to have sidewalks any time soon, and of those, Circle Drive is one.  Even though it clearly doesn’t need a sidewalk.

And the upshot?  A revered former Town Council member cared enough about the Town to dedicate her estate to the construction of much-needed sidewalks in Vienna.  And when the dust settles, we end up using the money to try to prioritize a street that nobody thinks needs a sidewalk.

It all makes perfect sense.

In all fairness, even in the Town of Vienna, I’d be surprised if the Town actually went through with putting in a sidewalk there.  Instead, we’ll just forfeit the funds. We’ll build no sidewalk, rather than useless sidewalk.  I think the Town is at least that rational.  I think.