This Election beat reporter spotted 26th District Virginia State Senator Mark Obenshain mingling at the Warren County Republican Committee table in front of the Warren County Government Center Tuesday afternoon. Our professional relationship goes back to Obenshain’s initial run for state elective office – could it possibly be 17 years ago in 2003?
After a check with election officials inside, we caught up with our state senator on his way to his car to ask his perspective on Election Day 2020, and how busy he stays in his district on any Election Day even if he isn’t on the ballot that year – this isn’t the first time we caught him in Front Royal on an Election Day with or without his name on the ballot.
“I do every Election Day,” he said of district-wide precinct hopping. “It’s good to swing through and see what’s going on; thank the people who are working the polls all over the district. And today’s a lot nicer than a lot of Election Days have been up here,” Obenshain observed of the blue, sunny skies and Spring-like 60-degree temperature mid-afternoon, November 3rd.
But turning from the pleasant weather, we asked Senator Obenshain about a much chillier phenomenon, the national political climate. That climate has become increasingly chilly, shrill and divisive. – “It’s like you don’t have political opponents anymore who share a mutual goal of improving the lives of constituents from differing philosophical or economic angles. Rather, you have political enemies who are going to destroy the nation, state or municipality if they take political control,” we observed.
Does he see a problem with this turn, we asked.
“Yes I do. I think that it is getting worse. We’re growing a new generation of political activists who are educated on college campuses where diversity of opinion is punished, and not rewarded. And I think it is a dangerous new development in our political environment that is a real threat to free speech,” Obenshain replied.
Having not been in college in nearly five decades, err years, I wondered whether both sides of the political spectrum weren’t involved in such suppression of contrary opinions.
“I think there are instances in which both sides may be blamed. But I really believe the institutionalization of it is a creation of the Left, the folks who believe they ought to have the hecklers’ veto on college campuses and elsewhere to keep speakers away they don’t agree with. And that’s being carried over to the public sector, even the private sector where people are getting fired from their jobs because they’re not progressive enough …” the senator replied.
Coming from the other side of the political spectrum than my conservative Republican State legislator with whom I’ve been able to good naturedly meet in the middle on political observations over the years, I observed that while in college those decades, I mean years, ago, students on both sides were very vocal and not afraid to hash out differences over a good, old fashioned verbal sparring session.
“Yes, you and I are old. And back when we were in college the professors were more middle of the road. Now they are not,” Obenshain assured me of his perception the scales had shifted to the political Left on campuses this century.
Despite coming from opposite political spectrums, Obenshain and this reporter bemoaned the loss of civil political discourse without the specter of an all or nothing outcome on the fate of U.S. and Western civilization. “I miss that on the national, and even state and local, scenes,” I told my state senator.
“I do too,” Obenshain replied, noting a personal experience with a constituent. “A young neighbor of mine who’s been working on a graduate degree had as an assignment for his graduate program to call somebody he disagreed with on issues and try to interview them. He was shocked that I was willing to talk to him. And I said, ‘Of course, it’s what I do’ … And absolutely refusing to acknowledge somebody else’s point of view is, I think, anathema to the underpinnings of our democracy.”
And at that point Senator Obenshain excused himself, not to avoid the potential of our entering into an extended philosophical debate on the ultimate advisability of the American two-party system or the relative merits or lack thereof of the modern Republican and Democratic Party apparatuses, but to make the next and subsequent stops on his Election Day tour of his district’s election precincts.
But darn, Mark – it would have been fun.
Supervisors get mixed reaction from teachers after appropriation of additional $5.7 million of $6.9 million set aside for support of public schools budget
It was a mixed verdict in the wake of the Warren County Board of Supervisors (BOS) unanimous vote approving appropriation of $5,714,541 of what was termed “Supplemental Appropriation Items” into the Fiscal Year-2022/23 county public schools budget. A vote on appropriations to what has been cited as an FY-22/23 Warren County Public Schools budget of $71.1 million was added to the Tuesday evening, August 16, regular meeting agenda out of a Closed Session following a 5 p.m. supervisors work session. The closed session was to discuss legal and financial matters surrounding the WC EDA, not the school budget.
What appeared to be 20+ people, including teachers and interested citizens in support of county public schools were present. Some had signed up to speak in support of the requested public schools budget at “Public Comments” on non-agenda items. A number of others were present to speak in support of recommendations by current and past Shenandoah Farms Advisory Boards to abandon at least temporarily the Phase 4 and 5 portions of the Old Oak Lane Capital Improvement Plan that the board and its Sanitary District manager seem determined so see through despite skyrocketing cost estimates that it appears Farms Sanitary District residents will be responsible to cover.
But on the school budget front, as first signed-up Public Comments speaker and secondary school teacher Amy Flora told the board, she had to reconsider her planned remarks in the wake of the board’s added agenda item action. Flora and others thanked the supervisors for the appropriation of the $5.7 million in support of teacher salaries, scheduled bonuses, filling of eight vacant positions, and funding of extra-curricular activities and athletics programs. However, as some absorbed what had been approved versus what had been on the table as potential additions or reductions to the original public schools budget proposal, some dissatisfaction emerged.
And after follow-up discussion with both Supervisor and County-Schools Liaison Committee member Delores Oates and County Finance Director Matt Robertson on Wednesday, it appears the discontent revolves around a $1.2-million gap in that $5.7-million appropriation and $6.9 million the board had set aside in a County Reserve Fund to address additional needs in the public schools budget. Robertson noted he could not explain the difference between that $1.2 million in unappropriated funds and a $1.8 million cost estimate listed for 37 items presented by school officials at an August 9 supervisors work session on the schools budget.
But to the tune of $1.2 million or $1.8 million, the fact that those 37 items received none of the available reserve funds set aside for those additional requests did not sit well with those public school employees present at Tuesday’s meeting. In fact, when Flora, who serves as president of Secondary Education for the Warren County Education Association, returned to the Public Comments podium she told the supervisors that a poll conducted among system teachers indicated that 77% of respondents indicated they are considering leaving Warren County Public Schools for other public school systems they feel are more adequately funded on an annual basis.
There seemed to be a disconnect between the board and its chair and teachers upset that English Language and Elementary Art teaching positions, along with Elementary School Counselors, Math Coaches, and a variety of Teaching Assistants and other requested positions had been ignored by the board despite available funds to support a significant portion of those requests.
After repeated imploring that those additional requested positions were much needed to reduce staffing shortages and a continued over-stretching of existing staff workloads, board Chair Cheryl Cullers, herself a former public schools nurse, reiterated that her board had never intended to not appropriate existing staff’s salary requests, including 5% STEP or COLA raises. She added that she believed she was elected to ask hard questions about budgets and assured public school staff present that they were not the only ones to be targeted with such questions, that county departments got the same treatment.
But that, that treatment might possibly lead to as many as 77% of current teachers to employment in public school systems elsewhere should be a matter of public concern for anyone, elected or otherwise, concerned for the future of the Warren County Public School system.
Following adjournment of the Public Comments the bulk of the educational community left the meeting room to discuss what had transpired in the Warren County Government Center meeting room. Those present deferred to Warren County Education Association Secondary Education President Flora for comment on the budget that was and was not approved.
“It’s not enough. The salaries are great but it kind of feels like it’s just to get us to stop talking, stop fighting. But we can’t because everything else that is on that budget is reasonable, it is needed, and it does not cost the County anything more than what the County paid last year, even in this time of inflation and rising gas prices. The fact that they don’t have to spend any extra money should be a no-brainer that they should fund us 100%. All of those positions are completely needed, it’s completely transparent. And we’re not going to stop fighting for those because we need it, these teachers need it. And again, that survey that we put out said 77% of teachers right now, are looking to leave Warren County Public Schools next year because of this whole process.
“So, for them to say that they are doing and they care about the public schools and teachers in Warren County – THAT is not the result of a County that cares. When 77% of our teachers are so concerned about this process that they’re considering leaving, that is not showing that they care,” Flora concluded without dispute from those teachers around her.
However, county officials assert that the flat funding claim from last year is not entirely accurate. During our Wednesday email conversation with County Finance Director Robertson and Supervisor Oates, at the end of a list of involved numbers, Robertson wrote: “After last night’s meeting, the total appropriation of local dollars to the School Division is $28,776,158. That is a total increase of $1,056,158 from the prior fiscal year.”
And for a fiscally conservative county board, whose chairman has bragged during this budget cycle that the current board majority elected three years ago on a reform platform related to the aftermath of the FR-WC EDA financial scandal, has yet to approve any tax increase to produce additional revenue, even during the above-mentioned inflationary economy, that reported $1.05-million increase in local funds to public schools might have set off alarm bells. Would adding another $1.2 million of available reserve funds threaten to break that string of no-tax increases in the next budget cycle?
Well, “you gotta do what you gotta do” as an old saying goes, or perhaps not – but at what risk?
I guess we’ll find out next year when the FY-2023/24 Warren County Public School budget is presented with a new number of teaching vacancies needing to be filled.
Click here to see the entire meeting in the County VIDEO, including the often emotional post-schools budget vote Public Comments during which 15 people addressed that, among other issues. The “other” was primarily the seeming reluctance of the board and staff to follow Shenandoah Farms Sanitary District Advisory Board(s) recommendations concerning road Capital Improvement Project decisions, and consequences of the potential closing of Farms community property assets as plans to seek financial reimbursements from former advisors, the Property Owners of Shenandoah Farms (POSF), appears on the horizon. County Attorney Jason Ham explained the result of his research into a previous Circuit Court ruling that POSF was not by Virginia law a legal Property Owners Association due to a lack of corroborating evidence that all Shenandoah Farms property owners are required to be POSF members.
Front Royal council seeking candidate to replace McFadden
Without a media release nor acting following a Tuesday-night closed session presumably to discuss the status of Councilman Joseph McFadden, the Front Royal Town Council posted on the municipal website Wednesday afternoon that it is “accepting resumes from citizens who are interested in serving on the Town Council to fill a vacancy that is currently open due to the resignation of Councilman Joseph McFadden on August 8, 2022.”
The council went into a closed meeting Tuesday evening, following a joint meeting with the Front Royal Planning Commission, for “the discussion, consideration, assignment, appointment, promotion, performance, demotion, salaries, disciplining or resignation of specific public officers, appointees, or employees of any public body, specifically Town Manager, Town Attorney, and Clerk of Council pursuant to §2.2-3711(A)(1) of the Code of Virginia.”
Tina Presley, clerk or council, confirmed today that no action was taken following the closed session.
McFadden made a dramatic exit from last week’s meeting, stating that he was resigning after former town manager Steven Hicks was terminated by the panel at that August 8 work session, though he expressed regret to Royal Examiner’s Roger Bianchini in an August 13 telephone interview.
McFadden stated that he presented a letter to Town Hall on August 12, asking the mayor and council to rescind his resignation as it had not been properly submitted by Robert’s Rules of Order.
“It looks like I can withdraw my ‘motion’ to resign … with no acknowledgment by the chair or vote by the members (to accept his resignation) does my motion to resign die on the floor?” McFadden asked of Robert’s Rules of Order guidelines presented to him following his verbal resignation in reaction to the Hicks’ termination.
The notice on the town website states, that “if appointed, the term would end upon the oath being administered by the candidate elected at a Special Election TBD. The candidate elected during the Special Election will serve the rest of Mr. McFadden’s term which is December 31, 2024.
To be eligible for appointment to the Town Council, candidates must reside in Front Royal, must be a registered voter, and have been a resident of Virginia for one year immediately preceding their appointment.”
Interested parties are asked to submit a resume and cover letter by September 6, 2022, at 4:30 P.M.
Royal Examiner reached out to McFadden, the mayor and vice-mayor, as well as interim town attorney George Sonnet Wednesday afternoon; no one had responded by publication time.
McFadden: Resigned or is he? Hicks: Fired or is he? Legal questions follow Aug. 8 council work session – or was it a meeting first?
Joseph McFadden was philosophical in discussing second thoughts on his sudden resignation on August 8 in the wake of the Front Royal Town Council’s 4-3 vote to immediately terminate Town Manager Steven Hicks. During a Saturday, August 13th phone conversation McFadden confirmed a letter he sent the previous day to Town Hall asking the mayor and council to rescind his resignation as not having been properly submitted by Robert’s Rules of Order.
“It looks like I can withdraw my ‘motion’ to resign … with no acknowledgment by the chair or vote by the members (to accept his resignation) does my motion to resign die on the floor?” McFadden asked of Robert’s Rules of Order guidelines presented to him following his verbal resignation in reaction to the Hicks’ termination.
While standing by his original comments the following day that it was somewhat of a relief to have removed himself from an increasingly contentious political situation within Town Hall, McFadden said that after being approached by a number of constituents and two fellow council members about disappointment in his decision to resign in protest of the majority vote to immediately terminate the town manager without what he considered substantiation of the accusations made against Hicks in closed session, he would be willing to return to council were he allowed to. However, he added that if his request to withdraw his resignation as not properly acknowledged by the mayor and presented to council for a vote accepting it was denied, he would not seek court action to reinstate him.
“This whole thing is a debacle – my resignation was a debacle,” McFadden observed of legal questions that have been raised concerning both Town Manager Hicks’ termination and his subsequent verbal resignation. In fact, McFadden wondered if Hicks was legally terminated as town manager, does he remain the council-appointed Director of FREDA, the Town’s unilateral Economic Development Authority.
As to the emotion involved in his decision, McFadden confirmed that he was not in a good emotional place following what he termed a “very difficult closed session” following planning commission interviews completed after about the first half hour of the one-hour-and-35 minute closed door session. The fact that the meeting fell on the third anniversary of his mother’s death, which has been an emotionally trying day for him each year since her passing, didn’t help either, he said.
“Personally I’m glad to be off. But it’s never been for me. I’m only here trying to represent people – all the people, not just one political party or philosophical group. I was most relieved to get off initially – it is a burden, but it is also a service,” McFadden said of the renewed sense of responsibility he feels to those who voted for him and wish to see him serve out his full 4-year term.
About that termination vote
As for questions surrounding the legality of a motion and vote out of closed session to terminate the town manager, those revolve around whether council was in a meeting or a work session out of the closed Executive Session on August 8. It has been pointed out that public bodies can’t take action at work sessions, only at meetings.
This reporter discussed that dynamic with Deputy, soon-to-be Interim Town Attorney George Sonnett the day after Hicks’ termination and McFadden’s resignation. And while the August 8 gathering of council was advertised as a “Special Work Session” with an added closed Executive Session attached, Sonnett’s opinion was that by town code Closed Sessions must be convened at an open meeting of council. Consequently, when council came out of Executive Session on August 8, it was to the open meeting they convened the closed session from. Hence, action could be taken before convening to the Special Work Session.
Royal Examiner contacted the mayor and council about these divergent theories on whether they were in a meeting or work session when the vote to terminate Steven Hicks was taken. The only answer we have yet received was from Vice-Mayor Lori Cockrell, who voted with McFadden and Letasha Thompson not to terminate the town manager on August 8.
“With respect to your question regarding the legality of voting during a work session, since I am not an attorney, I am forced to rely on the opinion of the town’s legal council who was present during the work session. Although, I must admit I do not ever recall voting on any matter during any previous work sessions while serving on council. Therefore to respond to your inquiry, I have requested that the interim town attorney provide a written legal opinion to the council and to the local news media explaining why taking a vote during that work session was within council’s legal rights and responsibilities. I am hopeful that his response will clear up any questions or concerns that citizens may have,” Cockrell, who is the only candidate for mayor on the November ballot replied by email.
As to McFadden’s resignation, Cockrell added, “Since Mr. McFadden was elected by the citizens of Front Royal, I am uncomfortable with removing him from office. However, some members of council believe the withdrawal of the resignation was legally ineffective. As a result, I have requested a consensus of my fellow councilmen to seek an impartial opinion by the Virginia Attorney General concerning this matter. I think this course of action best insures the continued trust of our citizens in the electoral process.”
County Planning Commission: No letup in Short-Term Tourist Rental Permit Requests
The Warren County Planning Commission held a work session prior to their regular meeting on August 10. The work session focused on the ongoing work on the County Comprehensive Plan. The Planning Department staff provided a variety of demographic data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and other sources, which will be updated and included in the plan. Unfortunately, 2020 Census Data, which was scheduled to be released in April 2022, has now been delayed until November, and at the same time, decisions about growth and direction must be made. When asked if the final Comprehensive Plan would be able to incorporate the new Census data, Planning Director Matt Wendling said, “The data in the plan will be the most up-to-date we can get.”
The work session included an extensive discussion of the wage range and population makeup statistics that did not yet include an age breakdown, which, as Vice Chairman Hugh Henry pointed out, is vitally important when planning land use. Senior housing needs are significantly different than working families, and understanding trends will help the County and potential developers find the right mix of homes and employment opportunities. Planning Director Wendling acknowledged that a good part of the analysis of available data is data mining, which is time and labor-intensive. Commissioner Kersjes suggested that the planning staff investigate enlisting help from local colleges as a useful project, perhaps as an internship. Given that current projections indicate Warren County will near 50,000 population by 2040, housing, infrastructure, and employment opportunities will have to grow along with it.
Still with four members since June, when former Shenandoah District Commissioner Joe Longo resigned, the commission convened its regular monthly meeting following the work session. They heard from Planning Director Wendling that a proposed new member is pending approval by the Board of Supervisors. That would bring the commission back up to full strength.
The Commission held six public hearings for Conditional Use Permits (CUPs). All six were applications for short-term tourist rentals. They included:
Michelle Moriarty – A request for a Conditional Use Permit for a short-term tourist rental at 96 Cappy Road. The property is zoned Residential One (R-1), located in the Happy Creek Magisterial District. With no public objection, the commission unanimously voted to recommend approval.
Kendra Hansen, Kathryn Stuart, Simon Sarver & Michael Cherubin – A request for a CUP for a short-term tourist rental on R-1 zoned property located at 97 River Overlook Road in the Shenandoah Magisterial District. During the public hearing, one neighbor, Claire Fay, objected to the presence on the property of several fire pits, and expressed concern about the fire danger if guests were to carelessly use them. Applicant Simon Sarver responded that they had already removed all but one of the fire pits, and the remaining one was a moveable metal one. The commission members discussed the challenge of enforcing what is already prohibited (open fires) in the supplemental regulations for short-term rentals. Eventually, Vice-Chairman Henry asked the applicant if it was possible to lock up the moveable fire pit when guests would be present, and the applicant agreed that it could be locked in a storage building. With no further objections, the commission voted unanimously to recommend approval.
CAZA Legacy LLC – A request for a Conditional Use Permit for a short-term tourist rental for a property at 241 Wildcat Drive. The property is zoned Residential One (R-1) and located in the Shenandoah Magisterial District. This application contained a waiver request to reduce the required setback from neighboring properties from 100 feet to 50 feet. In support of the request, the neighboring property owner had submitted a letter supporting the permit and the requested waiver. With that support from the impacted neighbor, the commission voted unanimously to recommend approval.
Matthew Williams & Jay Gilbert – A request for a Conditional Use Permit for a short-term tourist rental at 244 Delicious Road on Residential One (R-1) zoned property in the Happy Creek Magisterial District. The commission heard comments from the planning director that all requirements had been met, but an Apple Mountain Lake Subdivision Home Owners Association letter of “no objection” had not been received. The commission then unanimously voted to recommend approval.
Matthew Williams & Jay Gilbert – Their second request for a conditional use permit for a short-term tourist rental was at 115 Lonesome Flats Road. The property is zoned Agricultural (A) and located in the Fork Magisterial District. This application had generated a single letter objecting to the use from John Croft, who lives on the same road. His objections fall along familiar themes – short-term rentals are bad for the neighborhood, short-term tenants are not good neighbors, dangers from shooting, noise from parties, or other illegal activities. The Chairman pointed out that these concerns were why the County added supplemental regulations for short-term tourist rentals to prohibit these and other problematic activities. He noted that the permit can be revoked if a property owner fails to inform guests and enforce the regulations. The commission voted unanimously to recommend approval of the request.
Thomas L. Pigeon submitted a request for a CUP for a short-term tourist rental at 540 Lakeside Drive. The property is zoned Residential One (R-1) and located in the Fork Magisterial District. This application drew two speakers who raised concerns about the on-site septic system. Barbara Sealock also acknowledged that the supplemental regulations answered some of her questions, but she also remained concerned about whether guests’ pets would be unconstrained in the neighborhood.
Katsiaryna Holder told the commissioners that she owns an adjoining property and is building a house there. Her concern was the septic system as it was built could have an impact on her home, for which a building permit was just issued.
The commissioners reviewed the documentation provided with the application that identified the alter native discharge system on the applicant’s property, and it is a state-regulated system that mandates additional maintenance and monitoring. Properly maintained, it should have no impact on other properties. The commissioners discussed the permit requirements, including continued compliance with State and local Health department testing and reporting. Concluding that sufficient safeguards were in place, the Commission voted unanimously to recommend approval.
The Commission’s Consent Agenda consisted of authorizations to advertise public hearings for Conditional Use Permits for five short-term tourist rentals and two private use camping:
- Gillian Greenfield & Richard Butcher – CUP for a short-term tourist rental at 1164 Riverview Shores Dr. in the Shenandoah Magisterial District.
- Elizabeth A. Saman – Conditional Use Permit for a short-term tourist rental at 431 Cindys Way in the Shenandoah Magisterial District.
- Jaden & Tori Walter – A request for a Conditional Use Permit for a short-term tourist rental at 80 River Oak Drive in the South River Magisterial District.
- Vesta Property Management – Conditional Use Permit for a short-term tourist rental at 194 Venus Branch Road in the Shenandoah Magisterial District.
- Vesta Property Management – Conditional Use Permit for a short-term tourist rental at 86 McCoys Ford Road in the Fork Magisterial District.
- Stacy L. Lockhart – Conditional Use Permit for Private Use Camping (non-commercial). The property is located at Harris Drive in the Shenandoah Magisterial District.
Jeffrey Steven Taylor – Conditional Use Permit for Private Use Camping (non-commercial) on Howellsville Road in the Shenandoah Magisterial District.
The Commission unanimously approved the Consent Agenda, and the meeting was adjourned at 8:10 p.m.
Teachers remain uneasy about ongoing delays in approval of FY-2023 Public Schools Budget
The final in a series of three presentations on departmental Fiscal Year-2022/23 budget requests at Tuesday evening’s Warren County Board of Supervisors work session was the briefest at about six minutes of the 84-minute work session. However, post adjournment discussion among Warren County Public School employees present, but not allowed by Board Chair Cheryl Cullers to offer input during the work session, indicated that it is likely to remain the most scrutinized and debated budget as the county’s elected leaders approach a decision on what appears to be plans to cut the county’s public schools local operational budget request by 25%, or as much as $7.4 million in local funding.
The agenda packet included numbers brought to the board by a county-schools liaison committee recently formed to clarify and hash out public school budget variables. Among a 37-item list of cuts totaling $1.8 million under the header “Potential $6.9m Reductions” were: 1-English Language Teacher; 2-Elementary Art Teachers; 2 Elementary School Counselors; a Director of Communications position; 2-Library Assistants; Senior, Junior, Sophomore, and Freshman Class Sponsor Stipends, among others.
However, a sub-list of six cuts apparently already on the table totaling another $5.7 million included some EYE-OPENERS: Eliminate Extra-curricular Events and Athletics (saving $1,040,782); Do not fill eight vacant teacher positions (saving $596,928); Cost of 5% Salary Increase (saving $2,324,206); Furlough all 200 day + staff three Professional Development Days (saving $727,317), and two others eliminating a December bonus ($864,430) and elimination of “Remaining Supplements” ($160,878).
One graphic indicated a “Final Proposed FY2023 Operating Budget” for public schools of $71,108,401, an increase of $2,960,856 over last year’s budget of $68,147,545. However, as one school employee present later observed to this reporter, the requested “Increase in Local Funding” to achieve that budget was $0 (zero dollars), as State and CARES funding would entirely cover the increase.
During the brief staff and board discussion, Board Chair and South River Supervisor Cheryl Cullers tried to assure those public school employees present that teaching positions and salaries were not under threat by the proposed cuts. Glancing at the agenda packet and noting the presence of such staffing and salary cuts, Cullers, a former public schools nurse, stated: “Teachers salaries were never a consideration for us. We value the teachers in this community, just as much as we value the fire admin people who were here,” Cullers said referencing Fire & Rescue Chief James Bonzano and staffer Jane Meadows, present earlier asking the board to approve additions of $2,600 to $7,250 to base pay for various levels of staff EMT Certifications.
Cullers continued to point out that the supervisors had more control over county departmental budgets like Fire & Rescue or the EDA, the latter also present Tuesday, August 9 (seeking the board to authorize compensation to EDA board members for the monthly meetings they conduct in furtherance of community economic development), than the supervisors do over the Public Schools budget. Cullers compared the supervisors’ ability to approve or deny specific staff-related financing items as were brought to them by Fire & Rescue and the EDA that evening, versus the County funding of public schools where a total budget is presented for approval as the new fiscal year approaches. After that supervisors approval of the total budget, internal adjustments to that budget can be pursued by the Warren County Public School Board and administrative staff. Cullers and her board have appeared especially skeptical of proposed school system transfers of previous fiscal year reserves between departmental or operational uses.
“That’s why we have looked at things, tried to categorize them, so that if we give money that’s supposed to go for a particular pay scale, it has to stay there and be used for that pay scale and not be pulled and put somewhere else. We’re trying to protect your salaries, not take away from it,” Cullers told the public school system contingent present.
However, with the new liaison group’s agenda summary pages before them, Cullers verbal assurances were received with some skepticism following the 7:24 p.m. adjournment of the 6 p.m. work session. One employee who raised their hand to ask permission to react to Cullers verbal assurances versus what was on paper in front of them, was not allowed by Chairman Cullers to speak. This reporter’s lengthy experience with municipal work sessions has been that unscheduled public input has generally been allowed within stated parameters at the chairman’s discretion. In fact, work sessions have often been seen by local municipal boards as a means to allow more direct give and take between the public and their elected officials than meeting rules generally allow. However, the current board of supervisors chair has been consistent in not allowing people not on the agenda to offer input at work sessions.
North River Supervisor and County-Schools Liaison Committee member Delores Oates also noted that the supervisors were taking into consideration coming and past public schools Capital Improvement Projects (CIP) and related debt and debt service, as they consider the Public School System’s FY-2022/23 Operational Budget. But rather than ease school employees minds, that mingling of CIP debt service as a factor in approaching and justifying reductions in the school system’s operational budget request seemed to add to the post-work session employee anxiety. Were future operational budgets going to be limited by past or current board decisions to build new or renovate aging school facilities, some wondered as they headed for the WCGC parking lot.
Supervisor Oates noted that the new BOS-WCPS liaison group would meet again this Thursday, August 11 for further discussion of the FY-23 public schools budget proposal. According to county administrative staff no date has yet been set for a vote of approval of the FY-2022/23 public school budget. One school staffer leaving the government center Tuesday evening asserted that Warren County was the only public school system in Virginia without an approved budget nearly six weeks into the fiscal year. – “We are a laughing stock,” they observed of the county’s ongoing unresolved public school budget.
See the full work session discussion of its four agenda items, including a recommendation on abandonment for now of Old Oak Lane Phases 4 and 5 projects by the newly appointed Shenandoah Farms Advisory Committee’s Chairman Bruce Boyle, in the Aug. 9 County Work Session video. That Farms Advisory Committee recommendation in favor of more cost-effective projects servicing more residents vehicular trips appears to go against the board and sanitary district staff’s plan to continue with the Old Oak Lane projects despite huge cost increases and the minimal number of residences, eight, directly impacted.
Following the work session, the supervisors adjourned to closed session to discuss personnel matters related to the newly appointed five-member Farms Advisory Committee. It was a closed-door discussion of which the Farms Advisory Committee chairman appeared to have no previous notice or knowledge.
After 20-month tenure Steven Hicks ousted as Front Royal Town Manager
Following an hour and 40 minutes behind closed doors to open a 6:30 p.m. work session Monday evening, August 8, an unknown portion of that time spent discussing the performance of both Town Manager Steven Hicks and Interim Town Attorney James Cornwell Jr., in a dramatic roll call vote the Front Royal Town Council, with Mayor Chris Holloway casting the tie-breaking vote, by a 4-3 margin terminated the contract of Town Manager Steven Hicks. Following Holloway’s vote, Hicks rose quickly from his seat at the far end of the meeting room table facing the mayor and simultaneously, Councilman Joseph McFadden stood up and stated, “I resign.”
At that point, Hicks, accompanied by Front Royal Police Chief Kahle Magalis, went to clean out his office at the far end of the Town Hall second floor, leaving by a back stairway without comment to media. Leaving the meeting room with Hicks was Councilman Joseph McFadden, who had voted with Letasha Thompson and Vice-Mayor Lori Cockrell to retain Hicks in his town manager’s position.
“This is a kangaroo court,” McFadden said as he tossed down what appeared to be council credentials, turning over other materials to IT Director Grant Autry on his way into the hallway behind Hicks and the police chief.
Part of the aforementioned drama came after the first two votes were cast on Gary Gillispie’s motion, seconded by remotely connected Amber Morris, to terminate Hicks’ contract. With Cockrell and Gillispie having cast the first two votes, the roll call reached recently appointed member Zachary Jackson at 1-1. Leaning back in his chair, his head looking upward, Jackson paused for 30 seconds before quietly voting “yes”. It may have been that from the closed meeting discussion the newest council member may have known his would be the decisive vote in either sending or not sending a 3-3 tie to the mayor.
That the mayor would vote for termination seemed to be indicated by McFadden’s brief statement to Royal Examiner reporter Roger Bianchini on his way out of town hall. After repeating that what had transpired had been “a kangaroo court,” McFadden suggested the media “investigate some on council and the mayor.”
In a somewhat anti-climatic subsequent vote, council voted 5-1, Cockrell dissenting, to terminate the services of Interim Town Attorney Cornwell of White Stone, Virginia. That would appear to leave Assistant Town Attorney George Sonnett now in charge of the town’s legal department.
Hicks’ termination as town manager also leaves the unilaterally created Front Royal Economic Development Authority (FREDA) without a director, one of the additional management hats Hicks had been given by town council to wear during his tenure.
Council appointed Assistant Town Manager Kathleen Leidich to take on operational oversight of the Town Administrative Office on a temporary basis.
Upon hiring Hicks to what was his second town manager’s job, Front Royal officials had heaped praise upon him for his experience, declaring him “the perfect selection.” Former Interim Mayor and Interim Town Manager Matt Tederick stated, “To date, I have had a very limited time getting to know Steven, but this much I have already observed, he appears to be the perfect selection for our Town. Well done Town Council.” Tederick wasn’t alone in his praise of Hicks.
Then Mayor-elect Chris Holloway commented, “Hicks was selected because of his impressive leadership in operations, bringing business in communities, developing fiscally conservative budgets, managing enterprise departments, and delivering complex infrastructure projects on time and on budget.”
Then Vice-Mayor Bill Sealock said, “Finding the right candidate took longer than we expected. The Council knew what they wanted in a manager and was patient to find the right Town Manager for our community. I believe our efforts have paid off by having the best candidate possible. I’m excited to see what Steven will bring to our Town government, businesses, and community.”
Hicks began his tenure as Town Manager on Dec. 7, 2020, in the wake of some organizational, departmental, and departmental directors flux during Tederick’s tenures as Interim Mayor and Town Manager.
When a council debate arose some time into Hicks’ tenure about the expense of continued use of a consultant “executive search” firm in the hunt for a new town attorney to replace the suddenly resigned Doug Napier, Councilwoman Letasha Thompson asserted that expense would be money well spent, noting, “They got us, Steven.”
But what passes for experience and credentials in some people’s eyes may not be so elsewhere. Royal Examiner discovered that in his first town manager’s job in Selma, North Carolina, after which he came here, Hicks left under a cloud of controversy after less than a year on the job. According to a published report in the Johnston County Report, a Selma-area newspaper, Hicks agreed to resign after just nine months on the job.
The July 30, 2020, issue of the newspaper stated that the council had scheduled a special called meeting for 5:30 p.m. that evening to discuss personnel matters. However, the meeting was canceled after a deal in which Hicks apparently agreed to resign under specific conditions was reached earlier that day.
The Johnston County Report story said, “Sources say the deal will require Mr. Hicks to resign on August 3rd. In return, he will receive his full salary for the next six months, including contributions to his retirement and health benefits. Vacation and sick leave will stop on August 3rd, but he will receive all accumulated time. He will also be allowed to seek employment elsewhere before the six months severance ends.”
The Town of Front Royal press release announcing Hicks as the town manager stated, “Hicks has over 25 years of state and local government experience. He was previously the Town Manager of Selma, N.C., that provided a full range of services, including Solid Waste, Water, Sewer, and Electric, as well as Police and Fire. During Hicks tenure, he was able to develop a transparent operational budget and manage the Town’s enterprise funds delivering positive operating revenue. As part of the budget process, Hicks was able to establish Selma’s first-ever 5-year Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) with major emphasis in addressing groundwater and stormwater (I&I) that enters into the Town’s sewer system for treatment. Hicks also partnered with Eastfield Crossing Developers and Duke Energy to amend the 400-acre mixed-used development and incentive agreement to increase the Town’s tax base and create 3,100 jobs.”
According to Selma’s public records, the solid waste was contracted out to a company called GLF when Hicks was town manager though he did oversee the water, sewer, and electric departments cited on his resume.
A Selma source stated that the budget Hicks developed, in fact, required “a bit of hands-on work” by that town council after its initial presentation. The source stated that the “positive operating revenue” cited in that Front Royal press release existed prior to Hicks’ tenure as town manager. Selma public records support that fact as well.
Selma’s public records also indicate that the Eastfield Agreement was amended and significantly changed in 2021.
Prior to the Selma stint, Hicks served as director of the Durham, N.C. City’s General Services Department from October 2015 to July 2019.
More will be forthcoming on this story as additional information and comment from involved parties becomes available. Following the two action item votes, council went directly into its scheduled work session agenda, largely reviewing Special Use Permit applications for advertisement for public hearing, allowing no time for a Q&A with members on the reasoning for their votes.