Following a Tuesday, May 3 ruling by United States Judge Thomas T. Cullen the Town of Front Royal must provide all communications with an attorney hired to assist with the investigation of sexual harassment claims lodged by former Front Royal Town Council clerk Jennifer Berry Brown.
Cullen’s ruling upheld U.S. Magistrate Joel C. Hoppe’s order that the Town must disclose all communications with attorney Julia Judkins regarding that investigation, Judkins’s factual findings and conclusions from the investigation and her advice about any remedial measures taken in response to any alleged harassment. He also ruled that Berry Brown may re-depose Councilmember Letasha Thompson and the Town’s corporate designee, Matthew Tederick. (A corporate designee is a person who, during a lawsuit’s discovery phase, provides testimony that becomes the binding testimony of the corporation, or in this case, the Town of Front Royal.)
In Judge Hoppe’s March 31 Memorandum and Opinion, which partially ruled in Berry Brown’s favor, he cited the Oct. 7, 2021, deposition of Matt Tederick, in which the former interim town manager stated that Ms. Judkins’s role was “to advise Town Council as it relates to a complaint that was made by [Brown]” and further testified that the Town had retained a firm specializing in employment matters because he “wanted an outside set of eyes, an expert in personnel matters to offer legal advice and counsel in the event it was needed.”
Judge Hoppe wrote in his Memorandum and Opinion that any legal advice given by Ms. Judkin regarding Berry is protected by attorney-client privilege, though communications with Judkins about the investigation of Brown’s harassment complaints, her conclusions from the investigation, and her advice about any remedial measures taken in response to the alleged harassment were not covered by attorney-client privilege. Hoppe ordered the Town to disclose those communications.
Judge Cullen wrote that Hoppe found, “based largely on Tederick’s testimony, that the Town hired Judkins to investigate Brown’s complaints and ensure the investigation was conducted lawfully, and that the Town apparently relied on Judkins (at least in part) to determine if (Councilman William) Sealock’s behavior constituted sexual harassment or created a hostile work environment.”
Cullen continues, “It is worth noting that Tederick repeatedly stated that the Town would rely on the opinion of “legal counsel and the HR department” rather than exclusively relying on outside counsel.”
Judge Cullen opined that “the Town relied on Judkins both to conduct its investigation and to reach essential conclusions that bear on the ultimate issue of the Town’s liability for Sealock’s alleged harassment. That reliance necessarily puts Judkins’s advice to the Town at issue.”
He wrote that, at some point, the Town hired attorney Julia Judkins as outside counsel to act as “an expert in personnel matters and to offer legal advice and counsel in the event it was needed.” (From the Oct. 7, 2021, deposition of Matthew Tederick.)
Cullen continued, “The Town must disclose, as Judge Hoppe directed, all communications with Judkins regarding that investigation, Judkins’s factual findings and conclusions from the investigation, and her advice about any remedial measures taken in response to Sealock’s alleged harassment.”
Judge Cullen ordered that the “Town is ordered to produce all documents and communications related to its former outside counsel, Julia Judkins’s, investigation of and involvement in Plaintiff Jennifer Berry Brown’s sexual harassment allegations. Brown may further re-depose Councilmember Letasha Thompson and the Town’s corporate designee, Matthew Tederick, about the same topic. “
Both parties were ordered to schedule a status conference as soon as practicable to discuss the effect of this ruling on the parties’ pending motions for summary judgment.
Ms. Berry Brown filed a civil complaint in federal court on Jan. 4, 2021, claiming sexual harassment by former Front Royal elected officials and wrongful termination from her job as clerk of council as retaliation for that filing.
Warren County: Notice of Real Estate taxes due
Warren County Real Estate tax bills for the first half of the year 2022 have been mailed. If you do not receive a bill for Real Estate, Sanitary District for Blue Mountain, Cedarville Heights, High Knob, Lake Front Royal, Linden Heights, Osprey Lane, Riverside, Shangri-La, Shannon Woods, Shenandoah Farms, Shenandoah Shores, Skyland Estates, South River, or Wildcat Drive, please contact the Treasurer’s Office at 540-635-2215.
Failure to receive a bill does not relieve the taxpayer of the penalty for late payment. Tax bills are due on June 5th, 2022. When the due date falls on the weekend, bills will be due the following business day. Penalty will be added June 7th, 2022, if not paid or postmarked on or before June 6th, 2022.
Treasurer’s Office hours are 9:00 am – 5:00 pm, Monday through Friday.
Jamie L. Spiker
Town seeks citizen input on Comp Plan revisions on future developmental vision inside town limits
On Tuesday, May 17, Front Royal Town Manager Steven Hicks issued a brief statement alerting town citizens to opportunities to give town staff, and in turn its elected officials who will give final approval to it, their perspective on revisions to the Town’s Comprehensive Plan. Below is Hicks release detailing those opportunities this coming Friday and Saturday.
The Town will be hosting Public Input on the rewrite of the Town’s Comprehensive Plan on Friday the 20th, and Saturday the 21st. The existing Comprehensive Plan controls development and the Vision of the Town is 25 years old; therefore, your input is greatly needed to manage development and to create a sustainable community.
Here are the details on the information meetings:
- Friday, May 20thmeeting is from 12:00 PM-2:00 PM at the Warren County Public Safety Building (Sheriff’s and Fire & Rescue offices across from Skyline High School) located on Skyline Vista Drive
- Saturday, May 21stmeetings will be at the Town Hall 1st floor lobby on Main Street from 10:00 AM-12:00 PM and 2:00 PM-4:00 PM.
- Please visit https://publicinput.com/Portal/Q6282 for additional information regarding the Comprehensive Plan.
Additional questions, please contact Lauren Kopishke, Town’s Planning Director at firstname.lastname@example.org
Don’t forget that Saturday is also the Wine & Craft Festival downtown: frontroyalchamber.com/wine-craft-festival
County Planning Commission considers more tourist rentals, poultry processing, and retreat
At its regular meeting on May 11th, the Warren County Planning Commission faced a small firestorm of opposition from property owners near a proposed Short-Term Tourist Rental at 801 Esteppe Road in the Fork District. The property is zoned agricultural. The applicant, Vanessa Portillo, gave an emotional appeal to the commission in support of her request to give the property a second chance, despite hasty organizing of opposition by neighbors. She and her husband bought the property needing repairs and upgrades, according to her application, and were determined to save it rather than tearing it down.
Ten citizens spoke at the public hearing, and all were opposed to the permit. The complaint was a familiar one that a Short-Term Tourist Rental would bring strangers and dangers to a sleepy and close-knit neighborhood. Vice-Chairman Hugh Henry empathized with the neighbors but again noted that with all the short-term tourist rentals already in Warren County, there have been zero complaints or issues with law enforcement. That record is a clear indication that fears are most often overblown. Further, Mr. Henry continued, a short-term renter is just that – short-term. The applicant could just rent the property to someone for longer than 30 days, and as a long-term rental, there would be no permit or permission needed.
Chairman Robert Meyers pointed out that Short-term Tourist rentals are considered by the Virginia Legislature as residential uses, rather than commercial intrusions into residential neighborhoods. Vice-Chairman Henry also cited statistics that show traffic to a short-term rental property is, in fact, less than that for a full-time occupied dwelling.
After some discussion of property rights and the concerns of residents, the commission unanimously voted to recommend approval of the application, which now goes to the county Board of Supervisors. As always, the Supervisors also solicit public input, so another opportunity to express an opinion is available for residents who wish to be heard.
In a task left unfinished from the previous meeting, consideration of a Conditional Use Permit (CUP) for private use camping, the Commission heard from Planning Staff that the applicant, Patricia A. Brown, had agreed to two additional conditions for approval of the permit based on input from neighbors at the public hearing. The site is on Misty Meadow Lane in the Massanutten View subdivision. The final permit language will prohibit the use of major recreational vehicles on the site and will limit its use to no more than four organized non-commercial camping events. Property boundaries must be clearly marked throughout the duration of these non-commercial events. The commission voted unanimously to recommend approval of the amended request to the Board of Supervisors.
On a request by Justin and Maureen Sager, the Commission voted to recommend approval of a zoning ordinance change to define and regulate an exempt poultry abattoir, defined as a structure where poultry is slaughtered, processed, packed, and labeled for distribution. The number of slaughtered fowl will not exceed 1,000 per calendar year. Under the revised ordinance, this use would be allowed by right. There were no speakers at the public hearing, and Vice Chairman Henry asked if this ordinance change would apply to the whole county. Planning Director Wendling indicated it would apply to all Agriculturally zoned areas, subject to the supplementary regulations. The commission then voted unanimously to recommend the amended ordinance for approval by the Board of Supervisors.
Phong Nguyen is applying for a Conditional Use Permit for a short-term tourist rental for his property at 571 Wilderness Rd in Linden. The property is zoned Residential and is in the Skyland Estates subdivision in the Happy Creek District. Mr. Nguyen plans to use the property as a second residence part of the time and rent it out seasonally. There were no comments from other residents, and the Commission voted unanimously to recommend approval of the request.
A trio of requests from Emilia Cirker and Mark Saunders would grant a CUP for a Short-Term Tourist rental on their property at 5685 Gooney Manor Loop; amend the zoning ordinance to define and regulate retreat centers; and grant a Conditional Use Permit for a retreat center at that property. The brother and sister partners intend to offer wellness retreats, workshops, classes, and indoor and outdoor activities. Part of the time, the property will also serve Short-Term Tourist rentals. The public hearing yielded no speakers, so the commissioners asked if a bridge on the property would be sufficient to allow service vehicles access. The applicants indicated that they would initially restrict access to only neighboring properties that utilize the primitive bridge and ultimately plan to repair and upgrade it. It is currently in need of repair and is unrated for the weight limit. The commission voted unanimously to recommend the two permits and the zoning ordinance change for approval by the Board of Supervisors.
Carl Boswell has requested a CUP for a Short-Term Tourist Rental for his property at 338 Walker Farm Drive in the Shenandoah District. The property is residentially zoned, and the Shenandoah Farms Property owner’s association has been notified. One neighboring resident, Larry Cupp, spoke during the public hearing, in opposition to the permit, with similar complaints of unfamiliar persons in an established neighborhood. “We don’t know what they’re up to. It could be anything,” he observed.
Chairman Myers responded that the Conditional Use Permit is just that – conditional. If guests violate the conditions, the permit can be revoked. If there are problems with a guest, the appropriate action is to contact the County Sheriff’s Office.
Matthew Ben Tow has applied for a CUP for a Short-Term Tourist Rental for his Agriculturally zoned property at 110 Demel Court in the Happy Creek District. There were no public comments during the public hearing, and the commissioners discussed a prohibition on open fires as a condition of approval. The applicant indicated that many of the properties nearby have fire pits, and he hoped to offer one for his guests. The applicant could have a fire pit for his own use, but commissioners indicated it should be covered or blocked from guests using it. The Commission voted unanimously to recommend approval for the permit with the additional condition.
The Commission’s Consent Agenda consisted of 10 items for Authorization to Advertise for public hearings for CUPs for four short-term tourist rentals, a private use campsite, a bed and breakfast, a guesthouse, a church, and two Zoning Ordinance amendments. Those items will be considered at the next regular planning commission meeting on June 8.
Supervisors juggle budget numbers and taxing variables as await approval of a State Budget
At a Special Meeting Tuesday, May 10, the Warren County Board of Supervisors were briefed by staff on a trio of tax issues tied to the Fiscal Year-2022/23 Budget. Those included “Tangible Personal Property Tax Rates for the Calendar year 2022”; a Resolution of support for a 34% Tax Relief rate for Personal Property Taxes driven (pun intended) up by an unprecedented hike in used car values due to supply chain issues on new vehicles; and the setting of a public hearing on an ordinance amendment to “Delay Penalties and Interest Upon Certain Local Taxes”.
Finance Director Matt Robertson presented a general Tangible Personal Property Tax Rate of $3.80 per $100 of assessed value; for Volunteer Fire & Rescue Squad members – $1.90 per $100 of assessed value; for Business Furniture & Equipment – $4.00 per $100 of assessed value; and for Aircraft – 75-cents per $100 of assessed value. Robertson described the rates as an approximate 20% revenue decrease in the PP Tax Rate forced into the budget this year to compensate for the increased valuations being experienced. On a motion by Shenandoah District Supervisor Walt Mabe the board unanimously approved the rates as presented.
Based on numbers assembled by Commissioner of the Revenue Sherry Sours, County Administrator Ed Daley presented a recommended Tax Relief Rate for motor vehicle owners in the county at 34-cents for vehicles valued at $1,001 to $20,000. Vehicles valued at over $20,000 would get the 34-cent relief only on the first $20,000 of value. Vehicles valued at under $1,000 are eligible for a 100% relief rate. It was explained to the board that the annual relief rate on vehicles set locally is tied to the “no Car Tax” legislation adopted, if not fully implemented, by the Virginia General Assembly two years ago. Daley explained that the State would be compensating the County for $4.5 million of the relief based on a 35-cent relief rate, while the County will have to absorb an additional $200,000 required at the 34-cent rate proposed by staff. On a motion by Happy Creek Supervisor Jay Butler, the board unanimously approved the 34-cent relief rate.
The board also approved authorization to advertise for public hearing on May 24, an ordinance amendment to delay penalties and interest on certain tax payments until June 25. The county administrator explained by code taxes come due June 5. However, the County is delaying a final budget approval awaiting a decision in Richmond on final state budget numbers. So, with the whole process set back due to the General Assembly’s delay in coming up with approval of their final budget, the county is pushing back its normal deadline this year.
On a motion by North River District Supervisor Delores Oates, the board unanimously authorized advertisement of the public hearing on the tax deadline ordinance amendment. Daley noted the extension as currently worded applied only to Personal Property Taxes, but that staff was looking at adding Real Estate Taxes to the extended deadline as well prior to the anticipated May 24 vote on the ordinance amendment.
Following that 6 PM Special Meeting the board convened to a work session to hear a series of presentations by staff and one outside organization, the MLB-developmental-league-associated Valley League Front Royal Cardinals. Introduced by Parks & Recreation Director Dan Lenz, Cards President Donna Settle and Vice-President Alex Bigles, the latter who handled the bulk of a PowerPoint presentation on the beer sale initiative, explained their plan to add closely monitored beer sales to concessions available at the college-level player games. They noted beer sales would be done at a separate stand than general concessions and safeguards to prevent overconsumption or impaired driving leaving the stadium would be in place.
With the supervisors seeking input on the Town’s perspective, Bigles worried that a needed timely decision by the County would be negatively impacted by the Town’s refusal to schedule the Card reps for even a town council work session discussion of the initiative. The Town’s rationale apparently being they were not directly involved in County Parks & Rec property decisions or ABC licensing.
The Cardinal representatives were followed to the podium by County IT Director Todd Jones, whose PowerPoint presentation was described as a “Show-and-Tell” on the department’s status and planned reviews and upgrades to equipment and processes, including enhanced system security and personnel development.
Following Jones was Sheriff Mark Butler, who jumped on the PowerPoint bandwagon with an overview of his department’s personnel and organizational makeup and goals, as well as an update on the newest proposed location for a departmental training area and auxiliary storage facility. That 16.32-acre space is located off Catlett Mountain Road.
At times Butler was accompanied by County EDA Director Joe Petty and Public Works Director Mike Berry in covering various logistical aspects of development of the parcel and help answer questions about former recommended sites versus the current one.
From Churchill Downs to Front Royal Town Hall – Longshots are on a roll as Jackson gets council appointment
In a surprise move following a Special Meeting Executive/Closed Session Monday evening, May 9, the Front Royal Town Council announced the appointment of Zach Jackson to the vacant council seat of Scott Lloyd. Lloyd resigned his seat, effective at the end of the March 28th meeting he announced it at. The policy attorney and former Trump Administration Director of Refugee Resettlement at the Southern Border cited potential conflicts of interest with private sector work he either has done, or may in the future do. Lloyd’s vacated term ends December 31, 2024. The winner of a November 8th Special Election will serve out the remainder of that term.
But a council candidate might be asking if it will be easier to get elected this November in a one-on-one (or more) Special Election race where there can be only one winner, or in the General Election where the top three council vote-getters are seated from the field.
As Royal Examiner reported in late February, along with current council-appointed Town Planning Commission member Josh Ingram, political newcomer Jackson announced his November run for council at a February 24th meeting/social event of the Warren County Republican Committee (WCRC) held on the second floor of the Main Street Mill. – Hey, an 80-to-1 shot won the Kentucky Derby Saturday, longshots are on a roll.
Jackson was appointed on a unanimous 5-0 vote on a motion by Republican Committee member Gary Gillespie, seconded by fellow WCRC member Amber Poe Morris. No other nominations were forwarded at the meeting chaired by Vice-Mayor Lori Athey Cockrell in the absence of Mayor Chris Holloway.
Council initially seemed in no hurry to name a successor to Lloyd, perhaps in the wake of its controversial January 4, 2021, appointment of Jacob Meza to fill Chris Holloway’s vacant seat following his elevation to mayor in the 2020 election. However, work session discussion also indicated a reluctance to have a judge take on the responsibility of filling the vacant seat after 45 days. Monday marked the 42nd full day since Lloyd’s resignation.
In addition to the Special Election to fill Lloyd’s vacated seat for the remainder of his term over two years away, four-year council terms are up in the regular November election for Letasha Thompson, Gary Gillespie, and Amber Morris. Morris defeated Bruce Rappaport in a special election to fill out the term of resigned councilman Jacob Meza, who as noted above, was controversially appointed to fill out the unexpired council term of Chris Holloway (expiring Dec. 31, 2022) after Holloway became mayor.
Gillespie along with fellow Councilman Joe McFadden announced runs for mayor at that February 24 Republican Committee dinner event and meeting at The Mill. Should McFadden lose the mayor’s race, unlike Gillespie, he would retain his council seat which is not up for two more years.
Following adjournment of the Special Meeting, council convened a work session at which several items considered routine business earmarked for coming Consent Agenda consideration were discussed, along with other items. Virginia Municipal League Committee appointments were also reviewed.
Municipal Energy Cooperative American Municipal Power (AMP) representative Paul Beckhusen, with some assistance from Town Energy Department Interim Director Mary Ellen Lynn, also briefed council on re-bidding a 2022 group solar power purchase due to higher than anticipated bids being received. A summary of that situation was presented in writing to council, prior to a PowerPoint presentation, and Q&A with council:
“AMP issued a request for proposal (RFP) for an in front-of-the-meter (FTM) solar purchase power agreement (PPA) in 2021 based on the aggregate amount of the membership’s confirmed non-binding interest. The submittals were analyzed, and the best-rated and most economical project was shortlisted. A negotiated term sheet was executed with the selected developer.
“During this time of evaluation and execution of the term sheet, there was a significant run-up in project development costs due to inflationary and supply chain pressures on solar panels and related construction costs. These pressures were not isolated to the selected project but seen across the entire solar development space, which has increased the PPA pricing.
“Due to this changing landscape, the AMP Board of Trustees authorized AMP to proceed with the subscription process for a generic solar PPA that meets all the requirements identified in the RFP. Subscribing the project will allow AMP to confirm the total amount of member participation and have member agreements in place to execute a PPA if/when the … primary negotiated terms are met …”
Lynn later explained to Royal Examiner that if the terms are met and PPA achieved this year, it will show up in the AMP Power Purchase Portfolio in 2025.
Also discussed was the regional municipal energy cooperative’s 2025-2029 “Power Block” purchases and potential impacts and strategies related to looming cost variables there. It was explained to council by staff that the Town’s membership in AMP continues to provide short and long-term benefits due to the group purchasing power and ability to lock in costs on longer term agreements to avoid market pricing fluctuations.
Citizen FOIA timeframe exemption claim against POSF denied, hearing continued to May 11 on allegation of FOIA violations
Long-time Property Owners of Shenandoah Farms (POSF) Board critic Melissa Chappell-White has added a FOIA violations complaint to her list of alleged failures of the organization. In fact, during a hearing on her complaint in Warren County General District Court on Wednesday, May 4, Chappell-White alleged to substitute Judge Ian Williams that the POSF had failed to comply with what she interpreted as a FOIA timeframe requirement for a response to her filing.
Current POSF Board Chairman Ralph Rinaldi told the court his wife has signed for receipt of the paperwork the morning of the previous day, Tuesday, May 3rd, and he had first seen it later that afternoon. Judge Williams noted that normal FOIA response requirements alluded to 7 days for a provision of requested materials with an “at least 3-day” variable on what appeared to be referenced as notice of receipt of the FOIA filing.
Chappell-White told the court she didn’t believe the referenced timeframe applied in her filing. Asked why by the court, Chappell-White could provide no statutory support for her contended exception. Citing potential “extensive penalties” related to her complaint, Judge Williams noted that the defendant was “entitled to something” in the way of a timeframe to reply to the allegations and prepare a legal defense to the assertion of non-compliance she appeared to be making, adding, “I want to give it to them.”
In an attachment to her petition in addition to asking for payment of her costs, Chappell-White asks for civil penalties of $1,000 for each of what she alleges were “improperly closed meetings” and civil penalties of $500 to $2,000 against “each officer, employee and member (of the POSF) for each and every willful violation” of FOIA law.
With these legal variables facing the POSF and its chairman present representing his board less than 24 hours after having received the Chappell-White filing, after consultation with the court clerk, the hearing was continued to Wednesday, May 11th at 11:15 a.m. Williams noted he would not be in court that day, with the hearing likely held in front of Judge Michael Helm in the wake of the recent retirement of Judge W. Dale Houff.
Queried about the allegations outside the courtroom, POSF Inc. Board Chairman Rinaldi said all the regular POSF meetings are held on a publicly posted schedule, with any special meetings advertised at POSF headquarters, which by his understanding met legal requirements for meeting notices.
Chappell-White, along with a couple of other prominent POSF critics, have noted they have elected not to become involved with the POSF as members and generally do not attend POSF meetings to give input on POSF perspectives in an advisory role to Warren County on the management of the Farms Sanitary District since 2010/11. Prior to that the POSF had managed the Sanitary District in conjunction with the county government since the Farms Sanitary District inception in 1995.
Chappell-White’s filing asserts that: “Most recently, POSF Inc’s actions have violated the rights and privileges of the taxpayers of the Shenandoah Farms Sanitary District (SFSD), including petitioner Chappell-White, by planning in secret to try to take over management of the SFSD without giving notice of its intentions and opportunity for SFSD taxpayers to become informed or participate in the decision-making process. Respondent met secretly to develop its plan, and even kept secret its intention to present its plan at a Board of Supervisors meeting on March 29, 2022.”
In the wake of the POSF Inc.’s notice to the county government that it wished to terminate the 2011 management agreement, effective at the end of this fiscal year, the Warren County Board of Supervisors has accepted that notice per conditions of that agreement. And while POSF critics have claimed credit for that 2010/11 County management takeover, Rinaldi noted that POSF leadership at the time, including him, approached the County about taking over management responsibility due to the amount of money involved.
According to County Administrative Office records, of 1,762 surveys distributed to Farms residents in December 2009 regarding the future of the Sanitary District’s management, only 252 (14.5%) were returned. Of that less than 15% response, 66.2% favored a change in management away from the POSF, with 82% of that majority favoring the County taking over. The primary reason cited by supporters of a change was the size of the sprawling Sanitary District requiring a larger management entity’s oversight.
It appeared the POSF anticipated retaking the Sanitary District Management lead in the wake of County financial reporting lapses and the submission of higher road improvement project cost estimates than the POSF was finding over the past year. However, at its meeting of May 3rd, the board of supervisors instructed the county administrator to advertise for Farms residents applications to a Sanitary District Management Advisory Board. Rinaldi has said he feels the current POSF Board is more qualified for the management role than he felt it was in 2010/11.
However, it remains to be seen how many current POSF board members will feel compelled to apply for those Advisory Board positions after being rejected as group, apparently without notice, from the county government.