One political bombshell punctuated the balance of the Tuesday morning, September 3, Warren County Board of Supervisors meeting. That was Board Chairman Dan Murray’s announcement that he was dropping any partisan political allegiance for the balance of his tenure on the local political scene. Murray has announced his retirement from the board for personal and health reasons at the end of his current term when November board election winners are sworn in to begin 2020.
“Looking at the political atmosphere in this county and the disruptions in this county, I have done some soul searching. And it is very hard to be true and transparent and to consider myself a member of any one political party. So I would like to publicly announce that I’m independent,” Murray said during reports of board members, adding, “I do not vote a party line, I vote for what’s best for where I live. So that violates the party’s policies and procedures and being that I’m violating those I’m declaring myself an independent.”
Murray has been a Warren County Republican Committee member his entire term on the county board. He won an unusual three-way race for the North River District seat on the Warren County Board of Supervisors in November 2011.
In that race former county Republican Committee member and Front Royal Town Councilman Chris Holloway declared himself a Democrat and with a contingent of 15 to 20 friends secured the Democratic Committee North River caucus nomination away from incumbent Democrat Glenn White. If memory serves, White was the county’s lone sitting incumbent Democrat at the time. In reaction to that, Democratic Committee member Tory Failmezger jumped into the race as an Independent write-in candidate.
With the opposition vote thus split, Murray won as the Republican Committee nominee. It is a four-year term he has once since been reelected to.
Prior to that announcement Murray forwarded the McShin Foundation initiative to see that some state-recovered funding from litigation seeking restitution from major pharmaceutical companies for their pushing of highly-addictive opioid drugs into the prescription marketplace in recent years, be funneled into inmate substance-abuse recovery and rehabilitation programs.
Murray noted the grassroots and local municipal foundation upon which that effort may need to spring from. The goal is acquiring a portion of state-controlled settlement or court-ordered pharmaceutical assets to assist funding of such proactive programs designed to limit criminal recidivism. The topic was part of a closed session discussion with legal representation for such an effort.
See Murray’s drug rehab funding initiative, political independence announcement and other County business in the linked Royal Examiner video:
Supervisors delay vote on VDOT-aided road improvement projects
Citing budgetary concerns in the coming fiscal year and a desire not to raise taxes to meet budgetary commitments, a majority of the Warren County Board of Supervisors urged delay of a vote approving a VDOT-requested Resolution committing the County’s contribution to preliminary engineering, right of way acquisition and construction costs on seven projects through the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) Revenue Sharing Program.
While the vote was unanimous to table the matter to the February 4 meeting, it appeared that non-first term members Archie Fox and Tony Carter concurred only because it did not appear a two-week delay approving the Resolution would jeopardize VDOT’s matching contribution on road improvement projects on the table for several years.
The fact the County’s share of the dollar-for-dollar state match totaled $753,312.50 was too much for the three newly-seated supervisors without further information on, not only road improvement expenses, but other anticipated funding needs in the coming budget cycle. It appeared the three newly-elected supervisors were firmly committed to avoiding any tax increase to balance the coming FY 2021 budget.
The staff summary of the agenda item noted that the County already has $411,220 set aside in “special projects” for the revenue sharing program; and anticipated having another $100,000 in carryover from the current budget for the program which often spans several budget cycles.
“To complete payment of the remaining share of the projects would require less than $250,000 moving forward,” staff wrote in the agenda summary of committing County revenue to what would be a total revenue input of $1.5 million toward VDOT eligible projects in the county.
However, without departmental, outside agency and other FY 2021 budget aspects yet on the table, Supervisors Mabe, Cullers and Oates were reluctant to forward commitment of all or part of the three quarters of a million-dollar-plus county half of that money to road infrastructure improvements.
Impacted projects include the Cauthorn Mill Road Rural Rustic Project; Old Oak Lane, Phase IV Rural Addition Project (Shenandoah Farms Sanitary District); Youngs Drive, Phase II (Shenandoah Farms); Rockland Road grade-separated (railroad) crossing; Grove Farm Road – Rural Addition Priority # 6 (Fairfield Acres Subdivision); Blue Valley Road, Phase I, Rural Addition Priority # 7 (Linden Heights Sanitary District); and Old Oak Lane, Phase V – Rural Addition Priority # 8 (Shenandoah Farms).
Cullers said she was willing to move forward with approval of the Rockland Road project, noting that $710,000 in BUILD Grant/SmartScale funding appeared to have been secured – “I haven’t totally lost my mind up here,” Cullers observed of not looking a gift horse in the mouth.
During the discussion it was explained that in Sanitary District projects, VDOT paid 50%, the County 25%, and the Sanitary District taxpayers 25%.
See the discussion in this exclusive Royal Examiner video:
Supervisors deny EDA request for dismissed charges legal fees – for now
On Tuesday, January 21, the Warren County Board of Supervisors denied the current EDA Board of Director’s request that four past and three current members be compensated for their legal fees related to three misdemeanor criminal indictments brought by the Special Grand Jury empaneled to explore potential criminality tied to the EDA financial scandal and consequent civil litigation.
The charges for unintentional misfeasance and nonfeasance in the conduct of their public offices were brought against the entire previous board of supervisors, County Administrator Doug Stanley and former County and EDA Attorney Dan Whitten, as well as the seven past and current EDA board members. After the charges were dismissed against all defendants as not crimes by statute or even English Common Law upon which Virginia law is based, the previous County board voted to reimburse its members and staff’s legal expenses, with only ousted Shenandoah District Supervisor Tom Sayre dissenting.
North River Supervisor Delores Oates, who made the motion not to approve the request, qualified it with the disclaimer “not at this time with the information we have at this time”. Oates said she did not feel comfortable committing county taxpayer funds to the EDA legal expenses without more information.
Oates, along with Board Chairman Walter Mabe and Vice-Chair Cheryl Cullers, the latter who seconded the motion not to approve the legal restitution for now, have been frequent attendees at EDA Board of Directors meeting in recent months. All have expressed a desire to work with the existing board to try and right the EDA’s financial ship from past mistakes or allegedly criminal activities orchestrated by former EDA executive director, Jennifer McDonald. McDonald currently faces 34 felony criminal indictments by the EDA Special Grand Jury related to the EDA financial investigative audit and civil litigation.
“It would be ludicrous for us to turn our backs on our EDA,” Board Chairman Mabe recently stated, in stark contrast to the Front Royal Town Council’s increasingly hostile and litigious stance against the Town-County EDA. Discussion of the Town and County roles in support, or a lack thereof, of the current EDA should make for interesting agenda item discussion at Thursday’s scheduled Town-County Liaison Meeting.
Happy Creek Supervisor Tony Carter argued for the reimbursement, at least partially, noting that the EDA board had agreed to pay the requested total of $36,827.17 back when it was financially able – “though that might not be for a while,” Carter observed.
Carter suggested perhaps capping the EDA board compensation at $4,000 per member since questions have been raised about the disparity in some legal fees, compared to others. Former EDA Board Chairman Greg Drescher’s legal bill was $10,000, twice that of the next highest amount of $5,000 submitted by long-time former EDA Board Treasurer William “Billy” Biggs. Other EDA legal fee totals ranged from $4809.17 (Patteson) to $3,000 (Drummond).
Carter suggested postponing a vote, rather than denying the request due to the timeframe around reintroducing failed motions – one year. However, Acting County Attorney Jason Ham verified that a supervisor voting with the majority denying a motion, or in this case approving a motion to deny the request, could reintroduce the defeated initiative at any time.
Consequently, Carter voted with Oates, Cullers and Mabe to deny the request, leaving only Archie Fox voting against the denial.
Watch the discussion on this exclusive Royal Examiner video:
Due diligence rather than mistrust of staff led to split vote on County bills
That a change of perspective has come to the Warren County Board of Supervisors was reflected in the second meeting with the three-person board majority seated with the new year in the fiscal, among other saddles, on Tuesday, January 21st.
After a lengthy discussion of what would normally be considered routine business – approval of payment of accounts due, the board narrowly agreed to pay its bills on schedule when Board Chairman and new Shenandoah District Supervisor Walter Mabe voted with the two carryover supervisors, Archie Fox and Tony Carter, to approve those payments.
However, his fellow newly-elected supervisors, Vice-Chair Cheryl Cullers and Delores Oates voted against keeping the County current on its bills without more time to verify that they were all legitimate expenses.
After Cullers said she had red-lined a number of items for explanation by staff, Carter suggested she forward those questions to administrative staff prior to meetings to avoid such a last-minute reluctance to pay monthly, or in this case two months, of bills coming due. Cullers responded that there had been two holidays creating a 4-day weekend after she picked the agenda packet up late Thursday afternoon, minimizing the time staff was in office to respond to questions.
County Administrator Doug Stanley said he, the finance director or department heads from whom the billing documents are generated, could generally answer any questions board members might have on accounts payable.
The trio of newly elected supervisors all campaigned on reform of business as usual platforms in reaction to public outrage over the $21.3 million Economic Development Authority (EDA) scandal and alleged embezzlements. And with a number of public, not to mention not-quite-private, comments offered Tuesday night illustrating suspicions that some County administrative staff, as well as past County and EDA board members may have been negligent, if not worse in allowing the EDA financial scandal to develop over several years, we wondered if distrust of staff led to Cullers and Oates votes against approving the accounts payable agenda item Tuesday.
Reached the following day, they said no. In fact, Cullers and Oates both said they were not initially aware a vote against approval that night would delay scheduled payments being made the following day.
“We’re on a learning curve and with the long weekend I did my due diligence going over the payments line by line,” Cullers said, adding, “It’s not that I was suspicious, it was I didn’t understand certain line items. And when I campaigned, I said I wasn’t going to be a bobble-head in approving things if I did not understand them. I don’t want to hold up anybody’s check. I didn’t campaign to be elected to give a negative impression of Warren County. And I don’t want anybody to think I thought anybody on our staff did anything wrong.”
“I didn’t want to rubber stamp something without scrutinizing it. It was not really a distrust. It’s our responsibility to understand where the money is going. We owe it to the taxpayers to make our government more transparent and accountable,” the North River District supervisor said.
Stanley later explained to Royal Examiner that January is the one time each year where the board gets accounts due payable in two months, December when there is only one board meeting due to the holidays, and January. Stanley gave us monthly totals for December and January that were elusive among the 47 and 45 pages of bills, respectively. Those totals were $2,928,773.92 for December and $2,719,279.46 for January.
So, if some of their constituents may be prone to as yet-unsubstantiated theories of public official collusion with a “good, ole boy” network at an as-yet-undiscovered back end of the EDA financial scandal, Oates and Cullers prefer to see their questions and care as simple due diligence in the expenditure of taxpayer money in jobs they are still adjusting to. And it is a first month adjustment period during which they were exposed to their initial Accounts Payable agenda item at a two-month total of over $5.6 million.
Watch the discussion on this exclusive Royal Examiner video:
Work session: Town reviews inclement weather policy, new Sheetz project
FRONT ROYAL — Following a closed session to interview town manager candidates, members of the Front Royal Town Council during their January 21 work session reviewed proposed changes to the Town’s inclement weather policy, as well as a new Sheetz Inc. project, signs at the new hospital on Leach Run Parkway, and a water-sewer connection fees waiver request from a local nonprofit.
In an intersection improvements agenda item brought before the Town Council by Front Royal Planning and Zoning Director Jeremy Camp, it was recommended that the Town accept a donation of funds from Sheetz and approve the company’s planned store and gas station project, which will be built on the site of the shuttered Shenandoah Motel.
Sheetz has purchased the motel lot where it will build and this summer open a station with 10 fuel pumps and a roughly 4,900-square-feet store, along with parking, landscaping and an underground stormwater management facility.
A full entrance has been proposed on N. Shenandoah Avenue and W. 17th Street for the Sheetz store and gas station project, which recently received approval from the Front Royal Planning Commission.
However, planning commission members expressed concerns during the site plan review process about general traffic congestion, as well as the narrowness of the intersection on W. 17th Street.
In response, Sheetz has offered to pick up 100 percent of the tab by donating a total of $23,322 to the Town to add a slip-lane that would improve the level of service of the intersection by separating right-turn movement from left-turn movement, said Camp, who also included a draft cash escrow agreement between Sheetz and the Town in the agenda packet.
After Town Councilmen William Sealock and Gary Gillispie noted their own concerns about the project’s start date and the subsequent impact on traffic, Town Mayor Eugene Tewalt told Interim Town Manager Matthew Tederick to place the item on the Town Council’s next consent agenda for action so that the project can get going.
Camp also presented another work session agenda item regarding a Town Code amendment request from Valley Health, which has submitted an application for an ordinance amendment to the Town’s sign regulations, primarily for public safety.
The Town’s planning commission previously reviewed the Valley Health request, held a public hearing, and then approved it.
Specifically, Valley Health’s requested amendment would change existing Town Code regulations to define what a medical center is and modify existing standards.
For example, the maximum sign size requirement would change from a maximum sign size of 60-square-feet to 200-square-feet for wall signs; to 150-square-feet for public ground-mounted signs; and to 75-square-feet for private ground-mounted signs, according to the work session agenda form.
Camp said that such standards are comparable with the standards that Valley Health uses at other new hospital facilities, such as the one in Winchester, Va. And the changes would apply only to medical centers that include medical facilities as part of an integrated development on at least two acres, he said.
Town staff, which does not object to the planning commission’s approval recommendation, on Tuesday recommended that Town Council hold a required public hearing along with a first and second reading for a Town Code amendment.
In another work session agenda item, Tederick discussed changes to the Town’s inclement weather policy for council members to consider.
Tederick said he’s “trying to change the culture” among Town employees, and he said he considers all employees to be “essential employees.”
Thus, the interim mayor provided policy and procedures outlining the responsibilities of essential and non-essential employees — to be referred to as Tier 1 and Tier 2 employees, respectively — during inclement weather.
Tier 1 Employees are those whose job functions require that he/she report to work, regardless of environmental factors, to provide essential services to the public, or provide direct leadership or support, according to Tederick’s outline. These employees would be in a department that typically operates on a 24-hour-a-day rotating schedule or would play a critical role in maintaining the safety and services of the Town.
Tier 2 Employees are those whose job functions are not considered critical for maintaining the safety and services to the Town, and who are not required to report to work during an inclement weather event.
Tederick then described procedures for employees, as well as their pay, when Town offices are open and when there’s a closure or delayed opening.
For example, Tier 1 employees who don’t report to work as scheduled during inclement weather conditions will not be paid, he said, nor granted the use of accumulated leave for time missed from work. Such employees also could be subject to disciplinary action.
It’s also important to note, Tederick said, that employees on vacation, sick, or personal leave, or otherwise not scheduled to work during the affected time period, are not eligible to be paid under this policy.
The other work session agenda item was a request from Habitat for Humanity of Warren County for the Town to waive the water and sewer tap fees totaling $15,068 for a new duplex at the corner of Brown Avenue and Cherrydale Avenue.
“Receiving this waiver will help lower the mortgage payment which will make the home more affordable for the chosen family,” Priest-Cahill wrote in a January 3 request sent to Tederick.
However, instead of issuing the waiver of the tap fees, Tederick recommended to Town Council members that an agreement be made with the property owners to place a lien on the duplex for the water and sewer connection fees.
Tederick cited a similar agreement executed in 2014 between the Town, Habitat for Humanity and a Cannon Street property owner for a waiver of planning permit fees and a waiver for the water and sewer connection fees, according to information Tederick provided to council members on Tuesday night.
Lastly, Front Royal Director of Finance B.J. Wilson presented the fiscal year (FY) 2021 revenue forecast for the Town, summarizing totals from taxes for real estate, personal property, bank stock, sales, lodging, communication, and meals, for instance, as well as expected revenue from water and sewer sales, among others.
Wilson said for FY 2021, the total projected Town revenue is $42,128,597. This would be an increase over both the projected FY 2020 revenue total of $41,586,920 and the actual FY 2019 revenue of $40,814,872, said Wilson.
Councilman Jacob Meza was absent during the January 21 work session, which was attended by Mayor Tewalt; Vice Mayor Sealock; and council members Gillispie, Chris Holloway, Letasha Thompson, and Lori Cockrell.
The Town Council’s next regular meeting is scheduled for January 27 and the council has another work session planned for February 3.
Watch the entire Town Council work session on this exclusive Royal Examiner video:
Cockrell sworn in to Town Council among family and friends
It was a family affair as Lori Athey Cockrell was sworn in to fill the unexpired town council term of newly-elected Mayor Eugene Tewalt on Tuesday afternoon, January 21, in Warren County Courthouse Circuit Courtroom B.
Present was a large contingent of family and friends, including brother Clay Athey who preceded her on council prior to his election to the Virginia House of Delegates and subsequent judicial appointments. Sister Kim, also a judge after a career like Clay as an attorney, was stuck in traffic on the way from Richmond.
Administering Cockrell’s oath of office was niece Sarah Jackson, a deputy clerk in the Circuit Court Clerk’s Office, as Cockrell’s great niece and Jackson’s daughter Saige, 6, held the Bible upon which the new councilman swore her oath with husband Ricky by her side. During the interview process Cockrell told the media she was poised to retire from her career in county public education and would have the time to devote to the duties of elected office in her hometown. She will face election to hold her appointed seat next November.
The swearing in took place at about 5:15 p.m., giving Cockrell less than two hours to adjust to her role as more than a citizen observer and councilperson-elect at a scheduled 7 p.m. work session.
Mayor Tewalt outlines goals for 2020
Mayor Eugene Tewalt stopped by the Royal Examiner’s studio and outlined his goals for 2020 with our publisher Mike McCool. Watch as they discuss the goals outlined below in this exclusive Royal Examiner video:
His goals include:
1 – Closer working relationship with Board of Supervisors
2 – Inflow & Infiltration
3 – Repairs to failing infrastructure
4 – Tourism
5 – Economic development
6 – Beautification
7 – Pedestrian safety
8 – 55+ communities
9 – Police Department
10 – Town Hall meetings
11 – Hiring a new Town Manager