Council members voted Monday night to cut off applications for prospective members to fill vacancy on panel, planning to name new councilman at first January meeting.
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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.
Town Planning Commission moves to officially join Council at Aug. 16 special work session to allow group feedback on contractor Summit Design’s Comp Plan update
After getting new electronic tablets from IT Director Grant Autry as part of a municipal move away from paper material expenses, and approving four items for advertisement for public hearings, a three-person quorum of the Front Royal Planning Commission got an August 3rd briefing from Planning Director Lauren Kopishke on the status of the Comprehensive Plan update currently underway. Present for that briefing were Chairman Darryl Merchant, Vice-Chair William Gordon, and Commissioner Connie Marshner. It was explained that former Chairman Douglas Jones, who is retiring at the end of the month, had a scheduling conflict and that Josh Ingram was dealing with a family medical emergency.
Pointing for commission feedback on the Comp Plan draft by the end of the month and both commission and council public hearings on approval of a revised Comp Plan by October, Kopishke suggested that commission members attend an August 16 Special Work Session called by the Town Council that includes a presentation on the status of the Comp Plan update from consultant Summit Design and Engineering.
So that commissioners can participate in the work session Q&A with Summit and council it was suggested that the planning commission join council in the call for the Special Work Session, making it a joint session the planners can legally participate in as a group, as opposed to one designated representative.
“You all need to be there,” Kopishke told the commissioners of the 6 p.m. special work session on Tuesday, August 16. “We want to be more involved than last year,” Gordon told his colleagues of what was described as minimal, if any involvement of the planning commission in the launch of the Comp Plan review and update process last year.
After review of the consultant’s draft packet, Planning Director Kopishke observed, “So far – knock on wood – there is nothing controversial in it.” She pointed to a summary page near the outset of the draft Comp Plan citing four major “Big Themes” based on public feedback:
- Preserve Downtown and Create more of what we Love (though exactly what that collective “we” loves was not immediately apparent);
- Improve Town Aesthetics;
- Enhance Safe Mobility and Choice;
- Increase Access to the River.
Those four themes were supported by 10 specific “goals and objectives” which were:
- Small town character;
- Economic Sustainability;
- Environmental Sustainability;
- High Quality Development;
- Housing sustainability;
- Public Health & Safety;
- Reliable Utilities and Services;
- Responsive and Accountable Governance.
Well, okay then.
After reviewing the draft Comp Plan update, Commission Chairman Merchant wondered if a town-wide projected future land use map would be included. Vice-Chairman Gordon offered, “I like the ideas, not the execution” of portions of the graphic presentations in the draft packet.
“And from this we start the ordinance process,” Merchant observed.
“That’s why it’s important we wrap this up by October, November at the latest,” Planning Director Kopishke observed. And on that note the 6 p.m. work session was adjourned at 6:46 p.m.
Prior to that adjournment and the Comp Plan conversation, as noted above the commission authorized four matters to go to public hearing on August 17. First up was Poe’s River’s Edge LLC and Eagle Sky Industrial Park LLC’s request for a Special Exception on the zoning-recommended width of a private street to service the River’s Edge LLC parcels listed at 508 Kendrick Lane and originally proposed for camp site development. The applicant cited a precedent in the town government’s granting of a similar special exception as justification for its application. While not stated, it would appear the referenced previous exception was to Mayor Holloway for his subdivision private road in town.
After some discussion, Merchant noted the circular pattern of the narrower 20-foot width as opposed to the zoning-recommended 36-foot width street through its service area. “I have no problem with it. We’ll see what the public thinks at the public hearing on the 17th.”
The other three applications were for Special Use Permits (SUPs) for short-term tourist rentals at 107 Highfield Lane in an R-1 zone (by William and Melissa Gordon); at 12 Chester Street in a C-2 Zone (Lea Justice); and 124 Luray Avenue in an R-3 zone (Phillip Vaught/Vaught Real Estate LLC). Vice-Chairman Gordon recused himself from discussion of his and his wife’s SUP request.
Supervisors reject tourism friendly Route 211 Bike Route designation, tables decision on Sheriff’s Office replacement of four vehicles
In addition to a number of sometimes eye-opening monthly reports, including from the Virginia Cooperative Extension Office, the County Department of Social Services, and VDOT, at its first monthly meeting of August, Tuesday morning August 2nd, the Warren County Board of Supervisors tackled some “Unfinished Business” and several items removed from a lengthy Consent Agenda for additional scrutiny prior to adjourning to an expanded Closed Session.
As for that Unfinished Business, despite receiving fairly strong assurances from County Attorney Jason Ham that it would be protected from litigation from accident victims on the local portion of a proposed regional US Bike Route 211, the board by a 4-0 vote, Happy Creek Supervisor Jay Butler absent, denied approval of a Resolution of Support for the bike tourism-friendly initiative. Warren joined southern-most involved county Augusta, as the only two of nine involved municipalities rejecting the designation. According to the staff agenda summary, approving it have been Shenandoah and Rockingham Counties, the City of Waynesboro, and Towns of Strasburg, Woodstock, New Market, and Grottoes.
Safety for bikers from motor-vehicle traffic remained a primary concern for the board. Former Planning Director and current County Director of Economic Development Joe Petty gave the supervisors an update on the status, potential local or state signage, and VDOT involvement including large yellow “Share the Road” signs for the project. Petty’s input included his having taken his bike and ridden the involved county portion of the route.
With VDOT signage a variable, if not endorsement based on safety concerns, Petty pointed out an oddly counterproductive VDOT-based variable. With narrow or a lack of road shoulders for bike lanes a safety concern, Petty noted he encountered a portion of the road with “generous shoulders” where VDOT had installed “rumble strips” which while waking up a sleeping and drifting motorist, also forces wide-awake bicycle riders out of the “generous shoulders” into traffic lanes, unless they want to dismount for a walk along the side of the travel lanes.
As to dangers inherent in endorsing physically active tourism initiatives, Petty also noted the community’s promotion of itself as the “Canoe Capital of Virginia” with all the dangers inherent in water sports. But despite the lack of litigation over any past canoeing mishaps and what the county attorney termed “the highest level of immunity” offered to the board by “Sovereign Immunity” codes dating back to English Common Law protections for British monarchs, liable or not, the board’s concerns about the safety of Route 2011 touring bikers held the day, if somewhat hesitantly. A long pause followed Fork District Supervisor Vicky Cook’s motion to deny the Resolution of Support. Finally, Board Chair Cheryl Cullers broke the silence with an “I’ll second it” leading to the 4-0 vote of denial.
About those Chevy Tahoes
On the County’s own motor vehicle front, one of four items pulled from the 14-item Consent Agenda for discussion was the Sheriff’s Office request for approval of two co-operative contracts entered into with the Virginia Sheriff’s Association (VSA) and Fairfax County facilitating the purchase and “upfitting” of four 2022 Chevrolet Tahoes. Board Chair Cullers led the questioning of the contracts totaling $223,742: $159,124 to RK Chevrolet for the four vehicles; $44,618 for the purchase of additional equipment and lights to bring them to law enforcement standards; and an estimated $20,000 to complete “upfitting” of the vehicles.
With Sheriff Mark Butler not present, Deputy Finance Director Alisa Scott whose department would handle the contracted purchases, presented the proposal to the board. Despite the nature of the cooperative contract arrangement through VSA, Chairperson Cullers wondered at the absence of a cost comparison analysis, particularly with Ford Explorers, which she asserted got better mileage than Tahoes.
The agenda packet staff summary notes: “Section 2.2-4604 of the Virginia Public Procurement Act authorizes the County to cooperatively contract through a solicitation issued by VSA and the County of Fairfax on behalf of other public entities. VSA and the Commonwealth competitively solicit goods and services which the County can procure directly from the awarded vendor” adding of these two competitively solicited contracts: “Contract 2205-0917 was awarded to RK Chevrolet, Inc and Contract E194-89772 was awarded to Dana Safety Supply, Inc.”
But with a lack of a direct cost comparison to Ford Explorers on the table, the three supervisors present sided with their chairman in tabling a decision pending further explanation from Sheriff Butler on why the supervisors should trust the Virginia Sheriffs Association, the Commonwealth, and Fairfax County to get them the best deal available on new vehicles, apparently available for immediate delivery and outfitting to law enforcement standards.
So, on Delores Oates (North River District) motion, seconded by Vicky Cook (Fork District), the board voted 4-0 to table the matter until a September meeting for additional information.
Also pulled from the Consent Agenda were two items related to transfers of Warren County Public School (WCPS) funds related to Operating Expenses from one fiscal year to the next. After extensive discussion and explanations from WCPS Finance Director Rob Ballentine, all submitted transfers were approved. A commitment to improved communications between the schools and county administrative finance departments as budget-year variables arise was promised by both sides.
A fourth Consent Agenda item, authorization for Public Hearing of a Conditional Use Permit (CUP) by Cole and Danielle Haase for a Commercial Outdoor Recreational Operation, was also pulled to delay that public hearing to September 27 to facilitate the schedule of the applicants.
See these discussions, the outside agency reports, board and staff reports, and a revised motion into a four-topic Closed Session in the County video. Following reconvening and adjournment of the open meeting, the board convened to a work session review of FOIA standards and a report on planned renovations to the 15th Street Health and Human Services Complex to facilitate the move of the Warren County Senior Center into expanded space there.
Boyers updates Town Council on infrastructure projects
Robbie Boyer, Public Works Director, updated Front Royal Town Council at its regular meeting on July 25, 2022.
Here’s the list of the current projects and their status:
- Curb & Gutter Installation Project – Installing 9,000’ of CG6 curb & gutter and CG9 driveway aprons on ten streets, the project is 50% completed and should be wrapped up by mid-September 2022.
- West Duck St Drainage Project – GEI started on July 18th, upgrading the existing 18” culvert to 30”, they’ll be finishing up the curb & gutter and backfilling this week and should be done by Thursday, July 28th.
- North Royal Ave Paving Project – Kick’in Asphalt started on North Royal Ave on July 18th. The milling and paving should be wrapped up with this on Friday, July 29th. Their line painters will be here on Sunday night and Monday night to install the new line markings. Then West 13th Street, George Banks and Belmont Avenue.
- 610B and 612 West 11th Street Storm Drain Upgrade – The town has installed the new 36” culvert between the two townhouses to the back of the property shy of the EDA fence. We received the signed right-of-entry agreement from the EDA this past Friday, July 22nd.
- Braxton Road and Manassas Avenue Waterline Upgrade Projects – We had a pre-bid meeting on June 27th at the town hall and had a good turnout of contractors show up. The bid opening is this Thursday at 2:00 pm. The plan is to have it ready for Town Council approval in August.
- John Marshall Hwy Waterline Upgrade Project – Bid will be posted on Friday, July 29th, with a pre-bid meeting on Thursday, August 11th, and bids will be opened on Tuesday, August 30th.
- Robinhood Lane Prv Vault – Order on April 26, 2022, and still looking at another ten weeks for delivery due to the traffic bearing hatch.
- Richmond Rd Prv Vault – Working on the vault drawings and bid documents, plan to bid out in late August 2022.
- Redundant Water-line Project – The pre-bid meeting was held on July 19th with 12 different contractors. The bid opening will be on August 24, 2022.
- Custom Storm Drain Lids -We’re in the process of coating the 25 custom storm drain lids for East Main Street. We’re planning to have them all coated by the end of next week.
Rotary gets the lowdown on plans for downtown Front Royal from Vice-Mayor Cockrell
Vice-Mayor Lori A. Cockrell, in a speech before the Rotary Club of Front Royal, shared a Town of Front Royal list of accomplishments with Rotarians over recent years, followed by a “to do” list of tasks needed to be completed in the years ahead.
So, what do we need and what have we got? These are some of the items discussed at Rotary’s regular weekly meeting at the community center last Friday, July 22:
Tourism appears of major interest to Cockrell, who listed a Memorandum Of Understanding (MOU) with the county government to fund “Discover Front Royal” that will help the Town and County to focus on bringing visitors to the area. She mentioned the recent hiring of a special events coordinator, Elizabeth Lewis, who, for example, planned and executed the town’s Fourth of July celebrations, the most recent community event that Cockrell said “many citizens are (still) talking about.”
Along with this, Cockrell, who is the lone mayoral candidate on the ballot in this November’s election, remarked on the “new look” Main Street with its murals and colorful store displays. She reported that a new event policy for Main Street has been “firmed up”and a new pavilion completed last year is in use.
Establishment of the Front Royal Economic Development Authority (FREDA) is off to “a really amazing start,” the vice mayor asserted. She reported briefly on a retreat the FREDA board had a week or so ago, guided by a facilitator “who really helped us discuss our vision and what we’d like to see accomplished in the area of economic development for the town.”
Among other accomplishments she mentioned was the completion of the Stonewall Drive Bridge project and the final sale of the Afton Inn. She said completion of the Afton Inn project is anticipated for the fall of 2023.
Some things “on deck” or in the process of completion include:
- Finalization of land acquisitions that will allow a backup water supply (Redundant Waterline project) to serve downtown businesses. Cost: $11 million, possibly more.
- Completion of the town’s Comprehensive Plan by February 2023.
- Blighted buildings in and around town, remain, after years of discussion and enabling ordinance passages without action, a priority for Council, Cockrell claimed. Perhaps aware of the Town’s slow move towards enforcement within its boundaries, she cautioned that: “This is a community issue, not just a Town concern.”
- Shenandoah Rail Trail: a 50-mile Broadway to Front Royal former railroad section converted to a hiking trail, still under discussion.
- Support for a new Drug Treatment Court, planned and approved for Warren County.
Regarding this last item, the council’s Vice-Mayor, a veteran school teacher, said: “Too many of our youth and loved ones have been taken away due to drugs and we must provide a healthy, vibrant and substance abuse-free community.”
Despite opposition from FREDA chairman Novak, Town Planning Commission forwards adjusted Data Center proposal
At its regular meeting on July 20th, the Front Royal Planning Commission edged out a late effort by the Front Royal EDA (FREDA) to get the commission to revert to an earlier version of an Ordinance to define and set rules for data centers in the town. In its June meeting, the commission considered a change that would have allowed a data center by-right and instead voted to forward a modified ordinance change that will require a Special Use Permit (SUP) for siting a data center. Subsequently, in its June 27th meeting, Town Council appeared to agree with the Planning Commission’s stance on the Special Use Permit and returned the ordinance change to the planning commission to incorporate the wording the commission had suggested. That was the version before the commission on Wednesday for their recommendation.
Rick Novak, Chair of the Front Royal EDA, addressed the commissioners during the public hearing, followed by Vice-Chair Mark Tapsack. Novak had provided a package to the commissioners at the beginning of the meeting that recommended the adoption of the original by-right language.
Among other information, the package listed Town revenue estimates from Real Estate and Personal Property taxes averaging $122,500 annually, without listing any expenses the town would incur in supporting a facility of this type. Industry research provides a wide variety of data about this rapidly spreading business, in which developers typically look for sites that can provide low real estate costs, ready access to utilities, and capacity for power and water. Relative to the size of facilities, data centers employ very few people on-site, usually between 5 and 30 full-time equivalents (FTE). That can cut both ways, as it means less impact on local schools or roads, but it also means that jobs – a large part of building a community’s economic health, are relatively few, even though they are generally well-paying. Combine that with rosy projections for tax revenues, and it is easy to see why many localities are signing on to the trend. During his presentation, Novak said that data center developers don’t like to share too much data, as the business environment is extremely competitive. That means that recruitment and negotiations with potential employers are often shrouded in secrecy and that consequently contributes to citizens’ mistrust of the process.
Technologies are rapidly evolving that reduce the power and water demands of these facilities, and more can be expected, but even with those increased efficiencies, data centers still impact the community and its resources. Land use decisions also can have unintended consequences.
Ultimately, the Commission voted to recommend its own version of the Ordinance with the provision for Special Use Permitting of Data Centers to the Town Council. The commission did not indicate in any of its discussions that it is opposed to data centers, only that there should be an opportunity for oversight and public input on a case-by-case basis.
The commission also conducted public hearings for two new short-term tourist rentals.
- Joy Allen and Patrick Masch for a commercial (C-1) zoned property at 425 North Royal Avenue
- Jerry and Martha Britton for a Commercial (C-2) zoned property at 18 East Stonewall Drive.
There were no speakers for either public hearing, and both applications were unanimously recommended for approval.
Ramzi Beidas has applied for a Special Use Permit (SUP) for two apartments on the ground floor of his Commercial (C-1) building at 650 W. 11th Street. The property is the former Royal Village Laundromat. There were no speakers for this public hearing, and the commission voted unanimously to recommend approval.
A fourth application from Poe’s River Edge LLC for a Special Exception for a new proposed private street to improve traffic flow through parcels at 508 Kendrick Lane was withdrawn prior to a public hearing for some engineering revisions.
The commission’s Consent Agenda was for three authorizations to advertise for a public hearing for short-term tourist rental SUPs:
- 107 Highfield Lane, by William and Melissa Gordon
- 12 Chester St., by Lea Justice
- 124 Luray Avenue, by Phillip Vaught
The commission voted to approve the authorizations to advertise unanimously, and the public hearings will be held on August 17.