Known in medieval Celtic culture as a storyteller, verse maker, and composer, the word ‘Bard’ has become synonymous with the world’s greatest poets. However, few are as celebrated as Scotland’s own ‘National Bard’, Robert Burns, who we pay tribute to each year near the anniversary of his birth on January 25, 1759, with haggis, scotch, and poetry readings!
EDA welcomes Town Manager Steven Hicks to meeting & gets good news from McDonald bankruptcy hearing
Things appear to continue to be turning in a positive direction for the Warren County Economic Development Authority (WC-EDA) in the wake of the recent sale of the Afton Inn for redevelopment by the 2 East Main LLC investment group. On the heels of that sale, authorized at a Special Meeting of February 12 and finalized a week later, the WC-EDA held its monthly meeting by way of the now familiar virtually connected ZOOM format the morning of Friday, February 26.
Two things stood out during the open session sandwiching a 57-minute closed session. The first was the welcoming of Town Manager Steven Hicks shortly after the 8 a.m. meeting start. It was the first appearance of a town manager with an accompanying update on Town business at an EDA Board of Directors meeting in about 18 months.
That traditional line of communications was terminated during the tenure of former Interim Town Manager Matt Tederick as the town government took on an increasingly adversarial and litigious stance with the EDA as a revamped EDA board worked to right its ship in the wake of the $21-million-plus financial scandal alleged to have developed during the tenure of former EDA Executive Director Jennifer McDonald.
EDA civil litigation gets reboot
The second positive note came post closed session during Board Chairman Jeff Browne’s Executive Committee Report. Browne acknowledged a decision by Harrisonburg-based U.S. Bankruptcy Court Judge Rebecca B. Connelly returning consideration of exactly what assets Jennifer McDonald can claim as part of her bankruptcy filing to the state court level.
“The bankruptcy court has remanded her particular case to state court to assess damages, at which point damages are assessed it will go back to the bankruptcy court to decide whether or not it should go back to the state courts or be handled in the bankruptcy court,” Browne told his board.
Contacted after the meeting, Browne elaborated on the implications of Judge Connelly’s ruling. He explained it will allow the EDA’s civil litigation against McDonald to re-start to determine exactly what EDA assets McDonald may have misappropriated and how they may have been used to purchase properties or other tangible assets. Her surviving real estate company MoveOn8 is also part of her bankruptcy filing, he noted.
When the state court findings are returned to the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Harrisonburg, Judge Connelly will determine what assets McDonald can legitimately claim as her own that are subject to bankruptcy claims and asset distribution, versus what assets held by her or her real estate company the EDA would have civil claim to as restitution for her alleged criminal acts of embezzlement and misappropriation of EDA funds to her own use.
A virtual Town-EDA ‘lovefest’
Back on the Town-EDA relations front, EDA Board Chairman Browne welcomed Hicks by virtual connection, offering him the opportunity to give his report prior to adjournment to the closed session. And while an opening portion of that report was acknowledgment of the town council’s decision to move forward with creation of its own EDA with Hicks as executive director, that there was a renewed sense of Town-EDA cooperation was soon apparent.
“As town manager I’m here to help in any way I can,” Hicks told Browne and the four-member EDA Board quorum present virtually (Browne, Harold, Pattison, Wolfe), before reporting on the status of the Town’s FY-2022 Budget process.
“I just want to congratulate you on your new position. You must have found the secret to a 48-hour day,” Browne told Hicks at the conclusion of the town manager’s report. “I just want to tell you for our board, that anything we can do to help in the areas you’re focused on: redevelopment, tourism, retention of businesses are all good things that we look forward to working with FREDA (Front Royal Economic Development Authority) on.
“We would like to work with you and coordinate with the Town. I think that we can do a lot to help economic development for the entire area. So, we appreciate you’re stepping up and taking on what will be a challenging task,” Browne added of Hicks new dual role.
“Will do – I’ll definitely stay in contact and share everything as much as I can with you and Doug (EDA Executive Director Doug Parsons) and Ed (Warren County Interim County Administrator Ed Daley). So yea, sounds great,” Hicks replied.
At that point EDA Board member Jim Wolfe, who has taken point in his board’s work on development of short and long-term Strategic Planning on economic development and job creation, joined the conversation. Wolfe offered to get a copy of what the WC-EDA has done on that front recently to Hicks by Monday.
“Then you and I can sit down and talk about it at some point. And if any other board members want to join me … So, I want to make sure that the … Town has our plan and use that for a touch point for how you coordinate on different projects,” Wolfe said of developing a unified plan of action community wide.
“I’d appreciate that,” Hicks replied, perhaps seeing his “48-hour days” reduced in some measure by that level of County EDA involvement with his work on the Town side. Continuing in that vein of cooperation, Hicks added, “Again, I just wanted to call in (on ZOOM) and touch base with you all and be as transparent as I can. And always reach out to me when you need anything, and I’ll do the same.”
“Good, thank you so much,” Browne replied to the new attitude being reflected out of Front Royal Town Hall as Hicks signed off from the meeting.
COVID-19 Updates for County, Health District, State, Nation and Global
Since our last update at the end of January, in the first three weeks of February 2021, Warren County has reported 236 new COVID-19 cases and four deaths, to 41 from 37, attributed to the Coronavirus pandemic. Twelve more people, to 88 from 76 were hospitalized here due to the viral infection.
And unhappily, as pointed out by reader Kelli Hart in an Open Letter to our county and town elected officials reprinted in our OPINION section, Warren County, including the Town of Front Royal, continues to report a higher death rate per reported cases (1.82%) than both the Commonwealth of Virginia (1.32%) and the nation (1.78%), as well as carrying the third highest deaths per cases ratio in the Northern Shenandoah Valley region, including our five fellow Lord Fairfax Health District (LFHD) communities.
In the past four months since late October through the predicted Phase 3 and holiday COVID surge, Warren County has recorded 29 of its 41 fatalities. But as Warren County Emergency Services Coordinator Rick Farrall noted in his introduction to the February 21 numbers tabulated the following morning: “Good News: LFHD reports that both the COVID-19 case rate and associated death rate is finally declining in the District.”
We can only hope that trend continues as vaccine distribution becomes more available across the health district, state and nation.
A check of the Center for Disease Control (CDC) website on February 22, at 6:30 p.m. indicated 111,434,130 reported cases and 2,467,481 deaths globally. The U.S. cases (28,409,397) and deaths climbing over half million at 504,012, continue to account for about 25% to 20% of the global cases and deaths, with the U.S.’s 4% of the world population. Note: local vaccination information will be reported in a companion report.
Below, see the full comparative COVID-19 statistics in several week increments as reported by County Emergency Services since the turn of the year:
- COVID-19 Information (Current Data, as of 2/22 at 8:56 AM):
- Good News: LFHD reports that both the COVID-19 case rate and associated death rate is finally declining in the District.
- Lord Fairfax Health District: As of today (per the VDH website), the number of total COVID-19 cases per locality are: Clarke 749, Frederick 6,673, Page 1,809, Shenandoah 3,669, Warren 2,249 (88 are/were hospitalized, 41 deaths attributed to the County; deaths 1.82% total cases), Winchester 2,447; the current status of these patients is unknown (admitted to hospital, discharged to home isolation/quarantine, departed the District/County).
- Commonwealth: 5,762,389 total people tested (PCR only); 565,270 total cases [8.3% positive rate (PCR only)]; 23,530 total hospitalized; 7,486 total deaths (1.32%total cases).
- United States: As of February 21, 2021, there are 27,882,557 total cases and 496,112 total deaths (1.78%total cases) attributed to COVID-19.
- Current CDC Guidance Regarding When to Quarantine/Options to Reduce Quarantine
- Updated CDC guidance as of February 11, 2020.
- Recommend everyone familiarize themselves with the updated guidance. See attached and website link below for details.
- COVID-19 Information (Feb. 1, 2021):
- Lord Fairfax Health District: As of today (per the VDH website), the number of total COVID-19 cases per locality are: Clarke 677, Frederick 6,023, Page 1,660, Shenandoah 3,417, Warren 2,013 (76 are/were hospitalized, 37 deaths attributed to the County; deaths 1.84% total cases), Winchester 2,301; the current status of these patients is unknown (admitted to hospital, discharged to home isolation/quarantine, departed the District/County).
- Commonwealth: 5,261,801 total people tested (PCR only); 507,640 total cases [11.7% positive rate (PCR only)]; 21,444 total hospitalized; 6,474 total deaths (1.28%total cases).
- United States: As of January 31, 2021 at 12:26 PM, there are 25,921,703 total cases and 438,035 total deaths (1.69%total cases) attributed to COVID-19.
- COVID-19 Information (January 15, 2021):
- Lord Fairfax Health District: As of today (per the VDH website), there are 12,733 confirmed COVID-19 cases (Clarke 491, Frederick 4,661, Page 1,289, Shenandoah 2,756, Warren 1,633 (71 are/were hospitalized, 36 deaths attributed to the County; deaths 2.20% total cases), Winchester 1,903); the current status of these patients is unknown (admitted to hospital, discharged to home isolation/quarantine, departed the District/County).
- Commonwealth: 4,730,680 total people tested (PCR only); 422,634 total cases [15.2% positive rate (PCR only)]; 19,741 total hospitalized; 5,656 total deaths (1.34%total cases).
- United States: As of January 14, 2021 at 12:16 PM, there are 22,965,957 total cases and 383,351 total deaths (1.67%total cases) attributed to COVID-19.
- COVID-19 Information (December 30, 2020):
- Lord Fairfax Health District: As of today (per the VDH website), there are 9,877 confirmed COVID-19 cases (Clarke 385, Frederick 3,703, Page 1,015, Shenandoah 2,186, Warren 1,321 (69 are/were hospitalized, 33 deaths attributed to the County; deaths 2.50% total cases), Winchester 1,637); the current status of these patients is unknown (admitted to hospital, discharged to home isolation/quarantine, departed the District/County).
- Commonwealth: 4,220,943 total people tested (PCR only); 344,345 total cases [12.7% positive rate (PCR only)]; 17,910 total hospitalized; 4,984 total deaths (1.45%total cases).
- United States: As of December 29, 2020 at 2:25 PM, there are 19,232,843 total cases and 334,029 total deaths (1.74%total cases) attributed to COVID-19.
Sheriff’s Office investigates virtual student threat to WCMS
The Royal Examiner received this press release on February 26, 2021.
On February 24, 2021, Warren County Sheriff’s Office received information referencing threats to Warren County Middle school by a virtual student.
The threats were immediately investigated and Warren County School Administration notified. Through investigation and consultation with the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office, it was determined the threats were not creditable.
At no time was the safety of staff and students at Warren County Middle School at risk. Warren County Sheriff’s Office would like to thank Warren County School Administration staff and Warren County Middle School staff for their assistance throughout the investigation.
Summary of the Warren County EDA Board meeting of Friday, February 26
The EDA Board of Directors conducted their regular monthly board meeting this morning, February 26, via Zoom. The Board welcomed Front Royal Town Manager Steven Hicks prior to going into Closed Session. Mr. Hicks noted that the Town’s budget proposal for the fiscal year 2022 was being prepared. A summary overview was included in the board packet and digital copies of the 32-page presentation are available from the EDA office. Please contact Administrative Assistant Gretchen Henderson at 635-2182.
Board Chair Jeff Browne congratulated Mr. Hicks on his appointment to Executive Director of the Front Royal EDA and stated that the Board of the Front Royal Warren County EDA is looking for working with him.
Following an approximately 30-minuted Closed Meeting, the Board approved a motion on the disposition of McKay Springs. In order to facilitate and expedite the sale of parcels at the McKay Springs location, the Board approved transferring the parcels deeded in the name of the EDA to Warren County.
Continuing in Open Session, Jeff Browne gave a report from the Executive Committee. He advised the Board and the public that Warren County will be designated as a Spotted Lanternfly quarantine locality in mid-March, along with Clarke and Frederick counties, and the City of Winchester. This will impact businesses located in and doing business in Warren County. For more information please visit www.vdacs.virginia.gov/plan-industry-services.shtml
Director Jim Wolfe shared information on the progress of the EDA Strategic Plan updates. He’s looking forward to feedback on the working document and completing a final draft for review.
Asset Committee Chair Greg Harold discussed a new development that will have an impact on the EDA-owned property on Royal Lane. He shared the news that the Town of Front Royal is considering updating the Town Code to allow a Conditional Use Permit to be bonded with the property rather than the owner. With this change, Harold expects to improve the successful marketing of this property for a developer of multi-family workforce housing. The EDA is very interested in selling this property and supports the Town Planning Department in its efforts.
EDA Executive Director Doug Parsons had several items of interest to share, including the launch of the renovated EDA website at www.wceda.com, and that the auditors are finalizing their report. Additionally, he reported that the proceeds of $323,179.18 from the sale of the Afton Inn have paid down the principal on the First Bank & Trust Line of Credit. This lowered the payment, saving the taxpayers $1,242.70 per month, or $14,912.40 per year.
Virginia lawmakers ban gay panic defense in Virginia
Virginia lawmakers passed a bill that will ban the use of a person’s perceived or actual sexual orientation or gender identity as a defense in court for the assault or murder of an LGBTQ person.
“It’s done: We’re banning the gay/trans panic defense in Virginia,” Del. Danica Roem, D-Manassas, said in a Twitter post.
Roem introduced House Bill 2132, which passed the Senate 23-15 on Thursday with an amendment. The House approved the amendment in a 58-39 vote. The bill now heads to Gov. Ralph Northam’s desk for a signature.
The Senate amendment adds oral solicitation or hitting on someone, as an unacceptable justification for the gay or transgender panic defense.
The panic defense has historically been used in cases where a member of the LGBTQ community was attacked because of their actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity. Defendants use the panic defense to justify “heat of passion” murders or assaults.
“This [bill] means someone’s mere existence as an LGBTQ person does not excuse someone else and does not constitute a reason of provocation to commit such a heat of passion attack,” Roem said.
The statute does not dismiss traditional self-defense lawsuits. This means LGBTQ people can still be prosecuted for attacking someone.
There have been at least eight instances in Virginia where the panic defense was used, with the last case in 2011, according to Carsten Andresen, a researcher and criminal justice professor from Austin, Texas. He said he has tracked 200 homicide cases nationally where the panic defense was attempted. Andresen reached out to Roem in support of the bill.
His research included five murders and three assaults in Virginia between 1973 and 2011 that Andresen said used the panic defense to justify or excuse a defendant’s violent actions. Mark Hayes murdered Tracie Gainer, a transgender woman, in 2002. Hayes claimed he “lost it” and murdered Gainer when he realized she was a man after engaging in sexual intercourse. In 2011, Deandre Moore, age 18, pleaded guilty to killing 20-year-old Jacques Cowell by stabbing him multiple times. Cowell was openly gay and there were witness accounts that the two had a physical relationship. Moore received a 40-year prison sentence, with 15 years suspended.
“In these cases, criminal defense attorneys used gay and trans panic defense to put the victim (rather than the offender) on trial,” Andresen wrote in support of the bill. He said the use of the panic defense “suggests that it is permissible to commit violence” against LGBTQ people.
Sen. Joseph Morrissey, D-Richmond, spoke in opposition of the bill, saying lawmakers should not pass laws that prohibit defendants from making a defense and that lawmakers would be going “down a very slippery slope.” Morrissey said any defendant who would offer the panic defense “would of course be rejected.”
Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, said this is not the first time Virginia has expressly prohibited a defense. Legislators repealed in 2008 the code section that provided defense from carnal knowledge when a defendant marries a child 14 years or older.
“When we have found an affirmative defense to be abhorrent to public policy we have gotten rid of it,” McClellan said.
McClellan said she wished she could agree with Morrissey that no judge would accept the panic defense, but referred back to the Virginia cases where it was used successfully.
“We know the bill is constitutional, we know also, the bill has existing precedence, which is why it has earned overwhelming bipartisan support in statehouses across the country,” Roem said.
The American Bar Association in 2013 recommended that local, state, and federal legislatures curtail the availability and effectiveness of the gay and transgender panic defense. Roem said that similar bills have been implemented in other state legislatures. Virginia will become the 12th state to ban the panic defense, according to the policy organization Movement Advancement Project.
The defense is also banned in the District of Columbia.
There are currently 39 states that allow the panic defense to be used in cases where hate crimes resulted in the assault or murder of an LGBTQ individual. This typically results in a murder charge being lessened to a charge of manslaughter or acquittal.
Roem said she worked with Wes Bizzell, president of the National LGBT Bar Association, to prepare the bill. She also thanked Judy Shephard, the mother of Matthew Shephard, for speaking in support of the bill in committee.
Matthew Shephard, a gay man, was murdered in 1998 in Laramie, Wyoming. The judge barred Aaron McKinney’s defense lawyer from using the gay panic defense in the murder trial. McKinney said Shepard’s advances triggered memories of sexual abuse he suffered as a child. Police said the crime was motivated by robbery, but Shepard’s sexual orientation likely made him the target.
There were four people involved in the brutal crime. Two were found guilty of murder and two were charged with being an accessory after the fact to first-degree murder.
Roem was in high school when Matthew Shephard was murdered. She said the case had a profound effect on her and prevented her from coming out due to a fear of being ostracized and attacked.
“It was requested to me by one of my Manassas Park student constituents who’s out, hoping not to have to live in the same fear in 2021 that I did in 1998,” Roem said of the bill.
Roem said there are people who don’t believe hate crimes such as the one against Shephard happen today in Virginia. She affirmed that they do happen, and she believes it is time to do something about it.
“We have to look at this from the perspective of ‘what do we do to make an affirmative statement that LGBTQ lives matter and that you can’t just kill us for existing,” Roem said.
By Cierra Parks
Capital News Service
Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University’s Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.
Governor Northam introduces first-ever statewide strategic plan to advance diversity, equity, and inclusion
On February 26, 2021, Governor Ralph Northam unveiled ONE Virginia, a first-in-the-nation statewide strategic plan to advance visible diversity, equity, and inclusion across state government.
“To truly move forward as a Commonwealth, we must prioritize diversity, equity, and inclusion as our collective goals,” said Governor Northam. “The ONE Virginia Plan is a strategic blueprint to institutionalize equity across state government and effectively address deeply-rooted structural and systemic barriers to access and opportunity. This roadmap will ensure our efforts are accompanied by accountability, measurable results, and sustained impact, and help make Virginia the best place to live, work, visit, and thrive.”
In September 2019, Governor Northam appointed Dr. Janice Underwood to serve as Virginia’s first cabinet-level Chief Diversity Officer. The Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (ODEI) have worked collaboratively with public and private stakeholders to develop the ONE Virginia Plan—a sustainable framework to operationalize equity and promote inclusive practices across Virginia with a focus on reducing inequities.
“Diversity, equity, and inclusion are more than a moral imperative or a legal mandate—they are key to achieving organizational excellence,” said Dr. Underwood. “Together we are charting a new path for our Commonwealth, one that values our diverse people as our greatest strength. Using the Inclusive Excellence framework, ONE Virginia will help implement tangible reforms that interrupt long-held systems of structural inequity to create sustainable change, innovation, and productivity across state government, throughout Virginia, and around our country.”
The ONE Virginia Plan will support more than 100 state agencies in the Commonwealth in prioritizing and implementing strategies to provide fair and equitable services and cultivate a valued and high-performing workforce. It will help ensure that people in positions of leadership understand systemic inequity and its effects and work to increase diversity at all levels of government, foster an inclusive and welcoming organizational culture, establish shared accountability for visible equity, and promote community engagement. In the coming months, the ODEI will seek input and suggestions from state employees, external stakeholders, and community leaders to further develop a concrete equity policy.
“It has been an honor to work with Dr. Underwood, alongside an amazing steering committee, to stretch the ONE Virginia model throughout the Commonwealth to build statewide capacity for inclusive excellence,” said Dr. Kevin McDonald, Vice President for Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Community Partnerships at the University of Virginia. “I have already engaged the greater Charlottesville area in this important work, and I am excited about its potential for scale across Virginia.”
The ONE Virginia Plan is an unprecedented model for fostering diverse, equitable, and inclusive workplace environments and is being codified by the General Assembly through legislation supported by the Northam Administration. House Bill 1993, sponsored by Delegates Alex Askew and Delores McQuinn, requires state agencies to establish and maintain comprehensive diversity, equity, and inclusion strategic plans in coordination with the Governor’s Chief Diversity Officer.
“The comprehensive emphasis on equity-minded legislation throughout the 2021 General Assembly session has been historic,” said Secretary of Administration Grindly Johnson. “This legislation makes Virginia a national exemplar in fostering the business case for organizational effectiveness in our state agencies.”
This plan was developed in collaboration with the Department of Human Resource Management (DHRM). Together with the ODEI, DHRM and an interdisciplinary volunteer executive steering team created an online toolkit for use by state agencies and other stakeholders to facilitate the implementation of individualized strategic plans that advance diversity and inclusive excellence. The next phase of the ONE Virginia Plan will focus on working with an initial cohort of 10 state agencies that provide direct support to the public during the COVID-19 pandemic to create agency-based strategic diversity and inclusion plans modeled after the statewide framework.
“The critical work of state government depends upon our ability to attract and retain a talented workforce that reflects the diversity of the Virginians we serve,” said DHRM Director Emily Elliott. “We charge all agency leaders to adopt the ONE Virginia Plan and subsequent Principles of Community to create an engaged workforce that leverages diversity as a strength, supports an inclusive work environment, and works in pursuit of policies and practices that hold each agency accountable for expanded access, success, and overall inclusive excellence.”
The ONE Virginia Plan and the online toolkit are available here. For more information about the Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion and its work, please visit governor.virginia.gov/diversity.