FRONT ROYAL – Though criminal charges have not been filed against former EDA Executive Director Jennifer McDonald, it is likely they are on the way. Officials from the Town of Front Royal say they first learned of activity that will likely result in criminal charges on August 23, 2018 and notified Virginia State Police shortly thereafter.
Finance Director B.J. Wilson wrote in a Monday, April 8 email, “August 23, 2018 marks the day that the Town felt there was significant suspicion of misrepresentation and potential fraudulent activity regarding the EDA.
“On August 23, 2018 a meeting was held between the Town & EDA to discuss information previously presented to the Town and information requested by the Town from the EDA via a FOIA request. Those in attendance of this meeting were:
- Greg Drescher – At the time, EDA Chairman
- Jennifer McDonald – EDA Executive Director
- Dan Whitten – Legal Counsel for the EDA
- B.J. Wilson – Town of Front Royal Director of Finance
- Jeff Mitchell – Mitchell & Company P.C. (Auditor for Town of Front Royal)
- Joe Waltz – Town of Front Royal Town Manager
- Hollis Tharpe – Mayor of Front Royal
- Bill Sealock – Councilman for Front Royal
- Doug Napier – Town Attorney for Front Royal
Wilson went on to explain that several documents requested from McDonald and the EDA included:
- Avtex project joint funding agreement between the Town, County, and EDA
- Virginia Department of Transportation Performance Bond documents in the amount of $1.9 million paid to V-DOT
- Original amortization schedule from the EDA’s financial institution related to all Town debt owed to the EDA and breakdown of how the Town’s debt is incorporated into loans
Wilson said he requested the Avtex project joint agreement funding documents based on previous statements made by Jennifer McDonald that the EDA was billing the Town for expenses of the Avtex project, although the Avtex project was not listed on invoices received by the Town.
The Director of Finance said McDonald had previously represented to the Town that she had a copy of the agreement and would send a copy to the Town. Neither the Town of Front Royal nor Warren County had records of the agreement described by McDonald, which caused concern.
Wilson said that during that August 23, 2018 meeting McDonald acknowledged that she was unable to locate the Avtex project joint funding agreement and that charges for the Avtex project would not be billed to the Town.
Also regarding that meeting, Wilson wrote, “Mrs. McDonald previously represented to the Town that the EDA had paid a $1.9 million performance bond to V-DOT for Leach Run Parkway and was billing the Town for a portion of the $1.9 million. During the August 23, 2018 meeting, Mrs. McDonald acknowledged that this performance bond did not exist, and charges should not be billed to the Town.”
According to Wilson, the amortization schedules provided to the Town on August 23, 2018 were different than those previously provided to the Town by Jennifer McDonald. He said that based on the events of that meeting and the improper amortization schedules, it was determined that the EDA had not previously billed the Town correctly.
Wilson’s email continued that based on calculations sent to the Town by the EDA, it had “resulted in an over billing of approximately $291,000. This figure has yet to be confirmed and remains unknown at this time.”
When this reporter asked County Attorney Dan Whitten, on April 3, face-to-face at the EDA office on Kendrick Lane, exactly when the EDA Board had suspicions of misconduct or criminal activity, he replied “Early September. I think it was September 14 when we got the consultant. The date we notified law enforcement is privileged information.”
Later that day, Whitten clarified his earlier statement via email, “I wanted to clarify my statement earlier so it is in written format.
“The EDA Board had suspicions of misconduct in early September 2018, and on September 14, 2018, the EDA Board, through legal counsel, engaged Cherry Bekaert for internal review discovery services. It was not until Cherry Bekaert found clear evidence of criminal activity that the EDA had clear suspicion of criminal activity. At such point, the EDA, through outside consultants, did notify the Department of Justice. The exact date of such notification will remain confidential.”
This reporter replied to Whitten, “Thank you for the clarification.
“However, when you, Mr. Drescher, Ms. McDonald and some town employees had a sit-down meeting on Thursday, Aug. 23, 2018 and Ms. McDonald admitted that she had fraudulently billed the Town for a fake contract and for VDOT work that had never been performed–after which Drescher stepped down as chair the next day–shouldn’t you have had a pretty good idea that criminal activity had ALREADY OCCURRED?
“Why is the date on which the alleged crime reported confidential? Is the board not legally required to report at first suspicion of wrongdoing?”
Whitten replied back on April 4, “At the meeting, Jennifer did not admit that she billed the contract for a fake contract or VDOT work that was never performed. She admitted she overbilled the town by 291k which is not evidence of criminal conduct. We needed to further investigate.
After a presentation from our consultant which showed criminal conduct, we gave permission to the consultant to report to authorities.”
Asked to weigh in regarding the situation and its impact on the community, Town Attorney Doug Napier stated via email Wednesday morning, “Town Council and Town staff had been baffled, then grew increasingly suspicious, of what was being submitted to the Town’s Finance Director in response to his questions to the EDA’s Executive Director regarding the EDA’s billing of the Town, for several months prior to the Town’s August 23 face-to-face meeting with Mrs. McDonald—the EDA’s documentation and financial numbers regarding the Town simply did not make sense to the Finance Director or to the Town’s auditor.
“The August 23 meeting showed Town staff and the Town’s auditor that something was significantly illegally wrong with the EDA’s finances, to the point that it was obvious that law enforcement needed to be brought in. Town Council was advised ASAP of what had happened, and Town Council gave the green light immediately to turn the matter over to the Virginia State Police, which is what happened.”
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Town Council Discusses Speed Cameras and Questionable Lease and License Agreement at Work Session
On Monday, October 2, at 7 p.m. at Town Hall, the Front Royal Town Council met at a work session to discuss an assortment of issues they will be facing at their October 23 meeting, when they will hold public hearings and are expected to vote on these matters.
Several items were briefly addressed, like budget reallocations, appointments to ESAC, and maintaining the authenticity of the Downtown Historic District. However, the most discussed items on the work session agenda were the Public School zone speed cameras that Blue Line Solutions will provide for Front Royal if council votes in favor of the public safety initiative brought forward by the Town Police Department, as well as an issue of vacating a public right-of-way in an area where council previously made a decision to grant a lease and license agreement over a parcel that in the eyes of Town Attorney George Sonnett was not the Town’s legal right to grant.
Council member Wayne Sealock feels that the speed cameras have been a long time in coming. “Nitpicking” over the details of the contract with Blue Line Solutions has delayed what he considers a pressing issue. “If they were going to try to mess us over with something,” he said about Blue Line, “all these other jurisdictions wouldn’t be doing it.” He went on to say, “I’m not going to be able to go home and lay my head down if a child gets hit on Criser Road trying to cross the road by a speeding vehicle, and God forbid gets put in a wheelchair, or even worse gets put on Prospect Hill Cemetery.”
Most of the discussion about the speed cameras focused on defining the Town’s role in making them effective, such as that the Town makes “reasonable” efforts to collect the civil fines, which has some built-in ambiguity in terms of the language being used. However, Town Attorney Sonnett said, “Reasonable is what we think’s reasonable, which means in good faith, that we make good faith efforts to collect.” Mayor Lori Cockrell tried to get as much clarity on this point as possible. Will it become the Town’s responsibility to collect fines after the second notice? And at that point, will it be the Town’s prerogative to determine whether a good faith effort has been made?
Again, the Town exercises the power to apply the law to the needs of the community. The cameras covering school zones will be active when school zones are active. “The law says: when it’s an active school zone,” Sonnett explained, “and we’re going to determine when that is.” Furthermore, if there is an issue with the equipment, it will be Blue Line’s responsibility to address the problem, except in an extreme case, like a fallen tree. The police department will play a key role in using this resource to keep Front Royal and especially its school-age children safe.
In the closing moments of the discussion about cameras, council member Duane “Skip” Rogers said, “This is important, and it will be, overall, good for our community.” This matter is expected to come to a vote at the Council’s meeting on October 23.
In discussing the potential vacation of a portion of North Royal Avenue and an alley between North Royal Avenue and Virginia Avenue, Sonnett explained to the council his interpretation of the law pertaining to lease and license agreements, where an agreement was granted in May 2021 by the Town to an individual who subsequently laid down gravel for parking in that vicinity. In Sonnett’s eyes, because the Town does not hold exclusive right-of-way over that access, where a public right-of-way exists, that agreement was misplaced.
“It reports to grant a lease and a license to an area of land within the town right-of-way,” Sonnett explained, observing, “This is a public right-of-way. The Town doesn’t have exclusive use of this parcel. The Town’s use is in conjunction with the public use. So, the Town doesn’t have exclusive use to convey to anybody. That’s the problem. It purports to convey something the Town doesn’t have.” The agreement could be terminated on sixty days’ short notice, he told the council.
“That doesn’t mean I’m correct; it’s just my opinion, but I stand by my opinion,” the town attorney said. He qualified another agreement, under which a fence has been built in one of the areas affecting the proposed vacation, as an encroachment that is legal.
It is important to think separately about the proposed vacation and the agreements over parcels being scrutinized, Sonnett said. As Lori Cockrell pointed out, one must confront A and B before proceeding to C. In other words, the problem would be solved if these parcels, abutting certain property owners, were sold to those property owners, but because of the pre-existing public right-of-way, the public access must be vacated before the parcel that features the gravel parking can be sold.
The council concluded that the issue of vacation can be addressed with a public hearing and voted upon at the October 23 meeting, while the sixty-day notice can be passed in the consent agenda without a public hearing. Then, with the public right-of-way being vacated, interested parties would have the opportunity to purchase the parcels in question.
Council also discussed its upcoming Town-County Liaison Committee Meeting on October 19 to be held at the Warren County Government Center, then moved to go into closed session to discuss issues pertaining to personnel, McKay Springs, HEPTAD v. Town Council, and the proposed agreement on resurrection of the old Youth Center building with Reaching Out Now, Inc.
HEPTAD Sues Front Royal Town Council for $6-Million in Damages on Swan Estates Proffer Amendment Denial
According to documents in the Warren County Circuit Court Clerk’s Office, on Monday, September 25, legal counsel for HEPTAD LLC (Heptad) filed a civil action against the Front Royal Town Council for its August 28 rejection of Heptad’s Proffer Amendment proposal to facilitate the long-floundering Swan Estates residential development. That development on a total of 98.25 acres to the west of Leach Run Parkway is for a now-reduced number of homes on “approximately 86 acres” — 335 units, down from 450 with all multi-family units eliminated, was cited in the civil complaint. The Heptad/Swan Estates residential development project was broached in 2011, with initial proffers offered and placed in 2012, according to references in the civil complaint.
But focusing on the August 28, 2023, council rejection of Heptad’s proffer amendment proposal, the company is seeking damages of $6 million as a result of a divided town council’s 4-3 vote to deny the amended proffers. Mayor Lori Cockrell cast the decisive tie-breaking vote for the denial of “Skip” Rogers motion to approve the proffer amendments. Voting with the mayor for denial were Melissa DeDomenico-Payne, Amber Morris, and Josh Ingram. Voting for approval with Rogers was Vice-Mayor Wayne Sealock and Bruce Rappaport.
The bottom line in the civil complaint filing on the first page states: “Heptad maintains that the Council’s denial was arbitrary, capricious, unreasonable, unconstitutional and in violation of Virginia law.” Heptad’s counsel cites six counts justifying its damages claim against the town council as a whole entity. It is also noted that Heptad’s contract with Van Metre Communities LLC to purchase the property for development fell through as a direct result of the proffer amendment denial.
Count 1: In denying the Amended Proffers, Council refused to relieve Heptad of the burden of an unconstitutional condition in violation of Va. Code Ann. 15.2-2208.1;
Count 2: The Council’s denial of the Proffer Amendment was a violation of Va. Code. Ann. 15.2-2298, in violation of the Dillon Rule;
Count 3: The Council’s request that Heptad relinquish its property rights to credits as a condition of amending the 2012 Proffers violates Plaintiff’s vested rights;
Count 4: The denial of the Proffer Amendment is a violation of Va. Code Ann. 15.2-2303.4;
Count 5: Declaratory judgment that the monetary contribution remaining in the 2012 Proffers constitutes an unconstitutional condition. Of this count, it is added: “The failure or refusal to approve the 2023 Proffers has left Heptad subject to the 2012 Proffers, which impose an unreasonable and unconstitutional condition on the development of the Property that remains a burden on the Property, specifically an unconstitutional monetary contribution toward the cost of construction of Leach Run Parkway that must be removed.” A case of the BOS of Albemarle Co. v. Route 29, LLC is cited in support of this count.
Count 6: Violation of rights protected by the United States Constitution in violation of 42 U.S.C. 1983 because of the monetary contribution remaining in the 2012 Proffers constitutes an unconstitutional condition.
Heptad also alleges inaccurate information or flawed interpretation of information being cited by council members during the final public hearing phase and council discussion leading up to the split vote of denial.
And we’ll let the lawyers take it from there. The Prince William County-based law firm of Walsh, Colucci, Lubeley & Walsh P.C. submitted the 28-page civil complaint on behalf of HEPTAD LLC. Attorneys John H. Foote and Matthew A. Westover appear to be the involved counsel, with Foote signing the civil complaint submission above his and Westover’s contact information.
As noted in the Royal Examiner’s story on the August 28 vote referencing the Town meeting video: “The Swan Farm proffer amendment public hearing begins at the 2:05:47 mark of the linked Town video; the vote is called at 2:59:15 mark, with the deadlock reaching the mayor at the 2:59:47 mark. (The mayor’s) vote is cast at 3:06:20, ending the discussion – for now.”
“For now,” indeed. If we recall correctly, prior to casting her tie-breaking vote, Mayor Cockrell commented that certain past proffer-related actions or inactions by Heptad left her with “heartburn” on the proposed proffer changes. Wonder how that heartburn is doing now.
Town Council Meets to Address Issues That Range from Poultry to Vacation and Sale of Public Rights-of-Way
On Monday, September 25, 2023, at 7 p.m. at the Warren County Government Center, the Front Royal Town Council met to vote upon issues that included the number of chickens that residents are permitted to keep within town limits as well as a vacation of rights-of-way and sale of that access, parallel in part to Grand Avenue.
After Front Royal student Mia Miller led the gathering in the pledge of allegiance, Mayor Lori Cockrell presented an award to departing public servant Darryl Merchant for his service and acknowledged B.J. Wilson for his excellent work as the Town’s finance director. Then, the council members moved on to address an ordinance to amend the town code related to urban agriculture, specifically the keeping of chickens within town limits. Among other adjustments, it would change the limit on ownership of chickens from six to ten, based on the square footage of the coop and run space.
Speaking on behalf of her operation, Barbara Martin briefly addressed the council, saying, “I have been inspected and cleared for the six I now have.” But she lamented that under the present rule, she cannot free range her “girls” as she would like but must keep them “constantly confined.” After Martin spoke, Amber Morris moved that the ordinance amendments be denied. There was no second, and the motion died. Then Duane Rogers moved that the ordinance be accepted, and the motion was seconded by Melissa Dedomenico-Payne.
Morris explained her position. “This was an initiative of a former council; my former councilmember Scott Lloyd dedicated a lot of time and energy to this initiative, and I promised him that I would continue to bring it back forward. As a rural agricultural town, I think that it’s extremely important to protect the liberties and freedoms of families who wish to use urban agriculture to supply their family with a food source.” Because of the ongoing demand for eggs and because of the available space for this enterprise, Morris thinks it would be advantageous to allow urban agriculturalists the opportunity to keep more chickens; however, because of the regulations attached to the proposed amendment, she feels that the problem would not be solved and people who have already gone through the process of getting approved for their operations would find themselves suddenly in violation of new rules. She proposed that the issue be sent back to a work session.
Bruce Rappaport described himself as being on the other side of the pendulum from Morris. He thinks six chickens are “quite enough.” He went on to say, “We’re becoming more urban than rural.” Joshua Ingram echoed Morris in recommending a return to the work session for this agenda item. He cited the current limitations on free-range potential and consideration of all the nuisances inherent to having chickens confined in one spot. Apparently, there are already limitations in the code, and at least some of the regulations under the proposed amendments would supply additional limitations. While the number of chickens would increase, those owning chickens would be unable to run them as they wish.
Under a substitute motion, the urban agriculture issue was postponed for discussion at a work session on November 6, 2023. Only Rappaport and Rogers voted against it. A motion to vacate and sell a public right-of-way passed unanimously, surrendering a portion of North Street as well as a portion of an alley between Orchard Street and Grand Avenue, after which the council heard public comments; councilmembers were then given the opportunity to make general comments followed by a report from Mayor Cockrell, whereupon council passed the consent agenda without discussion and proceeded to go into closed session to discuss EDA litigation.
Literature, LGBTQ Rights, and Local Governance: Residents Speak Out
At the Warren County Board of Supervisors meeting of September 19, 2023, the public comment period was opened with a reminder of the rules, which allow citizens to give input on issues not already scheduled for a public hearing. The total time allotted for this session is 60 minutes, with each speaker given a maximum of three minutes. Speakers are heard in the order they signed up. (The Royal Examiner apologizes if the names are not spelled correctly.)
Sarah Downs, a resident of the North River District, addressed the assembly. She criticized various board members for their actions and stances related to funding the library and alleged discriminatory practices. Her comments particularly emphasized the perceived lack of integrity and commitment to the community’s diverse representation. She also questioned some board members on their Christian beliefs, citing a verse from Psalms in the Bible found in the public library and challenging them on their fears. The overarching theme of her speech was demanding accountability from the board members.
Kelsey Lawrence from the Fork District spoke as a representative of the group “Save Samuels.” She emphasized the continuous presence and dedication of concerned citizens, most of whom are parents and library cardholders, in contrast to a different group she described as predominantly single, older men. Lawrence stressed the credibility and high standards of Samuels, a non-profit C3 organization, which she described as more accountable than the local government. She criticized the government’s inefficiencies and cautioned against any attempts to control or oversee private institutions, likening such actions to practices in communist China. She emphasized that libraries are essential venues for the free exchange of ideas and warned against censorship. Quoting activist Audre Lorde, Lawrence urged elected officials to uphold and protect freedom of expression as outlined in the First Amendment. She concluded by warning the officials of the community’s intent to hold them accountable in upcoming elections.
Robert Hill, a former member of the Election Board and history teacher, took the opportunity to reflect on the history of religious freedom in America. He highlighted the formation of colonies based on the pursuit of religious freedom and how that quest was ironically accompanied by instances of religious intolerance, citing examples from Massachusetts and Rhode Island. Drawing from his Jewish background, he alluded to the religious intolerance that played a role in the formation of the Confederation of States, which paved the way for the American Revolution. Hill emphasized the idea, “A house divided will fall,” and shared a personal anecdote about his sister taking shoes from a nun to highlight the importance of caring for one another. Lastly, he mentioned President John F. Kennedy’s commitment to separating his religious beliefs from political decisions and the JFK Library in Massachusetts that honors individuals for their courage. Hill concluded by stressing the importance of representing and standing for everyone, not just specific groups.
Samantha Good, a resident of the South River District, expressed her concerns over the controversy surrounding Samuel’s Public Library. Despite being a social worker, former children’s therapist, small business owner, mother, and avid reader, she had to wait for a significant amount of time to address the board. Samantha criticized the board’s alleged intentions to defund or close the library due to external pressure for book bans. She cited statistics demonstrating the library’s success in 2022, including a significant increase in patrons and exceeding fundraising goals. Samantha emphasized that banning books is unlawful, referencing the First Amendment, Virginia Human Rights Act, and Virginia Values Act of 2020. While the library offers tools for parents to oversee their children’s reading materials, she argued that it’s a parental responsibility, not the library staff’s or the board’s duty. Samantha closed by highlighting the library’s significant role in the community, especially for families like hers who depend on its resources. She urged the board to reconsider any potential actions against Samuel’s Public Library.
Bruce White, a resident of Shenandoah District and a member of the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Shenandoah Valley, addressed the board, urging them to fully fund Samuel’s Public Library, maintain its collection, and approve the Memorandum of Agreement proposed by the Library Board of Trustees. He highlighted that a similar agreement has been successfully in place for around 70 years, which has contributed to the library’s success. Bruce also provided the board with letters from fellow church congregants who supported his stance. As Unitarian Universalists, they emphasize the significance of recognizing the inherent worth of every individual and promoting justice, equity, and compassion. He mentioned that the library has addressed concerns about books with LGBTQ themes by introducing additional library card levels for parental oversight and establishing a new adult section for specific books. Bruce stated that he read several of the contested books and found them to promote tolerance and understanding rather than containing inappropriate content. He urged the board to support the library and its initiatives.
Lauren Si addressed the Board of Supervisors, asserting her status as a taxpayer and voter while emphasizing her expectation for the library to be fully funded. She highlighted that a minority (less than 1%) of the community is urging for the library to be defunded and criticized the board for succumbing to their demands. Lauren accused this minority of being an elite, prejudiced group with substantial influence. She criticized the proposed Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) that would grant control over the library to these individuals and noted the community’s awareness of this issue. Lauren accused these individuals of harassing and slandering librarians and demanded that the board fund the library and offer a fair MOA. She warned the board members that their decision would influence their political careers and reputations. Furthermore, she emphasized that this isn’t about party politics as all political groups in the community, whether Democrat, Liberal, or Republican, agree on the issue.
Barry Cochran introduced himself, noting his move to Front Royal five years ago after having to retire from nursing due to a disability. To occupy his time, he got a library card from Samuels, downloading and reading mostly LGBTQ+-themed books on his digital devices. He compared the explicitness of these books to popular authors like Nora Roberts and Danielle Steele, pointing out that the LGBTQ+ books had no more sexual content than theirs. Barry questioned the bias of wanting to ban LGBTQ+ books but not ones with explicit content by heterosexual authors. He mentioned many of the books he read were actually written by heterosexual women. Barry wore a necklace with the phrase “Only God Can Judge Me” and expressed his belief that book availability at the library shouldn’t be determined by a narrow-minded group or the Board of Supervisors.
Michaele Davis shared her journey of moving to Warren County 20 years ago, having been raised in a conservatively religious culture. She understood the feeling of oppression but was determined to foster a space for her children to learn and grow. Despite her initial reservations about the town, she grew to appreciate its community and scenic beauty. Her son got his library card at age five, and her daughter volunteered at Samuels Public Library, greatly benefiting from the experience. Michaele proudly declared that all three of them identify as queer. She emphasized the positive upbringing she provided for her children and their resultant successes. Expressing her disappointment with the recent issues surrounding the library, she called out the Board for potentially violating First Amendment rights by linking library funding to content regulation. Michelle labeled it a ploy by a small group with political intentions and warned of the broader implications this might have on the Board’s reputation.
Michelle Kerns expressed her anger, frustration, and sadness regarding the actions and decisions of the Board of Supervisors. She cited the loss of faith in the county leadership due to the EDA scandal and expected the current leadership to restore trust with honesty and transparency. However, she felt that this expectation had not been met. She highlighted conflicts of interest, especially Mr. Butler and Ms. Cook. Michelle criticized Mr. Butler for requesting book removals when his board controls the library’s funding. She called out Ms. Cook for not clarifying that Mr. Butler’s statements did not reflect the board’s position and also for her role on the Library Board of Trustees. Michelle emphasized that the core issue isn’t about the books but about hate, power, and control. She staunchly defended the First Amendment, urging the board to celebrate differences and uphold the values of kindness, acceptance, tolerance, forgiveness, and love. She concluded by urging the board to stop letting bigotry, hatred, and intolerance negatively influence decisions about the library.
Joanna Artone introduced herself, highlighting her roots in Warren County and noting her connection to the community. She presented statistics from Samuel’s Public Library for the month of August, emphasizing the critical resources and services the library provides, including books, programs, services, and public space. She argued against the defunding of the library, asserting that the controversy is based on unfounded claims about inappropriate content. Joanna stated that no pornographic material exists in the library and argued for the importance of having representation for the LGBTQ+ community. Sharing her personal experience, she mentioned the struggles she faced as a queer individual growing up without resources that discussed queer issues. Joanna emphasized the increased risks LGBTQ+ youth face, such as self-harm and suicide, often due to the negative perceptions created by extremists. She concluded by urging the community to support the library, maintain LGBTQ+ resources, and allow parents the freedom to choose books for their children rather than imposing decisions upon them.
Connor Marcella addressed the Board with a candid and passionate statement. He expressed his frustration towards those who use anti-LGBTQ rhetoric, falsely accusing the community of grooming children or pushing a so-called “transgender agenda.” Marcella shared an author’s statement from Jessica Love, the writer of “Julian is a Mermaid,” to illustrate that the book’s intention was to celebrate diversity and accept children as they are. Jessica Love’s words emphasized the importance of representation and the emotional damage that can be caused by demonizing such books. Marcella also criticized individuals who bullied a child with autism for wearing a skirt, noting that the child did so to fulfill sensory needs, not because of any “agenda.” He condemned the Board for seemingly condoning such behavior by not taking a strong stance against these detractors. Marcella concluded his address with a rebuke, expressing deep disappointment and calling out the perceived complicity in the mistreatment of vulnerable children.
Charles Stewart, a parent and resident of Shenandoah District, Samuels Library patron, attorney, and voter, voiced his concerns about potential civil rights litigation. He highlighted that the ongoing issues seem rooted in objections to LGBTQ content in books. Citing legal precedents and laws, including the First Amendment and the 14th Amendment, Charles detailed how book bans could violate these rights. He further mentioned the 2020 Virginia Values Act, which expands protections against discrimination. Charles urged the Board not to succumb to the demands of a small but vocal group and to fully fund the library.
Janet Bram, a resident of the South River District, reflected on the growth of the library over the past 40 years. She emphasized the importance of not reverting to a time of lesser resources and cautioned the governing body against being manipulated by particular groups. Janet expressed her surprise and dismay at the Board’s decision to fund the library for only one more quarter and urged the Board to reconsider this decision. She emphasized the value of the library as a community resource.
Tom Howarth spoke passionately about the division in the community surrounding the ongoing situation. He emphasized that Christianity and Catholicism are about the “power of love” and not the “love of power.” He expressed his dismay at how the Board handled the situation with Michelle Ross, suggesting they should apologize for their perceived complicity in her mistreatment.
Howarth criticized the local Catholic Church, labeling it as “ultra-traditionalist,” and mentioned that even the Pope had used the term “backward” to describe such views. He expressed concern about regressing to older times when discrimination against the gay community was rampant. He ended by urging the Board to think of moving forward, to embrace love over power, and to resist those who have brought division and conflict to the community.
Valerie Mintier introduced herself and noted that she was from Front Royal. She read a letter from Eliza Lane, the author of one of the books challenged in an attempt to defund Samuels Library.
Eliza condemned the overt bullying targeting gay, trans, and gender non-conforming children evident in the debate. She emphasized that restoring the library’s budget is crucial, not only for the services the library offers to all, especially the low-income and unhoused but also for ensuring a safe community for LGBTQ children.
Drawing on public data, Eliza highlighted the increased vulnerability of LGBTQ students to depression, sexual assault, and suicide. She shared her personal experience of facing homophobia, stating her motive for writing children’s books was to comfort them and assure them they were not alone.
Eliza referenced the tragic loss of a generation of gay people due to an alleged “government genocide.” She expressed the pain of losing her gay family and parents, emphasizing her commitment to advocating for LGBTQ children.
Concluding, she directed a strong message to homophobic individuals, stating the weight of guilt they’d bear if their behavior led to tragic outcomes for these children. She thanked the board and pledged her commitment to resolving the situation by restoring the library’s budget.
Jennifer Rittenbach, a resident of Front Royal, addressed the board regarding the attempted censorship of books that represent the LGBTQ community. Quoting Benjamin Franklin, she emphasized the importance of safeguarding freedom of speech. She pointed out that the books under challenge are not pornographic but are targeted because they represent LGBTQ individuals, terming the act as religious discrimination.
Drawing upon historical incidents, Jennifer highlighted the dangers of banning books, referencing the violent attack on Salman Rushdie due to his controversial book “The Satanic Verses.” She cited Penn America’s current legal action against a Florida school district for a similar censorship attempt.
Rittenbach underscored the purpose of the First Amendment: to protect citizens from theocratic and authoritarian control over information and speech. She voiced her belief that theocratic attempts to regulate reading material and access to information should be combated, emphasizing that individual choice and parental guidance should dictate reading decisions, not religious bodies.
Jennifer stated her frequent use of Samuels Library and its importance in her work with two special needs men. She concluded by urging the board to uphold their duty to protect the First Amendment rights of their constituents and to provide full funding to Samuels Library.
Daniel Silsby from the South River District spoke before the board, initially offering an apology to Supervisor Butler for a previous heated phone call. He recalled his history in the town, noting his family moved there in 1989, and shared a personal experience of flying over the town in a C-130 plane during his time at RMA.
He recalled a gay classmate who faced discrimination and violence during the AIDS crisis in the early 1990s. Daniel emphasized the kindness he received from various LGBTQ individuals in his life, from friends to bosses, and lamented the treatment they’ve received in return from the county.
Strongly critical of the board’s decision to withhold funding, he blamed them for contributing to the harassment and endangerment of the Samuel’s Library staff, including the resignation of Director Michelle Ross. Silsby enumerated the apologies he believed the board owed to various parties, including a public one, for their political missteps. He specifically addressed Mr. Butler, urging him to ensure the government stays out of personal lives as he had once promised.
He concluded with a hope that the withheld funds would be released, expressing concern for the future of the county and republic.
Bethany O’Neill from Front Royal, a 14-year county resident and Samuel’s Public Library cardholder, shared her views about the ongoing controversy around the library’s book selection. As a mother of three and a parishioner at St. John’s, she voiced her concerns against the group CUSS, stating they do not represent her views. She criticized the group for their hateful rhetoric and for focusing on sexually explicit content that isn’t even always available in the library.
Bethany praised the library staff for their dedication to the community and mentioned the measures they’ve taken to address concerns, such as the creation of a new adult section and age-restrictive library cards. She cautioned against potential discrimination lawsuits if books representing protected minority groups were removed or segregated.
She mentioned her personal journey of reading the books under contention and concluded that the real issue for CUSS wasn’t about the safety of children but rather a rejection of diversity. She mocked the idea of removing books based on CUSS’s narrow definitions and criticized the proposed Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) that would see the library under the county’s control.
In her closing remarks, Bethany asked the board to release the library budget and affirm that they weren’t siding with the bigots. She ended by quoting author Ada Salazar, assuring young readers of their value and place in the world.
Gene Kilby from Front Royal, Virginia, expressed his deep sadness and concern about the division happening in the county regarding the Samuel’s Library controversy. He compared the current division to an earlier one in 1956-57 when students of different racial backgrounds faced challenges in attending schools in Morin County. Although he clarified that he wasn’t equating the two struggles, he found them similar in essence.
Kilby emphasized the importance of the pledge of allegiance, specifically highlighting the phrase “liberty and justice for all,” and questioned why the county wasn’t upholding these values. He asserted that the dispute wasn’t purely about children, considering the library had made efforts to give parents more control over their children’s reading materials. He believed that the concerned group wanted books referencing LGBTQ removed entirely and challenged their labeling of these books as pornography, suggesting that if they genuinely believed that, they should report it.
Towards the end of his speech, Kilby raised concerns about “taxation without representation,” suggesting that people were being taxed without their interests and concerns being adequately represented. Before he could further elaborate, his speaking time was up.
Steve Foreman, a resident of Fork District, voiced his concerns about the actions and credibility of the Warren County Board of Supervisors concerning the Samuels Public Library controversy. He criticized the Board for trying to bully the library, holding its funding hostage, and attempting to control its Board of Trustees with their own appointees. Foreman believed the Board’s decisions were politically motivated, especially with an election on the horizon.
Foreman praised Samuels Library trustees and staff for quickly implementing a sensible solution when faced with the demands of a vocal minority. However, he pointed out that their efforts were not acknowledged by the Board of Supervisors or the discontented minority. Despite the solution, the Board continues to threaten the concept of a free public library.
Foreman emphasized the negative publicity this has brought both on a national and international level, leading to potential reputational damage for the county. He questioned the motivations of the Board, hinting at possible political reasons and prior misguided decisions involving funding a consultant who orchestrated a public display of feigned outrage and prejudice.
Foreman appealed for an end to the ongoing issue, emphasizing the importance of free speech, and called for the restoration of Samuels Public Library’s honor and its crucial role in serving the community.
The speaker, identified as Steve Hisey from Blue Mountain, raised two main concerns regarding recent actions taken by the Warren County governing bodies:
- Library Funding Issue: Steve expressed displeasure towards the Library Board’s rejection of the funding agreements. He accused the Library Board of disrespecting the community they purportedly represent and took their rejection as an offensive gesture to both the governing Board and the broader Warren County community. As a response, Steve advocated for defunding the library and posited that after two years of such action, the library would face bankruptcy. Subsequently, he proposed that the Board should acquire the library facility, with the aim of establishing a library that would be genuinely accountable to Warren County’s residents.
- Asset Forfeiture Concern: Steve addressed an Equitable Sharing Agreement and Certification that the Board voted on and signed on September 5th. He was concerned that the actual subject, asset forfeiture, was not explicitly mentioned in the agenda. He urged the Board to reconsider their vote due to the potentially detrimental impacts of asset forfeiture on the community. Drawing from various instances, he explained how the introduction of this law can shift the focus of the police from serving the community to seeking opportunities for arrests to confiscate property. Steve emphasized cases where innocent individuals lost their property because of misunderstandings, like parents having cars confiscated due to drugs left behind by their kids or farmers, wrongly assumed to be drug dealers. He stressed that the burden falls on the individuals to prove their innocence to retrieve their properties, a situation he finds contradictory to the foundational principles of the country.
Hisey pressed the Board to reflect on the ramifications of asset forfeiture and requested a comprehensive study of its effects.
Jackie Marcello from the Fork District expressed frustration and dissatisfaction with the Board’s response, or lack thereof, to community concerns. Jackie’s primary points included:
- Lack of Communication: Jackie voiced disappointment with the Board members who didn’t respond to her previous communications. While she acknowledged that public service roles can be challenging with varying opinions, she highlighted the importance of at least acknowledging constituents.
- Library Issues: Emphasizing the significance of the library in the community, Jackie criticized the apparent inconsistencies in societal values. She pointed out the paradox where same-sex couples can legally marry but can’t have books reflecting their experiences on library shelves.
- Bullying Incident: Jackie referenced a disturbing incident where a 4-year-old child with autism was cyber bullied by a group of individuals because he wore a skirt. She highlighted that the child’s choice was due to sensory preferences typical of those on the autism spectrum. She denounced such actions as harmful to children and contrary to the claims of those who say they want to protect children.
Jackie urged the Board to restore the library’s funding and emphasized that by doing so, they could bring an end to the recurring public discontent expressed in their meetings. She wrapped up her speech with a plea to “give the library back to us.”
Supervisors Approve 2nd Quarter Library Funding, Then Get an Earful on Past Stances on Library Issues
On Tuesday, September 19, at 7 p.m. at the Warren County Government Center, the Warren County Board of Supervisors gathered to address several agenda items, one of them being a fully packed community participation hour in which twenty-two speakers spoke concerning the ongoing question of whether Samuels Public Library should be fully funded; with a three-minute time limit on each speaker, only one person spoke in favor of not fully funding the library.
Opening the meeting and having discussed it in closed session, the board added to its agenda a temporary funding agreement regarding an appropriation of $256,000 to Samuels Public Library to cover the second quarter of Fiscal Year 2023/24, ending December 31. On a motion by Jerome Butler, seconded by Cheryl Cullers, the board voted unanimously in favor of the continued operational funding of its contracted public library.
The board then proceeded to listen to the community on the library matter during Public Comments. Many of the speakers referred to the 1st Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, arguing that the freedom to read what one pleases and to see on library shelves books that represent LGBTQ+ themes is a constitutional right. Some went as far as to say that the absence of such material could be alienating for children who identify with LGBTQ+.
Of all the impassioned speeches in support of the library and its full funding, the most impassioned was delivered by Sarah Downs of Defense for Democracy. “Why are you okay with politically posturing to extremists?” she asked the board, “And how much are you willing to sacrifice for their bigotry?”
She addressed each member of the board individually. She asked Walter Mabe, whom she perceives as having assumed a position of neutrality: “What about discrimination is neutral?” She expressed astonishment to Delores Oates, whom she perceives as at least claiming to be an advocate of “mothers” but has, in Downs’ eyes, aligned herself against the library, which she believes supports a majority of the county’s mothers. To Vicky Cook, she posed this question about accessing a past meeting: “Why are you running to and from your car? What are you running from? You say you want open discussions, but then jet on an open meeting.” She asked Cheryl Cullers: “Have you been complacent to the discriminatory actions of your fellow board members? We know you support the library, but your silence on the actions of fellow board members speaks volumes.” Finally, to Jerome Butler, she said: “Well gladly, I don’t have any questions. We know who you are. Someone who actively advocates and supports discrimination.” She assured the board that they would be held accountable at the polls.
Interviewed after the meeting, Sarah Downs described Defense for Democracy as “a non-partisan organization that is working to ensure that extremism doesn’t take root in our county.” Keeping public systems intact, like public school systems and public libraries, is their focus. Being present at meetings like the one held on Tuesday evening is important to them. During the interview, she likened the board’s attempt to control the appointment of library trustees to the communism of Red China, and near the end of the interview, she quoted Psalm 27: “Whom shall I fear?”
Each board member had the opportunity to share his or her thoughts in response to the community participation segment. They described their ongoing efforts to address the dispute over content at Samuels and funding for the library. “I have not spoken out in public because I’m listening, and I’m trying to respond individually,” Cheryl Cullers remarked. She also remarked that Jerome Butler submitted two reconsideration requests in which he checked the box for organization and filled out as Warren County Board of Supervisors. “I was and am continue to be upset and angry that you would do that,” Cullers continued. “You did not have my permission and did not speak for me on this matter.” She went on to lament the division this dispute has created in the community. “Both sides own their own share of disrespectful behavior that is not conducive to this process. Let’s all take a breath, please, and let both boards work together for a contract that is acceptable to both.”
Delores Oates spoke in favor of the changes that Samuels has made and said, “I fully support parental rights and ensuring that parents alone make decisions on raising and educating their children.” She described a loophole in the Virginia state code that forbids “obscene content” unless the body in question is a library, a museum, or a school. “It is my plan to have that as my first piece of legislation I carry, to remove this exception and protect our children,” she said, referring to her campaign for a state delegate’s seat in the November election.
The board addressed several other agenda items and adjourned.
Board of Supervisors Hears the Case of ‘Agreed Upon’ Easement
On Wednesday, September 12, at 6 p.m. in the Warren County Government Center, the Board of Supervisors met for a work session in which they heard the case of a property owner who, within the past three months, has taken steps to dissolve a memorandum of agreement pertaining to an easement on a portion of his property that compels him to give access to the building of a gas pipeline. The board has the power to dissolve the MOA.
In his address to the board, William Long, manager of Long Pine Holdings, LLC, and owner of the sixty-foot parcel under easement at 6768 Winchester Road where Washington Gas has been planning to build a portion of its pipeline for ten years, explained that he felt coerced into the agreement, as he was offered ten thousand dollars for his cooperation with the tacit understanding that in the absence of his cooperation eminent domain would give the gas company the rights they require. Thus, the “agreed upon easement” was established, where the MOA substitutes for the full force of an official easement, which the board can dissolve if they wish.
Long owns the Auto Care Clinic at that location and has operated under a conditional use permit since 2013, the same year in which the MOA was established. The MOA agreement is between William Long and Warren County. The county has worked with the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) in matters pertaining to this case.
In a letter dated June 7, 2023, Long and his wife, who is also a manager of Long Pine Holdings, wrote to Warren County’s Planning Director Matt Wendling, saying that “it is our understanding that there are no plans for future development,” regarding the sixty-foot parcel to which Washington Gas currently holds a claim, “and therefore, this right of way is no longer necessary.” The letter continues in the first person. “I have plans to expand my business, Auto Care Clinic, Inc., in the future, which would not be possible without the recission of the right of way.” The letter ends with a request that the County of Warren rescind the agreement for sixty feet right of way, “effective immediately.”
This letter comes on the heels of another letter to Wendling from Dewberry Engineers Inc., writing on behalf of Washington Gas, dated May 15, 2023. In it, the Dewberry representative says he is not aware of any requests by Warren County to dedicate the sixty feet right of way, but he believes the reservation is still valid. “As you may know,” he writes, “Washington Gas is in the final phase of a twenty-mile pipeline replacement project that commenced in 2014.” Without utilizing the sixty-foot parcel on Long’s property, Washington Gas will not be able to complete its replacement project.
This communication from Dewberry is followed by another from them on June 16, 2023, nine days after the communication to Wendling from Long. He writes that the Longs have communicated a willingness to work with Dewberry. Further adjustments need to be made to the agreement. “We are still seeking written confirmation from Warren County,” he writes, “that underground gas pipeline(s) may be constructed in a portion of the sixty-foot right-of-way reservation to support completion of this project.” A letter from VDOT to Wendling dated July 12, 2023, reads, “We have reviewed the Conditional Use Permit (CUP) request, and we do not support dissolving the joint access easement.”
The property Long currently owns, which he purchased from Evelyn Payne, a transaction that transpired alongside and was associated with the 2013 MOA, after a different CUP he had under her ownership dating back to 2007, will revert to his sole possession if the Board of Supervisors agrees to dissolve the 2013 MOA.
Having completed their closed session, which addressed personnel issues pertaining to the Airport Commission before the work session, the board heard a report on delinquency in tax collections from the Warren County Treasurer’s Office; they also heard a tourism update concerning the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) as well as a brief report about personnel proceedings from the Warren County Information Technology Department. After these agenda items were processed, the meeting adjourned.