“The report of the mayor: Bébhinn, please accept my sincere apology. I was never under the intention of quieting you or putting words in your mouth. But as we moved along we were told different things that sounded great – and we took it and drank the Kool-Aid. Thank you again for everything you did for the council. And thank your dad, Mr. Egger for coming and speaking to the council – please accept my apologies also.”
And so began and ended Front Royal Mayor Hollis Tharpe’s “Report of the Mayor” at the March 25, 2019, town council meeting.
The object of the mayor’s apology concerning his and council’s ignoring of warnings about the veracity and verifiability, or lack thereof, of EDA projects and processes was former Councilwoman Bébhinn Egger. Egger resigned her council seat effective June 30, 2017, to marry and move out of state.
As reported in Royal Examiner’s related story, former Councilwoman Egger – now Bébhinn Rowland of Maryland – returned Monday to remind former colleagues present and absent about the resistance she met over two years ago when she raised alarm bells about assertions being made by the Economic Development Authority and its then Executive Director Jennifer McDonald on a variety of fronts.
Following her remarks, her father Mark Egger, rose to call for both individual and collective apologies for the dismissive treatment his daughter received during that 2016-2017 timeframe from her colleagues.
And ALERT the MEDIA, those apologies were offered – at least by three who were there at the time, Mayor Tharpe as cited above, as well as Eugene Tewalt and Jacob Meza. As those apologies were offered, Mrs. Rowland listened from the hallway at the meeting room doorway.
Councilman Tewalt began the council mea culpa to their former colleague concerning the Kool-Aid they all appeared to have drunk regarding the EDA and its former executive director regarding projects from workforce housing to ITFederal and the New Market Tax Credit Program.
“I dealt with Ms. McDonald for quite a few years – before this time we didn’t have a problem with Ms. McDonald on anything that we’ve done. It came out later, and I don’t want to get into all the details, but when she came in and told us the stories that she told us, which becomes a lie. It became a lie and we know it’s a lie because of the things that are going on … and I do want to apologize to Bébhinn for that. I appreciate what she did when she was here.”
Next up was Jacob Meza, who opened by acknowledging his recent work session call for a joint full board meeting between council, the EDA and county supervisors. Then Meza acknowledged the current Mrs. Rowland and her father’s earlier remarks.
“First and foremost I wanted to say thank you to former Councilwoman Egger for all the information she brought forward related to the EDA and the transactions that were going on. And I want to thank Mr. Egger for his relentless perseverance in bringing to our attention the problems we are having at the EDA.
“I do regret that this action didn’t come sooner. And particularly as I hear Mr. Egger recount the actions that I was able to be a part of and witness for Councilwoman Egger – it does make it totally bad. And I do, from my point of view, I extend an apology. But that was the case, because I was there and I remember seeing it and I did not have enough information to act accordingly. So for that, I do apologize.”
And if Councilman and former EDA board member William Sealock didn’t apologize, he did try to explain the reasons, including apparent misinformation given to him as an EDA board member, for his reluctance to accept or act on then Councilwoman Egger’s suspicions that something was amiss in the state of EDA over two years ago.
As for councilmen departed who received some of Mark Egger’s most scathing criticism, Bret Hrbek and John Connolly, well time will tell if they choose to acknowledge Mark Egger’s request for atonement for past lapses of judgment regarding Councilwoman Egger’s calls for independent verification of assertions made to local government by the EDA and its former executive director while they were on council.
“John Connolly’s shameless arrogance towards Bébhinn knows no bounds,” her father began of the now-retired councilman. “At the May 8 and May 22, 2017 Council meetings, he accused her of grandstanding, airing personal grievances, having a personal vendetta, unprofessional behavior, disrespecting public officials, disgraceful behavior, and publicly shaming people. Talk about the pot calling the kettle black. If anyone wants to hear a disgusting tirade of Mr. Connolly, go to the Royal Examiner YouTube video of May 22, 2017.
“Mr. Connolly, you owe her an apology,” Mark Egger concluded.
And of Hrbek he added, “At the November 28, 2016 Council meeting, Bret Hrbek, in disparaging remarks directed towards Bébhinn for daring to ask questions, said, ‘It seems that ITFederal, the owner specifically, Mr. Curt Tran, has become highly offended by the hostility that he feels directed towards him and the accusations that have been made in his direction.’
“He went on to further express complete confidence in Jennifer McDonald and the EDA saying, ‘I don’t believe that there are any back-room deals or shenanigans going on that will cause harm to our community and this Town.’
“At the December 12, 2016 Council meeting, Mr. Hrbek stated that the EDA had seen factual evidence of award letters of substantial federal contracts to ITFederal, even though there was absolutely no proof that this was true. And the rest of the Town Council, in a 5-1 vote, without any evidence given, approved a resolution stating this in support of ITFederal. Bébhinn was the sole negative vote.
“Mr. Hrbek, you owe her an apology.”
Neither Connolly nor Hrbek were present to react to Mark Egger’s request Monday evening.
Royal Examiner Editor Norma Jean Shaw reached out to Bret Hrbek on Tuesday evening, to follow up on questions Hrbek had agreed to answer regarding our recent story on the EDA, land purchases by its former director and current Warren County Sheriff Daniel T. Mceathron and the status of ITFederal, and he responded, “After looking at the questions I don’t think I would add anything useful to the discussion. I’ve been out of public sphere for two years and really only know the information that I’ve read in your paper and the NVD.”
Shaw replied, “I hope you will, at least, then, be gracious enough to extend a public apology to fellow formal council member Egger, as most council members have done.”
Hrbek stated, “Apologize for what?”
Watch the remarks:
EDA completes audits for 2018 and 2019; 2020 audit is next
The Board of Directors of the Front Royal and Warren County Economic Development Authority accepted its audited financial statements for fiscal years 2018 and 2019, today, October 5, 2021. The audit of the financial statements was conducted by the firm of Brown Edwards, CPAs of Harrisonburg, VA.
“We have received the final outside audits conducted for 2018 and 2019,” said EDA Board Chairman Jeff Browne. “This was a huge effort on the part of Brown Edwards, and they have done very good work in challenging circumstances. Getting these two financial audits completed is a major step forward in putting the EDA’s past difficulties behind us. Now we can better focus on economic development issues to benefit the community.”
“The auditors’ letter points to three areas for improvement of internal controls,” Browne said. “It was important to make each improvement recommended by the CPAs, and we have done just that. The Warren County staff now administer the check-writing duties, collection of rents, and have layers of approvals for expenses within EDA and the County administration that were not there three years ago.”
The audited financial statements show that, at the end of the fiscal year 2019, the EDA’s total net assets were $38,036,737, and its net liabilities were $44,575,435, resulting in a deficit net position of $6,538,698. The EDA will work with Warren County’s auditors starting with the fiscal year 2020, which audit can now be undertaken.
The EDA Board of Directors will have their next regular monthly board meeting via Zoom on Friday, October 29, 2021, at 9 a.m.
EDA reminds rental tenants, Small Business Loan Program clients to now send payments to WCGC
Starting October 1, 2021, the Warren County Finance Department will take over and manage payments made to the EDA for rents and the Small Business Loan Program (RBEL and IRP). The EDA will no longer be accepting payments at their office or office address.
Please continue to make your check or money order to the EDA. You must hand-carry or send your payments to:
Warren County Government
ATTN: Finance Department
220 N. Commerce Ave.
Front Royal, VA 22630
Any payments sent to the EDA will be returned. As a result, you may incur fees for late payment. We appreciate your cooperation. Thank you for your attention to this matter.
EDA briefed on structural and legal options in closed session; gets open session updates on committee work during transition phases
The EDA Board of Directors met Friday, September 24, for their regular monthly meeting. The Board went into closed session for approximately 90 minutes to discuss transition, personnel, 2018- 2019 draft audits, loan restructuring, and disposition of property. The Board returned to open session at approximately 10:20 a.m. Jeff Browne, EDA Chair, opened the session with an overview of the transition. Browne asked each board member to report on their assigned transition project.
Search Committee-Transition: Dr. Tom Patteson, reported the committee met and reviewed applications. Three applications were submitted to the county administrator. The county and EDA will work together in selecting replacements for the Administrative Assistant and Executive Director.
Finance Committee-Transition: Jim Wolfe reported the “numbers” on the 2108 and 2019 audits are final. Jim Wolfe stated the management letter will be revised and recommended a special meeting for next week to finalize and accept the audits for 2018 and 2019. The Board agreed and the date of the meeting will be announced. Mr. Wolfe will also be meeting with the finance personnel at the county in the next several weeks.
Marketing Committee-Transition: Scott Jenkins, Chair reported the 38-page PowerPoint presentation is complete. The marketing material can be tailored to specific clients. The marketing is targeted on the Core Industries: Advance Manufacturing, Transportation and Logistics, Information Technologies, and Food Processing. Scott reviewed documents and key data. The marketing material is organized and stored on the EDA network. The September Marketing Committee report included other updates and visions including Small Business opportunities, focus on the Strategic Plan, and marketing opportunities with VEDP, Site Selector Guild, and Trade shows in 2022.
Administration Committee-Transition: Jorie Martin reported Gretchen Henderson prepared an Operation Manual for future reference. The manual is detailed in all the operations of the office including resources to use. The new administrative assistant as well as the EDA Board are well prepared to transition smoothly. Mrs. Martin reported The EDA now has the capability to update portions of the website in-house. This week a meeting section was added so the public can go to the site and see upcoming meetings.
Asset Committee: Greg Harold reported the transition and updates on the assets of the EDA were complete. Doug Parsons worked closely to make sure all projects are up to date.
Greg Harold presented the Project Management – Stage-Gate: The Stage-Gate is a comprehensive document standardizing the process for disposition of property. The document will be reviewed and discussed at length at the October board meeting.
Motions coming out of Closed Session: The Board approved the technical revisions to the EDA By-Laws adopted at the August meeting. The Board approved the Board Chair, and Secretary to sign documents for the restructuring of the EDA debt with First Bank and Trust. All documents will be reviewed by legal counsel.
Other items that the Board of Directors addressed included an expression of gratitude for all the work done by Executive Director, Doug Parsons. Jeff Browne expressed and the boards’ appreciation for all the hard work and effort to bring the EDA where it is today. Through Doug’s efforts, the EDA has sold property, expanded business, and brought new business to the town and county.
The next monthly EDA Board Meeting is scheduled for October 22, 2021.
County moves toward restructured EDA staffing in hopes of restored municipal cooperation – 6 CUPs approved, 5 for short-term tourist rentals
At its meeting of Tuesday evening, September 21st, the Warren County Board of Supervisors made the first official move toward an altered structure of its, and the Town’s, Economic Development Authority futures. That move was unanimous 5-0 approval, on a motion by Delores Oates, seconded by Walt Mabe, of County Administrator Ed Daley’s presentation of a “Request to Create a Warren County Office of Economic Development”. As reported in our recent story, County work session takes unexpected turn on EDA front – ‘Reunited’ operational option broached, the supervisors elected to have Daley forwarded an idea originally slated for Closed Session discussion at a September 14 work session, in open session that day. That idea is to have an Economic Development Director’s staff position under the municipal government umbrella, rather than as a staff position hired by the board of an independent Economic Development Authority (EDA), albeit an EDA board appointed by the municipal government or governments that created it.
As we understand it from subsequent conversations with Daley following last week’s supervisors’ work session, that in-house EDA director’s position would work in the best interest of both the county’s municipal governments, networking what it appears at this point will continue to evolve into two unilateral Town and County EDAs. Now theoretically, both the existing WC EDA and FREDA – the Front Royal EDA that is in the interview stage of establishing a board of directors – could create their own independent Offices of Economic Development with their own executive directors. But the impetus after last Thursday’s resurrected Town-County Liaison Committee meeting appears to be to work together to select an executive director who will work to the mutual benefit of both municipalities while networking with two EDA Boards of Directors.
Confusing? Perhaps – but it would cut payment of the six-figure salary range position in half if both municipalities could agree on the concept and a person to fill that conceptual central administrative position. For with a statewide trend toward regional EDA cooperation in a highly competitive economic development environment, what future would this community’s economic development have with dueling EDAs competing, not only with other regional governments’ economic development structures but with each other’s, particularly when the WC EDA has control of significant portions of economic development properties inside the town limits?
The answer to that question has, perhaps, already been given in the pending October 1st departure of WC EDA Executive Director Doug Parsons, to a county directly to our east where as one local observed upon hearing the news, “Warrenton isn’t suing Fauquier County” (or perhaps more accurately, its EDA).
And a move toward “us and us” from “us versus them” in County-Town relations was a reoccurring theme for several supervisors involved in last week’s first Liaison Committee meeting since January. Both Board Chair Cheryl Cullers and Delores Oates commented on the positive feeling they carried out of that meeting that the deteriorated relationship featuring hostile litigation involving the Town and existing WC EDA, and canceled face-to-face meetings of elected officials on matters of mutual interest, might be turning a corner. Of course, as the third county board member at that Liaison Committee meeting, Walt Mabe, wondered during it: Why can’t we return to one, re-tooled EDA working to both the County’s and Town’s benefit, with one executive director not alleged to have had their hands in both municipalities’ economic development pockets?
And in a loosely related item, as part of the September 24th WC EDA monthly board meeting, departing Executive Director Doug Parsons’ last, the agenda includes the information that the long-awaited 2018 and 2019 EDA audits have been completed by the contracted auditing company and are awaiting EDA Board approval. Stay tuned for more developments on the auditing front. – Maybe the completed audits could even establish exactly how much of whose money went where and is owed to who by whom, negating the necessity for the continued dueling Town-WC EDA civil litigations. As previously reported, the sitting council ignored then-Mayor Gene Tewalt’s 2019 advice to accept the offer of the WC EDA to sit down with accountants rather than attorneys to follow the money to establish exactly who was owed what on the back end of the EDA’s now $62-million-dollar financial scandal.
But off that “movie script”, in other business the supervisors approved six Conditional Use Permit (CUP) requests Tuesday, five for Short-Term Tourist Rentals, and one for alterations to a Kennel Permit. See all these discussions, public comments, and votes in the County video; and see the meeting agenda cover page with the full list of CUP application public hearings linked here:
County work session takes unexpected turn on EDA front – ‘Reunited’ operational option broached
What had been an hour-plus work session update on Capital Improvement Projects (CIPs) by County Project Manager Jeff Hayes took an unexpected turn about an hour and a quarter into that work session at the conclusion of Hayes PowerPoint presentation. I say “unexpected” because the only open session agenda cover sheet item was Hayes’ CIP report. However, the board elected to take what was labeled “Closed Session” discussion of “Personnel re: Economic Development Authority” into open session discussion.
What followed was County Administrator Ed Daley’s presentation on organizational opportunities presented by the pending October 1st loss of the second and final member of the two-person EDA staff. As previously reported, following Administrative Assistant Gretchen Henderson’s August 27 departure to the Northern Shenandoah Valley Regional Commission, Executive Director Doug Parsons announced his resignation, effective October 1, to take the EDA executive director’s job in Fauquier County.
And what Daley presented to the board in open session echoed what EDA Board Chairman Jeff Browne told Royal Examiner in the wake of the pending loss of the entire EDA staff – this can be an opportunity, rather than a derailing of the EDA’s recovery from the multi-million-dollar financial scandal uncovered in 2018-19 under previous executive and board leadership. And while Browne focused on replacement personnel selection as the opportunity, Daley used that as a jumping-off point to explore previous supervisors discussion dating to early 2020 about an organizational realignment of the EDA. The County has already taken on the role of Financial Agent of the EDA. Continuing the broached realignment would bring the EDA staff into the Warren County Government Center, functioning more like a County Department. That option was first considered by some supervisors in the wake of the Town of Front Royal’s decision to operationally withdraw from the half-century-plus old joint EDA, in favor of creating its own unilateral Front Royal EDA (FREDA).
That decision was driven by the Town Council’s decision, against the advice of then-Mayor Gene Tewalt, to civilly sue the old EDA for a larger portion of the allegedly embezzled and misdirected EDA assets related to County and Town business dealing handled by the EDA. Rather than costly and divisive litigation, Mayor Tewalt urged council to accept the new EDA leadership’s offer to have staffs simply sit down and follow the money to determine who was owed what. However, a council majority wasn’t listening to its then mayor. Consequently, the Town and EDA are currently engaged in dueling civil litigations.
And while Daley’s presentation began as a logistical exploration of processes of incorporating the EDA into the county governmental apparatus, it took a turn when one supervisor posed a legal question. “I’m going to call the elephant out in the room,” North River Supervisor Delores Oates said in pointing out that the existing EDA was jointly founded by the county and town governments over a half-century ago, and legally remains a Town-County EDA. So, can the County legally bring the EDA into its sole administrative oversight, she wondered.
“If I were sitting where you sit, I would invite the town council to participate in a staffed economic development department that works for the EDA but can also work for us in the County and the Town on economic development projects,” the county administrator replied. And as Daley pointed out, neither EDA currently has a staff, though at least one, the old EDA, has an exceptionally competent and proactive re-tooled board of directors.
“And I think that would be the best tactical advantage for the community, is if we would actually collaborate and not create independent organizations. Because otherwise we’re spending twice the money to do the same job,” Oates said in response to Daley’s suggestion.
The first face-to-face discussion of this latter option of reestablishing a jointly functioning Town-County EDA will apparently take place this Thursday, at the first Town-County Liaison Committee meeting since the Town Council decided to cut those quarterly meetings off in the wake of initiating the now dueling Town-EDA/County civil litigations. Daley noted that Liaison Committee opportunity was presented by the inclusion on Thursday’s Liaison agenda of a Town presentation on the status of development of its unilateral Town EDA.
Members of both council and the board of supervisors have recently suggested an altered, more collaborative Town-County path forward from the divisive and litigious one launched by council during the tenure of Interim Town Manager Matt Tederick. So, it will be interesting to see how Thursday’s Liaison Committee discussion develops with a new town manager involved; and how the full council will react to the idea of realigning into a jointly functioning EDA apparatus, possibly including collaboration in selecting the new FR-WC EDA staff were a speedy, positive reaction achieved.
The EDA discussion begins at the 1-hour-16-minute-30-second mark of the linked county video; Oates calls out the “elephant in the room” at the 1-hour-44-minute-45-second mark. The Capital Improvement Project PowerPoint and Q&A takes up the first hour-and-15-minutes of the video. And between the CIP and EDA portions of the work session, Board Chair Cullers gave an update on news of the birth of her newest grandchild Tuesday evening. – Welcome to the world on September 14, 2021, Ella Louise.
About those CIP projects
Prior to that turn toward the EDA and Town-County relations regarding cost-effective cooperation versus costly, counterproductive competition in future economic development initiatives, there were some interesting turns on the CIP front. Those included discussion of downtown Front Royal parking issues and the County’s ability to impact those issue with owned property in the Historic Downtown Business District vicinity. Also, under board scrutiny was the cost and effectiveness of air purification devices under consideration for other County facilities after being installed at the Warren County Courthouse to allow more normal judicial proceedings to be reinitiated during the COVID-19 Coronavirus pandemic. Discussion of the potential effectiveness against, not only the COVID-19 Coronavirus but other virally spread illnesses was broached in considering the purchase of as many as 60 of the machines at a cost of $2100 per unit.
See Hayes’ CIP power point on renovations to the Commonwealth Attorney’s Office; the Parks & Rec Department Splash Pad Pavilion; Rivermont Volunteer Fire Company 2 renovations; Shenandoah Farms Company 6 renovations; the Morgan’s Ford Boat Landing project; and Juvenile and Domestic Court renovations and related parking issue, including the observation that you “don’t build a court facility over or under a parking deck – BOOM!” (due to domestic terrorist concerns).
On the downtown parking deck front, Ed Daley noted that the Winchester City Council was scoffed at for proposing a downtown parking deck 20 years ago, adding that now the city has four.
EDA develops transition plan through staffing losses
The Front Royal/Warren County EDA’s Executive Committee met on September 10, 2021, at 9:00 a.m. to discuss personnel matters arising from the upcoming vacancy of its executive director, and a transition plan for continuity of EDA operations.
The Executive Committee is developing a detailed plan to handle all aspects of the EDA’s operations including business retention and attraction, finance, legal, personnel, and day-to-day office operations. Both the Board and the Executive Director are confident that this plan will ensure a seamless transition and ensure the EDA remains a competitive entity for investment and expansion of businesses in Warren County.
(From a Sept. 10 Press Release by the WC EDA)