Following lead-off batter Gary Kushner in a nearly 90-minute first-inning that saw 27 people step to the plate, 22 of 24 addressing the Front Royal Town Council and interim town manager’s fastball approach to downsizing and outsourcing several governmental functions, a number of pointed statements, questions and inquiries were made (sorry for the baseball analogy, the Astro’s World Series cheating scandal has my attention).
Second speaker Marie McDaniel introduced herself as a new resident of a year, who has fallen in love with the community and its people. She noted she had volunteered at the Town Visitors Center to learn more about her new community, observing, “That special place and the people who work there and volunteer are amazing. They all have a passion for promoting Front Royal, even with threats of unemployment hanging over their heads.”
Citing already fired Community Development Director Felicia Hart, Tourism Director Tim Smith and staff, she added, “They make the (Visitors) Center the heart and soul of this town … Don’t lose it the way we seem to lose dogs, cats, goats …” drawing applause as she concluded.
Joanne Kearney, a second Visitors Center volunteer followed, noting she had not been solicited by anyone to speak on their or the Visitors Center’s behalf. Pointing to a previous effort to outsource tourism promotion that did not work out, Kearney cited the negative impact of lost control of a key marketing tool from outsourcing.
“The town is our product, and our mission at the (Visitors) Center is to support the success of every business and attraction. New management may have a different mission … How will the town’s interests be protected and what oversight will there be on how your money is being spent? … Mr. Tederick reportedly said the government is not agile and creative enough to manage tourism, but the department staff HAS displayed creativity and agility in new outreach and initiatives … Tourism is this town’s lifeblood. The council should be INCREASING support for the department, not handing it off to an unknown quantity.”
Kearney pointed to the experience of other communities, as well as Front Royal’s, in unsuccessful efforts to outsource the tourism function in concluding, “This outsourcing stands to do more harm than good and could cost much more than it hopes to save, as many other municipalities have learned. Why repeat a course that has already been found unsuccessful … Consider the long-term ramifications and potential losses. Please reject the outsourcing plan and keep the staff and operations of tourism with the town, for the sake of the town,” again drawing wide applause at her conclusion.
Not ‘agile’ enough?
Front Royal/Warren County Appalachian Trail Community Committee Co-Chair Susan Tschirhart repeated concerns expressed in a committee co-chair letter to the mayor and town council, that as she noted was also printed in the “Opinion” section of the Royal Examiner website, in the immediate aftermath of the announced terminations and plans to outsource the Town’s tourism function.
But on February 10 she elaborated on those concerns to the council’s and its staff’s face. In that eyeball to eyeball meeting, she also presented numbers that appeared to contradict Interim Town Manager Tederick’s stated “not agile enough” rationale for sweeping changes like outsourcing, immediate terminations, and potential future firings related to the Town’s tourism function. In opening, Tschirhart pointed to momentum the community has developed related to its “AT Community” designation and the importance of the Town and County’s interrelationship in tourism marketing – an effort illustrated by the Joint Town-County Tourism Advisory Board which also met last week, though apparently also without any foreknowledge or information about the Town’s planned and partially implemented course of action on tourism.
“Our town and county were jointly designated an official AT Community by the Appalachian Trail Conservancy in 2012. Our committee of volunteers raises awareness of and support for trail-friendly local business, land-use policies that protect the trail and its views, and hiking as a healthy outdoor activity. AT Community designation has directly resulted in five new businesses, including three on Main Street, all of which are thriving. At this time, we are proud to partner with 22 businesses and organizations that have sought and earned AT Community Supporter certification …
“Not only did tourism attract $151 million in visitor expenditures to Warren County in 2018, a 4.9% increase over 2017, but, according to the Virginia Tourism Corporation, it supported 1700 jobs, a combined payroll of $23 million, and contributed $3 million to local tax coffers … Last week, based on 210 reviews, our Visitor Center was ranked second only to Skyline Caverns as top attractions in Front Royal. Do you know how unusual it is for a visitor center to rank as an attraction?” Tschirhart asked, adding pointedly, “And we’re about to fire that entire staff and change a recipe that has been steadily generating increased revenue for each of the past five years.”
And of that Town tourism budget already appropriated for the current fiscal year that runs to June 30, well into the hiking and tourist season, Tschirhart observed, “We were also puzzled to learn that the tourism budget for marketing and advertising has been frozen. This is money already allocated to the current fiscal year and critical to generating business for 170 tourism-dependent businesses in the county who count on the Visitor Center and its marketing materials and services to generate income. Eighty-five percent of Front Royal’s tourism budget is covered by lodging fees, all collected from visitors to our area. The remaining 15% comes from Front Royal promotional merchandise sold at the Visitor Center. None of our tourism department’s salaries or expenses come out of our own taxpayer dollars. Why are we cutting the tourism budget just as the tourism season is about to begin?” Tschirhart asked.
She also suggested that council and the interim town manager’s course of action flies in the face of, not only the Town’s own past experience with outsourcing tourism, but other Valley communities who have learned their lessons and are moving in exactly the opposite direction from the one five elected and two appointed town citizens have chosen to move this Appalachian Trail Community in.
“Berryville and Round Hill were designated AT Communities last year. Luray, designated just after Front Royal is now working toward moving its under-performing tourism department out from under its Chamber (of Commerce). In all of the other counties, tourism is handled by town/county government, and none are privatized,” Tschirhart told the town’s elected and appointed officials.
“Virginia’s recreation economy is booming. Roanoke is now positioning itself to compete with Asheville, North Carolina as a site for outdoor manufacturing. Damascus just broke ground for the Trail’s newest trail center. Situated between Damascus and AT headquarters in Harper’s Ferry, Warren County hosts one of the most popular section hikes along the trail’s 500-mile stretch in Virginia … The average thru-hiker along the AT will spend $5500 during the course of their hike, and another $4000 on gear. According to a 2010 survey, they’ll spend an average of $153 per town visit, a figure that has no doubt increased over the last 10 years.
“So, why all this effort to engage the outdoor industry?” Tschirhart asked rhetorically, answering her own question by noting, “Because it’s a $362 billion dollar industry driven largely by hiking, camping, and rock climbing, all of which can be found in abundance here … Nationally, revenue generated by the outdoor industry exceeds even oil and gas.
“To mix metaphors, Front Royal should be riding that wave, not starving the golden goose,” Tschirhart said in closing.
Another council gamble?
According to one councilman, Gary Gillespie’s, remarks delivered later as a justification of council actions on a number of fronts, including legally with the EDA and budgetary from year to year, “We work for the taxpayers of Front Royal first and foremost. Again, it’s our job to fight and protect your money.”
The unanswered question remains – will reducing operational costs so they can say they made capital improvements, often long-delayed ones, without raising taxes in the coming fiscal year REALLY save this community money in the long term OR simply set the stage for a huge corresponding loss of revenue from a tourism industry crucial to both the Town and County’s economic futures?
It appears this Front Royal Town Council majority continues its propensity for gambling:
1 – on “promises” of lower interest rates versus facts regarding the availability of those rates on its police headquarters construction project;
2 – on soaring taxpayer-funded legal costs to fight over whether those broken verbal “promises” from a now-indicted former EDA official hold any legal weight in the conduct of municipal and economic development business;
3 – and now, on whether reducing the town government’s operational tax revenue needs is really a money saver for the Town and the community in the long term.
Roll the dice …
Judge ponders rulings in multiple defense motions to overturn civil case jury finding of liability in EDA financial scandal cases
After over five hours of arguments surrounding five EDA civil case defendants’ motions to overturn jury liability verdicts totaling over $14-million, Judge Bruce D. Albertson took those arguments under advisement Wednesday afternoon, November 30th. Some court officials anticipate rulings at some point in the coming week in the cases of April Petty ($125,000 compensatory judgement liability); William Lambert ($296,555.34 compensatory, punitive, & interest liabilities); Donald “Donnie” Poe ($604,973.12 compensatory, punitive, interest); Truc “Curt” Tran ($1,821,192.01 compensatory, interest); and Samuel “Sammy” North (approximately $893,000 compensatory, punitive, interest, & statutory conspiracy).
In addition to the above personal liabilities, Poe’s EarthRight Energy (ERE) company ($948,646.25 in compensatory, punitive, interest) and Tran’s ITFederal ($10,419,327.38 compensatory) were also handed down by Warren County Circuit Court civil case juries in recent months.
All but North’s trial were heard in July. North’s, also originally scheduled for July, was delayed to October by a later withdrawn bankruptcy filing. This week on the final day of November, attorneys for the defendants echoed arguments sometimes heard at trial during earlier motions for dismissal of cases or claims against their clients due to what defense attorneys asserted both then and now, was a lack of substantive evidence of collusion with EDA financial scandal central figure and former Front Royal-Warren County Economic Development Director Jennifer McDonald. Rather, some defense attorneys claimed their clients were unwitting victims of McDonald’s from various business or personal connections.
Those personal connections include North’s marriage to McDonald; Lambert’s former personal relationship with McDonald’s sister; what attorney William Schmidheiser called Petty’s casual acquaintance McDonald, acting as his client’s real estate agent in the sale of her home. On the business side, Poe’s ERE company was contracted through McDonald to perform various solar energy and energy maintenance projects for the EDA under what plaintiff EDA attorneys contended were false pretenses McDonald presented to her board of directors; and Tran’s ITFederal was recruited through the joint effort of McDonald and then Virginia Sixth District U.S. House Representative Bob Goodlatte to become the first commercial redevelopment client at the former Avtex Superfund site, also with what plaintiff counsel said were false contractual and asset information concerning ITFederal alleged to have been presented to the EDA board.
Several attorneys, most prominently Tran attorney David Jones Jr., also argued that several claims categories should not have applied to their clients at trial. Prominent among those were the “ultra vires” claim of profiting off the actions of an official acting outside the range of their legal authority, and associated claims of “conversion” and “unjust enrichment” being applied to their clients for actions of then EDA Executive Director McDonald. Consequently, Jones for Tran particularly and other defense attorneys argued that some jury instructions submitted were improper, creating an incorrect evidentiary scenario for those juries to deliberate on. So, procedural errors on bench rulings on evidence admissibility or jury instructions were claimed as grounds to overturn jury verdicts.
In Poe and ERE’s case, defense counsel William Ashwell also noted that some of the contracted work had been successfully completed by Poe’s company. He told the court that when payments were made by the EDA board to his client’s company: “The EDA eventually adopts her (McDonald’s) actions by their actions” and consequently his client is not the one who should be held liable for the return of money for work accomplished. Ashwell also sought to overturn any personal liability of Poe for payments made to his company.
In opening his arguments to overturn or limit Tran and ITFederal’s liability, Jones noted that he was “in the somewhat unenviable position of not being the trial attorney – Am I in the position of fresh eyes or of where fools rush in where angels fear to tread,” Jones wondered as he launched what would be an approximate hour of argument on his client’s behalf. During that hour Jones questioned the liability finding on a number of grounds and questioned whether ITFederal was, in fact, in breach of contract as claimed by the EDA in seeking recovery of the balance of the $10-million loan the EDA gave ITFederal for development at the former Avtex site.
Plaintiff counsel Cullen Seltzer and Karissa Kaseorg countered, as they had at trial, that McDonald’s assertions to her board about the source of funding for the ERE energy and electrical work being through grants that would compensate the EDA for its payments to ERE; or alleged government contracts held by Tran’s ITFederal company that were non-existent created the path for those payments, and a $10-million loan in ITFederal’s case, substantiating the juries findings of liability on ultra vires, conversion, and unjust enrichment, among other plaintiff claims.
In response to some of Jones’ arguments for reduction or dismissal of his clients’ liability, Kaseorg told Judge Albertson that the motions to overturn hearings should not be an opportunity for defense counsel to retry the case with a “what we wish we had done” at trial. Of Jones’ argument to dismiss based on the inclusion of the plaintiff’s “conversion” jury instruction, plaintiff counsel noted that the defense had agreed to the conversion jury instruction at trial.
In conclusion plaintiff EDA counsel asserted the judicial decisions from the bench at trial had been proper as to both evidence admissibility and jury instructions, and that those jury verdicts of financial liability based on both sides cases as presented at trial should stand as handed down by those five juries. And now we are awaiting a decision on how the court will rate its own performance at those trials based on the defendants’ challenges and the plaintiff’s counter-arguments in support of the judicial rulings made at trial.
In wake of most recent turnover at top of its Finance Department, County Supervisors promote Asst. Director Alisa Scott to head department
Warren County is pleased to announce the appointment of Alisa M. Scott as Finance Director for the County. Mrs. Scott has a Bachelor of Arts degree in Communications Studies from Northwestern College and a Master of Business Administration degree from American Public University. She brings a wealth of experience and multiple public finance certifications to this position.
Mrs. Scott was hired as the Warren County Deputy Finance Director on November 15, 2022, before interviewing and receiving the offer for the Finance Director position. While she began her career in the private sector, she now has more than 10 years’ experience in local government having managed purchasing for the Town of Front Royal from 2018 to 2021. Before that, she served as an administrative assistant for Frederick County, Virginia since 2012. Mrs. Scott will be assuming this role immediately while working with outgoing Finance Director, Matt Robertson.
Dr. Ed Daley, County Administrator, said this about Mrs. Scott’s appointment: “Mrs. Scott has been part of Mr. Robertson’s team as they have made significant strides in the County’s financial reporting and transparency. We are pleased that she will be continuing in the Finance Department and expanding on these efforts in her new role.”
Victoria L. “Vicky” Cook, member of the Warren County Board of Supervisors and representative on the Warren County Finance/Audit Committee, stated, “Mrs. Scott brings a wealth of knowledge and professionalism to the Finance Department. I am looking forward to working together with Mrs. Scott in her new role.”
Regarding her appointment as Finance Director, Mrs. Scott said, “I am honored to work alongside the County’s leadership team and am extremely grateful for this entrusted appointment. I look forward to continuing to serve our community and dedicated employees.”
The Warren County Finance Department is in Suite 700 of the Warren County Government Center, located at 220 N Commerce Avenue, telephone (540) 636-1604. Office hours are 9:00 AM to 5:00 PM, Monday through Friday.
Town Planning Commission puzzles over RMA Rezoning request
The Front Royal Planning Commission met Wednesday, November 30 in a special meeting to consider a rezoning application submitted by Chris Holloway Construction on behalf of Randolph-Macon Academy to rezone a 6.2 acre parcel along West Main Street from Residential (R-1) to Residential (R-3). The R-3 Residential District is composed of medium-to-high density concentrations of residential uses. A sketch of the proposed improvements on the parcel shows a group of 6 townhouses on a side-hill at an angle to West Main Street. Joe Brogan, a local surveyor who provided the sketches for the proposal, told the commission that the R-MA trustees were looking for the least complicated way of getting the development completed. As the Royal Examiner reported earlier, at a brief work session after its November 16 regular meeting, the commission questioned how a 6-plus acre parcel could be used for building townhouses without being divided into townhouse lots. The planning department agreed at that time to research possible options.
During the public Hearing, only one citizen spoke. A nearby resident, Tammy Schell, expressed concerns about the construction process and timeline and the impact on the neighborhood. She did not so much oppose the project as to try to find out more about how it would be done. “Most of my questions have been answered by the information you’ve provided tonight”, she said. Remaining concerns about the construction process have yet to be worked out. From the plan so far, it appears that access to the new buildings – now called “faculty and student housing”, rather than “townhouses” – will be provided for by extending an existing drive on the R-MA campus, rather than by access from West Main Street. It’s likely that some traffic for construction vehicles will come through the gate on West Main, and the Town would have to provide sewer connections, so there would be some construction disruptions for that.
Following the public hearing, the four members of the commission, Vice-Chair Marshner was absent, spent some time discussing the parcel rezoning request. Chairman Daryl Merchant began by questioning the R-3 Zoning, since there is no other areas around it with that zoning. “Wouldn’t we run the risk of spot-zoning in this case?” Spot-zoning is the application of zoning to a specific parcel or parcels of land within a larger zoned area when the rezoning is at odds with a municipality’s master plan and current zoning restrictions. Secondly, he asked if the rezoning was granted, wouldn’t this project then also require a Special Use Permit (SUP)? New developments would also require curb and gutter as part of the development. “Isn’t it possible that leaving the zoning as R-1 and considering the new building as an accessory structure would preclude the need for both the rezoning and an SUP?” Merchant finally commented.
A consensus emerged from the discussion that a boundary adjustment could be administratively approved that would incorporate two adjacent parcels and make it possible to avoid rezoning altogether and still allow R-MA to build the needed housing. On a motion by Commissioner Daniel Wells, seconded by Commissioner Josh Ingram, the commission voted to postpone action on the rezoning request until Mr. Brogan can meet with the R-MA trustees and work with the Town Planning Department to get agreement on the simpler course of action. The commission will then vote on its recommendation at its December 21 regular meeting.
Chairman Merchant took a moment to recognize new/old Town Manager Joe Waltz as a welcome face, present at the meeting as his first official act after being confirmed by the Town Council earlier in the evening. See story here. Mr. Waltz returns to the Town Manager job after a 3-year run managing a municipal energy cooperative in Ohio.
Commissioner Josh Ingram reminded the commissioners that the December 21st regular meeting will be his last, as he assumes office on the Town Council on January 1.
Warren County, Virginia receives Distinguished Budget Presentation Award
The Government Finance Officers Association is pleased to announce that Warren County, Virginia, has received GFOA’s Distinguished Budget Presentation Award for its FY 2022-2023 budget book.
The award represents a significant achievement by the entity. It reflects the commitment of the governing body and staff to meeting the highest principles of governmental budgeting. In order to receive the budget award, the entity had to satisfy nationally recognized guidelines for effective budget presentation. These guidelines are designed to assess how well an entity’s budget serves as:
- a policy document
- a financial plan
- an operations guide
- a communications device
Budget documents must be rated “proficient” in all four categories, and in the fourteen mandatory criteria within those categories, to receive the award.
When a Distinguished Budget Presentation Award is granted to an entity, a Certificate of Recognition for Budget Presentation is also presented to the individual(s) or department designated as being primarily responsible for having achieved the award. This has been presented to Finance Department.
There are over 1,700 participants in the Budget Awards Program. The most recent Budget Award recipients, along with their corresponding budget documents, are posted quarterly on GFOA’s website. Award recipients have pioneered efforts to improve the quality of budgeting and provide an excellent example for other governments throughout North America.
The Government Finance Officers Association is a nonprofit professional association serving nearly 22,500 appointed and elected local, state, and provincial-level government finance professionals and other finance practitioners. It provides top quality publications, training programs, services, and products designed to enhance the skills and performances of those responsible for government finance policy and management. The GFOA’s Distinguished Budget Presentation Awards Program is the only national awards program in governmental budgeting.
Cheryl Cullers, Chair of the Warren County Board of Supervisors, stated, “On behalf of the Board of Supervisors, I would like to congratulate Mr. Robertson and his staff on receiving this award. Mr. Robertson has done an amazing job as Director of Finance in the short time he has been in this position. I am very pleased and proud of Mr. Robertson and the rest of our Finance Department for their hard work and dedication to excellence. I would also like to give acknowledge to Zachary Henderson and Emily Ciarrocchi for their assistance to Mr. Robertson in this process.”
According to County Administrator Ed Daley, “We appreciate the efforts of Matt Robertson and the staff of the Finance Department to receive this distinguished award, which shows a significant improvement in the County’s financial reporting efforts. Thank you to everyone who contributed to this budget document for their hard work.”
Finance Director Matt Robertson added, “This award signifies the dedication the Warren County Finance team has shown in creating an open and transparent budget document that communicates how taxpayer dollars support the County’s strategic initiatives. I am incredibly proud of the work we have accomplished and will continue to build on in upcoming budgets.”
Click here to view the FY 2022-2023 budget book.
The Warren County Finance Department is in Suite 700 of the Warren County Government Center, located at 220 N Commerce Avenue, telephone (540) 636-1604. Office hours are 9:00 AM to 5:00 PM, Monday through Friday.
After hour-and-a-half in closed session council fails to finalize contract with Joe Waltz – appoints Finance Director B.J. Wilson interim town manager
A nearly hour-and-a-half closed session Monday night, November 28, led to a unanimously approved motion by Amber Morris, seconded by Gary Gillispie, to appoint Town Finance Director B.J. Wilson interim town manager, effective immediately. The motion and vote would appear to indicate issues with the contract proposal on the table that would bring popular former Town Manager Joe Waltz back to his old position in Front Royal’s Town Hall. And don’t take our word for his past popularity among Town staff or citizens, as citizen letters to the Royal Examiner’s OPINION page and mayoral and council comments of November 9 indicated when the initiative to bring Waltz back was unveiled.
And then add comments from one councilman at Monday evening’s meeting of November 28th. During reports of members, now second newest member with the arrival of Special Election winner L. Wayne Sealock, Skip Rogers raised the topic of a pending contract with Waltz. “We’ve got a great opportunity to extend an offer, which we’ve already done, to Joe Waltz who is a very well known entity in this town. He’s been our town manager prior and circumstances happened that he has come back … He is a guy who is known. I have spoken to many of our department heads that highly respect him. So, he’s a guy who I think we need to do what we can to extend an offer and to really bring to closure a hiring,” Rogers told his colleagues.
“I want to ask the council, Mayor, to as soon as possible – immediately if possible – to convene a special session to finalize an offer that was made to him, so that this community can get back on the right track. We’ve had a number of issues over the course of the last year or so with the town managers. And I think we’ve got an excellent opportunity to bring some stability to this community. So, I want to ask council to move on this as quickly as possible,” Rogers concluded.
“We have a closed right after this,” Amber Morris pointed out of the coming closed session as the meeting’s final agenda item. The first of three items listed was “the discussion, consideration, assignment, appointment, promotion, performance, demotion, salaries, disciplining or resignation of specific public officers, appointees, or employees of any public body, specifically the Town Manager” (emphasis added). Other topics included the potential leasing of town property and legal advice regarding an “Agreement with Discover Front Royal” as required by Virginia State Codes. A final Closed/Executive Session notation was that “Council may take further action in open session.”
Just about an hour-and-a-half after convening to closed session at 8 p.m., at 9:29 p.m. council emerged from its Closed, Executive Session, at which point Mayor Chris Holloway called for a motion. Councilwoman Morris immediately responded: “Yes, Mr. Mayor, I move that council, there being no executed town manager contract, appoint Finance Director B. J. Wilson as interim town manager, effective immediately, with a salary increase of 10%.”
Seconded by Councilman Gary Gillispie, a roll call vote approved the motion without dissent, at least none apparent, and Mayor Holloway adjourned the meeting after 40 seconds in open session. In the wake of his call for immediate action to finalize a contract with Waltz, Royal Examiner contacted Councilman Rogers for comment on the lack of that action. As 10 p.m. approached, Rogers deferred any comment to the following day.
And on Tuesday, noting he was limited in what he could say due to the content of closed session discussion, Rogers told Royal Examiner this: “I’m disappointed with the council’s decision to seek other candidates, but I will now defer to the council on the process which will follow.”
That there are possibly fatal contract issues between Waltz and the town council is highlighted by the above action in the wake of council’s 5-0 (Thompson absent) November 9th endorsement of Waltz as town manager following another closed session discussion and motion first reported in the above-referenced story. That November 9th motion made by Councilman Gillispie read in its entirety: “Mr. Mayor, I move that council appoint Joe Waltz as town manager for the Town of Front Royal pending ratification of contract. Agreement dates the 21st day of November 2022.”
Well, as of November 28th no contract has been agreed upon by the two parties. Royal Examiner made an initial inquiry last week for a copy of the contract on the table with Waltz from the council clerk. We were told it would be available publicly once ratified. A subsequent emailed query to the town attorney following last night’s meeting was yet responded to by publication.
Open session business
Earlier open session business had been pretty routine, with a nine-item Consent Agenda approved as presented and four public hearings drawing no public comment. However, one of those public hearings, for a Special Use Permit (SUP) for a short-term tourist rental at 206 Lee Street (currently cited as 24 Stonewall Drive) raised an individual property rights versus neighbors’ expectations of a residential standard of access to on-street parking at their properties debate that split council down the middle. The addition of a driveway as a condition of approval was apparently a late addition from information in the agenda packet, which cited no recommended conditions from staff or the planning commission following its public hearing of October 19.
The applicant was listed as “the Minick Group LLC” and its proposal was to rent the entire, relatively small single-family home to short-term visitors. A representative for the applicant described unpaved space for two cars on site and estimated no more than three cars on site from the short-term rental at any one time. Following some discussion, Councilwoman Morris’s initial motion to approve the SUP application as initially presented by staff, with the addition of the driveway, drew a 3-3 tie, Morris, Thompson, Rogers voting “no” and Vice-Mayor Cockrell, Gillispie, and Sealock voting yes. Mayor Holloway broke the tie with a “no” vote. Thompson’s motion, seconded by Morris, to approve the application without the paved driveway addition drew the same 3-3 vote, this time with Morris, Thompson, Rogers voting “yes” and Cockrell, Gillispie, Sealock “no”, and the mayor again breaking the tie, this time with a “yes” vote.
The other three public hearings items were unanimously approved with little council discussion, and as noted above no public comment. The other short-term tourist rental SUP application was at 200 East Main Street where two upstairs apartments were to be rented over a commercial space. The applicant was local real estate developer Douglas Ichiuji. That application passed quickly without dissent.
The other SUP application was for LifePoint Church’s re-opening of a day care center at 111 North Shenandoah Avenue. After expressions of appreciation from several council members for the new daycare center, it too passed without opposition.
The final public hearing was for a Fiscal Year 2023 Budget Amendment adding $14.64 million “to carry forward unpaid balances on purchase orders not completed” as of the June 30, 2022, end of the past fiscal year. Following Gillispie’s observation that all the transferred money was to pay for already approved projects, it too passed without opposition.
Shenandoah Farms Sanitary District Advisory Committee Chair tells county supervisors they are poised to repeat EDA financial scandal mistakes
As promised, sports fans – coverage of another side of the Warren County Board of Supervisors meeting of November 16th, including Public Comments following the feel-good opening revolving around the life-saving actions of Skyline High students Parker McGann and Carson Richardson. Four Public Comments speakers followed Fire & Rescue Lt. Austin Cucciardo’s opening acknowledgment of the teens to the podium, all four addressing Shenandoah Farms Sanitary District issues. First two up, John Cermak and Kathleen George, addressed specific topics related to sanitary district properties, which we will get to below. But it was the final two speakers who raised troubling issues surrounding the board’s management of the Farms Sanitary District and plans for its accumulated tax revenues currently cited at $3.2 million dollars.
Could the supervisors be ignoring the next financial-scandal powder keg brewing under their noses despite information being brought to them by two successive advisory groups, one of those speakers asked. Continuing with the sports-writing metaphor, last batter up, but first on the “Where did that ball she hit land? – And was it fair or foul?!?” Public Comments speaker list was Sarah Saber. Formerly vice-chair, Saber is now the supervisor-appointed Farms Sanitary District Advisory Committee chairperson in the wake of the November 3rd resignation of initial Chairman Bruce Boyle at the conclusion of his final meeting that night.
In explaining his resignation on November 3rd, Boyle expressed frustration at the Advisory Committee’s lack of success in receiving support from the board of supervisors on the committee’s advice concerning which road capital improvement projects should be pursued as the best “bang” for the Farms’ residents’ “bucks” of tax revenue paid to the County, versus conflicting opinions of county staff, Sanitary District Manager Michael Coffelt and Public Works Director Mike Berry. In fact, Boyle told his committee and others present November 3rd , including November 16th public speaker Joe Andrews and the supervisors’ Farms Advisory Committee liaison Walt Mabe, that he and his wife are planning a move out of Shenandoah Farms and Warren County.
But apparently Boyle is not the only one feeling such frustration levels. Previously, Property Owners of Shenandoah Farms (POSF) member Joe Longo resigned from the Warren County Planning Commission amidst his concerns the supervisors were running the Farms Sanitary District “like a criminal operation”, concealing information on how and why the district’s tax revenue was being spent as it was over the objection, initially of the POSF Board of Directors, and now it seems contrary to the supervisors’ own appointed advisory committee’s advice.
Enter Farms Sanitary District Advisory Committee Chairperson Sarah Saber at the 14:55 mark of the linked County video of the November 16 supervisors meeting. Remember, she’s got three minutes to make her case.
Why have an advisory board if you won’t listen to their advice?
“You all know who I am because you put me on this advisory board after you dissolved our citizen-elected board, which I also was at one point in time a part of,” Saber opened, noting she had left the POSF board in the hope of making a difference within the structure the supervisors had chosen to take, cutting POSF out of the Sanitary District management equation. “Since then I have gotten nothing but blatant unwillingness from you, Delores; from you, Cheryl; from you, Vicky; especially from you, Walt,” she said pointedly to the supervisors’ representative to the Farms Advisory Committee, adding, “Jay as well,” of the absent Jay Butler. “So, I’m done staying involved in the outright, blatant misuse of funds – this is not some conspiracy, this is well-documented. We’re bringing these issues to you and you are allowing your paid employees to look the other way.”
Saber’s reference to “conspiracy” theories appeared to be an acknowledgment that it seems to be individual Farms residents and anti-POSF conspiracy theorists that have the county’s elected officials’ ears more so than their designated Farms advisory groups; first, the community-elected POSF Board of Directors, and now the supervisor-appointed advisory committee Saber chairs. In fact, later in her comments Saber alluded to apparent consequences of certain Farms resident’s anti-POSF allegations.
“And you, Cheryl, have done nothing after you and Delores made such a stink and stomped down to the POSF Inc. office (to) ‘audit us now’ and you want to sit there till 10 o’clock at night and audit our books. And you found nothing (indicative of wrongdoing). But I’ve handed you an illustrated disregard and misuse of funds on a silver platter, and you’ve looked the complete opposite direction. In fact, you’re telling us that we’re wrong. Do you realize how absurd that is?” Saber asked board Chair Cullers, reminding her that she has not attended one of the supervisors-initiated Shenandoah Farms Sanitary District Advisory Committee meetings. “You haven’t been to a single one. Do you remember what I said when I sat down at the interview when you hand-appointed me to the position? So, where’s the involvement, where’s the oversight??” Saber asked.
“Now all of you want to be unassociated with the embezzlement scandal, and all of that,” Saber said broaching the “reform” aspect, particularly of the three, three-year tenured supervisors Cullers, Oates, and Mabe, regarding their campaigns for office in the wake of the EDA financial scandal and alleged embezzlement of EDA resources. “But you’re standing here seeing it happen again, and you’re doing nothing. Do you want that on you? Because we’ve got $3-million dollars at stake right now,” Saber said of the Farms Sanitary District’s reported tax revenue account balance ($3.2 million) and the ongoing Farms stakeholders debates with county staff over the direction of that balance’s future use, particularly on road upgrade and maintenance projects.
“And it’s another million every year that you’re watching them piss away. And you’re being told they’re pissing it away and you’re ignoring it,” at which point Board Chair Cullers interrupted Saber to warn her about her use of language to which Saber replied, “Excuse me, piss is not a curse word,” to which Cullers responded, “I know, but let’s remember where we are.”
“Yeah, we’re in front of the government that’s been put in place to not allow our taxpayer funds to be thrown in the trash,” Saber observed, continuing to confront the supervisors over their past financial scandal “reform” image.
“I mean, you’re allowing it to happen again, you’re allowing it to happen. I’ve told you the issues are there. You’ve said ‘Take it to Ed Daley’. Whose employee is Ed Daley? Who has oversight over him? Isn’t that your job? Isn’t that the full reason you’re sitting up there?” Saber pressed her point as Cullers informed Saber her three minutes of Public Comment time had expired, at which point Saber glared at board of supervisors’ advisory committee meeting observer Mabe, offering a parting and less-than-favorable opinion of his liaison work between the board and its advisory committee. At that point Cullers told Saber to leave the podium or be escorted from the premises by Sheriff’s Office security, as Saber returned to her seat with a final held glare Mabe’s way.
Joe Andrews sets the table
Prior to Saber’s pointed assault on the supervisors lack of attention to Advisory Committee advice from Sanitary District stakeholders and blind adherence to staff counterpoints to that advice, Joe Andrews stepped up to the podium to address the supervisors: “I’m here tonight to talk to you about sanitary districts in general – I ask that the County get out of the public’s business. I don’t personally live in a sanitary district. I fear that one day I would. In any one of the neighborhoods where I own property, I’d hate to see the overreach I see in some of these sanitary districts,” Andrews said in opening.
“In Shenandoah Farms what I’ve witnessed is an elected board (POSF) being pretty much done away with. You folks have appointed your own advisory board that you neglect to listen to – That’s a fact, it’s not an opinion. You’ve got a few people between you and the advisory board that are stonewalling you and giving you misinformation. That’s a fact – I witnessed it at the last advisory board meeting (of Nov. 3),” Andrews observed in an apparent reference to involved county staff, as noted above County Sanitary District Manager Michael Coffelt and Public Works Director Mike Berry, both present as Andrews spoke.
“I would say at this time you really need to keep an eye on the folks you’re putting all this trust in. I see them asking you to spend money on unnecessary equipment; I see them purchasing materials that are improper for the job; I’ve seen them lie and say the materials are cheaper than the alternatives – not the case,” Andrews asserted with a negative head shake. He continued to question an apparent staff recommendation to add a road, Dry Run Court, into the Farms Sanitary District. “That road is going to be a headache for you. It’s something you probably better look into a whole lot more than your trusted folks are telling you. They’re telling you that it’s okay, it’s no big deal. It’ll take a little shoeshine, this road’s going to be okay. Trust me, it’s not the case.
“What I’d like for you folks to consider is getting rid of sanitary districts – get out of it, get out of the business. Let’s give these people their money back. Show them where the books are, show them the books (on sanitary district tax collection balances and revenue expenditures), have some transparency, give them all their money back and get out of the business,” Andrews suggested with an observation he said was offered without malice, only to illustrate why his suggestion should be taken seriously.
“I don’t think you’re equipped … you folks don’t know the road business. You have no business telling these people how to spend their money. And if they spend it the wrong way – let ’em do it. But you can’t tell them how to spend it when you, yourself don’t know whether it’s right or wrong. And the people that are feeding you the information don’t know,” Andrews concluded with a thank you for his three minutes to present his case.
Softer(?) Farms Sanitary District issues
Earlier Public Comments speaker and Farms resident John Cermak asked the board to deny the Conditional Use Permit (CUP) request of Jeffrey Steven Taylor for Private Use Camping on property located off of Howellsville Road listed under “Unfinished Business” in the meeting agenda. Later, after board and staff review of past issues with stored materials and inoperable vehicles on the property, as well as flooding threats to materials that might be kept for camping uses, the board denied the permitting by a 4-0 vote (Butler absent).
Kathleen George then addressed the board concerning “Common Properties” of general use to residents of the Shenandoah Farms Sanitary District. She noted the importance of these properties to residents and the necessity of their upkeep and facilities’ public availability regardless of who had ownership or management authority.
Currently those properties are under the ownership and management authority of the Property Owners of Shenandoah Farms (POSF). POSF, which has been a voluntary membership group creating issues around its status as a POA, was the Farms Sanitary District’s first management entity, circa mid-1990s to 2010/11, and for the next decade official advisors to the County on management issues and Capital Improvement Projects after turning what had climbed to a six-or-seven figure annual Sanitary District management budget over to the county government for direct oversight in 2011. However, the supervisors now appear reluctant to fund POSF for any Sanitary District oversight activities in the wake of POSF’s effort earlier this year to regain management authority by voiding the 11-year-old management agreement between POSF and the County.
That effort, according to POSF officials, was motivated by several years of a lack of financial accounting, and a lack of responsiveness to POSF budget and management inquiries by the new county board majority – Cullers, Mabe, Oates, elected three years ago as “reform” candidates in the wake of the EDA financial scandal. But rather than reinstate POSF as the Sanitary District’s manager, as noted above the county board created its own appointed Farms Sanitary District Advisory Committee, while maintaining Farms Sanitary District management authority, cutting POSF out of the equation, other than the aforementioned Common Properties ownership/upkeep.
Perhaps in a hint of what was to come, that supervisors’ reluctance to fund POSF for its existing common properties management in the Farms comes despite the recommendation of its own Farms Sanitary District Advisory Committee for at least one year of funding of POSF at $52,000 to cover its existing Common Properties ownership, management responsibilities. No action was taken on this matter Wednesday night.
In other agenda action items, by successive 4-0 votes the board approved one rezoning request and three Conditional Use Permit applications following public hearings. All four were forwarded by the County Planning Commission with recommendations for approval. Those were:
Ray Pennington and W.P. Associates rezoning request from Residential 1 (R-1) to Agricultural (A) for several lots totaling 640+ acres, with as staff noted 741 “previously platted parcels” that are part of a conservation easement accepted by the county in 2012. The staff agenda packet summary noted that: “The applicant is proposing the rezoning to allow for agricultural/forestal land uses and construction of buildings that conform to the Agricultural Zoning district for the large lots which are also consistent with and conforming to uses and development allowed by the conservation easement.” Despite the concern of some neighbors, including Public Hearing speaker Kathleen Mancini, in the vicinity of the property located off Reynolds Dr., Switchback Rd., Elseas Farm Rd., and High Top Rd. in Linden where some past logging activities have occurred, following the background explanation of Planning Director Matt Wendling, on a motion by Supervisor Cook, seconded by Oates, the rezoning was approved by a 4-0 vote.
CUP request of Ryan Wesley Eshelman for Combination of a Single-Family Dwelling Unit and a Commercial Repair Garage & Wrecking Service located at 1034 Rivermont Drive. The staff summary noted: “The property was formerly used as a commercial garage by the applicant’s father, Mark Eshelman who was issued a conditional use permit in October 1987. His father closed the business in 2009 and the permit has since expired. The applicant will be using the existing 36’X 50’ garage shop for repair and will use the existing sign, parking will be along the driveway to the shop on either side. He states that hours of operation will be Monday thru Friday 8:00AM to 5:00PM and that his wife will be the only other employee of the business as an office manager and bookkeeper. All parts and materials related to the auto repair business will be stored inside the garage and storage containers for fluids will be adequately labeled.” On a motion by Oates, seconded by Mabe, the CUP was approved by a 4-0 vote.
CUP request of Cindy L. DuVall for a Short-Term Tourist Rental located at 197 Marissa Court, on a motion by Mabe, seconded by Cook, approved 4-0.
CUP request of Jay Newell for private-use camping (non-commercial) located off Avalon Drive, also approved unanimously on motion by Cook, seconded by Oates.
The board also approved a meeting schedule for calendar year 2023. On a suggestion by Supervisor Oates, the board approved a third scheduling option not submitted by staff, without 9 a.m. meetings scheduled in part to facilitate outside agency monthly updates. Oates noted her and the absent Supervisor Butler’s daytime work schedules in offering the suggestion. Despite some question about its impact on outside agency staff, particularly those traveling from out of town, the board approved the morning-less schedule by a 4-0 vote.