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Town targets Special Prosecutor’s Office over EDA prosecution delays

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Less than a week after its September 23 press conference during which the County and EDA boards were vilified as obstructions to good-faith negotiations in resolving the year-and-a-half debt service impasse on the new town police headquarters, the Front Royal Town Council took a strategic turn in its EDA bad guys play.

In a familiarly aggressively worded resolution the Front Royal Town Council took aim at a new target; and asked past targets, the County and EDA’s, cooperation in that targeting. As reported in Royal Examiner’s lead story on the September 28 council meeting, that target is Harrisonburg-based EDA criminal case Special Prosecutor Michael Parker.

Queried on the resolution’s author, co-sponsor Lori Cockrell said she had turned the inquiry over to the interim town manager who “took it from there”. Tederick told Royal Examiner that once handed the issue by Cockrell, in the absence of town legal staff at the end of last week he had drafted the resolution which was given an eventual okay from the legal department to proceed with.

Minus Mayor Tewalt and Councilwoman Thompson a Front Royal Town Council majority has collectively maintained an aggressive tone recently in public statements regarding EDA financial and now prosecutorial issues. Royal Examiner Photos by Roger Bianchini – Royal Examiner Video by Mark Williams

The goal of getting answers and explanations on delays to potential criminal prosecutions related to the EDA financial scandal is a desirable and understandable one. However, is the negative language peppering the resolution appearing to suggest some level of prosecutorial ineptitude tied to a political mandate to “expeditiously proceed to trial on these matters” really necessary or a desirable strategy?

From the resolution’s language it appears to have been written without Town representative discussion with the prosecutor’s office on the legal dynamics of the situation. And without fundamental information from the prosecutor’s office on its process in the EDA criminal investigation is it wise to become publicly aggressive with someone you need and want in your corner as that legal situation progresses?

Okay, it’s been a long time – a little over nine months as the resolution notes since the Harrisonburg Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office was handed the job of criminally prosecuting those believed involved in aiding in and/or benefitting from former EDA Executive Director Jennifer McDonald’s alleged embezzlements and misdirection of EDA assets to her own purposes.

Past explanations

However, Special Prosecutor and Harrisonburg Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Michael Parker explained at the time he dropped all criminal indictments filed by the EDA Special Grand Jury under the direction of original prosecutors Brian Madden and Bryan Layton to avoid running into speedy trial issues that could have seen those charges dismissed on defense motions and never re-filed, he would do things differently than had been done previously with the EDA Special Grand Jury.

The primary difference, he explained, would be what he called a more normal process, perhaps one without political pressures for immediate legal gratification at play, where no indictments would be filed until the grand jury had completed its investigation into all potential defendants. That strategy would prevent the kind of looming speedy trial issues Parker inherited after newly elected Warren County Commonwealth’s Attorney John Bell and his staff recused themselves from the EDA prosecution due to personal, social and/or professional ties to many of the defendants.

Parker also inherited a voluminous amount of evidence cited at over a million pages of documentation that even got the attention of the State Supreme Court as to filing and Discovery motions issues.

Is the Front Royal Town Council’s ‘demanding’ legal movement toward EDA-related criminal prosecutions without discussion on the status of the prosecutor’s investigation a wise move? – One local attorney thinks not.

So, is the silence from the Special Prosecutor’s Office ominous as in a failure to proceed with a workable case, or perhaps “golden” in that it implies that sufficient time is being taken to assemble and coordinate evidence to facilitate successful prosecutions once the grand jury has completed its work and indictments are forthcoming?

New demands

On Monday, September 28, a five-person, partisan Republican political majority of the Front Royal Town Council, with independent and “Beer Party” endorsed Letasha Thompson dissenting, answered that question on prosecutorial silence from its perspective.

“WHEREAS, the Special Prosecutor, Michael Parker, who was designated by Marsha Garst, Harrisonburg/Rockingham County Commonwealth Attorney, to prosecute these matters, moved to dismiss all of the True Bills returned by the Special Grand Jury based upon his professed inability to provide discovery to the defendants and his lack of preparation to competently prosecute (emphasis added) the over seventy-five True Bills, previously issued against McDonald and other defendants,” paragraph four of the resolution brought to council by Council members Cockrell and Chris Holloway reads as it moves past three background introductory paragraphs to target council’s newest EDA villain for a lack of criminal results, or even at this point, action.

The resolution’s final paragraph asks last week’s EDA villains, the Warren County Board of Supervisors and Economic Development Authority Board of Directors, to join the Town in approving the resolution “on behalf of Town and County residents demanding justice on behalf of our mutual constituents”.

But will the resolution which seeks the reconvening of the EDA special grand jury within 60 days of approval of the Town Resolution work to the benefit of town residents seeking justice in the EDA situation?

Politics and the Law: Do they mix?

According to local defense attorney, Virginia Beer Museum proprietor and “Beer Party” founder David Downes, that remains to be seen. Apparently having seen the resolution text in the agenda posted on the Town’s website prior to the meeting, Downes came to Monday’s meeting with prepared remarks on the proposed resolution and its legal versus political contexts.

With the resolution’s sponsors Holloway and Cockrell seeking election this November, Holloway to mayor and Cockrell to her appointed council seat with County Republican Committee endorsements, Downes wondered at the level of partisan politicking that might be involved in the pair bringing this resolution forward at this time.

“Why are councilmen running for office the only councilmen ‘seeking justice for citizens of Front Royal as a result of the EDA scandal’,” Downes asked in opening his critique of the Cockrell-Holloway introduced, Tederick-drafted resolution.

Is it a coincidence that the two resolution sponsors are council’s two members currently running for office, attorney David Downes asked in suggesting an unhealthy mix of politics and legal matters.

Having noted his 33-year career as a criminal defense attorney in this community, Downes wondered at the advisability of what he saw as a mix of political posturing and critical legal analysis of complex and still pending criminal cases.

Why, he asked, hadn’t council simply resolved to ask its mayor “our Town representative to simply call” Harrisonburg Commonwealth’s Attorney Marcia Garst or her appointed EDA Special Prosecutor Parker to inform them of the Town’s concerns and desire for an explanation on causes for delays in resurrecting criminal EDA financial scandal prosecutions.

“Why wait two months,” Downes asked of the resolution referenced 60-day demand for reconvening of the EDA Special Grand Jury.

However, the attorney also wondered at the legal advisability of the Town Resolution’s demand “to expeditiously proceed to trial on these matters”.

“This is exactly the kind of resolution I would want if my client was involved in the EDA scandal,” Downes told council, explaining, “I would want the prosecutor to feel rushed and not read all one million documents – which works out to reviewing over a thousand documents per day for three solid years – because they will not be prepared for trial and double jeopardy will preclude my client’s prosecution.

‘Please be careful what you wish for,’ defense attorney David Downes warned council of moving too quickly into legal minefields.

“Please be careful what you wish for and end the political grandstanding a month before the election,” Downes concluded to council and the resolution’s sponsors.

Over an hour after Downes remarks as the resolution came before council as the agenda’s final open meeting item, Holloway denied a political motive.

“Earlier we were accused of political grandstanding – No, it’s called demanding justice and that’s what we’re here for, the citizens of Front Royal, not for a political party,” Holloway asserted. “Our citizens demand justice and they deserve justice and I think this is a step in the right direction,” Holloway added of a resolution seeming to suggest EDA criminal prosecutor ineptitude and perhaps unwillingness to bring charges forward in what Downes had also noted is a court system slowed considerably, particularly as to jury trials, due to COVID-19 pandemic social distancing precautions.

“Are we taking into account that the Virginia Supreme Court has stayed virtually all jury trials between … April 17, 2020, and today? … In other words, Warren County is not currently prepared to try ANY jury trials due to COVID-19,” Downes told council during his public concerns comments.

Cockrell read a prepared statement explaining her support in introducing the resolution with Holloway into the meeting record. She cited door-to-door campaigning during which “hundreds of town citizens have asked me why those who embezzled money from the EDA have not been brought to justice. It is obviously first and foremost on their minds,” Cockrell said in opening.

Lori Cockrell addresses constituent concerns over delays in EDA criminal prosecutions in prefacing a vote on the resolution she and Chris Holloway brought to council Monday, Sept. 28.

“This request is based upon my many conversations with citizens on their front porch, walking down the street, or just this past weekend at my class reunion. I believe the community wants us to work together to bring the criminals to justice first, and then leave for another day how any monies recovered should be distributed as a result of these crimes,” Cockrell added with a somewhat surprising turn in that the proposed resolution said nothing about ending the Town suit against the EDA.

That Town civil suit is seeking virtually all the alleged $21.3 million in misdirected or embezzled assets cited in the EDA’s initial civil filing against what has climbed to 15 defendants. A second EDA civil action added nine defendants and $4.45 million in alleged misdirected EDA assets. Cockrell cited McDonald’s recent bankruptcy filing, suggesting that criminal liability and restitution could present an alternate method of recovering McDonald assets now under bankruptcy court control.

Cockrell’s statement indicated a desire to see that justice is done on the EDA situation to the benefit and will of her constituency and seeks the resolution as a means of achieving Town-County-EDA cooperation. However, the career educator’s perspective is not a legal one from which she might have been able to answer some of her constituent questions about reasons for delays in the EDA criminal prosecutions referenced in prosecutor Parker’s initial explanation of his grand jury strategy or attorney Downes’ observations on the legal obstacle course the prosecutor is facing.

So hopefully a council majority has not jumped the gun in seeking to force prosecutorial movement as November 3rd approaches before approaching the prosecutor’s office about the status of their investigation. Perhaps someone on the County side might initiate such a conversation with the Harrisonburg prosecutor’s office prior to a decision on joining the Town in approving the resolution as currently crafted.

Following adjournment of the open meeting, Gary Kushner, left, and Councilman Meza discuss Kushner’s public comments critique of council press conference assertions the previous week regarding liability and what was known about available interest rates on the FRPD headquarters construction project initially financed by the EDA.

Watch the video in this related Town Council story:

Council debates CARES reimbursement for Electric Department purchase as Monday’s Main Event – more EDA-related target shooting – approaches

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Warren County Planning Commission begins new year

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The Warren County Planning Commission began the 2021 calendar year with the election of officers. So, the first order of business was County Planning and Zoning Director Taryn Logan’s call for nominations for Chairman and Vice-Chairman.  2020 Chairman Robert Myers was nominated for chairman, and Hugh Henry was not unexpectedly nominated for another term as Vice Chairman.  Both nominations were unopposed, and the commission’s vote was unanimous.

Upon accepting the gavel for another term, Chairman Myers offered the agenda for approval and opened the floor for public presentations.  There were none.

The published public hearing for a conditional use permit for Parallel Virginia for a Pharmaceutical business in the Stephens Industrial Park in the commission’s agenda had been postponed at the applicant’s request, so the commission moved on to consider four requests for authorization to advertise for conditional use permit applications

Justin and Felicia Katzovitz have requested a conditional use permit for a short-term tourist rental at 1253 Liberty Hall Rd in the South River Magisterial district.  Planner Matt Wendling provided a briefing to the commissioners regarding the request and recommended the commission authorize the advertisement for a public hearing.  The commission unanimously approved.

Planner Matt Wendling provided a briefing to the commissioners regarding the request and recommended the commission authorize the advertisement for a public hearing. File photo.

John and Sheila Kirkpatrick have requested a conditional use permit for a guesthouse on their property on Red Hille Way in the South River Magisterial District.  They will be building their residence on that property and intend to have a one-bedroom cabin placed there, so they can live onsite during the construction.  The guesthouse would subsequently be used for visiting family and friends and not for commercial use.  Planner Wendling provided an overview of the request and the commission unanimously authorized the advertisement for a public hearing.

Carl and Jennifer Ey are applying for conditional use permits for short-term tourist rentals for two adjoining properties they own at 1406 and 1408 Panhandle Road in the South River Magisterial district.  Zoning Administrator Joe Petty provided a summary of the requests.  The property owners are experienced with short-term tourist rentals for more than 15 years in Page County.  The Eys have already submitted a property management plan.  The commission voted unanimously to authorize the advertisement for a public hearing.

During the commission matters portion of the agenda, Commissioner Scott Kersjes raised a concern about the portion of Route 522 between Reliance Road and Fairground Road, a 2.5-mile section of highway.  Commissioner Kersjes indicated that southbound traffic, especially tractor-trailers, tend to be unprepared to stop at the traffic signals at Reliance Road, evidence being skid marks all the way into the intersection from trailer tires.  Trucks use 522 south as a way of avoiding the Interstate 81 weigh station if they are overweight, contributing to a significant safety hazard.  The combination of lack of visibility for the intersection, too high a speed, and inadequate braking on a downhill slope could well result in a tragic accident.  The commissioner observed that a speed limit reduction to 45 MPH for that stretch of highway would reduce the risk.

Planning Director Logan responded that the County had requested VDOT perform a speed study, which would be needed to support a speed limit reduction.  She offered to send the Board of supervisors a letter asking for guidance.

Commissioner Longo asked if the next Planning Commission would be a joint meeting with the Board of Supervisors.  Planning Director Logan responded that if the Supervisors authorize, the March meeting would be doubled up.

Chairman Myers indicated that the traffic for Chipotle and 5 Guys, both of which are now open, was sometimes extending out to Country Club Road, creating some obstruction for access to the rest of Riverton Commons.  It is something to keep an eye on. Planning Director Logan observed that the traffic may even out with time.

Commissioner Crystal Beall had an issue raised by a citizen regarding new signage going up at public boat ramps including that at Gooney Creek.  Signs indicate that a permit is required for all watercraft for access to public waterways, including for canoes, kayaks, and even inner tubes.  The State Department of Wildlife Resources, as of Jan 1, 2021, requires a person age 17 or older to possess a valid Virginia hunting, trapping, or fishing permit, a Restore the Wild membership, an access permit, or a current boat registration to use an access facility.  The small warning signs regarding this requirement are the first indication that many citizens are seeing about this new policy that the legislature has created to help fund the Department’s activities.  There is a FAQ list at https://dwr.virginia.gov/boating/access-faq/ regarding the new rules.

South River District County Supervisor Cheryl Cullers attended the commission meeting and Chairman Myers asked if she could shed some light on the situation.  She explained what she knew of the requirement and that she has been seeking more information from the Department of Wildlife Resources on this topic.  Look for more information soon.

Planning Director Logan said that the Planning Department is working on its annual report and that new home permits numbered 191 in 2020, which is up 50 from 2019.  At 1%, this rate of increase is below the county’s 3% annual maximum for residential growth.

Planning Director Logan said that the Planning Department is working on its annual report and that new home permits numbered 191 in 2020, which is up 50 from 2019. File Photo.

Planner Wendling indicated that the planning office has sent out letters to flood plain affected landowners to refamiliarize them with floodplain responsibilities and rules, along with supplemental information about enforcement of permit conditions.

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Vice mayor appointment raises more partisan issues; mayor accuses EDA of ‘intentional’ delay of Afton Inn sale during January 11 meeting

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Other than fend off angry public feedback on the appointment of Jacob Meza at their January 11 regular meeting, there were action items and other business for the Front Royal Town Council to address. One of those, the appointment of a vice-mayor reflected some of the same council dynamics displayed during the Meza comment and responses.

That dynamic was that if you’re not part of the political inner circle of the supposedly by Town Charter ‘non-partisan’ council majority, you are not likely to be favorably considered for elevation to positions of higher authority, as with vice mayor.

Above, Republican ‘policy attorney’ Scott Lloyd nominated Lori Athey Cockrell, below, to the vice-mayor’s seat, leading to discussion of council ‘tradition’ on such appointments. Royal Examiner Photos by Roger Bianchini

Straight out of national Republican political affairs and controversy into local, Scott Lloyd quickly nominated fellow county Republican Committee member Lori Athey Cockrell as vice mayor, seconded by Meza.

Letasha Thompson’s effort to nominate herself as the most senior remaining council person, as she noted was explained to her previously is a council ‘tradition’ for elevation to the vice-mayor’s seat, failed when Town Attorney Doug Napier told Mayor Chris Holloway that Cockrell’s initial nomination should be voted on prior to any other nominations. Cockrell’s appointment as vice mayor was then approved 4-2, with Joseph McFadden joining Thompson in casting dissenting votes.

As it is only a tradition, not a rule, Letasha Thompson’s effort to be appointed vice mayor as council’s most senior remaining member failed along party lines, minus Joseph McFadden’s dissenting vote to Cockrell’s nomination.

The report of Mayor Chris Holloway was of particular interest as he accused the still legally Town-County Economic Development Authority (EDA) of having “intentionally delayed” the sale of the Afton Inn, which he continued to observe should either be re-developed or torn down soon.

Despite the fact the EDA has been trying to finalize the sale of the Afton Inn property to redevelopment group 2 East Main LLC for several months to allow further stabilization work and redevelopment to commence and has been blocked by the Town’s questionable claim of ownership that were it true, would still not net the Town any revenue from the sale, no one on council challenged the mayor’s description of the impasse. – Maybe it’s just that new member “knowledge gap” referenced by Councilman Meza, who had nothing to say on the matter either.

‘Alternate facts’ don’t just seem to be an issue at the national Republican level, as despite evidence to the contrary Mayor Holloway reported it is the EDA that has ‘intentionally delayed’ the sale for redevelopment of the Afton Inn.

No EDA business was on the agenda, so there were no EDA staff or board members present to voice the EDA’s side of the story.

In another major agenda action item, council unanimously approved reducing the Town Planning Commission membership from seven to five. Cockrell asked for McFadden’s opinion, being the most recent planning commissioner elected to council. McFadden explained the commission has had a difficult time having full membership available for planning commission meetings. He added that the current commission membership “fully supported” the number reduction, leading to the unanimous vote of approval.

A one-item Consent Agenda was also approved unanimously. That item was approval of a $36,227 “sole source” contract with Applied Digital Solutions for an upgrade to the Front Royal Police Department’s call and radio recording equipment. The current equipment was installed in 2014. In the agenda summary Town IT Director Todd Jones explained the old equipment was on the verge of failing and was incompatible with new technologies linking all the department’s recording equipment.

With the contract coming in below the estimated $40,000 cost to upgrade, the contract was called a favorable one. There will be an annual maintenance cost of $3,400, staff noted.

And speaking of the police department, near the meeting’s outset Chief Kahle Magalis was present to present the department’s officer and civilian employee of the year recipients to council.

FRPD Chief Kahle Magalis lauds the role of civilian Employee of the Year Hillary Wilfong in keeping him and his administrative staff on track. Officer of the Year Brian Whited missed the presentation of employee of year awards due to earlier high-speed chase and accident-strewn conclusion of that chase inside the town limits, the scene of which he remained at as Monday’s meeting progressed.

However, only one, Civilian Employee of the Year Hillary Wilfong, was present to receive the honor. Chief Magalis explained that Officer of the Year Sgt. Brian Whited was still on site of a major traffic incident that occurred earlier in the day.

That incident was the accident-strewn conclusion of the high-speed chase that went from the Riverton Area onto I-66 eastbound and back down John Marshall Highway to Leach Run Parkway and ending on Sixth Street near Manassas Avenue with about seven total cars involved in the accident that ended the pursuit of a juvenile driver arrested at the scene.

See all of these meeting actions unfold, including approval of next week’s Town-County Liaison Committee agenda and the report of Northern Shenandoah Valley Regional Commission Director Brandon Davis, as well as Mayor Holloway’s report referenced above.

Watch the Town Council video recording here.

New year, same public disconnect from their elected town officials

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EDA in Focus

County Supervisors review VDOT issues, contracts, coming FY-2022 outside agency requests and public comment rules

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On Tuesday afternoon beginning at 4 p.m. and continuing after a brief adjournment at 6 p.m., the Warren County Board of Supervisors held a work session to discuss, first VDOT issues entering the new year and later early FY 2022 budget items. Those items were requests of partner agencies, including Samuels Public Library, Northwestern Community Services, the Economic Development Authority, and County Health Department.

The EDA discussion included some reference to the ongoing $20-million legal dispute with the Town of Front Royal and how to approach any future work for the Town, should the Town desire it.

As EDA Board Chairman Jeff Browne listens to left, EDA Executive Director Doug Parsons told county officials the EDA will work with the Town or without it, as the Town chooses. The supervisors have not absorbed the EDA as a County Department while waiting to see if a new town council and new town manager will bring a new direction to Town attitudes regarding the EDA. Based on unchallenged mayoral comments Monday evening, the answer would appear to be ‘no’.

There was also discussion of meeting rules regarding the length of time devoted to public comments and how that should be addressed in the future, by code or meeting decisions by board members.

Also, on the agenda was a review of the parameters of several renewable contracts tabled for supervisors unaware of those contract dynamics and use and value to the county government.

See the County meeting video here.

Is it live or is it virtual? With a nod to an OLD Memorex cassette tape commercial; and an additional nod to the 1960’s-70’s ‘surreal’ comedy troupe Firesign Theater for the timeless observation about time and space that has been challenged in 2020 – ‘How can you be in two places at once when you’re not anywhere at all?’ the 1969 album cover of which is pictured below just so you didn’t think I was making that one up. Royal Examiner Photos by Roger Bianchini

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New year, same public disconnect from their elected town officials

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Negative public reaction to the appointment and seating of Jacob Meza by his four fellow county Republican Committee council members and council’s response to that reaction dominated the Front Royal Town Council’s first regular meeting of 2021. And while there was other business conducted, including acknowledgement of FRPD employees of the year and election of a vice mayor, that will be covered in another story.

Nine of 13 public speakers, 10 of 14 if you include one read into the record by Councilwoman Letasha Thompson from a citizen not present, took a hard line in criticizing, not only Meza’s change of heart in continuing his service on council after declining to run for re-election in November, but also at the four council members who voted for the appointment. Council’s lone non-Republican Committee member Letasha Thompson, cast the lone dissenting vote against Meza’s appointment, citing a preference for “a new face” to take the appointment.

Front Royal Town Council virtually on Jan. 11 – the year is getting off to a rocky start for the newly aligned council. Examiner Photos by Roger Bianchini

And while one of those Meza supporting councilmen, Joseph McFadden, has posted on social media that he would not have made Meza’s nomination or voted for it had Town staff informed him of the Charter question concerning its legality, council’s overall reaction was unrepentant for the appointment. And even McFadden stood by his assessment that Meza was the best qualified candidate who applied, while the Town refuses to divulge the identities of those other candidates as protected from FOIA as a personnel matter.

But if McFadden, Scott Lloyd, Gary Gillespie and Lori Athey Cockrell see Meza as a “most qualified” candidate, the majority public perception expressed Monday night appeared to be “qualified at what”? The answer for many, including some who were or identified themselves as fellow Catholics or Christendom College alumni of Meza’s, was as a hypocritical agent of his employer Valley Health and a major player in other council initiatives that ran afoul of public opinion in recent years.

At the point of much of that negativity is Meza’s alienating much of his base, particularly in the huge local Catholic community, by his reversal of recusing himself from earlier votes or even work session discussion of approval of a past EDA board-facilitated loan to his employer Valley Health to help finance a maternity ward-less new Warren Memorial Hospital. That reversal came in front of several Valley Health executives as Meza’s vote was required to achieve the necessary majority for the required Town approval.

Birth Local demonstrators were not happy with Valley Health’s decision to build a new hospital in Front Royal without a maternity ward. And they were as, or even more unhappy with Councilman Meza for his sudden lack of a conflict-of-interest recusal for the deciding vote on Town approval of a loan to help facilitate that hospital’s construction costs.

Of that vote, one speaker, Christa Marie Adanitsch, who noted she was a fellow Christendom College graduate, observed, “I noticed that you got a nice, big promotion after your vote that you did not recuse yourself in the big Valley Health vote. And I’m wondering if this is one of those shenanigan deals again where we’re coming up on,” at which point Mayor Chris Holloway intervened to halt the speaker as making a “personal attack” on the councilman, which is forbidden by meeting rules.

Adanitsch regrouped, attempting to make her point in a less direct manner.

“You did not recuse yourself in the deciding vote for the Valley Health deal when you had recused yourself every other single time. Okay, and now we’re coming up on the issue of the PILOT (Payment In Lieu Of Taxes fee) for Valley Health. And you were placed in this position, which was an unethical placement. So, I’m just wondering with your track record for gutting the things going on in this town, what you’re doing up here.”

Above, Meza’s fellow Christendom College alumni Christa Adanitsch questioned his objectivity and potential conflict of interest on Valley Health issues, as well as the legality of his appointment. Below, Meza said he would not be run off council by public attacks on his character. But if a majority of council sought his resignation, he would comply. However, only one did.

Adanitsch explained her perception of Meza’s appointment as “unethical” due to a perceived conflict with the Town Charter’s one-year Chapter 6, Section 47 prohibition on the appointment of former council members back to council. And while that interpretation is in dispute by Town Attorney Doug Napier, non-attorney public opinion appears to agree with the conflicting legal opinion that it does apply because there has been no clear explanation why town legal staff believes council is not under its own “jurisdiction” since its appointment and Conflict of Interest investigative power would clearly seem to indicate such “jurisdictional” authority.

And as reported by Royal Examiner yesterday, a legal challenge of Meza’s appointment was filed in Warren County Circuit Court on behalf of one of the other candidates for that council seat Monday morning.

In the wake of Meza’s appointment, the evening’s first speaker Gary Kushner suggested Front Royal’s longstanding nickname of “Helltown” be changed to “Clowntown”. While noting he was not a town resident, Kushner said he chose to address the issue due to “sympathy” for the level of citizen concern about the appointment issue.

“There was much citizen concern about the chaos and divisiveness associated with the last council. And there was hope there’d be relief with a new majority. But alas, the new year just seems to be the continuation of controversies,” Kushner said, citing Meza’s appointment by his inner circle of council allies.

Gary Kushner’s was scathing in his appraisal of the method of Meza’s continuing to serve on the Front Royal Town Council.

Kushner wondered at Meza’s decision not to run for re-election a bare two months earlier, exposing himself to the same level of public scrutiny other candidates did, including at least two, if not more, who applied for the vacant seat Meza now occupies.

“The councilman could have filed an application and run a campaign and been subjected to the same scrutiny as other legitimate candidates. But that didn’t occur. Instead, the prior councilman is again on the council via a slimy back door,” Kushner observed, adding, “I wonder how long ago that plan was hatched, and to what degree the infamous past interim town manager was involved.”

Lyrics to the 1960’s-‘70’s classic rock band The Who’s song “Won’t Get Fooled Again” – “New boss, same as the old boss” – popped into at least one observer’s mind as Kushner’s, and subsequent public comments were forthcoming.

Rebuttal

During his member report Meza presented a defense of his appointment, and his colleagues all referenced the issue at some point in their respective reports.

“I did want to say, first and foremost, thank you for the vote of confidence of council. And I was happy to fill the appointment seat and will continue to serve in that capacity as I have in years past,” Meza said in opening his remarks, before continuing to address some of the negative public comments he had heard.

One comment Meza did not address was Adanitsch’s assertion of his “big promotion” in the wake of his recusal reversal for the decisive vote of approval of Valley Health’s $60 million-plus hospital construction loan.

He began with a timeline related to his seeking the appointment. Referencing one public comment, Meza did note there was a December 2 legal opinion on the Town Charter’s relevant section to council appointments and the year’s delay sought. However, he pointed out that he did not submit his “Letter of Interest” in the appointment until December 18, over two weeks after that opinion was sought.

Meza claims he was acting in good faith to help ‘bridge a knowledge gap’ on council until a November 2021 Special Election to fill Chris Holloway’s vacated seat, not any ulterior motive like help his employer avoid Town assessment of PILOT fees to compensate for the non-taxable status of their new hospital as some public speakers suspected.

Of his interest in the appointment, Meza stated he wrote in his application letter that, “I was offering it as assistance to bridge the gap (till a November 2021 Special Election to fill the seat) for council, some of the knowledge gap that would be on council. But to feel no pressure in appointing me to council and pick the best person as they saw fit.”

And once the Charter issue was re-raised, Meza noted that following his January 4 appointment by council he had delayed his swearing in until earlier in the day Monday, so he could take his seat the evening of January 11.

On January 7, during that interim before he was sworn in, Meza said, “I wrote a comment to council in response to other emails. In an effort to demonstrate that I had, have no ulterior motives, if a majority of council regrets their decision to appoint me for another year, I’d be more than willing to decline the appointment. But I will not decline because of people lashing out false accusations against my character,” Meza said. He noted that a majority had not asked for his resignation, that only one member request had been submitted to him.

See the sometimes-volatile opinions expressed between the public and council over the Meza appointment in the video from the Town website recording of the meeting.

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Complaint against Meza’s council appointment filed in Circuit Court

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Acting on behalf of one of what is believed to be three other candidates than the one appointed to fill the vacated Front Royal Town Council seat of now Mayor Chris Holloway, attorney David Downes filed a Complaint for Declaratory Judgement Monday morning, January 11, in Warren County Circuit Court.

The Complaint and accompanying Petition for Injunctive Relief filed by Downes for Paul Lauritz Aldridge lists the Front Royal Town Council and Jacob Louis Meza as defendants, with service to Town Attorney Doug Napier at Town Hall and Meza at a private address. The grounds for the filing echo the points made by Downes in a response to Napier’s Town Press Release opinion Town Charter Section 47 (Chapter 6) did not prevent Meza’s appointment, published last week in the Royal Examiner along with an accompanying story exploring the legal points at issue.

The Warren County Courthouse may be the final arbiter in a decision on the legality of Jacob Meza’s appointment to an elected body he decided not to seek re-election to in November. Royal Examiner File Photos by Roger Bianchini

The complaint states, “This Plaintiff seeks to nullify the appointment of Meza, a former town councilman, as town councilman on January 4, 2021, as ultra virus (beyond the authority of) and unconstitutional, stay any and all (activities) in his official capacity as “councilman” by issuing a writ of mandamus to prohibit any appointments to him under the jurisdiction of the Town Council until after January 1, 2022.”

Asked about the legal weight of the Town Charter in the conduct of Town business earlier, Downes had equated it with the U.S. or State Constitutions that set the basis of legal codes at those levels of government.

Contacted by email Monday, Downes said he would pursue a judicial stay on Meza’s seating and participation in council business pending resolution of the case but was not sure such a court ruling could be achieved prior to tonight’s 7 p.m. town council meeting.

That meeting will be held at the Warren County Government Center under public seating and number restrictions due to the Phase 3 jump in COVID-19 Coronavirus pandemic cases and fatalities nationwide and in Warren County and the Lord Fairfax Health District. It will be broadcast live on the Town website.

In 2020 he decided the time to end his public service had come; however, 2021 brought a change of heart.

Perhaps if seated tonight Meza will have the opportunity to address what changed in his desire to continue serving on council between his fall decision not to run for re-election and the turn of the new year when time constraint and length of public service issues seem to have evaporated.

Also, on tonight’s council agenda is a move to reduce the number of town planning commission members from seven to five. Joseph McFadden’s election to council created a vacancy and recent work session discussion has indicated difficulty in achieving full participation of a seven-member commission. McFadden told Royal Examiner he had considered trying to serve on both town bodies to help fill the planning commission numbers, but had decided against it as stretching him to thin time-wise.

A full reading of the basis of the Complaint filed against Meza’s appointment is posted in the Royal Examiner OPINION section, other linked stories are listed below:

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Local Government

Meza appointment legality – it’s 2 to 2 as Town finds supporting opinion

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Front Royal, VA (January 11, 2021) – Monday, January 4, 2021 – Town Council appointed former Councilman Jacob Meza to fill the unexpired term of newly elected Mayor Chris Holloway. Soon after, concerns were raised that the appointment of Mr. Meza was in violation of the Town Charter Chapter 6 Section § 47. The Town Attorney, Doug Napier, Esq, and staff had previously researched the issue extensively and found the appointment not to be in violation of Town Charter.

“I heard the questions of the press, public, and council, and in the interest of complete transparency, I asked our Town Attorney, Doug Napier to get a second legal opinion on the matter” said Mayor Chris Holloway. Napier reached out to Attorney Robert Mitchell, Esq, to review the Town Charter, Virginia State Code, and the Town Council appointment.

Mr. Mitchell’s opinion found that that Mr. Napier’s interpretation of Town Charter Chapter 6 was appropriate. “I have reviewed the concerns of the appointment of Mr. Meza and my legal opinion is that Council can appoint Meza to fill the vacancy on Council until the next election in November 2021. Section §47 of the Town Charter does not preclude the appointment, as I do not believe council members are “under the jurisdiction of the council.” The provision would not make sense to be read to prohibit council from appointing a member of council to be a member of council,” said Mitchell.

Mitchell is widely acknowledged as one of the most accomplished and experienced attorneys in the Commonwealth of Virginia, with over 50 years of experience. He is the County Attorney for Clarke County, the Commissioner of Accounts for Frederick County and the City of Winchester and is selected as one of the approved attorneys for the Virginia Municipal League and the Virginia Association of Counties to represent local government. Mr. Mitchell is very familiar with Municipal’s Charters and Codes, and the Code of Virginia. He holds an AV Preeminent rating for legal ability and ethical standard of 5.0 of 5.0, the highest possible peer ranking on Martindale-Hubbell.

Meza’s appointment will expire in November 2021 after a special election is held for the Town Council position.

If any member of the public or press has any further questions, please contact Todd C. Jones, Town Public Information Officer.

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