After getting an opening salvo from long-time critic Paul Gabbert aimed Interim Town Manager Matt Tederick’s way, the Front Royal Town Council, minus member Letasha Thompson, moved through a series of meeting and work session budget and ordinance updates and related staff suggestions, as well as consideration of a reduction of the number of Town Planning Commission members from seven to five, and discussion of employee health insurance coverage options if the compensation impasse between Valley Health and Anthem (Blue Cross/Blue Shield) is not resolved. In an added meeting agenda item council approved a Resolution approving recently submitted language required by United Bank regarding the $8.4-million loan to facilitate the Town’s assumption of the debt service on the Front Royal Police headquarters from the EDA.
It was noted in a summary prepared by insurance consultant Gallagher presented during that latter health care coverage work session discussion that Valley Health had hired a California-based consultant in its dispute with Anthem over its compensation from the giant health insurance provider and that Valley Health, “wants reimbursement levels that makes Valley Health highest-paid or close to highest-paid provider in the state of Virginia.”
And in its attempt to acquire that compensation from Anthem, Valley Health has “sent a preemptive letter of termination to Anthem for December 31st” that would make Valley Health a non-participant in Anthem health care coverage on January 1, 2021.
Under consideration by council Monday was sending “TLC” (The Local Choice), which is the Town’s current State Department of Human Resources Management medical insurance provider through Anthem, a notice of termination effective December 31. This would leave Town employees, like others including the County Public School system, out of coverage and facing higher health care costs likely through the end of the fiscal year.
While the State requires 90 days notice of opting out of TLC, making a November 1 notice effective February 1, the option of holding off on the TLC termination notice in the hope the corporate high-stakes poker game between Valley Health and Anthem will be resolved by the end of the year was also presented.
But council authorized the interim town manager to move forward with the TLC termination letter by November 1. If a settlement is reached between the dueling medical and insurance providers, the termination will be rescinded, Tederick later explained to us.
The interim town manager told council that a similar medical care provider and Anthem dispute had been settled shortly after the turn of the unnamed year it occurred. Tederick later said he believed information we had received from another source that the referenced medical care provider that had carried its past dispute with Anthem past a previous December 31st deadline was represented by the same California consultant Valley Health has contracted in its current dispute with Anthem, was correct.
Tederick also told council that several impacted Northern Shenandoah Valley municipalities could spearhead the formation of a group pool of employers with as many as 3500 employees to seek a lower pool rate coverage from providers in the next fiscal year beginning July 1, 2021.
Details being ironed out on FRPD loan
In the meeting’s final agenda item added by Vice-Mayor Bill Sealock at the meeting’s outset, council approved a resolution authorizing what was described as “required wording” by United Bank regarding the $8.4-million loan at a very favorable 1.87% interest rate to assume the debt service on the Town Police headquarters.
The new wording was received by Town staff earlier in the day, not giving the legal or finance department time to review the resubmitted document in its entirety. On Sealock’s motion, council approved the resolution authorizing acceptance of the new loan wording contingent on its review and approval by staff. It was noted that a deadline of noon, Wednesday, October 28, was pending on final approval of the loan terms.
Contacted Tuesday, Finance Director B. J. Wilson said were there to be any question about the wording leading to a missed Wednesday loan finalization deadline, it would likely only mean that a loan agreement would be reached in November instead of October, impacting the terms only as to a slight increase in the accrued interest the Town would be paying.
A misdirected opening salvo
Gabbert’s above-referenced meeting opening salvo, including a call for Tederick’s immediate termination for “gross deception”, appeared based on a misunderstanding of a published legal notice reference to a “Front Royal Industrial Development Authority” as opposed to an accompanying reference Gabbert cited to a “Warren County Economic Development Authority”.
Gabbert seemed to believe it was a unilateral effort by the interim town manager to implement a second Town EDA that has been on the table, if not finally approved as a done deal as the Town and EDA appear working toward resolution of some past impasses, particularly the FRPD headquarters financing which Tederick has predicted could lead to a settlement of the Town civil suit against the EDA “within 45 days”.
However, as this reporter explained to Gabbert as he passed the press table following his remarks, you sometimes still see, particularly in legal filings and even on the EDA website under “About EDA”, the EDA referred to by its original “Industrial Development Authority” name more prevalent in the 1960s-‘70’s-‘80’s’s, often followed by the notation “trading as the “EDA” or “Economic Development Authority”.
Contacted later Tederick verified this reporter’s perception of the referenced ad language and noted that the published legal notice had been prepared by Town legal staff, not him.
The referenced “Daily” legal notice of a public hearing wording in question is: “The Front Royal Town Council will hold a public hearing on Monday, November 9, 2020, at 7 p.m. in the Warren County Government Center located at 220 N. Commerce Avenue, to consider a rezoning application submitted by the Industrial Development Authority of the Town of Front Royal and the County of Warren, also referred to as the Economic Development Authority, for the rezoning of approximately 62.7 acres of property …”
Monday night when Tederick commented he would seek to assemble information to “see that Mr. Gabbert gets his facts straight” Gabbert angrily rose from his seat in the audience under the watchful eye of FRPD Chief Kahle Magalis in an attempt to call a “point of order” for Tederick referencing him personally in his remarks, though if I am not mistaken, only meeting members may call points of order by the governing Roberts Rules of Order.
However, having made his point Gabbert sat back down without incident, other than Mayor Tewalt stating he wanted to see no further public outbursts perhaps violating the recently implemented “Rules of Decorum” included now as page two of agenda packets.
See these discussions and other business conducted in this Royal Examiner meeting and work session videos:
Amended Town Press Release on Hicks assumption of dual Town Manager/EDA Director job
Editor’s Note: Following the submission of several questions from Royal Examiner to the Town about Mr. Hicks appointment to the EDA Executive Director’s position, this amended press release was issued after 5 p.m., Tuesday, February 23, under the headline “Steven Hicks, takes on an additional role as FREDA Executive Director”
Front Royal, VA (February 23, 2021) – Last night the Front Royal Town Council formalized the establishment of the Front Royal Economic Development Authority (FREDA) effective March 15, 2021. To oversee FREDA, Council plans to appoint Steven Hicks as the Executive Director in addition to his role as Town Manager at his current salary. Council and Hicks felt this approach would offset the cost of hiring an Executive Director to save the taxpayer’s dollars.
Hicks has significant experience in leading public-private development projects targeting downtown revitalization. In Selma, N.C., he partnered with Eastfield Crossing Developers and Duke Energy to amend a 400-acre mixed-used development and incentive agreement to increase the Town’s tax base and create 3,100 jobs.
Hicks has a Master of Science Degree in Civil and Infrastructure Engineering (USE) from George Mason University and a Bachelor of Science Degree in Urban Studies from Virginia Commonwealth University. He is a graduate of the University of Virginia Darden School Senior Executive Institute, the University of North Carolina School of Government Municipal and County Administration, and the Virginia Tech Transportation Construction Management Institute.
He served as the Commissioner of North Carolina Eastern Municipal Power Agency, Triangle East Chamber of Commerce Board of Director and Uptown Selma Business Partnership Board Director. He is a member of the International City Management Association and Virginia Economic Developers Association (VEDA).
Council is currently seeking applicants to serve as members of the Board of Directors. Applications are available on the Town’s website at www.frontroyalva.com and will be accepted until March 31, 2021.
(The following press release was issued by the Town of Front Royal shortly after Mayor Holloway read it into the record of the Feb. 22 Town Council meeting, Monday evening.)
The Front Royal Town Council is pleased to announce plans to establish the Front Royal Economic Development Authority (FREDA) on March 15, 2021, and will be naming Town Manager, Steven Hicks as the Executive Director. The Town is currently seeking applicants to serve as members of the Board of Directors until March 31, 2021. Last year the Virginia General Assembly authorized the formation of the FREDA. Since that authorization, the Town has codified the Town EDA in Town Code.
The decision to move forward with FREDA was not taken hastily or lightly. The Town’s decision to move forward with its own independent EDA has more to do with the present and future rather than the past.
The Town has re-development and economic development needs now that Council does not believe the County’s EDA is in the position to perform. Small businesses have been impacted by the pandemic and are in need of recovery. In addition, there are many empty storefronts now and Council hopes we can prevent more in the coming years. Having FREDA will also make it easier and quicker to improve the quality of life and appearance of Front Royal by addressing blighted properties through various tools and resources available to EDA’s.
The challenges facing the current County EDA are significant. For example, on September 25, 2019, the EDA agreed to enter into a Confession of Judgment with The First Bank and Trust.
The Confession of Judgment and supporting documentation appear to indicate the following:
• The sum for the judgment is $9,015,742 at an annual interest rate of 6%
• The loan was a line of credit up to $17 million
• Security for the loan in part stated, “Security agreement granting an interest in all the borrower’s accounts and government payments and programs including but not limited to all present and
future payments now or hereafter appropriated and made or to be made by the Town of Front Royal, Virginia and/or the County of Warren, Virginia, to the borrower….”
Based upon legal interpretation, this Confession of Judgment means all EDA assets not currently secured by another party are subject to the Confession of Judgment or in essence, the property of The First Bank and Trust Company up to $9M. This Confession of Judgment impairs buying property for the County or the Town unless the bank allows it. If the EDA enters into a lease, lease revenues would go to The First Bank and Trust Company. Due to the low creditworthiness of the EDA, it cannot obtain bonds, loans, or other types of financing without the County and/or Town’s direct involvement. Couple this Confession of Judgment with the EDA’s insolvency, ongoing litigation, lack of three years of audits, and low creditworthiness, it will be difficult for the EDA to function as a traditional EDA for many years in order to help our community, specifically our Town.
The Front Royal Town Council is committed to working in partnership with Warren County and its EDA. By no means should the Town’s initiative to focus on the Town’s re-development be construed as an unwillingness to work with the County. We just believe from a business perspective; formalizing FREDA is the only way the Town can focus on re-development with real results.
The Town Council would consider joining the County’s EDA in the future once all the following takes place with the County’s EDA:
1. It not only has produced missing audits but previous and future audits need to be clean.
2. It is solvent.
3. The Confession of Judgment is released.
4. All possible criminal investigations and civil litigation has been concluded.
5. The Town taxpayers have recovered all misappropriated, stolen, or fraudulently obtained assets by the EDA or its employee(s).
As part of the Town’s FY22 Budget, the Town will be able to invest $100,000 without sacrificing services to start FREDA. Additionally, the Town anticipates receiving over $100,000 from the sale of real estate which will be re-invested into our Town.
In conclusion, considering the state of affairs with the County’s EDA and in consideration of the Town’s needs to expand its tax base through economic development and marketing, it is imperative that the Town move towards ramping up its own EDA as soon as possible.
If any member of the public has any further questions, please contact Todd C. Jones, Town Public Information Officer.
Council back to the drawing board on separation of Public Comments from meetings, live broadcast
As part of an overhaul of its meeting scheduling and procedures, the Front Royal Town Council was poised to approve the separation of the “Public Correspondence” or “comments” portion of meetings, along with not live broadcasting those comments as part of planned changes. But after Gary Gillespie’s initial motion to approve a change to the “Order of Business” for regular council meetings a rift appeared.
Two newly elected councilmen, first Scott Lloyd and then Joseph McFadden expressed opposition to the “Public Comments” aspect of the changes. Those changes would include moving the public input on matters of concern to 6:30 p.m., a half-hour prior to the start of the meeting. It appeared the earlier, opening segment devoted to public comments was repeatedly referred to as a “work session” that would be adjourned to allow the one monthly regular meeting to begin.
McFadden wondered what council was to do for a half-hour if, like Monday night, no one showed up to speak. Would council have to kill a half-hour before starting the scheduled 7 p.m. meeting?
Would public comments be cut off at 7 p.m. if there were a larger number of people present to address council? McFadden indicated he was going to be a “no” vote on the motion as presented.
Lloyd offered an amended motion that would include continuing the live broadcast of public comments. The conversation evolved into multi-faceted directions that led Councilman Meza to suggest returning the matter to work session for all the legal and procedural variables addressed to be reconsidered in some detail prior to a vote. And after Gillespie and Lloyd agreed to withdraw their respective motions, it was back to what will now be council’s lone monthly work session, which along with the change to one monthly meeting (from the previous two of each that has long been council’s monthly format), was approved on a second reading just prior to the “Order of Business” matter being brought forward.
Also, as of that above-referenced second reading council will no longer have the necessity of two votes of approval for the ordinance and other major business action items.
Town officially announces $100,000 investment in new EDA, names Town Manager Hicks new EDA director
While it’s back to a work session for further discussion of a plan to distance “Public Comments” from both the Town Council’s regular meeting agenda and live broadcast (see related story), not so for the Town of Front Royal’s plan to create its own unilateral Economic Development Authority. Near the end of a fairly brief 40-minute meeting Monday evening, February 22, Mayor Chris Holloway read a press release on the Town’s EDA decision into the meeting record. See the full text of that release to this story.
As of publication Royal Examiner had yet to receive a response to questions about Town Manager Steven Hicks appointment as executive director of the Front Royal Economic Development Authority, acronym-ed “FREDA”, as to any additional salary and how his time allotment to the two roles was envisioned to be divided.
The release did say the Town was poised to invest $100,000 in its new EDA without elaborating on where that money would be spent. It also said it anticipated an “over $100,000” return on investment related to future real estate sales.
Of the decision to abandon continuation of the over half-century partnership with Warren County in its joint EDA still recovering from the financial and legal aftermaths of the financial scandal alleged to have developed over the last five years or so of former EDA Executive Director Jennifer McDonald’s leadership, the release states: “The Town has re-development and economic development needs now that Council does not believe the County’s EDA is in the position to perform.”
Less than a week after finalization of the sale of the Afton Inn was announced by the EDA after the Town dropped its legal challenge of EDA ownership and right to sell the derelict structure for redevelopment, the release adds, “Small businesses have been impacted by the pandemic and are in need of recovery. In addition, there are many empty storefronts now and Council hopes we can prevent more in the coming years.”
Also, perhaps surprisingly in light of the fact, the Town has floundered for years, first on the passage of a derelict building maintenance code; and over the last year-plus with enforcement following the passage of an ordinance, the release continues to state, “Having FREDA will also make it easier and quicker to improve the quality of life and appearance of Front Royal by addressing blighted properties through various tools and resources available to EDA’s.”
Despite the decision to move toward a separate EDA, the Town release adds that it will not refuse to work with the County and its now also unilaterally run EDA. Evidence of that was illustrated in council’s unanimous approval of the sale, with the County and EDA, of a 1.4-acre parcel of the jointly owned McKay Springs property for the development of a Hardees in the county’s north corridor.
“By no means should the Town’s initiative to focus on the Town’s re-development be construed as an unwillingness to work with the County. We just believe from a business perspective; formalizing FREDA is the only way the Town can focus on re-development with real results,” the release states.
The release also did not rule out reuniting with the County in the oversight of and work with the existing EDA at a future point when its myriad legal, financial, and operational issues are resolved.
Council will advertise flat tax rates for FY-22; forwards pedestrian crossing signal on North Shenandoah Avenue
After observing that the Fiscal Year 2022 Town Budget proposal was constructed on the premise of no tax increases being necessary to support it, Front Royal Director of Finance B. J. Wilson asked the town’s elected officials for additional feedback at the February 16 work session before making his recommendation on advertising real estate and personal property tax rates for the coming fiscal year. The existing Real Estate Tax Rate is 13 cents per $100 of assessed value, the Personal Property Tax Rate is 64 cents per $100 of assessed value.
With council’s two new members, Lloyd and McFadden, facing their first municipal budget process, Wilson reminded council and the mayor that they can approve a lower tax rate than advertised without delays to the budget approval process. However, were it discovered that additional tax-generated revenue was necessary to balance a final budget, the necessity of re-advertisement of higher-than-originally-proposed tax rates would delay the approval process by a week or more.
Councilman Meza asked the finance director when a final Town budget needed to be approved. Wilson cited a target of approval at some point in April, likely to give department heads time to make any changes to their budgets if necessary. But he added that a drop-dead date was June 30, the final day of the current fiscal year. However, municipalities that don’t have earlier deadlines due to State funding variables surrounding public education or other State-assisted revenues, rarely push their budget envelopes that far.
Cockrell then asked Wilson if he was sure, with pandemic economic variables still in play, a late downturn in projected Town tax revenues wouldn’t require a late adjustment upward in the tax rates to support even a revenue-neutral budget. The finance director replied that he felt “pretty good” that no major downward spike would occur, though he added that the generally tight economic times could lead to a downward turn in personal property tax revenues due to a trend in the purchase of used vehicles as opposed to new ones with a higher value and subsequent higher personal property tax assessment.
“I want to go ahead and advertise it the way it is in this COVID situation,” Councilman Gillespie injected, adding, “I mean we’re not going to raise taxes anyway with all the troubles that people are going through.”
Asked for a consensus by the mayor, Councilman Meza asked how long the tax rates had “been in the ballpark” of where they now stand, including the half-cent Real Estate Tax deduction the previous council had implemented last year. Wilson concurred with Meza’s estimate of five years as a “ballpark” on the real estate rate, adding after checking his notes that the Town Personal Property Tax Rate had not been raised since 2010. Then with an assist from Town Manager Steven Hicks, Wilson pinned the Real Estate Tax Rate in the 13-cent “ballpark” since 2014.
Meza suggested in advertising a flat rate, council include that information to trumpet its record of maintaining consistently flat, comparatively low tax rates. “I think that would be great to put in there because that would be the easiest thing for us to raise, and we haven’t,” he said.
Council having reached a consensus to not even put the possibility of a tax hike on the table, Town Manager Hicks inquired if they wanted to discuss planned hikes to the water-sewer rates to cover costs of required upgrades. The consensus appeared to be to follow consultant-established phased-in rate hikes as necessary to cover utility maintenance expenses.
Additional pedestrian safety at WMH
After input from Town Director of Energy Services David Jenkins and Police Chief Kahle Magalis on public safety challenges along North Shenandoah Avenue at the current Warren Memorial Hospital site, council agreed to move forward with Valley Health’s request for the installation of a pedestrian-activated crosswalk flashing signal.
“I mean they’re paying for it,” Councilwoman Thompson pointed out as the request was introduced to council. Valley Health has offered to pay the $4,753.26 cost of the traffic signal, which town crews would install. Visual issues, particularly approaching the hospital southbound on North Shenandoah up a hill that levels approaching West 10th Street near Family Pharmacy were noted at the requested location.
When the variable of how long the hospital would still be operational at the site with the new one currently under construction off Leach Run Parkway, a June target date for the new hospital’s opening was cited.
Councilman McFadden wondered with a projected June departure of hospital staff and turnaround time on purchase and installation, why Valley Health was making the request at this point as it prepares to move from the current WMH location. Town Energy Services Director Jenkins told council he had, had that conversation with Valley Health officials. He said that while they were unsure of future use of the existing hospital building, they noted that the Lynn Care Center on the hospital’s northeast side off of West 11th Street would remain at the site, with an estimated 50 residents and associated staff.
When Jenkins noted a hospital employee had been struck “about a month ago” in the area, Valley Health employee Meza, added, “There was a nurse who was hit and put in critical condition” leading to an “Oh my gosh” reaction from Thompson. Noting a several decades time-lapse, Cockrell observed that a boy and girl she went to school with’s mother had been killed along that stretch of road.
Jenkins described the planned flashing light warning of a person crossing ahead that activates immediately upon pedestrian-activation, unlike some signals at larger intersections where there is lag time to activation. And after additional positive input on installation from FRPD Chief Magalis, who observed there was another recent traffic accident involving a bicyclist in the area, council seemed satisfied that even with some unanswered questions about the future use of the building, with Valley Health’s willingness to pick up the cost, installation of the signal could do no harm, and might increase public safety.
In fact, Jenkins observed it could help counteract some added danger from a past attempt to slow traffic thereby narrowing the street with concrete outcroppings. Trees planted in those outcroppings, he observed were now creating a visual problem near intersections. There are also road width problems there that now force vehicles turning right onto North Shenandoah to cross the center line potentially into oncoming traffic.
A consensus was also reached to take the Jefferson Avenue/Hillcrest Drive R-3 rezoning proposal by Rockledge Development Company to a public hearing. It was noted that the developer’s plan was to build and sell the proposed duplex units for occupant ownership, rather than use them as rental properties. And a voluntary proffer was offered to eliminate the potential of development of multi-unit apartments on the site, which is a normal by-right use on R-3 zoned land. That restriction would continue were the developer to sell the property, rather than build on it, it was noted.
Council also agreed to move the proposed Liaison Committee procedural and non-alphabetical assignment changes forward as part of a coming Consent Agenda; and to make FRPD Captain Jason Ryman’s Joint Tow Board appointment permanent, rather than continue as an indefinite replacement for the retired member, Sgt. Bryan Courtney.
EDA announces that the Afton Inn sale has been finalized
The Economic Development Authority (EDA) and Town of Front Royal issued the following joint press release today, February 19, 2021:
On Friday, February 12, the Economic Development Authority (EDA) Board of Directors passed a resolution accepting a final sales price from developers 2 East Main, LLC of $325,000 for the purchase of the Afton Inn located in Front Royal’s downtown. The Board is pleased to announce that the settlement has taken place and the building has been sold!
This transaction came to fruition with the cooperation among the Town Council of Front Royal, Warren County Board of Supervisors, EDA, and the developer. The Board is grateful for the willingness of Town Council, and Warren County Board of Supervisors to focus on a goal that resulted in a “win” for everyone. EDA board members Greg Harold and Jeff Browne, plus EDA Legal Counsel Sharon Pandak, of Greehan, Taves, and Pandak worked hard to make this sale happen. The developers, Jim Burton and Alan Omar, had an unwavering commitment to the vision for this property.
“This is a privately funded transaction. It won’t cost County or Town taxpayers anything to transform the Afton Inn into a welcoming anchor building for visitors to Main Street,” said Jeff Browne, EDA’s chair.
Front Royal Mayor Chris Holloway welcomed the news of the sale. “On behalf of Council, I am proud to share in the celebration of the sale of Afton Inn and look forward to partnering with the developer to remove any barriers to restore and modernize this building expeditiously. The sale of Afton Inn marks an important milestone for our community as we continue to focus on redevelopment,” said Holloway.
(The EDA Board of Directors will have their regular February monthly board meeting via Zoom on Friday, February 26, 2021, at 8 a.m.)
Town COVID-19 ordinance proposals – what do they really mean?
Following a nearly hour-and-forty-minute closed session on a variety of topics including the “disposition” status of the Afton Inn; the legal challenge of Jacob Meza’s January 4 appointment to council; and board and commission appointments, the Front Royal Town Council covered a variety of matters at its Town Hall work session of Tuesday, February 16. And while council adjourned to closed session at 6:34 p.m. with a four-person quorum, Meza and Letasha Thompson absent, when it reconvened to open work session at 8:12 p.m. both Meza and Thompson were present.
While it was a multi-faceted agenda (that will be covered in a related story), three items at that agenda’s conclusion related to COVID-19 Coronavirus pandemic public health guidelines seemed of perhaps the most immediate interest and import to all town citizens.
Two of those items were ordinance proposals forwarded by first-term Councilman Scott Lloyd, who made waves in his first month in office with a proposal to rename a town street after his former boss at the federal level, Donald J. Trump. This time Lloyd took aim at pandemic public health safety precautions originating at the State level, starting with a gubernatorial Executive Order loophole on a medical exemption to public mask-wearing.
The second Lloyd ordinance proposal would prohibit any business or organizational “entity” operating within the town limits “from requiring its employees, volunteers, members, etc. to receive any of the COVID vaccines as a condition of employment, membership, etc.” once those vaccines are available to them.
The third pandemic item co-sponsored by Lloyd, Meza, and Joseph McFadden took aim at allowing more people into council meetings or work sessions, though under exactly what, if any, social distancing parameters was not initially clear from the agenda summary or subsequent discussion.
Thompson raised questions about where the no vaccination mandate might lead. She noted that currently, Valley Health requires some employees exposed to vulnerable segments of the public to get flu shots and wondered if starting with COVID vaccines, council might move to expand a vaccination prohibition for other diseases or illnesses as well.
As to the increased public participation at council meetings or work sessions, the Town has implemented fairly harsh public meeting social-distancing guidelines that include no admission of non-council or town staff members to Town Hall meeting room work sessions or meetings.
Thompson noted that were council to suggest removal of the installed social-distancing parameters in the Warren County Government Center meeting room to allow full capacities” or something less restrictive than the County has in place, it would need authorization from the county supervisors who have installed the distancing parameters there.
But it was the first of those COVID-related agenda items that really caught our attention.
In introducing his mask ordinance proposal to his colleagues Tuesday, Lloyd said, “Really I think the purpose of this … would be to clarify what the existing legal structure is from the Executive Order (EO) … especially when you consider the health exceptions that I mentioned in the written material.”
The specifically referenced part of Governor Ralph Northam’s Executive Order 72 exempts people who have “health conditions or disabilities” that would create a physical hazard and significant breathing difficulty from having one’s nose and mouth covered per otherwise EO-mandated Coronavirus pandemic masking health precautions.
Lloyd’s “mention” and “clarification” of health exemptions to mask-wearing originates in the Governor’s Executive Order 72’s perhaps over-broad interpretation of HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability & Accountability Act) guidelines passed in the late 1990s.
HIPAA was initially designed to “establish a national set of security standards for protecting certain health information that is held or transferred in electronic form” according to the federal Health and Human Services (HHS) department website. Over the ensuing decades in more than one reporter’s opinion, it has been expanded to withhold information on individual medical conditions or status that used to be routinely released related to public incidents or actions across a broad spectrum previously considered in the public interest. A step in the right or wrong direction? – Depends on one’s perspective and the nature of the information being sought.
In this case, it has led Virginia’s governor to, not only include language in Executive Order 72 that a person claiming a medical exemption to mask-wearing “shall not be required to produce or carry medical documentation verifying stated condition”, but also “not be required to identify the precise underlying medical condition.”
“If we were able to clarify through an action like this that okay, this is where the government stands and this is how our attitude is going to be in our town properties,” Lloyd elaborated of the impetus for his proposal.
The proposed Town legislative “attitude” according to the agenda staff summary of Lloyd’s mask ordinance proposal is that: “The proposed ordinance would create a town-wide presumption in the interpretation of the Order that those who are not wearing masks are declining for health reasons …” adding that “nobody shall be required to disclose or identify the medical condition in question.”
Now call me a cynic – but it appears that Lloyd would have council pass an ordinance taking the governor’s language a step further, in creating a Town Code presuming no one in Front Royal not wearing a mask would lie to cover the fact they just don’t want to and/or don’t believe it necessary to wear face coverings as mandated at the State level. Those public health mandates are a result of the ongoing COVID-19 Coronavirus pandemic that as of February 18, are reported by the U.S. Center for Disease Control (CDC) to have claimed 495,180 lives nationally, of those 7,075 in Virginia and 40 in Warren County over the course of about one year. Globally over 2.43 million deaths are attributed to the pandemic.
So, following the meeting, this reporter contacted Lloyd by email about that concern that a “presumed” medical condition legislative ordinance could be utilized as a different kind of “cover” – cover for a lie that someone who just doesn’t want to wear a mask as a public safety measure, actually has a medical condition to justify the absence of a mask.
His initial response was, “I don’t see it as one party lying. The party is not representing anything about why they are not wearing a mask–the other party is presuming that it is because of health reasons.” – The “other party” apparently being any impacted business, organization, or local public health/safety official operating within the town limits.
In fact, during work session discussion Councilwoman Thompson asked Lloyd if his proposal would limit town business owners from requiring face masks of customers or employees, as some do. She said she wanted to be assured that their right to institute precautions was not limited, so as to protect them and perhaps vulnerable employees, customers, or elderly family members in their homes.
Here McFadden entered the conversation, turning Thompson’s inquiry around. “How do we deal with businesses that infringe upon people’s ADA rights? You know, if they have American Disabilities Act rights to not do something … How do we prevent that, then?” he said, pointing to actual respiratory discomfort from an actual health condition or disability a potential customer might suffer from.
Thompson responded, pointing to alternative service options including call-in orders, curbside pickups, or deliveries that some businesses with mask requirements offer customers who can’t wear masks. While part of Virginia Governor Northam’s Executive Order 72 references a perhaps overbroad interpretation of HIPAA, it continues to elaborate on compromise solutions under the presumption that people claiming medical exemptions actually have a justifying health condition.
“Adaptations and alternatives for individuals with health conditions or disabilities should be considered whenever possible to increase the feasibility of wearing a mask or to reduce the risk of COVID-19 spreading if it is not possible to wear one,” EO-72 states.
Asked later about Thompson’s concerns on the flip side of his proposal as it might affect businesses wanting to mandate mask-wearing, Lloyd said, “They would be free to do so, as indicated many times in the discussion.” Also in introducing his mask-exemption ordinance Lloyd noted that he was “mindful of our time and the things that we should stick our nose in and keep out of.”
We also later asked Councilman McFadden by email about his perception of the evening’s discussion, particularly the mask ordinance. “My perspective on the mask ordinance is that people are not well informed. Too many people get their information from memes on Facebook or from the unchecked opinions of their peers. And depending on how well their brain responds to fear, people will believe whatever they want to and act however they feel will be in the interest of their survival often regardless of facts, statistics, or long proven and accepted science – some of which now seems to be ‘COVID Logic’ as we discussed and identified in the meeting.”
During the discussion, McFadden said he perceived Lloyd’s clarification ordinance as relieving business owners tasked by State mandates to require masking along sometimes confusing or inconsistent parameters, from having to do so if it is not their choice to do so.
Of the mask ordinance proposal, McFadden added, “We’d simply be ensuring that citizens know what the actual Executive Order 72 states regarding mask enforcement. And if it were an ordinance, it would require policing – which is not what Scott was aiming at.”
However, the proposed ordinance language referenced above seems to indicate a lack of policing as the end result of an ordinance “presumption” that someone not wearing a mask has an exempting health condition which they cannot even be questioned about. Of course, I guess there would have to be “policing” to see that the “no-ask, no-tell” mandate wasn’t being violated.
Asked for a council consensus by the mayor, it appeared the proposal was fizzling for now. McFadden suggested that if revisited, council look at approaching the matter at a Constitutional level.
During a subsequent discussion of Lloyd’s proposed mandate against employee or member sanctions for refusing to be COVID-19 vaccinated, McFadden referenced a new four-member council “libertarian” majority among whom such matters and Constitutional perspectives on solutions was a priority. Queried about that four-member majority, both McFadden and Lloyd identified it as including themselves, along with Meza and Thompson.
Of the vaccination ordinance proposal, one of those four, Meza, expressed concern that if approved, council would be “mandating” that impacted businesses or organizations “not mandate” a particular action – “That gives me some concern,” Meza told his colleagues.
Watch these COVID-related discussions in their entirety beginning at the 58:40 mark of the work session video, as well as the earlier discussions and a PowerPoint presentation on town utilities.