Letter: Time to say goodbye to the town council

“Why does the village of Washington have its own government?”

I first heard that question in the 1990s, when an article in the New Yorker magazine about the animosities between the Inn and its neighbors caused quite a stir around Rappahannock. The population of the town then was almost double what it is now. The Inn has grown in the years since; the town has gotten much smaller.

With its population having plummeted to only about 130 folks, and many residences having been converted to commercial purposes, the town recently found itself unable to field a competitive election, and its council was basically elected by default, with only about 30 citizens participating.

The town performs no services that could not be done by the county, and the county already provides certain services for the town — paid for by the taxpayers of Rappahannock, who have no say in the governance of their own county seat.

There is also the danger of an elite few creating a business and social environment for themselves. Some would say that is what has already evolved in the village over the past few decades. It appears to many of us that public policy is being totally dictated by big-footed business and real estate interests, and that an almost palpable snobbery exists in some quarters.

So why does the village of Washington continue to have its own government?

The unofficial rebuttal seems to be because it always has had one, which of course isn’t an argument and also isn’t true. The town was a town named Washington for 100 years before it was chartered in 1894. That was over 60 years after it became the county seat. (It became a “town” in 1796, when the population reached 200 — 70 more than live here 218 years later.)

Washington was once the biggest and busiest community in Rappahannock. Now there are only three children in the town, and practically no affordable housing for working people. The tradition of the town has now been diminished by the neo-tradition of the Inn, its real estate and its large reputation.

The town’s fine stores, inns, galleries and its jewel-box theatre are first-rate, but it needs a town government like a bull needs teats.

By the way, there are already a couple of myths going around about the necessity of the status quo. But it is not true that the county seat of a county in Virginia must be a chartered town. Almost a third of the Commonwealth’s county seats do not have charters and town governments.

And already the argument has arisen that the county would inherit the town’s large sewer debt. But it would be paid in the very same way it is being paid now, by the sewer fee.

It is human nature for people with a tiny bit of local power to convince themselves that the world wouldn’t turn if they gave up their influence. That is understandable, no matter how shortsighted it may be. Elected officials often overestimate their own importance and can’t see the forest for the trees. I speak from experience.

The town is a part of Rappahannock County, so the dissolution of the town council would hardly be noticed. Town matters would surely get more scrutiny through the county’s fair zoning and permitting procedures. Nothing much else would change.

Ultimately, the question of whether or not a town will annul its charter is entirely up to the town’s registered voters. If a majority votes for annulment, it is done. But getting to that vote requires an agreement between the town council and the board of supervisors, one that is instigated by the council.

And so it is not hard to understand the sticking point here. To use the vernacular, “the inmates are running the asylum.” The current mayor and council in the village do not show even the slightest indication that they understand there is a clear problem here. Again, “elected officials often overestimate their own importance and can’t see the forest for the trees.”

If the council is confident in their leadership and in their own validity, they should ask for that vote as a vote of confidence. If they were to prevail, that would put this issue on the shelf for years to come.

But if the town voters annulled the charter, it certainly would not be the end of anybody’s world. In fact, it is possible that our county seat would begin to grow again as a diverse community for all of Rappahannock’s citizens.

The town’s projected 2015 budget is close to $1 million for 130 people. You do the math. The town projects $360,000 in meals and lodging tax in 2015. And we county taxpayers pay for most of the town’s services.

What is obvious to all who observe local civic affairs is that this matter has festered for years. No matter what the outcome, we can no longer pretend that this situation does not exist. Denial is not a river in Egypt and the elephant is in the room.

The process for the nullification of a town’s charter is Virginia Code Sec. 15-2, Chapter 37, 3700-3712.

Ben Jones
Washington

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