According to Virginia law, the process for revocation of a town or city charter has to be initiated by the town or city itself. In the case of Washington, these would be the necessary steps for it to become an unincorporated part of Rappahannock County:
- The town council would schedule a public referendum for town voters. (Alternatively, the town’s voters themselves can force a referendum onto the ballot by petition.)
- The referendum would have to pass by a majority vote.
- The town council and county supervisors would have to work out the details of debt and asset transfers and each vote to approve such an agreement, and
- The Virginia General Assembly would have to ratify the action.
Though the issue was on the agenda as an “informational” item, no one really expected the Rappahannock County Board of Supervisors to take any official action at its monthly session Monday afternoon (Oct. 6) at the courthouse on recent publicly aired challenges to the town of Washington’s right to govern itself.
And it didn’t.
But in the process of not taking action, several supervisors expressed doubt, if not discomfort, that it ever would — and pointed to the laws which say the effort to revoke a town’s charter must start with and be approved by a majority of the town’s citizens.
“This whole discussion really is academic,” said Stonewall district supervisor Chris Parrish, “because we [the supervisors] can’t do anything about the town charter. Mostly I am just sad to see such acrimony amongst the citizens of the county. I’d love to see more discussion where everybody decides basically to work together. I think the mayor cares about the town and has done a really good job improving the town.”
Hampton supervisor Bryant Lee also expressed his support of the town’s government, and said of the charter revocation: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” He also pointed out that if the county came to govern the town, there would be no architectural review board, since the county imposes no such regulation elsewhere.
Opponents of the town’s right to govern itself have waged this battle primarily in this newspaper’s Letters to the Editor column, and elsewhere online, since June — when many were offended by developer Jim Abdo’s comments in a Washington Post profile of the longtime Rappahannock weekender, who in recent years began buying properties in the town and had rehabbed the former Heritage House into the sleek six-room White Moose Inn hotel.
Some alleged that the town’s leadership, in particular Mayor John Fox Sullivan, were too accommodating to Abdo and others, who’ve maintained all along that their goal was to enliven the town known principally to visitors as the home of the renowned Inn at Little Washington (though Abdo’s comments to The Post came across, as even Abdo has since acknowledged, as harsh and insulting).
The most vocal of the town government’s critics has been Ben Jones, who lives not far from town in Harris Hollow, a former congressman and an actor best known as Cooter on the ’80s “Dukes of Hazzard” TV sitcom.
Jones and his wife, Alma Viator, operated a Cooter’s Place tourist stop-museum in Sperryville (until it outgrew the rural location; there are now Cooter’s Places in Gatlinburg and Nashville) and, as he pointed out at Monday’s meeting, that business and the giant weekend “Dukes of Hazzard”-related festivals he’s organized since have brought “literally hundreds of thousands of visitors to Rappahannock.”
Sullivan, whose Inn-dominated town aims for an admittedly different tourist demographic, wrote a letter defending the town’s sovereignty and leadership for last week’s paper, a response primarily to a letter from Jones the week before; Jones has another letter in this week’s paper.
The supervisors’ session was the first time both Jones and Sullivan — each of whom referred to the other Monday as “my good friend” — had appeared in a public forum together since June 16, when the newspaper sponsored a public discussion at The Theatre attended by more than 230 people, some of whom shouted down Jones when he objected to Abdo’s slide presentation and criticized what he called the “small clique” that decided what went on in the town.
Most of the town’s council members were at the supervisors meeting. A few spoke, as did others who favored leaving the town’s governance as it is.
Sullivan guessed aloud that if the town’s residents were polled — after Jones suggested the results of a secret ballot “might surprise you” — “maybe one, or maybe five residents, of 130 or so, would be in favor of this.”
Said Gary Schwartz, the town’s vice mayor and planning commission chair, “The town residents are not in support of this, the town is not in support of this, I am not in support of rejecting or revoking its charter.”
Said Jones: “I think the question we raise has nothing to do with the town. We all like the town. What we don’t like is the town government. Why do we need it? It’s that simple. The town has shrunk and shrunk. The last election only 30 people voted, with no opposite to the candidates. That to me is not a functioning democracy. That is . . . time to wonder whether or not the county might be able to do a better job of taking care of the business of the town.
“I’ve got nothing against this new development,” Jones said. “I don’t like the looks of some of it, and I don’t like the lack of transparency in the way it came down.”
Said Wendy Weinberg, a longtime resident of the county and owner-operator of The Theatre at Washington: “You know really why there’s nobody opposing the names on the ballot for offices in Washington. That’s a support for the system, not a denigration of it. There’s in Washington a real, local democracy, and a real, local government. It would be a crying shame to do anything to change it.”
Bill Walton, another Harris Hollow resident, who used to run Allied Capital and now finances films and serves on the Northern Piedmont Community Foundation board, said the town was “the most open and well-functioning democracy I’ve seen around the country,” and that the most common reason for revoking a charter — otherwise unsolvable financial problems — were completely absent in the town.
Said council member Dan Spethmann of online criticism of the town council in recent months: “I would call it cyber-bullying.”
In any case, the supervisors heard a brief presentation from County Administrator John McCarthy, who credited attorney David Konick with clarifying his points in a memo to the board about the potential difficulty in securing approval from some of the note holders of town debt — that, in essence, securing such approval would not be impossible but actually likely, Konick said, if the town and county had worked out an agreement. The supervisors agreed, informally, that it was not their place to discuss the matter much further.
Sullivan later summarized the supervisors’ meeting at the town council’s regular session Monday night, the first time the subject had come up at a town council meeting, and all but declaring that it was a moot subject.
Jones was not in attendance, but several others — some of whom had spoken at the supervisors — were. When the public comment period came — at the end of the town’s meetings, unlike the supervisors’ public comment, which precedes most of the agenda — no one spoke.
In the afternoon session at the courthouse, in response to several commenters who questioned the town’s budget process, Sullivan said he’d be at the Country Cafe the next morning at 11 with copies of the budget to discuss any part of it with anyone who came by.
Supervisor chair Roger Welch glanced at Sullivan after the mayor sat back down and said, smiling: “Is this like, ‘High Noon’?”
Sullivan said Wednesday that no one showed up at the Cafe for his 11 a.m. budget session Tuesday.
At the start of the public comment period, Woodville resident Thom Pellikaan moved to the front of the room and set down a large plastic trash bag filled with folded newspapers, each in its own pink plastic bag.
“I will continue to pick these up in my travels around the county,” Pellikaan said, speaking of what he said were 100 or so copies of the Culpeper News, a free weekly published by the Culpeper Star-Exponent and distributed by a private carrier.
He said the papers were tossed from a delivery vehicle within the last week into “any entrance that has a gate. They’re thrown into the entrance to my stables, which has . . . chickens in it . . . I’m talking about litter.”
Pellikaan said he’d picked up “at least 100 papers” on his own Red Oak Mountain Road and near Washington on Rudisill Mill, Tiger Valley, Rock Mills and Hunters roads over the last several days, and asked the supervisors if there was anything they could do about stopping deliveries “of a newspaper no one asked for.”
“If I had not been planting cover crops this week,” said Goat Hill Farm owner John Burns, rising and turning to nod toward Pellikaan, “I would’ve done just what he did. It’s amazing where they throw these things . . . They drop stuff off at my barn, the gate to the field, as well as my house gate. It’s just trash. You’ve gotta be able to suppress it some way.”
“Aside from this accumulation of trash, because no one picks it up, it also signals to anyone passing that no one is home in those properties,” said Parrish.
McCarthy later was asked to send a letter to the Culpeper Star-Exponent asking that the newspaper not continue to deliver the free publication in the same manner — and instead mail it, so it winds up in mailboxes rather than on roadsides.
For coverage of the supervisors’ other actions and agenda items, see next week’s Rappahannock News.