Rappahannock County’s supervisor meetings begin with the Pledge of Allegiance, followed by a moment of silence during which those so inclined may say a prayer.
After yet another lengthy and contentious day of monthly meetings this Monday (Nov. 7), at least one attendee suggested the supervisors consider making the moment of silence longer.
It was not with a prayer but a legal opinion from Commonwealth’s Attorney Art Goff — who’s acting as County Attorney Peter Luke’s deputy until Luke’s retirement Dec. 31, when Goff will take on that advisory role — that the board voted Monday night to appropriate funds in this year’s budget for a legal defense fund.
The vote was, unlike most every other vote taken earlier Monday, surprisingly unanimous.
This was after two citizens stood to say that by voting on the legal defense fund, members risked violating the Virginia Conflict of Interest Act. Both Tim Pagano of Huntly and Page Glennie of Amissville emphatically said this to the board during the public public hearing on the proposed supplemental appropriations, which include $100,000 to defend county officials, staff and volunteers against such legal challenges as the one brought against the county and four supervisors by Sperryville resident Marian Bragg last month, alleging violations of Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act for improperly going into closed sessions this summer to discuss . . . well, Luke’s replacement.
Glennie even suggested that the supervisors recuse themselves, and that the Conflict of Interest law allowed even one supervisor — Frazier, whose name was removed from the lawsuit to be heard Nov. 28 after he signed attorney David Konick’s “acknowledgment” that the board had indeed violated FOIA — to enact the appropriation resolution alone.
“And I have asked Mr. Frazier to approve the appropriations as long as you add the requirement that if you lose the suit, you repay the defense expenses to the county,” Glennie said. He helpfully distributed pages of information to each supervisor at the head table about the Virginia Ethics Advisory Council.
Goff, Luke’s apparent replacement, had ducked with Luke into their own closed session of sorts — into the judge’s chamber behind the bench, actually, to consult the full set of Virginia Code law books kept there, while the supervisors continued their public discussion. On their return, Goff issued the opinion that the Virginia code that authorizes governing bodies to create a legal defense fund (15.2-1520) allows them to do so irrespective of any other “regular or special” Virginia laws (the Conflict of Interest Act being a special law).
Luke said having the commonwealth’s attorney’s opinion on the issue was “a safe harbor,” and the supervisors (after more back and forth) proceeded.
The supplemental appropriations also included $55,000 toward workmen’s compensation insurance for the county’s volunteer emergency responders, which follows an increase approved last month in the county’s medical insurance coverage for volunteers to $1 million. (It had been $100,000, a fact discovered after a Washington Fire & Rescue volunteer incurred a serious spinal injury in an accident while responding to a call this summer.)
Before voting on the motion by Piedmont supervisor Mike Biniek to approve the appropriations, Jackson district’s Ron Frazier said that because the resolution included funds to help emergency volunteers he would vote “yes,” even though he disagreed with the legal defense fund. (Both he and Glennie had pointed out earlier that county officials “who do their jobs” are already protected by the doctrine of sovereign immunity and that a defense fund “only protects people who don’t do their jobs.”)
The evening session also included an equally contentious public hearing for an amendment to the county’s EMS Cost Recovery ordinance to allow three rescue squads — Chester Gap, Castleton and Sperryville — to bill for ambulance transports using the county’s Medicare account number.
Amissville Volunteer Fire and Rescue’s chief, J.B. Carter, and Jack Atkins, head of the Rappahannock Fire and Rescue Association and a longtime Amissville company member, objected to the ordinance because, Carter said, it appeared that it would not allow any other companies to submit claims to insurers for ambulance rides.
Amissville, Washington and Flint Hill companies began doing so, on their own, after problems with the new system’s billing agent caused the supervisors to decide, in January, to return some $40,000 that it said was incorrectly billed to Medicare on Amissville’s behalf, for transports originating outside of Rappahannock County (about half of Amissville’s calls are to Culpeper County).
The discussion had devolved into argument — Carter and Atkins blaming Luke for not making amendments to the ordinance sooner, and Atkins asserting that the county should “just give Amissville back its $40,000” — when board chair Roger Welch held up his hand, and said: “Mr. Carter, if you have time, can you meet with me? Because I’d like to have this resolved, and I am tired of hearing this argument.” Welch promised that if they passed the ordinance amendment tonight — they did, 4-1, with Frazier voting no — he would personally “guarantee” that the issues would be resolved. Carter indicated he could live with that.
In other action, the board voted unanimously to appoint five members of the public — William Dant, Todd Summers, Michael Mahoney, Edward Goshorn Jr. and Alan Zuschlag — to its Broadband Advisory Committee, on which Hampton district supervisor John Lesinski and County Administrator Debbie Keyser will also serve.
Due to unexpected space limitations in this week’s edition, coverage of the public comment period of the board’s afternoon session, and several of the board’s other actions — including, after yet another spirited discussion, its 4-1 vote (with Frazier voting no) to disband the Finance Committee created last year — will be continued in next week’s Rappahannock News.