A full courtroom again greeted the Rappahannock County Board of Supervisors at their monthly meeting Monday afternoon (Dec. 5).
This month, the board’s actions eventually reflected what the citizens who stood up said they wanted — with the possible exception of those who stood mostly to tell the board that they were untrustworthy and/or headed for disaster.
After a top-of-the-meeting public comment session at which six people encouraged the board to accept an easement agreement for the Blue Ridge Memorial Project’s proposed roadside Sperryville monument to Rappahannock residents displaced by Shenandoah National Park in the 1930s — and four others urged the supervisors to avoid any proposed lease of some Amissville landfill property to a construction company that wants to store heavy equipment there — the board acted accordingly in both cases, by unanimous votes: Memorial, yes. Heavy equipment on Weaver Road, no.
“I know the board has many responsibilities,” said Missy Sutton, organizer of the Rappahannock chapter of the regionwide Blue Ridge Memorial Project, which hopes to build a symbolic stone chimney on a small plot of land donated by Thornton River Orchard owner Russell Jenkins with $10,000 offered by Bill Fletcher’s Hampton Foundation. “But stewardship is one of them — and I consider this to be a stewardship issue above all else, stewardship of the community, the history of the county and the people you represent, and so much more.”
Blue Ridge Memorial Project founder Bill Henry and four others rose to echo Sutton’s plea — which the board later agreed to, by unanimous consent, after being told of acceptably revised easement contract terms by deputy county attorney Art Goff. (Goff was there in his first solo appearance at a board meeting, subbing for Peter Luke — his longtime predecessor as commonwealth’s attorney, and, starting Jan. 1 when Luke retires, as county attorney.)
The revised contract removed the county’s responsibility to provide liability insurance coverage on the memorial site, a hitch which prompted the board’s 4-1 vote last month (with Jackson district’s Ron Frazier dissenting) to delay approval. The contract still requires the county to maintain the site, with mowing and trash removal but not snow or ice removal.
“This contract works out any questions I may have had,” said Hampton supervisor John Lesinski, who had initially objected to the Sperryville monument proposal in part because he thought it belonged at the county visitors center near Washington, a more easily maintained site the memorial project had at first considered. Both he and Piedmont supervisor Mike Biniek lauded the project as, in Lesinski’s words, “a fitting tribute” to those who lost their homes to the national park less than a century ago.
The 4-0 vote (with Lesinski abstaining) to end the county’s negotiations with commercial real estate broker Colliers International — on behalf of a construction company hoping to lease an acre or so of the 100-acre Amissville landfill site to store construction and excavation equipment — came near the end of the supervisors’ nearly three-hour meeting, by which time the initial crowd of nearly 30 had dwindled to a half dozen.
Before the vote, Frazier read aloud the resolution to reject the contract offer — a resolution that’s been on the county’s boarddocs.com website since last week, along with a copy of a petition signed by 20 neighbors concerned that the deal would bring too much noise and too much heavy, road-damaging traffic to the narrow residential Weaver Road right-of-way leading to the landfill and animal shelter.
The petition also worried aloud over the supervisors’ “transparency,” the board having met twice in closed session to discuss the potential deal, and that the contractor’s reported claim that the Rappahannock site would bring its equipment closer to its building sites was, in the words of Robbie Settle, who spoke to the board Monday, “just not true.” The company, he said, merely wanted to avoid paying Culpeper and Fauquier counties’ heavy equipment storage taxes — taxes that don’t exist in Rappahannock.
In addition to those urging votes on the Blue Ridge project and the landfill lease, several rose to give the supervisors a piece of their minds.
Page Glennie of Amissville, the only regular monthly public-comment participant who thoughtfully prints an extra copy of his comments for the newspaper, told the supervisors that their decision last month to “not only ignore a motion to expand the Finance Committee, but to eliminate it . . . demonstrated that you feel little or no obligation to get the public’s input, much less consider it.”
Glennie’s point, echoed later by Frazier, was that having supervisors and staff involved in annual budget planning is no substitute for long-range financial planning. (As Frazier put it: “So now we’ve got a committee to talk about broadband, but we don’t have the money to pay for any of it.”)
“It’s absolutely clear that this county’s leadership does not possess the business skills necessary to properly run the county,” Glennie said. “Furthermore, you have repeatedly turned down those who have offered those skills.”
Glennie said the county’s composite index, for example, which determines how much the state contributes to local services (mostly schools), is among the highest in the state at 74 percent (meaning the state only contributes 26 percent toward such costs). “If you were to study the composite index equation and relate it to your real estate tax structure, you’d discover that you have created a tax haven for the rich retirees from the D.C. metro area at the expense of the current residents,” Glennie said, referring to families with children and owners of small-acreage parcels not in land-use protection (which can lower property tax rates by some 90 percent).
“Gentlemen, this county’s finances are a hot mess,” Glennie said, “yet you choose to bury your heads in the sand.”
Tim Pagano of Huntly, another frequent commenter, and Tom Junk of Sperryville took the board to task for being three months behind in publishing its meeting minutes, Junk saying there were “more important things for the board to pay attention to than this freaking FOIA suit” — a reference to the pending lawsuit against four of the supervisors and the board itself for alleged violations of the Freedom of Information Act this summer and fall.
Pagano said he was happy to hear County Administrator Debbie Keyser report that the meeting minutes would be up-to-date by the board’s Jan. 4 meeting, “but I am not sure I have trust in this board, or that it will happen.”
“If everyone is so concerned over the cost of [defending] this lawsuit,” said Henry Gorfein of Washington, “then they should talk to the plaintiff and her lawyer. If your aim is to prove wrongdoing by the board, you would then sue the board — not every individual supervisor.”
Gorfein said he believes the supervisors “have every right to defend yourself, at whatever cost. This suit is frivolous, and it’s meant to be punitive.”
Washington resident (and mayor) John Sullivan, whose own governing body has faced a FOIA suit brought by the same lawyer, rose to thank the supervisors, who “at no time have not acted with the best interests of the county in mind,” and “to also thank some people — in particular Candy Wroth,” Keyser’s administrative assistant, who is leaving her longtime post in January.
“For 19 years,” Sullivan said, “Candy has been level-headed, she responds quickly to requests, is thoughtful and considerate. When she is gone, people are going to miss her.”
After the public comment period ended, Lesinski asked chairman Roger Welch if he could respond to “some of the comments.”
“Simply an observation,” Lesinski said. “I think one of the commenters [Junk] said something about the board of supervisors needing to get real, get into the reality. My observation on reality, ladies and gentlemen, is that we’re at a tipping point. We hear about the minutes not getting done, finances being “a hot mess” — which I disagree with vehemently; I think if you roll the tape back three years you could say that, but I think our treasurer’s office has done a magnificent job . . . there’s been a lot of debate about the county attorney, deputy county attorney, and what they might cost us, but no doubt we’re living in a more litigious society . . . but we did not bring this FOIA case upon ourselves, we were sued, and have every belief that we will prevail — but we have every right to defend ourselves.
“The point being, we have many people who are working many hours, and are very dedicated to this county — and I’m speaking of staff — that are at the tipping point. And there’s really only so much they can do. I want to put my observation forward, my personal opinion — that, as we enter the budget season next year, if this is the way the citizenry feels — that we need to do a better job, a more timely job and get things done quicker and more efficiently — then we ought to have more staff. And, ladies and gentlemen, that means a tax increase. . . .
“So be careful what you wish for,” Lesinski said. “We can’t beat these horses any harder.”
The Rappahannock News will have more on the supervisors’ Dec. 4 meeting in next week’s editions. A video record of the meeting can also be found online on Kaitlin Struckmann’s Rappahannock Record YouTube channel at youtube.com/channel/UCLvUPpawpHiVisnCS6XAkqA.