Letter: Democracy in action, Rapp style

Last week’s Rappahannock News article raised more questions than it answered. Here is what we were told: The Washington Town Council scheduled a public hearing on a special-use permit in June which was postponed until July, at which point it was postponed until August, at which time it was postponed until September. The reasons given for this cavalier disregard of the taxpayers’ time and money was that the applicants were on vacation and that they were confused about the application.

During the meeting, several citizens informed the council that there are some problems with the public perception of their civic trust. One, who had previously “championed” the council’s transparency, told the body that “there is now some conversation in town about . . . whether or not the council can be trusted, and whether its processes are up front. Because a critical issue has been continued, by my count, for three months.”

A former council member said, “All of the people out there . . . have been saying awful things about this council, worse than any of the councils I sat on . . . and some pretty bad things were said about us, that ‘only this many people voted in the election,’ and ‘the town ought to use their charter,’ and it’s ‘this closed little group that’s running the town.’ ”

Perhaps he meant, “the town ought to lose their charter.” That would make more sense.

Mr. Patrick O’Connell, a member of the council, sprang to its defense in a classic “Let them eat cake” response to its critics. “The viciousness that these kind of things bring out are disturbing, and make this community lose a great deal of its soul.”

The story implied that Mr. O’Connell had stormy relations with previous town councils, and O’Connell, in defending the postponements, said, “Yes, we call it neighborliness. But there was a time when people were punished, both by the council and the ARB [Architectural Review Board], and that’s how you got even with your enemies.”

Well, driving through town, it looks to me like O’Connell did pretty well for himself, despite feeling “punished.” And opinions certainly differ on what has made “this community lose a great deal of its soul.” To many of us, it is beginning to look like a “Main Street, USA” theme park, without the children, of course.

Then there was the “neighborliness” of the council when, in the middle of a “special use permit” hearing last year involving the Mount Salem schoolhouse, Mayor John Sullivan and council member Dan Spethmann announced that they were recusing themselves in order to make a counter offer on the property. The mayor and some of his friends opposed an “affordable housing” project at the location, and that was their solution. It was not very neighborly.

And was it “neighborly” for Mr. O’Connell to force the current occupants of Stonyman Gourmet out of their location despite the verbal understanding they had to buy the property? In Rappahannock County, handshake agreements mean something. They are a traditional, “neighborly” way of doing business.

There was also the “neighborliness” we experienced at the recent “town forum,” when after listening to Sullivan and developer Jim Abdo for about 45 minutes, I was given three minutes to express my serious concerns about the project now before the council. I could hardly complete a sentence without being booed or interrupted, and told I was out of line by strangers and newcomers. And I got some of the nastiest e-mails I’ve ever received. Viciousness? Oh, yeah.

I don’t need any lectures about neighborliness.

The first rule of ethics in government is that those elected must avoid “even the appearance of impropriety.” In my opinion, this council has fallen far short of that standard.

Ben Jones

Editor’s Note: The quote, “the town ought to lose their charter” incorrectly became “the town ought to use their charter” during the editing process. This is the same editing process that is normally meant to prevent, rather than cause, such things from happening.