Several critics of the town of Washington say the town’s council broke at least one state law in the summer of 2013 when it voted to contribute $20,000 to a effort by the Inn at Little Washington to improve the Trinity Episcopal Church parking lot.
Town officials, including Mayor John Sullivan, say they broke no laws, and that none of the decisions made to assist in improving the Trinity parking lot — or in vacating the stub end of Middle Street that continues west of Main Street to provide access to the rear of the Krebser office building the Inn owns on the southwest corner — were made in anything other than a “entirely public, open way.”
The critics’ vocal town-centered objections have appeared online over the past year or so, or more specifically and least civilly on the email list-serv known as Rappnet, as well as in the pages of this newspaper. They most often focus on what the critics see as town officials’ overly cozy relationship with the Inn, Rappahannock County’s most successful private business, whose owner Patrick O’Connell also serves on the council, and more recently with such other developers as White Moose Inn owner Jim Abdo.
Over the last month, frequent Rappnet contributor Ben Jones, the actor and former congressman who most recently had been leading an informal (and thus far unsuccessful) campaign to have the town’s charter revoked, focused on the Trinity parking lot improvements. The lot improvements were part of an Inn-funded, reportedly $160,000-to-$180,000 project to resurface the lot and sidewalks along Middle and Main Streets, and (pending still-underway negotiations with the postal service) similar improvements at the stub end of Middle Street.
Jones’ column on the subject, along with the claim that by donating to the project the town violated the restrictions in Virginia state law against public bodies disbursing funds to churches or religious organizations, is here.
Another familiar Rappnet voice, attorney and county Board of Zoning Appeals member David Konick, has spent the last week requesting documents from Sullivan and the town, including the copy of the July 2013 resolution approved by the council — following a public hearing at which no one objected to the action — to vacate the end of Middle Street.
Konick, who agrees with Jones that the town broke the law because the money it contributed to the Inn’s project went, in part, to improvements of real estate owned by the church, said Tuesday by phone that the transfer of the 217-foot Middle Street stub, which is surrounded on three sides by Inn-owned properties, also “has serious legal issues.”
Konick said the town had provided all the documents he’d requested, but that it was still working on his request for emails related to the parking lot and stub street transactions. Although Konick didn’t specifically mention the issue, others (again, on Rappnet) have questioned the transparency of the town’s decision-making process leading up to its June and July actions.
Asked if any legal action were planned, Konick (who most recently successfully litigated a Virginia Freedom of Information Act petition against the school board concerning its cell tower lease negotiations) said on Wednesday: “. . . I say let’s give the town the benefit of the doubt for now and assume they acted in good faith with the best interests of the town in mind without realizing their action might be in violation of applicable law. Now that they are aware of some of the legal issues involved, let’s give them a chance to take responsibility for the oversight without any threats of litigation, and hope all parties will take appropriate action.”
Konick said that would specifically involve: the town rescinding its July 2013 resolution, the Inn refunding the town’s $20,000; and the Inn conveying the Middle Street stub back to the town.
Told of Konick’s comment, Sullivan said: “I don’t have anything to say to that.”
“The church never received any money,” said town attorney John Bennett. “There were improvements done to property owned by the church. However, the Inn secured a legal easement to use that property.”
Bennett was referring to an easement for pedestrian access between the main Inn restaurant, on the north side of Middle Street, and its newest accommodations in the Parsonage, formerly known as Clopton House, south of the Trinity parking lot, as well as to a separate agreement — “put into writing, after a long period of being an informal agreement” — that the Inn and the church entered, also in the summer of 2013, that allows the Inn to use the church lot for parking, primarily in the evenings.
Inn attorney David Fiske confirmed Wednesday that the Inn has both such agreements with the church in writing.
“The contribution that the town made,” Bennett said, “was to the public purpose of beautifying and enhancing what some may call one of the more important intersections in the town. And also to further the main economic engine of the town, in this case, the Inn.
“And I should say that this contribution [by the town], in relation to the tax revenues that had been and are generated by the Inn, are miniscule,” Bennett said. “As you know, it’s not uncommon for governments to offer incentives. In Culpeper, the county gave over a million dollars in tax credits years ago to get Lowes to open a store. In this case, the incentive was for an established business.”
“You could certainly say there was a very public process that involved multiple meetings of the town council,” said the Inn’s Fiske. “They were advertised. I am not aware that the people who are making these allegations were there, or were part of the process. To suggest the town, its attorney, the church, its attorney, and the Inn, and its attorney, all participated in some wrongdoing, with no suggestion of facts to back that up, it’s just . . . it’s just irresponsible,” Fiske said.
Sullivan listed a similar group of those involved in the 2013 project, adding the vestry at Trinity (where he is a parishioner) and County Administrator John McCarthy, who helped coordinate with the Virginia Department of Transportation.
“If there is a conspiracy,” he said, “it involved all those people I just listed.”
“No one has accused anyone of being in any conspiracy,” Konick said. “They either violated the law or they didn’t by appropriating money that was specified for the benefit of a church or sectarian organization. The pertinent facts are all set forth in the legal advertisement and the town council’s minutes.”
Jones and Konick maintain that the town, willingly or otherwise, violated the law, either by appropriating public funds to a church, or improperly to a private entity “to whom they’re not authorized to give money,” Konick said, meaning the Inn.
Konick said there’s a distinction between the Inn and the private companies and vendors paid monthly by the town for various contracted services. “Those payments are for town-owned properties or services. That’s the difference. This is not a town-owned property.
“What about Ken Thompson?” Konick added, referring to the owner of the Kramer building on Gay Street. “He beautified the ugly old [loading dock] behind the building and turned it into a beautiful, attractive patio for his restaurant. Why don’t they give Ken Thompson $20,000?”