Efforts made two years ago to beautify the “town square” of Washington have landed the town, and its chief tourist attraction, in court.
In a civil complaint filed in Rappahannock County Circuit Court last Friday (March 20), lawyer and one-time town zoning administrator David Konick claims the town violated state laws governing church-state separation when it appropriated $20,000 toward the Inn at Little Washington’s $180,000 project to renovate the square — the intersection of Main and Middle streets — which included renovating and repairing the parking lot that the Inn leases from Trinity Episcopal Church.
The lawsuit seeks no monetary damages but asks the court to essentially invalidate the town’s 2013 actions — and for the Inn to return the $20,000 and the 171-foot stub end of Middle Street west of Main Street deeded from the town to the Inn. Konick further alleges that council member Patrick O’Connell, the Inn’s proprietor and chef, violated state procurement and conflict-of-interest laws governing the actions of public officials whose private interests may be affected by a governing body’s actions.
The suit names the town, O’Connell and the Inn at Little Washington LLC as respondents. Town attorney John Bennett and Inn attorney David Fiske declined to comment on the litigation when asked this week, except to say that the complaint was received and, as Bennett put it, “we are reviewing what the proper response would be.”
The defendants have three weeks to respond. The town council’s next regular meeting is just over two weeks away, on April 13.
In an email on Friday, Konick said he filed the suit because the town — whose Mayor John Fox Sullivan announced at the council’s last regular meeting that all the council’s actions in 2013 were being reviewed and would be undone or redone to comply with the law — had not scheduled a special meeting as Konick says he recommended in a meeting with Bennett, to begin that process.
“In contrast to 2013 when the Town Council arranged a special meeting for the Inn’s benefit in order to railroad through the vacation and abandonment of Middle Street, Mayor Sullivan and the town attorney ignored my suggestion to schedule a special meeting to rescind these obviously unlawful actions,” Konick wrote.
In the same email, Konick said he was taking such legal action “in memory of Newbill Miller” — the late former county supervisor chairman who also served as mayor of Washington in the early 1980s, when Konick was its zoning administrator.
It was a time marked by fractious relations between the town and the Inn, a period during which the Inn’s O’Connell and his former partner Reinhardt Lynch filed lawsuits of their own against the town. Some have privately cited the era’s arguments to question Konick’s motives, Konick said.
“People keep saying I have some kind of vendetta,” he said by phone Wednesday. “I don’t. I operate on the principle laid down by Teddy Roosevelt: ‘No man is above the law and no man beneath it, nor do we ask any man’s permission when we demand that he obey it.’ ”
Meanwhile, John and Diane MacPherson, proprietors of the Foster Harris House, a B&B and small restaurant at the other end of town, began last week circulating a petition, both door-to-door and online, to urge the town to do what’s necessary to continue the town-square beautification project. “While objections to the project have been raised based largely on incorrect procedure,” the petition says, “we believe the town council has the best interest of its citizens in mind on this issue and the completed project will benefit the entire community.”
John MacPherson said Tuesday more than 100 signatures had been collected so far for the “obviously non-binding” petition, which the couple said they’d taken up because “it just seemed like the right thing to do — and to sit back do nothing seemed wrong.” (To reach the petition online, visit ipetitions.com and search for “beautification.”)
Among the few comments made by online signers was one that said: “I wholeheartedly agree with this petition and the desire to not squander precious resources on a legal proceeding which will not beautify anything. I believe the uproar over this matter is remarkably overblown and disproportionate to the asserted infraction.”