Legal defense, cell towers, county staff, tourism, fire and rescue issues among comments at ‘outreach session’
More than 50 citizens attended Monday night’s Hampton district “outreach” session, hosted at the Washington fire hall by the Rappahannock County Board of Supervisors. For more than 90 minutes, the supervisors were alternately questioned, criticized and encouraged.
Seated in chairs up front, with neither a table nor an agenda to protect them, four of the county’s five supervisors (Chris Parrish of Stonewall-Hawthorne district was unable to attend) fielded questions and comments from 15 of the attendees on: legal defense funds, cell towers, the role of county staff, tourism, volunteer fire and rescue issues and zoning. With microphones and a speaker available for the board members and the public, the comments and the supervisors’ responses were easy to hear, if not summarize.
“This has been a great meeting,” said Pat Davis, a longtime Harris Hollow resident, near the close of the session.
“This should be a regular event,” said Demaris Miller near the start, urging the board to follow up on the idea, expressed by Hampton district supervisor John Lesinski, to hold such sessions quarterly in each of the county’s five electoral districts.
Legal defense (and attorneys)
Page Glennie of Amissville, a frequent speaker at supervisors’ regular sessions over the last year, said he supported the idea of the county offering legal protection for its officials and staff. The board plans to allocate $100,000 this year, in light of recent litigation (including a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the board due in court after Thanksgiving), for that reason. But, Glennie added, he believes that if a defendant loses a court challenge, he or she should reimburse the county.
“Once a court has ruled against them, the taxpayers should not be responsible,” Glennie said. He asked each supervisor present — Lesinski, board chair Roger Welch of Wakefield district, Piedmont supervisor Mike Biniek and Jackson district’s Ron Frazier — to “state for the record” that they would refund the legal expenses if they lost the current suit, brought by Marian Bragg of Sperryville and attorney David Konick, who allege the board and four of its members ignored FOIA rules in recent closed-session discussions to find a replacement for retiring County Attorney Peter Luke.
“Well I won’t, I wouldn’t do that,” said Lesinski, “and I wouldn’t ask anybody else who wanted to either run for office or be appointed to a board to roll the dice . . . unless it was something along the lines of willful or gross negligence, or if it’s fraud, or something along those lines. . . . I don’t think that’s wise.”
“I happen to agree with Mr. Glennie,” said Frazier — who was removed as an individual defendant from the lawsuit after he signed an acknowledgement that the board indeed violated FOIA. “I have lived here full-time for 34 years. This is the first time in my knowledge that the county has tried to create something like this fund. . . . We’ve got sovereign immunity, and if we do our job properly, we can’t be held accountable in a lawsuit. What this fund is basically to support people who don’t do their jobs properly.”
Welch and Biniek said they agreed with Lesinski. Not defending employees, elected officials and appointees would inhibit “those who wanted to run for this board, or be appointed to serve.” Biniek said he knew of a case in Pennsylvania in which members of the local governing body were sued “for millions of dollars” by a large farming corporation that had been denied permits to build a new facility. “Who’d want to do that job if they face that kind of attack?” Biniek said. “Most of us don’t make that kind of money.”
Demaris Miller asked the supervisors about a plan mentioned publicly by at least one supervisor (Parrish) this summer of combining the county attorney’s job with that of a zoning administrator — zoning administration being now part of the County Administrator Debbie Keyser’s job description, as it was for her longtime predecessor John McCarthy.
“How is that going to work?” she asked.
Lesinski said that the supervisors had made the decision not to combine the attorney and zoning administrator positions. The board early this month appointed Commonwealth’s Attorney Art Goff to be Luke’s deputy (in light of the pending suit, since Luke might have to testify), and several members suggested that if it worked out having the commonwealth’s attorney also serve as county attorney — something Luke in fact did for almost 30 years — the board would consider continuing that arrangement after Luke retires (tentatively at the end of December).
Cell service (and attorneys)
Cynthia Price of Sperryville, who speaks frequently at supervisors’ and other meetings on the potentially dangerous effect of cellphone and other radio signals on public health, asked the board why they had hired Goff, after she had suggested at several recent sessions that the next county attorney be versed in the health issues associated with technology — “unless you just ignored my comments.”
“I’m not downgrading the importance of the issue,” said Frazier, “but he [Luke] was correct when he advised us that there’s not a whole lot localities can do” about cell tower permits. “Our approval for a cell tower has to be on basically asthetics — it can’t be on the technology, whether it’s dangerous or not,” Frazier said, citing the requirements of the federal telecommunications act.
“Unless we have something like fiber,” she said. “Which gives everybody good phone, good internet, good television . . .”
“We’re not opposed to that coming in,” Frazier said, “but there’s not much of a way we can force someone to bring that in.”
Lesinski said he remained hopeful that the board’s broadband committee — recently approved, but yet to be populated — would look at “all technologies.”
Growth and tourism
Phil Irwin of Flint Hill, founder of the Rappahannock League for Environmental Protection and a frequent presence at supervisors, planning commission, town council and other meetings, said he came to Rappahannock 56 years ago because he “thought it would be the last place to develop — and sure enough, it has been the last place to develop.”
Surrounding counties, with their access to interstate highways, navigable waterways and rail lines, “are consigned to growth — there’s no way around it. Growth is inevitable. Rappahannock County is going to grow, but it’s a question of how it is going to grow,” Irwin said.
“Your predecessors in your offices have been responsible that we had someplace to respect and protect,” Irwin said, noting that the county’s comprehensive plan becomes more important. “It is responsible for keeping this county the way most of us found it, the way most of us would like to leave it for our future generations, and the way the people who were born here want to stay here,” Irwin said. “A lot of people are buying land in Rappahannock County now and mismanaging it, or not managing it at all.”
Fire and rescue (and attorneys)
Jason Pickett, a member of the Amissville Volunteer Fire and Rescue company, took the supervisors to task for “failing, for over a year, to do anything about” issues with the county’s EMS Cost Recovery ordinance — issues that cost the Amissville company some $40,000 in reimbursements that the county decided in January of this year to return to Medicare and other insurers. The funds had been collected, through the Cost Recovery program, from the insurance companies of those requiring ambulance transports, but then the supervisors voted to return them since the ordinance prohibited recovering these insurance payments from out-of-county residents (and the program administrators had collected them anyway, especially for the Amissville company that responds at least half the time to calls in Culpeper County).
Pickett, and then Stephani Atkins of the Flint Hill Volunteer Fire and Rescue company, criticized Luke (who was not present Monday) and to some extent Keyser for not pressing to solve the problem, which Keyser said was delayed in part by Luke and she being unable to pin down Culpeper County officials on a “mutual aid agreement” — something the EMS Cost Recovery ordinance requires be in place before reimbursements for out-of-county calls can be submitted to insurance companies.
Atkins also questioned Luke for working on the mutual aid agreements without the input of the fire and rescue association or representatives of the county’s seven all-volunteer fire and rescue departments.
“It was Mr. Luke’s opinion that he needed to talk to Culpeper County and see what they felt,” Keyser said. “There was never any intention to exclude the fire companies, they will be included. . . . he was doing some homework, but there will never be a final decision without the input of all the fire and rescue companies.”
Tourism (and attorneys)
Lynn Sullivan asked the supervisors that they look more seriously into having “some kind of plan” to bring more tourism business to the county — and also asked Frazier to speak about whether he’d been having “frequent conversations” with Konick about the FOIA lawsuit he is pursuing on Bragg’s behalf against the county. (Keyser had announced before the meeting that no discussions of the suit would happen at the meeting.)
“Unfortunately we have a small county here,” said Frazier. “And I am working with Mr. Konick in a somewhat abstract manner on the zoning amendments that the planning commission is working on right now and which will have to go to the board of supervisors. It’s a difficult position to be in, because I do have to work with Mr. Konick now.
“What I keep referring to when I ask who is running the county,” Frazier said, referring to his frequently expressed opinion that the board’s agenda and considerations are being forced on them by Keyser and Luke. “I honestly have no idea who is running the county,” he added.
“You are,” said Sullivan.
Lesinski and Biniek expressed support for a tourism plan, but, like Frazier, pointed out that the county had other funding priorities at the moment, including solving its zoning enforcement and fire and rescue issues. “Also,” Biniek said, “it’s hard to ask for public support of what are essentially private businesses.”
“We only do have a certain amount of time to deal with important issues, like fire and rescue, and hiring a new county attorney,” said Lesinski. “We have to talk about whether or not the county administrator needs some help — because the county administrator has a lot on her plate right now.
“One of the criteria we looked at in hiring a new county attorney afforded us the opportunity to possibly look at some help for the administrator,” Lesinski said. “And I think that tourism would be one of those things that an assistant to the county administrator could look at. . . . Because we do have distractions — we’ve got a lot that takes away from our time to do what we were elected to do. I refer to legal matters, primarily.”
Speaking of legal matters
Washington Town Council member Gary Aichele rose to express support for the supervisors. “Citizens of the county elect you, you’re all good people, I know you are dedicated, committed. I can’t imagine how the number of hours you spend. . . . I also know it’s a lot easier to take shots at you than it is to actually do the job you do.
“I just want to say thank you for your service, all of you, your energy and your dedication,” Aichele said. I also want to caution you about exposing yourselves individually to liability. I’m a recovering attorney, I used to be a lawyer in the commonwealth of Virginia. . . . I have a little recent experience with personal liability. There is no public servant . . . who should have to be personally exposed to having their family, their livelihood, be put at risk simply because in this great land of ours, anybody can sue anybody anytime they want for any reason they want, as long as they can pay the filing fee.”
Bill Dietel of Flint Hill rose to support the supervisors — and their staff.
“You cannot, in the 21st century, expect what are essentially volunteers to run an organization that deals with problems that their parents never dreamed of,” said Dietel. “It doesn’t get us very far, in my opinion, to attack the board of supervisors. More to the point, try to get us all together to recognize that we need to know more about these problems, to recognize that many of the issues discussed this evening have been wrestled with by other communities across the United States.
“This isn’t rocket science — this isn’t peculiar to Rappahannock County,” Dietel said. “But do they have the time to research such issues? It’s an insult to ask them to ask them to do what they need professional assistance for. Knowledge is there, experience is there — but it takes time and effort to gather it together, to analyze it, so they can act on it.
“They can’t act without information. . . . There’s nothing wrong with the board of supervisors that some better assistance wouldn’t cure. And we do a great disservice to our new county administrator not to provide her with the assistance that she needs to get her job done. To hold her up to public attack, instead of recognize the adverse conditions under which she works, that gets us nowhere.
“This is a remarkable community,” Dietel said. “People in the 1960s began the protection of this land, the protection of agriculture. We have a great responsibility to carry that out. But change is coming — and we can channel that, guide that. But it’s going to take a community willing to pull together, rather than attack one other.”
Dietel’s comments garnered the loudest, longest applause of the evening.
Pat Lawlor of Flint Hill made an emotional plea to the crowd, as the evening wound down, to “go to your fire departments, go to your rescue squads” and get to know the volunteers.
“You need to go there and ask, ‘How are you doing, what do you need?’ ” Lawlor said.
“And we’ve got to have communications for emergency services,” Lawlor said. “You can’t keep playing the game, saying it’s going to make the county look ugly. How ugly is the county going to look if you have people needing help, and no one responds?”
He agreed that county residents needed to come together — but first to “find a place to put up one cell tower, that would increase the coverage in the county from its current 40 to 50 percent to closer to 100 percent.”
Applause greeted Lawlor’s comments as well.