School budget adopted; zoning hire on horizon; courthouse purpose debated
By John McCaslin and Luke Christopher
Rappahannock News staff
The Rappahannock County Board of Supervisors tackled a lengthy agenda in regular afternoon and evening monthly meeting sessions Monday, approving a schools budget for fiscal 2018, announcing three new zoning administrator job finalists, stressing the urgency for county-owned building renovations, and debating the continued public use of an increasingly security-minded county courthouse.
The supervisors, with little debate, approved a FY18 budget for Rappahannock public schools in the amount of $12,627,610 — virtually the same budget as FY17. While there was a brief discussion to reduce school funding, Piedmont district supervisor Mike Biniek, an educator in the county, encouraged the board to “fully fund the education for these young people.”
Rappahannock County Administrator Debbie Keyser, meanwhile, announced that resumes for the top three candidates for the newly created position of zoning administrator/deputy county administrator have been forwarded to each supervisor. As early as tomorrow (Friday, May 5) the board could begin interviewing each of the finalists.
The separate zoning administrator position was created by the supervisors in order to reduce the workload in Keyser’s office, which has faced increased demands and pressures that any one person would have difficulty handling under the office’s current structure.
“We set [Debbie] up to fail during the budget season last year,” Hampton district supervisor John Lesinski acknowledged during a town hall meeting earlier this year. “And what we found out is that despite the fact that she’s working meetings in the evenings, and working on weekends, working on holidays, there’s just not enough time in the day for one individual . . . .”
Speaking of Keyser, the administrator’s tiny office is one of several on courthouse row in dire need of repair and renovation, the others being the treasurer, revenue and clerk’s offices, the courthouse, and the sheriff’s office. The supervisors agreed to create a task force to look into the structural improvements, and consult with an engineer before issuing a RFP (Request for Proposal).
As Lesinski said, the much-needed restorations cannot be delayed much longer given the rapid deterioration of the mainly brick buildings.
Much of the discussion during the afternoon and evening public comment periods surrounded the future use of the county courthouse as a public meeting space. Some residents spoke of the need to restrict access to the aging building, with one audience member reminding supervisors that there are some “nutty people” in this world.
Others argued that the public owns the courthouse and therefore citizens have a right to use it as a meeting hall, even though it’s primary purpose is for criminal court proceedings.
Walt Longyear, of the Rappahannock group Friends of Liberty, questioned the timing of the BOS courthouse agenda item, asking the supervisors “what would George Washington do” if he learned that civic groups were forbidden from gathering in a public building?
Friends of Liberty has scheduled a FOIA training session at the courthouse on May 10 at the same time that the county has been hit of late with repeated FOIA requests from citizens—which the county has complained is hampering its ability to conduct county business in a timely matter.
Indeed, only a few days prior to Monday’s meeting Longyear sent a new FOIA request to Keyser’s office, this one ironically surrounding the FOIA training session.
“Is this placed on the agenda as a result of my reserving it for an FOIA training session?” Longyear wrote to Keyser. “I would like to receive a copy of all correspondence (emails, phone calls, personal conversations, etc.) dealing with the discussion to place this item on the agenda. Please consider this to be an FOIA request.”
Keyser fired back: “The change in the courthouse has been coming for the past two years. The sheriff and I have been very concerned regarding the security of the courthouse. While we may know you, we may not know others that want to use the courthouse and we need to be consistent with all requests.
“We have far too many committee meetings in the courthouse and have been looking for other venues to hold meetings. For example, the broadband committee does not use the courthouse, but uses the library instead,” Keyser noted.
“RAAC has not been allowed the past year to continue to use the courthouse bathrooms outside of court business hours, which is why there has been so much discussion regarding the need for public restrooms.
“The judges and the court clerks fully support this change, long overdue, for the safety and concern of those that work in or near the courthouse. The Sheriff is considering other physical changes to the courthouse for additional security measures,” she said.
“Unfortunately, as seen last week, Rappahannock County is not exempt from some of the social horrors that occur,” Keyser added, referring to threats to the county high school on the anniversary of the Columbine massacre. “We are attempting to be proactive rather than reactive. Please call if you need anything else. I will review our files to address your FOIA request and be back in touch.”
During the evening session Monday, Keyser asked the supervisors if they would like her to set up a meeting with county judges and court clerks and allow them to weigh in on the matter.
“[T]he clerks certainly have some concerns about safety,” Keyser pointed out.
“I’ve never thought about the use of the courtroom before, I just took it for granted because it’s been going on for so long in this county,” Parrish replied. “I do agree the timing is terrible, that it does fall on the heels of this FOIA class that the Friends of Liberty is putting on . . .
“This room is free and that makes it enticing for people to have meetings here because the don’t have to pay anything for it,” he noted, adding that “there is court here tomorrow morning. So I could tape a knife here under the table and somebody who is on trial can reach under it and plan his escape this way.
“Somebody who is really out to get a judge just because he locks up his son for life or something like that,” the supervisor continued. Parrish said he spoke Sunday night to a judge in Fauquier County who commented that when it comes to allowing civic groups to use the courthouse Rappahannock County is “‘living in the past, this is not the ’50s anymore.’
“The bottom line is probably we should not be meeting here. This should be a courthouse for the judges use only [and] the supervisors, the planning commission, the BZA, we should all meet somewhere else,” said Parrish. “But to to make it official I would like to recommend to the county administrator to ask for the opinions of the judges and report back to us and then we can proceed with whatever route we want to take on the use of this room or this building.”
Mike Cioffi, a leader of Friends of Liberty, said in a news release: “We are trying to make it convenient for county officials and citizens to receive [FOIA] training. Plus, we are helping to save the county taxpayers’ money that would otherwise be spent on travel, lost time and other expenses in order to attend FOIA Council-sponsored training as required and authorized by state law.”
Washington Mayor John Fox Sullivan, who said he did not intend to speak at Monday’s meeting, announced that in lieu of the courthouse civic groups like Friends of Liberty are welcome to reserve the Washington Town Hall for meetings — where unlike the courthouse there are even cushions on the benches.
An unedited video of the supervisors 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. session on Monday, May 1 can be found online at rappnews.com/video, or on the newspaper’s YouTube channel at youtube.com/RappNewsPlus. The meeting agenda and related documents are online at boarddocs.com/va/corva/Board.nsf/Public.