Two supervisors opposed to bike trail slid under FOIA to discuss reallocating grant money

‘Ron Frazier instigated and participated in a secret meeting, seemingly designed to avoid the Freedom of Information Act requirements’

‘We did meet, four of us met. We met as individuals’

The 16th century phrase “No man ought to look a gift horse in the mouth” was apparently on the minds of two Rappahannock supervisors who while at the same time opposing a 1.2-mile multi-use recreational trail connecting the county’s two public schools explored shifting its earmarked funding elsewhere.

“Let me know if you are interested in meeting and we can work on scheduling. I am trying to set this up with 2 members of each body because FOIA requirements make 3 or more a ‘Public Meeting’ and would have to have notice, etc.,” Supervisor Ron Frazier wrote in a Sept. 17, 2018, email to county parks and recreation board member Torney Van Acker, copying Piedmont Supervisor Christine Smith.

Reached by telephone, Frazier confirmed that such a meeting did eventually take place, but not in his and Supervisor Smith’s official capacities as members of the BOS.

“We did meet, four of us met. We met as individuals,” stressed the Jackson district supervisor, referring to himself, Smith, Van Acker, and Ruth Ann Welch of the Rappahannock County Recreational Facilities Authority board, the latter serving as the park board’s FOIA representative.

Specifically, Frazier said the two supervisors sought to find out whether a $150,000 grant awarded by the Warrenton-based PATH Foundation to the Rappahannock Trails Coalition, earmarked for construction of the “Schools Connector” trail, could instead be used, as Frazier proposed in his email, by Rappahannock County’s public park on highway 211 at Warren Avenue, adjacent to the town of Washington.

In his email to Van Acker, obtained by this newspaper, Frazier wrote: “I appreciate you speaking out at the 5 Sept. meeting at the high school and your email about re-purposing the PATH monies for work elsewhere, like the Park maybe?

“I wonder if you would be available to meet supervisor Smith and myself about this and Ms. Welch from your Park & Rec Board as well? If so, perhaps you could forward this email to her and I will try to reach her through Facebook messages.”

Frazier observed in the email, slugged “meet up,” that there were “quite a few speakers at the high school meeting that did not want the bike trail as proposed but did want improvements and upgrades at the Park. I believe with the current Board you and Ruth serve on, with funding you could accomplish much.”

Upon consultation with the two park and rec board members, Frazier told the News, it was determined that the PATH grant could not be reallocated for county use.

Van Acker, in a telephone interview this week, confirmed that any redirection of the PATH money is “a dead end street.”

“We cannot transfer [the PATH] funds for the park,” he said.

The park and rec member said he agreed to meet with the two supervisors in hopes it would help heal “emotional wounds in the county” caused by the bike trail proposal — to “smooth the waters” and discuss “other options available to us,” he explained.

Van Acker then stressed: “Whatever was discussed with Ron Frazier was discussed not from the [park and recreation] board’s perspective of the park, but as concerned private citizens worried about the bike path being a divisive issue.”

RappTrails’ organizer Jane Whitfield, reached this week about Frazier’s email, reacted: “It is disheartening to learn that my own supervisor Ron Frazier instigated and participated in a secret meeting, seemingly designed to avoid the Freedom of Information Act [FOIA] requirements.

“And it’s perhaps even sadder that Christine Smith, Ruth Welch, and Torney Van Acker joined in,” Whitfield said. “We now have four public officials who have met and talked behind the scenes about reallocating a grant made to the county for a school-supported project.”

She was referring to Rappahannock County Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Shannon Grimsley and the School Board fully supporting the Schools Connector trail as a student safety and security mechanism.

RappTrails originally applied for the PATH grant under its fiscal sponsorship with the Rappahannock League for Environmental Protection (RLEP). Whitfield said she personally wrote the grant and met with PATH to see it to fruition.

While PATH awarded the grant to RappTrails, Whitfield asked that it “go directly to the county in an effort to mitigate concerns that RappTrails would somehow keep the money or not make it available.”

Former longtime Rappahannock County Administrator John McCarthy, now chair of the PATH Foundation, said in awarding the $150,000 gift: “The Path Foundation is very happy to support this community-based effort to provide a safe and convenient recreational trail that will enhance the health and fitness of all Rappahannock residents and visitors, and connect important community assets in the center of the county, and eventually, other parts of the county.”

The Schools Connector was intended as the first phase of a proposed 6-mile multi-use recreational trail linking Sperryville and Washington. To pay for it, in addition to the PATH grant and private donations, the state Commonwealth Transportation Board by unanimous vote approved a grant of $815,871 to fund 80 percent of the path.

But in a late-night 3-2 vote at their regular monthly meeting last week, Supervisors Frazier, Smith and BOS chairman Roger Welch voted to reject the state funding, hours after Welch commented, “What’s the rush to kill the project?”

Welch was referring to a last-minute resolution put forward by Supervisor Smith to decline the $815,871 in state funding. The chairman was arguably swayed during the lengthy public comment period, when a majority of speakers in the high school auditorium rallied against the Schools Connector for a host of stated reasons, from private property and environmental impacts to no letter of credit or other surety from RappTrails.

Asked to comment on meeting privately with park and rec board members, Smith told the News by email Tuesday: “I took the meeting as a courtesy, and was the last one to commit. To my mind, it was a chance to sit down, discuss without a set agenda, and dial-down the acrimony associated with the project.

“While it is true that the [$815,871] TAP grant is not transferable within the county at this time, TAP grants are awarded on a two-year cycle. Should a sound project develop in the future, we can always apply again,” Smith said, referring to the funding awarded to RappTrails through the state Transportation Alternatives Program (TAP), which encompasses a variety of smaller-scale, non-traditional transportation projects.

Frazier, meanwhile, told this newspaper that the county park — which features a picnic pavilion, basketball and tennis courts, skateboard ramps, workout stations, a new shuffleboard court, a forested path along the adjacent Rush River, and plans for disc golf and corn hole — “needs funds.”

“There is so much need in the county,” he said further, providing as an example Rappahannock’s volunteer fire and rescue companies.

Frazier, who is Rappahannock’s longest serving supervisor, frequently expresses strong views about the BOS adhering to rules and procedure. In a profile in this newspaper last year, Frazier described his board as “too lax” in the way it operates, which he said has led to lawsuits being filed against certain BOS members for not following mandatory FOIA procedures.

“The rules are in place, they are just not following them. That’s what led to this whole mess we are in with FOIA and everything else,” Frazier said. “The supervisors won’t read the statutes . . . You have to make them do it by dragging them around kicking and screaming.”

Frazier said this past week that better internal communication is needed by the board as a whole, which would help bridge a divided BOS and community alike.

Said Whitfield: “If we really want to come together as a community, then working openly, honestly and transparently is the only way to create trust and avoid misinformation.”

About John McCaslin 340 Articles
John McCaslin is the editor of the Rappahannock News. Email him at editor@rappnews.com.

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