How to behave and dress as an elected or appointed county official; and how to appeal real estate reassessments one feels were unjustly high, were among items reviewed at a January 31st work session of the Warren County Board of Supervisors. Also on the agenda were scheduled Capital Improvement Projects (CIPs) over the next six years at the County-overseen Front Royal Airport (FRR). Prominent in that presentation by Public Works Director Mike Berry was a chart illustrating which projects would be eligible for potentially large infusions of federal and/or state funding – the answer being all but one of 13 listed projects.
With a February 3rd deadline to file appeals on real estate reassessments looming the most pressing of these issues, at least for landowners, may have been notice of the February 3rd filing deadline along with relevant information to present to the appeals board when one’s hearing is scheduled. It was also noted that those reassessment appeals hearings are slated to be completed by February 17th. That deadline is to help the supervisors have final numbers upon which to base the legally required resetting of an “equalized” real estate tax rate for the coming fiscal year. As previously reported, when real estate reassessments result in a greater than one-percent increase in municipal real estate tax revenue, a public hearing must be held to determine at what tax rate revenue would become “equalized” to what it was prior to the reassessment. The current Warren County real estate tax rate is 65.5 cents per $100 of assessed value. New assessments have been cited by some county staff in the +40% to +60% range from previous levels.
Any increase in county government revenue from the equalization number the board resets the real estate tax rate at is treated as a tax increase. And if there is one thing the current county board majority has made clear, it is that they are not prone to raise taxes, increased public service costs due to soaring national and global inflation rates or not.
Code of What Conduct?
Which perhaps gives us a nice segue into that “how to behave” work session topic – a Code of Conduct to be adopted by the board for its own membership, and one for its appointed boards, commissions, and committees. The agenda item was presented by County Administrator Ed Daley. He noted those drafts were based largely on a Manassas City Council Code of Conduct included in the agenda packet. A number of other Virginia municipalities’ codes were also included for review by board members. Daley told the board they could tweak and approve the drafts as separate items or consolidate them into one with wording changes noting the single code applied to the supervisors, their appointed boards, commissions, and committees, as well as employees, if so desired.
The overall intent of the recommended Code of Conduct appears positive – its “Introduction” straight out of the Manassas City Code of Conduct states: “The intent of the Code of Conduct is to encourage fair, ethical, and accountable local government in the County of Warren, Virginia. The community expects its elected officials, specifically the Board of Supervisors, to be objective, and thoughtful in their judgement and actions and to conduct County business openly and in an atmosphere of respect and civility …” It continues to note an expectation that public officials “comply with both the letter and spirit of the laws of” the nation, the state, and adopted municipal codes and policies.
Mixed Message: Full Understanding but No Questioning?
However, one of the numbered Code of Conduct categories attracted our attention. That was number 5 in both the elected and appointed board drafts under consideration for approval by the supervisors, perhaps as soon as their next meeting of February 7th. It reads in its entirety below with portions that attracted our attention underlined:
“The professional and personal conduct of the Board of Supervisors/Members (of appointed bodies) must be above reproach and avoid even the appearance of impropriety. Members shall refrain from abusive conduct, personal charges, or verbal attacks upon the character or motives of the other members of the board/commission/committee, elected officials, County staff, or the general public.”
Being taken under consideration immediately after a discussion of an agenda item that will be before the supervisors at their February 7th meeting concerning “Board Goals” for the coming year, including gaining an “understanding of the full extent” of the FR-WC EDA financial scandal and its numbers, we wondered how such a full understanding might now be achieved, or for that matter ever have been uncovered, if “personal charges … upon the character or motives of other members, elected officials, County staff, or the public” were to be prohibited then or now.
As a reminder, the circa 2014-2018 then joint Town-County EDA financial scandal alleged an estimated $26 million in FR-WC EDA, County, and Town assets moved to personal benefit by former EDA Executive Director Jennifer McDonald and believed co-conspirators in the public and private sectors. McDonald made an out-of-court, no-fault settlement for the transfer of an estimated $9-million in real estate assets to the EDA. She is still facing trial on multiple related criminal charges in federal court in the Southern District of Virginia (Harrisonburg) now scheduled for May. In civil trials of alleged co-conspirators last summer, jury liability verdicts were handed down against five people and two companies totaling just over $15.1 million, raising the total of assets recovered, at least on paper, by the EDA to just over $24.1 million.
Judge notifies involved parties of denial of all defense motions to overturn jury verdicts in EDA civil liability cases
In introducing the Code of Conduct discussion County Administrator Daley observed, “The board had discussed in Closed Session some concerns that they had for the actions and statements of some people representing portions of the County in terms of boards and commissions. And upon the recommendation of your attorney, it was felt that we should have a Code of Conduct as to what the board expected for the behavior of their representatives.”
Questions OK, but watch how phrased
We initially contacted Daley about the seeming paradox of seeking full understanding of situations like the EDA financial scandal but limiting “personal charges … upon the character or motives of other members, elected officials, County staff, or the public.” Daley said he believed the intent was not to limit questions being asked about questionable situations, but rather to control the public tone of that questioning as reflected in the wording of “refrain from abusive conduct … or verbal attacks” regarding such questioning. If the draft code needed some tweaking with legal counsel to assure that legitimate public questioning presented in an approved manner were not prohibited, that could be addressed prior to a board vote to approve a final draft, Daley reasoned. Presentation of a Code of Conduct was cited as one of a 20-item Consent Agenda in the cover sheet for the 7 p.m., February 7th board of supervisors meeting.
Upon reading referenced Code of Conduct point 5, we flashed back to appearances of Shenandoah Farms Sanitary District Advisory Committee (SFSDAC) Chairman Sarah Saber, most recently at the January 17th supervisors meeting. At that time Saber followed a non-County-appointed citizen, Property Owners of Shenandoah Farms (POSF) Chairman Tracie Lane to the Public Comments podium. Lane was critical first, of the board’s lack of responses to her requests for meetings to re-establish dialogue between POSF, the former Sanitary District management entity (1995/96 to 2011) and later advisory board to the supervisors on Farms Sanitary District matters (2011 to 2022); and second, on specific questions concerning County use of Farms Sanitary District tax revenue. She also challenged board comments indicating a failure on her part to respond to a request for a list of POSF-owned “Common Properties” for public use in the Farms. She said she had a copy of her response with the linked information and board recipient list. Saber continued that criticism on points she has previously raised, also on non-responsiveness by the board to specific questions on past County use of Farms Sanitary District tax revenue, among other Farms infrastructure decision-making issues by this board and involved County staff.
“The fact that you all are unwilling to answer questions is reprehensible. It is disgusting. And it speaks of an absolute disregard of any citizen requests; and partnerships with citizen advisory boards; any transparency. It speaks volumes,” Saber concluded as her time expired drawing scattered applause from some citizens present and a warning by Board Chairman Vicky Cook against demonstrations of support for speakers.
Public Hearing speakers raise issues on Shenandoah Farms Sanitary District management and tax revenue usage
One might recall that previous public comments by Saber on problems she has had getting responses from the Board’s Farms Advisory Committee representative Walt Mabe, and others, to questions she believes are crucial to doing the job she and her fellow committee members were appointed to do, have been even more scathing and occasionally expletive not-deleted.
So, will an approved County Code of Conduct encourage more politely phrased exchanges resulting in improved communications between the supervisors, appointees, and citizens seeking answers to questions relevant to their positions and perspectives?
And will a finally drafted Code of Conduct encourage the kind of “fair, ethical, and accountable local government” cited as a desired outcome of a County Code of Conduct? For it is there, particularly regarding financial “accountability” that some, like POSF Chairman Lane and current County Farms Advisory Committee Chairman Saber, have cited examples they believe indicate the supervisors and involved staff have fallen short on over the past three years.
For if at Daley’s referenced Closed Session, verified as the January 17th one initially called as a later cancelled joint meeting with the Shenandoah Farms Sanitary District Advisory Committee, board concerns were raised about “the actions and statements of some people representing portions of the County in terms of boards and commissions”, as one can see from the above-cited Public Comments, some involved citizens have similar concerns about the actions of, and a perceived lack of responsiveness and accountability, from their elected representatives.
As of publication Town-County contracted meeting filming entity Swagit had yet to post the January 31st work session video, according to County Clerk Emily Ciarrocchi due to GB (Gigga-Byte I believe) sizing issues with the video. From our audio recording of the work session, we would estimate that if and when posted, the Code of Conduct discussion will begin shortly after the half-hour mark of the video; and the assessment and appeals discussion shortly after the 40-minute mark. The airport CIP discussion opens the work session.