Council mulling reimbursements

FRONT ROYAL – Town Council reached no resolution this week on how it should check members’ reimbursement requests.

Council does not currently police the process, has no written rules and members usually submit itemized reimbursement requests for mileage, meals, hotel stays and parking after they attend conferences and other out-of-town events.

That practice might change following a dispute between two councilmen that arose shortly after members attended the Virginia Municipal League conference in Roanoke in early October.

Council discussed the matter at a work session Monday night following its regular meeting. Mayor Timothy Darr began the discussion and suggested that members could adopt an ordinance that would set up a reimbursement process. Council then could vote as a body to approve the reimbursement requests and pay them through the council’s budget line item set aside for the conference.

“There’s never been a need for that issue,” Darr said. “Apparently it’s always been self-policed and, from my recollection, always been done accurately, never no questions. This is the first time we had a question. I think it’s a legitimate question.”

Vice Mayor N. Shae Parker, who filed a complaint over Councilman Thomas H. Sayre’s reimbursement request, said he was not interested in looking at a “criminal element” with the matter.

“If council feels that this is acceptable, then so be it,” Parker said. “I think it’s unethical. I think it may be accepted in the private business world, but the public sector this is just … .”

Darr reminded members that Front Royal officials such as the town manager or clerk work for council and do not have the authority to approve or deny members’ requests.

But, as Darr noted, council had no formal action to take unless members wanted to send the matter to the Warren County commonwealth’s attorney. Council could put the matter on the agenda for a future meeting and take a vote. An individual council member or citizen could do the same. But Parker and Sayre leave office Dec. 31 and council holds only one more regular meeting before the end of the year, Darr noted.

“I don’t know what else that this body can do other than prevent it from happening again by putting an ordinance or something in place that would police ourselves because we’ve never had to in the past,” Darr said.

Councilman Daryl Funk said he would support a revision to the reimbursement policy. Councilman Hollis Tharpe said council should treat reimbursements as it always has unless a town official recommends a change.

Parker claimed in his complaint filed with Clerk of Council Jennifer Berry that Sayre did not attend in an official capacity, only went for part of Oct. 5 and took free items from vendors. Those attending the conference had to register in advance and the town covered the $350 fees. Sayre received permission to see parts of the event from Mary Jo Fields, a director with the VML.

“The most important question for you, Mr. Sayre, is what official business did you have in the Roanoke area on Saturday, Oct. 4, that warranted an overnight hotel stay?” Parker asked.

Sayre replied, “I went so I could be there all day Sunday and participate in the conference at the exhibit hall.”

Parker noted that the conference did start until noon on Oct. 5.

Parker asked Finance Director Kim Gilkey-Breeden “if this were any other town employee, knowing what you know in this situation, would you have reimbursed it?”

“I would have questioned it,” Gilkey-Breeden said, going on to explain how her department scrutinizes requests.

Sayre criticized Parker for not coming to him, in an act of “Christian charity,” before he filed the complaint.

“You never once said one word to me,” Sayre said. “Then you just worked behind my back, trying to score political points and that’s sad to do it that way.”

Parker asked what Sayre meant by “political points.” When Sayre mentioned he had Field’s permission to attend part of the conference, Parker commented that the VML event did not allow partial registration. In response to Darr’s question, Sayre said Fields gave him permission the day before he attended.

Contact staff writer Alex Bridges at 540-465-5137 ext. 125, or abridges@nvdaily.com