Reimbursement dispute ongoing in council

FRONT ROYAL — A disagreement between two outgoing town councilmen about a state conference spilled over Monday.

The dispute between Councilman Thomas H. Sayre and Vice Mayor N. Shae Parker might lead to the way members receive expense reimbursements from the town in the future. Sayre and Parker’s terms on council end Dec. 1.

Sayre attended one day of the three-day, Virginia Municipal League conference in Roanoke in early October. Sayre received reimbursement for his overnight hotel stay and mileage. The town reimbursed other council members including Parker, who attended the conference and received reimbursement. Parker filed a complaint with Clerk of Council Jennifer Berry against Sayre’s reimbursement, saying that the councilman attended the single day of the conference to take advantage of a free item offered by exhibitors.

Council began to discuss the reimbursement issue at a work session late Monday night after its regular meeting.

During the council comments portion of the regular meeting, Sayre spoke about his attendance at the conference. He prefaced statements by listing expenses that fellow council members incurred such as valet parking fees. Sayre noted that Parker received a reimbursement for an early-departure fee charged by the hotel.

“I went to every exhibit booth,” Sayre said. “There were 82 booths and it was something … and the part that I could get the most out of it was very educational …”

In addition to reading an affidavit signed by Virginia Del. Thomas Rust indicating his 15-20 minute conversation with Sayre at the conference, the councilman’s son, Philip Sayre, told council about his father’s visit with him at Virginia Tech that weekend.

Sayre then criticized Parker and Roger Bianchini, a reporter with the Warren Report, for telling the councilman “not only how to be a parent but when to be a parent …” Parker had criticized Sayre for claiming his trip to Virginia Tech in his mileage reimbursement.

Parker responded to Sayre by reading a statement. Parker noted that he tried during his tenure to curb spending — eliminating food for council work sessions at a savings of $2,500 a year and opposing the purchase of shirts for members.

“Frivolous spending by government at any level should be monitored and eliminated when discovered,” Parker stated before reiterating his “point of much consternation” that led him to contest Sayre’s reimbursement request.

Parker stated that taxpayers covered Sayre’s reimbursement for less than a day at the event, mileage and parking. Parker said he learned that Sayre at one point had requested to borrow a town vehicle to travel to Front Royal and back to Roanoke. When that fell through, Sayre stated publicly that he would not attend the conference.

Parker said if Sayre attended the conference in an official capacity then “no harm, no foul” but he took issue if the councilman used the reimbursement to his own advantage.

“Council is considered to be the employer of staff and if a council member requests reimbursement it’s just paid with essentially no questions asked — no checks and balance,” Parker stated. “The council itself does not even authorize these reimbursements and, unless it inquires, has no knowledge of any requests for reimbursements by its members.

“I’ve done a lot of research into this issue and the lack of oversight or self-policing by council made me think of recent articles and statements by Del. [C] Todd Gilbert [R-Woodstock, whose district covers part of Front Royal] on ethics reform,” Parker said. “Now, while I’ve had differing opinions on some issues with Del. Gilbert in the past, this is one I firmly embrace. I’m not likening this councilman’s actions to those of the former governor [Bob McDonnell] but we have unanswered questions and no one within the town has been able to answer them.”

Parker went on to say that “if there is impropriety or intent, then I and my fellow Councilman Sayre do not think we are guilty of a cover up and at the very least are acknowledging that this behavior is acceptable.”

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