Council members at odds over EDA project

FRONT ROYAL – A Town Council member seeking information about a controversial project and a colleague clashed again Monday.

Councilwoman Bébhinn Egger sought answers to questions about the Front Royal-Warren County Economic Development Authority workforce housing project earlier this month. Egger posed the request after the EDA voted to pursue the purchase of the 3.6-acre site for the project on Royal Lane the owners previously gave to the authority as a gift. EDA Executive Director Jennifer McDonald announced last month that the authority missed a deadline to move ahead with the project and the offer of the free land expired so the authority decided to buy the property for $445,000.

Egger’s request prompted the EDA to produce a stack of documents, nearly 400 pages worth, related to the project and made the packet available to town and county officials and the media.

Egger voiced dissatisfaction with the EDA’s response and compared the stack of documents to a person paying a fine in all pennies.

“It was every piece of paper I think they could find with the words ‘workforce housing’ on them and I had asked very specific questions and I was expecting very specific answers to those questions,” Egger said. “After looking through the packet very few of the questions are answered and so I think it’s important for the council in the future to think about ‘is this an acceptable way for our questions to be answered, and I know I’m not the only one with questions.”

Since she first posed the questions earlier this month Egger said her constituents have raised the same concerns.

“So it’s really important that we are treated with respect in getting our questions answers,” Egger said.

The councilwoman said she plans to submit unanswered questions to McDonald.

Egger recalled Mayor Hollis Tharpe’s previous comments that the matter does not concern council because the project does not involve the spending of town funds. However, Egger pointed out that council approved the special-use permit required for the EDA to build the project, but without receiving “extremely important” information pertaining to the March 1 deadline the EDA needed to meet or else lose the land as a gift. Council also didn’t know that there was a chance the property could revert back to the owner, Egger said.

The EDA stated in writing they were under no obligation to tell council about the deadline, Egger said.

Councilman John Connolly reiterated his frustration at Egger’s use of the meeting to criticize others or to bring up old topics. Connolly voiced a similar reaction to Egger’s comments made at the previous council meeting. He said the level of professionalism by which council members conduct themselves remains a legitimate concern.

“We all have access to Jennifer McDonald,” Connolly said. “We can call her and talk to her. We have ridden this train before where members of council have made accusations about public figures, about our staff members, about people in the limelight, about businesses without going and getting their information first.

“The questions about the workforce housing project was a land-use question,” Connolly added. “It was a planning and development question. I fail to see how Miss Egger’s issues with how this was or was not funded were pertinent to the question at hand that was before council at that time, which is why she didn’t ask any questions about that really at that time.”

Connolly said council members can contact McDonald rather than “making a big stink” in front of the cameras at a public meeting.

He reiterated his concern that Egger’s questions do not pertain to any items on council’s meeting agenda. Connolly said his understanding of the portion of the meeting, titled “requests and inquiries of council members,” is not open for members to “soapbox” or go through “personal vendettas.” Rather, that time is for members to raise questions about topics brought to council’s attention, Connolly said, citing Councilman Jacob Meza’s comments on a railroad crossing. Connolly added that he understood the time to take the place of a new-business section on the agenda. Instead, Connolly said the space on the agenda has been used as a “bully pulpit” for a member who did not talk to McDonald first.

Meza said he also has heard from residents about the EDA project and added that McDonald has been “extremely approachable.” Meza said he hasn’t had a chance to go through the information provided by the EDA, adding he would deal with concerns raised about the project “offline.”

Egger said she sent McDonald her questions by email but did not receive answers to all the inquiries.

“With the discussion of respect, when the EDA disclosed at their last meeting that there was a confidential agreement (with the property owners) that included a deadline that was not given to us when we voted in November, that’s the first breach of respect, that they’re withholding information from us,” Egger said. “I don’t think that my questions were given in an attacking-sort-of way but they were very firm because I was extremely upset and still am that they’re withholding information and don’t seem to think that there’s a problem with that.”