FRONT ROYAL - After 20-plus speakers expressed their disgust regarding a proposed rule change to public presentation guidelines, the Board of Supervisors at its regular Tuesday meeting delayed a vote and opted to take the matter to a work session.
The public presentation, or public comment, period occurs at the beginning of the board’s meeting and allows citizens to relay thoughts or concerns to the supervisors.
The changes proposed to the Warren County Code would allow citizens to speak about one topic three times in a 12-month period. It would also allow citizens to speak for five minutes with a possible extension from the chairman, and limit the overall comment period to 20 minutes.
The changes would replace code rules stating citizens are allowed to speak about any topic for an unlimited time "upon the demand of any two supervisors" or by the chairman.
The changes were initially proposed three weeks after resident Mark Egger spoke for about 30 minutes during the supervisors' November meeting. During that public comment period, he made a series of allegations regarding Front Royal-Warren County Economic Development Authority former executive director Jennifer McDonald.
When the board attempted to cut off his comments during that meeting, Egger noted a section of the county code allowing anyone to speak for an unlimited time so long as two board members approve.
County Attorney Dan Whitten explained that the supervisors had been following their meeting and policy guidelines, which does have time limits, and officials were unaware of that portion of the county code until informed by Egger. Whitten added that the county's meeting guidelines already limited the number of times a person could discuss on one topic. He said the purpose of the proposed changes is ensuring the two sets of rules do not conflict.
Egger said during the public hearing that he had not planned on addressing the supervisors again, but the board’s “foolish actions” compelled him “to make another futile attempt.” He said the board needs to amend the meeting rules to coincide with the county code, not the other way around.
“Why are you trying to fix something that’s not broken?” he asked.
Egger said he started “looking into the EDA” two years ago after his daughter, former councilwoman Bebhinn Egger, was “verbally assaulted by the political establishment” for asking a “few simple questions.”
“I can’t for the life of me figure out why you didn’t want to hear the facts about the lunacy going on over at the EDA...you all preferred to be ostriches with your heads stuck in the sand. A lot of the problems with the EDA could have been avoided if you all had been paying attention,” he said.
Egger said the county is instead left fronting taxpayer money, referencing $90,000 for a financial consultant and up to $50,000 for legal bills, because the EDA apparently does not "have any money left in their checkbook.”
“You didn’t care that the executive director claimed to have won almost $2 million at the slot machines, which is mathematically impossible. If you believe that fairy tale, why don’t you give her the $140,000 and in no time at all she will turn it into $2 million,” he said.
After describing an extensive list of what Egger said are questionable actions by the EDA that the county did not care about, he said the county should be thanking him instead of trying to silence him.
“What’s wrong with you people? You need to get your heads out of your backsides, pay attention and do your job. You should be saying 'thank you' to me, so I will just say 'you’re welcome.' Maybe I’ll send you a bill for my services,” he said.
Dee Schools said while she does not disagree with time limits for each speaker, citizens should be able to speak as many times about one subject as they wish.
“You guys are going into budgets. If I want to stand up here at every meeting from now until the time you pass that budget and talk about that budget, I should be allowed,” she said.
Nancy Heflin said if the supervisors approve the code amendment, then they need to resign because citizens will find people who listen. Several other citizens shared that sentiment, saying the supervisors would be voted out of office if they ignore the will of the people.
Vice Chairman Tom Sayre made a motion after the public hearing that the supervisors make no changes to the code.
Supervisor Tony Carter then suggested an amended motion that he said provided less restrictive guidelines, including no time limits for individual speakers and no limit for how many times citizens can speak about one topic per 12-month period.
He further suggested that the public presentations be moved to the end of the meeting so they do not interfere with other agenda items. He added that there should be another public comment period at the beginning of the meeting so citizens could speak about anything on that night’s agenda that is not the subject of a public hearing.
Sayre said the county does not need to fix something that is not broken, noting that the rule allowing anyone to speak so long as they have the sponsorship of two supervisors has been in place since 1975.
Carter said his proposed rules eliminate the need to be sponsored by two supervisors, are much less restrictive and allow anyone to speak no matter what.
Sayre responded: “I am trying to be very polite Mr. Carter. I like you a lot, but I don’t fully understand everything you presented.”
Sayre said there has not been a work session on those proposals and he was not prepared to vote on such dramatic changes without further discussion.
The supervisors then agreed to discuss the matter during a Feb. 19 work session, which Chairman Dan Murray noted would be open to the public.
“We’re not hiding anything...There’s things going on that we’re not allowed to talk about," Murray said, addressing the audience. "We’ve signed confidentiality agreements about certain items...the more you push us to tell you, the more trouble we can get in if we open our mouths. We can be sued. You don’t consider that, and I wish you would. There are a lot of things going on.”