Front Royal’s town attorneys blamed Warren County officials on Monday for starting a dispute over possible illegal dumping.
The legal experts said the Warren County Sheriff’s Office likely violated town employee’s rights against search and seizure by detaining the workers, and county officials and elected leaders missed opportunities to avoid the dispute.
County authorities closed the investigation without pressing charges after state officials found the town did not violate any regulations.
Front Royal officials presented information about the investigation by Warren County and its sheriff’s office into claims that Front Royal employees at the Wastewater Treatment Plant illegally dumped sludge at a collection facility in Bentonville.
Investigators with the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality reported that they found that the town did not violate disposal regulations. Sheriff Mark A. Butler has defended his office’s response and said the complaint and information the agency collected warranted the investigation. Butler refuted claims that his agency set up a sting operation at the Bentonville facility where they detained and questioned the town employees. Town officials have said that Butler and the deputies harassed and threatened the employees.
Town Attorney Douglas Napier presented statements he said are false and show a cover-up by county officials and elected leaders.
Assistant Town Attorney George M. Sonnett Jr., reading from the presentation, said Butler used “excessive force” when he detained the town employees at the facility on April 20.
“Sheriff Butler, personally laying in wait all morning of the 20th, hoping to ... discover what he believed to be illegal dumping at the transfer station, intercepted the town’s crew operating truck no. 661 as they arrived at the transfer station,” Sonnett said. “As you know, of that three-member crew, the town has already lost one of those crew members. He left employment shortly after this incident.”
Before the crew could unload the contents of the truck — 10 tons of residential trash — Butler ordered the employees to stop unloading, the driver to exit the vehicle, and for the employees to surrender their operators’ licenses, Sonnett said. Butler also threatened the employees with fines of up to $1 million, jail sentences and “EPA violations,” Sonnett said. The sheriff detained the crew for 44 minutes, Sonnett added.
Sonnett claimed Butler violated the employees’ Fourth Amendment rights protecting against unreasonable search and seizure. Sonnett cited a case in which the U.S. Supreme Court said that when a law enforcement officer accosts an individual and restrains his or her freedom to walk away, the officer has seized that person. The officer would be intruding on the person’s constitutional rights if the officer based the detainment on hunches and not specific facts, Sonnett said.
Sonnett said later in the meeting that the violation could open the county up to civil litigation by the employees. Sonnett also said that the attorneys could look into any civil recourse the town may have if requested by the council.
Sonnett questioned Butler’s statements that he found reasonable suspicion to move forward with the investigation. Sonnett said Butler’s use of the phrase was an “empty assertion.”
Town Attorney Douglas Napier continued with the presentation and questioned why the investigation even occurred. Interim County Administrator Edwin Daley did not mention the dumping claims to Town Manager Steven Hicks at the latter official’s regular meetings, Napier said. County Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Cheryl L. Cullers did bring up the matter to council members. The county solid waste supervisor did not return a phone call from town officials.
“Instead, the county leadership felt it best to conduct a criminal sting operation against the town and its employees, and the question is why,” Napier said.
The attorney went on to say that Butler made additional false statements at his presentation to the Board of Supervisors. Cullers and Supervisor Walter J. Mabe also made false statements, such as that the town was “guilty,” Napier said.
Mayor Christopher W. Holloway, Vice Mayor Lori A. Cockrell and council members Gary L. Gillispie, E. Scott Lloyd, Jacob L. Meza, Joseph E. McFadden and Letasha T. Thompson attended the meeting.
Holloway read a statement after the presentation.
“So, given the evidence and facts presented, I hope it’s clear to all council and citizens alike that the town government and the town staff did nothing wrong, made no mistakes and takes no blame,” Holloway read. “Most importantly, as DEQ stated early, the town did not dispose of sludge at the Warren County Transfer Station. Therefore, the town did not violate any laws.
“Furthermore ... it’s clear the county changed their transfer-station policy of accepting grit and screenings on the day of the sting operation — not before the date,” Holloway read.
The town had legally and properly disposed of grit and screenings from the wastewater treatment plant at the transfer station for four years, Holloway said. The change in policy now means a contractor must haul the waste to a landfill in Page County at a cost of approximately $29,000, with $9,000 billed to the county.
Holloway stated that he and other council members received calls from numerous residents asking why the county administrator hadn’t contacted the town manager first before the county started an investigation. He also asked why county officials made false statements even after the town was shown to have not committed any wrongdoing.
“I’ve lost count with all the false statements and contradictions. It was both amazing and embarrassing,” Holloway said, adding that “as a town citizen, how much longer are we going to have to continue to pay for Warren County’s negligence?”
The mayor then went off-script.
“Sources tell me (the county is) in the process of trying to hire Ed Daley as their permanent administrator and, as a county and town citizen, I don’t feel comfortable with someone of his stature being in that position, knowing that he could’ve picked up the phone and called Mr. Hicks, myself or anybody with the town government if they had any concerns,” Holloway said. “I just think it’s appalling and I think it’s awful what they tried to do to cover it up.”
Cockrell said that Cullers called her on April 20 to let her know what was going on after the matter already happened.
Watch the presentation and the meeting at https://frontroyalva.new.swagit.com/videos/121962.