STRASBURG – Strasburg Town Manager Wyatt Pearson changed the town’s conflict of interest policy after a former council member requested records revealing that the town paid Mayor Rich Orndorff Jr. to provide food for several events in 2017 and 2018.
On Jan. 10, former councilman Seth Newman requested through the state’s public records law that the town provide a copy of all receipts for food supplied for town functions in 2017 and 2018. Newman stated in an email that he “heard through the grape vine that once again our mayor is paying himself with town funds for catering town functions.”
The records he received, which the Northern Virginia Daily obtained, showed that between 2017 and 2018, the town paid Orndorff to cater at two board and commission dinners and the retirement picnic for its former director of finance, Dottie Mullins, and reimbursed him for the cost of food for two community dinners. Pearson added that Orndorff paid for food for another two community dinners through the town’s account with Schenck Foods.
Orndorff said that he didn’t make a profit to provide any of the food — not at the board and commission dinners, not at Mullins’s retirement party and not at the community dinners.
“I charged the town for what it cost me,” Orndorff said.
Newman said that he was skeptical about that claim.
And the amount of money that Orndorff charged per person at all three of the events that he catered ran lower than the cost of some of the other vendors that catered town events, the records show. The Box Office Brewery, for instance, received around $24 per person for a December 2018 dinner, including tax and gratuity.
Pearson cited the low cost of the catering as evidence that there was not a conflict of interest in the catering.
“It’s not like the town was in any way being taken for a ride in working with Mr. Orndorff for providing catering services for board and commission dinners and the retirement party for a town employee,” Pearson said.
Orndorff, too, denied that there was a conflict of interest in his catering the events.
“I don’t believe that the town staff would have asked me to do it if they thought it was a conflict,” Orndorff said.
In an interview with the Northern Virginia Daily, Newman said that he was concerned about a potential conflict of interest in Orndorff receiving town funds to provide food at town events.
“Rich wants to do a catering business, good for him,” Newman said. “I mean, he’s got good barbecue; I’m not going to argue with that.”
But Newman said that he was concerned that Orndorff might be exerting his influence as mayor to receive money from the town.
“I don’t want people using their influences in the government here — in the local government here — to fund themselves,” Newman said. “I don’t want my taxpayer money going to it, and I don’t want anybody else’s taxpayer money going to (it).”
Orndorff said that, to the contrary, the events saved the town money and did not benefit him financially.
“This was not to make money; this was to save the town money,” Orndorff said.
When Newman received the records he requested from the town, they came with a memorandum from Pearson stating that the town was changing some of its rules surrounding “actual and perceived” conflicts of interest.
In the memo, Pearson declared that the town would not enter into agreements with elected officials or boards or commission members for the purchase of goods or services. The memo also stated that the town would “no longer reimburse” elected officials or board or commission members for goods or services they purchased for the town.
“Members wishing to purchase products or services for the Town of Strasburg will need to obtain a Town Purchasing/Credit Card from the Director of Finance and with the approval of the Town Manager, make purchases,” the memo states. “Excluded in this will be reimbursement for approved travel expenses associated with Town business.”
Pearson said that he wrote the memo in response to Newman’s request, while adding that “we knew we weren’t doing anything wrong prior to that request.”
According to Virginia’s Conflict of Interest Act, Strasburg is not allowed to enter into contracts with officers or employees exceeding $5,000 per year unless the contracts are made on a sealed bid basis, in which case that amount is $25,000 per year. Pearson said that changing the conflict of interest policy to prevent any elected officials or board or commission members from entering into contracts with the town would help ensure that the town did not inadvertently violate the Conflict of Interest Act.
“I just felt that it would be better to act as appropriately as possible and not make any mistakes regarding the conflict of interest act,” Pearson said. “So in consultation with the mayor, we decided to go ahead and just not perform any contractual services with council members or boards and commission members.”
Newman said that he was satisfied with the change in policy.
In the future, Pearson said that Orndorff will not cater at the board and commission dinners but will continue to serve food at the community dinners. For those dinners, he will use a purchasing card, Pearson said.