Town under the gun on successful legal appeal

At left, Town Attorney Tom Robinett, Town Manager Michael Graham and Councilman Shae Parker soak in Matt Tederick, right,’s opinion on the way town business is conducted (poorly, illegally and belligerently). Northern Virginia Daily reporter Ben Orcutt, whose name was invoked several times during discussion, is an interested observer in background at right.
At left, Town Attorney Tom Robinett, Town Manager Michael Graham and Councilman Shae Parker soak in Matt Tederick, right,’s opinion on the way town business is conducted (poorly, illegally and belligerently). Northern Virginia Daily reporter Ben Orcutt, whose name was invoked several times during discussion, is an interested observer in background at right.

Outside accusations accompany 5-0 vote of support of AG challenge

By Roger Bianchini
Warren County Report

After all the infighting and backbiting over the legality of Front Royal Town Attorney Tom Robinett’s rapid legal response – 2 days – to Virginia Attorney General Robert J. McDonnell’s formal opinion that Councilman N. Shae Parker had been illegally seated, the Front Royal Town Council presented a united front in support of that filing on Dec. 15.

On that date a motion approving the town attorney’s actions in filing the Dec. 5 suit challenging the formal AG opinion and seeking a ruling that Parker was, in fact, a legally-seated councilman passed by a 5-0 vote, Parker abstaining. Even attorney-Councilman Tom Sayre, who initially questioned the legality of Robinett’s move prior to a formal vote of approval by council, voted with the majority to approve the town attorney’s actions in filing the suit after an informal telephone polling of a majority of council.

The unanimity came none too soon as the mayor, council and town staff came under scathing attacks later in the meeting largely centered on Robinett’s actions in the case. Those attacks, from former Warren County Republican Committee Chairman and county supervisor Matthew Tederick and attorney and Board of Architectural Review member David Silek, were directed primarily at Robinett but also included the mayor, town manager and council to varying degrees. Much of Tederick’s criticism echoed a Dec. 12 letter to council from Northern Virginia Daily attorney J. David Griffin. During his 20 or so minute tirade against the town government Tederick made a point of reading Griffin’s letter into the public record.

That letter accuses the town of “willfully” violating Freedom of Information Act requirements by allowing Robinett to file the suit seeking judicial ratification of Parker’s appointment prior to a public meeting vote (see related story). Griffin, like Sayre earlier, cited two council votes, on Aug. 11 and Nov. 17, declining to seek judicial appointment of Parker’s as a safeguard against any legal challenge or pending AG opinion.

Griffin wrote that council’s earlier actions created the legal requirement any change of direction on the matter be re-voted on by council at an open meeting.

Perhaps ironically, Sayre first suggested in early August that council seek judicial ratification of the coming council appointment to assure its legality. Sayre’s motion to certify Parker’s Aug. 11 appointment was voted down 4-1 at that meeting. Parker has abstained from all votes concerning his council seat.

At a Nov. 17 Special Meeting to discuss an anticipated formal state attorney general’s opinion that Parker had been seated illegally, council again declined to seek Parker’s judicial appointment, this time by a 3-2 vote. On that occasion Sayre sided with Vice Mayor Bret Hrbek and Chris Holloway to form the majority opposing submitting Parker’s seat to the court for ratification.

While Sayre was initially critical of Robinett’s filing of the Dec. 5 challenge of the formal AG opinion and its defacto ratification of Parker’s appointment without a public vote, as stated above he sided with the other four members voting on Dec. 15 to approve the town attorney’s action on the matter.

During the meeting Robinett explained that he had polled the mayor and council – other than Sayre – by phone prior to filing the suit asking 26th District Circuit Court Judge Dennis L. Hupp to overrule the AG opinion that Parker’s appointment violated state law by exceeding a 45-day time limit.

When Sayre raised the issue that Robinett’s call to him about filing the suit came about 15 minutes after it was filed at the Warren County Circuit Court Clerk’s Office on Dec. 5, Robinett said he was already well aware of Sayre’s opinion because “it was plastered all over the paper for a couple of days – that you wanted a special election.”

That exchange was the first of three testy ones Robinett had leading Mayor Tewalt to pull the town attorney’s reins in somewhat as Robinett responded directly to what appeared to be personal attacks on his competence, integrity or character. A second exchange was with Tederick over a code cited in reference to Griffin’s letter and supposed FOIA violations. The third was with NVD reporter Ben Orcutt, who Robinett cited as the source of information leading him to believe time was even more crucial in filing a response to the AG opinion. Robinett said that information, that Tederick would lead a move to call a special election to fill Parker’s seat, was given to him in a phone call from Orcutt following the Dec. 3 release of the formal AG opinion. Robinett became angered as Orcutt shook his head in disagreement with the town attorneys’ appraisal that FOIA issues with the NVD had been resolved during his phone conversation with the paper’s attorney earlier that day.

The Dec. 15 vote to approve Robinett’s filing of the suit to overturn the AG opinion and ratify that Parker was legally seated came later on the same day Judge Hupp ruled in the town and Parker’s favor against the attorney general’s opinion on one crucial point – that Mayor Eugene Tewalt did not vacate his council seat on June 25 when he took the mayor’s oath of office, but rather on July 1 when he assumed the office of mayor (see related story).

But if a judge was on the town’s side that day, others were certainly not.

Where to begin?

Following Robinett’s exchange with Orcutt, Tederick was the first to address council during the Public Concerns portion of the meeting. After a pregnant pause during which he looked at the Daily reporter and commented that he didn’t know where to begin because there were so many inconsistencies, Tederick fired his opening salvo.

“Mr. Mayor, I think you’ve lost control of your staff.”

Tederick said he’d been a supporter of Parker in the general election and the main issue on the table in the wake of the AG opinion was full voting rights for all council members. Another portion of the AG opinion is that appointed members do not fit the constitutional criteria of “elected members” and therefore cannot vote on certain issues including appropriations over $500, bond issues, annexation, the disposition of property and issuing of franchises.

Tederick then suggested council call for a special election in May so that all members would have full voting rights.

While lauding council for an earlier resolution in support of Town Manager Michael Graham in the wake of the NVD revelation the town manager had been rejected for Front Royal Rotary membership, Tederick bemoaned the potential connection between Graham’s background in the private sector and what he called the town’s propensity for meeting behind closed doors.

“You’re a public body, not a secret body having secret meetings in secret board rooms.”
Tederick then accused the town attorney of being a publicity hound – “I think Mr. Robinett likes to go to court. I think he likes to have his name in the papers …”

Tederick, who has been at recent political odds with both the town and county governments over what he sees as an anti-business stance on 522 North Corridor issues, reasoned that stance and what he called a confrontational attitude with both business and county government stemmed “from the advise of the town manager and town attorney.”

“You should be embarrassed about the Molly Denton money,” Tederick said of the town’s decision to throw the matter of a $40,000, 1992 bequeathment for swimming lessons for the community’s children into court. Earlier that night council had followed Robinett’s suggestion to let the court decide how to dispose of the money by a 4-1 vote with only Sayre dissenting. While the county believes it is entitled to the money because it has operated the community pool since 2000, Robinett asserts a three-year non-use clause in the Denton will mandates the money be returned to her estate.

Tederick also was critical of the town’s reluctance to come up with a solution to what has been a decade-plus debate with the county over commercial trash hauling and tipping fees.

“There are personalities at play – I think I know some of it … you seem to be in a death match with the county; you seem to be in a death match with Mr. Sayre,” Tederick said.

Where to end?

Ironically perhaps, Parker, around whom so much of the controversy voiced on Dec. 15 swirled, opened the council concerns portion at the outset of the meeting with a holiday poem calling for more cooperation internally and externally, a reexamination of corridor issues, and more general fairness in the conduct of town business.

(See more on this story and our complete Warren County coverage in our FREE Late December 2008 edition.)

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