Warren County Report Managing Editor Roger Bianchini and former Front Royal Vice Mayor Bret Hrbek spoke on the termination of Town Manager J. Michael Graham on The River 95.3 FM during the News at Noon. Listen to the netcast.
Holloway, Lauder, Tharpe form 3-2 majority to oust town manager
By Roger Bianchini
Warren County Report
The announcement came in a tersely worded press release around 10:30 a.m., Tuesday, Sept. 28.
“The Town of Front Royal Town Council voted last night to terminate the contract of Town Manager, J. Michael Graham.
“At this time the Council has decided to move in a different direction.
“The Mayor and Council would like to thank Mr. Graham for his service to the community, the citizens, and the staff and wishes him well in his future endeavors.”
It took exactly 10 months, 2-and-a-half weeks to accomplish what now Vice Mayor Chris Holloway and a block within the Front Royal Town Council, and now apparently within the Warren County Republican Committee, set out to do – fire Front Royal Town Manager Michael Graham.
Following a routinely scheduled performance review in the wake of earlier ones survived by both Town Attorney Tom Robinett and Council Clerk Jennifer Berry, a five-member council – Tom Sayre was unexplainedly absent from the Sept. 27 meeting – voted to fire Graham.
From an initial poll of available councilmen (Conkey and Parker) the vote to terminate Graham immediately was made by Holloway, Lauder and Hollis Tharpe. Parker and Conkey opposed the termination.
Sources indicate that town Director of Environmental Service Steve Burke will be named acting or interim town manager, effective immediately. Burke, Graham and Mayor Tim Darr could not be immediately reached. All were believed to be meeting behind closed doors at town hall Tuesday morning after the firing.
As for the ouster vote, Holloway and Lauder are co-defendants in the $30-million solar lawsuit against the town, along with the absent Sayre. Tensions between those three and the town manager have escalated since the initiation of the SolAVerde solar power partnership proposal generated by local businessmen Donnie Poe and Greg Horton in the summer of 2009. Graham was the source of the idea to expand a solar panel on government buildings proposal into something grander, a public-private partnership to produce solar power through the town’s electrical grid. Despite public pronouncements to the contrary, that proposal has been fought tooth and nail by the three councilmen named as individual defendants in the SolAVerde lawsuit. At various points all have alleged thus far unsubstantiated allegations of secret meetings between Graham and those involved in the private sector side of the solar proposal.
Tharpe was elected in May and took office on July 1. One day after the May 4 election we asked Tharpe if he was in fact, the perceived fourth vote to oust Graham, as had been rumored during the campaign.
Speaking to us from his ice cream truck in front of Skyline High School for a special teacher appreciation event, Tharpe told us he did not believe anyone needed to be fired, and that rather council and town staff just needed to start working together.
However, it was Tharpe who made the motion to terminate Graham Monday. Following the May town election both Tharpe and Holloway joined the county Republican Committee, joining Sayre as council members of that partisan political committee.
Holloway as you may recall attempted to garner a vote to oust the town manager following a late added special meeting during a Nov. 9, 2009 work session. Sayre, who signed an altered contract including a termination agreement reducing Graham‘s severance package and circulated by the town attorney to only four councilmen – Holloway, Lauder, Sayre and Parker – last November, may say much as did Pontius Pilate regarding another “offing” some centuries ago, “My hands are clean of this.”
The unexpected – at least to everyone not directly involved – move had all the trappings of classic conspiracies:
- Was Happy Creek Supervisor Tony Carter’s unusual appearance before council earlier that evening – Carter is neither chair or vice chair of the Warren County Board of Supervisors so not normally in line to speak for the county on matters of mutual interest – the equivalent of the “umbrella man” in Dealy Plaza on Nov. 22, 1963? Umbrella up – the hit is a GO;
- One obvious suspect (Sayre) is elsewhere, creating diversion and an alibi – at least for the gullible;
- And the act was accomplished with no witnesses – both the media and public, as well as potentially and peripherally involved staff had left the scene as the seemingly routine closed session performance review drug on for about an hour … there’s probably a lot more there but time is short and we are headed to the Main Street Daily Grind to appear with former Vice Mayor Bret Hrbek on WZRV’s News at Noon to discuss this astonishing development.
Efforts to reach Graham, Mayor Tim Darr and others involved had thus far been unsuccessful. We will post more as this story evolves – check the website for constant updates prior to publication of our hard copy edition Friday, Oct. 1.
Hrbek Statement on Graham Firing
It is a sad day in the Town of Front Royal. Because of petty politics, jealousy and a desire to undo the progress the Town of Front Royal has made over the past four years, the Town Council voted to terminate Mike Graham’s contract last night. I am ashamed of the actions of three members of the Council who have had their sites set on Mike since they first were elected. I applaud Councilmen Conkey and Parker for standing firm for Mike.
Vice Mayor Holloway, Councilman Lauder and Councilman Tharpe have done a disservice to our community by releasing Mike. He remade our town government into a more efficient, effective government that is responsive to the needs of our community. He brought in his business experience and applied it to our local government. All citizens of the Town of Front Royal are better for his work.
The knives have been out for Mike since we hired him. He refused to play the political game and relied on his rock-solid, Christian value system to guide his decision making.
Once again this Town Council has demonstrated that they cannot lead. By terminating the contract of one of the most effective town managers in the Commonwealth they show to the community that they lack the vision and competence necessary to move Front Royal forward in a positive direction.
I wish Mike the best. He consciously moved back home to Front Royal to give back to his childhood home. He did not have to or need to return. He wanted to return and give back. He deserved better from this Council. I am sure that his faith in God will be the rock that leads him to something greater.
Town Councilman Tom Conkey reacted Tuesday.
“Mike has been really good for this community. His leadership will be sorely missed. My job now is to help the council move the town forward,” he said.
The termination is effective immediately and Environmental Services Director Steve Burke is acting Town Manager, according to Conkey.
Councilman Shae Parker declined to comment and referred us to the Mayor.
By Dan McDermott
Warren County Report
Former Vice Mayor Bret Hrbek said Tuesday that he was disappointed in Town Council’s decision to terminate Town Manager J. Michael Graham.
“They should be ashamed. I think it is wrong to fire someone who has done so much for the town. Mike Graham will be a very difficult person to replace. This was very political and it will cost the taxpayers of Front Royal about $200,000 in a trying financial time,” he said.
From a release:
The Town of Front Royal Town Council voted last night to terminate the contract of Town Manager, J. Michael Graham.
At this time the Council has decided to move in a different direction.
The Mayor and Council would like to thank Mr. Graham for his service to the community, the citizens, and the staff and wishes him well in his future endeavors.
I am using my full given name because I feel transparency is needed in this case. And I have nothing to fear. I am angry and saddened at this turn of events. I whish I can say I am surprised. But I am not. This past election was all about setting the stage to move forward on an agenda to get rid of Town Manager Michael Graham. They succeeded by getting rid of a good and decent Christian Man, Mayor Tewalt, and a good and honest Christian Man Bret Hrbek and ensured that Councilman Tom Sayre and Hollis Tharpe was elected to the council. The plan was brilliant. Only problem is that it will cost Front Royal dearly.
Of my short time of knowing Mike Graham I have this to say. Mr. Graham is a good and honest and very Christian man. He did his job well. And he did it with honesty and integrity. Mr. Graham you have nothing to be ashamed of. Once again the majority of the Council Members have proven themselves to be unworthy of the Respect that their office would seem to demand. Once again they put personal agendas in front of their duties as Councilmen. For them I say Shame!! For Councilman Conkey and Parker (The only sane councilmen left on the council) I have this advice. Since you are the only two responsible Councilmen left on the council. Please watch your back. You can bet that they will be coming for you next. You can be assured of the support of the Citizens of Front Royal.
Whatever the decision was based on, the way this was handled was poor judgement on part of the Council. The day of reckoning will come on election Day.
Not only has Front Royal lost an excellent Town Manager, we are once again reminded of the poor decision making of some of our elected officials. I am appalled that Mike Graham, a positive force in our community, should be fired by a town council who has lately been exposed as corrupt.
Town council members– firing Mike Graham was a horrible mistake and a huge step backward for our town. Your job is to represent the citizens of Front Royal, not take a good man, a good town manager away from us.
“Why does he get a severance package? He was fired!”
Mr. Graham gets a severance because he is smart and had a contract with the town for just this reason. After seeing the way the council treats its town managers, Mike made sure to have a contract. It’s easy to get rid of someone because of personal agenda, if you have to pay them, you’re less likely to get rid of them on a whim. Although, apparently the council hated him so much they would rather waste hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars to get rid of him, his vision, and all the good he was doing for the town. I hope any future town managers are smart enough to have a contract and severance agreement, as well, although even with that, they won’t be safe.
“It just turned out that we want to go a different direction than Mr. Graham’s been taking the council in the past” Tharpe said.”
Don’t you mean the town, Mr. Tharpe? Isn’t the council in charge of Mr. Graham, not the other way around? Or is the problem really that the council has no vision or innovation, so if Mr. Graham has a vision or a new idea to better our town or make money for our town, then the council gets scared and cries ‘foul’? Council members have fought tooth and nail to prevent this solar deal from going through. Innovation is a key component of successful companies. Our town is no different. Without innovation, we will become stagnant and obsolete.
“Graham’s departure should help the town to get back to the “polished council” that it once was, Tharpe added. “I just came to the final conclusion that it was time for a change and during my campaign, I asked whether the citizens wanted the same old council and its way of doing business and I truly believe the citizens spoke volumes at the polls when they elected me to serve them. I think it showed that they favor change and now change is on the way.”
Mr. Graham is hardly the person preventing the council from being polished. As far as I’m concerned, the majority of town council is preventing it from being polished, and come election day, I only hope that people will remember all of this, and vote for a new council, not the same old, good ol’ boy, groupthink mentality. Mr. Tharpe grossly (perhaps deliberately?) misinterpreted the citizens desire for change. When the council tried to get rid of Mr. Graham in November ‘09, the citizens stood up and said “we love our town manager, don’t get rid of him.” Now that the election is over and council members have at least two to four years for people to forget, they went ahead and ignored the wishes of the citizens, citing “change” as their reason. What is the obsession we have with change? Perhaps, instead of changing the town manager, the council should have fixed some of the issues that exist within their dysfunctional council! America fell for the whole “change” thing a couple of years ago. How’s that working for us now?
Mr. Graham didn’t come back to this town for himself. He came here because he loved Front Royal, and wanted to give back to his childhood community, to share his God given talent. He has done that. I am amazed that he lasted this long, a lesser man would have quit long before. Now the council has to live with their decision, but Mr. Graham can be relieved and thank God for this blessing. I’m happy for Mr. Graham, but as a citizen of Front Royal, I’m saddened by our loss.
Coup d’état in Front Royal? Give me a break. What headline got turned down, “Town Council Storms the Bastille?”
(Actually I like yours better – or maybe “Council tosses Graham to seething, angry masses who loved him”)
I am truly saddened by the loss of Mr. Graham and hope that the voters will see what revisions we need to make come next election. If our other councilmen are so petty and put so much energy into there likes and dislikes in personalities or their own insecurities we need to get better men in council.