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.