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Pyles: Augusta County supervisors, Staunton council members serve the interest of donors

Pyles: Augusta County supervisors, Staunton council members serve the interest of donors

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In the continuing proof that men are not angels, I give you the Staunton City Council and the Augusta County Board of Supervisors. The four new members of the council and all the board members have chosen deceit to honesty. Think not? You be the judge.

The four Staunton council members elected in May have chosen to ignore state law in favor of serving the interest of donors. This was done in giving a “go ahead” to Augusta supervisors for purchasing and bulldozing properties in Staunton’s historic downtown. They conveyed that any objections by the Historic Preservation Commission would be overturned by their majority on council.

Of course, this is their right but only when publicly done. Four council members secretly conspiring and agreeing in advance of a future vote is forbidden. The people are supposed to be atop the chain of command not nuisances to be ignored until the Royalty feels it safe to tell them what they have already done.

We know this action took place because of an obvious “meeting of the minds” between the board and council as regards these properties needed to enlarge the Augusta County Courthouse.

Chairman Gerald Garber spoke publicly about Staunton’s new majority possibly being more favorable to the board’s desire to build in Staunton. Nothing wrong with that observation as long as there is no secret handshake moving the observation to a guarantee.

Which logic says there was. The county chairman, soon after meeting with council members, chose to move forward on purchasing the needed properties. They have now spent $100,000 on non-refundable payments to the property owners. This to secure options to buy over $1 million of property.

Either Garber is once again being reckless with money that does not come out of his own pockets or he has been assured this new group will take care of any inconveniencies or outrages. But in doing this the council has chosen politics over the people, donors over residents, and the rule of “because we can” over the rule of law.

For its part, the Augusta board violated Virginia Code with closed sessions based on conditions it did not meet. Essentially the code allows for closed property discussions if the purchases being discussed would be adversely impacted by public knowledge. But the property owners had already been contacted and informed of the county’s intention. The closed sessions were contrived to keep the public in the dark, not to somehow nobly protect taxpayer interest.

While the public was locked out, prominent developers and big donors were not. Thomas Sheets, Blue Ridge Lumber owner, and Allen Dahl, of Triangle Realtors, were given voice to the project as they met with council members and supervisors despite not having direct involvement in the properties being evaluated.

No two people are more responsible for the courthouse referendum defeat than these two political activists. They were part of the formation of the Augusta Citizens Coalition which raised $83,815 to sour Augusta County voters on building a courthouse in Verona.

They advocated against the Verona build personally on television and news print. They donated $13,564 to say the $45 million to build in Verona was too expensive but stayed silent on the $70 million project proposed in a Staunton flood plain. They now are part of an advocacy for a $59 million build.

The most likely conclusion is of course the most obvious, the issue was never the price tag but self-interest.

To that end they needed to have acquiescence by those locally elected. Dahl contributed $250 to candidates Mark Robertson and Steve Claffey. Tom Sheets made direct contributions of $220 to Mayor Oakes as well as $500 for the election of Supervisor Pam Carter and $250 for Supervisor Scott Seaton.

And then there is the “21st Century Virginia” Republican advocacy committee formed to elect the four Staunton council candidates who won. Dahl contributed $500 and Sheets was the top donor at $1,500. This was a $10,000 project meant to make council elections partisan rather than the legislated non-party intention.

How very sad.

But, if there are any second thoughts, amends can be made. Conflicts of interest are obvious. Whether from donations, friendships, or like political affiliation, a bias has been demonstrated. To later vote on an issue already agreed upon is a fraudulent exercise of authority. Only choosing to recuse themselves can Mayor Andrea Oakes and council members Mark Robertson, Steve Claffey and Amy Darby make this right.

The Bible holds we cannot serve two masters. Which will it be: the people or the politics?

Tracy Pyles, a former chairman and member of the Augusta County Board of Supervisors who lives in Augusta County, is a columnist for The News Virginian. His column is published Saturdays.

Tracy Pyles, a former chairman and member of the Augusta County Board of Supervisors who lives in Augusta County, is a columnist for The News Virginian. His column is published Saturdays.

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