The Staunton City Council was transformed last May. It went from one that might be described as intellectual but headstrong, to one less experienced but likewise overly self-confident.
The four new council members, considered conservative Republicans, may yet lead a government that embraces personal responsibility, seeks a smaller government, and respects our system of elected representation. But so far their actions are not promising.
Two recent Staunton Council actions combine to reveal an insensitivity to each of these basic conservative principles.
The first was council choosing, on a 4-2 vote, to take $7,424 of taxes paid by Staunton residents for their benefit, to fund a failure to communicate between Mayor Andrea Oakes and Councilwoman Brenda Mead. At issue was Ms. Mead wanting to be a fully informed representative.
Vice Mayor Robertson had passed a document to Mayor Oakes during a council session. Mead asked Oakes to share it with her. No response from the mayor led to a formal request to have that paper forwarded to Mead. Once the legally-limited five days had passed, without compliance, Councilwoman Mead ratcheted up the pressure by suing Ms. Oakes in Court: Mead vs. Oakes.
The judge found in favor of Ms. Mead and ordered Ms. Oakes to pay Mead’s legal costs. Given that neither Oakes nor Mead, pre-emptively, sought Council funding for legal representation, and that the City Attorney did not participate in the trial, it is apparent this was considered a personal matter between two citizens.
Ms. Oakes needs to take financial responsibility for her inactions. The city should not be on the hook to pay the legal fees for a person found legally guilty of an open government transgression. One of the reasons this is a personal responsibility issue, rather than a taxpayer obligation, is the fundamental understanding that unless we are held accountable for our actions, there is no need to change our behavior.
Being mayor of a city, the leader of a council, places an obligation to be accommodating to council members. We want our co-leaders to be curious, invested and desirous to learn. Keeping one’s cards close to your chest is understandable, in poker. Hiding from view, public documents, is not.
The other, non-conservative, action followed a presentation to explore purchasing 55 golf carts, at a cost of $200,000. The plan was approved by a 4-3 vote with the Republican-minded members voting for and the supposed Democrats voting against.
The minority spoke of the continuing needs of core services, the relentless toll on residents from the pandemic, and the continuing economic hardships in the community. Mayor Oakes in defending the plan offered “…the golf carts will help to be a revenue generator for the city.”
Not mentioned was the ongoing need to underwrite the golf course’s operation. It does not pay for itself.
As proof, consider the golf fund being removed as a stand-alone enterprise in the FY2019 budget. At that time it was the Democrats who wanted to continue the money bleed. But not visibility to the problem. Review of the FY18 budget reveals a planned hit to the general fund of $50,000 to offset golfing losses.
The actual losses were not subsequently presented. One might suppose, they so exceeded the planned expenditure that the budgetary equivalence of “now you see it, now you don’t” needed to be employed.
The 2018 budget also revealed a net gain of $51,000 from cart rentals when comparing costs against revenues. How much increase in cart rental, and how large an increase in green fees, will be required when additionally servicing a $200,000 debt?
If Mayor Oakes has a projection of revenues in, and costs out, for the next 5 years; that would be good to know. If that does not exist, shame on Council. Certainly Ingleside and Staunton Country Club would not layout $200,000 without doing a return on investment analysis.
The golf course is a business and needs to be treated as such.
Golf revenues have fallen steadily over the last several years. It is so expensive, and time consuming, it puts participation out of the reach of the many. But more than anything else, it is unfairly in direct competition with an existing private enterprise (Ingleside).
Mayor Oakes should pay up. The golf course should be converted to something less expensive and more relevant to more Staunton residents. Conservatives need to be conservative. And all seven members of Council need to chill out, just a bit.
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.