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HELP Center report falls flat

Support for project waning

Project FAITH executive director Froncé Wardlaw appeared last week at a meeting of the King George Board of Supervisors to report on a controversial proposed HELP Center project slated to be built on 5.5 acres of land provided free by the county in May 2012. That’s if she can get all footings poured by Aug. 1, as

per a performance contract with the county.

Wardlaw’s presentation to Supervisors last week on June 25 fell flat.

It followed a raucous public comment period in a packed room, with numerous intervening agenda items. At the end of her presentation, she made a request to meet privately with the Board and staff.

But she had no response to the meeting offer from any of the Supervisors.

Her request came in answer to Supervisor Cedell Brooks asking if the project had financing.

Wardlaw responded, “Financing from Virginia Community Capital, Virginia Community Development Corporation - we have reached a point where that is imminent. But I believe that we do need to talk about those details in a venue that’s not this. We need to have that discussion privately with executive staff and with members of the board when our funders are present as well.”

It became evident that Wardlaw’s previous support by members of the board was evaporating. As recently as this past Feb. 19, Brooks, Ruby Brabo and John LoBuglio had been firm in their commitment to the project, voting on Feb. 19 to grant a six-month extension for the HELP Center’s commencement of construction.

Dale Sisson and Joe Grzeika voted against the extension saying they had reservations about the viability of the project. That was the same split that took place on May 1, 2012, when the Supervisors passed the motion on the giveaway of prime real estate fronting on Route 3 (Kings Hwy) to Project FAITH for the proposed facility.

Prior to her asking for a private meeting, Wardlaw thanked the three Supervisors by name, saying “I hear the passion in Mr. Brooks’s voice and Ms. Brabo’s voice, Mr. LoBuglio’s voice – they understand the need.”

That didn’t sit well with Sisson, who responded, saying, “You called out three folks as passionately caring about the citizens of King George County. I don’t think that’s fair. There are five members up here that passionately care about all members of the county.”

He added, “Because you may have a different opinion of the right business model to make that happen, or the business viability of your project, which frankly is in trouble. The reports show that relative to the contract you’re expected to meet. So I think it’s not just about passion for service to the members of the community, it’s about the right business model. Our job is not just to care about the people. It’s to do the right thing to deliver the products and services.”

 

LEGAL & CONTRACTUAL ISSUES
In fact, it appears from various careful comments throughout the meeting by Supervisors that the legal and contractual issues the county has with the proposed HELP Center have been turned over to county attorney, Eric Gregory, and county administrator, Travis Quesenberry.

The matter appears to have come firmly under Gregory’s purview after Brabo had turned over an altered letter to Gregory in early June, after it came to light.

ALTERED LETTER
Wardlaw last week began her presentation with a rambling apology for the alteration of a letter in support of the HELP Center project.

Wardlaw had previously admitted to providing the three-year-old letter to Brabo in early May, who then passed it on to others, including The Journal, to ostensibly indicate that Rappahannock Community College (RCC) still intended to be a major tenant in the proposed facility.

But when the letter was scrutinized by The Journal, it was discovered that the date on the first page had been changed from 2010 to instead read ‘March 30, 2012,’ while the date on page two remained unaltered.
At that time Gregory called the matter “serious” and told The Journal, “We would like to know how the alleged letter was created and for what purpose.”

While diminishing the fact of the alteration in a June 11 email to Brabo, Wardlaw also admitted, “The letter has passed so many hands with funders and others that I cannot tell you exactly when the update occurred.”

CLOSED SESSION
While Supervisors are keeping mum on specifics of discussions with  Gregory, it’s clear that he’s keeping them informed about HELP Center legal issues.

Supervisors and Quesenberry spent nearly an hour with Gregory in a closed session at the end of last week’s meeting, “for consultation with legal counsel employed or retained by a public body regarding specific legal matters requiring the provision of legal advice by such counsel regarding the proposed HELP Center project.”

PUBLIC COMMENTS
Wardlaw’s presentation had come up during the middle of a long agenda in a room packed with many who came to hear and to speak about the HELP Center issue, along with several other items drawing the standing-room only crowd of more than 100 people.

Twelve people commented, with eleven of them speaking on the HELP Center project.

Seven spoke against the project, including Larry Kyle, Pat Withrow, Christine Nerny, Gregg Holmes, Dr. Sherman Davis, Steve Wido, and Arlene Jacovelli.

Four spoke in favor of it, including Pam Ford, Pastor Larry Finch, Rev. Dr. Earlene Cumberlander, and Becky Stewart. David Norford spoke on another matter.  

Most of the comments appeared to be thoughtful and sensitive. But a few of the comments were seen by others present to contain racially-tinged overtones. It should not be news that there are whites and blacks living in a rural southern county that bear the remnants of segregation and open racism exhibited by an earlier generation during their own formative years. But accusations of racism are being seen by most as a distraction from the proposed HELP Center’s legal and contractual issues.  

SUPERVISORS COMMENT
Some Supervisors provided prepared or off-the-cuff comments in their board reports prior to Wardlaw’s presentation, with some also commenting later in the meeting. Board reports are offered on the agenda after public comment occurs.

Grzeika made oblique comments regarding RCC’s intentions to not become a tenant at the HELP Center, speaking about the Board’s meeting with Crowther on June 6, saying in part, “I am also encouraged by their desire to remain at the high school and continue to build their programs there serving both the dual enrollment of the students and the needs of the adult learners in the evening. Their workforce training capability is something we need to continue to keep in mind when working with both our existing businesses and potential new business.”

Grzeika provided additional comments, saying, “I’m as disturbed by anybody that a letter got changed and I want that on the record that I just cannot accept that. I have not been a proponent of the project. I’ve stated that I don’t think it’s something that should be done by the government and the business. I think it’s a private sector operation and in concert with the churches I think you can get a better product and better results.”

Brooks’s comments included his prolonged participation in a shouting match with a woman in the audience who did not give her name. It was over who “made it about color.” Chairman Sisson called repeatedly for order. Brooks continued his comments and ended saying, “I’ve been a great supporter of Project FAITH and I still support Project FAITH and the HELP Center. I don’t support what happened. It hurt me to my heart what went on with the letter, whatever the situation with the letter was, it hurt me to my heart because now I have a problem supporting the director because I don’t know what else they’ve done that I don’t know about and I’m not a fool. It just really hurt me. But I still support the project in theory and what it’s all about but I will not be able to support any type of extensions or anything. I just pray that whatever she’s got going for her now that she’ll be able to get it done under the parameters that are set forth because I’m not going to be able to support any type of extensions or anything to that degree.”

Brabo stated about the meeting with RCC’s Crowther, “Some issues came to light regarding the HELP center during the course of that meeting that were shocking.  I am still struggling with how to come to terms with the situation and seeking advice from the County attorney on how best to proceed.”

Following her prepared remarks she added comments defending her actions to independently meet with Wardlaw, saying in part, “I do my homework and due diligence and that’s why I had documents that other board members did not have. I made the best decision based on the information that I had.”

Brabo spoke about a previous project by the county that had been put on hold because it was too expensive to build and operate a health and human services building in the government center, saying that Wardlaw’s project “made sense to me.”

LoBuglio said he didn’t want to rehash what had been said, but added, “Just because our support was given in the past, doesn’t mean it’s there continuously, if things are brought to light that change our opinion.” He added, “I just reserve my opinion right now until everything is cleared up and brought to light.”

Sisson capped the topic saying, “There are some issues that have brought up that need to be clarified.”

Video of the meeting. Sorry - not all the video is available. Not all the video has been converted the blip.tv website.

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