In the most recent Southside Messenger, investigative reporter Wilkie Chaffin reports on the transfer of land belonging to the county to the IDA (Industrial Development Authority) in order for them to give the land away to various development projects. The Board Chair, and the Vice-Chair (Bucky Fore and Howard Simpson) had been involved in a Grand Jury investigation over the apparently illegal transfer of land to a party without a bid, and allowing the county to pay for a realtor’s fee, even though a Realtor was not required for the transaction. ($25,000) Reference: ‘Prince Edward County Corruption’
In 2006, according to the article, it was decided by the board to transfer land to the IDA. They would later give it to the YMCA Board to construct their facility on. The board claimed that there was no requirement for a public hearing since the land was transfered to the IDA.
Along with the land, the board planned to give the YMCA $1.5m in construction costs. The reporter asked the county to hold a public hearing, and cited Virginia Code 15.2-1800 B:
B. Subject to any applicable requirements of Article VII, Section 9 of the Constitution, any locality may sell, at public or private sale, exchange, lease as lessor, mortgage, pledge, subordinate interest in or otherwise dispose of its real property, …… provided that no such real property, whether improved or unimproved, shall be disposed of until the governing body has held a public hearing concerning such disposal.
Seems pretty clear to me, but then, I am not a high-placed official with the trust of the public at stake.
However, the Prince Edward County attorney at that time, Jill Dickerson, referred to two other laws (code sections) which say that a locality may give funds or other county property to an IDA or similar authority. It was the position of the county attorney that the failure of these code sections to mention a public hearing, either as required or not required, signifies that the public hearing is not required. The county attorney did not provide any code section that directly indicates that a public hearing is not required to transfer land to an IDA, or that there is a public hearing exception for IDAs. The Board of Supervisors did not hold a public hearing before the property was transferred. Also, prior to the sale of Prince Edward County land to build the new Lowe’s store in 2007, Prince Edward transferred that parcel of county owned land to the IDA. Apparently no public hearing was held in the Lowe’s case either. These two transfers came only a few years after the Board had been criticized for not holding a 2003 public hearing before selling another piece of county property to an Appomattox developer. That 2003 action clearly violated the intent of the public hearing law.
It seems the county would like to have it their way all the time, the law notwithstanding, or even ethics getting in the way. Neither the previous County Attorney or the present one could explain why the change of heart for a recent 2008 transfer.
In spite of the fact that the Board said in 2006 that no public hearing was required to transfer land to the Industrial Development Authority, last month the Board of Supervisors handled a similar transfer of county property in the opposite way. Prior to transferring lots in the county industrial park to the Industrial Development Authority, the Board of Supervisors held a public hearing at the May 13, 2008 regular Board meeting. When asked at the meeting why a public hearing was being held, County Administrator Wade Bartlett said that a public hearing was required. Then the county attorney, James Ennis, said that the public hearing was required by law, and gave no other reason for the public hearing. His exact words were “It is required by statute.” This is exactly the opposite opinion that had been given two years earlier by the previous county attorney.
When asked a few days later about the conflict between the opinions of the previous county attorney and the present county attorney, a county official said that one county attorney would be unlikely to say that another had made a mistake. This reporter did not ask County Attorney Ennis about any possible mistake by the previous county attorney, but did ask if he based his opinion that a public hearing was required on the same code section that the Board had refused to follow two years earlier. Instead of answering this question directly, in his June 2 written response, Mr. Ennis said that the code section 15.2-1800 B does require that a public hearing be held, but other sections of the Virginia Code do not say that a public hearing is required for transfers to an IDA. The second part of this statement is related to the argument made by Ms. Dickerson in 2006. Mr. Ennis did not explain why failure to mention a public hearing in codes sections about IDAs meant that they were excluded from the public hearing requirement of code section ? 15.2-1800 B. Mr. Ennis also said that it was decided that it was best to hold a public hearing for this transfer, even though it was not required by county policy. Nothing about what might be best or county policy had been mentioned by the county administrator or county attorney in responses to the direct question about the public hearing at the May 13 meeting. A few days after his June 2 response, Mr. Ennis was asked if he still agreed with his May 13 statement that the public hearing was required by law. Instead of providing a yes or no answer, on June 6, Mr. Ennis said that “Depending upon which statute you choose to rely upon, the County may or may not choose to have a public hearing prior to transfers of property to the IDA.” This statement seems to suggest that the Board could decide whether or not they wanted to hold a public hearing, and then choose the code section to justify the action. Mr. Ennis would not directly answer whether or not he still thought the public hearing was required by law. Still, if County Attorney Ennis’ May 13 opinion was correct, the County violated the law in both the YMCA and Lowe’s transfers by failing to hold public hearings.
Prince Edward County has a long history of shady dealings, not that there haven’t been valiant efforts to fight the powers that be. Lacy Ward, a Prince Edward County Supervisor, has been unceasing in his efforts to set the record straight.
Hopefully, by continuing to point out these behaviors, the public will decide to do something about this group of people. These are well-known abuses in this area, and it seems strange to me that not only is the County Attorney allowed to be the Commonwealth Attorney as well, but that the same group of people keep coming up in discussions about past deeds or misdeeds of the Board.