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Cumberland board transparency questioned

The Cumberland County Board of Supervisors, consisting of five new members, met on the evening of Jan. 14 for its first board meeting of the new year. At the Tuesday night meeting, a time limit was not imposed upon the public comments, giving residents a chance to address the new board in detail. A comment involving an unpublicized December meeting involving the new board members and representatives from Green Ridge Recycling and Disposal Facility prompted a heated discussion about both the landfill and board transparency.

District One resident Betty Myers began her address to the board by acknowledging their new roles.

“I’d like to take this moment to acknowledge all of you being elected as the Board of Supervisors by your constituents here in Cumberland County,” said Myers. “This election was based upon transparency, logical decisions, truthfulness and listening to the citizens. One of the concerns I have is the meeting that you, as the newly-elected Board of Supervisors, the meeting you had December 2019 with Green Ridge.”

Myers went on to explain that she had become aware of a meeting between the new board members and Green Ridge representatives held Dec. 9, 2019. The meeting, unannounced to the public, occurred one day before the final meeting of the outgoing board, held Dec.10. At the Dec.10 meeting, the outgoing board designated funds from the proposed landfill as a guide to help the incoming board.

As the Dec. 9 meeting with Green Ridge reps occurred before the new board was sworn in, Myers was concerned that information presented to the new board at said meeting would not be available to the public via a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request.

“And that’s a concern to me, since Green Ridge is such a questionable thing in relation to the host agreement,” Myers added, referencing the Community Host Agreement that the previous board approved in August 2018.

Myers also questioned the announcement that County Waste of Virginia, the company that owns Green Ridge, is being sold to GFL (Green for Life) Environmental, a waste management company headquartered in Toronto, Canada.

“It was also known by you at that meeting that Green Ridge was going to be sold, but in that meeting Dec. 10 there was no mention of Green Ridge being sold, so therefore I have to question how many of the prior supervisors knew about the sale,” she stated. “So, whenever I start looking at this, it kind of looks like, ‘Hm, what’s going on here? Are we falling back into the same old trap that they’re doing things and not being transparent with the citizens?’”

County Administrator Don Unmussig acknowledged and answered Myers’ concern as she ended her comments and turned to take her seat.

“Ms. Myers?” Unmussig asked. “Just for some clarification. When this new board was elected in November, myself and my staff put together for want of better words, a training program for the new supervisors, because prior to Jan. 1, they can meet informally and it doesn’t have to go to the public, because they were not supervisors yet,” he explained.

“We have acted and started a training process for all of our new supervisors to give them the infrastructure with the policy, process; everything that it takes to become a new supervisor, and every Monday night we met, all the way up until it was time (for the first board meeting), and each night I had a different program, and they can all attest to this, I had a different program for the supervisors so that it could develop them to get ready for tonight and the road ahead. One night I had the sheriff, commissioner of revenue, treasurer, superintendent of schools, got overviews of all programs that the county is involved in, and those were not public meetings. Those were training sessions for supervisors who were not sworn in yet, and I thought it was very important for myself and my staff to make sure they had all the tools they needed to be successful coming out of the gate to serve you folks starting day one, because there’s a lot of stuff ahead of us. Green Ridge … was one of the groups coming in, because that’s business for the county. The very next night was a board meeting, and the hot topic for that night was the Second Amendment with the hundreds of people that came.”

He continued, referencing the sale of County Waste of Virginia to GFL Environmental, “At the presentation for Green Ridge, which I thought was fairly well-done, the last slide was the notification to us that they had a merger with that other company, so I had only known and they had only known and the county had only known probably about 20 hours.”

“My question is, was the prior Board of Supervisors invited to that meeting?” asked Myers.

“No ma’am, they were not,” Unmussig answered. “This was a training meeting for the new supervisors.”

“Then my next question is, since it was a training, is the information up as provided by Green Ridge to the board of supervisors that evening? Is that available under FOIA?” Myers asked.

“I’ve spoken to Mr. Cifor,” said Unmussig, referring to County Waste of Virginia Senior Vice President Jerry Cifor. “He’s fine with it.”

“OK, I will request it then,” replied Myers.

Unmussig responded, “That’s not a problem. I mean, ma’am, no one was trying to be less than transparent here. I was just trying to train our new supervisors to be ready to go when the day started.”

Myers went on to ask why the sale of County Waste of Virginia was not mentioned during the new business section of the outgoing board’s Dec. 10 meeting.

New District Two Supervisor Ronald “Ron” Tavernier responded to Myers, stating that the subject had been brought up during a recent conversation with previous District Three Supervisor Kevin Ingle. “They were never made aware of the sale, is what he told me,” stated Tavernier. “So, the previous board was not informed of the sale until it came up in the papers and everything else.”

“Well, obviously you all were informed of it on Dec. 9,” stated Myers.

“Right,” said new District One Supervisor and Board Chairman Brian Stanley. “And it was part of our training and we were-”

“I understand that,” interrupted Myers, “But then why wasn’t the prior Board of Supervisors notified, and why weren’t we as citizens notified at the Dec. 10 meeting?”

“I think that’s a question for Green Ridge as to why they didn’t notify the previous board, and at that point in time, we were still independent, private citizens. We weren’t on the board,” said Tavernier.

“Your county administrator was. He was an employee of the county, therefore he should have notified the Board of Supervisors, who he was employed by at that time.”

Both the landfill and board transparency remained hot topics during the remainder of the public comments.

The Herald reached out to Virginia Coalition for Open Government’s Executive Director Megan Rhyne for insight on how the unpublicized meeting was handled.

“What the newly elected (but not sworn in) board members did was legal under FOIA,” said Rhyne in a statement to The Herald. “FOIA does not apply to those officials who have not yet taken their seats.”

Rhyne referenced an article in The Roanoke Times from November 2019 in which newly-elected councilwoman Johana Hicks of Christiansburg was asked to sign a nondisclosure agreement in order to attend closed meetings with public officials and third parties prior to being sworn in. Hicks, the article cites, was elected to the Christiansburg Town Council after stating that she opposed the number of closed sessions held.

Rhyne also cited an older case in Gloucester in which newly elected members of the local government and some existing members met in groups to discuss the firing of the county attorney so as not to trigger any FOIA issues. “It was legal, but more than one of them lost their next election because citizens were angry.”

Reflecting on the new Cumberland board member’s Dec. 9 meeting, Rhyne stated, “So, while it is not prohibited by the letter of the law, it isn’t consistent with FOIA’s policy statement, which says ‘the affairs of government are not intended to be conducted in an atmosphere of secrecy since at all times the public is to be the beneficiary of any action taken.’”

She continued, “And as the Gloucester case shows, citizens do not like feeling like they’ve been kept in the dark.”

Barbara Speas of District Four also spoke about the landfill and concerns about having an open relationship with the board during the January board meeting’s public comments.

“I think what you’ve heard tonight and what you will continue to hear is that the citizens of Cumberland have been most upset over the lack of transparency,” said Speas. She went on to echo other public complaints about the previous Cumberland Board of Supervisors. “And I don’t just mean information being portrayed and relayed to the public, but the citizens have had a sincere feeling that they have been talked down to. They have had information withheld from them. They have felt that things were done underhanded just enough to get by legally.”