Thin vote approves storage barns

Published 12:39 pm Wednesday, September 13, 2017

By Diana McFarland

Managing editor

Whether to construct two new buildings at Windsor Castle Park came down to a 2-1 vote by the Smithfield Town Council Sept. 5.

After initially calling the motion a failure, town attorney William Riddick said he would check with the clerk of the General Assembly to see if the vote is legally binding, given that four council members declined to vote, but Riddick added that they were not required to abstain.

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After consulting with the clerk of the General Assembly, it was determined the vote was valid, according to Town Clerk Lesley King.

“There’s no conflict here whatsoever,” said Riddick in a phone interview, referring to the decision by council members Connie Chapman, Andrew Gregory, Randy Pack and Mayor Carter Williams’ not to vote due to their ties to activities at Windsor Castle Park. {mprestriction ids=”1,2,3,4,5,6″}

Council member Denise Tynes cast the lone dissenting vote. Council members Milton Cook and Mike Smith voted in favor of the building plans.

Riddick said he consulted with the clerk because a vote like this has not happened before in Smithfield.

“It’s really obscure,” he said.

Prior to the vote, Tynes raised questions about the connections other council members have to Smithfield VA Events and Windsor Castle Park.

The two buildings will be used by SVAE.

Tynes asked if the town could take the issue to the Virginia Conflict of Interest and Ethics Committee, but the rest of the Council did not want to pursue that option.

“All of this is wrong. This is what I was taught,” said Tynes in a phone interview about conflict and ethics training she has received while serving on other bodies. 

In a phone interview, Williams said that while the four members of Council were not required to abstain from voting, he thought it would be the prudent thing to do, given the level of connection between some members and various interests at the park.

In an email, Chapman said she abstained because she recently got a job with Isle of Wight County Tourism and was named to the Smithfield VA Events committee.

The meeting was also Chapman’s last as she announced she is resigning immediately.

An attorney with the Virginia Conflict of Interest and Ethics Committee declined to comment on a particular situation, but referred questions to Virginia’s Conflict of Interest Act.

The Act, outlined in the Code of Virginia, includes 2.2-3103, which pertains to officers and employees of state and local government, and provides a long and detailed list of prohibited conduct, such as using for economic benefit confidential information that has been acquired by reason of that person’s position and which is not available to the public.

The maintenance and storage buildings will be built by and owned by the town at an estimated cost of $350,000. The estimate also includes improvements to the interior of the caretaker’s house, which will also be leased by SVAE.

The buildings, which will be used by SVAE, will include a restroom in one and heat and air-conditioning in both barns, according to Project Manager Rick Bodson.

The restroom is included for individuals working there and because there are no other facilities nearby, said Bodson, adding that the caretaker’s house will have a restroom but it may be locked when volunteers are in the storage buildings. The HVAC system is being included because the stored materials require conditioned space, Bodson said, adding that those additions were specified by and are being paid for by SVAE. 

SVAE, which hosts three large events a year at the park, is to pay $27,000 a year in rent in exchange for use of the caretaker’s house and two buildings. The lease is for 15 years.

Smithfield VA Events’ lease proceeds will go into the general fund and the town can use it to pay its bills, including the debt service on the loan for the new buildings, Riddick said.

“The town is not borrowing money for someone else,” he said.

The sublease for SVAE was approved in July, with Council members Pack, Gregory and Williams abstaining.

Riddick said approving the construction of the buildings was not a conflict of interest. It’s not about subleasing, he said.

There are multiple intersections between the Town Council, the Windsor Castle Park Foundation, Historic Windsor Castle Restoration LLC and Smithfield VA Events.

Williams is the chairman for the LLC, Gregory is a member of the Smithfield VA Events committee and Pack is its president. Cook and Chapman are on the Windsor Castle Park Foundation Board. Cook is a member of the LLC.

Smithfield VA Events was a for-profit corporation until earlier this year when it obtained non-profit status. The organization has used the 18th century manor house as an office and storage space.

Historic Windsor Castle LLC was established last year as a way to manage the restoration of the historic property. The LLC was funded with a $2 million pledge of tax money from the town and $1 million donation from Smithfield Foods. The organization plans to seek historic tax credits as a part of the restoration process.

The Windsor Castle Foundation is a non-profit that raises money for park projects, such as the natural playscape for children. 

Riddick said none of those council members connected to those organizations are “lining their pockets” from their activities at Windsor Castle Park and many organizations in town are benefitting from the money that is raised.

Smithfield VA Events allows non-profit organizations to volunteer at the festivals to receive compensation, and groups can apply for a $10,000 donation from the event proceeds.

As of last year, Smithfield VA Events had given out more than $500,000 to local charities, as well as monies to the town for park maintenance.

Riddick said the group is tight and interconnected because there’s no one else in town that wants to volunteer at this level.

The application for the two buildings, which was previously approved by the Board of Historic and Architectural Review, was scheduled by town staff to be the subject of a pre-public hearing discussion during the committee meetings Aug. 29. However, Riddick and Bodson said during that meeting a public hearing was not necessary. Based on that opinion, a hearing was not held on the proposal.

Riddick said the two new buildings were on the plans drawn up a few years ago and with SVAE’s interest, the town is getting them sooner rather than later.

According to Randy Jones with the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, the agency is not mandating that the buildings be constructed and that it is strictly the town’s desire to do so.  {/mprestriction}