Column – Intimidation tactics have no place in civic discourse

Published 6:30 pm Tuesday, April 2, 2024

Smithfield’s leadership class struck me as oddly desperate last fall as the controversial Grange at 10Main floundered in the face of intense opposition from citizens and elected officials.

I’ve since learned just how desperate. The details should alarm anyone who values the rights of citizens to get involved in government decision-making and speak up on matters that concern them. 

Recent emails I stumbled on in a broader Virginia Freedom of Information Act request reveal the depths to which the community’s power structure is willing to go to push an unpopular growth agenda and cling to control of our town.

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Renee Bevan is one of this community’s brightest, most engaged, most informed citizens. I’ve watched her since, as a Smithfield newcomer, I attended my first town Planning Commission in 2021 and saw the massive Mallory Pointe subdivision on Battery Park Road clear its first hurdle with the blessing of a Planning Commission indifferent to citizen feedback. 

As some opponents got too emotional that night, Bevan was noteworthy to me for her calm, rational, factual takedown of the developer’s plan during the mandatory public hearing on the property’s rezoning and related special use permits. 

I’d never met her but concluded she was a kindred spirit. Small-town politics has never been personal for me. I state my opinions and throw open this page to anyone who has one contrary to my own.

Since that night in 2021, I’ve listened to Bevan speak a dozen times or more at Town Council and Planning Commission meetings. My respect for her has grown, even when I’d occasionally disagree with her on a particular point. In short, Smithfield needs more citizens like Renee Bevan.

If the vindictive leadership class in this town had its way, she’d be unemployed.

The day before Thanksgiving last fall, then-Isle of Wight County Supervisor Dick Grice emailed a honcho at TowneBank complaining that certain unidentified “constituents” were concerned about Bevan’s “opposing view” on a “prickly local issue,” which we know to be the Grange. Grice claimed, without evidence, that Bevan had been “promoting her role” at TowneBank while expressing her views on the “local issue.” These “constituents” feared that Bevan would “impact their ongoing relationship” with the bank, he wrote.

Having attended or watched online nearly every meeting at which Bevan spoke, I couldn’t recall a single time in which she even identified her employer, much less promoted it. After reading his email to TowneBank brass, I asked Grice what he was referencing. He wouldn’t comment.

This was around the time the town’s power structure lost its collective mind over the longshot write-in candidacy of Chris Torre for Grice’s Board of Supervisors seat. Bevan had the audacity to support Torre, who had the audacity to challenge Renee Rountree of the leadership class.

Torre, as state law allows, gave voters the chance to write in an alternative to Rountree, who was known on the Town Council for her support of massive residential growth, which most people in this town oppose. Indeed, Rountree would go on to lose more than a third of the vote to fill-in-the-blank, despite a behind-the-scenes campaign against Torre that, it turns out, involved Grice and Bill Yoakum, chair of the Isle of Wight Republican Party. So unwelcome was Torre’s candidacy that Rountree’s son-in-law stole the man’s yard signs, which Rountree stashed in her home’s crawl space, landing her in misdemeanor court, where she got a tongue-lashing from the judge and was ordered to perform community service.

Emails uncovered thanks to FOIA revealed Grice’s and Yoakum’s involvement in finding and distributing an online listing of some civil lawsuits from his time as a commercial builder in California. Grice acknowledged in an email to Rountree and Yoakum that he didn’t bother to check into the disposition of those lawsuits. 

The depth to which the leadership class plummeted last fall makes amusing, if not offensive, the complaints by former Town Councilman Milton Cook to current council members in December that supporters of the Grange were scared to speak up because of “anger and vitriol.” This was the same Cook who just months earlier had unleashed on Facebook a nutty, easily disproved conspiracy theory that this publisher had manipulated the results of an online reader poll about the Grange. It must require some anger and vitriol to recognize anger and vitriol.

I’ve developed a thick skin in four decades of community newspaper publishing. In the past year alone, I’ve been bullied by a developer who didn’t like Stephen Faleski’s news coverage of his project. A Grange at 10Main supporter and “from here” showed up unannounced at my home on a Saturday morning, telling my wife he had “a bone to pick” with me. A member of the power structure passive-aggressively emailed me and wondered why he continued to advertise with the Times given my editorial views. 

Intimidation tactics come with the territory in my business. They shouldn’t be used on concerned citizens like Renee Bevan.


Steve Stewart is publisher of The Smithfield Times. His email address is