In September, 14 Warren County employees and administrators were indicted by a Warren County special grand jury, as investigations continue into the embezzlement scandal that has rocked the small town of Front Royal. Among those indicted were all five members of the Warren County Board of Supervisors. In response, local citizens filed a petition for the removal of those supervisors last week. WMRA’s Randi B. Hagi reports.
A hearing has been set for Oct. 28 for all five supervisors of Warren County, to determine whether they should keep their positions on the board – thanks to a citizen petition for their removal. All five were indicted last month on misdemeanor charges for failing to act when public funds were allegedly being embezzled through the county’s Economic Development Authority [EDA].
Those indictments were the last straw for Bonnie Gabbert, who had already begun talking to an attorney in July about using a petition for a recall election.
BONNIE GABBERT: When the entire board of supervisors got indicted, for malfeasance and nonfeasance, the attorney reached out to me,* and he said Bonnie – you know, this is the perfect time to do this if you want to do it.
Virginia is one of the few states that does not allow for recall elections. But as Gabbert and the rest of the Front Royal/Warren County Citizen Alliance found out, there was another option. Their attorney, Timothy Johnson of Berryville, explains.
TIMOTHY JOHNSON: If [one] district, in the last election for a board of supervisors was 1,000 persons who voted in total, then to be able to proceed with a petition for removal, there need to be 10 percent of that thousand people.
There are five districts within Warren County that each elect a supervisor – each district needed between 100 and 250 signatures for the petition to be viable. After that petition was filed with the courts on Friday, it fell to Judge Bruce Albertson to proceed, by issuing a rule to show cause.
JOHNSON: … which is a standard type of order that is entered in all kinds of cases.
And if things go as planned, in the courtroom on the 28th?
JOHNSON: Then it’s, it’s an actual court case, where the judge will be the determining factor as to whether these persons should remain in office or not at that time.
Gabbert lives in the North River District, close to the county seat of Front Royal proper. With the help of four other petitioners and a dozen volunteers, they collected a total of 941 signatures – snagging the last hundred or so on Thursday evening. Besides organizing on social media, Gabbert says they’ve been pounding the pavement to reach everyone who wants to sign the petition.
GABBERT: We had, our first signing event was at the park. We have gone to livestock auctions and set up in the road, and waved people down ... Lowe’s parking lot with these big signs … a local barber shop in town, a beauty salon, that actually is collecting signatures for us, which was phenomenal…
And Gabbert has cross-checked every address herself, to make sure that there are no duplicates, and that each signature is in the appropriate district. While not everybody agrees with her, she says that most people have responded enthusiastically to the petition.
GABBERT: I think everybody’s really angry. That’s the feeling that I’m getting from people, when they look at me and they say, ‘give me that sheet, this has got to stop, you know. These people have ripped us off enough, they’ve, you know, taken our tax dollars, and used it for their own purposes.’ … The perception is that they’ve been taken advantage of.
Local residents were especially incited by a county board meeting a few weeks ago, when the supervisors brought up the possibility of using county dollars to pay for their legal fees. They ultimately tabled the decision until their December meeting.
GABBERT: And everybody just went crazy in that room, so then they decided to wait, to postpone it until the December 15th meeting.
Even without the petition, three of the seats are on the ballot next month; their current supervisors’ terms are over at the end of the year. Only one of the supervisors nearing the end of his term is running for reelection: Tom Sayre of the Shenandoah district. He’s also the only supervisor who has publicly announced that he would not use taxpayer money for his legal fees.
GABBERT: It was wild indeed. They had a hard time keeping people in line that night.
Gabbert was born in Front Royal, and spent part of her childhood here. She and her husband returned from Northern Virginia to retire, in 2005.
GABBERT: I think that Front Royal is a wonderful town … but I’m hoping that this will help clean up the biggest parts of what’s wrong.
That sentiment, of “cleaning up,” or “taking back” the county, has been echoed by others who helped organize the petition.
JOHNSON: One thing I’ve really enjoyed about working on this is I’ve had an opportunity ... a number of volunteers, including Bonnie of course, who really have this great passion for trying to clean up Warren County.
Update: Earlier this week, after each supervisor was served a summons, the board announced a special meeting to be held Friday morning to discuss the employment of legal counsel regarding the petition.
*Note: Timothy Johnson says he was not the first lawyer who contacted Bonnie Gabbert, whom she also mentions in this story. WMRA regrets any confusion that reference caused.