WINCHESTER — City Council has decided it does not want to be involved with the hiring and firing of city department heads.
The issue was first brought up for consideration after Winchester Fire and Rescue Chief William A. Garrett was temporarily suspended from duty in late November by then-City Manager Eden Freeman. Garrett protested Freeman’s decision and asked City Council to review his case.
At that time, the only city department head whose hiring and firing could be reviewed by council was the police chief. Rather than extending the appeal option to the fire and rescue chief, council voted 8-1 Tuesday to remove itself from any personnel decisions involving department heads, including the police chief.
Councilor Les Veach opposed the measure, stating: “As an elected official, we are ultimately responsible.”
Another contested matter that surfaced following Garrett’s suspension was the re-introduction of proposed bylaws that would govern council’s operations and the conduct of its members.
The bylaws were first proposed in 2017 by Mayor David Smith, but were twice set aside by council due to objections over the document’s redundancies and overreaching rules.
After The Winchester Star obtained copies of emails that Garrett sent to City Council regarding his conflict with Freeman, the bylaws were brought up once again at council’s meeting on March 10. At that time, Republican Councilor Bill Wiley, who was involved in creating and refining the bylaws, said they were not ready for adoption, but council’s five Democrats overruled the four GOP members and advanced them to a final vote.
That vote came on Tuesday, when the bylaws were approved 6-3. This time, Wiley supported their adoption, but his fellow Republican councilors remained in opposition.
Among other things, the new bylaws forbid council members from discussing or sharing information regarding city personnel decisions with the media. Violators can be censured by a majority vote of council, but censuring is merely a public reprimand with no impact on a councilor’s ability to participate in meetings or vote on issues.
In other business at Tuesday’s meeting and work session, City Council:
Voted unanimously to approve a conditional-use permit request from Bassers Building LLC to construct two medical office buildings, one of which may contain up to eight residential apartments, at 633 Cedar Creek Grade.
Voted unanimously to refund $23,423.40 in real estate taxes to the SPCA of Winchester, Frederick and Clarke Counties. The nonprofit was taxed in error from 2016 to 2018.
Voted unanimously to continue consideration of a resolution supporting the Northwestern Community Service Board’s effort to obtain a loan of up to $4 million to buy property in Frederick County in order to consolidate its local offices. Councilors want to know what transportation options will be available for the new facility before voting on the resolution.
Held first readings of three ordinances that would give the city more flexibility to operate during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The first would give council authorization to hold meetings via telephone or video conference, as long as steps are taken to allow public involvement. The second would allow the city to waive penalties and interest for businesses that are late filing or paying their meals taxes, transient occupancy taxes or admissions taxes through May 31. The third would allow council to fast track its decisions on time-sensitive resolutions and ordinances.
Heard a fiscal year 2021 budget proposal from Winchester Public Schools. The system is seeking $31,409,070 in local funding from City Council.
Voted 8-0-1 to forward the proposed issuance of $17.1 million in public improvement bonds. Wiley abstained because his employer, The Shockey Cos., has been contracted for an infrastructure project that will be funded by bond proceeds.
It is not clear if council Vice President Evan Clark was involved in the following discussions. Clark was participating in the meeting and work session via conference call, but his connection may have been terminated because he stopped responding to questions. As a result, the vote totals listed below assume that Clark was not involved.
Voted 8-0 to forward adoption of a 93-cent real estate tax rate for FY21.
Voted 8-0 to forward a proposed operating budget of $93,882,000 for FY21, but indicated that significant cuts to the proposal are likely due to anticipated losses of tax revenues as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Voted 8-0 to extend the current term of School Board member Marie Imoh to Dec. 31 as part of the city’s transition to an elected board.
Voted 8-0 to forward the appointments of Elizabeth Savage to a four-year term on the Shenandoah Valley Workforce Development Board, expiring June 30, 2024, and Amanda Parrish to an indefinite term on the Old Town Advancement Commission.
Voted 8-0 to forward the appointment of interim City Manager Mary Beth Price to several board seats formerly held by Freeman, who left the city in mid-March. If approved, Price would become a member of the Juvenile Detention Commission, Local Board of Social Services, Winchester-Frederick County Metropolitan Planning Organization Policy Board, Regional Jail Authority and Community Policy and Management Team; an administrative advisory member of the Winchester Planning Commission; and an ex-officio member of the Social Services Advisory Board.
Voted 8-0 to forward the appointment of Price to replace Freeman as Winchester’s director of emergency management, effective April 14.
Attending Tuesday night’s City Council meeting and work session in Rouss City Hall were Mayor and council President David Smith and councilors Kim Herbstritt, Corey Sullivan, John Willingham and Les Veach. Vice Mayor John Hill, council Vice President Evan Clark, and councilors Judy McKiernan and Bill Wiley participated via teleconference.