Augusta: The divided Augusta BOS
The Top Story by Chris Graham
On its face, the drive by Tracy Pyles to have members of the Augusta County Board of Supervisors share on the Internet the details of their expense reports makes sense. County taxpayers, as Pyles argues, do have a right to know how their money is being spent, and if it’s going to lobster dinners at national conferences and trips back and forth to the Government Center that may or may not seem excessive.
But Pyles’ critics have a point, too, when they question whether the Pastures District representative is really motivated by the desire to bring more transparency and openness to county government.
“I voted against it for two reasons. One is his motivation had nothing to do with truth, it was just being (BS). The other – I’d be glad to show mine to anybody at any time, but I’m not going to put it on the Internet for people who have nothing better to do than sit there and look at it,” said Middle River Supervisor Gerald Garber, who joined the 6-1 majority that voted against the proposal from Pyles two months ago to make board members’ expense reports available on the county government website.
“I don’t turn in mileage. I’m glad for him to bring mine up, because I don’t ever turn it in,” Garber said. “But I’d never vote to put it on the Internet as much as anything else because he’s being a little … .” I’ll leave out the specific noun that Garber used to refer to Pyles, but you probably get the idea. Tensions among members of the board of supervisors are at an all-time high, and that’s saying something considering where we were with the controversy over the proposed Toyota megasite that dominated the county headlines in 2006 and 2007.
The most recent division arose when Pyles raised issue regarding the details of a proposed development in Fishersville that was being considered by the board – specifically the suggested infusion of taxpayer money into the construction of an entrance into the residential development. This triggered a run of contentious discussions on that topic and related issues with respect to a road that would link Va. 636 that runs in front of Augusta Medical Center for which Pyles discovered an apparent accounting discrepancy that had gone unnoticed before. The expense-reports issue has come up and lingered on in the context of those other political differences.
The sum effect of the summer and early autumn of discontent has been the establishment of a sort of iron curtain between Pyles and basically the other six members of the board of supervisors. “When you see Nancy Sorrells and David Beyeler agreeing on things, you know things have gotten interesting,” one member of the board told me, alluding to the leaders of the respective political factions on the board on growth and development issues who have become unlikely political bedfellows of late.
Pyles has gone strenuously after both – referring to Beyeler in a guest column in the News Leader published last week as “The Exalted Grand Pooh-Bah” over differences the two have had on a Pyles proposal regarding county property reassessments and detailing pointed questions about Sorrells’ expense reports in a lengthy interview with me on that issue. “There are things that bothered me in terms of, Was it appropriate?” Pyles said in reference to Sorrells’ expense reports, about which he has addressed charges regarding the amount and nature of some of her requests for reimbursement for mileage and trips to conferences taken at county taxpayers’ expense.
Pyles shrugs off the suggestion that he is being petty in pushing the issues with his fellow supervisors. “We’re big boys and girls, and we’re supposed to be the leaders, and we shouldn’t have to be told what to do. We should know on our own how to treat the people’s resources,” Pyles said. “I thought the best way to deal with the abuses that I saw was just putting them out there. If a person doesn’t have a problem with what they put down, and they could justify them with the people, then it’s a legitimate expense,” Pyles said.
Sorrells, for her part, said she doesn’t have a problem with the expense accounts being made public, as they already are open for public purview under state law. “It’s public information, and absolutely we need to be transparent with everything we do,” Sorrells said. “What I do have a problem with is if you put them up on the website without any explanation, then you leave it open to people’s interpretation of what this document is you’re looking at. All of them require some explanation,” Sorrells said.
“It needs to be up there, but if it’s up there, it needs to have an explanation beside it. And I don’t have time to sit down and write a 10-page report justifying what I did at (a National Association of Counties conference), for instance. Which I feel I would have to do if it was going to be up there,” Sorrells said.
Her point there is a good one. The reports as they are currently available are a hodgepodge at best – the standard being a long list of line items with spare details on the mileage of trips taken to the Government Center and meetings with constituents and bills for meals and accommodations at statewide and nationwide government conferences. Little of it would make sense to the average person without something in the way of explanation offered alongside it.
“Just to put the expenses up there without any justification, rationale, the board obviously spoke resoundingly that they were not in favor of that. And it didn’t have anything to do with not wanting to have that information shared publicly,” said Wendell Coleman, who represents the Fishersville area as the Wayne District supervisor, and has been another target of Pyles in recent months.
“Our expense accounts, and what some of us are claiming and not claiming, I don’t personally as a supervisor get into that. If Nancy claims something as an expense, or Gerald, or anybody on the board, incur a legitimate expense, and they feel like they should be reimbursed for it, there’s a provision, there’s a county policy, that covers that,” Coleman said.
“It has nothing to do with we’re doing something that we don’t want people to know about. It doesn’t have anything to do with hiding something or keeping something from the public. We just don’t feel this needs to be on the county website,” Coleman said.
Sorrells concedes that she can see the point of the matter being raised by Pyles. But she feels that Pyles is missing the counterargument that “not one of the supervisors is in it for the big money or the big perks and travel. We’re in it to try to help the people,” Sorrells said.
“And I wonder if you’re spending all your time trying to uncover stuff on your fellow supervisors if you’re not letting down the people you represent,” Sorrells said. “Because we’ve got big issues in the county that we need to face as a board together and really spend some time and dive deep into it. And if we’re spending all of time nitpicking into whether Larry Howdyshell put in an extra 20 miles on his expense account because he really didn’t have to come to Verona that day, could’ve stayed out in the field and done his real job, I wonder if we’re not neglecting things that are really important,” Sorrells said.
“It’s just the issue of the week. He’s just looking to get into something, and this is one of those somethings,” Garber said, adding his two cents. “He’s creating bad government. He’s got staff sort of looking over their shoulder. He’s got board members that would probably ask legitimate questions but don’t just because you don’t want to set him off. He’s singlehandedly creating more bad government than I would have thought would be possible.”
“My question is, Where is he going? What’s he trying to do?” Coleman said. “That’s the way this strikes me. I won’t speak for anybody else. But where’s he trying to go with this? We can’t individually and we can’t collectively figure out where he’s coming from,” Coleman said.
Pyles’ response: “I feel my role is to try to explain as well as I can what is out there, but not to make an idiot of myself, screaming every meeting about something,” Pyles said.
“It was a little bothersome when I put it out there that it was one to six. I didn’t think it would be one to six. And there wasn’t one thing said. Not one person said, Here’s why we shouldn’t do it,” Pyles said. “When they were contacted by the media, one said, Well, they’d be taken out of context, it would be hard to understand, there’s too much there. You don’t need to explain it. Put it out there and let people look at it. You can put it on a PDF file, and people can click through it. And if they have questions, they can ask questions,” Pyles said.
“People need to know when you’re out of view what you’re doing,” Pyles said.