The Augusta County Board of Supervisors is poised to go into closed session on Friday, with one county politics source telling Augusta Free Press that the intent is to address the ongoing fight by a BOS member to address apparently illegal civil fees that have been assessed on animal owners whose pets have ended up in local animal shelters.
The county sent out a public notice on Tuesday to announce a special called meeting of the Board of Supervisors set for Friday at 9 a.m. that has one item – a proposed closed session under the personnel exemption, which allows for closed-door discussion, consideration or interviews of prospective candidates for employment, or assignment, appointment, promotion, performance, demotion, salaries, disciplining or resignation of specific employees.
The notice posted on Tuesday points to the personnel matter to be discussed being related to the Board of Supervisors, which County Administrator Tim Fitzgerald confirmed in an email to AFP.
What: Augusta County Board of Supervisors meeting
When: Friday, June 2, 9 a.m.
Where: Augusta County Government Center, Board of Supervisors Conference Room
Status: Open to the public
Fitzgerald wrote in the email that “the board cannot discuss the fees, as the personnel exception under the closed session will not allow the fee discussion to occur. If the fees were to be discussed, they would have to be under the legal closed session exception, which was not in the special call of the meeting.”
We could speculate, as our source did, that the matter could involve somebody resigning from the board – and, yes, that’s already happened once this year, with Steven Morelli stepping down from his South River seat in March.
It could also be that Wayne District Supervisor Scott Seaton will be in the hot seat over his push to get the county to address the animal shelter fees.
It would seem more likely that it’s the latter, given that Seaton tried during a public discussion of the fee issue at a BOS meeting last week to get County Administrator Tim Fitzgerald and County Attorney James Benkahla to go into detail about the legality of the shelter fees.
Fitzgerald and Benkahala tried several times to steer the discussion initiated last week by Seaton to a closed session, efforts that Seaton, who has asserted that the fees are being assessed without supporting local ordinances in place, resisted.
“I didn’t find anything in the code that allows us to charge these fees. It looks like the county and the two cities are illegally charging the fees,” Seaton told Augusta Free Press last week.
The shelter has come under closer public scrutiny since the tragic story of Annabelle, who ended up at the Shenandoah Valley Animal Services Center after being scared by a structure fire near her Craigsville home and was picked up by a county animal control officer.
Annabelle’s owner, Jessica Evans, said she didn’t have the money to pay fees related to her dog running at large – and was convinced to sign paperwork surrendering her dog to the shelter.
Evans told the animal control officer and the clerk handling the paperwork that she wanted to re-adopt her dog when she got paid, but her dog was euthanized before she could take care of the fines.
Seaton asserted last week that “Annabelle would still be alive” if not for the civil fees unlawfully assessed to Evans.
There is an ordinance on the books in Augusta County that allows the shelter to charge pet owners with animals being held there to charge fees associated with the actual costs of housing the animals, according to County Administrator Tim Fitzgerald.
That fee is set at $15 per day, Fitzgerald told AFP in an email.
The matter of the civil fees that Seaton has raised issue with is being reviewed by legal teams from the three localities “to determine what action, if any, needs to be taken,” Fitzgerald said in the email.
Seaton is adamant that action does need to be taken, not only to clarify things going forward, but to address fees that were illegally assessed to pet owners in the past.
An independent review of the fees assessed on pet owners shows that the total could approach or surpass $1 million over the past 20 years, with annual civil fee collections ranging from $40,000 to $70,000 per year.
“Why aren’t we returning the money to people who have had to pay these fees? If we make a mistake and don’t pay our property taxes on time, we’re penalized. Why isn’t it the same when the government makes a mistake?” Seaton told AFP last week.