Story by Chris Graham
A series of legal snafus that arose during the process of confirmation following the bond referenda in Waynesboro that were on the Nov. 6 ballot could soon be resolved without a new election or a court order.
“I think the people made an error in putting in the fire station, but I work for the people, so I have to abide by what the people want. So I’m in all likelihood going to go with what the people want, and I’m going to vote for the referendums that they passed. … I’m not 100 percent sure, but I’m leaning in the direction of – I think I work for the people, and I have to do what they want me to do,” Waynesboro City Councilman Frank Lucente told The Augusta Free Press this afternoon.
It was revealed yesterday that the referenda – on five bonds projects, including a new West End fire station, improvements to the city library and improvements to the city stormwater system, all three of which were approved by voters – fell short of meeting requirements set out by an order of Waynesboro Circuit Court because a legal advertisement that was supposed to be published in The News Virginian 10 days prior to the election never actually ran.
Court files indicate that clerk of council Julia Bortle clerk of the court Nicole Briggs followed normal office procedure by mailing a copy of the ad to the local paper – but the ad was never published, and in a statement, the paper’s advertising director, Sherry Suggs, said employees had searched through records from September, October and November and “found no documentation of having received an order for a legal notice regarding the bond referendum.”
In a story published in this morning’s News Virginian, it was reported that Lucente and City Councilman Tim Williams were considering backing out on their pledges to vote in support of bond issues that had been approved by city voters in light of the issues that have since been brought to light with the conduct of the elections.
Lucente told the AFP this afternoon that he did not indicate that he was thinking about changing his position on his vote on the bond issues in his comments to the paper.
“When I found out, it was too quick to make a decision. I needed to study it. I’ve got to really look at it, talk to the rest of the council,” Lucente said today.
A news release issued by the city on Wednesday also revealed this nugget – that in effect city officials who had said before the referenda votes that the results of the elections were nonbinding had been in err.
According to the release, the court order that put the election on the ballot also set forth that only a three-fifths majority of city council would be needed along with a majority vote of city voters to approve the issuance of bonds.
A four-fifths supermajority of the council would be needed to approve bonds in the absence of referenda approval.
City manager Doug Walker and members of city council including Lucente and Lorie Smith seemed to indicate in comments to media organizations including The Augusta Free Press that they had believed the referenda to be nonbinding and that a four-fifths supermajority of council would still be required to approve the bond issues even after an affirmative vote from city voters.
To resolve the issue with the failure of the city to have the legal notice run in the local paper, the city could initiate a bond-validation proceeding in Waynesboro Circuit Court that could return the city council to the place where it should have been in the first place – i.e. where a three-fifths majority of council would be all that would be needed to approve bond issues.
A second alternative would be a second bond referenda. A third option is approval by a four-fifths majority of city council of the projects that won the approval of voters.
That third option is where Lucente’s lean toward going along with the will of the voters comes into play.
“The ad didn’t run. That was an unfortunate situation. But I don’t think it was enough to throw the election out the window,” Lucente said.
“I don’t want to have another election, nor do I want to waste the court’s time and the staff’s time. I’m just going to go along – probably going to go along with the results of the election,” Lucente said.
“That’s the way that I feel – but I won’t be definite about it until I meet with the council at the work session,” Lucente said.
Chris Graham is the executive editor of The Augusta Free Press.