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Treasurer candidates debate merits of suit

Story by Chris Graham

The bulk of the attention in the Staunton city elections this fall has been on the hot commissioner of the revenue race pitting incumbent Ray Ergenbright and challenger Maggie Ragon – and their tussle over whether or not Ergenbright should shoulder the blame for the delayed implementation of a new revenue-management software system.

But that isn’t to say that the treasurer’s race matching incumbent Elnora Hazlett and two challengers who have been raising issue with Hazlett’s decision to sue the city over a move by Staunton City Council earlier this year to transfer several key financial-oversight duties to the city finance office has been entirely glossed over.

“There are so many other ways that we can affect change rather than bringing a lawsuit. And I think that those avenues have to be pursued,” said one of the challengers, Rick Johnson, in a candidates forum sponsored by the Newtown Neighborhood Association last week.

“I do agree that the constitutional officers need to remain in place. They provide a good service, and they provide a good way for the taxpayers to be heard. But as far as the suit goes, that’s an expense that the taxpayers really shouldn’t have to bear,” Johnson said.

Hazlett filed the suit in May – alleging that city council had overstepped its bounds by transferring the powers of oversight on matters including public bonds, long-term investments and banking services to the finance office.

Hazlett had brought up questions early on in the council’s review of the proposed transfer of power as to whether the city had the power under its city charter and under the Code of Virginia to effect the transfer.

Johnson and another challenger to Hazlett, Dolores Duncan, have publicly questioned Hazlett’s decision to take the matter to court – and passing the expenses for defending the suit to city taxpayers.

Hazlett said at last week’s forum that she filed the suit to protect the interests of city residents.

“And as for the expense, that expense comes out of my pocket. I’m paying for that. The Treasurers Association of Virginia has offered to come in and help also, because this not only affects the city of Staunton, but this affects all constitutional offices in the state of Virginia,” Hazlett said.

“We do have a full-time lawyer. And he’s the one who recommended to the city council that they could take this action. So if that expense is being passed on to the taxpayers, it’s because they had to approve it,” Hazlett said.

Duncan said the main issue that she saw with the city-council action was not the one related to the oversight over bonds and investments – but rather the issue involving the collection of utilities bills, which was also handed over to the finance office.

“I don’t believe that’s a tax. There’s a little tax attached to it, but I don’t see that as being a tax issue,” Duncan said at last week’s candidates forum.

“I have no desire to go back and take that away from the city finance office, unless of course they want to give it back. That would be a different issue. But I’m not personally going to pursue that issue,” Duncan said.

Johnson’s take: “I definitely wouldn’t pursue this with a lawsuit.”

“When you look at the duties that went away, you need to look at where those duties have been handled. And when I get in there, if I feel those duties are best handled back in the treasurer’s office, I’ll make that proposal. That does not mean that if somebody doesn’t want to do it my way, I’m going to run and file a lawsuit,” Johnson said.

“I don’t want to get in a power struggle with someone just to say that I have power. I want to see those duties being handled in the best possible place for the citizens,” Johnson said.