WARM SPRINGS — Local politics is so heated in Bath County these days that the board of supervisors moved its Dec. 13 meeting to the county’s circuit courtroom to accommodate an overflow crowd, which watched the proceedings in quiet disapproval.
Three of the supervisors — Chairwoman Claire Collins, Richard Byrd and Stuart Hall — could soon find themselves back in the same courtroom.
Angered by the board’s surprise vote in September to eliminate the county’s director of tourism position, a group of citizens has launched a legal effort to have the three supervisors removed from office.
In a rural county known for its mineral springs and mountain views, and where many of the 4,400-some residents take pride in having not a single traffic light but lots of traffic-stopping sights, the controversy has exposed underlying cultural tensions in a debate about growth.
Outrage piqued on two fronts: The board’s decision was seen as a swipe at tourism, a key industry that revolves around the Omni Homestead, a luxury resort and the county’s largest employer. And to many, the 4-1 vote seemed motivated by a personal grudge against Maggie Anderson, who as director of tourism and economic development was part of a husband-and-wife team that helped lure a major employer to Bath County.
“It’s a fiasco, really,” said Anderson’s husband, Wayne, who also counts himself as a victim of “small town politics.”
As chairman of the county’s Economic Development Authority, Wayne Anderson collaborated with his wife, Maggie, to recruit a manufacturer of whisky barrel staves to Bath County. In April, the board of supervisors opted not to reappoint Anderson, taking him off the authority as he worked to close the deal.
Eventually, Speyside Bourbon Cooperage announced that it will build its stave mill in the county’s industrial park.
But what was celebrated as a coup for the local economy in August was followed by Maggie Anderson’s forced departure in September. The Andersons’ supporters believe the supervisors who voted to eliminate her position, and dismiss her husband five months earlier, were peeved because they were not told of some details about the Speyside project until it was announced.
When the newly elected board took office in January, “they demanded to know who the company was,” said Bruce McWilliams, a former board member. But the ongoing negotiations were private, and the Andersons said disclosing the name would violate a confidentiality agreement.
“I am assuming this is one of the flies in the ointment for this board, because they just couldn’t stand it and they wanted to know what the name of the company was,” Wayne Anderson said. But, he said, “I had given them [Speyside] my word I would not disclose that.”
After that, McWilliams said, “it got sort of personal.”
Misuse of office?
During board meetings, Collins, Byrd and Hall have offered few reasons for their vote to cut the tourism position. All three declined to comment for this story. Their silence has fueled small-town speculation about personal vendettas and paybacks.
“It just didn’t make any sense,” McWilliams said of the board’s decision. “Everybody was just sort of speechless. We spent a lot of time asking questions as a community, and we just didn’t get any answers at all.”
In late September, McWilliams and several other county residents began collecting signatures on three petitions, filed in late November, that ask a Circuit Court judge to intervene.
Collins, Byrd and Hall should be removed from office, the petitions state, “due to neglect, misuse of office, or incompetence in the performance of duties.”
The petitions allege the board violated the Virginia Freedom of Information Act when it held a closed session to discuss eliminating the director of tourism position — a change in governmental structure that should have been addressed during the public part of its meeting.
A hearing is set for Jan. 10 in Bath County Circuit Court.
Jim Cornwell, a Christiansburg attorney who represents the three supervisors, said he will ask a judge to dismiss the petitions. “There’s a lot of surmise and conjecture in this case,” he said Tuesday, declining to elaborate on the arguments he will make later in court.
Meanwhile, the heat has not subsided in Warm Springs.
Matt Ratcliffe, a fourth member of the board who voted to cut the tourism position, resigned in November. Also submitting his resignation was County Attorney Michael Collins, who said the board left him in the dark when it discussed the matter behind closed doors.
And Hall, a previous board member elected to a new term in November 2015, is facing unrelated criminal charges. A grand jury in September indicted the supervisor on charges of election fraud, alleging that he was a resident of neighboring Highland County when he was elected to represent the Williamsville District of Bath County.
Jon Trees, a former board member who helped organize the removal efforts, said this of the current state of local government:
“It breaks my heart. It really and truly does.”
“I know the people here in Bath County. They work hard and they are good people, and they don’t deserve this form of leadership.”
Plans made behind closed doors
In the days leading up to the Sept. 13 meeting of the Bath County Board of Supervisors, there was little hint that change was afoot.
The meeting’s agenda made no mention of a proposal to eliminate the county’s director of tourism. But after emerging from a closed session, the board added three items to the agenda, which Byrd said pertained to their private discussions.
One of the items was a motion by Byrd to do away with the director of tourism position. The motion passed 4-1, with supervisor Eddy Hicklin the lone dissenter.
Hicklin later said the vote made no sense to him, especially given the key role that Maggie Anderson played in bringing Speyside to Bath County as director of economic development, a job she handled along with overseeing tourism efforts.
Under the new system, economic development will be handed by County Administrator Ashton Harrison and work to promote tourism will fall to a county employee who had served as Anderson’s assistant.
“If it’s not broke, don’t fix it,” Hicklin said of the previous setup. “There was absolutely zero reason to fire her … I can’t find anybody to say a bad word about her.”
The vote blindsided Maggie Anderson, who attended the board meeting that night as she normally does.
In an interview later at Serenity Springs — a country estate where the Andersons live with 30 Angus cows and a 150-pound Turkish herding dog named Ziva — Maggie Anderson said she knew of no reason for the board’s vote, other than lingering resentment over the Speyside deal.
“I can only assume, given the tone and tenor of the board’s meetings, that this was an issue,” she said.
In making his motion to slash Anderson’s position, Byrd prohibited his fellow members from disclosing what they talked about in closed session. Byrd said he would seek disciplinary action against anyone who “says one word about what was discussed,” according to the board’s minutes.
After the vote, Collins agreed there would be no comments from the board.
“We are not at liberty to talk about personnel,” the minutes quote her as saying. “If any board member talks about anything, they are in violation of state law, just sharing that with the public, and I will make sure that is followed under state law.”
However, FOIA does not prohibit board members from talking about what happened in a closed session, according to Maria Everett, executive director of the Virginia Freedom of Information Advisory Council
It is “generally accepted” that members will remain mum, she said, but there’s nothing in the act to enforce that.
“Kept in the dark”
While the reasons for the board’s vote remain a mystery, the question of how it was taken is now a legal matter.
Deciding to do away with a county position — as opposed to terminating an employee who holds it — is not a topic that can be discussed or acted upon in a closed session under FOIA, the removal petitions allege.
FOIA allows governing bodies in Virginia to privately discuss the hiring, firing, promotion, demotion and performance of public employees when “such evaluation will necessarily involve discussion of the performance of specific individuals.”
“So, on a general level, discussion of workforce structure, job duties and the like are not proper topics for a closed session,” Megan Rhyne, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, wrote in an email.
But while the personnel exemption applies to individuals and not the general makeup of government, the line between the two can get blurred.
“Sometimes it is difficult to talk about one without talking about the other,” said Rhyne, who was commenting in general and not about the Bath County situation. “In the discussion about whether a position should be kept, it may come up that the person who currently holds that position has been so inept as to show why the position’s not really needed.”
The legality of what the supervisors did at their Sept. 13 meeting already has been questioned by their own attorney, who resigned three days later.
“I was not consulted, nor aware, that any of the troubling issues would be on the agenda,” former county attorney Michael Collins of Covington wrote in his letter of resignation to chairwoman Collins. (The two are not related). “I cannot steer the Board into safe harbors when I am uninformed and kept in the dark.”
Collins wrote that he believed the board knew he would have objected to the closed meeting — had he been given the opportunity.
“To continue my sailing reference,” he wrote in his Sept. 16 letter, “I do not want to be at the helm if, or when, the ship hits the rocks.”
“Take the county back”
Although the board members who axed the tourism position have said little about their reasoning during public meetings, some have dropped hints that their decision was linked to a bigger controversy over the future of Bath County.
In proposing the cut, Byrd said the board’s action was needed to “not take this county backwards but to take the county back. We need to head in the direction that this board thinks we need to go.”
The comments appeared to be a reference to simmering frustrations among some longtime county residents, who resent the influx of a newer, more affluent crowd that has pushed for more progressive change, including a greater emphasis on tourism and economic development.
“Local people who live here are considered to be nothing,” Byrd said, according to the minutes. “If you don’t come here and own something for a million dollars or more, then you were considered nothing.”
At the same meeting, the board voted to cut funding to the Bath County Chamber of Commerce and halt plans for a visitors center on a stretch of highway between Warm Springs, the county seat, and Hot Springs, where the Homestead’s tower dominates the landscape.
The board later backtracked on those actions, which were also discussed during its closed session.
In questioning the need for the visitors center and an adjacent amphitheater, Hall called the idea “not for the people of Bath County.”
“It was for a handful,” he said, “and if they want to drink wine or whatever they want to do, they can go to the Homestead or Garth Newel,” a music center where concerts are often paired with gourmet meals. “The local people cannot afford to go there,” he said.
Some see that sentiment as part of the reason for the board’s dislike of the Andersons.
Although he grew up in Bath County, Wayne Anderson later lived in California and Maryland, where he built a successful business in movie theater development and operation. Maggie Anderson, a native of New York who grew up in California, was also in the movie business, serving as the executive director of the National Association of Theater Owners.
After meeting through their ties in the entertainment industry, the Andersons got married at the Homestead in 2004 and settled down at Serenity Springs.
Some might see the Andersons as “the rich outsiders who are trying to take over, whatever that looks like,” McWilliams said. In Bath County, he said, “there’s always sort of this us-against-them thing that’s right under the surface.”
The deal comes together
After retiring to Bath County, the Andersons remained active in the community.
In 2010, Maggie Anderson was hired to fill the newly created position of Bath County’s director of tourism. Her job duties were expanded in 2014 to include coordinating economic development. Wayne Anderson was appointed to the Economic Development Authority in 2015, later becoming its chairman.
About a year ago, the Andersons became involved in efforts to recruit Speyside to the area. After Wayne Anderson was not reappointed by the board of supervisors, the authority named him as a consultant to follow through on what he and Maggie had started.
“It goaded them that much more when I was appointed a consultant,” Wayne Anderson said of his relationship with a majority of the board of supervisors.
The deal came together in August, when Gov. Terry McAuliffe announced that Speyside would invest $5 million to build a stave mill, creating 30 new jobs. It was huge news for Bath County, which had not seen an economic development since 2003.
“It was personal about me, and personal about Wayne, but at the end of the day it was still a good project,” Maggie Anderson said.
Public praise was lavished on the Andersons, which some suspect did not sit well with the board of supervisors.
“Maybe there’s some jealousy going on,” said Hicklin, the only board member to oppose efforts to get rid of the Andersons.
Trees, the former board member who later joined the efforts to remove Collins, Byrd and Hall from office, said there could be another reason for the board’s unhappiness with the Andersons.
In 2010, Collins applied for the tourism job that went to Maggie Anderson, Trees said. Hall, who was on the board at the time, strongly supported Collins for the position.
“I believe they were being vindictive,” Trees said of their votes this year to eliminate the position. “Mr. Hall and Ms. Collins now find themselves in a position of power, and I think they used that power for payback time, if you will.”
A looming legal battle
In normally placid Bath County, the sheriff’s office must now keep the peace at board of supervisors meetings.
The board requested extra sheriff’s deputies after its Sept. 13 vote drew large, angry crowds.
Words like”ignorant, “scumbags” and “band of bozos” were lobbed during public meetings and in letters to the editor published by The Recorder, a local newspaper that has chronicled the controversy. The most vehement speakers were led away by police escorts.
The increased police presence — along with the board’s defensive posture to criticism from the public — has led to an “intimidating, highly-charged atmosphere” at meetings, according to the petitions that seek the removal of Collins, Byrd and Hall.
The mood of the meetings, along with the supervisor’s earlier violation of open-meeting laws, amounts to a way of governing “chaotically, unpredictably secretly and wastefully,” the petitions state.
Under Virginia law, before an elected official can be removed from office for neglect, misfeasance or incompetence, there must be proof that their shortcomings had “a material adverse effect upon the conduct of the office.”
Such proceedings are rare. A judge would make the decision.
“It’s a high standard,” said Larry Spencer, a Blacksburg attorney and immediate past chairman of the Virginia State Bar’s section on local government. “Judges aren’t going to do this lightly.”
Errors in judgment or differences of opinion, no matter how controversial, are not likely to lead to the political equivalent of a death sentence. Virginia does not permit recall elections, such as a recent failed effort to remove Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker from office.
With unhappy voters free to fire their representatives during the next election cycle, removal is generally reserved for misconduct that is “fairly profound,” Spencer said.
Even if their attempts fails, McWilliams said, critics of the board are hoping to send “a statement by the community that’s saying: ‘we’re really mad.’ ”
About 75 people, many of them supporters of the removal efforts, attended the board’s Dec. 13 meeting. Compared to earlier meetings, there was less acrimony from the public and the board, who sat at a makeshift dais not far from the bench where a judge normally presides.
In an apparent reference to the pending removal efforts, Byrd said at one point: “We may have a new board and it may be quicker than you think, but that’s the way the cookie crumbles.”
Whether Byrd, Collins and Hall stay or go, their critics hope there will be a change in direction for Bath County.
“I feel we’re at a turning point, politically and culturally, with the county,” McWilliams said. “I think it’s time for Bath County to recognize the world is changing, and that we need to be a part of that change.”