Courthouse referendum voters misled?

Published 12:28 am Saturday, May 18, 2019


[Editor’s note: This is the second part of a now-three-part story concerning the Southampton County Courthouse.]

When asked about the alleged deficiencies in the city’s courts building that former City Manager R. Randy Martin had brought to the attention of the county’s Courthouse Committee in 2016, Mayor Frank Rabil, who had served with Martin on the committee at the time, said he remembered hearing of concerns, mostly involving safety and security, with the entrances to the courts building and to one of the clerk’s offices, as well as a lack of secure parking for judges. He recalled that Martin, at the time, had had a conversation with one of the judges at the city’s General District or J&DR Court regarding this matter, but said that the city has not received any formal complaints from any of its lower court judges regarding the conditions of the city’s courts facility. The mayor added that city has not conducted any architectural study of Franklin’s courts building yet, but plans are in the works to do so.

If they [the judges] have concerns, we need to know what those concerns are and what the cost would be,” Rabil said. “Even though we said we’re going to keep the courts in Franklin, it may not be the prudent thing to do. We need to make the best business decision for Franklin.”

Asked why he had voted with the majority of Council to keep the city’s courts in Franklin on Monday despite knowing of these concerns, Rabil said, “I think we need to understand our options fully, and those options won’t be understood fully until we’ve done our own study with costs … We’ve still got to weigh the options. [The vote] just gives us an opportunity to weigh the options, and it gives the county the option to do some pricing without those courthouses in there.”

Voters misled?

Local attorney P. Daniel Crumpler III, during his presentation to City Council on Monday, also alleged that the county and city had misled the public as to the consequences of voting “yes” or “no” in the 2017 courthouse referendum question, which asked, “Shall the courthouse be removed to 30100 Camp Parkway, Courtland, VA, and shall the Board of Supervisors be permitted to spend $26.5 million therefor?” and gave only two choices: “yes” or “no.”

The county’s courthouse writ of election voter education brochure — which was mailed to registered county voters about a month prior to the referendum — states that “yes” means “a new Courthouse, consisting of approximately 44,800 square feet will be constructed on a new site at 30100 Camp Parkway, Courtland.” “No” is stated to mean that “the existing Courthouse at 22350 Main Street, Courtland will be enlarged and renovated in order to provide adequate space for the Court’s long-term needs, install modern security systems, and generally restore the facility to a state of good repair.”

An email dated Sept. 27, 2017, from City Attorney H. Taylor Williams IV to Southampton County Administrator Mike Johnson — explaining that the city attorney had provided the following information to Franklin Vice Mayor Barry Cheatham for a presentation the vice mayor gave to citizens — likewise states that a “yes” vote means, “You will be voting for a new courthouse to be built at 30100 Camp Parkway. The current courthouse will continue to be used during construction. Once construction is complete, the Southampton courts (3) and the Franklin courts (2) will move into the new courthouse along with the Circuit Court Clerk’s office and the Commonwealth Attorney’s office. The Franklin General District Court and the Juvenile and Domestic Relations Courts will be moved to the Southampton Courthouse whether a new courthouse is built or the existing courthouse is renovated. The Franklin Court building will be re-purposed for another use.”

Crumpler obtained this email, along with other county and city records concerning the courthouse, via a Freedom of Information Act request, and provided copies to The Tidewater News following his presentation to the Council.

A “no” vote, Williams said in a voter referendum education letter that was mailed to registered city voters in October 2017, means, “Renovation of the existing courthouse will begin. The space occupied by the Clerk’s office and by the Commonwealth Attorney’s office will be demolished. The Southampton Courts, the Circuit Court Clerk’s office and the Commonwealth Attorney’s office will all be relocated to temporary offices. Franklin courts will remain in operation at the current location. Once demolition and renovation construction is completed, the Southampton Courts, the Circuit Court Clerk’s office and the Commonwealth Attorney’s office will be moved into their respective new spaces and the Franklin Courts will also be moved into its new space … There are no other options. There will either be a new Courthouse at 30100 Camp Parkway or the existing Courthouse will be renovated.”

An email from Johnson to a private citizen dated Oct. 26, 2017, further states that, “If the voters reject the referendum question, we’re left to address the Court’s needs at the current location. Period. But the needs still must be addressed.”

According to Crumpler, it wasn’t until roughly three weeks after the Nov. 7, 2017, referendum — which resulted in a total of 6,468 “no” votes (75.24 percent) and only 2,129 “yes” votes (24.76 percent) according to the Virginia Department of Elections’ archived election results — that the Board of Supervisors and Moseley Architects began discussing a third option. This one was the construction of a new courthouse in downtown Courtland on a contiguous (meaning one that adjoins county-owned property) or potentially contiguous site. The first mention of the “contiguous parcel” option in The Tidewater News occurs in a Nov. 29, 2017, article on that week’s Board of Supervisors meeting, at which the Board voted unanimously to contract Moseley Architects to confirm space needs for any courthouse renovations and a conceptual design.

In that article, it is stated that one of Moseley’s architects, Tony Bell, “reminded all present that the referendum vote — which was slightly over 75 percent against a proposed new courthouse — means the County must meet its Circuit Court needs on the existing parcel of land or contiguous parcels.” “Reminded” would seem to imply that Moseley had presented the Board with this option at least once before. Additionally, it is stated in a section of the county’s voter education brochure explaining the reasons for a writ of election on the courthouse that, “If a county plans to construct a courthouse at a new location which is not adjacent to the existing courthouse, the Code of Virginia §§ 15.2-1644 and 15.2-1646 requires citizen approval through a referendum.” As the text is printed in the brochure, the words “county” and “not adjacent to the existing courthouse” are italicized, further suggesting that the county government knew of the “contiguous” option prior to the referendum.

Rabil, speaking to The Tidewater News on Thursday, said the first time he recalled hearing of the “contiguous” option was in 2016 as a member of the county’s Courthouse Committee, when the committee was in the early stages of identifying potential sites on which a new courthouse could be built. However, the mayor said he had understood the term “contiguous” at the time to mean land that was directly adjacent to the existing courthouse. Because the existing courthouse is bordered by the Nottoway River, the Southampton County Sheriff’s Office, the county jail and privately owned property, as well as Courtland’s Main Street, the mayor said he did not consider the “contiguous” option to be viable at the time.

“All the publications said if you voted ‘no,’ they would renovate the old [courthouse],” Rabil said, adding that the next time he heard about “contiguous property” was after the referendum, during a July 10, 2018, City Council work session at which Johnson presented an update on the options the Board of Supervisors was considering.

It was at this meeting, the mayor said, that he first heard talk about expanding the definition of “contiguous” beyond his initial understanding the term to one that would permit the Board to purchase land across the street from the existing courthouse adjacent to the county’s administration building. According to the meeting minutes of the Board’s June 25, 2018, meeting, which was held 15 days prior to the Council work session, the Board narrowed its options from the various concepts Mosley Architects had presented to just three, labeled Option 5B, Option 5C and Option 7. The meeting minutes for June 25 also indicate that the Board’s unanimous vote to reduce its options to these three choices was made prior to the Board’s public hearing on the courthouse in July 2018.

Franklin City Manager Amanda Jarratt confirmed that the city’s records also indicate that the first time the Council heard about adjoining property being acquired for the courthouse was on July 10, 2018.

According to the meeting minutes for the July 10 work session, it was only these three options that Johnson presented to the Council, all of which called for the construction of a new courthouse rather than a renovation of the existing one. The recorded minutes state that of these choices, the Council’s preference had been Option 5C, which called for the acquisition of land along Court Street in downtown Courtland. However, the minutes also state that Councilmen Bobby Cutchins and Greg McLemore were absent from this meeting.

Rabil added that this was done by consensus rather than a formal vote because only the Board of Supervisors gets a final vote on what is built, and where. The meeting minutes reflect that Johnson agreed to convey the Council’s feedback to the Board of Supervisors.

“Once the referendum failed, the city’s part was over,” Rabil had remarked previously during an April 26 City Council meeting. “Now it is obligated to fund whatever they [the Supervisors] come up with.”