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Armory Committee Controversy Dominates C.F. Town Council Meeting
By Judy Moffitt Clark
Clifton Forge, VA (Sept. 9, 2020) - Clifton Forge Town Council spent most of their regular monthly meeting Tuesday night listening to and discussing a September 2 memo from Town Attorney Jared Jenkins concerning financial issues involving the Armory Committee, which manages the Clifton Forge Armory.

Jenkins said he believes that the Armory Committee has been meeting the terms of its contract with the town, that it has made every effort to be transparent, and that recent concerns voiced about its operation - finances in particular - have become political.

Jenkins said that the Armory Committee has changed many of its procedures to address problems with record keeping.

Council member Dave Oltjen said that according to their records he believed that the committee had paid out more than $600 in cleaning fees from 2018-19. He was concerned that employment taxes had not been withheld and that the committee would be responsible for back taxes. Jenkins responded that those cleaners would be considered independent contractors, not employees, and withholding taxes would not be required.

Jenkins said he felt that all of the controversy over the Armory Committee has distracted from the substantive work that the committee - all made up of volunteers - has done.

Jenkins said he had been in contact with Bill Atherholt, who has agreed to help with addressing some of the concerns about financial matters, and setting guidelines for the committee to follow.

Mayor Jeff Irvine, who is a member of the Armory Committee, said that they had met recently with Atherholt, and he had been very helpful.

The contract with the current committee expires December 22.

Council decided to discuss the matter further at their next work session.

Town council clerk Angela Carper read letters from two citizens, Diana Kling Smith and Donald Roberts, in response to Jenkins' memo.

Smith said that two members of the committee also serving as council members - Jeff Irvine and Bob Umstead - made for a conflict of interest. She also objected to Jenkins calling the conflict political. Roberts, although calling the work of the committee commendable, was concerned about where money taken from an ATM had gone.

Council member Bob Umstead said those comments showed no respect for the work of the committee. "I won't talk about it again, and I won't vote on this again," he said.

During council comments at the end of the meeting Umstead said: "I find it humorous all of a sudden this becomes an issue. I wonder why."

In other business, council:

- Granted an an extension of a conditional use permit to Michael Stearns, owner of 501 Self Storage, located at 1427 Main Street, to allow him to move his stormwater management area to a better location and make better use of his property and building plan there. Stearns has traded an additional piece of property with an adjacent property owner. 501 Self Storage is a multi-building mini storage facility currently under construction.

- Adopted an extended ordinance to allow for electronic meetings due to the pandemic emergency for the next 6 months, if necessary. The current ordinance was adopted March 31 and expires at the end of September. Council is currently meeting by telephone conference.

There was some discussion about when and if council might return to in-person meetings. Town Clerk Angela Carper said that with social distancing only 12 members of the public would be allowed in the upstairs courtroom where council normally holds its meetings. With teleconferencing there is no limit to the number of people who may call in and listen to meetings.

- Approved a request from the Clifton Forge Police Department and Police Chief Chad Wickline to withdraw from the Central Shenandoah Criminal Justice Training Academy and become a member of the Cardinal Criminal Justice Academy, located in Salem.

Wickline explained that the move would save the town about $2,000 in membership fees and would also mean that his department would be training with other local law enforcement agencies (Covington police, Alleghany County Sheriff's Department and Douthat State Park.)

- Adopted an amendment to the town's policy regarding utility payment plans and service disconnections. Council had decided when the pandemic first hit not to disconnect anyone's water services due to non-payment. No water services have been disconnected since March 21st and some accounts have become seriously delinquent.

Council member Ron Goings noted afterward that the delinquent accounts are unfair to citizens who have been paying their bills and could mean raising water and sewer rates, if they're not taken care of.

Under the amended policy, accounts owing more than $300 may sign an agreement to make monthly payments for no more than 5 months. If not paid -and that would also include the current monthly bill - water service may be cut off, and there will be a reconnection fee, payable in advance.

- Approved a request from Mickey Bowyer and Mike Henderson of the Clifton Forge Shriners Club to place their donut truck on the Loop Street parking area on October 16th and 17th from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. This would normally be the weekend of the Shriners Fall Foliage Festival which has been canceled this year due to the pandemic. The Shriners will be selling their donuts and other foods that weekend to raise funds. They have assured the town that they will be responsible for maintaining all safe practices in place.

- Heard two letters submitted to Council, one from Patty Anderson, thanking the town for making the Clifton Forge Fire Department building available to serve children during the summer lunch program.

The second letter was from Mott Atherholt, a member of the vision 2025 Corridor Curb Appeal Committee, announcing a cleanup day on Saturday, September 12th beginning at 8:00 a.m. at Town Hall.

During council member comments, all of the council members thanked any citizens who were listening in to the teleconference.

Vice Mayor Pam Marshall noted that she had learned from Pizza Hut management that they had closed their Clifton Forge restaurant permanently on Tuesday.

Earlier in the meeting she said she was satisfied with the town attorney's memo concerning the Armory Committee.

Council member Ron Goings encouraged everyone to participate in the clean-up on Saturday, and also expressed some concerns about Clifton Forge's direction once the pandemic is over.

Council member Bob Umstead thanked Town Manager Reba Mohler, the police chief and the town crews for their efforts during the pandemic.

His remarks about the attention on the Armory Committee -of which he is a member - came during the council member comments portion of the meeting. Earlier he said that no respect had been shown for the committee, he did not want to discuss it again and would not vote on it again.

Council member Dave Oltjen suggested earlier that the Armory Committee should be a subject for a future work session, and that even though they sometimes disagreed, that debate was a good thing.

Mayor Jeff Irvine noted that a $200 donation on behalf of the Armory Committee went to a 501c nonprofit company for July 4th fireworks.

Council went into executive session to discuss a real estate matter.

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