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Galax City Council has voted unanimously to hold over the request for a decision on the school board’s conditional use permit for a new school until September.
In the meantime, council plans to meet with the school board and and continue discussions.
The motion at council’s May 27 meeting also included an agreement consider other sites for a new elementary and middle school building.
A related issue addressed at the council meeting was the alleged conflict of interest regarding members of the Galax Planning Commission.
Planning commission members who are employed by the school system or married to school employees are not legally deemed to have a conflict of interest in the matter of voting for or against a conditional use permit for construction of a new school, said Galax City Attorney Jim Cornwell.
At last week’s fifth public hearing for a conditional use permit that would allow the school board to go forward with building a new school in the Fries Road residential area, Independence lawyer Ashley Rudolph of the Kendall Clay firm raised doubts about who on the planning commission could vote.
Rudolph, who represented several citizens in the proposed school area, said that since two members of the commission – Jeff Sharpe and Cathy Parks – worked for the schools and one – Brandon Boyles – was married to a school employee, there was a conflict of interest.
Dr. Jim Adams, who is a member of both the planning commission and school board, had decided in advance not to consider the permit.
Cornwell — who had been consulted by text message at the previous public hearing, as he was on his way to another meeting in Floyd — was present Tuesday night and addressed the council.
He said he had looked into the relevant Virginia legal code, and he reported that it “is not applicable to the city of Galax. It is only applicable to the counties who have adopted the executive form of government, and there’s only one of those and that’s Fairfax County. There is a sister statute in [another part of the code] which is only applicable to Bland County.”
Cornwell said the Virginia Conflict of Interest Act would define planning commission members who are employed by or whose spouse is employed by the school board as having a personal interest in the transaction.
“However, there is a provision in the [act] that requires them to announce their employment... That allows them to, should they deem it appropriate, to participate in the transaction, if they are a member of a group of three or more and the action will not affect them any more than anyone else in that group.”
Cornwell said he hoped that resolved the issue, but some citizens speaking at Tuesday’s meeting were not satisified.
In the brief public hearing that followed, five speakers — some of whom had spoken at previous public hearings — made their displeasure at the project known.
The planning commission left the room while the hearing took place.
“Our firm represents a number of citizens who are affected by the close location of the school in the community where they live,” said attorney Kendall Clay. “It’s not uncommon for lawyers to disagree, and to have different interpretations of what law applies, and how.”
He said that Cornwell was likely right about the first portion of Virginia’s legal code, but said that the question was what was “appropriate action” for these members with ties to the school system to take.
“The appearance of propriety in the actions taken is far more important and needs to be considered in any action taken on this issue or any other issue. Although it may not be covered by the language of the statute, if there is a conflict, it’s still an issue that affects the public perception.”
Clay also said that there was another issue with the proposed school location — if there is an army base within 3,000 feet of the proposed site, the statute says that there must be written notice requesting permission of the local commander 30 days before the hearing, which he said had not been done that he had found.
Galax has a U.S. Army Reserve base on nearby Armory Road. However, Clay did not indicate whether it was within 3,000 feet of the site.
“Our point is simply this: if we do it right, it’s not subject to challenge hereafter,” said Clay. “If we get it right the first time, we have met the legal requirement, we don’t have to revisit this at a different forum.”
Other speakers said that, though they support public schools, they are concerned with having the facility so close to their homes.
“I believe in Galax City Public Schools,” said Jody Ray, a former Galax High School principal has spoken in opposition of the site at prevous hearings.
“Ladies and gentlemen, I’m here to tell you that buildings don’t teach kids,” Ray said. “Teachers teach kids.”
He pointed out that the proposed new school is for grades K-8. Ray said the existing elementary school is said to have inadequate technology, but the fifth through eighth grades are now housed at Galax Middle School, which has up-to-date technology, and don’t need to be included in the new plan.
He cited costs and a declining school population as other reasons why the school doesn’t need to happen.
“‘Build it and they will come’ is not enough reason to approve this,” Ray declared.
Residents Ralph and Cindy Eagle spoke in turns.
Ralph Eagle echoed Ray’s statement that forecasts indicated a declining school population. He said that he and his wife had moved to Galax from the Baltimore area three years ago for peace and quiet.
Cindy Eagle said that she felt her questions from the previous public hearing had not been addressed in any concrete way.
Treva Sparks advised the council to seek more bids for the project and see if it might be possible to use the existing site instead.
Though there was a long discussion once the planning commission re-entered the room, the overall thrust of the issue that evening was summed up by the commission’s chairman, Ron Catron. He prefaced his remarks by saying that the commission takes such applications seriously and wants to make sure proper planning and thought goes into it.
“The planning commission has unanimously agreed that we are not in a position to make a recommendation to deny or approve, given the information that we have, and the concerns that we feel like have not been fully addressed, so we stand before you saying that we are not fully prepared to recommend one way or another,” Catron said.
“I know this had been a tortuous exercise for you,” replied Mayor C.M. Mitchell.
Later, after council decided to wait on a decision, the mayor said, “One of the old sayings is, ‘The wheels of government turn slowly, and they turn slowly for a reason.’ And I’ve found that if you rush into things, you’re more likely to make an error.
“Take your time and make sure you get it right.”