This letter was submitted by Ken Dufty, questioning a secret stakeholder meeting that took place.
As you know, on the evening of Monday, September 9, 2019, public meetings were held in all five (5) voting districts in Northampton County to kick off what was billed as a very open, inclusive, and all-encompassing process to update our 2009 Comprehensive Plan. The meetings were facilitated by principals from the Berkely Group, a consulting firm that was hired with taxpayer’s resources to help ensure that the update captured the goals, visions, and aspirations of the majority of Northampton County residents, businesses and investors.
Those who participated in the District 4 meeting which I attended at the Northampton High School in Eastville were assured by the Berkely facilitator that the update process would include open focus groups, surveys, workshops and public hearings, dispelling any fears that the current attempt to update our 10 year-old Comprehensive Plan would exclude anyone and would be a much more open process than the 2016-17 attempt. If you recall, that process literally barred citizens from being appointed to a hand-picked “stakeholder group”, but were subsequently given permission to merely observe the deliberations by this “closed” and indeed “select few”, but were prevented from participating in the discussions.
We left the District 4 meeting feeling very relieved that the Berkely associate, when questioned, said the process was not meant to “rewrite” the 2009 Comprehensive Plan, but is designed to merely “update” the 2009 Plan to reflect current demographics and trends with full, unrestricted, and welcoming involvement by all Northampton County residents. Page 1 of 4
II. DISCOVERY THAT A CLOSED STAKEHOLDER MEETING WAS HELD THE VERY NEXT MORNING WITH NO SOLICITATION OR PUBLIC NOTICE TO THOSE WHO MIGHT WANT TO PARTICIPATE.
Prior to the start of the public meeting at the Northampton High School, this writer was approached by a former member of the Northampton County Planning Commission who simply asked me if I was invited to the “focus group” that was going to be held “tomorrow”, meaning Tuesday, September 10, 2019. I answered in the negative, not really understanding what she was asking me.
I really gave it no more thought until another encounter on the afternoon of Tuesday, September 10, 2019 when I ran into the director of a local and very involved environmental group based in Northampton County at the Shore Stop in Nassawadox. This person asked me how I liked the District 4 meeting and then informed me that the meeting she attended that morning had the largest attendance of all the meetings, with attendees numbering over 40 people. But it still did not register with me what she was saying as I had assumed I missed something, and I guessed that she had attended a “focus group” as was referred to the previous night, and I just figured I had missed a notice of that meeting, and felt rather bad that I had been so negligent and not responsive to that notice and failed to notify our 1200+ members of our extended email list of that focus meeting.
And the next “shoe to drop” came this morning at about 10 am when I received a phone call from another former Northampton County Planning Commissioner who attended the District 5 Comprehensive Plan meeting at the Exmore Town Hall. This well-respected former county official asked me if I attended the “stakeholder” meeting that was convened on the morning of Tuesday, September 10, 2019. He told me that an attendee of that District 5 community meeting questioned County Administrator Charles Kolakowski about the unadvertised meeting that was scheduled for the next morning, and asked who was appointed to this private, closed stakeholder meeting. I was informed by the caller that County Administrator Kolakowski allegedly answered that members had not yet been appointed, reportedfly prompting great skepticism on the part of several members in light of the fact that the “stakeholder” meeting was scheduled to convene about 12 hours after the county-wide district gatherings.
III.COMPLAINT As you know, the process to rewrite both our 2009 Zoning Ordinance from 2012- 2015 and our Comp Plan from 2016-2018 was one of the most contentious and controversial times that this county has faced for many decades. Two of the most pressing arguments against the disastrous proposed zoning ordinances which would have left this county reeling from poultry infiltration, polluting industry, gutting of affordable housing, large scale development of our pristine waterfronts,
and unilateral changes mirroring a Virginia Beach or Ocean City model of development were: 1) Failure to fully involve the citizenry in the shaping of this ordinance and deference given to a small handful of developers and real estate magnates over the majority of residents; and 2) the failure of the proposed 2014 zoning ordinance to be consistent with our 2009 Comprehensive Plan, a consistency required by Virginia Law and affirmed numerous times by Virginia’s Supreme Court.
When we learned that the county was again going to embark on an effort to update or rewrite our Comprehensive Plan, many of those who are active in protecting this county that we know and love feared that it would once again be an attempt to bow to the will and desires of the private interests who appear to be more focused on profiting from their unilateral development plans for this unique county rather than for the greater public good and protection of our natural resources and fragile, unique eco-system.
Therefore, during and immediately after the September 9, 2019 public information sessions held throughout the county, many of us were incredibly relieved that the secrecy, the scheming, and apparent hidden agendas that were the hallmark and drivers of past and recent attempts to change our Comprehensive Plan and zoning were behind us.
It is apparent that we may have been wrong, and this is not only incredibly unfortunate, but even more disconcerting when considering that not only were we apparently duped by this “watch the shiny nickel” attempt to obfuscate, but we paid for this alleged deception with our tax dollars. Note here that I do not place blame on the Berkely Group, as they obviously are professional and true to their mission to fully involve the pubic, in my opinion,
As you know and as outlined to the Circuit Court in my December 28, 2015 suit against Northampton County requesting relief and an injunction against the 2015 Zoning Ordinance that was passed by the lame-duck Northampton County Board of Supervisors on December 8, 2015, a petitioner must exhaust all administrative remedies before making a more formal complaint to an arbitor.
In that spirit, I am making the following requests which are minimally designed to restore confidence in this Comprehensive Plan update process, a necessary ingredient to ensuring that a final draft of an updated plan is indeed the work- product of a fully engaged and considered constituency in a process that was all inclusive and inviting to all citizens who want to participate in the shaping of their own future, as opposed to having that future decided by a hand-picked few.
A. IMMEDIATELY DISBAND THE STAKEHOLDER GROUP AND REFORM IT IN A MANNER THAT IS OPEN, INVITING AND INCLUSIVE OF ALL CITIZENS WHO WOULD LIKE TO SERVE, OR IN THE ALTERNATIVE, SOLICIT PARTICIPATION FROM CITIZENS WHO WERE TOTALLY UNAWARE THAT THE STAKEHOLDER GROUP WAS FORMED AND MEETING WITHOUT DUE PUBLIC NOTICE.
B. IDENTIFY THE MEMBERS OF THE STAKEHOLDER GROUP AND ALSO REVEAL HOW THESE MEMBERS WERE PICKED, BY WHOM AND WHAT WAS THE CRITERIA FOR APPOINTING THEM
C. REAFFIRM TO THE CITIZENS OF NORTHAMPTON COUNTY
THAT THIS VERY EXPENSIVE PROCESS TO REWRITE AND OR UPDATE OUR 2009 COMPREHENSIVE PLAN WILL BE, FROM THIS POINT ON, OPEN TO ALL RESIDENTS WHO WANT TO DONATE THEIR TIME TO SERVE ON STAKEHOLDER GROUPS OR OTHER SUCH OFFICIAL ADVISORY BODIES IN THIS MATTER.
D. REQUEST AND OBTAIN AN APOLOGY FROM COUNTY ADMINISTRATOR CHARLES KOLAKOWSKI, WHO, UPON INFORMATION, REPORT, AND BELIEF MAY NOT HAVE BEENB TRUTHFUL WHEN ASKED AT THE DISTRICT 5 STAKEHOLDER MEETING WHO WAS HAND PICKED TO SERVE ON THIS “STAKEHOLDER GROUP” AND INVITED TO PARTICIPATE DURING THE SEPTEMBER 10, 2019 MEETING.
It is nearly surreal to this writer, and I am sure others, to learn that less than 12 hours after publicly-adverstised meetings that were billed as the start of a full and open process to reshape this county’s future, a private and unadvertised meeting of a hand-picked and select “stakeholders” group was convened in direct contravention of the promises and assurances that there would be no such shenanigans which were the hallmark of the last attempt.
This writer trusts that we can reset the community breaker, if you will, and move forward together in an open, honest, and bright process to ensure that the final plan for Northampton County’s future is one that is the product of all of our citizens, and embraced by your entire constituencies.