That the United States is a nation “of the people, by the people and for the people” is not enshrined in our laws. It is not part of the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution. The phrase became part of our national conscience when President Lincoln sought to give purpose and justification for the loss of 23,000 Union soldiers and 28,000 Confederates at the Battle of Gettysburg.

The cost of war, in furtherance of the people’s rights, should never be far from us as we go about our lives. And if the “Blessings of Liberty” are to be more than just words of the Constitution, they must be considered in every act, and inaction, by our elected representatives.

When thinking of our leaders, our first thoughts are of those in Washington and Richmond. But when local boards choose by indifference, to deny their obligation to the people, it would be dishonoring not to call them out.

The Augusta County Courthouse has been a contentious issue for a number of years. The rejection of a $45 million courthouse in Verona came directly from the people in 2016. The rejection of a similarly costed enlargement and renovation of the existing 1901 structure came from the City of Staunton in 2017.

This then has been the work of the Board seated in January 2018 leading up to an architectural service contract in September:

1/22/2018 Closed Session for consultation with legal counsel

4/28/2018 Closed Session for consultation with legal counsel

5/21/2018 Closed Session for discussion of the acquisition or disposition of real property

5/23/2018 A Public Meeting Agenda Item bringing forward the recommendation of the Courthouse Committee.

9/12/2018 Closed Session 2.2-3711 (A) (30) (a wrongly cited section)

9/12/2018 Following the Closed Session, the Board moved to award the architectural services.

Oh, did I forget to mention that the contract for the architectural contract was in excess of $5 million for a project likely to cost upwards of $75 million? Well I didn’t forget. The Board never included a single cost figure when discussing the committee’s May recommendation and options, nor a cost for the architect’s services when awarding the contract that night before an empty room.

In the County Administrator’s notes he writes “not to exceed costs discussed in Closed Session.” An “appropriation,” by definition, is an amount of money set aside for a specific purpose. An official public vote for an appropriation without having a dollar figure and funding designation, cannot be legal but in this case it was done.

And if our citizen legislators pretend not to know what is expected of them, the professionals at the table, the County Administrator and the County Attorney, have an obligation to speak up for us. To be sure this was not a “shining moment” in the annals of local government.

This wasn’t the first time this Board chose expediency over expectations in their pursuit of this overpriced and undeserving boondoggle. In the County Administrator’s review of the actions leading to the recommendation, the consulted “stakeholders” are listed.

They met with Staunton’s Mayor and Vice Mayor. Wherein “Mr. Garber assured the City of Staunton that there would be no conversation through the media.” (Remember the City is costing county taxpayers somewhere around $30 million by not allowing the county to do exactly what the city did to create space for the Stonewall Hotel. So by all means let’s keep everything on the down low.)

Lawyers, judges and county employees were consulted. Conspicuously absent were the citizens who would use the facility and the taxpayers who would have to pay for it. You know, the customers and the owners.

Please know the Board is aware of its obligations. The consideration of a new court roof and environmental remediation work were well chronicled in terms of both cost and work.

This hiding of facts was intentional, illegal, and more than anything else, just wrong.

But this call for public scrutiny of a wayward government, is not a new call to arms. So I end with better words than mine as spoken 143 years ago by Abolitionist Wendell Phillips:

“Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty; power is ever stealing from the many to the few. … The hand entrusted with power becomes, either by human depravity or esprit de corps, the necessary enemy of the people. Only by continued oversight can the democrat in office be prevented from hardening into a despot, only by unintermitted agitation can a people be sufficiently awake to principle not to let liberty be smothered in material prosperity.”

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Tracy Pyles, a former chairman and member of the Augusta County Board of Supervisors who lives in Augusta County, is a columnist for The News Virginian. His column is published Sundays.

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