Purcellville dominated the local headlines this year, but not in the way town leaders had hoped.
With two members of staff on administrative leave, multiple allegations of misconduct, three staff members leaving town for new jobs, four different individuals acting as town manager, and four ongoing investigations, the Town Council still managed to accomplish a few of its goals in 2017.
The town’s debt restructuring offset the need for sharp increases in utility rates and cleared the way to generate more revenue by leasing the Fireman’s Field complex. In November, the town secured a contract for management of the complex with Shaun Alexander Enterprises and Play to Win, the sports management company that operates the Evergreen Sportsplex in Leesburg. Beginning Jan. 1, the town will be making $7,400 more each month from the complex than it has been from the Purcellville Teen Center’s operation of the Bush Tabernacle.
Mayor Kwasi Fraser said the town also figured out a way to attract new business, which he said has been made apparent by the 13 ribbon-cutting ceremonies in town this year.
“We make it an easy and welcoming place to do business,” he said. “That is because of this town government and this Town Council.”
These accomplishments came amid controversy, beginning in April when former town manager Robert W. Lohr Jr. announced he would step down from the post he held for 24 years. Lohr’s decision to retire came after hours of performance reviews in multiple closed sessions, which garnered the attention and emotions of many Purcellville residents who criticized the council majority for pushing him out.
Filling his spot was Public Works Director Alex Vanegas, who the council unanimously appointed over then-Assistant Town Manager Danny Davis on May 9. Davis left the town in September to become president of Tribute Assisted Living in Ashburn.
The crux of the controversy came in early October, when Vanegas confirmed Police Chief Cynthia McAlister had been placed on administrative leave. The town later announced that an investigation of McAlister had been ongoing since Aug. 28, following complaints of McAlister’s alleged misconduct that included complaints from seven members of the town police department. Vanegas, along with town-retained attorney Patrice Clair and human resources consultant Georgia Nuckolls, led the two-month-long investigation.
On Nov. 1, Town Council unanimously supported a vote of “no confidence” in McAlister, which led to Vanegas firing her the next day.
Upon McAlister’s termination, the town announced that the investigation had “substantiated” claims that she had acted outside of the scope as police chief, engaged in selective enforcement, violated General Orders concerning internal affairs investigations, intimidated employees, had been untruthful, and violated town and police procedural policies.
More controversy arose two weeks later when the town announced on Nov. 19 that the integrity of the investigation was called into question because Vanegas had allegedly been involved in an intimate relationship with Nuckolls, who was later found to have a prior criminal history that included felony convictions for fraud and forgery. At that point, the town announced it would, “promptly hire an outside independent firm to audit and review the investigation.”
McAlister was reinstated the day before Thanksgiving and has been on administrative leave ever since.
While Vanegas later said his relationship with Nuckolls was just a good friendship, he was placed on administrative leave Nov. 21 pending an investigation into his conduct. Administration Director Hooper McCann was given full authority to conduct town business as temporary interim town manager.
The next week, Vanegas filed a formal complaint against Town Attorney Sally Hankins for sexual harassment, an allegation she denied. Five days later, the town selected the Wilson Elser law firm to head the audit of the original McAlister investigation and the investigations into Vanegas’ conduct, his sexual harassment claims and an additional set of undisclosed complaints made by town staff against Hankins. Town staff additionally appointed Retired Chesterfield County Police Chief Thierry Dupuis to help audit the McAlister investigation. On Dec. 6, the town pulled $80,000 from reserves to pay for the investigations.
In the midst of the controversy, Town Council appointed telecommunications officer Ted Greenly on Nov. 28 to the council seat vacated by Kelli Grim, who stepped down Nov. 3 in preparation for a family move to Pennsylvania.
On Dec. 12, John Anzivino, a retired county and town administrator who worked in several Virginia communities, took over a part-time interim role. Anzivino is expected to help with the search for a permanent town manager, which has an application deadline of Jan. 12.
Moving into 2018, the town will have an independent firm audit its government operations, welcome the new Fireman’s Field management, and try to sell reclaimed waste from the wastewater treatment plant. With 500,000 gallons of treated water being emptied into a creek from the plant each day, Fraser said the town would try to make money selling some for construction and agriculture uses. “We have so many great things going for Purcellville,” Fraser said.
Next year also brings Town Council elections. In May, voters will select a mayor to serve a two-year term and fill three council seats, currently held by Greenly, Karen Jimmerson and Doug McCollum.