LETTER: Ignorance about Old School Is Not Bliss

August 30, 2012


Everyone has heard the saying, “Ignorance is bliss.” But unfortunately, ignorance is not always bliss. Not when ignorance means not knowing the facts.

Last Thursday at the Town Council meeting, many people came to give public comment regarding what has become a truly heated issue. I will admit that I arrived with my verbal guns ready to blaze. Was I rude to some people as they approached the building? Yes, and for that I am sorry.

Most people who know me know I am pretty laid back — until my feathers get ruffled. Then it’s “look out.” I’m sure many people that don’t know me thought, “Who the heck is that crazy woman?” So I’m writing this letter to tell who I am and why my feathers were standing straight up.

I am a person that believes in honesty, fair play, and governmental transparency. I came to the meeting knowing that honesty, fair play, and governmental transparency were five words that would not be in the room.

I knew that many people attending the meeting were ignorant about how we got where we were.

I knew that those same people were going to stand at the microphone and speak out against a community center and in favor of what our mayor and Town Council wanted, with no background on how that decision was made.

Driving to that meeting, I knew our public officials, the very people that we voted into office, the very people that our hard-earned money pays a salary to, had stacked the deck against the community center. I knew before the meeting took place what the outcome would be.

Many local residents, probably 80 percent, who went to the podium to speak against the community center, were ignorant of the total lack of transparency behind the negotiations to sell the old school. Ignorant of the fact that since last summer our town manager and assistant town manager had been negotiating with Edwin Gaskin to enable him to buy the school and surrounding property, which no one knew until February.

While we were all handing out Halloween candy, cooking the Thanksgiving turkey, wrapping Christmas presents, even bringing in the New Year, our town manager, assistant town manager, and town planner were figuring out how to change the subdivision ordinance and adaptive reuse zoning laws to pave the way for Echelon Resources to take our school to make it into an apartment house.

They prepared recommendations to cut the water hookup fees for one-bedroom apartments by 50 percent, recommended changes to the zoning map, and proposed a conditional use permit with no conditions on the developer.

They were also figuring out how to channel insurance money for earthquake damage to the developer. When the Federal Emergency Management Agency said that the Town would not receive earthquake damage money if we did not keep the building, someone decided to forget about that money. But $41,000 of other insurance money was earmarked in the contract to go to Echelon, even though they were taking the property “as is.”

Town Manager Heather Arcos and Assistant Town Manager Bob Panek negotiated a contract that can only be described as a sweetheart deal for the developer.

Why were Town Council and town staff working behind the scene for months to prepare for the “sale” of the old school in Central Park to an out-of-town developer? That is a question to which we may never know the answer.

The minutes of open meetings and the records of closed meetings show that Town Council knew about the interest of Echelon Resources in our old school for almost six months before the people of Cape Charles knew anything about it.

Now, some of you might say the complete history of the school isn’t all that “sweet.” Yes, it was segregated for many years. Was that right? Heck no, but the fact is, no one in this town invented segregation. When desegregation came, everyone went to the Cape Charles School and it all worked out just fine. My husband was a student there and I think he would know more about how things went during the period of desegregation than all of the people that have been lashing out against the history of the school. He was there and experienced it firsthand.

More honest facts:

Some people have schemed to lead people to believe there would be a huge tax increase if a community center were to come to fruition. The fact is that taxes would not have to be increased at all. A tax increase has never been suggested to fund the school repairs.

I can’t say for sure, but I don’t believe anyone that spoke against the community center had any idea that Old School Cape Charles LLC had made two proposals to buy the school and one proposal to lease the school. The final proposal was an offer of $10,000, and we would have taken over all the taxes, insurance, and repairs of the school.

Why didn’t Cape Charles residents know? Because our mayor turned all of the proposals down without so much as discussion or a vote of Town Council. Old School Cape Charles LLC went through the published meeting minutes with a fine-tooth comb and found no record of any vote on those proposals.

In April, Northampton Board of Supervisors member Willie Randall sent a letter to our mayor offering for the County to help fund a community center in the school. I am guessing no one knew that either, because our mayor replied, again with no vote from Town Council, that the town was not interested in a community center in the school. News flash: Mayor Dora Sullivan does not have the authority to make that decision.

Old School Cape Charles LLC has begged and pleaded to be given the opportunity to refurbish the school. Yes, it would be a huge undertaking; however, it can be done. It would be done in stages, stabilizing the property as quickly as possible and cleaning it up so that it would not remain an eyesore.

We want a community center for the Town’s children. Yes folks, there are actually children in this town! We want the outdoor basketball court — not only for the Town’s children, but for all people to enjoy. We want the parking lot in front of the school for use by parents taking their kids to the playground and for people using our brand new park.

Within the community center there could be rooms for ongoing education for young and old alike. There could be space for Town offices and the police department. The Town activity director could have an office and a place to actually have activities year round. We could even have our Town meetings there! And everyone would actually know where to go for the meetings, instead of roaming around town wondering where the meeting is.

The Community College could conduct satellite classes. The list of possibilities is endless.

The people of Cape Charles should not have to rely on a Town Council that keeps us ignorant of their plans and then says, “Trust me,” while making up scare stories about tax increases.

Ignorance is bliss? Not really!

Cape Charles

Letters to the Editor are welcome on any subject relevant to Cape Charles, and a diversity of opinions is encouraged.  Letters should be original and never submitted elsewhere. Email submissions to [email protected].



2 Responses to “LETTER: Ignorance about Old School Is Not Bliss”

  1. Elizabeth Michaels on August 30th, 2012 2:19 pm

    I’d sure like to hear a rebuttal to this very well laid out and thoughtful editorial. This is what always gets me about politicians — THEY FORGET WHO THEY ARE WORKING FOR. They forget who put them in office in the first place. Thank you Ms. Bender for calmly stating the facts and putting them in print — not in hiding. I can’t wait to hear what comes next!

  2. Judy McKnight on September 11th, 2012 11:42 am

    If all, or even most, of what Ms. Bender reports is true, I am shocked and saddened. I want to be able to trust the mayor and the council, but this entire situation makes me wonder. At the minimum, they seem to be willing to ignore and disregard the fact that so many folks in town are concerned about how the decision to sell the old school building was made.

    Was the mayor’s and the board’s biggest mistake proceeding without some public airing of the proposal/idea and now they can’t back out? Are they justifying their decision using the argument that they have the authority/power, no matter what a significant part of the community thinks, feels, or believes? Or is the reality even worse? Whatever, a lawsuit appears to be the only way some members of the community feel they can be heard and ultimately get some answers.

    I go to the park regularly with my grandchildren, and I thank the Central Park committee each time for the beautiful space. When we reach the children’s playground, I wonder though, “what about the playground?” If I remember correctly, a citizens’ group built it originally. Now it appears that nobody cares about this important space.

    I also understand that it was not a part of the giveaway to Echelon. I hope that is still true.