APPALACHIA — A group referring to itself as Appalachia Citizens Advocacy is petitioning to have several town officials removed.
Group members Amber Riley, Kim Green and Dennis McClain were across from town hall Monday evening with signs and petitions seeking the resignation of Town Manager Fred Luntsford, Mayor Teddie Collins and town attorney Mike Abbott.
As of Tuesday, members said, they had received more than 100 signatures involving each official.
Green, a former council member herself, said that she is fed up with “illegal” things that go on. “We need new leadership in this town that is going to hold people accountable.”
Green spoke of a closed meeting that occurred during the July 18 council meeting. It has been alleged that during the closed session, Collins spoke about comments that council member Travis Anderson made to the press and requested that no council member speak to the press without an approved statement from Luntsford.
According to Green, the conversation was a violation of state law.
Council went into closed session under Virginia code 2.2-3711 to discuss personnel matters, acquisition or disposition of publicly held property and consultation with legal counsel.
After closed session, all present council members voted that no discussions took place except what was listed under state law.
Also, Green stated, “the mayor keeps a time clock” during meetings. “We are told to sit down and hush. The mayor doesn’t lead the meetings, he allows the town manager to lead the meetings and only gives the town manager three minutes to respond to citizens’ complaints.”
When asked during a phone interview about the accusations and the petition, Collins replied: “I don’t know what to say. They (ACA) haven’t talked to me about anything. I don’t know what this is about.”
The ACA believes that Abbott allowed the closed session conversation to continue for too long.
“The lawyer specifically stated that he wondered if it was okay for him (Anderson) to be discussed in closed session,” said Green.
Abbott responded to the news of the petition via email.
He wrote: “I am aware of a petition that is being circulated concerning my position as Town of Appalachia Attorney. I have not read the petition so I am not aware whether it calls for me to resign or asks The Town Council to terminate my services. In either case, I do not intend to see or read the petition.
“I serve at the will and pleasure of the Council and can be terminated at any time or not be reappointed at the next organizational meeting after an election. It is therefore a Council decision to review the action and take whatever measures they deem appropriate based on the allegations.”
Abbott continued: “As for the fact that there is a petition out there, it is certainly their right and an exercise of free speech to do so. As for the validity of such a petition, I would merely stand on my record serving the Town for 20 some years, my experience as a former elected Town Councilman, my years of experience in the Commonwealth Attorney’s Office and my years of experience serving as the attorney for many other governmental agencies.
“And lastly, sometimes you just have to consider the source when evaluating the validity or lack thereof for such an action.”
More serious accusations were directed toward Luntsford.
ACA members stated that the town is behind on audits and currently ineligible for grants, and claimed the town crew uses town equipment for private work. Members also claimed that other people agree with but have not signed the petition in fear of retaliation from Luntsford.
“We have had about 70 people that are scared to sign because they are afraid of retaliation,” said Riley.
A resident who wanted to remain anonymous stated that he has been on the receiving end of retaliation for years. He claimed that, among other things, the town had his dogs removed and his 4-wheeler towed. The resident stated that after getting Virginia State Police involved, he recovered his 4-wheeler.
In an email, Luntsford wrote, “I have no intent to respond to rumors.”
However, he responded to some issues the ACA brought up.
“Yes, the Town is behind in its audits. This has been a well-publicized fact,” wrote Luntsford. “Management has been faithful at recent council meetings to inform town council and citizens of the progress being made to fix this issue.”
He continued: “We have had multiple conversations with our grant funding agencies and have established a time line to catch the audits up. Our treasurer, along with assistance from LENOWISCO, SERCAP and Rural Development have spent many hours working to achieve our goal.
“Could failure to complete the audits affect future grants? Absolutely! That is why we are all working so hard to stay in compliance with our funding agencies.”
In response to town equipment being used, Luntsford wrote: “On some occasions, citizens of this town are faced with sewer and water problems that require expertise and the proper equipment to resolve. Employees of the town, on their own time, will rent town equipment and pay the town for its use and work, for pay from the citizen for whom they are working to resolve the problem.”
He added, “Members of town council and even some of the members of the aforementioned Advocacy Group have benefited from this arrangement.
“There is nothing wrong with wanting change,” wrote Luntsford. “To express one's self and to advocate for change is a ‘right’. The methodology used to achieve that change is another subject.”
Luntsford said he believes ACA has the right to advocate and express views, but that the group’s methods are “nothing short of divisive, perverse, humiliating, and mean spirited. The way they have treated and talked about Mayor Ted Collins and Attorney Mike Abbott is just plain old ugly.”
He continued, “Now, I feel sure they will come at me with heightened voracity, but I feel someone in this town needs to stand up and identify this pending tragedy for what it really is.”
Luntsford recommended “that none of this group nor anyone they endorse be elected or appointed to any position within the Town of Appalachia.
“As for me and my position as town manager for the last 14 years, I stand on the merits of the progress and good change the town has enjoyed during my tenure. If the sitting council has a different opinion, they, and they alone, have the right and responsibility to terminate my employment.”
ACA member Dennis McClain responded to Luntsford’s statement. “We have no one in mind to run for council or take his position for town manager. We are not pulling for anyone to replace him; that is the responsibility of the council. We are politically neutral.”
“This is not a personal attack on any individual,” said Riley. “I don’t have anything against him (Luntsford) personally, it’s just that there is no accountability at any level from town manager to council to town workers. It’s not okay anymore and we are ready for accountability to take place no matter how it happens.”
“In closing,” Luntsford wrote in his email, “I want everyone to understand that I love my little town and I love my position of Town Manager. From the beginning, 14 years ago, I stated I wanted to give back to the town that has given so much to me. I am proud of all the accomplishments I have been a part and I want to continue to do so. My office door is always open and I feel a lot of this could have been avoided if people would have chosen to communicate rather than to complain.”