Mayor Robert Tennett of Front Royal, Virginia, was getting desperate for votes, so he finally had to order some of his Town Council members not to leave the room. Newsflash reported on June 25th that a Wal-Mart proposal to rezone residential land in a floodplain for a 184,000 s.f. supercenter was stuck in the mud because one member of the Town Council, Fred Foster, refused to attend Council meetings to prevent the Council from having a quorum, thereby blocking a final vote to support Wal-Mart. The Front Royal Council had taken a “first reading” vote 3-0 in favor of Wal-Mart back in June, with several members of the Council recusing themselves because of a conflict of interest. When Fred Foster voted with his feet, the Council lacked a quorum, and could not take a final vote on the project. But on July 28th, the Mayor was forced to “order” two of his Council members not to leave the room, in order to hold together his quorum. According to an account in the Winchester Star and the Northern Virginia Daily, two Councilors, Gene Tewalt and Dan Pond, asked Mayor Tennett for permission to leave the room before the Wal-Mart vote — but the Mayor would not give them permission to leave. Councilman Pond, a local attorney who has admitted he has a conflict of interest, left the room anyway saying “I am not choosing to leave the room. I am instructed by the Virginia State Bar to leave the room.” But the Mayor prevailed with Councilor Tewalt, who owns Wal-Mart stock, has a daughter and son-in-law who work at Wal-Mart, and an employer who did traffic work on the Wal-Mart proposal. In addition, Tewalt did not attend earlier meetings, so technically cannot sit on the case. “This puts me in a very peculiar position,” Tewalt said. “This council has been held hostage for two months, and I feel I may be part of the problem. I may have to take the bull by the horn.” When the Mayor refused to let Tewalt leave the room, he stayed, allowing the Council to have a 4 person quorum. The 3 other Council members voted in favor of Wal-Mart, Tewalt did not vote. He said the town wrangling had deteriorated to a circus atmosphere. After the vote, Mayor Tennett called the Wal-Mart debate “a very bad situation that has caused families to be pulled apart, and people to be mad at each other…After the vote is taken tonight, I hope we can move on and heal.” But local residents opposed to the location, who organized a group called Saved Our Gateway, vowed to take legal action against the vote. S.O.G. said the vote was illegal, and the group has retained a lawyer. They have 30 days to appeal the vote. Residents have also filed a recall petition in Circuit Court to remove the Mayor from office, as well as the 3 Councilmen who voted for Wal-Mart. So the circus is just starting in Front Royal. The Mayor may have “healed” his own feelings with the controversial vote, but his community is certainly not healed.
“When they talk about Front Royal being the laughingstock of the country,” said one Wal-Mart opponent, “it is our town council who made Front Royal the laughingstock, and not the citizens.” Wal-Mart’s attorney said the new store will bring “many positive benefits” to the area, and a Wal-Mart PR person said “We’re definitely pleased with the outcome.” For more background on why residents were opposed to putting a superstore on residential land at the entranceway to town, search this database by “Front Royal”.