As an ad-hoc committee of the Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission conducts an internal investigation of how a $1 million federal grant was spent, representatives of the Jefferson Area Tea Party are pressing for answers on a claim their opposition is partially responsible for cost overruns.
“The only controversy we had caused was voicing our objection to the acceptance of the grant,” said Carole Thorpe, the JATP’s former chairwoman. She made her comments at Monday’s Charlottesville City Council meeting.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development awarded the TJPDC a $1 million “sustainable communities” planning grant in October 2010. One of the goals was to help coordinate updates of the Comprehensive Plans of Albemarle County and Charlottesville with the area’s long-range transportation plan.
However, it was announced earlier this month that two temporary employees hired to perform some of that work will be let go seven months earlier than expected. A third employee left in advance of her position being cut.
Earlier this month, the TJPDC’s executive director, Stephen Williams, told members of his board that opposition from the Tea Party was one reason why he charged $15,000 from the grant for extra time he had to spend over a four-month period.
Thorpe told the City Council that she disputes the notion that her group played a prominent role.
“From February of last year until June 8, when a vote was taken at the [Albemarle] Board of Supervisors to have them officially approve the grant, that’s the four months that Mr. Williams refers to,” Thorpe said. “The Jefferson Area Tea Party was neither aware of nor active in any sort of argument … until a week before they had the kickoff event on April 22.”
However, Thorpe’s timeline fails to include a March 17, 2011, Tea Party forum she coordinated. One of the forum’s two primary speakers, Tea Party member Charles Battig, discussed his opposition to the grant and outlined his belief it would take away freedoms from area residents.
“We’re not ready to have an unelected group tell us how much food we can eat, how many miles we can drive and what the thermostat setting should be in my house,” Battig said in an interview with Charlottesville Tomorrow that same week.
Battig also spoke against the grant publicly as early as a Feb. 23 radio appearance on WINA AM 1070, the same month Williams told his board that he started allocating some of the funding now under review.
This week, Williams further clarified his comments about the four months in question.
“We were awarded the grant in October 2010 and the grant actually started on Feb. 1, 2011,” Williams said in an email to Charlottesville Tomorrow. “I first became aware of the Tea Party concerns at our kickoff event in late April 2011.”
However, that timeline also excludes media coverage in February-March regarding the Tea Party’s opposition and his own comments to Charlottesville Tomorrow when specifically asked about the situation.
“We are trying to accomplish some goals I think the Tea Party would want to line up behind,” Williams said on March 15.
Williams said grant money allocated for his time was not entirely about responding to questions from the Tea Party. He said he spent much of that time training the temporary staff members and preparing to get the initiative off the ground.
“Towards the end of the four-month period, the question was raised as to whether Albemarle County would continue to participate, which led to discussions with both county elected officials and staff members,” Williams said. “This combination of events caused me to spend a large amount of my time during that period on the grant.”
Councilor Kathy Galvin, the city’s representative on the TJPDC, responded to Thorpe’s remarks.
“We are very diligently trying to make sense out of the questions that have arisen since that meeting,” Galvin said. “I’m part of [the] committee that was put together … Mr. Joe Chesser, chair of the commission, is the point of contact.”
“The commission convened an ad hoc committee to investigate exactly what happened regarding the spending of the funds allotted to the commission, and to determine if the funds were used consistent with the grant application and within the guidelines issued by HUD,” Chesser said in an email to Charlottesville Tomorrow.
Chesser said the ad hoc committee will report to the full TJPDC board in closed session at its November meeting.
“We are not aware of any misuse, but want to be sure we are in compliance with our obligations and maintain our integrity as a public entity,” Chesser said.
Meanwhile, Battig continues to question the methodology through which TJPDC staff have gathered data to inform their work.
Over the summer, the TJPDC released a questionnaire to gauge planning priorities. The No. 1 priority for city and county residents was to preserve the county’s rural area. The TJPDC received 640 responses.
“But how many responded? How were they selected? How were the answers categorized?” Battig asked at an Albemarle Board of Supervisors meeting earlier this month.
Battig criticized the open-ended nature of the survey. He said Albemarle has more than 100,000 residents and that only 244 gave answers.
“That’s less than one-quarter of 1 percent,” Battig said. “The city did a bit better at almost half a percent. These are their numbers, not mine.”