The Mineral town council is leaning toward giving Walton Park to the Mineral Volunteer Fire Department, after the latter voted at a meeting Aug. 6 to accept the property.
By giving the park to the fire department, the town says it can avoid holding a public hearing.
Town Attorney Andrea Erard said at the council’s Aug. 12 meeting that a section of state code allows for donations and gifts of property to organizations like the fire department. She said the code does not require a public hearing for donations. Public hearings are required in the case of buying or selling property.
The transfer of ownership to the fire department has drawn some opposition.
At the town council’s regular business meeting on July 8, Ed Kube, a Mineral resident, addressed the issue.
“If you give [the park] away, it’s no longer public property and you’ll no longer have any rights to say it will remain under public use, and [the fire department] doesn’t answer to the public,” Kube said.
“They serve the public, mostly in fire [fighting] and other volunteer capacities, but maintaining and running a park would not necessarily be something they would carry on.”
The fire department says there was an agreement with the town in 1965 that should the department incorporate, it would take ownership of the park. The department did incorporate in the 1980s.
Kube presented council with a copy of the deed for Walton Park, noting that there is no mention of the fire department at all. The deed, dated July 21, 1965, records that Elizabeth Walton deeded the land for the park as “a civic and charitable contribution to the Town of Mineral and the surrounding community” for public use. It says nothing about ownership of the park being transferred to the fire department should they incorporate.
Kube raised concerns over several council members having potential conflicts of interest on this issue, pointing out that councilmen Lewis Keller and Doswell “Tex” Pierce are current and past members of the fire department, respectively. He added that councilman Ed Jarvis, who serves as chair of the Walton Park committee and initially raised the issue of the park’s ownership, owns the property adjacent to the park.
Both Keller and Pierce, citing their affiliation with the fire department, disqualified themselves from discussing the issue when it was raised at council meetings on May 13 and June 10.
In an email to Erard dated July 16, Kube said councilman Roy “Snake” McGehee has a conflict of interest because he serves as “facilitator of all law enforcement services provided for special events that the fire department is involved in.”
Kube said Mayor Pam Harlowe has a conflict of interest because she is a member of the Mineral Volunteer Fire Department Ladies Auxiliary and her son, Eric Harlowe, is currently chief of the fire department and has been the main representative of the department on this issue.
At the council’s meeting on Aug. 12, Erard suggested getting an opinion from the Louisa County Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office on each council member’s conflict of interest before further action is taken.
Jarvis said that there should be conditions applied to the transfer, including insisting that the fire department maintain the park and that they cannot sell it.
Keller asked Erard for clarification on whether or not a public hearing is required, since the town returned ownership of the land on which the fire department building sits to the department, following their incorporation, without a public hearing.
“Council ought to be ashamed of themselves to give away land that belongs to the citizens of Mineral without a public hearing,” Kube said.
The issue was tabled until the next council meeting on Sept. 9, pending the opinion on potential conflicts of interest.