CHRISTIANSBURG — Town Council voted 4-2 Tuesday night to publicly reprimand Councilwoman Johana Hicks, whose activities over the past year had raised ethical concerns among her colleagues.
Hicks, joined by Councilman Sam Bishop, voted against the reprimand resolution that was more widely disclosed and presented last month.
Mayor Mike Barber, who is running for re-election with Hicks as his opponent, said the measure means she is reprimanded and held accountable for inappropriate actions and conduct that have undermined the public’s trust and confidence in town government. He said the reprimand will go into Hicks’ town council file.
Barber did not vote on the Tuesday resolution, as the mayor only votes in the case of ties.
Barber said in a previous interview that a reprimand would simply lead to a mark on the councilwoman’s record. He said further violations could result in a further reprimand, censure or expulsion from council.
The reprimand vote marked another episode in what has been a tumultuous year for the council, with Hicks often at the center of the rifts. Councilman Brad Stipes, who will be leaving council at the end of the year, noted the difficult period.
“This year has been a train wreck,” Stipes said. “None of us are perfect, but the trust and integrity of this board … it’s been compromised this last year, to great degree.”
Stipes made a reference to how Hicks has often pushed back against the scrutiny by describing it as baseless harassment.
“I would agree you’re a victim Mrs. Hicks,” Stipes said, “but you’re a victim of your own choices and your own actions.”
Hicks has on many occasions characterized the latest scrutiny toward her as nothing more than bullying by colleagues who she argues are simply upset she’s challenging the status quo.
The councilwoman, the top vote-getter in the town’s 2019 election, ran a campaign that promised to challenge the convention of Christiansburg government and received backing from a group that had previously called on a significant shakeup of council’s makeup.
The reprimand comes just as the councilwoman has announced that she will be running for Christiansburg mayor this year. The councilwoman has claimed the resolution was in direct response to her mayoral run, a suggestion Barber has rebuffed.
Barber said the reprimand document came to his attention in February, but that he passed at the time on bringing it forward.
“Whether she runs for mayor makes no difference to me,” Barber said.
Barber also said in a previous interview that he was approached by several council members about the reprimand and that the measure would be up to them to decide.
The reprimand resolution points out a number of issues involving Hicks that the governing body addressed on separate occasions over the past year. The councilwoman was asked to address each issue one by one on Tuesday and she had witnesses to back her.
The issues identified in the resolution involve past social media comments related to a nearly $18 million park project off of Peppers Ferry Road, errors she had previously made in her mandatory financial disclosure forms and further comments she had made about a member of Downtown Christiansburg Inc. during discussions over the organization’s funding.
Among the social media activity Hicks’ colleagues raised concerns about was a Facebook comment in which she wrote that she had contacted the town’s finance director “and specifically asked if I vote for this budget amendment and her response was no.”
Town council members during debates over those Facebook comments raised concerns about Hicks making deliberately untrue allegations about the work of a top town official. Hicks told her colleagues during the back and forth that the finance director never told her how to vote, and the councilwoman argued her online comment was taken out of context and was part of a greater thread.
The budget amendment in question covered the park off of Peppers Ferry, of which Hicks has been a critic.
Hicks said the conversation involving her comment about the town Finance Director Valerie Tweedie was actually about whether Tweedie could promise if a variety of taxes and fees won’t be raised over the next decade in relation to the park.
“She said, ‘No, I cannot,’” Hicks said.
Another related issue in the reprimand resolution regards a claim from Hicks that Del. Nick Rush, R-Christiansburg, had told her last year that bonds of over $10 million need to put on the ballot, a point other council members said is untrue. The bond comment was in reference to how the town is set to borrow $9.3 million to help pay for the park, with council members balking at suggestions they deliberately kept the debt amount below $10 million to avoid putting the issue on the ballot.
Rush wrote in an email that he didn’t recall any conversation with any council member about specific project funding issues. Hicks maintains there was a conversation and said a friend was with her that day as a witness.
Hicks’ friend, Alecia Vaught, was present at Tuesday’s meeting to back Hicks’ recollection of the event.
The issue in the reprimand resolution concerning DCI pertained to the organization’s president Justin Sanders, who happened to be planner with the town of Pulaski around the time the locality was going through some financial challenges.
Pulaski was over a year ago grappling with challenges due to overspending and revenue shortfalls and had even performed an audit on its 2018-19 finances.
Barber has said Hicks leaned on the issue in Pulaski to oppose the council approving funding for DCI. The mayor, however, said the DCI member had nothing to do with Pulaski’s budget issues as he would have no control over the budget and most likely no access to those funds.
Hicks' supporters criticized the scrutiny from town council and called the concerns raised about Hicks baseless.
Vaught addressed the conversation with Rush.
“How do you know she lied? Where you there? Because I was there. I heard the conversation. What she said was true,” Vaught said. “You don’t have the right to come in and be the arbitrator of her truth. How does that work?”
Angela Akers, who helped Hicks with her campaign, touted Hicks’ questioning of issues and credited the councilwoman with helping her better understand town government.
“When she asks questions, I love that,” Akers said. “She woke me up to this. I hope you guys treat her a bit better.”
Bishop said he took issue with how the resolution tackled old matters and that he found too many holes in the measure. He also said he wasn’t against the measure simply because he’s on Hicks’ side on council.
“I’m on everyone’s side, for the right thing,” he said.
However, one Hicks critic, Christiansburg resident Dustin Robins, spoke out against her. He argued the people who came out in support of the councilwoman were her campaign workers.
“Where are the actual citizens like myself?” Robins said, adding that he has no ties to anyone on town council.
Robins said he has indeed found some of Hicks’ questions great, but argued that she often diverts from issues.
“You’ve turned this into public reality television,” he said. “You’ve turned a two- to three-hour meeting into four or five hours.”