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2018-03-07 / Front Page

Sen. Chase at odds with supervisors

BY JIM McCONNELL STAFF WRITER

County leaders are bracing for budgetary impact from an unexpected and unfunded state mandate related to administration of the local police department’s body-worn camera program.

A member of Chesterfield’s legislative delegation claimed that with better communication, she potentially could have done something to help long before the situation evolved to this point.

“When I got into office, I told everyone that I have an open door policy,” said state Sen. Amanda Chase, R-Chesterfield, during an interview Sunday evening. “The members of the Board of Supervisors all have my cell number. There’s no excuse for them not to have called me.”

It now appears increasingly likely that the board will have to find nearly $1 million in the county’s fiscal year 2019 budget to comply with a state budget amendment introduced by Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment, R-James City.

Norment’s amendment, which is expected to be included in the final state budget, would require Virginia localities to add one entry-level assistant commonwealth’s attorney position for every 50 body-worn cameras deployed by their respective police departments.

The Chesterfield Police Department currently has 400 such cameras in service, meaning the county would have to hire eight new prosecutors to work under longtime Commonwealth’s Attorney William Davenport.

The county’s estimated price tag for those new positions is $800,000 to $900,000. That may seem like a relatively small figure for a locality that has a billion-dollar annual budget, but it’s money the Board of Supervisors wasn’t planning to spend this year.

“We were absolutely blindsided” by Norment’s budget amendment, said the board’s chairwoman, Dorothy Jaeckle.

Norment introduced the amendment Feb. 20 at the behest of the Virginia Association of Commonwealth’s Attorneys, which claimed that many localities haven’t been adequately funding their local prosecutors’ offices to address the increased workload generated by body-worn cameras.

Davenport made a similar argument last month in a letter to Pamela O’Berry, chief judge of the Chesterfield General District Court, citing that workload as the reason his office will “curtail” prosecution of misdemeanor offenses effective May 1.

Prosecutors must view all footage collected by body-worn cameras in order to be certain not to overlook any footage that could be deemed exculpatory evidence; prosecutors are legally obligated to turn over any exculpatory evidence to defendants prior to trial.

But in the board’s written response to Davenport, Jaeckle noted the county already funds 10 full-time positions and provides more than half of his office’s annual budget.

“I’m not sure why this is an issue between the commonwealth’s attorney and the county,” she said Sunday. “We need to work together and figure out why some localities are fully funded and over-funded by the state and Chesterfield is so under-funded.”

The Virginia Compensation Board allocates only enough funding to the Chesterfield commonwealth’s attorney to prosecute all felony offenses, which is the minimum standard required under state law.

Even before the local police implemented a body-worn camera program last year, Davenport’s office would have been understaffed by eight positions without significant funding from the county.

Chase insisted she “hadn’t heard a single word” about that situation prior to receiving an email from Mary Ann Curtin, the county’s liaison to the General Assembly, the day before the Senate was scheduled to vote on its budget.

Curtin’s email asked Chase to vote against the Norment amendment, but Chase said it was too late at that point.

“I was never asked to look into the [lack of] state funding and you know I would have,” Chase said. “It’s frustrating. I’m in a position where I could help them. If they have an issue, they should come and talk to me about it.”

The flap over the Norment amendment is just the latest friction between Chase and Chesterfield’s Republican-controlled Board of Supervisors.

Earlier in the current General Assembly session, Chase introduced a bill that would limit the autonomy of local economic development authorities – prompted by constituents’ concerns about the Chesterfield EDA and its controversial plan to develop an industrial megasite in south Chester.

She also publicly opposed a proposed change to the county charter in 2016 that would have given the county administrator authority to hire and fire the police chief.

“Amanda has communicated with the board on other issues and not supported what we’ve wanted her to do,” Jaeckle said. “I don’t know why it would’ve been any different with this one.” ¦

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