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Virginia Beach considers next steps after review shows oyster program oversight issues

BY JOHN-HENRY DOUCETTE

COURTHOUSE – The city is reviewing how it administered a program to build oyster reefs in coordination with a local non-profit organization.

City Auditor Lyndon Remias delivered a memorandum on April 29 that discussed concerns with city administration of the funds. The review was requested by city Planning Director Barry Frankenfield when his staff could not readily provide detail on restoration funds, including the one used, in part, to make city-council authorized payments to support oyster restoration.

However, Remias and other officials said in interviews that this should not imply that the non-profit organization, Lynnhaven River Now,  did anything wrong. This perception has been a matter of concern to the non-profit since the matter was first reported.

To be clear: at issue now, officials said, is improving the city’s oversight of its oyster program. Remias’ suggestions include avoiding appropriating money while citing a plan that does not exist on paper and confirming specific goals and targets for the effort. 

The latter point would help ensure accountability that funds accomplish what they are meant to do, Remias said during an interview.

Marc Davis, a city spokesperson, on Friday, May 13, said the city is reviewing findings and gathering information. The city management plans to return to the city council in mid-June, Davis said.

The review by the auditor found:

Since 2002, the city council has appropriated about $664,000 from an “oyster heritage program” fund, some of which went to Lynnhaven River Now. Money in the fund comes from voluntary donations made by those seeking variances from the Chesapeake Bay Preservation Area Board. Karen Forget, executive director of Lynnhaven River Now, said in an interview that, of this widely-reported sum, about $235,000 over 10 years went to the non-profit to manage an oyster shell collection program.

Ordinances the city council used to appropriate the money refered to an “Oyster Heritage Plan,” though no such plan existed in writing. This meant there was little accountability on the city’s end on how shells collected would be used for reefs. Remias noted that shell collected through the effort had not been used for at least six years.

“Unless you have a plan, is it going to be another six years?” Remias asked during an interview.

However, Forget said that timeframe can be misleading. She said Lynnhaven River Now has been placed in a difficult position by the report because of the perception in media reports that they have done something wrong. Not so, she said.

Forget said that shells that have been collected need to cure over time and be substantial enough in volume to support a reef project. One is in the works to begin construction in spring 2017 in the Eastern Branch of the Lynnhaven River, if the schedule holds. She also said the organization has been involved in projects that have developed about 60 acres of reefs since 2002.

“The funds have been used so wisely and so efficiently it’s just a shame that this is the story being told,” Forget said.

Clay Bernick, administrator of the city environment and sustainability office, was reached by phone on Friday, May 13, but he referred questions to the city communication office. Bernick oversaw the fund in question for the city, according to the auditor’s memo.

Oysterman Donnie Edwards has been asking questions about the program for some time, and he was among those the auditor’s office spoke with. 

He has filed a number of requests for records about the oyster heritage program. Among his requests, he said, was to see the plan. “I got a bunch of nonsense back,” he said in an interview. “It turns out there was no plan.” 

Correspondence about the oyster program to Edwards — and others — claimed accomplishments such as “completion of an oyster heritage plan with the assistance of various agencies … ” Remias recommended the city “formalize and document” that plan in writing and ensure agreements are in place.


© 2016 Pungo Publishing Co., LLC

The Independent News

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