GLOUCESTER COURTHOUSE, Va. (WAVY) — Gloucester County leaders say sometimes meetings can get a little heated, but not like this.
“This town hall meeting was for all the citizens that wanted to come out and voice their opinions, and that’s just not what happened,” Chris Hutson, chairman of the Gloucester County Board of Supervisors, said. “It just escalated.”
Deputies were called out to an Oct. 4 town hall meeting at Page Middle School around 8:40 p.m.
This meeting was to discuss the 2023 bond referendum that will be on the November 7 ballot. If adopted by voters, it will fund future fire and rescue and parks projects in exchange for a two cent increase on the real estate rate. This was the second meeting scheduled by Gloucester County to provide information on the referendum.
A “Vote No” meeting on the subject which was scheduled for Oct. 10 was canceled with no explanation.
Through a Virginia Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, 10 On Your Side obtained cell phone video that shows Gloucester County resident Lawrence Cohen choking Gloucester County Attorney Edwin N. “Ted” Wilmot.
With one hand around Wilmot’s throat and the other still holding onto the microphone, you can hear Cohen on the video say, “You’ve had enough. Let go of me. You are attacking me.” Another person intervenes and breaks it up.
Deputies said that following the investigation, Cohen was charged with assault and battery.
The referendum will be worded:
Shall the County of Gloucester, Virginia contract a debt through general obligation capital improvement bonds in the maximum amount of $39,582,993 which would result in an estimated increase in the real estate tax rate of $0.02/$100 of assessed valuation, to provide funds to finance various capital improvement projects for (1) volunteer fire and rescue departments to include construction of a new fire department for Gloucester Volunteer Fire & Rescue and renovations to the bunk room at Abingdon Volunteer Fire & Rescue; (2) construction, improvement, and/or renovation of public school buildings and facilities to include renovations of Botetourt Elementary School, renovation of the Gloucester High School sports complex and associated site improvements, and school HVAC systems; and (3) parks and recreation to include Woodville Park water, sewer, lighting, bathrooms, construction of a community use building, and improvements at Gloucester Point Beach Park and Brown Park?
It began when Cohen got his turn to speak at the Oct. 4 meeting. He asked for the finance director, then began to ask several questions related to money.
“Ms. Steele, I’m trying to get a question out,” Cohen said.
“Mr. Cohen, Mr. Cohen, you need to stop bullying the staff, you may ask a question, one question, and that’s it,” Wilmot said to him.
Cohen continued to speak. A couple people approach him in attempt to take away the microphone. The county video obtained by WAVY shows that when Wilmot then tries to get the microphone, that’s when the choking incident happened.
“Citizens and social media and all kinds of other things that play into that have provided additional information outside what we have said,” said County Administrator Carol Steele. “And I think some of the information that has been out is not been accurate.”
Steele said these meetings are for residents to be able to ask questions about the projects, where their tax dollars are going, and get the correct information out there.
“I mean, it was completely unexpected,” Hutson said. “We had citizens there talking and asking questions and it just escalated out of control.”
Steele and Hutson say following the outburst, the board has had conversations about adding more security at meetings.
“It just felt like this is a town hall, but I think times have changed and we should have security at any of those meetings just as an extra precaution,” Steele said. “We still want to have town halls, we still want people to come out and whether they disagree or agree, we want people to voice their opinions. It just has to be done civilly.”
10 On Your Side asked Cohen if he wanted to share his side of what happened that night, but he didn’t respond. Cohen’s next court appearance is set for Wednesday.