Harpers Ferry, W.Va.—The Board of the Jefferson County Parks and Recreation on May 22 voted down a motion to reject a donation of $8,000 from Danish company Rockwool for fireworks for the local Fourth of July celebration. The vote came after hearing public comments for more than an hour and discussing legality, precedent, public perception and Rockwool’s potential for harm to the community.
Seven board members voted against the motion, two for, one abstained and one recused herself because she is a Rockwool employee. The board has never rejected a donation.
More than a hundred people gathered outside the board meeting to voice their disapproval of Rockwool’s sponsorship and 22 of them made public comments during the meeting. Three people urged the board to accept Rockwool’s underwriting of the fireworks.
Rockwool’s construction of a coal- and gas-burning factory in Jefferson County 2,000 feet from an elementary school was not viewed favorably by most board members. After a presentation by Dr. Michael Glen on the facility’s air pollution controls and permit, several board members remarked how they were troubled by the insulation factory’s potential emissions and how they might affect the health of the county’s schoolchildren.
But in the end, the Board took a pragmatic approach and put faith in the state’s permitting decisions and the county’s contractual agreements. Board president Toni Milbourne said the executive committee recommended voting against the motion. “Rockwool was solicited by the county. It’s not our place to insert ourselves in a political disagreement of this magnitude,” she said.
Rockwool is a legal business and “checked all the boxes,” said one board member. “Accepting their donation doesn’t mean I agree.”
“Whether we agree with it or not, these decisions have to be with others. We have to run a park system on limited funds,” said another board member.
Paul Marshall put forward the motion. He called sponsorships a form of advertising and a quid pro quo. “Rockwool is not a good neighbor,” he said, adding that he “did not want to be a party to it.”
After the vote, Marshall said he was disappointed in the outcome but happy the process was done publicly with comments.
Opponents of Rockwool said they believed that putting Rockwool’s name on the Fourth of July celebration was an endorsement of the company and the harmful impacts it might have on the community. Rockwool, furthermore, was using a cherished holiday for public relations purposes.
“You’re in the business of kids,” said Scott Sarich of Shepherdstown. If the board accepts Rockwool’s money, then “all you are is a pawn in the game,” he said.
Some board members had reservations about discriminating between businesses, but Barbara Stiefel of Harpers Ferry compared Rockwool to the Sackler family, who made billions of dollars from opiate pharmaceuticals. The Tate Gallery, for instance, has rejected donations from them because of the Sacklers’ role in creating the opioid crisis.
Tim Ross, a shareholder in Rockwool, said he had called investor relations, but they wouldn’t tell him what donations Rockwool had made in the community, calling it “operational information.” The company’s charity, Ross said, is really “just another part of their operation.”
Supporters of the board’s allowing Rockwool to fund the fireworks display painted it as a commonsense decision and bad precedent to reject it.
“It boggles my mind that anyone wouldn’t accept the donation. [Opponents] are engaged in single-minded zealotry. Every donation helps and principles cost money,” said Mark Everhart.
Ray Bruning called the debate “ludicrous” and not controversial when nearly all county residents “don’t care either way,” in his estimation. “You might as well take their money. They’re going to be here for a while,” he said.
Before the hearing closed, Susan Pipes raised an objection to Board Vice President Ann Mountz’s divulging her intention to vote not to reject Rockwool’s donation in advance of the meeting in an online conversation on the Facebook page of Jefferson County Prosperity, a pro-Rockwool group. In her opinion, this could be a violation of the Open Meetings Act.
Board member Katie Osantowsky recused herself because she is an employee of Rockwool, but she remained seated during discussions on the motion and participated in them by speaking and reacting to other board members.