Candidates speak their piece in second News forum

Forum audio

The full 99-minute Sept. 28 Rappahannock News Candidate Forum is here. Click the play button to listen, or the arrow to download the entire (42 MB) mp3 file.

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There is no transcript available of this forum. (If you’d like to help us create one, please get in touch.)

Sheriff Connie C. Smith (left) and challenger Andy Berry answer questions at Sept. 28 candidates forum.

Candidates for constitutional officer posts in the Nov. 3 election in Rappahannock County spoke their minds Monday night at the Rappahannock News’ second candidates forum at the Theatre at Washington, most appearing satisfied that they said what they came to say before a crowded auditorium of some 200 attentive citizens.

The candidates for sheriff — incumbent Connie C. Smith, seeking a third four-year term, and Culpeper Police Sgt. Anthony E. “Andy” Berry, in his second run for the county’s top law-enforcement position — had the most to say, and the most to disagree about.

The candidates for commissioner of the revenue (three of them), circuit court clerk (two) and the two open Culpeper Soil and Water Conservation District board member positions (three) disagreed less but distinguished themselves no less clearly.

Treasurer Deborah Knick, appointed to the post when longtime treasurer Frances Foster retired in 2014  and running unopposed this year (as she was in last year’s special election), made a brief statement to the crowd. Commonwealth’s Attorney Art Goff, also unopposed in his run for a second term, did not attend the forum.

The sheriff’s race

The forum moderator (and Rappahannock News editor, and writer of this report) began by asking about the candidates’ campaign contributions. A story in the paper last month reported that Berry had raised most of his money from a loan he made to himself, plus smaller donations collected over a year of fundraising and social events from county residents — and that Smith’s two significantly larger donations had come from the owners of a gun store in Warrenton and a gun manufacturer in Florida, a report to which the sheriff hadn’t had a chance to respond. She was given one.

“I was given two large donations.” Smith said. “They were from Kevin Rychlik, who is actually the owner of Virginia Airborne Search & Rescue [a small helicopter rescue and search company that Smith says provides her office with assistance, free of charge, whenever it is requested]. . . . Kevin owns a gun shop in Warrenton. He made a large donation to me of $5,000. The second donation that I received was a $10,000 donation from a friend of mine, who is a gun manufacturer. Both of these gentlemen made these donations, I didn’t ask for them. I purchased no firearms from them, no ammunition, holsters, no type of equipment. They are just friends of mine. They asked me if I needed a donation for my campaign, I said yes, and I had no idea what they were giving me.”

“Has that prevented me from having to beg the citizens of this county for money to run a campaign? Yes it has,” she added. “But there’s nothing to hide with either of those donations. They were just generous donations from men who had the money to do that.”

Her answer prompted applause.

Berry characterized most of his donations as “local,” adding that “I have invested about $4,300 of my own money in my campaign — which I feel you have to do. If I want the job, I feel that I have to pay to get the job. I’ve got to show the citizens that I’m dedicated and ready to serve to be your next sheriff, in my opinion.”

Asked about turnover of deputies and other staff at her office over the last few years, Smith said it was a systemic problem. “After the last election, my chief deputy, Scott Jenkins, became the sheriff in Culpeper County. He took 10 people with him,” she said, referring to her former staff. “He stood at a board [of supervisors] meeting and blatantly said to the board members, ‘If you don’t pay your deputies better, I can, and I will take them because I can pay them better.’

“I can’t compete with Culpeper salaries, or Fauquier salaries,” Smith said, noting that she and Chief Deputy John Arstino did a recent salary comparison, and found that the Rappahannock sheriff office’s pay scale is the lowest among all of its neighboring counties.

“And low-end [employee health] insurance in Rappahannock, the family plan is about $800. You can go to Fauquier County, and high-end insurance is about $400 for a family plan. So I can’t compete.”

As a result, she said, Rappahannock has developed the reputation — and reality — of being a training ground for law enforcement officers who go elsewhere.

The solution, she said, would be higher salaries and lower insurance, but indicated that she would not be holding her breath.

Berry has advocated reassigning to another officer the animal control duties that are currently part of the job for the office’s School Resource Officer (or SRO, a deputy assigned to the county’s elementary and high schools). He’s also advocated for the RCSO’s rejoining the Virginia State Police’s Blue Ridge drug task force, a membership — and full-time reassignment of a deputy — that Smith gave up four years ago after two years in the task force.

“The drug task force position,” Berry said, “yes, it will cost more money [Smith’s chief argument against it], but I’ve done a little more research, and on average you get back about $10,000 to $12,000 of asset forfeiture money per year. And going into the task force you get more help from the DEA, the ATF, the federal prosecutor. . . . And in Page County, in 2014 — this wouldn’t happen all the time — but they got $141,000 of federal money back from asset forfeiture. So that will offset some of the cost of joining that position.”

Smith took issue with his numbers, saying that, in her two years with the drug task force, “I put a lot of money into that, and we got maybe $12,000 back. The task force, they look at mid- to high-level drug dealers. They don’t spend their time in Rappahannock.

“Mr. Berry wants to stand here and say, ‘Well, I’m going to pay for that person’s position out of the drug task force [asset forfeiture] money.’ What are you going to do the first year?” Telling an officer that he or she will be paid by the amount of seizures you make, she added, “that’s like telling a traffic cop that your salary’s going to paid by the amount of tickets that you write. They’re going to go out and write everybody that moves. You can’t tell someone that you’re going to put them in the task force, and the amount of seizures they make are what they’re going to get paid. That breeds bad cops, and you can’t do it.”

Questioned further about working with the office’s budget, which is not likely to change much, Berry said “there’s enough people in the sheriff’s office to allow for two deputies to work the night shift, and for me to put somebody in the drug task force. You can’t have everybody working day shift. And just like I said at the last debate, this is a rural county and sometimes the sheriff, the chief deputy and the captain have to get out and answer a few calls.”

At that earlier forum, Smith rather sternly responded that she, and the other ranking officers, did that all the time.

Berry insisted that “night shift needs to be better staffed. . . . It’s officer safety, as well.”

The challenger said his experience supervising a Culpeper patrol division of 13 officers does not include budgeting duties, but said he was involved in grant writing when he was part of the town force’s special-operations division and has taken two leadership management courses through the Virginia Chiefs of Police.

“I’ve actually looked over her budget and come up with some solutions,” he said, “and even cut the budget some.”

Asked a particularly self-serving question by the moderator about communications, particularly with the newspaper, Smith admitted that she did not share as much with the newspaper as its editor would like, and said her reasons were almost always related to the integrity of open cases. “We do Facebook, we do give the paper some of our information. I have to say, though, that he’s correct, I do not give the newspaper a lot of information.”

“Do I have money for a public information officer? I do not. So you’re stuck with me,” she said, setting of a big laugh.

“So, Andy,” said the moderator. “Would I be stuck with you?”

“I guess so,” Berry said. He said that, among the improvements in communication he’d bring on would be a quarterly public meeting, where the community could bring its concerns and suggestions to the sheriff’s office, and reinstituting the “Crime Solvers” program started by former sheriff Larry Sherertz (who was in the audience).

“Actually,” Smith said, “the crime solvers account [which provides some reward funds for tips leading to arrests in major crimes] is still active.” She said it hadn’t been used since a murder suspect was at large briefly in 2006, but did say that the office has begun (last week) to post notices of burglaries and break-ins to its Facebook page, in hopes of garnering witness information.

Both sheriff’s candidates agreed that drugs were the main problem in Rappahannock — Smith noting that no heroin-related deaths had yet occurred in the county, while surrounding counties have all seen a sharp increase, and that “my deputies are out there making drug arrests.” Berry suggested that, in addition to arrests, other educational and therapy programs could be emphasized more than they are now.

Soil and water conservation board

Culpeper Soil and Water Conservation District board candidates vying for two seats are (from left) incumbent Monira Rifaat, Mike Peterson and Isaac Parrish.

Three candidates are running for the county’s two seats on the board of the Culpeper Soil and Water Conservation District, a five-county agency that administers soil- and water-quality-related programs, and educational programs. They are incumbent Monira Rifaat, a longtime Sperryville farmer and former pathologist who’s seeking a third term on the board, Sperryville farmer Mike Peterson and Isaac Parrish, son of Stonewall-Hawthorne supervisor Chris Parrish and the youngest of the three hopefuls and the only one who not only is involved in farming but was born and raised in Rappahannock.

“I am very comfortable with what I have been doing for the board,” said Rifaat. “I have matured into the job. I’m good at it. . . . As the board deals with farmers, I understand the farmer’s view as well.

Rifaat outlined the board’s great challenge as helping Virginia meet its goals for Chesapeake Bay water quality by 2025, through its cost-share programs that allow farmers to fence off cattle from streams and build riparian buffers to filter runoff. Both Peterson, who runs Heritage Hollow Farm with his wife, Molly, and Parrish agreed, with Peterson adding that “the education component will be a huge component of the soil and water board’s challenge going forward. “We have to educate the next generation of farmers that these programs are available, to their environmental benefits, and also their infrastructure benefits,” Peterson said.

Asked by several audience members whether farmers would, or should, be forced to comply with stream-fencing and buffer requirements, all three said they did not think that would be fair to farmers.

“Fencing is very costly to a farmer,” said Parrish.

“To my knowledge, there’s a lot of unused money in the programs. And force doesn’t get you anywhere,” said Peterson, but the board should “provide them with options, and programs that help pay for those options.”

From the audience, Sharon Kilpatrick asked Rifaat what percentage of Chesapeake Bay pollution comes from farms located in the headwaters regions of the bay’s feeder streams and rivers, compared with “subdivisions, and shopping malls, and parking lots, and all of that.”

“Yes,” Rifaat said, “there is a big urban component in the pollution of the Chesapeake, and the farming component is small — but, of course, it’s visible. When the cows are standing the water and defecating, well, you can see that.”

“We have found,” she added, addressing another person’s question of why farmers are not pressed harder to comply with conservation measures, “that you don’t get anywhere  by talking penalties. You do better by reasoning with the farmer, and eventually he or she may come around. We’re not going to get 100 percent — we’d like to, but we’re not going to get it. We do better by working with farmers, cooperatively.”

Court clerk and commissioner of revenue

The only question left unanswered among the remaining two fields of candidates — three women are running for revenue commissioner, two for court clerk — is the one to be ultimately answered on Election Day, Nov. 3: Who has the most support?

In Rappahannock, incumbents traditionally have an edge in this regard; these two candidate fields each include an incumbent and what can fairly be described as a near-incumbent.

The eight-year clerk’s term — the only eight-year term among the county’s constitutional officers, who otherwise serve four-year terms — is sought by current clerk Margaret R. “Peggy” Ralph, who’s seeking her first full term (she was appointed to the post five years ago following the mid-term retirement of longtime clerk Diane Bruce, who’d made Ralph her deputy 28 years earlier).

Her opponent is Washington accountant and business consultant Lavonne Adkins, who ran unsuccessful write-in campaign against Ralph in 2010’s special election to fill the remainder of Bruce’s time in office.

Revenue Commissioner Beverly Atkins, who’s held that post for 30 years, decided earlier this year to retire when her term ends Dec. 31 — and her deputy of 17 years, Sharon Dodson, is seeking the job. She is opposed by Christa Weeks, a restaurant manager and mom of two from the town of Washington, and Marlina Lee of Castleton, a Rappahannock native who’s worked in the county building and emergency services office for 24 years.

Court clerk candidates Peggy Ralph (left, the incumbent) and Lavonne Adkins listen to a question at the Sept. 28 forum.

In introducing herself, Adkins emphasized her ties to Rappahannock, where her family moved in 1956. She attended Rappahannock schools, and was her class’s valedictorian in 1982; she’s been working in accounting, with businesses and with public and private business entities, for 30 years.

“I take great pride in my work and I strive to be a professional,” said Adkins, who also noted her volunteer work for Washington Baptist Church, the Piedmont Environmental Council, the now-defunct Rappahannock Nonprofit Center and with Rappahannock Soccer, where she’s been a volunteer, and referee coordinator, for 15 years.

“When people come to the clerk’s office, they have a problem, they have a concern,” said Ralph in her introduction, after thanking Bruce (“My mentor and friend for 34 years. It’s because of her that I’m here tonight.”)

Ralph said some who visit the clerk’s office — whose duties extend from court service to property deeds, wills, judgements and (in Rappahannock County) clerk to the board of supervisors — “are just plain angry. . . . The best I can do is try to answer their questions . . . and make sure that when that person leaves my office, they feel better, they feel that I have listened to them.”

Ralph encouraged people to “come in and see what we do.”

Adkins said that in her work, she herself visits the clerk’s office often; she did not openly criticize its current administration. She said her accounting experience would be most helpful in making changes; though she didn’t make any specific suggestions, she noted “improving the overall flow” and using technology wisely would be priorities.

Both candidates said they thought the institution of a Geographic Information System (GIS) — digitizing the county’s land records, tax maps and other information, a multi-year project that the supervisors recently asked be at least looked into — would be a good idea.

Questioned by an audience member, who asked how Adkins’ would deal with her lack of experience serving in a court clerk’s office, Adkins said: “There is training available. I have not served in a clerk’s office in a paid position, but . . . I know what they do. Many of those forms, I have prepared myself.” She said other clerk’s office employees who she’s known for years have offered her training assistance.

“When I step in, I will be well-prepared. I am a quick study, and I do have a short learning curve,” she said.

Commissioner of the revenue candidates (from left) Sharon Dodson, Christa Weeks and Marlina Lee smile at a question at the Rappahannock News’ candidates forum Sept. 28.

In the revenue commissioner race portion of the forum:

Lee, a lifelong Rappahannock resident who grew up on Fodderstack Road with parents Jack and Barbara Jenkins and lives in Castleton with her husband of 28 years, George, emphasized her two dozen years of experience in the building office, which also handles erosion and sediment control, emergency services and E-911 coordination.

“A lot of the information I deal with, permit-issuing and building-permit work, that information goes to the commissioner of the revenue office,” Lee said. “I think of this as a continuation and development of the work I have been doing. I’ve always had an admiration of what the commissioner of the revenue does. And I never would have run if Beverly was staying in the job.”

Weeks said she has “completely enjoyed living and working in Rappahannock County over the past several years”; she and her husband, Clinton, live on Main Street in the county seat with their two daughters, ages 9 and 4. A frequent attendee of town council meetings, Weeks said her restaurant and technology experience has also served to complement her natural inclination to be “analytical, to be a tinker.”

“I was encouraged to do this,” she said. “I was told the county could use some fresh ideas, a new face. I’m a come-here — a happy come-here . . . And we want to stay and become more invested. I think I can be of help.”

Dodson, asked good-naturedly by the moderator (who is writing this report) why, after 17 years as its deputy, she would possibly want to take on leadership of the office, laughed softly.

“I enjoy serving the citizens of the county,” she said. “I enjoy it when they come in to the office, and helping them solve their issues.

“I enjoy talking to people and working with people; I have always enjoyed public service,” said Dodson, who’d also introduced herself as a Rappahannock native, married 39 years to husband Roger, and a volunteer with the Flint Hill fire department, the Girl Scouts, Relay for Life, the Rappahannock Benevolent Fund and the Rappahannock Free Clinic. She’s worked for the county government in some capacity for 35 years, she said.

Asked about managing employees (the revenue commissioner’s office has two full-timers and one part-time employee), Dodson said that as deputy, it’s been her responsibility whenever the commissioner is away. Weeks said she’d managed several large, busy restaurants, including one in Alexandria where she managed a staff of 30. Lee said that whenever the building/emergency services chief (Richie Burke) was not in the office, “I’m the one who sends everyone where they need to go.”

Audience member Doug Schiffman of Sperryville, a financial consultant, asked Dodson why the county’s transition to a new accounting system had been “so rocky.” Without going into significant detail, Dodson said the transition — during which the treasurer and revenue commissioner offices have had to maintain for more than a year tax and financial records on both the new Keystone system and the older system it was designed to replace — is almost over.

“There are glitches that occur with the implementation of any new system,” she said. “Both offices [treasurer and commissioner of the revenue] are now fully on the new system.”

Another audience member also directed his question to Dodson.

“If you are revenue commissioner,” he said, “who’s going to take the mail to the post office?”

There was more laughter, including from Dodson and the other two candidates, both of whom are familiar with Dodson’s purposeful daily walk through town.

“Oh, I probably will,” she said.

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