John Lesinski: Trust, quality of life are keys to strong community

John Lesinski is the newest member of the Rappahannock County Board of Supervisors (BOS). After serving a term as Chairman of the Rappahannock School Board from 2011-2015, he was elected to the BOS in 2015 as the supervisor representing the Hampton District.

By Bob Hurley

During his short tenure on the BOS, Lesinski saw, “Big changes over the last couple of years as the BOS increased its role in hands-on decision-making. With both the budget and governance, it’s a sea change from the way things used to work.

“This is what the County wanted, increased levels of responsibility and involvement on the part of the BOS. Of course, that doesn’t mean that everybody is happy,” he said.

Holding senior positions in the commercial real estate industry for 30 years, Lesinski is executive vice president at Colliers International, a global real estate company. He moved to Rappahannock from Great Falls, VA with his wife, Heidi, coming first as weekenders in 2003 and then permanent residents in 2007.

He grew up in Cupertino, CA, graduated from Santa Clara University, and served 26 years in the U.S. Marine Corps — 22 years of it in the reserves. He retired as a full colonel in 2006.

Aside from his service on the BOS, Lesinski participates in a wide range of community activities. You might find him in a leading role in the RAAC Community Theatre — last year he starred as Felix Unger in Neil Simon’s “Odd Couple” — hosting a table at Rappahannock’s Benevolent Fund Dinner, or taking in dogs from a golden retriever rescue foundation (he currently has two). He also likes to hunt and fish.

“This place holds together because of the volunteer spirit, whether it’s the Food Pantry, fire and rescue departments, Headwaters, RAAC, CCLC, Benevolent Fund, RAWL, you name it. We have a very generous giving community that supplements programs you wouldn’t find in communities that have a larger tax base,” Lesinski said.

A supervisor for 18 months, he’s jumped into his job with both feet, serving as the chair of both the Broadband Committee and the Public Safety Committee, which oversees fire and rescue, law enforcement, and emergency services; the BOS representative on the Planning Commission and on a building infrastructure task force.

Here are Lesinski’s views on several important issues of concern to Rappahannock residents:

Broadband initiative

As chair of the Broadband Committee, Lesinski has revived efforts to bring streaming internet service to underserved areas of the county. “Broadband is one of those things that doesn’t have to compromise the kind of culture we have from a view shed and density perspective,” he said. “It’s about education, business, and public safety — those are the three legs of the stool for broadband. It allows us to become stronger and keep pace with other communities.”

Lesinski brought in the nonprofit organization Center for Innovative Technology (CIT) which develops strategies to address broadband the needs of rural counties like Rappahannock.

“The CIT service is free and comes with a lot of assets that can help with public/private partnerships,” he said. “The problem is with Comcast and Verizon — they just don’t want to spend the money out here. There are not enough people, so it’s a numbers game for them. Putting cable in the ground is cost-prohibitive. So, we have to come up with some hybrid technology.

“The good news is the technologies are improving. The question is what’s the most reliable system that reaches the most people.”

Over the next few months, the Broadband Committee is going to develop a public awareness campaign about high-speed internet access following a survey sent out to county residents.

“We want to get feedback on broadband services from everyone in the county, what technology they are currently using and what they want,” Lesinski said. “We’ll be conducting a public awareness campaign in the fall ahead of the standardized CIT survey that we’ll make available to everyone.

“Once the survey is completed, we can develop a plan to reach out to providers that will hopefully identify the type of infrastructure and service we need. If there is anything I hope to achieve in this term on the BOS, it is trying to get a better understanding of what’s needed to provide a broadband solution.”

Budget and taxes

“The overarching sentiment in this county is not to raise taxes,” Lesinski said. “We are always looking at ways to save a nickel, but that is in delicate balance with having to provide a lot of services while remaining true to the ecotourism model and our comprehensive plan.

“The biggest source of revenue in this county is from $1 million homes. That’s a big revenue generator, but there is your delicate balance — nobody wants subdivisions of McMansions — we reject that.”

Lesinski strongly supports the 25-acre residential zoning ordinance.

“We want to keep new large homes on larger parcels,” he said. “Once you make a grand compromise and a major housing developer comes in, then you’ve opened a door which would never be shut again. It’s what keeps me up at night. Figuring out ways to keep things the way they are, governing in a way that keeps what we have today, maintaining the fragile balance between revenue and expenses and growth and development.”

Repairs and upgrades to the county’s buildings will be expensive, Lesinski believes.

“That can has been kicked down the road for some time and now is the time we have to deal with it,” he said. “We have water leaks and foundation problems in a handful of buildings and some of the electrical, HVAC, and security systems may need to be upgraded. Couple those costs with the new emergency radio system and tower and we are talking about a lot of new expenditures.

“We’ll likely have to take on debt or possibly raise taxes to pay for these projects. It’s a big financial challenge when the vast majority of our revenue comes from real estate taxes.”

It’s no secret the county operates with a small staff, with some employees doing two or three jobs. After BOS sessions, supervisors and key staff can often be seen carting files back to the county administrator’s office, breaking down tables and stacking chairs — duties usually covered by bigger staffs in other counties.

“This is just an example of Rappahannock always trying to do more with less and that’s good, but there is a tipping point,” said Lesinski. “We’ve asked many people to do so much that they are just not always capable of doing it without a sacrifice in their quality of life or sometimes the quality of the product.

“Some of the criticism we get is that we don’t have adequate policies and procedures and job descriptions, lists of duties and so forth. I agree that’s needed, but it takes more staff, and more staff is more revenue and higher taxes. Some of the most vocal critics of the county are actually, in a backhanded way, advocating for more staff and bigger government that would increase taxes.”

Tourism

Lesinski is supportive of “growing” tourism in the county but in a way that is consistent with the comprehensive plan.

“We should be supportive of the business community, and I’m a big believer in the free market,” he said. “We need to take a comprehensive look at what government’s role is in promoting business out here. At a minimum, the government should not get in the way of the free market, and where we can, promote and support our tourism industry.”

Short-term rentals, such as rooms rented by homeowners, often using the popular Airbnb website, has generated some controversy in Rappahannock. Last March, the Virginia Legislature enacted a law that gives local governments the power to regulate these short-term rentals.

“With this new development, I expect the planning commission will be reviewing options for any changes in ordinances, as they relate to these short-term rentals,” he said. “It is important that any recommendations be consistent with the county’s comprehensive plan.”

BOS, county government

As the newest member of the BOS, Lesinski has been focused on improving the board’s meeting procedures.

“We are having a much-needed conversation about the way we set the meeting agendas and discuss issues,” he said. “I believe our sessions can be streamlined where, prior to the public meetings, committees would hash out the issues and make recommendations for debate and approval.

“What is happening now is that we spend a lot time talking about agenda items for the first time. Our school board uses something called a ‘consent agenda’ process which works very well, and we should consider using something like that for the BOS meetings.”

To provide for greater public input, Lesinski supported adding an additional meeting period on the first Monday of every month.

“Some citizens don’t like our regular 2 p.m. Monday meetings because it’s hard for them to get there,” he said. “So now we have agreed to keep the 2 p.m. meeting to consider more routine issues and meet again at 7 p.m. when we will discuss issues of greater interest to the public. This will allow for more public comment, and we all want that.”

When asked about the motivation behind the criticism leveled at the BOS and county employees by some residents, Lesinski responded, “I think there is a certain element that prefers to thrive in an environment of chaos where there is always doubt and always question — those seem to be their ‘means,’ I don’t know what their ‘ends’ are.”

He is concerned that the rancor in national politics has seeped down to the local level.

“I think that comes from ‘big’ Washington and where we are as a society now. Unfortunately, it has caused friction and negatively affected the ability of elected officials and staff to focus on the business of the county,” Lesinski said.

Lesinski supports the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), a procedure whereby an individual can request any documents from government agencies.

“Sunshine laws are essential in a democracy,” he said. “But, if it swings out of balance and is used for purposes other than it was designed, it can be problematic. Bragg v the BOS (a lawsuit filed by county resident Marian Bragg charging the BOS violated FOIA) was brought with a FOIA violation claim which was a complete canard.

“I think that case was nothing more than settling old scores between people that had bad feelings about the outgoing county attorney and certain other members of the local government. The cost to defend against that litigation — it could have gone to the schools, or building maintenance. It’s hopefully behind us now — but it was an awful distraction that also served to divide the board.”

With the FOIA lawsuit dismissed last April, Lesinski is looking to the future.

“We are working through all these changes,” he said. “John McCarthy’s departure, coupled with new people in positions of authority and leadership, left something of a void. It hasn’t been pretty at times, but we are working much harder and getting things done,” he said.

Lesinski strongly believes that trust and a high quality of life are the ingredients that makes Rappahannock special.

“This community doesn’t work unless we all get together and trust each other. We won’t be able to keep what we have and we won’t maintain it for the future unless we have a mutual level of trust among ourselves. What we have over other localities is the quality of life and a sense of community that they just don’t have anywhere else, and we have to work together to keep it that way.”

Print Friendly, PDF & Email