Keyser resigns; supervisors search for interim administrator

‘Lack of civility continues to take its toll’

Looking back, it seems Rappahannock County Board of Supervisors Vice Chair Chris Parrish could see into the future. After the abrupt resignation of longtime building and emergency services official Richie Burke in March, Parrish predicted further upheaval.

“The loss of Richie Burke is a big blow,” he told the Rappahannock News in May. “No sooner will we get that situation straightened out, I fear we’ll lose somebody else. It is all a result of the constant badgering from a limited sliver of the county population.”

And so the county did lose somebody else. County Administrator Debbie Keyser also abruptly resigned last Friday, just a year into her two-year contract. She gave no official reason for her resignation, but said in an interview with columnist Chris Green that she needed to leave “for my health and happiness.”

The supervisors on Friday (June 23) “accepted, with regret” Keyser’s resignation during a special emergency meeting held in the Kramer Building in the town of Washington, during which a resolution was passed to release the administrator from her current employment contracts “under certain terms and conditions.”

According to the termination agreement, Keyser will continue to serve as the county administrator until July 16, unless an earlier date is agreed to, and she will assist in the recruitment and training of her replacement.

Keyser officially became administrator on May 1, 2016, replacing John McCarthy, who retired after nearly three decades in the county’s top post. Keyser had worked under McCarthy for one year as deputy county administrator.

Workload, lack of staff, criticism

Certainly her short tenure as the county’s first new chief executive in 30 years was rocky. Her job performance fell under repeated criticism from several members of the community, acting in a “seemingly coordinated effort to continually frustrate her by focusing on day to day business,” in the words of Hampton Supervisor John Lesinski, who said on Monday he believes the situation distracted her from her short- and long-term goals for the county.

“This lack of civility continues to take its toll,” he said, referring to Keyser’s resignation on the heels of Burke’s departure.

She also came under attack from other county officials. In February, County Treasurer Debbie Knick wrote a letter to the BOS accusing the county government of mismanagement, including failure to follow proper expense and payroll procedures and lack of oversight of budgeting and spending by senior county officials.

In particular, Knick was sharply critical of Keyser, for the “amount of mistakes and the apparent lack of oversight and miscommunication” when conducting official business, according to her letter.

Knick went so far as to accuse Keyser of making false statements about the county’s “new” computer system being to blame for less than transparent monthly credit card purchases by senior county officials.

Knick’s criticism resulted in a Virginia State Police investigation of the county’s procurement activities. The investigation is still ongoing.

Among the five supervisors, Jackson district’s Ron Frazier in particular was publicly most critical of Keyser. In several board meetings, he called her to task over errors in required notifications of meetings and agendas.

“I suspect Ron was out of line in how he treated her,” said Piedmont Supervisor Mike Biniek, also decrying the environment of incivility that currently exists.

In her termination agreement, Keyser reserved the right to take future action against Frazier.

Keyser has declined to comment on what action, if any, she might take, and what specifically Frazier might have done to provoke her to reserve the right to a claim against him. The other supervisors refused to speculate on what action Keyser might take.

Frazier said in a phone call Monday that he didn’t know what the clause about him in the termination agreement referred to.

“Perhaps it’s a way to try me in the court of public opinion,” he said.

Supervisors take responsibility

Most supervisors accepted responsibility for Keyser’s troubles. Lesinski acknowledged earlier this year that the board set Keyser up for “failure” by putting too many responsibilities on her plate — administrative duties coupled with zoning — that no one person could be expected to handle.

“I lay her [problems] with zoning administration more at the feet of the board than at Debbie’s feet,” said Lesinski on Monday. “She was being a good corporate soldier when she said ‘Yes, I think I can take on both roles,” meaning county administrator and zoning administrator.

He said the supervisors had wanted to cut corners from the budget and didn’t realize till it was too late that the board should have hired a separate zoning administrator.

Keyser addressed that in her interview with Green.

“What others have judged as ineptness has been lack of staffing to complete past expectations along with new projects,” said Keyser. “McCarthy asked for additional staffing years ago, and it is still needed now.”

Keyser declined to give another interview to the Rappahannock News, citing the presence of “meanness” from some members of the community. She told Green that she’d accepted a position with the Fauquier County government.

Biniek said in a phone call Monday that he is sad to see Keyser go.

“She was basically doing a good job,” he said. “Four out of five people on the board of supervisors were happy with her performance. It was hard for her to do her job with the attacks and abuse she was getting.”

Even Frazier acknowledged the board’s contribution to her troubles.

“My complaints were that things weren’t being done.” He said. “But I think the board did not give her the proper direction. I didn’t want anyone to resign.”

Next steps

The supervisors in recent months budgeted for the creation of a full-time zoning administrator position, and just two weeks ago David Dameron, who for the past nine years held the same post in Powhatan County west of Richmond, took the position.

In last Friday’s meeting, the board also formed a search committee to identify an interim county administrator, while simultaneously launching efforts to identify a full-time replacement for Keyser.

Any new administrator, whether interim or permanent, will have to be approved by a vote of the board at a public meeting that would be scheduled for later this summer.

“We greatly appreciate the hard word and dedication that Debbie gave to Rappahannock County government and we are sorry that she has decided to leave,” Supervisors Chair Roger Welch of Wakefield district said in a statement issued last Friday afternoon. “We wish her nothing but success going forward and are pleased that she will remain a resident of the county.”

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About Patty Hardee 163 Articles
Writer, consultant, actor, director, recovering stand-up comic, Patty covers the county’s courts and other topics of interest for Rappahannock News. She lives with her grape-growing husband Bill Freitag in Flint Hill.