Hampton supervisor, school, sheriff hopefuls sound off

Change happens at a different pace in Rappahannock County than in neighboring counties, if not the world, but it was nonetheless the topic of the day at last week’s well-attended forum at Washington Town Hall for Hampton district candidates for supervisor and school board and for the office of sheriff.

The Sept. 9 forum — like the Jackson district-focused candidates forum Sept. 3 in Amissville — was sponsored by the Friends of Liberty, which co-organizer Mike Cioffi described as a “local, civic-minded, nonpartisan group” whose members “just care about what’s going on in Rappahannock County.” Cioffi said this before introducing moderator Jim Gannon, a former longtime newspaperman and Washington correspondent (that being the other Washington), while the room was still filling with what eventually were about 70 civic-minded citizens, some having to stand in the back or upstairs in the loft.

(The Rappahannock News’ first of two candidates forums is 7 p.m. this Monday, Sept. 21, at the Theatre at Washington, to which all supervisor and school board candidates have been invited. A second News-sponsored forum is the following Monday, Sept. 28, same time and place, for sheriff and other constitutional officers and Culpeper Soil and Water Conservation District board candidates. Like the Friends of Liberty forums, the events are free and you can ask your own questions if the moderator, who is actually writing this report, doesn’t ask them first. The Theatre can seat 200-plus registered voters.)

At the head table were the three candidates for the Hampton supervisor seat — three candidates for a single seat itself being a change from recent elections. The seat will be vacated Dec. 31 by longtime supervisor Bryant Lee, and the candidates are the Lee-endorsed school board chair John Lesinski, a retired Marine colonel and commercial real estate agent; J. Newbill “Jay” Miller Jr., a Rappahannock native, cattle farmer, lobbyist and real estate agent; and Keir Whitson, an international trade consultant and Harris Hollow resident who’s served on the Rappahannock County Water & Sewer Authority for four years, and who is not a real estate agent.

Gannon asked the supervisor candidates first about the county-commissioned study by JLN Associates of its volunteer fire and rescue services, which said major changes are needed for the county’s all-volunteer emergency services to survive. He asked specifically if the candidates would favor or oppose consolidating or merging some of the county’s seven separate squads to streamline operations.

“I’d be afraid we’d lose more volunteers if we merged,” said Miller, who said he had not read the consultants’ report. “It’s something I’d have to study further to make a decision.”

Lesinski mentioned that the deputy county administrator was meeting next week with fire and rescue responders at a “summit,” and said he’d prefer to wait for the plan that fire and rescue responders themselves come up with. He said he agreed there were not enough volunteers in the county.

Whitson said he thought more, based on the study, about consolidation of resources, rather than consolidation of companies. “Sixty percent of the calls, roughly, are emergency medical calls, as John pointed out. . . . Let’s break the problem down to smaller parts, and the first thing we need to address are the EMTs [emergency medical technicians]. I think there’s a way we can organize the EMTs throughout the county into some kind of call list, and that’s addressed in the JLN study.”

About the possibility of paid EMTs and firefighters, Miller again deferred, saying he hadn’t studied the full report. Pressed for an opinion by Gannon, Miller said, “I really can’t give you an intelligent answer. That’s a big step for the county.”

To run calls overnight, or whenever volunteers are hard to come by, Lesinski said if the county finds it can’t find volunteers, he “would be open” to some paid responders.

“Again breaking this big issue down to smaller manageable parts,” Whitson said, “one move I think the county needs to make soon, is to hire a floating EMT or nurse practitioner, maybe it’s a $60,000 a year job, and perhaps we can leverage the community health foundations in Page or Fauquier county, to get a 9-to-5, five-day-a-week person, who works off of a list of, for lack of a better term, frequent fliers who use our emergency services more often than others. . . . a floater who would take pressure off of our volunteers.”

To bring more jobs to the county, responding to Gannon’s next series of questions, Lesinski said he would “embrace the county’s comprehensive plan’s focus on agribusiness and ecotourism.” Miller said he thought the county’s job was to be receptive to such ideas for business growth, but not to come up with the ideas itself.

Whitson used the water and sewer authority’s negotiations with the owners of a new brewery in Sperryville’s River District as an example of how the county can work more closely with small businesses. “Beer is inherently bad to have in your wastewater treatment system,” he said, so the authority worked out an aggressive composting plan, and also helped find the young owners of the brewery financing to pay the $22,000 they needed to buy sufficient capacity for the treatment plant.

“So we do not disagree,” Miller said. “I just want to clarify. You didn’t come up with the idea for the brewery, the Carney boys did. So our job, as I said, is to facilitate.” Whitson and Miller agreed that they had just agreed.

All three agreed that broadband was a high priority in Rappahannock, “essential to any business,” as both Lesinski and Whitson put it, and that regularly taking a closer look at the county’s budget — Miller suggesting a complete “company audit, top to bottom” — was also a priority for the next Hampton supervisor.

All three said they supported taking the next step on any “dark skies” initiative in Rappahannock — the next step being asking citizens their opinion, which the supervisors plan to do next month. “I think it’s a good idea,” Miller said, speaking of regulating lighting further, “as long as it doesn’t impinge on safety.”

School board candidate Demaris Miller, running as a write-in candidate for the Hampton seat that Lesinski will give up in December, said she “was astonished” when no one filed to run for the open position. As a former science teacher and nurse who’s keenly aware of “how crucially important our schools are, and that they are a huge portion of our annual county budget, I decided to run as a write in.”

A second announced write-in candidate, Lucy Ann “Pud” Maeyer, a former longtime teacher at Rappahannock County Elementary School, could not attend the forum.

Miller said she believed the school budget needed to be watched closely, but also credited Superintendent Donna Matthews with being “very skilled” at finding and moving around funds to keep various programs, most of them required by the state or federal government, healthy.

Asked if she thought the county’s schools were sufficiently safe, Miller said more school shootings might be avoided if there were more “armed individuals” on school campus. If school parents agreed — and only if they agreed, she stressed — she would be in favor of considering whether teachers or other staff at schools should carry concealed weapons.

“We might consider that,” she said, with some kind of special training from the sheriff’s office. “I wouldn’t want them to ever have the weapon there without having it on their person. I never carry my concealed weapon in a purse. If I carry a concealed weapon it will be on . . . my . . . body.”

It was a natural segue to the last two candidates at the Sept. 8 forum — two-term Sheriff Connie C. Smith, seeking a third term, and Culpeper Police Sgt. Anthony E. “Andy” Berry Sr., in his second challenge to the same incumbent.

On school safety, Smith said: “I would be totally against [teachers or staff carrying] guns in the schools. God forbid that something would happen, we don’t need to be running into a school with guns, and having people running at us with guns. That would be a terrible situation. I would be totally against teachers having guns. There have been incidents where children have been out of control. God forbid a child could get a gun away from a teacher.”

Berry said he completely agreed with the sheriff on that issue.

On Sept. 8 — as they did in Amissville Sept. 3 — both Smith and Berry agreed that drug use is the county’s biggest crime problem — but again disagreed on how to address it.

Berry repeated his belief that the sheriff’s office should rejoin the Virginia State Police’s regional drug task force; Smith said the cost of being a part of the task force is too high — a dedicated full-time position and vehicle are required, among other components — and that cooperation with state police and other law enforcement continues in force.

Berry said the drug task force gives the sherrif’s office access to resources from the state police, the federal prosecutor in Charlottesville, the DEA and other agencies. “It opens up a lot of avenues,” he said.

Smith noted that most of the same agencies have worked with the sheriff’s office, its task force participation notwithstanding — and that when asset seizures occur in task force busts or other operations, those same agencies and departments take their share of the funds, leaving little for the local jurisdiction.

Smith said drug arrests have gone up in the county, but property crimes often associated with drug use have gone down — an indicator, she said, of her department’s vigilance. Berry contended that more attention should be paid to rehabilitation and therapy programs for drug abusers. Since the first forum, Smith said, she’s found that the largest number of calls responded to by deputies are for domestic disputes or domestic violence.

“But those kind of calls are often not unrelated to drug use,” Gannon said.

“No,” Smith said, apparently disagreeing. “They are not really related.”

On staffing and budget, Smith said she is doing what she can after staff reductions related to the closing of the county’s jail. Berry said he believed there should be two road deputies on duty overnights in Rappahannock; Smith maintained that her current one deputy/two dispatchers plan works well, allowing the deputy to stay on the road when transport of prisoners to the regional jail in Front Royal can be handled by the second dispatcher.