Small county, big ideas: The candidates forums, part I

Forum audio

The full two-hour Rappahannock News Candidate Forum is here. Click the play button to listen, or the arrow to download the whole (42 MB) mp3 file.


A 21-page PDF version of the forum transcript is here.

Surprise: All 10 hopefuls who appeared at Monday night’s Rappahannock News Candidates Forum, running on Nov. 3 for the three open seats apiece on the county’s board of supervisors and school board, agree they would not want property taxes — traditionally Rappahannock County’s principal source of both revenue and contention — to continue to rise.

The candidates agreed more than disagreed on the ways to make that happen at the two-hour question-and-answer session — the first of two such events sponsored by the News and moderated by its editor (who is also writing this report).

The next forum, which focuses on the sheriff, commissioner of the revenue and circuit court clerk, two Culpeper Soil and Water Conservation District board seats and uncontested races for treasurer and commonwealth’s attorney, is 7 p.m. this Monday night (Sept. 28) at the Theatre at Washington, and is likewise free and open to all.

For the supervisor candidates’ position on rising taxes, the moderator asked (not entirely seriously) for a simple show of hands of all those opposed to rising taxes. Up went the hands of all six candidates — school board chair and commercial real estate agent John Lesinski, real estate agent, farmer and beef lobbyist J. Newbill “Jay” Miller and international trade consultant and water and sewer authority member Keir Whitson, who are vying for the seat Bryant Lee is giving up Dec. 31 in the Hampton district; school board member Amy Hitt and incumbent longtime supervisor Ron Frazier in the Jackson district; and current board chair Roger Welch, who is unopposed in his bid for a fifth four-year term in the Wakefield district.

Welch actually raised both hands . . .

On the supervisor side, the fact that three candidates are seeking the seat of an incumbent who’s not seeking reelection is unusual in traditionally change-resistant, incumbent-friendly Rappahannock, and this November’s school board race also qualifies as unusual.

Former longtime school board chair Wes Mills is running unopposed for the same Jackson district seat that Hitt won when he declined to run again four years ago. And for the Hampton school board seat, there are now three candidates — all of them write-ins and all of whom showed for Monday’s forum: former science teacher and retired nurse Demaris Miller; retired longtime Rappahannock County Elementary School teacher Lucy Ann “Pud” Maeyer; and, as of Monday, music educator and administrator John Bourgeois, a retired colonel who was director of “The President’s Own” U.S. Marine Band. In Wakefield district, first-term board member Chris Ubben is unopposed; a family illness prevented his attendance Monday night.

Supervisor candidates (from left) Jay Miller, Amy Hitt, Roger Welch, Ron Frazier, John Lesinski and Keir Whitson.
Supervisor candidates (from left) Jay Miller, Amy Hitt, Roger Welch, Ron Frazier, John Lesinski and Keir Whitson. Luke Christopher

The supervisor candidates

The candidates were asked to answer the same two questions that appear on a survey (available at the county’s website at designed by Deputy County Administrator Debbie Keyser to garner citizen input as the county reviews its comprehensive plan this fall and winter, a review required every five years: What would you change about Rappahannock County, if anything; and what ought to never change?

Whitson said he’d heard the same questions from voters he’s talked to, and what he wouldn’t change meshed with the same fundamental answer given by all the candidates: Rappahannock’s open spaces, its scenic viewsheds and rural, agricultural focus. “We all love living here for the same obvious reason,” he said, “that there’s nothing like it, certainly not on the East Coast or the mid-Atlantic region. Making it as easy as possible . . . [to keep] people in land use, keeping our open space . . . really, keeping the rural character of our county intact at any cost.

“And when I say cost,” he added, “I don’t mean that we won’t need to make sacrifices along the way. What I do think we need to change is to focus on what’s entertained explicitly in the comprehensive plan — and that is sensible business growth in our villages, and in the town of Washington, that fits with the rural character of our county, and doing everything we can to attract small businesses, so that we can keep the rest of the county intact.”

Lesinski agreed; what he would change, he said, would be to intensify the county’s pursuit of technology — specifically broadband internet access, along with “better cell tower connectivity, and getting a GIS system . . . .” Lesinski said he believes such changes can help drive new business to Rappahannock, as well as make the county more attractive to residents (particularly those who could telecommute or run a Web-based business) as well as visitors.

“We can sit and talk about bringing business into the community,” said Frazier, “but right now, under our current governor, Virginia ranks, I think, 48th out of 50 [states] for job creation.” Businesses that aren’t already seeking to locate in other communities that have infrastructure in place are certainly not going to look at Rappahannock County, “with the limited infrastructure we have.”

Miller had earlier noted that he’d grown up in a household where local government was a frequent topic. His father, the late former supervisor J. Newbill Miller, is credited by many with helping put in place, back in the 1980s, much of the county’s restrictive zoning and other incentives meant to keep its landscape open and agricultural. “But I’m not going to run on that,” he added, saying he’d rather try to apply his experience in farm-centered national politics on the local level, “with common sense.”

Miller said he realizes that what he appreciated about the county — “The Peak, dark skies at night, no stop lights, no 7-Elevens” — had its economic disadvantages. “The fact is, we pay a price to live here, and I agree with the other supervisors,” he said, referring to a number of comments by Frazier and Welch (both of whom noted that, as Frazier put it, “I don’t recall us saying no on a regular basis to businesses wanting to come here”).

If it were economically viable to do business in a mostly rural county of 7,000 residents, Miller said, those businesses would come. “We’re not on the way to anywhere, we don’t have rail, we don’t have bus, we don’t have anything. To come to Rappahannock County, you either have to be headed to the valley or you’re intending to come here.”

Hitt also said the county “can’t be Warrenton, we can’t be Culpeper, we don’t want it to be . . . but some of the basic services other places have, we need to have.” She said a drugstore could be opened in the county’s central business and services district (along U.S. 211 east of the high school), and suggested “better broadband” would enable “more people to work at home, and that may give us more volunteers at our fire companies.”

As at a previous candidate forum sponsored by the Friends of Liberty, she used a 120-acre property whose owner, she said, wanted to divide into home sites for five children — and who was prevented from doing so by the county’s 25-acre minimum limit — as evidence that the county could have a more flexible attitude toward families. “You have to able to make changes where families can still [afford to] live here and raise their families here,” she said.

Frazier disagreed. “In point of fact,” he said, “there’s nothing in the zoning ordinance that prevents people from building a pharmacy out there. It’s just not economically viable — whether it’s a 7-Eleven, or McDonald’s, or Food Lion. Fact is, you’re already shopping there. You’re already going to Front Royal, Luray, Culpeper or Warrenton. Nobody is going to build a Food Lion because they need to capture the business of all the customers in Rappahannock County.”

Frazier said of Hitt’s example of unnecessarily strict zoning: “That one piece of land keeps getting talked about, and that particular piece of land couldn’t have been subdivided if it were in Culpeper County, either. It’s got to have road frontage.”

Asked later for specific solutions to Rappahannock’s peculiar balance of rural character and sustainable economy, two candidates’ answers stood out. The first, from Lesinski:

“If I got that question a year or 18 months ago, I’d probably have been an advocate for doing some kind of multifamily . . . or small, senior dwelling units, or cottages within the towns,” Lesinski said. “But then as I . . . talked to more folks, and listened to the people who have started this Rappahannock at Home [organization], what they advocate makes a tremendous amount of sense. At the risk of losing votes here, I’ll ask for a show of hands of those folks out here who are 65 or older [no hands went up, and laughter ensued among the 100 or so attendees, many, if not most, of whom were 65 or older].

“Well, you know who you are,” he continued. “I think you would rather stay at home than necessarily have to stay in the county only by clustering somewhere. But there are three things people need for a concept like Rapp at Home to work: . . . first is transportation, second is cell service, and third is broadband.”

Lesinski said he thought efforts to bring technology, in particular broadband, would not “represent any quantum leap in cost,” and could “help bring the right kind of businesses here, that sync with our comprehensive plan,” and allow existing and new ecotourism and agribusiness to grow.

As examples of how the county should do a “better job of bringing businesses out here,” he cited Valley Health’s soon-to-open medical clinic on U.S. 211 (a project he said he helped broker), and said “when they needed to solve something about access and egress to their facility, the county just turned them over to VDOT without really being their advocate or working with them. That’s not right. If we get that right . . . we can grow the right kind of businesses, and bring the right kind of new businesses out here that are in keeping with our comprehensive plan.”

The other was from Whitson:

“You asked what we’d do immediately,” Whitson said, and apologized for then retelling a story of how he and other Rappahannock County Water and Sewer Authority members helped work out a composting and financing plan for the Carney brothers to open their new brewery in Sperryville. “I don’t know if you’ve been over to the Pen Druid Brewery, but it’s a hit. It opened in August, and they almost ran out of beer several times. It’s helping draw people into what I would call a cluster economy, where in this case you have a distiller, two breweries — including Hopkins Ordinary on Main Street. It’s a perfect example of the kind of homegrown business that the county needs to help — and by help I mean saying ‘yes’ more often than saying ‘no.’”

“I also have talked with two other families who have interest in locating businesses in this county,” Whitson continued. “One . . . is a light manufacturing company that would be nonpolluting, probably provide five to eight jobs, and, if elected, I promise I would immediately go talk to this person, who I won’t name, and tell them, ‘Let’s find a way in the county for you to open your flooring manufacturing line.’”

The other prospective business, he said, is related to federal contracting and would require warehouse space.

“We have the Carney brothers, all three of them, I think, with small children, we have a family in town with small children that wants to open a business in Rappahannock, and another family that wants to bring a business here. What I would do immediately is help them. I don’t think it’s that difficult. And it just starts with saying ‘yes’ to people.”

Asked how long they’d serve if elected (or reelected), Whitson and Hitt both said they’d serve as long as the voters in their districts wanted them to. Lesinski said “two terms.” Frazier, who’d earlier said he wanted to serve “one more term,” changed his answer to “two terms,” adding, “We’re going through some major changes here, so I think we could use what I think would be a steady hand on the rudder.”

“I’ll go along with Ron,” Welch said. “I think I’ll serve until I’m not needed.”

Miller said he’s committed to serving one term, adding that “I couldn’t say where I’d be in four years, but, you know, there’s a good possibility I’d run again.”

School board candidates (from left) John Bourgeois, Demaris Miller, Pud Maeyer and Wes Mills.
School board candidates (from left) John Bourgeois, Demaris Miller, Pud Maeyer and Wes Mills. Luke Christopher

The school board candidates

The school board candidates all agreed that the school budget was a constant source of pressure — on the school board, and on Superintendent Donna Matthews — to find the money to pay for programs that are required — “unfunded mandates,” as Mills called them, referring to implementation over the last decade of standards of learning (SOL) requirements and federal No Child Left Behind standards.

“There’s a big reality we’re going to have face rather shortly,” said Bourgeois. “The windows at the elementary school have to be replaced And that’s going to be a large budget item, and we’ll have to find a constructive way to do it — maybe getting a campaign going, perhaps ‘Windows on Education,’ and maybe find some of the big-bucks people to help us out with it. It’s going to be an expensive project, but it is a necessary project.”

Maeyer also mentioned the prospect of sources of funding other than the state — which funds only 20 percent of required school expenses, the remaining 80 percent being funded locally through real estate taxes. She cited an example when she was teaching of the donation of “a bunch of computers that took us up a good five or 10 years in progress. I don’t know how long, as a school system, we would’ve taken to do that ourselves.”

Miller promised she’d be “fiscally responsible,” noting that “here in this county we have a unique situation of a very small population, and a very small school population, and we have to do things a little more innovatively than other places to meet those needs within our budget.”

Mills mentioned that, in his 11 previous years on the school board, he and vice chair Aline Johnson would meet every year with Welch and sometimes other supervisors before the “March madness” of budget time, and attempt to balance funding priorities with “the economic tempo of the community.” He added, “I think it’s a great advantage to have two boards that respect each other and will work with each other.”

The most obvious disagreement among school board candidates concerned school safety, and an answer that Demaris Miller gave at a Friends of Liberty forum.

Asked then 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 at the earlier forum, 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.”

Miller repeated her belief Monday night, again stressing that it would be a decision that should only be pursued if parents thought it should be.

Both Mills and Maeyer said they thought school safety had increased significantly over the last four or five years. Said Bourgeois, who’d admitted that part of the reason he decided to run as a write-in had been Miller’s statement about guns: “I support the position of both candidates for sheriff,” he said. “We have school safety zones, we have someone in the school that works with the sheriff’s department. I’m sort of old- fashioned. I think schools should be temples for learning. If we arm our teachers, let’s arm them with support. I think, just as schools are drug-free zones, they should be gun-free zones.”

His comments were met with applause.