McCarthy retiring, zoning administrator public backlash, fire and rescue in peril

By Alex Sharp VIII/Rappahannock News
“I think YOU need two people to replace the job that you have put on me over the years,” said County and Zoning Administrator John McCarthy, far right, at the Board of Supervisors meeting. By Alex Sharp VIII/Rappahannock News

With temperatures rising into the 70s, and the county budget building process underway, things got hot in the crowded courthouse in Washington Monday (March 7) — not early springtime hot, summertime hot, during the three and a half hour Board of Supervisors’ meeting in which County and Zoning Administrator John McCarthy announced his impending retirement.

When the supervisors opened the floor for public comment, a dozen members of the public took turns making pleas to the board. The public lashed out against the formation of a new zoning administrator to split the load with his successor. The fire and rescue association president demanded $38,000 be returned to the Amissville Volunteer Fire and Rescue Department. The supervisors announced they need young blood to save the volunteer fire and rescue system from total failure.

John McCarthy announces retirement, advocates for separate zoning official

John McCarthy had words and advice for the Board of Supervisors in announcing his July retirement from a post he has held since 1986 as county and zoning administrator. As he stepped back from the board table and addressed the supervisors from the audience at Monday’s meeting, he told how the two-position job “has worn me down” over the years.

McCarthy — who makes about $160,000 a year — will no longer manage the county and zoning administration. Rappahannock County is the only one in the state in which the same person does both jobs. And as it currently sits, though no action has been taken, deputy county administrator Debbie Keyser will assume the role of county administrator and a second position for zoning administrator may be created and filled by appointment. By design, the salaries for the two positions will not cost the county more than McCarthy and Keyser’s combined salaries.

“I’m out. I mean I’m retiring in a few months,” said McCarthy. “If you indeed agree to staff an additional position, Debbie presumably will make that hire and that’ll be what she and you have to live with, much like any other staffing decision is made. I agree that zoning is important. It’s probably the most important thing that is dealt with on a daily basis in county government. I have dealt with it for 30 years. I have predecessors, one of whom [David Konick] at least is present, who dealt with it in years before me — and it’s the predominate effect of the look of the landscape. But to say that I’ve controlled it considerably overdoes the case. Obviously YOU control it; you vote to approve or disapprove. And you’ve certainly ignored my recommendations in times passed, and agreed with me on other occasions.

“The notion of a second position is not new to you, despite how it may appear new to some members of the public. The notion of bringing a deputy county administrator on board and partially funding it with funds that we currently heretofore had spent on tourism, was there, that was 30-some-thousand dollars that we were going to contribute toward the deputy county administrator salary, and that person is going to take over the responsibility for supporting tourism, which of course Debbie has indeed done.

“So there’s always been the discussion of having a second person. The notion was never fleshed out as far as exactly what the responsibilities of that person would be. You have two problems when you have someone in the position of county administrator. Or at least two problems, there may be many more as I have demonstrated over the years. One problem you will always have is, who takes over if that person retires? Or leaves and takes a job somewhere else? Succession matters. That you can manage by having a number two, who’s constantly being put in the position of exposure to what’s going on with what number one deals with, and then that person can step in to the number one job when the number one goes.

“You also have the “hit by a bus” problem: The number one can just disappear, without any planning or preparation for succession of my position. I think you need to have a number two. Zoning is a logical set of responsibilities to put on that person. I think things have changed pretty dramatically over the last 30 years. I’m the first to admit that I have been missing a few things over the last couple of years. I’ve gotten by largely through age and guile, and the long-standing condition of just sounding like I knew what the Hell I was talking about even if I had not necessarily done so. That’s a pretty important skill for this position. And it’s not a skill that is acquired by a mandate of heaven, you have to earn it, you have to accrue it over time.

“I think that my vanity is certainly appeased by whatever I’ve done about myself, and I feel about myself. I don’t need the ratification of it by somebody else deciding that they need to have two people to replace me. I think YOU need two people to replace the job that you have put on me over the years. It’s worn me down. It will wear down whoever you put in the number one spot. I’m willing to help out during the transitional period, on a consulting basis, to backstop electronically or telephonically, and I’m sure we’ll talk about that. But I’m not going to be there forever; nobody should be doing that on a part-time basis, because it simply is too complicated to be contained by picking it up and putting it down every few hours.

“I feel you need two people for this position, if not now, then after I’ve transitioned completely out and I’m not supporting even electronically from a distance anymore. Certainly at some future point. It does need to be discussed in the public. I wasn’t asking for a decision today. I don’t have a person I want you to hire. I will have nothing to do with whoever you hire. But you need two people, for succession, to solve the “hit by a bus” problem, and because zoning is important.

“You did fund this position partly with other sources of money, but that’s all going to go away just having one person there. The discussion about there being two people has been ongoing. Saying zoning administrator and county administrator IS new, but that’s just logic. I think you’ll see in the fullness of time it’s going to be logical to you. I’m not asking for your decision today, I’m asking you to engage seriously in what is an ongoing problem. Thank you.”

County Attorney Peter Luke: ‘We need that second position’

After John McCarthy addressed the supervisors, chairman Roger Welch asked County Attorney Peter Luke what the supervisors should do:

“Well, I can’t tell you what to do, but I can tell you what my opinion is,” said Luke. “You do need a separate zoning administrator. I’ve been here since before John was hired. And I’ve seen this job, his job, mushroom. You all know how many hats he wears. I mean I’m looking here at his contract. Of the jobs you’ve given him, legally under his contract, not counting what he’s picked up with all the night meetings he goes to and different committees he serves on, and going down to Richmond to the General Assembly to represent you.

“We live kind of in a dream world in Rappahannock. Because we’re so small, we sort of get by sometimes with things that other counties can’t get by with. There’s no other county in Virginia where the county administrator and the zoning administrator are the same person. And the reason for that goes with what John said: The zoning administrator has gotten so, since David [Konick] was the zoning administrator before John came in, it’s gotten exponentially more complicated. It’s complicated. There’s a federal level to it. I have sitting on my desk now the new sign ordinance that we have to adopt because the U.S. Supreme Court in a case essentially declared ours and everybody else’s in Virginia unconstitutional.

“So you’ve got to deal with the federal level. You’ve got to deal with the state level. And then of course you have the local level. So it’s more and more complicated, and it’s your highest-risk area of being sued. I don’t have to tell you gentlemen, right now we have this Harmony Hollow case that’s been in the breast of the court now for over a year. I don’t know what’s going on with it, but that was an appeal. You have a direct route now, from the decision of the zoning administrator, to the BZA and then directly to the court. And a lot of people have chosen to take advantage of that. So when I look back at how the county gets itself in court, zoning is the main way.

By Alex Sharp VIII/Rappahannock News
Deputy County Administrator Debbie Keyser, speaking at Monday’s Board of Supervisors meeting, will assume the role of county administrator and a second position for zoning administrator may be created and filled by appointment. By Alex Sharp VIII/Rappahannock News

“I think that it’s time. I gave you some figures, in terms of the cost of John’s salary and what we might be compensating Debbie. And you have that money in the budget now, as far as I can see, to hire a zoning administrator and it won’t affect anything in terms of your taxes. It’s money that was already appropriated this past year, you wouldn’t have to appropriate another cent. You could hire a second person and still have some money left over.

“The last point I’ll touch on, which John I believe alluded to: As an attorney, I’ve never liked the idea of having all your eggs in one basket — being John. If something were to happen to John, your county’s function — you guys meet once or twice a month but I’ll tell you, if you were to come in every day there’s a lot that goes on to keep this county running. And I don’t know how that would continue. It makes sense to have a fallback, to have a backup person. I think I sent you a memo, that if you choose to have a zoning administrator, you could make the zoning administrator the deputy county administrator or make the county administrator the deputy zoning administrator. So whether it’s one or the other, you’ve got an automatic person that legally can step in and do what needs to be done.

“That’s my two cents-worth on it. Once again, I have to say, in my favor, I kind of feel like I’ve seen this probably more than anybody else. I deal with these people every week. I deal with John, I deal with Debbie, I deal with these zoning issues — and the zoning issues have gotten to be a lot more complicated and a lot higher risk if you make the wrong decision. I think it would be good to get somebody in there, let them specialize as the zoning administrator. I just think it’s time.

“As John said, you aren’t going to be able to put it off very long anyway, I believe. You don’t have to wait for somebody to drop dead, or even Debbie surely will plan to go on vacation. She accrues vacation leave. So she takes her two-week vacation, so what’s going to happen then? I know what happens, because usually I’m the one around when everyone else is gone, but I don’t want to be in that position.

“So that’s my recommendation, Mr. Chairman, since you asked me. I know other people may feel otherwise, but once again I’ve had to deal with this every day. And I think, as John says, the job has worn him down, and I can understand why. We don’t need to go down that path again. Treat your employees appropriately. Give them a reasonable amount of work. Don’t put them in a harness and ride them until they drop.”

Public speaks on creating a zoning administrator position

After County and Zoning Administrator John McCarthy announced his July retirement at the Board of Supervisors meeting, and expressed a strong need for a separate zoning administrator to split the load with the county administrator for the first time since he took office in 1986, Peter Luke strongly advised the need for a competent zoning administrator, to keep up with increased demands that come with the job.

McCarthy added, “This is a bigger public issue than I thought it’d be, so I’d advise not to be hasty.”

Supervisor John Lesinski asked if the zoning administrator needed to be a lawyer. Luke said it would help, but it is not a requirement. “I’ve been dealing with [zoning administration] for 32 years, and I’m still confused on some points,” Luke said.

BOS chairman Roger Welch suggested putting the issue to a public hearing to allow the populace to express its opinion on what should happen with county and zoning administration after John McCarthy leaves in July.

During the public comment period that preceded Welch’s suggestion:

Cynthia Price of the Stonewall-Hawthorne District warned against the creation of a separate zoning administrator position  which along with county administrator would involve a second appointment, another un-elected official. “Zoning is the most important aspect of this county,” Price said, advising the board not to take hasty action in appointing a zoning administrator. “I just don’t think it’s a good idea.”

David Konick also disputed the addition of a new zoning administrator position. Hiring a deputy county administrator was for the specific purpose of continuity, and the county should not create the new position, Konick said. And of whomever the supervisors appoint to zoning administrator: “Yet another bureaucrat, and I don’t know them.”

Retired deputy circuit court clerk Lisa Walsted agreed with Konick about the formation of a separate zoning administrator. “We were never told when [Debbie Keyser] took over for John McCarthy that there would be another appointed government position created,” Walsted said.

School Board vice chair Aline Johnson said that it will take two or three people to replace John McCarthy. “I don’t usually talk at these meetings . . . I’ve been on the School Board for 17 years and I don’t think that I’ve missed many,” Johnson said. “But I know of at least two times that I’ve been in this meeting and these supervisors have told all of us that it’s going to take two or three people to replace John McCarthy. So let’s think about that.”

Fire and Rescue group seeks return of $38,000 to Amissville volunteers

Rappahannock Volunteer Fire and Rescue Association President Jack Atkins of the Jackson District passed out a thick stack of papers to each supervisor, before asking them to reconsider their January decision to keep nearly $40,000 generated by the Amissville company making out-of-county emergency response calls as part of the county’s cost-recovery program. He said that the action was in direct conflict with state law and with its own county ordinance, referencing highlighted portions in the paperwork. Returning the money to the insurance companies also defies the county’s memorandum of agreement with Culpeper and Medicare policy, Atkins said, adding that he spoke with someone representing Medicare who was taken aback by the county’s decision to take the money from the volunteers.

Atkins was referencing a motion to return $38,103.35 to (Fidelis) passed in January by a 4-1 margin, with Piedmont supervisor Ron Frazier the lone dissenter. The vote followed a heated barking match among attorney David Konick, county administrator John McCarthy and county attorney Peter Luke, regarding what to do with money obtained by the Amissville Volunteer Fire and Rescue squad when it made emergency service runs outside of the county. Frazier’s motion to allow the Amissville company to keep the money died at the table, for lack of a second.


Patrick Lawler of Wakefield District, a 44-year Flint Hill resident who served the Flint Hill Fire and Rescue Company for 28 years, said that public safety should be the number one issue. Lawler expressed concern that people in Flint Hill are having trouble getting emergency assistance, and that Flint Hill residents shouldn’t have to pay the fire levy tax since they aren’t getting good enough service, that no one in Flint Hill is running calls, and that responders to emergencies are coming from other county volunteer companies much farther away. “I think they need help,” Lawler said. “And I think that if you have problems with one [company], you’re going to have problems with the rest later on down the road.” He added that the difference between a 10-minute response time and a 25-minute response time could mean life or death, and at minimum will affect insurance rates for homeowners.

Lawler said that there is a need for a paid part-time fire chief to train volunteers. “It’s not a question of money for the department, it’s about young blood,” Lawler said, noting the aging volunteer population and the lack of young, able-bodied volunteer support. When he finished, Lawler turned to Sheriff Connie Smith and stage-whispered, “You can shoot me now.”

Chris Parrish agreed with Lawler and Atkins.

“Once we hire a fire chief in one company, there’s going to be no end to it — and the next thing you know, we’re going to be paid [fire and rescue] county-wide, and it’s going to cost a fortune,” Parrish said. “And unless we get some more volunteers, we’re going to be up against the wall . . . If we don’t get some volunteers within the year, I think it’s all over, and we’re all going to be paying a lot more taxes to have a paid department.”

Parrish noted that EMT training is free of charge to volunteers. Ron Frazier added that of the eight students in an EMT course last year, not one took their final EMT certification test.

David Konick, BZA representative and former county zoning administrator in the early 1980s, began by seconding Atkins remarks on disputing the supervisors decision to take money earned by the Amissville Volunteer Fire and Rescue Company (his pro bono client in that case) making emergency calls to out-of-county areas.

“What you put in the county ordinance, about the requirement that the calls have to originate in Rappahannock, is not authorized by state law, and arguably it’s in violation of state law, and I made that point back in January,” Konick said.

When public comment closed, supervisor John Lesinski said that in regard to the volunteer fire and rescue system, the problem is that not everyone is pulling in the same direction. “It seems like everybody’s fighting against each other, and we’ve got to figure this thing out in the next 60 to 90 days, in time for this budget cycle,” Lesinski said, adding that no one from the volunteer fire and rescue system has produced a strategic plan to solve the problem.

Ron Frazier said that the board has not taken enough time to address the EMS cost-recovery issue with Amissville.

Peter Luke introduced a motion to increase the personal property tax credit for active volunteer fire and rescue members from $300 to $574 dollars. Ron Frazier had asked about covering the entirety of volunteer personal property tax, but Luke said that keeping the credit under $600 means there will be no IRS trouble. Luke said he did an analysis of volunteer exemptions from 2015, and that of the 88 members that applied, only 16 would have exceeded $574 in personal property tax. Luke did add that only 50 percent of active volunteers exceeded $300 in personal property tax.

Jack Atkins and Richie Burke, when asked for their take on the motion, said that many of their volunteers have personal property taxes well under the current $300 credit, and so they are in some cases only receiving tens of dollars in credit as a reward for volunteering. Atkins said, “The board should find a better way to cover the $574, because that increase isn’t going to help several of our people at all.”

Luke warned the board, “Don’t talk about giving stipends, because you want to avoid having employees.”

The motion passed unanimously, and then board chairman Roger Welch said, “It seems that no good deed goes unfunded.”

The board also approved the county’s updated Emergency Operations Plan, a 417-page text that EMS coordinator Burke said only contained minor changes from the five-year-old plan. “Anybody read it all?” Burke asked. It was unanimous that none of the supervisors had, and the plan passed unanimously.