‘The buck stops with us’
The county’s Board of Supervisors addressed a restive crowd of more than 80 Rappahannock residents at a town hall-style forum Monday night (Mar. 20) at the Castleton Fire Hall. For 90 minutes, the supervisors responded to questions and comments from about a dozen attendees (who signed up to speak) and some who shouted out comments later in the evening. Throughout, the vocal crowd responded to supervisors and to each other with laughter, jeers, and applause.
BOS Vice Chairman Chris Parrish representing the Stonewall-Hawthorne district served as host and moderator of the meeting. Board chair Roger Welch was absent. In his opening remarks Parrish described the board’s job as a balancing act between providing services to citizens while also keeping taxes as low as possible. His and introductory comments from the other supervisors added up to a sort of state-of-the county that praised the schools, summarized the county’s financial health, and warned upcoming personnel departures.
But most of the evening’s discussion involved two topics — tourism as a way to increase revenue, and recently surfaced concerns with financial accountability and employee effectiveness. Many of the concerns came to light with the recent retirement of John McCarthy after 30 years as county administrator. But a February 15 letter from county treasurer Debbie Knick to the BOS focused more clearly on concerns around procurement practices and the use of county-issued credit cards.
A couple of attendees suggested the responsibility rested with current administrator Debbie Keyser and suggested she resign.
Reading from a written statement, Amissville resident Page Glennie said that he wanted to discuss “workforce management.” He accused the supervisors of doing nothing after the release of Knick’s letter “to remedy the issue. When issues have been brought to your attention … you do not investigate, address, [or] hold anyone accountable.”
For several minutes he detailed “performance issues with the county administrator that you have not addressed.” There was scattered applause following his statement.
Walt Longyear echoed the tenor of Glennie’s remarks.
“At the last supervisors meeting, you voted to hire another person [to be zoning administrator and deputy county administrator],” said Longyear. “Hiring another person is throwing money at the problem. This is a management problem. The board of supervisors is responsible for making things work.”
Defending Keyser’s performance, Parrish said: “For 30 years, we had John McCarthy. He was a one-man show. He wore three hats, at least. He did what he did with the county and I really don’t see anyone complaining about the results. By and large people seem to be pretty happy with the way the county is.” The last comment was met with jeers from crowd.
“And yes, we’re going through a transition … it requires a little bit of patience and understanding,” he said, drawing more generally negative mumbling from attendees.
Hampton district supervisor John Lesinski also supported Keyser, saying, “The buck stops with us. We set [Debbie] up to fail during the budget season last year. There was a line item in there for a deputy or assistant county administrator. … we decided at the time, we thought the county administrator could, would be able to handle everything that would come her way. And what we found out is that despite the fact that she’s working meetings in the evenings and working on weekends, working on holidays, there’s just not enough time in the day for one individual … to fill the shoes that were left vacant [by McCarthy].”
Drawing on his career in the military and business, he went on to say: “If you talk to a career counselor they will tell you, never take a job following somebody who’s considered to be iconic in the industry, who’s been there for 20 or 30 years because more than 50 percent of the time that [incoming] individual will have problems and will fail.”
Piedmont district supervisor Mike Biniek also disagreed with Glennie.
“Your suggestions would cost a lot of money,” he said. “We would need a full time human resources person.”
Attendee Ron Makela of Amissville also jumped to Keyser’s defense.
“The county administrator has to be expert in everything,” he said. “You can’t do that in six months.”
There was also criticism of the county’s building manager/911 manager Richie Burke, who has worked for the county for 27 years and suddenly announced on Tuesday that he will retire effective June 1. In recent weeks, he has been under fire for purchasing emergency equipment and other supplies for the county’s volunteer fire departments, allegedly without authorization.
However, as Parrish pointed out during the meeting, despite perhaps lax controls over the county’s credit card use, no money has ever been stolen.
Generating revenue through tourism
Several attendees spoke about the importance of tourism to the county.
Audrey Regnery, who owns the Greenfield Inn B&B in Washington with her husband, Al, spoke of the difficulty of running a business based on tourism. She suggested that the supervisors hire a part time person to market the county for tourism. She cited the increase in sales tax and meals and lodging taxes over the last several years as proof of the importance of tourist revenue.
Parrish agreed that “tourism is on the rise,” and “word of mouth is our best friend.”
Jackson district supervisor Ron Frazier observed that tourism revenue is growing without having a staff person devoted to it.
Artist Patti Brennan spoke about the importance of being a member of the state’s Artisan Trail as a way of promoting “economic development through art.” She asked the supervisors for $3000 to maintain the county’s portion of the Artisan Trail, which Biniek declared a good idea and asked Keyser to make a note of it.
Theresa Wood of Washington challenged the supervisors one-by-one to work on tourism-related issues with the Businesses of Rappahannock. Also known as BizRapp, the group is a community organization of Rappahannock business owners that promotes all local businesses, including tourist-based and local services.
Parrish closed the meeting just past an hour and a half.
Town hall forums, scheduled to occur quarterly in different areas of the county, are specifically designed to allow an extended amount of time to engage with citizens, answer questions and address concerns. They are the BOS’s attempt to make up for the lack of time in regular monthly supervisor meetings for citizens to address the board and get responses back.
Additional resources for this meeting and the issues discussed can be found on rappnews.com and Youtube:
An unedited video of the Rappahannock Board of Supervisors 7 p. m. outreach session on Monday, March 20, can be found online at rappnews.com/video, or on the newspaper’s YouTube channel at youtube.com/RappNewsPlus
For reporting on Debbie Knick’s February 15 letter to the supervcisors, go to https://rappnews.com/2017/02/28/budgetary-turmoil-in-the-rappahannock-county-government/.