County officials finding their ‘sea legs’

‘There’s bound to be some hiccups along the way’

Over the next few weeks, this newspaper will publish stories surrounding each member of the Rappahannock County Board of Supervisors. Our goal is to give you, the reader, a better sense of the personal background of each supervisor, their political philosophy and approach to governing, and to report their positions on a number of key issues facing the county.

It’s been a year since John McCarthy left his twin positions as Rappahannock county administrator and zoning administrator. And what a year it’s been.

Many observers say McCarthy’s departure ushered in a new period for the Rappahannock County government, particularly the board of supervisors (BOS) — the governmental body that is basically responsible for the legislative, administrative, and financial aspects of County government.

No longer able to rely on McCarthy’s 30 years of institutional knowledge and a management style which kept, or often appeared to keep, the county operating smoothly, the BOS has struggled at times to find its “sea legs.”

“I would talk to John before BOS meetings and he basically told us what to do,” acknowledged Wakefield Supervisor Roger Welch, the current BOS chair. “He was the one who really ran the place.”

Over the last year, the BOS and McCarthy’s replacement, Debbie Keyser, have gone through something akin to on-the-job training. The fallout: BOS monthly meetings have become increasingly confrontational, with both criticism and support being expressed by citizens during the public comment period, particularly on issues related to board operating procedures, financial practices, employee performance, lawsuits, zoning issues, and funding for the county’s fire and emergency management services.

Some issues have been resolved, others are on their way to being resolved, but the governing process has left some critics wondering whether the supervisors and the county staff are up to the task.

Page Glennie, who resides in the Jackson district, has criticized the BOS for a lack of transparency and accountability: “The budget process hasn’t been transparent. Only a summary was made. They’ll eventually have a hearing, but for all intents and purposes all the decisions have been made. They need more of an up-front process that allows for better public input and consideration of long range financial issues.”

Glennie has also called for greater accountability of county employees by setting performance review standards and preparing detailed job descriptions.

A retired federal acquisitions specialist and program manager, Glennie moved to the county permanently in 2010. He now serves as executive director of a recently formed a nonprofit group, Rappahannock Citizens for Community Engagement (RCCE). According to a membership flyer, its mission is to “inform citizens of critical local government issues.”

Although it does not “look to influence legislation”, RCCE “seeks to leverage members of the community to assist Rappahannock County government as volunteers where needed.” RCCE members and contributions are kept secret.

Keyser has been the focus of some of the criticism. Hired as McCarthy’s assistant and then promoted to the position of deputy administrator, she was on job for three months before officially filling McCarthy’s post. To allow her to concentrate on financial and administrative matters, the BOS decided to split the existing responsibilities into two positions — county administrator and a new position of zoning administrator/deputy administrator, but the funding was not forthcoming. This left Keyser having to address a full range of issues while supporting a board that previously relied on McCarthy, and his 30 years of expertise, to set the agenda and make policy recommendations.

“We set Debbie up to fail during the FY 2017 budget season last year,” said Hampton District Supervisor John Lesinski. “We never funded that second position because we thought she could handle it all. Even though she works 60-80 hour weeks, there is just not enough time to fill the shoes left vacant by McCarthy.”

Funding for the deputy administrator position was finally approved at the BOS’s March meeting at the behest of Stonewall-Hawthorne District Supervisor and Vice Chair Chris Parrish. Parrish has said the deputy position was needed because McCarthy was “doing two or three jobs.” The county is currently seeking applicants for that position.

Bill Fletcher, an attorney and farmer who lives in the Piedmont District and whose family goes back seven generations in Rappahannock County, says he’s never seen the local political situation this bad.

“A lot of the criticism being leveled at the board is unfair and out of keeping with Rappahannock values. For them to imply the board or county employees are unethical or being dishonest is just plain wrong,” said Fletcher.

“They don’t take a constructive approach and I fear these lawsuits and their demands for greater administrative services is going to end up costing the taxpayers and wreck the way this county has operated for decades. We don’t need big city politics and big city government here. They ought to just back off for a while, and give the supervisors and staff the space they need to address the critical issues facing the county.”

John O’Malley Burns, a retired tomato farmer who lives in the Hampton District, is urging residents to come together and support the county government at all levels.

“The way citizens go about improving government doesn’t have to be acrimonious. We can do it better here. Yes, improvements need to be made, but we should build consensus in the community on how to go about continuous improvement and what the priority tasks should be. ​Honey is sure better than vinegar,” said Burns.

He recently wrote a letter appearing in this paper, now signed by 60 county residents, that calls for a change in “dialogue and methodology applied to improving our local government, as a true reflection of our small county culture.”

To promote discussion of key issues in an atmosphere less formal than regular board meetings, the BOS is hosting town hall-style meetings. Over the past six months, two of these meetings have been held and more are planned later this year. And, in addition to the regular monthly business meeting, the BOS is now adding extra business meetings when needed to address a growing list of issues facing the county.

“This is a transition period,” said Welch. “Over a couple years’ time, we changed the county administrator, the county attorney, commissioner of revenue, the treasurer, and executive assistant to the administrator — and with that we lost about 200 years’ worth of institutional knowledge. Given those changes there’s bound to be some hiccups along the way, but we will work our way through the challenges ahead.”

As the BOS moves into its second year, sans McCarthy, it will grapple with a number of important, and costly issues including repairs to many of the county’s deteriorating buildings, continuing support for fire and EMS services, upgrading the county’s emergency communication systems and funding social services.

Additionally, there will be discussions related to what role, if any, the BOS wants to play on policies related to economic growth including tourism and agriculture, broadband services, an aging population, zoning, the comprehensive plan and preserving the county’s scenic beauty and night skies. Acting on any one of these matters will likely come with a price tag; and it is possible a property tax increase will be considered as the BOS deliberates its FY 2018 annual budget.

1 Comment

  1. John Burns is a retired organic farmer and real estate agent. He was instrumental in setting up Sunny Side Farm as an Organic Farm. He has consulted with Aveda products for certification of their organic products. Don’t make him out as a retired “Tomato Farmer”. This is a list of just a few of his endeavors.

Comments are closed.