By Chris Green
Let’s get right to the reasons that outgoing Rappahannock County Administrator Debbie Keyser gives for her abrupt resignation last Friday:
“For my health and happiness. It has been disappointing to have the political friction that has occurred, particularly since we all share a common love for the county. Instead of a sense of cooperation, the turmoil from the friction has resulted in an increase of work on an already limited staff, and adding additional costs to the taxpayers,” she tells me.
“What others have judged as ineptness has been lack of staffing to complete past expectations along with new projects. [Previous Administrator John] McCarthy asked for additional staffing years ago, and it is still needed now. “
Rappahannock County has lost, once more, a valuable employee — and yet again at major cost to county taxpayers. Keyser has accepted a new job with the Fauquier County government.
For those familiar with the odyssey of recent months, her resignation should come as no surprise. Indeed, a chorus of agreement from various board of supervisors attest to the current state of affairs:
Says Piedmont district supervisor Mike Biniek: “There has been much more aggressive behavior by a small percentage of the community.”
Roger Welch, Wakefield supervisor and the current chair of the board, describes the atmosphere as “a bit of a brawl” and “very disruptive.”
At a recent supervisors meeting, Rappahannock resident Bill Fletcher, visibly shaken, admonished the crowd: “Be polite — we aren’t Washington, D.C., damn it, and we don’t want to be.”
It was this environment into which Keyser was unwittingly thrown.
When McCarthy chose to retire after 30 years of service to Rappahannock, he selected Keyser to be his successor. Prior to his departure, McCarthy recommended to the supervisors that his role be split into two positions, requesting a separate zoning official. Peter Luke, then county attorney, agreed.
At the time of the board’s initial consideration for the zoning role, a vocal minority of the public lashed out during a public comment period and opposed any additional position, citing budgetary reasons. Monies, however, were available given the discrepancy between McCarthy’s 30 year tenure and reflective pay and that of Keyser’s salary.
There is no other county in Virginia where the administrator and the zoning administrator are the same person. The role has mushroomed in recent years, now encompassing state, federal and local issues.
It has become, warned McCarthy, “exponentially more complicated and will wear down whomever is placed in the number one spot”.
Her performance under scrutiny and criticism, Keyser admits mistakes were made. However she tells me, there have only been two people in her office to handle the extraordinary workload.
The position, Keyser shares, unfortunately proved thankless, requiring her to work six and sometimes seven days a week within a noxious and politically charged environment. She had high hopes and dreams of making changes to benefit county residents — changes she’s never been afforded the opportunity to initiate given the burden of her daily responsibilities.
She’d accepted McCarthy’s offer to become his successor, she continues, as it brought her back to Rappahannock — closer to friends and relatives, especially her dad, a popular resident and volunteer with the Rappahannock Senior Center.
I asked Keyser what were her regrets — or in hindsight what she might have done differently — and what advice she has for her successor?
“I wanted to continue efforts to make the county more affordable for the local families born and raised here. My recommendations for the future: The staff to run the administrative portion of the county (four people) has been the same for the past 20 years. These four people manage county administration, clerk to the board, zoning administration, IT, human resources, payroll/benefits, budgeting/finance, E911, emergency manager, [and] building official.
“There is also county representation on committees such as the fire & rescue association, fire chief’s meeting, local emergency meetings — region 9, celebrate Shenandoah, and the regional jail board.”
Richie Burke, the longtime county employee who handled many of those responsibilities, similarly left his post under pressure just weeks ago.
“From my experience, Debbie was one of the hardest working people I have known. Working many long hours after going home for the day just to keep up. She was given a monumental task to perform with limited staff, wearing multiple hats along with many of the staff, including myself,” Burke says.
“Many don’t understand the increased workload, and meeting the public demands start to wear you down, especially if you must work after hours to keep up. One of my biggest regrets was that my decision to retire after 28 years wasn’t going to make her job any easier, as I tried to offer as much assistance as I possibly could to help. I wish her all the best and truly enjoyed working for her.”
Keyser concludes: “I feel I am leaving the county in good hands with the new executive assistant Lauren May, and the new zoning administrator David Dameron. I will continue to reside in Rappahannock County, and I wish the county board of supervisors much success in guiding the county into the future.”
Speaking candidly and with heartfelt regret, Hampton district supervisor John Lesinski confides that the supervisors failed Debbie by not providing her with enough support while a seemingly handful of people coordinated to see her fail.
“We didn’t use all the tools available at our disposal to manage the harsh rhetoric, especially from a certain board member,” says Lesinski. “We’ve noticed an improvement, of late, in the tone and content of board meetings, and have provided more push back to harsh rhetoric and more support for Debbie.”
Too little, too late.
Chris Green writes the Sperryville column for the Rappahannock News.