“I’ll tell you something about Mike Biniek,” says Christine Smith of Sperryville, who has thrown her hat into the ring to unseat the incumbent Piedmont District supervisor who is seeking his third term in office.
Her description isn’t what readers of this newspaper might expect, given the recent level of criticism and mudslinging by some when county government discussions are underway.
“My kids used to go to Belle Meade,” Smith recalls of the popular summer camp near Sperryville founded by Biniek and his family. “Fletcher in particular really loved Belle Meade and he liked to fish. When there were so many other activities to do, not many kids wanted to go out and sit in a boat and fish, but my kid did. And Mike Biniek always made sure he got to fish, and I always appreciated that.
“This isn’t a personal thing I’ve chosen to do, I like Mike,” Smith continues. “But when I would attend board of supervisors meetings I’d wish that he was maybe better versed on a subject, or that he would handle parliamentary procedure differently. That’s when I decided to run. I felt like I could contribute, that I could do better. And I felt like my district deserved it.”
The Rappahannock News, interestingly enough, interviewed Smith at our Jett Street offices in Washington, which once was the house where she and her family lived during part of the 1980s. Smith attended school at Wakefield and would go on to Mary Washington College “before it became a university.” Now married with two sons and living in Sperryville on Route 211, she and her husband, Ryan Allred, look forward to celebrating their 20th wedding anniversary in March.
Today, she continues to work as an account manager for the Communications Corporation of America (CCA) near Boston on Route 522, where she’s been retained as “one of the team that is rebuilding the company” following this summer’s massive fire that destroyed the long-established printing plant.
So why public service at this busy stage of life and career?
“I was thinking this spring about what I see as the difficulties in the county and how much I love the county,” Smith replies. “We have so many challenges facing us that I really am wanting there to be more dialogue before the election. Challenges like our staffing of key positions, challenges like our emergency services . . . cell phone service and broadband are just huge issues for people, and how the administering of the county is done — particularly the county administrator position, [my] having been a parish administrator.
“Things like the [BOS meeting] minutes keeping, which weren’t being kept up with. I just felt like somebody needed to advocate, to make sure we took care of the county’s business like that.”
Smith feels as if the various career positions she’s held equip her to help supervise the county government.
“I worked for an Episcopal church when we lived away in northeast Georgia” near her husband’s family, she says. “When I took over [as administrator of] the parish it was from a wonderful 70-year-old gentlemen [who’d] been there for 20 years. So it was a complete overhaul that was needed in order to move forward.”
In addition, she’s been an analyst in the Internet Business Solutions division of WorldCom in nearby Ashburn, a company she helped guide through bankruptcy.
“In terms of cell phone and broadband service,” she says of her time at WorldCom, “I feel like I could help the county with the broadband and cell service contracts and the ongoing issues with the [proposed] EMS towers. I feel like I bring those skills to the table.
“This is one of the things I looked long and hard at before I decided to run. When I look back at the things I’ve done in my life,” Smith continues, “I’ve had those kind of daunting circumstances and I know that we can get through it.”
All that said, Smith worries that Rappahannock government proceedings “spend too much energy in opposition instead of spending our energy moving forward. And I think if we work together and just get the basics down. You now, we don’t even have dot.gov emails for all of our supervisors? Two of our five supervisors have dot.gov emails. The other three are either personal or business emails.
“We need to do the basics and build from the ground up. And everything else will fall into place. Folks just get so adversarial so quickly, it’s frustrating. There’s a lot of work to be done.”
Including filling the all-important position of county administrator, a post held for three decades by John McCarthy, who retired in 2016.
“John McCarthy was like the giant oak in the forest for so many years, and when he’s gone it leaves this space that needs to be filled. How are we going to do that administratively? What kind of structure are we going to set up to succeed for the future? And I didn’t see a lot of people talking about that, to be sure we have smooth transitions, and we have good policies in place, and job descriptions. How we can have performance evaluations.
“All of these things are things I’ve been talking about since the spring. When I talked about them at a [BOS] forum Chris Parish put on over at Castleton, people seemed to think these were punitive measures if you implement these programs. But actually having set them up before, and having worked under them, I understand that these are recipes for how to actually succeed at your job.”
On other pressing issues facing the county, Smith brings up cell phone service, or lack thereof.
“People want cell phone service. People want cell phone service,” she repeats. “I spoke to one lady who had to wait three weeks to repair her landline. Almost unanimously people want cell phone service. And I will tell you I’m not a person that really wants cell phone service, but I hear resoundingly from people that they not only want cell phone service but they need cell phone service.”
As far as the deteriorating condition of landmark county government buildings along Courthouse Row, Smith says there are few places in the country today that can boast of conducting the people’s business amid such history.
“It’s gorgeous,” she says of the 1834 courthouse built by one of Thomas Jefferson’s workmen, and its adjacent tidy brick office buildings that still cater to county citizens today. But all of the buildings, including the sheriff’s office, require much-needed repair and updating. Just last month two electrical fires broke out on the first floor of the courthouse, fortunately during business hours.
“I can tell you, having just worked through a fire myself, when the courthouse building caught fire I just thought, ‘Wow, wow, what if?’ I don’t even want to think about what could have happened,” Smith says. “I love that building, I love that courtroom — it’s where I got my driver’s license, it’s where I took my son to get his driver’s license. I am very nostalgic for that space, and I hope we can continue to use it for suitable occasions.”
Smith says repairs to the buildings are no doubt forthcoming — a citizen task force led by Supervisor John Lesinski has already made initial recommendations — along with discussions about where to conduct the county’s business in the years ahead.
“I’m not really a spender, I want to watch out for the taxpayers of the county,” the candidate points out, “but let’s make sure [these buildings are] safe for our employees.”
As for the proposed bike trails linking the villages of Rappahannock, including the initial 1.2 mile phase backed this month by the supervisors that would connect the two Rappahannock County public schools, Smith responds:
“When I lived in northeast Georgia we had a bike trail there. And I enjoyed it very much. I’ve got two boys and we would hit it regularly — my husband has a bike, my kids have bikes, I was always a walker. My boys also ride skateboards and we would use it regularly. It went alongside a river, over a suspension bridge, looped around to the state park system, and it was part of the Rails-to-Trails [Conservancy], so it was a very nice trail.
“I don’t think that the RappTrails school project is going to be a trail like that,” Smith continues. “I have concerns about the cost of the project — the county being stuck to foot the bill — I’ve concerns that it wasn’t vetted by the planning commission before it was brought to the supervisors.
“What happened at that meeting” of the supervisors earlier this month, to discuss what is called the Connector Trail, “is that it was deadline driven. By that time it was like 12:30 in the morning. And Jane Whitfield, who is spokesperson for RappTrails, basically said I need a yes or no vote tonight for the purpose of the VDOT grant. And at that point [the supervisors] voted yes to approve it.
“Having actually a child in the elementary school I’m very concerned about the security situations at the schools. They had a security issue out there last spring, as you’re aware. They just had an issue again on a bus. I don’t understand why we would be encouraging just anybody to be near our schools, to possibly park at our schools, and even though it will allow an [emergency] ‘exit’ for the students possibly it will allow an ‘entrance’ for who knows who.
“I don’t understand, I just don’t get it,” Smith concludes. “But that’s my view as a parent. I’m also concerned that it’s part of a bigger picture and that it will end up being an expensive plan of . . . about 30 miles of trails. That’s a huge project for Rappahannock . . . and it’s not a priority for most people I’ve talked to.”