‘There’s a really good core of people with energy and concern for the town who I think will help govern it very well’
This Monday evening, John Fox Sullivan will call to order his final Town Council meeting as mayor of Washington, a position he has held for the last eight years.
“I’ve learned a lot,” Sullivan reflected this week, seated in the straight back chair he’s occupied for two terms in historic Town Hall. “One of which is that as small a town as Washington is — and we all laugh at how small it is — to an individual every problem, perhaps seen by others as a little problem, is important to them.
“So you have to worry about the little as well as the big,” he explained. “Another general learning lesson is that this is a community where you know everybody — it’s not like being a mayor of New York or Washington, D.C., where you don’t even really see the people. Here everything you do is observed and impacts your friends, neighbors, the people of the community. That’s good because it sensitizes you so that whatever you do you realize that it impacts real people.”
Sullivan, after much thought, announced in May that he had decided against seeking a third term as mayor of the county seat, declaring it’s “time for a change, both for me and the town.” He said his decision “did not come easily.”
Mayor-elect Fred Catlin will officially take over the town’s reins on January 1.
Sullivan, who is 75, said being mayor of the town “has been the capstone” of his 40-plus year career in national media, much of it spent as a magazine publisher in the big Washington. When his term ends at the end of this month he will have served eight years in the town’s top leadership position, 10 years total on the Council, and two years on the Architectural Review Board (ARB).
His numerous accomplishments during his decade-plus of public service — developing and implementing a state-of-the-art wastewater system; stabilizing the town’s finances through cost controls, sewer and water fees, meals and lodging revenue, and the sale of Avon Hall; developing a new Comprehensive Plan with demanding goals; and beautifying the center of a village cherished by visitors — far outweighed the negatives.
Regarding the latter, he sought to build on his mayoral predecessor Eugene Leggett’s inroads in diffusing often-contentious proceedings between town officials and citizens, including those who didn’t live in the town. Sullivan described a very fine line separating Washington and Rappahannock County, and during the town’s few but significant litigation cases during his terms as mayor his most outspoken critics weren’t even his constituents.
“I like to think there is a comity and a civility in our town that is lacking in our world at large, and the county for that matter,” the mayor didn’t mind saying. “I get terribly frustrated by the internecine warfare of [certain] people. They don’t have a sense of the common good. I’m a believer in the common good. So many people seem to be living in their own little bubble — the mentality that if something good happens to the other guy it’s going to hurt them. It’s a zero-sum game. And I believe just the opposite.”
Sullivan said this week that he regrets stepping down before a building site has been announced for a new post office. The U.S. Postal Service surprised town officials this late summer when it proposed moving the post office — which has been in the town for 215 years — to a new location off Highway 211 between Washington and Sperryville.
In recent weeks, however, the Town Council offered the Postal Service a new location to consider, which is within Washington’s boundaries.
“We worked really really hard to keep it here,” Sullivan said. “I think we have a good proposal. Fred, the new mayor, obviously will be very much involved in that, but if I can contribute in some way in making that work I’m going to.
“One of the tricky things,” he added, “is how to stay involved in town affairs, because I care deeply about them, and at the same time I don’t want to get in the way of the new mayor and Town Council. I want Fred to do a great job, and I think he will do a great job. He’s well trained for it.”
Speaking of his successor, the mayor said Catlin will quickly discover that being mayor, while “clearly a part time job” on paper, is actually “full time in terms of you never escape being mayor. There’s always something happening, so it’s not as if there’s a time schedule of when you get to be mayor.
“A larger point is that over the last six or seven years there have been a number of people who have moved to the town, living here full time, who have gotten very engaged in the planning commission, Town Council, everything in town. So there’s a really good core of people with energy and concern for the town who I think will help govern it very well.”
Surrounding his departure, Sullivan said he is “extremely indebted” to Town Clerk Laura Dodd and Town Attorney John Bennett, “who have worked for this town for many years. They have done so much to enhance the quality of the town, and have been extremely helpful to me, personally, in navigating various issues. They cannot be appreciated too much.”
In closing, the mayor stressed that “John and Beverly Sullivan are not going anywhere,” referring to his wife of many years. “People have come up and asked me, ‘Are you going to move to Florida? What is it you’re not telling us?’And the answer is we’re staying here, pal, until they carry us out of our house.
“By the way, the house does not convey to the new mayor,” he quipped. “Our youngest grandchild — he’s about eight years old — he feared that our house would convey to the new mayor and he could never come visit us on Thanksgiving again.”
Sullivan said he hopes his final monthly meeting as mayor, set for 7 p.m. Monday, will be filled with “humor and joy. I don’t have any reason to be sad.”
“I hope on occasion I’m missed,” he adds with a laugh. “I don’t want to be forgotten!”
So you won’t mind then if people still call you mayor?
“I’d love it!