Should the Board of Supervisors Revise its Public Engagement with County Staff?
The purpose of this post is two-fold. I wish to highlight areas that I think our supervisors can improve, but more importantly, I wish to generate a discussion of what we should expect from our County staff. Following Board of Supervisors and Planning Commission meetings since 2015, has given me a genuine appreciation for the dedication, expertise, and thoughtfulness of County staff that have presented items. As issues in the community become more controversial, we should strive to develop a system that further insulates County staff from some of the political aspects of county government. However, to truly do that our elected officials must be willing to be more proactive and deploy more political courage to take on the tough tasks that face our community.
On that note, I have noticed a concerning trend that our Board of Supervisors seem to delegate difficult or controversial matters to County staff. I will highlight a few examples. A recent example is the ‘fact checking’ of a School Board member’s statement which was made at a joint Board of Supervisors and School Board work session in May. The substance of the response is not the issue. The issue is the method in which the Board of Supervisors permitted the response. Rather than communicating a response to the School Board member directly, the Board delegated this seemingly political task to their Finance staff. This puts a county staff member in the cross-hairs of political debate which could negatively affect their standing as a nonpartisan actor. County employees are not political figures and they should not be asked retroactively to correct interpretations of data by elected officials. County staff could provide the necessary information to the Board, but the Board members should publicly offer these counter arguments. If you were to watch the August 14th Board meeting, you may cringe at the awkward disclaimer read by the Finance staff member to ensure that their intention was not to fact check public officials. Interestingly, Supervisor Ross, who originally advocated for this information to be presented, made no comment. If one had not been following this issue, a citizen may assume that it was the County staff member that proactively presented this information. To allow the potential of such an observation to be made is wrong.
A second example is that too often supervisors seem to defer to County staff to explain why the Board is doing things. The concerning part here is it is difficult to decipher whether the Board member is unaware of the process or if they are attempting to distance themselves from delivering unpleasant information. I have too often observed County staff appear uncomfortable answering questions that straddle the line between technical information and political preference. Five of the seven Supervisors have at least two terms of experience and it is not a stretch to believe that these five officials would be able to explain to the public general County policies or processes without needing to invoke County staff. There will always be times when questions arise in the moment, but the level of questions at times, gives the impression that some supervisors are not doing their due diligence prior to meetings. The decisions they make have greater impact on citizens than any level of government – and at times the effort Spotsylvanians deserve seems to be lacking.
Lastly, any development project has become extremely controversial. During Special Use Permits or Rezoning applications, County staff always provides a recommendation for whether the project should be approved based on how the project is evaluated against the County’s Comprehensive Plan and federal, state and local regulations. Recently, I’ve wondered whether these recommendations are also placing County staff into political waters. It’s unclear how the current process was developed with the Planning Department and it is possible the process is governed by State or Federal Code. If not, this setup should be altered. This setup places Planning staff in a position where they need to take a stance on how the County should develop, which is something most Spotsylvanians would find to be a ‘political’ issue. A better practice would be for County staff to declare whether the project is in general compliance with the County’s Comprehensive Plan and leave it up the supervisors to publicly deliberate on whether the project should be approved without the political cover of County staff’s recommendation. This would further help to remove county staff from the controversial aspects of development and place it where it belongs, on the individuals making the decisions.
I don’t proclaim to have all the answers or direct indiscriminate criticism toward our local officials. My comments are observations from someone that is engaged in our community and who has a sincere desire to keep Spotsylvania moving forward. This ultimately leads me to evaluate how our county is operating and seek ways we may be able to do things better. This post is just one of the things I have been thinking about recently and I look forward to your comments.