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Board should seek council

Dr. Lee Banton

A recent headline in The Herald proclaimed that Cumberland “county sees big leadership changes.” I am confident that many citizens in the county probably thought, “What Leadership?” On Oct. 3, the chairman of the Cumberland Board of Supervisors and District Four Supervisor David Meinhard, announced his unexpected resignation from the Board of Supervisors (BOS). The reason he gave to a Herald reporter was “frustration in relation to the board.” It should be noted that his resignation left every citizen in District Four of the county without representation on many matters impacting their lives. With important matters such as zoning, taxes, support for the county Sheriff’s department, local ordinances, adequate funding of the county public schools, and employing highly qualified individuals to various county positions, the citizens of District Four were abandoned during a very important time in the history of the county.

Regardless of the size of a county, the role of its elected officials has become more demanding and complex which requires that those officials work together as they define and agree on various issues and solutions. To accomplish their tasks, each member needs to understand that “management” must be divorced from “leadership.” Also, it “is” the Board chairperson that is expected to provide the leadership required to keep the locality moving in the proper direction. Many scholars in the field of Public Administration think of a Board chairperson as requiring the characteristics of an excellent community leader, as well as, a political leader. One characteristic that is “not identified” is being easily frustrated and abandoning the citizens he/ she represents.

As the result of Cumberland citizens electing an entirely new and inexperienced Board of Supervisors, it is obvious the county is in a very dangerous situation similar to being “a ship without an experienced captain.” Let us hope that the Board quickly recognizes “what it doesn’t know” and seeks guidance from knowledgeable groups such as The Virginia Association of Counties (VACO), and The Virginia Municipal League (VML). The personnel from these excellent associations can help each Board member quickly understand what a BOS can and can’t do under Virginia Statutes, such as, (1) involvement in decisions that represent a conflict of interest under various Virginia statutes, (2) dictate how a public school system will function, (3) meeting the requirements for going into executive session, (4) accepted process for developing a budget, etc …

An inexperienced Board of Supervisors could find themselves in a similar situation as the BOS in Front Royal where there is an ongoing legal effort to remove all five county supervisors from office, as state and criminal investigations continue regarding specific BOS actions. It is possible that the Warren County BOS could face civil penalties according to the Warren County Commonwealth Attorney because of a lack of government oversight which allowed embezzlement of funds allegedly by a former director of the local economic development authority. According to available data, the scandal reportedly involves over $21 million in missing funds. Note: Cumberland has had several issues in its history regarding Board members alleged misuse of county credit cards.

It was interesting to find a Cumberland County “Comprehensive Plan” that appears to have been developed in 2013 but some have said that citizens weren’t continually kept informed as to any progress toward achieving its objectives. Also, a considerable number of voters have said, “Cumberland needs to develop but the BOS doesn’t do anything.” Regrettably, it’s doubtful the new BOS members have been fully briefed regarding the 2013 plan or even were aware of it. In fact, in several weeks it will be seven years old and outdated.

The in-coming BOS should completely reorganize the inner structure of county government by separating the administrator and county attorney positions and eliminate the Department of Planning and replace it with a college educated and an extremely experienced director of development who possesses the personality to be extremely proactive and convincing in providing reasons for locating in the county. The major duties of such a director could involve the following; (1) targeting corporations in need of a regional headquarters and convince them to locate in Cumberland, (2) actively seek manufacturing companies, finance and insurance companies, data centers, and regional supply companies to locate in the county, (3) develop a commercial DVD which focuses on reasons for locating their industry in the county which emphasizes a reasonable local county tax structure, and (4) seek a partnership with Farmville in the development of a major transportation and industrial center which could generate federal funds for the local airport.

A key statistic that should make our region of Virginia extremely attractive to various industries centers on data indicating that approximately 50% of the population of the United States resides within a radius of 550 miles of Cumberland and Farmville.

Finally, the 9,811 wonderful citizens of Cumberland have 29 million reasons to demand immediate change in the quality of operation by their Board of Supervisors. Given that the county debt is approximately $29 million, this represents a debt of $3,000 per man, woman, and child. If economic conditions deteriorate, the situation could get worse. This raises the question, “Can the inexperienced new Board of Supervisors earn the respect and confidence of its citizens? Will they desert and abandon their constituents when the going gets tough? Can they bring new industries to the county to lower the tax burden on farmers and families”? In my opinion, there’s not a chance unless they completely restructure the inner administration of the county government and seek outside professional assistance. As stated previously, “they need to know what they don’t know.”

DR. LEE BANTON can be reached via email at cbanton541@gmail.com.