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Supervisors Chairman Bob Myers: “There’s times in government..that you have to make judgements that’s not always popular with everybody.”
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Ed Park: No longer expects to be surprised.
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Vice Chairman Lawrence Terry: "I'm not the tool of anyone."
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May Johnson: Hoping for harmony.
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Mickey White: "None of them wanted me on the board in the first place."
Will the Triumvirate Be Unbroken?
It has been a long hot summer for the Roanoke County Board of Supervisors.
All spring the board wrestled with the budget. Then came the dark affair and the Monroe affair and the Foster affair. By mid-June each new day was greeted with front-page headlines announcing the board’s latest surprise. County residents began to fidget. It was getting to be embarrassing.
At a public forum on consolidation on June 18, Dr. Jake Wheeler of Hollins College put into words what a lot of people were thinking. While Roanoke City was taking a progressive approach to solving problems, he said, the county seemed to be exhibiting a desire to return to the days when people sat around on the courthouse steps jawing and spitting tobacco.
While Wheeler’s assessment may have been somewhat facetious, there are people who worry that the county is regressing. That feeling is based on fear that the county is being run by a triumvirate of men who are either incompetent, power hungry or both.
It is not the first time the county board of supervisors has experienced a power struggle. In fact, with a five-person board, it is almost inevitable. And power alignments change. Three years ago Ed Park, now considered to be in the minority with May Johnson on the board of supervisors, was viewed as the board’s dominant member. Then Chairman Wayne Compton, who earlier had been under the influence of Lawrence Terry and Bob Myers, had started following Park’s lead. Myers and Johnson were left aside and critics were accusing Terry of being a tool of Park.
The players have changed positions, but the game is the same. Myers is once again seen as the most powerful supervisor who uses Terry and T. M. “Mickey” White as pawns, leaving Park and Johnson at times unaware of what is going on.
Park and Johnson both have hinted that they felt some decisions were being made by the other three before they ever got to the board table.
Myers, Terry and White, of course, deny such allegations. They also feel that the prevalence of 3-2 votes has been overstated in the press. After all, they point out, only Johnson voted against elimination of the fire and emergency coordinator’s position, and when it came time to fire Bob Monroe after charges of mishandling of funds had surfaced, it was a unanimous vote. A look back at the board’s voting record since White took office in November bears this out. Out of hundreds of votes cast only a handful show a 3-2 split. In fact, the overwhelming majority of votes are unanimous. Yet the allegations of a power struggle within the board persist.
Observers say that both Terry and Myers are power hungry, that Myers uses Terry and that both Myers and Terry use Mickey White as a pawn.
“I’m not the tool of anyone,” Terry says. “I’m very much my own person. I vote my own conscience. I don’t have to ask some-body else how to vote. I can’t say that about some of the rest. “Nor does Terry see himself philosophically aligned with Myers. “Bob Myers is very anti-schools; I’m not. I’m very liberal on a lot of issues,” says Terry. “Bob and I are two different people. We don’t think alike on a lot of things.” Furthermore, he claims that Myers has backed him more times than he has backed Myers.
White denies he has “fallen in with any-one.” He points out, “None of them wanted me on the board in the first place.” However it was Lawrence Terry who said of White after his election last November. “Mickey has a lot to offer the board of supervisors. You need a team man, and I think he’ll work with the board.”
Terry and Myers claim it is most often Johnson and Park who vote together, not White and themselves.
The board was deeply divided when it went into budget study earlier this year. In early February theboard by one of its 3-2 votes had issued a list of directives which has since been dubbed the “10 Commandments” by county employees and the two supervisors who voted against them—Park and Johnson.
On that list was a call for a 1981-82 budget based on an 80-cent tax rate. The request for the 80-cent tax rate budget was defended as merely a starting point from which to begin the budget study, but some county residents decided it sounded like a pretty good idea. A petition containing the names of some 4,500 county residents sup-porting an 80-cent rate was presented to the board.
Parents and educators went into a full-scale panic crying doom for the school system whose budget depends upon county tax revenues.
The board finally compromised on a 94-cent tax rate, agreed upon by all but Myers who held out for a lower rate. That vote against Myers is one used to poke holes in the theory that Terry and White are his puppets.
County educators have not forgiven the triumvirate for what the teachers view as an irresponsible attitude toward education.
Vicki Campbell, new president of the Roanoke County Education Association, is an outspoken critic of the current board of supervisors. Campbell says she is alarmed by the board’s view of education. She and others cite Myers as being particularly anti-education.
“He has publicly stated his preference for back-to-basics, that it was good enough when he went to school,” says Campbell. “Schools were not as successful in those days. We have a 3 percent dropout rate. In Mr. Myers’ day 50 percent of the people didn’t finish school.”
Myers responds: “I’ve supported education every year I’ve been on the board. I asked them last year, I says, ‘Please do something to cut your budget a couple of million (dollars), because if you don’t, next year it’ll be such a bite out it’ll probably hurt education more than we want to do it.’ I asked the school board to start trimming then—knowing that this year would be short about $5 million in the budget. They laughed and said, ‘We’ll do it next year.’ Well next year is this year. It always comes.”
Myers says he can’t figure out why educators should be upset. “Why should the education people be mad?” he asks. “They’ll have better schools. Nothing has been really cut. But let me say this about the education association. If you don’t say yes to everything they want, you are anti-education.”
Campbell also blames the board for Salem’s talk of pulling out of the county school system. If that happens, and she believes it is inevitable, “Neither the county nor Salem will have the kind of system we have had.”
Campbell, a Salem resident, also believes a deterioration in the county school system will have an adverse effect on the quality of life in the county, because people will no longer see the county as a desirable place in which to live.
“I believe the trend across the country in the coming years will be back to the cities for economic reasons—housing is cheaper and more available, it’s more economical to live there, that’s where their jobs are. The biggest selling point for the county has been its schools, but already people are saying that’s a thing of the past. We need some really big changes to salvage our school system.”
The Roanoke County Education Association meeting in the spring decided political action was a requisite for the coming year. It plans to support candidates opposing Terry and White, who are up for re-election (and are expected to run again), but, according to Campbell, the association probably will not oppose Ed Park, whose seat is also up this fall.
Members of the RCEA also plan to work extra hours in the classroom and recruit a corps of volunteers to help take up the slack left by this year’s school budget cuts. This action is intended to draw attention to the cuts and win public support for education when budget time rolls around next year.
The issues that have drawn the most heat for supervisors were those involving former Fire and Emergency Coordinator Bob Monroe and former County Administrator William dark, who resigned after the infamous Memorial Day breakfast at the Roanoker restaurant when he was warned by Super-visors Terry and White that the votes were there to fire him if he refused to go peacefully.
Clark, who has chosen to say little on the matter publicly, does not believe the board was justified in forcing him out, but he was not totally shocked. He was aware that in his words “certain board members” were not satisfied with him.
“One or two people thought I was not being sufficiently supportive of the board,” he says.
Clark contends it is not the administrator’s job to take sides. “The professional administrator’s job is to carry out the policies set by the board and keep the board informed,” he says. “Elections do take place and an administrator who takes sides may find himself out of a job when new people are elected.”
Terry and White contend dark failed to keep the board informed, particularly on financial matters and that is why he was forced to resign. Myers says he does not know that dark was forced, only that dark came to him and said he was resigning. The board accepted dark’s resignation by a 5-0 vote.
Park and Johnson, who claim they were completely in the dark about the move to oust dark, feel he was not given the opportunity to do his job.
“As I interpret it,” says Johnson, “our responsibility is to make policy and leave the every day operation of the county to the administrator.” Johnson has said if she had known dark had been pressured to resign, she would not have voted to accept his resignation.
Bill dark says he does not feel that the supervisors are particularly grabbing for power that is not theirs, as some people have charged.
“The power is rightfully theirs,” he says. “I don’t quarrel with that. Through the budget and policies they set and resolutions they pass, they have the power. 1 question the need for their involving themselves in certain day-to-day issues that don’t have anything to do with providing services.”
The so-called “10 Commandments” also decrees that all out-of-town travel by county employees be approved by the board of supervisors and that the supervisors’ requests receive top priority from county departments.
“If you have professional people whom you employ and pay good salaries, and they don’t know who they’re to answer to next or where they stand, that is harmful,” dark says.
Clark has not yet found another job. Since his resignation agreement gave him a salary through the end of July, he decided to take some time off to regroup before aggressively searching for work.
He says in his profession there is a saying that you haven’t lived until you’ve been fired once. But dark admits he was hurt by the way he was dismissed. “What came as a surprise was the way it was summarily handled,” he says, “that they wanted me immediately gone … that they would imply my performance was bad or weak enough that they wanted me to clean out my desk and be out in 24 hours. My eight years of service to Roanoke County did not deserve that kind of dismissal.”
Scarcely a month after Clark’s resignation, the board in a particularly messy operation fired Fire Coordinator Bob Monroe. The bungling of the Monroe incident gave more ammunition to critics who say the board is inept.
First the board tried to get rid of Monroe by eliminating the job. When county volunteer fire fighters protested elimination of the position, the board then tried to gain access to some confidential files on Monroe’s personal behavior in the county sheriff’s office. According to Myers, that action was taken because some county employees had complained about Monroe’s behavior while on the job.
County Attorney Jim Bucholtz and Acting County Administrator Bruce Mayer have confirmed that on June 10, the day after the board of supervisors voted to reinstate the fire coordinator’s position for six months, three county employees approached them and gave written statements charging Monroe with misconduct on the job. According to Bucholtz and Mayer, the alleged misconduct took the form of excessive talking about his personal life during working hours, to the extent that the employees were not able to perform their duties.
“Not only was he spending a lot of his time, but wasting a lot of other employees’ time as well,” Mayer says. The acting administrator also says at least one of the complaining employees expressed fear for his or her personal safety, and that the employee charged that he or she had been followed by Monroe on several occasions, even on out-of-town trips.
Bucholtz revealed that the employee who complained of being followed was also the person Monroe was said to have spent so much time discussing in the office. (Neither Bucholtz nor Mayer would disclose whether the complaints were made by male or female employees.)
Mayer and Bucholtz conducted their own investigation into the charges against Monroe on June 11 and 12 and on June 15 presented their findings and the written allegations to the board of supervisors. Mayer claims the board’s reaction was one of shock.
During their investigation, Mayer and Bucholtz were told that a file on Monroe resulting from a previous police investigation was held in the sheriff’s office. Bucholtz believed he could get the file and that it would strengthen the administration’s case against Monroe. Mayer and Bucholtz had been told the file contained information similar to the charges leveled by the three employees.
When Sheriff O.S. Foster refused to turn over the confidential file, the board of supervisors filed suit to get it. But the court refused to order the file released. Next the county attorney came up with evidence that Monroe had failed to account for some county travel funds, and the board voted unanimously to fire Monroe.
The allegedly mishandled funds represent $560 in extra compensation given Monroe and three paid county fire fighters who were bumped from a flight to New York in May 1980. The four men apparently kept the compensation, which Bucholtz claims should have been turned over to the county.
Bucholtz says when approached, the three other fire fighters acknowledged the money should have been accounted for and they have agreed to reimburse the county. But, Bucholtz says, Monroe “has refused and continues to fail to account for the funds” except to say they were spent on meals during the trip.
Critics question why, if the board wanted to get rid of Monroe, it did not simply treat it as a personnel matter in executive session to begin with.
Myers explains: “(The board) didn’t set out primarily to get rid of Mr. Monroe to start with. We didn’t have the money at the time we took this action that we felt like we could continue everybody’s job in the county. He (Monroe) happened to be one of about 30 people at that time that was cut from the budget. Now it’s unfortunate, and I know how it must look to an outsider, that certain items come up right after the budget matter where it caused the furor with the fire department and the rescues department. They tell me they’re not concerned so much with Monroe as with the position.
“Right after that we was able to get an option on a piece of land to bring in some money. We had a sale of some fire trucks and some old equipment that brought in some more money so that gave us leeway later to see our way clear to restore that position to the budget.
“Then comes these two situations involving Mr. Monroe, one involving his personal life that was involving on-the-job personalities and the other involving mishandling of funds. And it looks like the board is trumping up charges against him to get rid of him and it’s not so.”
Myers says it was an unfortunate set of coincidences.
Terry likens the Monroe affair to a divorce case. “Let’s say you and your husband split up. After you do, people start coming up and telling you things about your husband they never told you before,” says Terry, implying that after the Monroe issue was made public sources came forth with information concerning Monroe’s alleged misconduct.
Before the Monroe case was resolved with his firing, another storm broke over Sheriff Foster’s refusal to turn over the file on Monroe. Foster claimed that as punitive action against him for not cooperating, the board eliminated the nearly $4,000 the county normally contributes to the sheriff’s salary (the rest is paid by the state.)
Myers claims the board’s decision to omit the sheriff’s supplement from this year’s budget was merely another one of those un-fortunate coincidences that happen to make supervisors look bad.
Bruce Mayer charged that Foster had tried to bargain with the administration over the Monroe file.
Mayer was quoted as saying, “The sheriff indicated to me he would wait until he heard what the board decided on his supplement prior to his decision on whether or not to release the file.”
Foster called Mayer’s statement a lie and threatened to file suit. Foster claimed he had turned down the request for the file before he discussed it with Mayer.
Mayer refused to retract his statement, but tried to soften it by saying he did not think Foster had really meant to use the file to keep his supplement in the budget.
All the supervisors seem to regret the bad publicity they have incurred. Myers, Terry and White say they feel it is unjustified and blame it on unfair news reporting. They also lay some of the blame on the other two supervisors.
“1 think if board members are going to have differences they should air them together—not out in the open,” says Terry. “In other words, don’t air your family linen out in the open.”
Johnson and Park drop subtle hints that there is more dirty linen they could air, but in the interest of harmony on the board, and perhaps out of fear of retaliation, they choose not to.
By being cast as the underdogs, Park, a real estate agent, and Johnson, a former school teacher who has announced her candidacy for the House of Delegates, have escaped much of the recent criticism of the board. Shut out and unaware, they claim to know not what the other three board members are doing. But their continued inability to be in the know could give rise to their own critics who could ask what kind of representatives allow themselves to be kept in the dark on important county matters.
The situation in which Johnson, a super-visor since 1974, now finds herself apparently is not a new one for her.
In a newspaper article published in the summer of 1978 Johnson was quoted as saying, “In the past (six months) I didn’t know what was happening until it came out in the press.” But she held out hope for improvement, saying, “It’s got to change.”
Today she says the same thing. “I have hope that before the end of the year the board will see more eye to eye and vote our convictions.”
Park says he too is a little more hopeful now and he believes he detects the board is working closer together. Maybe it is. Four days after making that statement, he made the motion that the board fire Bob Monroe.
Park says he no longer goes into meetings expecting surprises the way he did earlier in the summer.
One thing the supervisors do agree on is the fact that the recent spate of controversies has hurt the county’s image. And their constituents agree. A Hollins District resident says he is beginning to feel like he is living in the fictional county portrayed on the television show “Dukes of Hazzard.”
County officials who have traveled around the state say the word has spread and Roanoke County has become some-thing of a joke.
Lawrence Terry says it’s typical, that Roanoke County has always been a “whipping boy.”
Myers says, “There’s times in government like in business or anything else that you have to make judgements that’s not always popular with everybody. But if the person who’s making the judgement on you had to sit in your seat and make the same judgements, they may not be a whole lot different if they was really caring about the people of Roanoke County and the people they’re supposed to be serving.”
The chairman continues, “I hope that we can settle down now. I hope the press will report business that we’re trying to do—that we’re trying to run a good county—and I think that in time the changes that have been made recently and everything else will prove to be of benefit to the county and to the people.”
Bruce Mayer, sounding very much as if he wants to keep the administrator’s job, points out, “This board of supervisors has had more major decisions facing it than any board has had in 40 years or will have in another 40 years.” He lists among those decisions spending of over $6 million on new fire stations and equipment, reassessment, redistricting, re-negotiating the school contract with Salem, need for new court facilities and letting of over $100,000 in bids for computer equipment.
Whether the controversy has a direct effect upon the board of supervisors will not be known until the election in November. If they run, will Lawrence Terry, Mickey White and Ed Park be returned to office or will they be turned out?
One thing is almost certain: this summer’s smoke should have a positive effect on voter turnout this fall.