Lessons gleaned from Gloucester?
The Top Story by Chris Graham
The top person in local government is sacked in the middle of the night, right there in front of everybody’s disbelieving eyes.
He is replaced by a personal friend of one of the members of a new majority on the local governing body, and that person’s assignment is clear. A housecleaning has been ordered up, and heads will soon begin to roll.
That’s what people fear is happening in Waynesboro. It has already taken place in Gloucester County down in the Tidewater area, and folks, it ain’t been pretty down there the past few months.
“A couple of the supervisors had felt marginalized for quite some time. They felt like they didn’t have a voice. And they went about to change that,” said Matt Sabo, a reporter for The Daily Press in Newport News, who has been the point person in the Tidewater-area media on the goings-on in Gloucester, which began with the elections in November of last year that resulted in the seating of a new ultraconservative majority in county government.
In the walkup to the elections, long-time county administrator Bill Whitley, apparently seeing the writing on the political wall, had offered his resignation, effective Jan. 31. Following the election, county attorney Danny Stuck followed suit, offering his resignation effective April 30 in a Dec. 28 letter to members of the Gloucester County Board of Supervisors.
The election “looked like a mandate for change,” Sabo told me. “They felt that empowered them, I guess, to go ahead and make some pretty rash changes. In their mind, they had the green light from voters to make change.”
The new board of supervisors in Gloucester beat both Whitley and Stuck to the political punch, relieving them of their duties in an unexpected move the night of Jan. 2-Jan. 3 that included barring them from accessing their offices and computers following their dismissals.
Which brings us to Waynesboro, where a similarly self-styled disaffected and disenfranchised group in the form of city councilmen Frank Lucente and Tim Williams and Councilman-elect Bruce Allen have done their counterparts in Gloucester County one better in one key respect, forcing the resignation of city manager Doug Walker before even taking office on July 1. Walker resigned under pressure last week. His last day on the job will be June 30, and rumors are swirling about who the new majority has in mind to serve as his successor.
The word on the streets is that the new majority wants to bypass any kind of formal search process to name somebody from its inner circle to the post of city manager. The name that keeps coming up in conversations with me is that of Tom Reider, the former plant manager at the Hershey Chocolate of Virginia operation in Augusta County who is now affiliated with Reo Distribution, which is run by former city councilman Reo Hatfield, whose ties to the Lucente-Williams-Allen camp are well-known.
Nothing would shock Mayor Tom Reynolds at this point in time.
“I truly don’t have any confidence in the new majority of council. I personally have no confidence that they will do what’s right for the city. I’m not sure what it is that they have in mind, but I just don’t think it’s going to be what’s right for the city,” Reynolds told me today.
City Councilwoman Lorie Smith is of a similar mindset on the city-manager issue right now.
“I’ve had citizens over the past couple of days volunteer their time to perhaps serve on a citizen search committee representing this community when the process begins. My only response to that at this juncture, not knowing any more than I know today, is I’m not sure we’re going to have a process,” Smith told me today.
The last time the city-manager job came open in Waynesboro, in 2002, when Schuyler Giles stepped down from the post after seven years, the city council in place then hired a professional search firm to lead the effort to find a replacement that ended with the hiring of Walker. Gloucester County, for its part, is undertaking a similar process with its search, finally, after going through two interim administrators, including Lacy Smith, who ascent to the interim county administrator position has been the subject of much controversy and a special grand jury investigation that is still ongoing.
A Gloucester County official who spoke with me on background for this story indicated that the feeling among members of the board of supervisors there is that the county really has no alternative but to go the headhunter route.
“Their job is to say, Life here isn’t as bad as you think. You know, you can remake your own staff here. Think about the opportunity,” the official said.
The opportunity to remake the staff is there because of the mass of resignations that have followed the appointment of Lacy Smith to the interim-administrator job the night of Jan. 2-Jan. 3. The move came as a big-time surprise to people outside the inner circle of board chair Teresa Altemus, who met with fellow supervisors Buddy Rilee and Bobby Crewe in early December to begin discussions related to the scheme to sack Whitley and replace him with Smith, a management consultant and retired Army lieutenant colonel with close ties to Altemus.
Altemus later told county residents at a contentious town-hall meeting that she had thought that she was “doing what you wanted me to do as your supervisor” in reference to the changes in the county-government staff that were initiated with the departures of Whitley and Stuck, though it is instructive to point out that she made those comments in the midst of unwavering criticism from county residents of all political stripes.
“As things started unfolding and unraveling, and you find out that they plotted in secret to hire a friend of the chairwoman, there was a secret meeting with the planning director behind the scenes, and things on down the line like that, I think people were very upset about that,” Sabo at The Daily Press told me.
To the point there that the Gloucester County Republican Committee began efforts to dump Altemus and Crewe from the GOP ranks, one, and two, there’s that special grand jury investigating issues surrounding the controversy. The details of the investigation have not been made public, but Sabo said he expects the panel to report in the next few weeks regarding its findings into the matter.
Back in Waynesboro, we’re not dealing with allegations of misdoings as much as undoings. Walker, you might remember, was told by Williams and Lucente in private meetings with the council members that they were “going to undo everything you’ve done the past five years. You don’t want to be around for that.”
I’ve heard from a growing number of city residents in the wake of the Walker dismissal who have taken issue with the way the effective firing of Walker seems to have been orchestrated before the election. Several have suggested to me that they wouldn’t have voted for the Lucente-Williams-Allen ticket if the threesome had indicated publicly before the election that Walker’s job would be on the line were they to win on Election Day.
Reynolds has heard the same from residents from across the board politically.
“I’ve heard a lot of backlash to what took place. Not too many people happy about it. That there’s a right way and a wrong way to do it, and that this new city-council majority chose the wrong way. They certainly are within their rights to replace the city manager, but when you do everything the way they’ve been doing, it looks more like power politics than doing what needs to be done,” Reynolds said.