Ed Risse has a very interesting post today in Bacon’s Rebellion.  Mr. Risse gives an account of Fauquier County Supervisor Bill Downey’s decision to decline running for re-election.  This Mr. Risse believes is a cautionary tale of elected official burnout–Elected officials calling it quits in the face of increasingly complex and challenging development issues and changing constituent preferences as new people move to a growing community. 

This is not a phenomenon I have observed in Charlottesville or Albemarle, at least not at the elected official level (staff burnout is a different issue).  We often have elected officials serving 2 or more terms, and many have previous experience on School Boards and Planning Commissions.  Thus many of our elected officials have been working for their community for over a decade. However, Mr. Risse’s article touched a nerve for me as I look at the increasing challenges facing officials in our local government.

Here is his description of Fauquier’s recent agenda:

“The Fauquier Board has recently taken on a number of high-profile issues related to land subdivision, farm preservation, urban services, school location, transportation – issues that will determine the settlement pattern for decades to come.”

As readers of this blog are aware, these issues are also front-burner topics here locally.  He continues:

“Perhaps the biggest issue before the Board of Supervisors is the future of open land in the Countryside. Some claim that the leadership in Greater Warrenton-Fauquier has been doing the best they can for 40 years. Now it is quite clear that measures taken to conserve open land have had the effect opposite of what was intended. Large lots turn out to spread urban houses across the Countryside, destroying the resources that governance practitioners and citizens were trying to save.”

Protecting our fields, farms and forests is an important issue to our residents and Albemarle County will be addressing mountaintop and rural area protection ordinances this Fall.

Mr. Risse attributes some of the challenges in Northern Virginia as caused by the jurisdictional borders in an area intertwined with the “Washington-Baltimore New Urban Region.”  That issue plays itself out in our local context as we examine the jurisdictional boundaries between UVA, Charlottesville, Albemarle and surrounding localities.  Decisions made by each entity impact their neighbors when it comes to land use and transportation.

He then describes how the changing population in a growing area often leads to government flip flopping.

“Large numbers of new citizens moving into jurisdictions with 200-year-old borders disrupts the traditional (aka, slow) assimilation of new ideas and new paradigms.  Old residents – the ‘been heres’ – are not models of consistency.  They change attitudes while claiming ‘been here’ values. They have an eye on the potential sale of land at inflated, urban, windfall values.”

“New residents – the ‘come heres’ – have new ideas, new priorities, new needs and new demands.  The first wave of new residents want to pull up the drawbridge to keep out the potential ‘new, new’ citizens.  The first new residents use the excess capacity from the nonurban era – e.g. the farm-to-market roadways – but expect the “new, news” to pay for their impact via developer fees.”

The article concludes with a proposal that I have never heard discussed in our area–professional full-time elected officials.

“What Supervisor Downey’s burn out indicates is that municipal elected leadership is morphing into a full-time, professional job.  Elected officials having a “life” apart form government service is becoming a thing of the past and will disappear unless a new governance structure evolves that provides better ways to govern areas inside and outside the Clear Edge.  These new systems must involve more well informed citizens and more decision making fora.  Decisions must be made by those who will be impacted and made by agencies with jurisdictions that match the scale of the impact.  These new structures will not focus so many decisions at the Town Council, the City Council, the County Board or the General Assembly.”

“Fundamental change in the governance structure to reflect the new, complex demands of an urban community is difficult to accomplish.  In the normal course it will be a number of years before a majority of the citizens in outlying jurisdictions will even accept the fact that they need full-time professional politicians to run their government.”

Mr. Risse says professional full-time elected officials are no panacea, but it is this tipping point of burnout that the public should keep on its radar. I bet those of you that have been following the issues covered by Charlottesville Tomorrow have a strong opinion for or against this suggestion.  Do you think elected official burn out is a potential problem?  I’d be interested in your feedback with a comment on this blog.

Brian Wheeler

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