I watched Tuesday’s Pittsylvania County Fire and Rescue Commission meeting that was streamed on Facebook. At the meeting the current Chairman of the Board of Supervisors, Bob Warren, spoke and said that he supports the volunteers, is for government transparency, and also announced that he is not going to run for re-election, because he believes in term-limits, saying that was his stated plan when he got re-elected last time.
That’s a big announcement, because it means that the Bob Warren political machine has come to an end. He has been ruling the county along with the county administrator and four other members of the board to make a 5-2 majority for the past several years. In the last election, this November, two of his colleagues up for re-election lost in landslides, both getting less than 39% of the vote, along with a new endorsed candidate, who just got over 41% of the vote. The Chatham Star-Tribune reported that news with the apt headline, County vote shows desperate want for change.
That loss means that a new Board of Supervisors, with a new majority, is going to come in next year, next week actually, and they will almost certainly choose a new chairman. At the last meeting one of his colleagues who lost spoke for 40 minutes, praising the county administrator and describing himself as being part of a “team” and saying that only a “team” can make things run in the county.
The problem is that his “team” is about the “team members.” People in the county talk about them as an old boys club. In the end, I think all voters want is to have officials treat them with respect and also be people that they can look up to. Warren is right in implying in his Tuesday remarks that transparency is important as it’s a part of that.
Someone in the Facebook comments for this Tuesday’s Fire and Rescue Commission video made an interesting statement. They remarked, “I hope those of us who are in the 30-mid 40’s start looking at the problems with the supervisors and try to take over.”
I do think younger people now paying attention, looking at the problems, is a big deal, because a lot of the voting base of the Warren club has seem to come from scaring a block of older people from time to time. For instance, in last year’s election cycle the big local issue was whether Danville voters would vote Yes or No for a Caesar’s casino. Warren team member, Vice-Chairman Ronald Scearce of the Westover District, told WSET that at the time that the casino “scares me” and according to the reporting, questioned “whether Caesars will be able to hold up their end of the bargain when promising the creation of hundreds of new jobs.” I saw a few people at the time then believe rumors on Facebook that even if voters said yes to the casino that the company would back out or it wouldn’t happen. Scearce could have hurt economic development by fearmongering like this and then when Covid came he pulled stunts like bringing a gas mask to a supervisors meeting to put on a show. Yes, I know that there are some people that like being frightened, are scared of anything new coming to the area, and I understand that politicians have to cater to groups of voters to win elections, but this act isn’t going to play as well in the future when new people actually move into the area for the new jobs that are coming.
Despite what Scearce told WSET, the casino passed, the company signed a contract with the city of Danville, it already has given the city a bunch of money, and the property is being prepared for construction right now, with around a thousand jobs coming next year just to build it, not a few hundred.
As far as younger people “taking over,” I think change is coming next year, but I think what happened in 2021 is that a lot of people, both young and old, suddenly started to pay attention to how their county government runs, so that the fear messaging and bullying games, as was attempted against Vic Ingram, stopped working. The Chatham paper, of course, played and plays a big role in keeping people informed, and so did people on Facebook. Perhaps actions of the county administration and the “team” just reached a tipping point of rubbing too many people the wrong way this year.
Whatever the case, more and more people paid more and more attention as each month went on with the county’s politics.
And that’s something new for this county and Bob Warren couldn’t stop that. In May he used the county government Facebook page to distribute a tirade against the reporting of the Chatham Star-Tribune. If he hoped that would make fewer people read it so that they would stop paying attention, the opposite happened. Hopefully, this will be the last time that Facebook page, used to distribute official statements of the county government, is ever used again to attack a local business or civic institution in the area.
The actions at the last and final board of supervisors meeting kinda sums up the Warren team’s political machine and why it came to an end.
The public meeting was dominated by citizens coming to speak in anger over the tax reassessment done by the Brightminds company, hired by the supervisors. People complained of seeing their property values go up 100%, reportedly even 400%, and sometimes told that they went up because of improvements when they never made any. At the same time, most county land values were marked down 20%, which is a complete oddity when everything else is going up. People complained of poor customer service in contacting Brightminds and the supervisors and county administrator apologized for the situation, with Warren pledging to “correct” it.
In neighboring Halifax County property values have been reassessed with a 4% increase on average and there has been no giant controversy. The man who did the assessment said, “I would say with houses between $70,000 and $120,000 [in value], they really jumped up, about 10 or 15 percent,” with homes valued at between $250,000 and $300,000 having risen about 5 percent. Nationally, home prices have gone up 18.4% annualized as of October.
After that last Pittsylvania County Board of Supervisors meeting, the county administration put out a press release “recap” of the meeting. This press release failed to include everything that was passed at the meeting. It did not reveal that at the end of the meeting the supervisors passed a big bonus for the county administrator and a 5% raise for the county lawyer by 5-1 votes, with 1 abstention in each case and only the Warren bloc voting to pass them. The resolutions included in them a big jump in severance pay from six to nine months for both. Even before this extra $9,437.30 bonus the county administrator was already making more than the Governor of Virginia in 2021.
Apparently, judging by comments made at the meeting, this act was in response to rumors that the new incoming board of supervisors may make a change in the county administrator position. If that’s true then this seems like a waste of tax payer money and really it should be a decision for the next board. Earlier in the meeting, some of the supervisors who voted for this talked of a need to control county spending, complaining that fire and rescue volunteers “always” ask for more. So much for really caring about the county spending and so much for transparency; it seems like a reward for a “team” member.
Also, an apparent senseless act of retribution was done by Warren at the meeting, to no benefit to the community, and not reported on in the recap either.
It has been Warren’s right, as chairman, to nominate people to various county commissions and boards. At the meeting, he nominated someone to take Bert Sellers’s place on the Fire and Rescue Commission. Sellers was not told he would be removed from the commission nor told why and from what was said at the last meeting of the commission neither was any other member of the commission. Nor were they asked for feedback about the person he replaced Sellers with.
This could be an act of retribution, because at the October Fire and Rescue Commission meeting something really bizarre happened. Vice-Chairman Ronald Scearce is on the commission and told the other members that they should vote for his fellow team members in the election. Sellers disagreed with that, saying that he didn’t think it was appropriate for the commission meetings to be used for electioneering. You can see a video of that discussion in this Facebook post, about six minutes into the video.
Bert Sellers is a well-respected and well known business person in the community, owning and operating the Sellers Brothers construction company. His son is Peyton Sellers, the race car driver. At the October Board of Supervisors meeting a resolution #2021-10-03 was passed to honor “Peyton Sellers in recognition of a record-breaking racing season and being named the 2021 NASCAR Weekly Series National Champion in September 2021.”
Whatever the reason for the removal of Sellers from the Fire and Rescue Commission, he is a trusted leader of the community, who has served for 42 years as a board member of the Ringold Fire and Rescue station. Replacing him from the Fire and Rescue Commission like this, without a word of thanks and without any discussion even with the other commission members, seems like a completely senseless act. Doing that, and the bonus and pay boosts, and not including the latter in the “recap” press release, makes people feel like the Warren team has contempt for the people they are supposed to serve, fitting the stereotype of an “old boys club.”
Stuff like this is why their rule has come to an end.
No political machine lasts forever and not every city or county operates under the rule of a machine.
And so, we turn the page this New Years to a brighter 2022.
And the good news is that the new group of supervisors are not all part of some little club, but represent people from different backgrounds and experiences. They each can bring something unique to the table together. As a result, I expect we’ll see better transparency and better governance next year, with a board of supervisors that thinks about the overall community instead of the “team” first.