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To Attract a New County Executive, Money Is No Object

Panel, citizens agree a higher salary is needed to attract the right candidate for an impossible job

"We’re not going to get somebody in here on Tony’s salary," said a constituent at Town Hall on Monday night. 

Fairfax County Executive Tony Griffin is scheduled to retire in April, and the Board of Supervisors has begun the process to replace him.

According to Cook, Griffin currently earns about $240,000 a year. School superintendent Jack Dale earns about $320,000 a year, and many in the room said that discrepancy would need to be adjusted if the county wanted to attract top candidates for county executive.

Supervisor Cook agreed. "The Board of Supervisors hasn't yet set any parameters, but when you're as big as Fairfax County, you find who you want and you get them," he said. "We’re going to pay what we need to pay."

Cook greeted about 40 residents to his town hall in the meeting room of .

"Hiring of a new county executive is probably the most important decision the Board of Supervisors will make this year," said Cook at the start of his Town Hall. "I’m thrilled to have your input, and the input of our panel here."

Cook had suggested to his colleagues on the board that all districts host town hall meetings to discuss plans for hiring the new county executive. All declined, not seeing the value of time spent for such input.

"Our county executive really does run the county, and Tony has done a superb job for 11 years," Cook told the audience. 

Stu Mendelsohn was moderator of the four-member panel. He formerly served eight years on the Board of Supervisors, two years as vice chairman of the Fairfax County School Board, and is a former chairman of the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce.

The panel included:

  • Ann Zuvekas, a 35-year Braddock District resident currently serving on the Health Care Advisory Board and on the executive committee of the Consolidated Community Funding Advisory Board. 
  • Jon Peterson, senior vice president of mixed use development for the Peterson Companies, and board member of INOVA and Northern Virginia Transportation Authority (NVTA). 
  • Karen Conchar, an engineer in the Fairfax County Department of Public Works and Environmental Services, and president of the Fairfax County Government Employees Union. 
  • Paul Liberty, member of the board of directors for the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce, Leadership Fairfax, and the South Fairfax Regional Business Resource Partnership.

Each panel member presented their recommendations for the new county executive, before the audience was invited to share their comments. Moderator Stu Mendelsohn began with an introduction.

"Tony Griffin is probably the least known but most important name in the county," Mendelsohn said. “The county executive deals with over 1 million citizens, 10 elected bosses, 12 school board members, and more than 12,000 employees. To lead that kind of organization is almost impossible."

Mendelsohn said in 1993 the Board of Supervisors wanted a stronger county executive, so they appointed the Holton Commission, led by former Gov. A. Linwood Holton, to look into the possibility and procedures for electing a county executive. 

"Zero of the recommendations were implemented," Mendelsohn said. "The Board of Supervisors never approved that report."

"Make no mistake, the supervisors run the county," said Mendelsohn, suggesting the reason the report never went anywhere. An elected county executive would take the choice out of the Board of Supervisors' hands. "Tony is one of the longest running county executives we’ve had, because he works behind the scenes and doesn’t look for the limelight."

"The county executive has to balance all the different wants, needs, and desires of an increasingly diverse county, one of the wealthiest in the county, but also one with incredibly diverse needs," Mendelsohn said. "It’s an unbelievable task were asking of them. ... Hats off to Tony for lasting this long."

Long List of Desired Qualifications

Panel member Ann Zuvekas said the job required, "Walking on water without getting your feet wet."

A Braddock District resident for 35 years, Zuvekas serves on the Health Care Advisory Board and on the executive committee of the Consolidated Community Funding Advisory Board. "It’s going to be really hard to find this person," she said.

As a representative of the nonprofit community in Fairfax County, Zevekas had a long list of qualifications. 

"The person needs to recognize Fairfax County is in the midst of tremendous change, moving from a suburban to an urban area," she said. "I’d like to see someone who has managed a jurisdiction like Fairfax; as geographically large and as populated as we are."

"Someone who’s managed a town of 50,000 is not going to cut it here," Zuvekas said. "Our executive has to be able to lead in Fairfax County and also in our multi-state, metropolitan, multiple local jurisdiction area."

"We’re a well-educated population, and we expect our voices to be heard," Zuvekas said. "The new executive must be someone who thinks community involvement is an important role for the citizenry. That’s part of our political culture. Fairfax County residents expect to be involved, and if a candidate does not agree, they should go elsewhere."

"The person should have a collaborative management style. Our county employees have tremendous talents. They need to be a listener; a leader who inspires the workforce, draws on the talents of volunteers, who inspires the best from people," Zuvekas said. "They need to understand and appreciate that public–private partnerships, like the Health Care Advisory Board, are what make this county work."

"The person should be committed to making this place work, should have demonstrated comfort with continual change, and should not seek to use Fairfax County as a short term stepping stone to another job," Zuvekas said.

Fiscal Responsibility and Affordable Housing

Fairfax County native and business developer Jon Peterson said fiscal responsibility and affordable housing are the most important items facing a new county manager.

"We’re lucky to have the tax base that we have, and we need to continue to find those companies and keep them coming," he said. "What’s most important in what surrounds our work today is fiscal responsibility and being able to balance the budget."

"Lack of affordable housing is what’s holding back this county," Peterson said. "The county executive must be prepared for more people to come into this area," he said. "We need a visionary who can see what we can do to make this community better, to increase affordable housing, and to ensure our transportation system works."

Karen Conchar agreed. An engineer in the county’s Department of Public Works and Environmental Services, she is also president of the Fairfax County Government Employees Union.

"Most county employees working in the general services area like police and libraries do not live in Fairfax County because they cannot afford to buy their homes," she said.

"The average annual salary of a citizen of Fairfax County is $73,000. The average for Fairfax County employees is $52,000," Conchar said.

"The new county executive must look at the problem regarding people having adequate pay and affordable housing so that they may live in the county in which they serve."

Conchar also said the new county executive must understand county employees are their greatest resource.

"Staff is the county’s biggest expense, and the executive should be cognizant of that," she said.

A survey of the Fairfax County Government Employees Union revealed their No. 1 priority for the new executive is respect for the employees.

"The staff want honesty in their dealings with the county executive," Conchar said. Second on the list is "commitment to the community and the citizens they serve."

"The people I represent are the county employees who work in the sewers, the treatment plants, the parks, the libraries," Conchar said. "The county has over 12,000 employees in more than 50 agencies. The employees want to be respected for what they contribute."

Conchar, who has lived in the county since 1964 and worked for the county since 1984, also spoke about the need for raising up a new county workforce while preserving institutional knowledge.

"In the 1980s, the county workforce grew from 3,000 to 9,000 in just three years," she said. "All of those people, many now in top positions, are nearing retirement. The new county executive will be faced with maintaining services to citizens without loosing institutional knowledge."

Because Virginia is a right-to-work state, Conchar said it is important for the Fairfax County Government Employees Union to work closely with county human resources, the Board of Supervisors, and the county executive to prevent any employee issues from becoming big issues. 

"We want to protect the health and safety of our employees and citizens," Conchar said.

She said it’s important for the new executive to understand that cooperation between the groups. "The person’s leadership should encourage participation from stakeholders," she said.

Paul Liberty, a member of the Board of Directors for the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce, Leadership Fairfax, and the South Fairfax Regional Business Resource Partnership, presented to the audience what he called general ideas of what would be helpful from business perspective.

"The new executive must understand that economic development is a tax diversification strategy," Liberty said. "The Tysons Corner project is an incredible opportunity that we need to be paying very close attention to. Tysons is the most important fingerprint job the new county executive will have. The person must see what Tysons can be so that it benefits the entire populous."

“Business experience would be very healthy,” Liberty said. "The same issues that occur inside a county occur within a company."

"The person must not be afraid to take risks, because risks bring great rewards," he said.

"At the end of the day, a strong financial background is vital," he said. "Those who understand numbers understand everything."

Environment and Transportation Needs

Following the panel presentations, those attending the Town Hall added their suggestions and comments. Many agreed with what panel members had said.

A Food for Others volunteer voiced concern about the size of the school budget.  "It’s compressing other areas of county needs, especially in basic needs," she said.

A woman who lives in Braddock District wants the new county executive to  implement the county’s energy policy. 

"The current county executive has never filled the position created by the Board of Supervisors," she said. "I’d like to see the new county executive implement the county policy we have on the books."

Transportation was discussed several times, especially the problems with state control of local roads. It was agreed the new executive would have to know how to deal in Virginia politics.

Additional Input Sought from Residents

Supervisor Cook will present the findings from his Town Hall to his colleagues on the Board of Supervisors. The California based search firm of Ralph Andersen will be releasing a job announcement within the coming weeks.

In the meantime, Cook invites continued input to his email at braddock@fairfaxcounty.gov, and at the county’s County Executive Search Survey.

Impartial Observer January 23, 2012 at 06:50 PM
I agree with RAMSEE. I am a federal employee with 20 plus years experience managing a large federal program and I am paid 1/2 of the current salary that the county manager makes. You could hire me (or any other SESer with comparable experience) at a bargain! And with the Feds looking at budget cuts and possible reductions in force, I don't think we will need to up the salary to get a highly qualified and experienced candidate to fill this job. Fairfax County must be in some sort of delusional cloud to think that this job is so much more than it is!
Ann H Csonka January 23, 2012 at 07:58 PM
@ Impartial Observer: "You could hire me (or any other SESer with comparable experience) at a bargain! " The key here is "comparable experience". How many SES positions are in municipal/county management? It is usually essential that someone have specific experience in a field to apply to any job in that field. I.e., I do not agree that "management is management". That may be true in a sense, but it sure helps to have expertise in a field.
T Ailshire January 23, 2012 at 08:08 PM
The county Executive will need to be 150 years old if s/he needs to have experience in the fields s/he is managing. A 4-star general with 25 years' experience makes 145K in base pay, plus housing and benefits. Still well below the $320K being touted here as "reasonable" -- and the general might have to run a municipality - or a Pentagon - under austere conditions away from his family. Surely the CE doesn't have it worse than that.
Rick S January 27, 2012 at 02:17 PM
Of course money is no object, they have unlimited access to OUR checkbooks..
Jonathan Erickson February 09, 2012 at 11:38 AM
the writer of the headline should be flogged.

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