Interview With Terri Beirne - Interim Supervisor of Chesterfield County
Recently I sat down with Terri Beirne and discussed her experience as the new interim supervisor representing the Midlothian District of Chesterfield County. I found her to be refreshingly candid and very comfortable to talk with. She gives some insight into the county and her brief experience on the board.
As a mother of five and an attorney representing significant clients, how have you been able to take on this new responsibility of being on the Chesterfield County Board of Supervisors? How much time a week do your board responsibilities take?
Well, the month of August was a bit of a blur – I should have probably been fired from here because of the work I wasn’t doing for my clients – but fortunately in August many clients are on vacation. August was tough, just getting acclimated and getting orientation from various department heads in the county, and understanding who I could go to, to get answers I needed for constituents. I think one of the reasons people are able to do this and have a full time job is that staff in the county is very exceptional, very professional very efficient. I think they make the supervisors look good.
Board meeting alone are two a months – that’s probably 12 to 15 hours right there. And there are invitations to participate in county functions – probably six to eight a week – and you pick and choose those that you have a particular interest in or some connection to – there are educational seminars, elderly care, realtors – a wide variety of organizations that extend invitations to you. You could make this a full time job if you wanted to.
You were chosen from 17 applicants for your interim position on the board – why do you think you were chosen?
I have no idea. (laughs) I think they were appreciative of the fact that I was not intending to run in the fall, and they didn’t want to prop anybody up or give an incumbent any advantage in the fall election.
How do you connect with the needs and values of the 50,000 Midlothian constituents you represent?
There are official ways, like I had a constituents’ meeting a couple of Tuesday nights ago. This is advertised as the county maintains a mailing list of a couple of thousand of interested residents. About 20 or 30 people showed up – I had the Planning Commissioner there and Senator Watkins and Delegate Waddell.
The other is that now wearing this hat -- I’ve just been out talking to people. If I take my clothes to the cleaner I inquire about their relationship with the county and if they need any service from the county - just really asking people, and that’s not something I would have done normally before.
When I took the job and found out how many people I was representing I was a little intimidated by it. In fact the county Commission on the Future has as one of the issues, I was told, that they were working on was, “Is five members a sufficient number for the board?” I think they are narrowing down their list of potential topics and that that was one.
I am definitely reading local newspapers with a more critical eye than before. And reading letters to the editor. I gather that most people are happy with their situation. If not they send an email or letter or phone to make it known that they are not happy about something.
What are the major three difficult decisions presently in front of the Board of Supervisors?
I think the number one, major one is an easy answer – transportation. The county is not getting money from the state like it used to. We had a presentation Wednesday night and we asked all of the General Assembly delegation to come to our meeting because we were preparing our legislative agenda for the 2007 session and we were asking them about transportation. You know they had this discussion at the end of September, which was fruitless; it didn’t come up with anything.
We had a slide show and it showed the county’s contribution, the state’s contribution, and we’re OK right now but if you look four and five years out in terms of state dollars for highways, in the county we are in deep trouble, and that’s what the county is worrying about is what do we do in terms of tax law and policy and other things to account for that reduction in state funds potentially. And it’s not necessarily just the reduction, it’s the inflation associated with the cost of building new roads. Which you know when you see numbers that jump from two million dollars a month to eight million dollars a month
- it’s mind-boggling. So I would say that transportation is right there on top. And behind that is tax policy, which is directly related.
You say you are an independent – may I ask if that is left or right leaning and where you generally stand on fiscal and social policy. Who do you support in November? And the marriage amendment?
It depends on whom I am standing next to frankly (laughs). I have been working with the General Assembly in Virginia, this will be my 21st session, and the Democrats that were in charge when I first cut my teeth on politics were some of the most conservative people I’ve known. So Virginia Democrats are to me very conservative – particularly in financial arenas.
I would say I am fiscally conservative, and socially, is the opposite liberal? (I tell my husband liberal means open-minded), fairly liberal. I don’t think it would serve any purpose to divulge who I’m voting for in November.
I’m opposed to the marriage amendment because of the conflict it makes to other relationships.
Your choice seems to have been unanimous and appears to have been made prior to the Boards’ meeting where your appointment was announced. Do you know how that decision was arrived at among the board, and how was this done without compromising Virginia’s sunshine laws?
I don’t know that the decision was made before the board meeting frankly. I had individual conversations with other board members, I met with several of the board members after the first interview, that five minute interview - I met with Dickie (King) and Kelly Miller, not face to face with the other two – I had a voice message from Art (Warren) and then I had a couple of conversations with Renny (Humphrey). But as far as I knew, I didn’t know there wasn’t consensus among the board, I just knew what I was hearing because there were some who weren’t telling me what they were intending to do – there were some that did and some that didn’t, and as far I can tell not having been involved in this I didn’t know if one person had been designated as the spokesperson for the board. But from what I gathered that’s what I assumed. But then once I got in I realized that that was not the case, and in fact there are a lot of one-on-one conversations that take place on the board. But there are very few conversations that are three or more, which I think, is the requirement. But I don’t know if that’s necessarily because of that. I think it’s more because of the politics of the board and some of the personal relationships among board members.
You were required, as candidates, to submit resumes, have to pass a state and federal criminal check, be fingerprinted, and supply a disclosure form. Are these requirements that the sitting supervisors have also undergone? Did the supervisors have the authority to make these requirements?
I don’t know. Yeah. I don’t know I can ask. It seemed, particularly the criminal background check, seemed a reasonable check for me. Well you can’t be a felon and run for public office in Virginia, and they need to know that for sure. There is some need for such a check – obviously I didn’t know. I didn’t question any of that.
I’ve heard, more than once, county politics in Chesterfield in the same sentence with the phrase “good ole’ boy” network. How would you describe the political dynamics of the county, how is the real power vested?
I haven’t seen that - then again I recognize the limited influence I have in the short time period. But honestly I have seen among the board members - been pleasantly surprised by the level of deference to a board member if there is an issue in the district – I mean it’s really more of a geographic deference, than it is boys/girls, you know whatever. That’s what I’ve seen as much as anything.
I haven’t seen it (Republican control) there may be. I know that some of the board members are active in the party locally but because I’m not I don’t know how much the party controls things or pulls people’s strings. I see people on the board when I see their decision making I don’t necessarily see it as having been motivated by the party. I think a lot of the decisions are more – I take Kelly Miller for example, I mean he’s a lawyer. I make a lot of the same decisions he does because I had the same analysis that I see him going through. For example we were discussing the contract with Powhatan for water, selling water. There’s a line running down Midlothian Turnpike and it’s in my district and I have a constituent that had an issue with it so I got particularly involved in that condemnation and that water line and so forth - and we got into a discussion at one of the board meetings about that contract and the terms of it and what would happen if Chesterfield County for example needed to implement water saving measures. There was a drought or something, but yet we’re piping all this water to Powhatan. What control do we have over them if we need to use that water for our own citizens, and so it was an interesting conversation for me because he and I, we were thinking the same thing and we were thinking about the contract. Based on our legal experience we were looking at it from the perspective of the terms of the contract and who had the bargaining power to get what they wanted out of the contract and that kind of thing. So I don’t believe their were partisan politics. I think it was his professional experience that was driving some of his questions and they were consistent with ones that I had. So there may be a party background - this red filter back there, but I haven’t seen it.
What is the relative influence of builders, developers, and similar lobby groups on the board? How are their interests balanced against the interests of individual citizens?
I see a lot of that balancing take place at the planning commission level when developers are coming in for rezoning and you’ve got planning commission members that are imposing conditions on developers based on citizen involvement. And when it gets to our level for rezoning, for example, the record shows whether there has been any citizen opposition -- and if so what the basis of it is and whether it was addressed by the developer
A good example that was relevant to me was the rezoning on Woolrich Road. We just did a rezoning, there is this undeveloped tract near Midlothian Turnpike, up in the Village of Midlothian. Behind that is a rezoning that we just did to allow for a townhouse development. And the Midlothian Village has a plan, a part of the county comprehensive plan, that calls for Midlothian -- pretty much through there to Sycamore Square -- anyway the whole Village is to be walk able scale and the question is, if you don’t have people you don’t have a Village.
And so the Midlothian Village Coalition had weighed in very heavily with those developers trying to get certain things in that tract that we rezoned.
They were opposing the project initially when it was started at the planning commission level but by the time it had gotten to us, enough concessions had been made that they turned the opposition into support for the project.
So I see a lot of citizen involvement in that planning commission process. And then by the time it gets to us -- and actually we imposed one more condition because there was a concern that from Midlothian turnpike seeing the butt of all these garages so we required some structural things on the back of these garages to make it look not much not like an alley.
So I think there is a lot of involvement. There are these constituent groups that are regularly monitoring board meetings – some individually and some representing their neighborhood organizations or their community associations
I grew up in South Richmond in the 40’s and early 50’s – I saw white flight to the suburbs – and 50 years later I still see – just now further west – do you see this as an unstoppable socio-economic movement? What will happen with community integration? Will the affluent Chesterfield County population gradually migrate to Amelia and Powhatan?
Looking at my district particularly, because I was born and raised in Bon Air, lived there over off of Janke Road until 2nd or 3rd grade then moved to Shenandoah, which was sort of the new, at that time you know it was brand new roads and new subdivisions and so forth, and so it was moving west like everybody seems to be doing. But what I’m seeing actually, because I’ve been watching Chesterfield -- Huguenot Road corridor, Robious Road - I’m seeing a lot of infill – there’s definitely growth moving out west – but I don’t think its because people are leaving I think it’s the growth rate and new people that are coming into the county. UPS, which has bought Overnite, a Richmond, based company, has a lot of people coming into Richmond from Atlanta and other places. It’s new people into the county. It’s not people moving from Huguenot Road to move out to Parrington and some of these places. So I’m not necessarily seeing people leaving the places that are closer in - I guess I look at Bon Air as sort of the center of the district.
Remember that Chesterfield Town Center was the death knell to Clover Leaf Mall.
Here’s my point, I think it’s going to be back filled. If you look at Clover Leaf Mall what the county has done in it’s inception of economic development authority putting land in that area in an extension of an enterprise zone program. There are two places in the county -- the one I’ve paid attention to is the Beaufont Mall area, which is right across from Clover Leaf. So I think that that whole area is going to see a redevelopment and backfilling will be put certainly to productive uses again in the near future.
And Chesterfield Town Center, I’m worried about it but I still shop there. And I’ve been watching it very carefully and what I have been seeing is a couple of stores have left. But I see another tier coming in. I see the Old Navy tier coming in and being very successful there. Not the fanciest most expensive shops that they have at Watkins Center or Stony Point – I don’t shop in those places. I still shop at Chesterfield Town Center and I’ve been watching it and I’m not as concerned about it – and I’ve frankly talked to the Watkins developers about it just last week and said, what’s your answer? Their first answer was, well, it’s their challenge to maintain stores that serve their market. I was questioning the need for Watkins’s Center and they convinced me that there is a need for Watkins’s Center. Particularly with retail space -- they’ve got potential tenants lined up two and in some cases three deep for stuff that’s not even been built yet – so they see a need, so if the retailers see a need then maybe there is a need. And it’s new people coming in, it's the rate of growth in the county. And at some point we may be looking all the way up to Powhatan in terms of our rezoning -- we may be there but there isn’t much more now that the stage is set. People may be going out to Powhatan but that’s beyond anything the county has power over. I see a lot of infilling and I see a lot of new people that are populating both the closer in areas and the further west areas.
Where in Midlothian, will be the high paying jobs for this and the next generations?
High paying jobs? I don’t think there are a lot of high paying jobs today in Midlothian right now. I don’t see them today. There are retail jobs. That’s what Midlothian has. Just like today people are coming into the city, we’ve got Westvaco relocating, probably to Henrico unfortunately, but there are forces that work outside of the Midlothian District that are creating jobs for those people.
There have been four recent elections in Iraq with an estimated turnout of 70% of the electorate, despite the risk of voting there. In the most recent Virginia elections, Virginia’s turnout was only 3-½ %. And to run that election the county spent $80,000 for only 3000 votes.
I don’t know. It’s sad. It’s not democracy. So sad. I don’t know that it’s the school’s responsibility. When I was school one of the things that turned me on to the democratic process - I’m interested in government – is we had registrars come out. I wasn’t old enough to vote, so I couldn’t note, so I volunteered with the registrars. Because it is something that had been instilled in me because of my mom. My mother’s side of the family was all military and they were very patriotic and very engaged in the democratic process. So it came from home long before I got to school. Schools had programs to educate the kids on democracy and participation and they had the registrar there to register kids who were old enough to vote at the time.
I think 4th grade is when you get your introduction to Virginia and American history and so forth. I think it comes from something deeper than that. It’s a very sad state of affairs. My involvement with the League of Women Voters has been primarily with regard to candidate forms and candidate questionnaires trying to stimulate people’s interest in the candidates. But nationally we’re in a bad situation where we’ve got people that are just unengaged and I don’t know the answer
To me there are only two things in life today that are spontaneous: sports and elections, and maybe because I care about elections, I think they are fun and spontaneous and exciting -- they are the only things that are truly unplanned and unscripted and uncontrolled. But there are a lot of people that don’t and I don’t know why.
If you were able to go out ten years and look back at Chesterfield County, what would you imagine would be the top three issues that would have impacted the county over that decade?
I think one of them would have to be immigrants in the county– not English speaking people. Incorporating them into our society – for some of the reasons that you mentioned because the Richmond region is a very white bred conservative place and I think that’s going to blow a lot of people’s minds. I remember seeing that the second largest Asian population in the Commonwealth is in Henrico County. Things like that are amazing to me and you don’t see these people on a daily basis, but when you see the specifics I think Chesterfield and the region in particular is going to have to grasp incorporating people into our society and into our schools. Will have to grasp with much confrontation – bills may be introduced that equire English as a first language – accommodating people – providing social services, incorporating them into our society and recognizing that we are them . . . we were them.
So I think immigration and incorporating different people into our community is going to be the biggest problem in the next ten years.
I do think roads – we don’t have a transportation problem in Richmond like they have in northern Virginia or in Hampton Roads, thanks to Ed Wiley - actually that is more a state wide issue than a Richmond region. Senator Wiley insured years ago that there was enough money to Richmond region.
We have a declining school population - a shift in the demographics – we may need to shift some resources to accommodate that. I don’t know if we have adequate services for the baby boomers.
What advice do you have for the next Midlothian supervisor?
(Long pause) Good question. That might be very different depending on who gets in. My advice to Dan Gecker would be to continue your active involvement in development decisions – his role as a planning commissioner has given him a tremendous amount of involvement and oversight in development decisions in the county and I imagine he’d continue that. It’s my impression that Dan challenges a lot regarding decisions and imposes a lot of conditions on developers and has very strong opinions about development in the county. And I imagine he would continue that active involvement.
I don’t know Mr. Sowder’s experience with those types of issues – but the development and the rezoning cases are the most time consuming and the most intimidating part of this job because you are really changing the physical landscape of the county. The advice to him might be to learn as much as you can about those zoning cases and jump into them with both feet.