The Commonwealth Iconoclast

A site dedicated to covering issues relevant to the Commonwealth of Virginia, and nation at large, plus other interesting things too, as I see fit...

Friday, December 02, 2005

Revisting Democracy in the Heart of Virginia

We spend a fair amount of time worrying about spreading democracy around the world these days but often forget about practice of democracy here at home. We tend to forget that democracy is a relatively rare and fragile concept. Even in America, it does not always work perfectly and it is not always pretty. But democracy, imperfect as it may be, is surely better than all the other systems of government we see around the world.

Sometimes, here at home, we see situations that remind us that the principles of democracy have to be constantly guarded by vigilant citizens. A good example of this is the ongoing controversy concerning citizen rights in Prince Edward County, Virginia (see BAD DAY FOR DEMOCRACY, November 24, 2005).

Recently, the Prince Edward Board of Supervisors voted five to three to reject a proposal to restructure the County Planning Commission to give fair representation to all voter districts in this rural community in the Heart of Virginia.

This came about when citizens became frustrated that the Planning Commission seemed to be rubber stamping controversial development proposals. Citizens noticed that the Planning Commission seemed eschew objective evaluations of zoning proposals and to precede with little discussion, and typically no dissent or justification, to approve controversial zoning proposals. Citizen concerns were not only ignored but they were derided by Planning Commission members. It seemed that the County Planning Commission was not functioning as it was suppose to in a free and open democracy.

An investigation this fall by Prince Edward County Supervisor Sally Gilfillan revealed that the County Planning Commission was a relatively stagnant body with the same chairman serving for nearly two decades. Similarly some of the other members of the Planning Commission had served for many long years with apparently little effort to recruit new talent. County records obtained indicated questions about the process of appointing Planning Commission members, its fairness and its accountability to the citizens. Supervisor Gilfillan also discovered that some voting districts were over represented on the body and that one voting district (hers - District 701), which happened to be in a development hot spot, was not represented at all. It was understandable that Supervisor Gilfillan sought to remedy this obvious problem.

One could argue that the five to three vote was an example of democracy in action with the majority position prevailing to keep the status quo. However, there is also evidence to suggest that this might be a case of a “tyranny of the majority” seeking to block true democratic principles of fair representation. The most obvious evidence of this tyranny is the absence of any logical explanation as to why Supervisor Gilfillan’s concerns were left unaddressed. The Chairman of the Planning Commission even made a feeble attempt to argue (with support from some of the Supervisors I might add), that “electoral districts do not relate to land-use planning.”

If such ridiculous arguments are not enough evidence, this tyranny of the majority is also hinted at in the comments of a second member of the Prince Edward Board of Supervisors, Lacy B. Ward who suggested that the problem may be the result of a fear on the part of some members of the Board of Supervisors that there would be a “loss of control” if the Planning Commission were to be reorganized. What does this mean?

Well for starters, the Planning Commission has far reaching influence on all development activities in the County. The Planning Commission is the first step in any effort to change land-use zoning in the County. A zoning change to allow more intense land use development can, with the stroke of the pen, make land speculators, realtors, developers and property owners a lot of money. While there is nothing inherently wrong with people making money, the concept of zoning is to protect against incompatible land use developments. In other words, zoning is not supposed to be manipulated for financial profit… but it sometimes is. The control issue that Supervisor Ward may be alluding to could have some very practical implications for those who seek favorable zoning decisions to facilitate windfall profits.

Because of the great potential for abuse in the arbitrary manipulation of land use zoning, the Virginia legislature passed laws many years ago requiring that zoning decisions need to be made following a logical and open process that assures public participation, objective justification, and accountability. The law divides the responsibility for making zoning changes between two different public entities. The planning commission is supposed to make informed recommendations and the governing body is empowered to make the final decision. These are what we might consider democratic safeguards to prevent abuses.

Local planning commissions have the responsibility of assuring that the public is informed on pending zoning matters and that public input will be fairly considered. According to some of the citizen complaints in Prince Edward County, this has not been happening. Thus, these citizens want a voice on the Planning Commission. This seems to be a reasonable request.

While fair representation of all citizens on the Prince Edward County Planning Commission may not solve all the problems of that body, it certainly is an important and obvious first step. That the Prince Edward County Board of Supervisors has so far refused to take this first step to address the legitimate concerns of its citizens is not a good sign all of the members of that Board truly understand or embrace the basic principles of democracy. Nor are they helping matters by not even attempting to explain their actions.

Making matters worse, Supervisor Ward also expressed concern during a recent meeting about attitudes and comments by other members of the Board and county personnel reflecting “animosity” towards citizens who have complained about functioning of the Planning Commission. What is that about? Why might County elected officials or appointed personnel feel “animosity” towards citizens who they are duty-bound to listen to and serve? Are County officials angry that citizens are questioning their actions?

While Supervisor Ward did not name names or give specifics, he made it abundantly clear that he was concerned by the behavior of certain County officials. Any reader who has some specific insight on this matter please let me know so that I might be able to explore this matter in more depth in the future.

Citizens are a demanding lot. As a general collection of humanity, citizens are admittedly a quite unpredictable group. Indeed, there may be some citizens out there who are crazy. But most citizens are reasonable people who just want their government to function properly.

Whatever the situation, people who serve the public as either as elected or appointed officials are duty-bound to listen to citizens. When county Supervisors are elected to office, citizens are not giving up their rights to express their views. Nor are citizens telling elected Supervisors to do all of the thinking and decision making in total disregard of citizen concerns. Supervisors need to listen to citizens even when election-day is not looming in the near future.

Citizen participation in government is good thing. It should not be discouraged or viewed with disdain by local government officials. Any local government official, elected or appointed, who gets personally offended or feels animosity towards citizens just because those citizens want to participate in the democratic process of governing their own community might want to think about pursuing another line of work.

As a closing thought, I want to thank the young university people in Farmville who did such a great job in making the Prince Edward County meeting videos. As they say a picture is worth a thousand words. These young people are getting some great “real life” insights as to how government works in America. Please keep these videos coming. Anyone wanting to obtain copies of Prince Edward County government videos can send me a note and I will see if I can get you a copy on DVD.

While I am mindful that democracy has its pitfalls, including the messy process of listening to citizens concerns, I think the basic concept has some redeeming qualities that should be considered. There is still hope that the Prince Edward County Board of Supervisors will eventually do the right thing and embrace more enthusiastically the principles of democracy. I will keep you posted on new developments.

PS: I appreciate reader comments on this ongoing story. I am especially interested in factual insights from knowledgeable sources about the details of this unfolding story. Keep those comments coming!


  • At 12/03/2005 6:41 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Realtors and developers are citizens too. If they have the savvy to pull a few strings in the courthouse to get a zoning change, whats the problem?

  • At 12/04/2005 5:32 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    are you serious? then why just not by-pass the whole public hearing portion of a rezoning as well. why not just make it a requirment in Prince Edward that any developer will have to pay an "impact" fee that will be split between the County Staff and certian members of the BOS? because it appears that this is what is essentially happending now.

  • At 12/04/2005 8:32 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Let me guess the first comment came from the County's Staff? That would sound about right for them.

  • At 12/05/2005 10:01 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Does "pulling a few strings" equate to bribery, or does it lie in the murkier category of "buying influence"? The former is illegal according to the Code of our Commonwealth.

  • At 12/05/2005 12:27 PM, Anonymous RBJ said…

    Wow, the chairman of the PC has been in this postion for over 20 years? As the chairman the whole time? I thought it was required by the Code of Va to rotate the chairpersons? You should look into this. I could be wrong I guess.

  • At 12/05/2005 1:04 PM, Blogger Will Vaught said…

    I do not believe the code of virginia requires localities to rotate the chair of the PC. Though it is commonplace to rotate the chair is most localities.

    From what I understand, the current chair of Prince Edward's PC - Bill Porterfield - has indeed been the chair for many, many years (if not for the whole time he's been on the PC?)

    Having talked to people who regularly deal with the PC, it is apparent that Porterfield essentiall dominates the PC hearings, makes a motion, and the remaining members simple follow his lead - rarely offering any motions or even comments.

    In my opinion, this is why rotating the chair is important. It tends to reduce the chances of one person dominating an entire PC hearing, and allows for new ideas and thoughts. Somthing that is apparently missing in Prince Edward.

  • At 12/05/2005 2:06 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    This kind of blogging is great for the Commonwealth. Keep hammering away at this because in southern VA, we have a tendency toward citizen complacency - simply taking what the elected folks give us. It's about time for BOS, PC's, and School Boards in this part of the state to be challenged a bit more. "Pulling strings" may be part and parcel of doing business, but when the string pulling is limited to a select class of people, that's not governance - that's corruption.

    -- Conaway

  • At 12/05/2005 2:26 PM, Blogger Will Vaught said…

    Thanks Conway, agree with you 100%, and yes, this is where blogging can hopefully make a differnce. Because some individuals can control what is being printed in the local media, but they can't control the internet.

    Regarless, my intent hear is not to "throw bombs" at individuals/elected officials/PC members, but to base my writings and editorials on sound research, and logic (and facts too!)

    Yes, I do personally believe there is a fair amount of corruption in Prince Edward's Staff and BOS/PC(and as you mentioned other parts of Southside as well) - but we also must point out that in Prince Edward - there are members of the BOS who appreciate and welcome public comment, and a fair and open process.

    Unfortunatly, as far as I can tell there are only three: Supervisors Ward, Gillifan, and Cooper-Jones.

    Atleast that's a start!

  • At 12/06/2005 2:29 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Two weeks ago I had heard of the term "blog", but I was confused about what a blog actually was. Then the link to your last article was forwarded to me by a friend. I'm totally amazed at how information, news, and opinion can be dispursed through blogs, and usurp traditional media outlets, but be just as affective. This is terrific, and though I don't know who you are Will, keep up the good work! If a blog can contribute to holding County leaders and officials accountable for their action, then keep on blogging!

  • At 12/07/2005 1:24 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    i sense that the elected officials may be experiencing a bit of a "senior moment" and may not know what they are supposed to do. it is probably not as bad as people think. cut em a little slack and give em a bit of guidance and they will probably do the right thing.

  • At 12/07/2005 2:36 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Mr. Vaught:
    THANK YOU for becoming involved in this. You are doing readers a great service and exposing a lot of interesting behind the scenes manipulation. One of the things that often happens is that many, many people are afraid to publicly express their opinions because in the past they have been hurt--directly or indirectly--by the political machine of Prince Edward County. Intimidation is a big part of this whole thing. PLEASE stay on top of this situation, Mr. Vaught. By the way, viewing this as having the "savvy to pull a few strings" is exactly the kind of comments some of our so called "leaders" would make--of course it seems to them perfectly acceptable and worthy of boasting that they try to line their own pockets while destroying anyone and anything in their way. No one is having a "senior" moment. They are completely aware of what they're doing and just hoping that all the little people all have Alzheimers!


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