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...

Sunday, April 30, 2006

Today's Headlines:

Thursday, April 20, 2006





Earlier this week, Chesterfield County officials unveiled a new policy providing higher standards of accountability for County officials who travel in the course of conducting public business on the taxpayer’s dime.

Congratulations to Chesterfield County.

This new policy is the direct result of the embarrassing $18,000 charter jet trip taken this past December by current Chairman Dickie King and County Administrator Lane Ramsey in connection with circumstances that arguably had little if anything to do with Chesterfield County interests (essentially the personal/legal problems being experienced by then Chairman Edward B. Barber). This story, first revealed by Chesterfield County citizen Brenda Stewart following a routine Freedom of Information Request, got wide coverage and rightfully caused a fair amount of embarrassment to those officials who were responsible for what might be characterized as a lapse of judgment.

In the end, it appears that the responsible parties have made a fair effort to make amends and to undo the financial harm to County taxpayers that this lapse of judgment caused.

Going one step further Chesterfield County appears serious in their intent to avoid similar problems in the future with the development of this new policy that provides certain checks and balances and higher degrees of accountability for expenses incurred by County officials in the conduct of public business. Credit for this reform seems to go primarily to Supervisor Art Warren who earlier detailed some of the suggested reforms needed.

Most significantly, the new policy requires quarterly reports on the travel of members of the Board of Supervisors, the county administrator, the deputy county administrators and the assistant county administrator to be made available to the Supervisors.

The essence of the new policy seems to be that the highest officials of Chesterfield County, including the Supervisors themselves and the top administrators, are now expressly required to report and account for their travel expenses.

This seems quite appropriate. Frankly, the Iconoclast is surprised that such reporting may not have been previously a routine practice. If it wasn’t, it should have been.

But the real benefit of the new policy is not that the Supervisors are going to report to themselves where they and other top administrators have been traveling to on official business and how much it cost the taxpayers. The real benefit is that citizens and taxpayers now have a convenient routine document to inspect through Freedom of Information inquiries enabling them to hold top elected and administrative officials accountable for their actions.

There is nothing like the threat of public scrutiny to keep public officials honest.

Chesterfield’s recent misfortune and resultant reform is also a good case study for other local governments in Virginia to consider.

The conduct of local government business rightfully requires routine travel by public officials. Not infrequently that travel takes local government officials well beyond the boundaries of the jurisdiction. There are many good reasons for this travel and the taxpayers should not presume that public officials are merely out jet setting, joyriding and living the high life when traveling on the public dime. Travel is expensive whether it is by plane, train or car. Then there are hotels, meals and other related expenses. Public travel is necessary for any number of good and well justified reasons.

However, as we have seen, abuses can and do occur usually because no one is paying attention, sloppy management practices, or weak moral leadership. Occasionally, the abuses are so egregious that they explode in headline news with the result that public confidence is damaged. An abuse by even one public official casts a cloud of suspicion over all. Also, casual acquiescence to of such abuses by the high level public officials (AKA the bosses) contributes to wider abuses throughout the ranks… a case of leading by bad example. Little abuses unattended almost always lead to bigger abuses.

The best way to avoid problems of abuse and to maintain public confidence is to enforce a zero tolerance policy for travel expense abuse for public officials, regardless of position or rank.

With effective policy and management systems, every dime expended on public travel should be accounted for and justified as appropriate public business. Public officials should not be required to travel by mule-train and to camp out in tents while conducting public business. But by the same token, public officials should not be milking the taxpayers with opulent travel perks disguised as "official business."

So, local government officials of Virginia, if you haven’t recently looked at your travel expense policies and management systems, now is a good time to take a look at them. If necessary, fix those policies and systems before problems of abuse are front page news.

Learn from Chesterfield County’s example. Don’t become tomorrow’s headlines.


Apparently Chairman King wants citizens to butt out of County's business.

Chesterfield County Administrator in need of Frequent Flyer Miles.

Monday, April 17, 2006






Readers of the Iconoclast perhaps recall that we have been following developments for the past year or so down in Prince Edward County involving Board of Supervisors and the Planning Commission. See related articles.

The Iconoclast is now pleased to report that the Prince Edward County Board of Supervisors seems to be all smiles now that it has reversed its earlier inexplicable and disastrously unpopular policies to exclude fair representation on the Prince Edward County Planning Commission.

It doesn’t take too much imagination to ask the most obvious question: Why did Chairman William “Buckie” Fore and Vice Chairman Howard Simpson “flip-flop” on their previous policy positions?

Was this surprise course reversal a gesture of good will? Or was it political necessity in an effort to get out from under a cloud of continuing public criticism? Was it the impending “train wreck” the Iconoclast predicted in early January of this year?

Recent news reports in both The Farmville Herald and the Richmond Times Dispatch confirm that the Prince Edward County Board of Supervisors approved last week a new official policy that will create a Planning Commission with ten members total, including three members who are county residents living in the Town of Farmville. Essentially, this new plan makes possible that all citizens of Prince Edward County are now eligible to be considered for appointment to the Planning Commission.

This is an important change in policy…essentially a complete course reversal… considering that Chairman William “Buckie” Fore and four other Supervisors (Howard Simpson, Bobby Jones, Charles McKay and James Moore) have fought so hard since this past November to exclude all Farmville residents, roughly one third of the entire County population, from eligibility to serve on the Planning Commission.

It all started back in the summer of 2005 when citizens facing a controversial zoning proposal began complaining of a dysfunctional planning process and allegations that the Planning Commission was stagnant, mismanaged, unfairly organized. The underlying concern was that the Planning Commission, dominated by a Chairman and Vice Chairman facing unresolved ethics questions, was essentially “rubber stamping” lucrative zoning deals for favored developers, land speculators and realtors.

Over the past seven months, this story has taken more twists and turns than a plate full of spaghetti.

Starting in November with a questionable study committee finding that nothing was wrong and no change was needed, the Chairman Fore’s majority coalition of five Supervisors dug in their heals to keep the status quo in place.

By December, a new committee recommendation was approved by the same five supervisors, effectively excluding one third of the County’s population from representation on the County Planning Commission.

How could the Board embrace such an unfair and illogical public policy?

Sources close to the unfolding story have hypothesized that it all boils down to a “control” issue with Chairman Fore and others who have enjoyed unchallenged control of the County’s Planning Commission and its ability to approve land use deals for nearly two decades.

This theory seems to be confirmed by the composition of the study committee that was dominated by individuals who had long term "turf interests" to protect with the existing Planning Commission including long time Chairman William Porterfield, Supervisor Bobby Jones (both serving on the Planning Commission for nearly two decades), and Planning Director Jonathan Pickett.

We would be remiss if we failed to note that not everybody was smiling so enthusiastically about the new policy.

Supervisor Bobby Jones, who chaired the special study committee that formulated the two previous questionable and ill-fated policies was critical of Chairman Fore and Vice Chairman Simpson for the sudden course reversal that essentially reversed all of the committee's recommendations.

In addition to his critical views of the Chairman and Vice Chairman’s unilateral actions, Supervisor Jones was outspoken in his belief that the right to serve on the County Planning Commission should somehow be tied to how much real estate an individual owns and how much in taxes they pay.

While Supervisor Jones’ quaint and feudalistic attitude about land ownership and political rights may enjoy sympathy in some quarters, most Americans reject this inappropriately elitist concept and instead embrace the principles of American democracy as outlined in the Constitution and Bill of Rights.

Not surprisingly, Supervisor Bobby Jones was the only member of the Prince Edward County Board of Supervisors voting against the new policy that would allow three of ten seats on the County Planning Commission to go to Farmville residents. In other words Supervisor Jones is still outspoken and unapologetic in his opposition to fair representation on the Planning Commission.

The seven to one vote approving the new policy represents a dramatic change of heart by the four Board members who have heretofore resisted change. Chairman William “Buckie” Fore, Vice Chairman Howard Simpson, and Supervisors Charles McKay and James Moore, now belatedly join Supervisors Sally Gilfillan, Pattie Cooper-Jones, and Lacy Ward in a new policy that offers at least the potential of fair representation on the County Planning Commission.

But does this policy reversal mean that the Prince Edward County Board of Supervisors can put to rest, once and for all, citizen concerns about the “stagnant and dysfunctional” Planning Commission “rubber stamping” lucrative zoning deals for favored developers, land speculators and realtors?

That ideal remains to be seen.

The new policy is a step in the right direction by making possible fair representation on the Planning Commission. However, only two new seats will be filled in the coming months. The remaining eight seats will continue to be held by incumbents, some of whom have held their seats for nearly two decades. Will the two new appointments make any difference?

Nor does the new policy guarantee that needed reform of the Planning Commission will follow. Meaningful reform can only occur if there is a sincere acknowledgement that reform is needed. The record of official resistance and delay over the past seven months is cause for skepticism and a cautious wait and see approach.

Basic questions remain...

Are the wide smiles on the faces of members of the Prince Edward County Board of Supervisors sincere, reflecting a commitment to needed reform? Or are they just an illusion concealing ulterior motives?

Is Supervisor Bobby Jones actually the only one who is honestly speaking his mind and expressing his true feelings about fair representation on the Planning Commission? It is something to wonder about.

Only time will tell.



Saturday, April 15, 2006

I-81 Corridor Improvement Study

Public Hearing April 19, 2006
Turner Ashby High School.
Public Hearing and Open House 5 to 8 pm.
Registration begins at 4 pm.

Top I-81 Corridor, VA Cameras

6:15pm update:
Ideas from former Governor Jerry Baliles
former Commissioner of VDOT Phil Shucet regarding transportation.

(thanks to Jim Bacon for posting these in Sept. '05)

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Richmond International Airport: Do not attempt to fly while high!

Here's a good story from today's Richmond Times Dispatch. It appears that officials at the Richmond International Airiport are starting to crackdown on weed. Several years ago - Pre-9/11 - if a passenger was "busted" for minor possession at the airport they were usaually asked to throw it away. Now it appears that this laid-back policy has changed. Even if you just want to take a few joints with you so you can "puff" before hitting the slopes in Colorado!

You might remember that few months ago a member of the City of Richmond's School Board, Steve Johnson, was busted buy airport security officials for having a couple of joints hidden in a pack of cigarets. This bust, coupled with a previous "controversy", prompted Johnson to resign from the School Board. I do hope it was worth it!

So remember, even if you're going on vacation, it's probably a good idea to leave the bong at home when flying out of an international airport. In today's post-9/11 world, I would suggest that "adults" - especially elected officials - use better judgement before hopping on a plane with an illegal substance. If taking some hippie lettuce on your next trip is so important to you (like to your 30 year High School reunion or something) I'd suggest driving instead!

Monday, April 10, 2006

The Video Campaign Begins...

Here is what appears to be the first video commercial of the campaign for U.S. Senate. What is your impression? Is it fair? Is it effective? Do you find it humorous? Offensive?

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Help Make Our Government Better

Sign for Two

o What? Sign petitions to have the names of Harris Miller and James Webb placed on the ballot in the Democratic Primary for U.S. Senate. (Primary to held June 13, 2006)

o When? Sunday, April 9 2006 2:00 to 4:00pm

o Where? Parking lot beside Kline’s Frozen Custard on Wolfe St. in Harrisonburg

Whether you are Republican, Independent or Democrat, having viable choices when you vote is healthy for democracy. Competition makes the process better, for us all.

Signing the petition in no way obligates you to support a candidate. You are only signing that you would like to see a person placed on the ballot as a choice. Ulitimatly one of these two individuals will face George Allen in November.

Come on out, help build a stronger government, and enjoy a cone of legendary ice cream!

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Is it news, or is it an advertisement?

The other day while watching the local news in Harrisonburg an odd advertisement got my attention. Here's a quick synopsis: the ad was for some local Exxon service station (sort of like a local Sheetz or something), anyway the commercial was presented by a "reporter", and at the bottom of the screen were the words "Live". Needless to say, the commercial was quite "cheesey", but I could see how one might mistake it for a "real" news story at first glance...I found it to be strange, and I remembered the ad (but I still haven't stop by the Exxon to fill up my car and buy two chili cheese hotdogs, but maybe soon).

Well this morning I read a report from the Center for Media and Democracy which details the often used "VNRs" (Video News Reports, AKA: corporate propaganda) which, unlike the above mentioned commercial, are often embedded in actual news cast. So these advertisements/commercials actually have the look and feel of a legitimate story, but in reality it's just another commercial tricked up to appear to be a real story. The stations play along and make cash by selling this "story", and the company/entity market their product to cosumers that are under the impression that they are watching the news. I guess you could say this is ingenious and scary at the same time!

If you get a chance follow the link above and view a few of the VNRs. A spread sheet is available that lists the 77 stations nationally that regularly use VNRs in their news cast. Also,- surprise, surprise - Harrisonburg's ABC affiliate, WHSV, is one of the 77 stations that use VNRs.

Please if I have misinterpreted exactly what VNRs actually are, I'd love to know. Regardless, what the hell is going on with elements of our media? Last year we find out the President is PAYING reporters to write pro-administration "stories", and now it appears that corporations are now creating their own brand of news. Where in the hell is the FCC? Is everything and everyone in this Country for sale to the highest bidder?

Thursday, April 06, 2006

NBC Sends "Muslims" to Martinsville Speedway...

In an attempt to "make news" (as opposed to reporting it) it appears that recently NBC's "Dateline" program sent a few Osama bin Laden look-alikes to Martinsville Speedway to gauge the reaction from the public. Let me take a guess, these "Muslims" weren't greated as if they were "Larry the Cable Guy", Allen Jackson, or Tom DeLay. Noooo! I'm shocked!

Here are some other ideas for the producers of Dateline to consider for their next expose:

Placing an ACLU information table at the next Boy Scout Jamboree at Fort AP Hill.

How about handing out PETA brochures at the annual convention of the National Cattlemen's Association?

Attempt to start a gay and bisexual student alliance at Liberty University?

Take an African-American friend to the Country Club of Virginia to play a round of golf?

Can anyone else think of another idea for the producers of Dateline?

But in all seriousness, overt racism directed towards any person or group is terrible and can never be tolerated. Also, I don't think NASCAR fans are inherenlty racist or judgemental. Actually I went to a NASCAR race a few years ago (OK, a friend FORCED me to go) and I found the crowd to be pleasant and surprisingly diverse. Regardless, I find this "news story" by Dateline to be an example of "trolling" at the bottom of the barrell in order to create a story to be extremely pathetic and unethical even for a trash television show like Dateline.

Saturday, April 01, 2006




What if all college and university students across Virginia became actively involved in local politics? How would things change? Would this be a good thing? Or, in communities hosting colleges and universities, would this turn local politics and public policy inside out and upside down? Are college students really enemies of the state?

What would happen in communities like Blacksburg, Radford or Farmville, just to name a few... where student population is truly significant in relation to the traditional "local" population in the surrounding community? What if college students really got involved in city, town and county politics?

These questions are prompted by this week’s news reports concerning the rights of students at the College of William and Mary to register to vote in the City of Williamsburg. This week, W&M President Gene R. Nichol came down highly critical of local voter registration policies suggesting that the interpretation of vague state law by local election officials concerning residency represented inappropriate and unconstitutional barriers to W&M student participation in the political process.

Adding to the controversy, the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia also announced this week that it will offer legal assistance to college students at the College of William and Mary to overcome barriers to student voter registration in Williamsburg.

From time to time the issue of college and university student voter registration erupts as a contentious issue. Registration is fundamentally important in any democratic voting process and place of residency is central to the question of voter and candidate qualifications.

In the United States, the minimum legal age at which a person may vote is 18 years of age. Registered voters may vote in only one place for any given election. This requirement is to prevent unscrupulous individuals from voting multiple times at different polling places thereby corrupting the election results. But it is also important for determining the eligibility of individuals to vote for or become candidates for various elected offices representing political subdivisions including U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, and state and local offices too numerous to count.

Suffice it to say, place of voter registration is important and that the orderly system of democracy depends on a clear and consistent application of public policy concerning residency.

The contentiousness of this issue stems from the mobility of the modern American society. Especially today, it is easy for people to move. People move frequently and for many different reasons. Also, some people maintain more than one place of residency at the same time. The problem is compounded in Virginia because the laws concerning residency are vague and ambiguous requiring only that a person vote in the place of “domicile” or “permanent residency.”

We would presume that one’s permanent residence would be the place where one lives most of the time… the place we call home. But when it comes to election laws, the matter is not so simple.

So how is residency determined in the case of college students or…for that matter… anybody?

Answer: In the first instance, it is up to each individual to declare where his or her residency is. Under the current ambiguous residency requirements, it is possible to physically live one place but to maintain an entirely separate place of official residency for voting purposes. Is this appropriate or fair? Probably not but it sometimes happens.

Ultimately it falls to the local voter registrar to determine who is a resident for voting and candidate eligibility purposes. Various criteria including the addresses shown on driver’s licenses, tax returns, etc., are used to make these residency determinations. The problem is that these addresses shown on driver’s licenses and tax returns and other official looking documents can and do change with little difficulty. Nor do these documents actually prove where an individual physically lives.

There are more questions concerning the college student voting issue. Why should a local voter registrar look more closely at a college student than any other citizen who may occasionally move or have more than one place of residency? If a W&M student who lives in Williamsburg most of the year wishes to declare residency in Williamsburg why should that residency be challenged?

Some might argue that college students have no “permanent” or “real” local community interests at stake and that their interests are limited solely to their college or university affiliation. This is not a good rationalization for disqualifying students from voter registration in their “adopted” college communities. College students contribute to the local economy, they pay local taxes (even if it is only sales taxes), and they rely on a whole range of local services and infrastructure. Why shouldn’t they have an opportunity to vote in local elections if they decide to declare their residency in their “adopted” college community?

Then there is another issue. If college and university students are allowed to register locally to vote in their “adopted” college community, what is preventing them from running for and being elected to local offices? Answer: Nothing but the will of the electorate.

Do we really want to have college students running for and getting elected to local offices when they don’t really live permanently in the community they are supposed to be representing? Why not? Who is really a “permanent” resident anyway? What does “permanent” mean? Is anyone really "permanent"?

Considering that Virginia has 34 four-year colleges or universities in practically every region of the Commonwealth, many communities could be effected by a more open policy of allowing college and university students to register to vote within their adopted college community. Considering that those institutions often have enrollment numbers that are significant in relation to the non-college/university affiliated population, it is easy to see that any significant increase in college student participation in the local political process would profoundly change local politics. This would be especially true if college and university students begin to seek and win local elected offices.

Would it be such a bad thing for college students to become more involved in the political process, whether it is national, state or local politics? Considering the state of politics today, could it really hurt anything?

Consider this: College students are not always "kids." Many of them are responsible adults. Many of them have served in the military. Many of them have families and hold jobs while pursuing their educations. While many young people, students and non-students, are indeed apathetic and uninformed about politics and public issues, this is not always the case. Why should public policy be used to place further barriers in the way of political participation of college students?

Perhaps it is time for the Virginia General Assembly to revisit the laws concerning voter registration. Obviously clear and uniform standards of residency are needed. But equally obvious, we need to stop arbitrarily discriminating against college and university students who choose to become politically active in their adopted college communities.

It was not so long ago that misguided official public policy here in Virginia discouraged a large segment of the population from participating in the political process. Virginia has moved past this dark legacy we hope.

Let eligible voters, including college students, establish residency and vote where they feel they can best make the most difference. Let those voters decide who the best qualified candidates are.

Maybe politics and politicians will be better if we embrace a more enlightened public policy that encourages rather than discourages political participation.

As always, reader comments are encouraged.