Election will give county board inexperienced new majority — once again

Carroll Comstock is leaving after two full terms on the Rockbridge Board of Supervisors. (Photo by Shannon McGovern)

By Shannon McGovern

Four years ago, voters shook up the Rockbridge County Board of Supervisors by tossing out three of the five incumbents running for re-election. As a majority, the three newcomers were full of energy and new ideas but lacked experience.  To minimize the risk of a green majority taking over in the future, the board instituted staggered terms – two seats would be up for election in 2009, and three seats two years later.

This year, no incumbent is running for re-election, so the board could see history repeat itself. The three open district seats – South River, Buffalo and Natural Bridge – will create a new majority with no prior board experience.  The other two members, Rusty Ford, the representative for Kerrs Creek district, and Buster Lewis, the representative for Walkers Creek district, were both re-elected two years ago. All terms are for four years.

Only one candidate is on the Nov. 8 ballot for Natural Bridge – David W. Hinty Jr.  Two candidates are competing from the Buffalo district – Janet M. Mogensen and John Marshall Higgins – and three from South River – Ronnie R. Campbell, Eric W. Sheffield and Gene Tilles.

Retiring supervisors say serving on the board isn’t as easy as it sounds. They say it takes about two years to learn how the board functions and to master the skills that a supervisor needs.

Hunt Riegel, the representative for the Natural Bridge district, is one of the supervisors who is not seeking re-election. He returned to Rockbridge County in retirement, planning to spend his days woodworking or maintaining his rural property that looks out over the James River toward the Blue Ridge Mountains.

But this was not to be. In 2007 the county began to experience sudden growth that strained county infrastructure, created water problems and threatened the rustic landscapes.  Riegel said he joined a committee of residents who wanted more from the board because they believed the supervisors weren’t managing the growth.

After a series of unsuccessful efforts to recruit a candidate to run against the district’s long-time representative, Maynard Reynolds, the committee turned to Riegel.

Up against the 34-year incumbent, Riegel didn’t think he stood a chance.

“Then the surprise came on election day,” said Riegel.  “I won.”

With only his background as an educator, Riegel spent his first years on the board playing catch-up.  After a two-day formal training session with the Virginia Association of Counties, Riegel said he studied up on the history of pending issues, pored over the minutes from previous meetings and deferred to the wisdom of the more experienced board members.

“It took about two years, I’d say, to really get solid,” Riegel said.  “There’s no real roadmap to learning how to do all this.”

Another retiring board member, Carroll Comstock, has served two full terms.  He said that constant changes in the issues, the people involved and the regulations imposed keep him on his toes.

“In the eight years I’ve been here I am still learning on a regular basis,” said Comstock.

In recent years the board has dealt with complex and sensitive issues, including managing solid waste and the implementation of a new fiber optic broadband network throughout the county.

While Lexington and Buena Vista opted to hire a private contractor for their solid waste management, the county decided to handle its own waste with a goal of using the gases and byproducts from the landfill for alternative energy.  The existing landfill will close in December 2012.  A new transfer station is under construction at the site where waste will be collected for transport to a larger landfill 100 miles away.

The final vote on the landfill issue was 3 to 2, with dissenters Lewis and Riegel preferring to turn over waste management to the same private contractor hired by Lexington and Buena Vista.

“I’ve worked very hard to get a different result, and I haven’t succeeded,” said Lewis.  “That’s kind of difficult to take, but that’s life.”

Comstock said the last time a new majority came in, it insisted on taking a second look at the waste management issue and returned to square one on the plan designed by the old board.

“If we don’t have it locked in, the incoming board could turn everything around 180 degrees and start from scratch on some issues,” said Comstock.

That’s what happens, he said, “when a majority of new members come in that thinks the old board, for lack of a better word, stunk.”