SHOULD an elected member of the Spotsylvania County Board of Supervisors be allowed to take a job as a county employee? Or vice versa, should a county employee be allowed to run for a seat on the county board?
That’s the question recently raised when first-term Berkeley Supervisor Kevin Marshall left his previous job as a county firefighter to take a high-ranking position in the county’s Department of Economic Development where, as an elected supervisor, he will technically be his new boss’ boss. And Livingston Supervisor Greg Benton, who is not running for reelection, was also a county employee when he was elected to the board four years ago.
Neither Marshall nor Benton violated any rules. Voters in their districts knew they were electing supervisors who were already on the county payroll. But with Spotsylvania expanding beyond its rural roots, the board is now tentatively considering outlawing such dual roles in the future. And it should. Keeping a professional distance between county supervisors and county employees will help ensure that taxpayers are adequately represented.
The main problem with having an elected board member also working for the county as an employee is a perceived conflict of interest that no amount of canned disclosure statements can eliminate. As elected public officials, supervisors’ top concern should be the taxpaying public. They are expected to make budgetary and policy decisions with the public’s interest as their top priority—even if that means occasionally saying “no” to demands from county employees in order to protect taxpayers.
Things can get complicated when an elected supervisor is also a county employee, and personally stands to benefit when the county board casts a vote: for example, when a part-time supervisor is asked to approve a county budget that directly affects the pay for that same supervisor’s full-time job.
But there’s also another potential conflict of interest that is more dangerous because it’s hidden. If one supervisor is allowed to wear two hats, which one takes precedence when there’s a conflict? Does the elected supervisor listen more intently to his/her own departmental supervisor or to a taxpayer who just happens to live in the same district? Is the supervisor more likely to approve a rezoning application if it means more money for pay raises and other benefits for county employees, even if affected residents strongly oppose it?
And what would happen if the majority of supervisors were also county employees? Who would be representing the public then?
Supervisor Marshall, who is now also a business development manager for Spotsylvania County, should be grandfathered in and allowed to continue in his dual roles. But the board should also pass an ordinance that makes it clear that in the future, you can be either a supervisor or a county employee, but not both at the same time.