York County leaders must step up, outgoing county manager says

Bring culture up to modern times, outgoing county manager says

dworthington@heraldonline.comJanuary 11, 2013 

York County needs to move beyond its culture of a “sleepy rural county,” where power is kept in the hands of a few, and become a major player in the region, says Jim Baker, outgoing county manager.

“The culture needs to be brought up to modern times,” Baker said Friday, his last day as manager. If things don’t change, “we will be dismissed as the hicks from York County who don’t get their act together.”

Baker is leaving York County to become the manager of Chesapeake, Va. While he will make more money – his salary in Virginia is $205,000 compared to $170,000 in York County – he said issues such as the professionalism of the county council and its inability to make needed changes were bigger factors in his decision to leave.

“How can you ask your staff to be professional when their bosses are not professional?” Baker asked.

He specifically referred to council members who criticize county staffers during meetings. Back-and-forth attacks should not be tolerated by the council or the public, Baker said.

On Friday, council members Bump Roddey and Chad Williams, and the just-departed David Bowman, said Baker was on target with his comments. Roddey and Williams are the only Democrats on the seven-member council.

But Chairman Britt Blackwell said the county is making the strides Baker advocated, and that difficulties between the council and Baker were the result of a push to listen to residents and have a “more open, transparent council.”

Sometimes “things got too open,” Blackwell said. He said at times “there were a lot of strong heads bumping.”

“Baker is absolutely right,” Roddey said. “Over the last two years the council has been slow to pull the trigger on major changes, things that needed to be done.”

An example, Roddey said, are the efforts to build an agricultural center that could host a county fair as well as equestrian and agriculture events. The council has discussed the issue at length but has made no decision.

Blackwell said the agricultural center has been an issue for more than 10 years and hasn’t been built “because it’s a matter of priorities. It is not the highest priority.”

Higher priorities are improvements at Moss Justice Center and an office building in the eastern portion of the county, he said.

Roddey said there was also turmoil behind the scenes that contributed to Baker’s decision. Some council members – he did not specify who – would try to appease residents when Baker advocated doing things differently.

“Jim’s opinion carried a lot of weight,” Roddey said. “And his decisions put the county first, not a particular sector.”

Roddey said tension spilled over into council meetings. “It was like a circus and it showed at times,” he said.

Roddey agreed with Baker’s outlook, saying York County needed to do a better job of “recognizing it is a major player. Major players don’t sit back and wait. We should be setting the tone for others.”

Bowman, a Republican who did not seek re-election last year after serving one, two-year term, said the council “struggled mightily for 14 to 16 months” with its decorum at meetings. “It was terrible, embarrassing. It still is embarrassing,” he said.

Just last month, Councilman Curwood Chappell walked out during the middle of a meeting because of a dispute with Blackwell. Chappell on several occasions has compared county officials to Adolf Hitler.

Bowman said changes Baker advocated will come only if people pay more attention to elections. “We need to take elections and voting seriously,” he said, and to understand many of the political decisions are made well in advance of the November elections.

Williams said he understood Baker’s concerns. He said he talked with Baker and made efforts to keep him here.

Baker served as York County’s manager for 5 1/2 years. He said he was proud of fiscal accomplishments made during his tenure. Despite the recession, he said he left York County in better financial shape than what he inherited and that $75 million has been invested in improving county facilities.

Over the five years, Baker said he worked to improve relations between the staff and council. “I preached all along about how staff and council are partners. If one looks bad, all look bad. York County is professional, or it’s not.”

In the past two years, the council has acknowledged there were problems, and Blackwell has asked its members to improve the way they work together.

But Blackwell said some of the difficulties would have been addressed if Baker would have been more flexible and open in his communications and pushed for a “teamwork approach.”

Blackwell said people in government can’t “get a pat on the back or a kiss” all the time. There are times they need to “stand up and do better,” Blackwell said.

Baker said he has seen a “small rise” in the effort to have a more cosmopolitan outlook in the county. He said the change is inevitable because more people are moving to York County from other areas, where the changes have already been made.

“People must say the process is important to them,” Baker said. The bickering, free-for-all atmosphere must become unacceptable to the public and to the media, he said.

“Change won’t happen until the people are upset,” Baker said.

Don Worthington 803-329-4066

The Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service