Fairfax Race Stirs Power Debate
Sunday, September 16, 2007
When Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Gerald E. Connolly (D) and Republican challenger Gary H. Baise meet in Tysons Corner for their first major debate on Tuesday afternoon, they are likely to sound like candidates for a job with real power.
Viewed through the prism of their campaign Web sites, they are men of action and vision. Connolly, the incumbent seeking a second term on Nov. 6, "led the fight" for a rail to Tysons and Dulles International Airport. Baise, a Republican, served on state air, water and solid waste boards, "providing leadership in protecting the Old Dominion's environment."
Lost in the rhetoric is the reality that, unlike chief elected officials in the District and Montgomery and Prince George's counties, Fairfax's head of government is largely a ceremonial figure.
Although he is the sole member of the Board of Supervisors elected countywide, Connolly has no more power by law than his nine colleagues who represent geographical districts. The supervisors' seats are also up for reelection. Together, Connolly and the board set policy while day-to-day operations of government are managed by their appointee, County Executive Anthony H. Griffin. Connolly and Baise say the system is sound. "When somebody shows me it's broken, we'll fix it," Connolly said.
Yet there is a persistent minority view that Fairfax has grown too large and complex to be without an elected chief executive. If it were a city, advocates argue, its 1 million residents would make it the nation's 10th-largest, just ahead of San Jose. "This is the leader of a county more populous than several states," said George Mason University political scientist Mark Rozell, referring to Wyoming, Vermont, North and South Dakota, Alaska, Delaware and Montana. "It just doesn't make sense."
Accountability in Fairfax is spread widely. Supervisors wield considerable influence within their districts, especially over development matters. The chairman functions as the board's chief spokesman and can use his prominence and powers of persuasion, as Connolly has, to set broad policy objectives. The county executive proposes the annual budget, awards contracts and hires nearly all department directors.
For residents, the diffusion of power can create uncertainty about where to go with a problem. When complaints about overcrowding and other neighborhood code violations started to grow in the past year, some residents expressed confusion about who could best handle the matter: the chairman, their supervisor, zoning inspectors, the county executive?
Critics of the system say the buck needs to stop with someone who answers to voters. They say the system vests too much power in a staff that is unelected and unaccountable to the public.
"We're much too big a county for a bunch of professional people to put together budget priorities," said former board chairman Audrey Moore (D), who held the job from 1988 to 1992. "You need the elected perspective and the countywide perspective."
Supervisor T. Dana Kauffman (D-Lee) said Griffin and his staff are comfortable with technical or personnel issues but lack a street-level feel for problems that are brewing. "Fairfax has technically been an urban county for decades, but we've tried to run it with a suburban mindset and with suburban approaches," said Kauffman, who is not seeking reelection.
One case in point, he said, is neighborhood code enforcement. For at least three years, Kauffman said, he and others have been describing widespread frustration among constituents about tepid county enforcement efforts, without results. It took a virtual uprising at a Springfield community meeting this spring to get the attention of Connolly and the staff. Formation of a Code Enforcement Strike Team soon followed.
"Once you become as large and respected as Fairfax County has become, the inherent danger is to think that if it's a good idea you'd have already thought of it," he said.