For at least three years, the five supervisors of this Allegheny Mountain county have been openly feuding over the competence of the county administrator, a former tax assessor and gas station owner.
As county residents looked on with a mixture of indifference and embarrassment, the board - which includes two retired railroad workers, a union president, a retired dairy farmer and an insurance salesman - haggled over such issues as whether county administrator Nelson Thomas should have an eight-track tape player in his county-owned car.
But when a grand jury decided in June to look into the operation of the county, including charges that funds had been improperly spent and that a new hospital had been inadequately planned for, it was a shock to most onlookers.
The local newspaper, the Covington Virginian, started to blast three of the supervisors even before the grand jury investigation. One editorial labeled them the "bungling trio," and another described them as "still living in the 1930s."
"We haven't been getting too good publicity out of the Covington Virginian," said one of the trio, W. G. Van Lear, to a Roanoke reporter.
As Supervisors Clarence Farmer and Harry Walton see it, the dispute is over management philosophy. As Thomas and the three other supervisors see it, it's nothing but "politics and witch-hunting," as Thomas put it.
Whatever it is, the blunt language and charges traded seem characteristic of these mountain folk, descendants (spirtually if not genealogically) of early settler "Mad" Ann Bailey and Richard F. Beirne, great-grandfather of Horton Bierne, the current Covington Virginian editor and reputedly fighter of the last duel in Virginia.
Covington is a place where there are 60 churches for 30,000 residents, and where the supermarket is open 24 hours a day to service the shift workers at the local plants, that make "bleached board," polyprophylene fiber along with an acrid ordor.
A few years ago a man was arrested here for selling a head of lettuce on Sunday. There are no bars, but quite a few restaurants. A few weeks ago in Clifton Forge, a restaurant owner pulled out his gun and fired into the wall to discourage some unruly customers; almost all of the callers to a local talk show said he did the right thing. Most of the callers said they would have used their guns, too.
Last spring, when Democrats across the state were choosing delegates to their convention, Alleghany County elected two separate groups at two separate meetings and asked the state central committee to choose between the two warring factions.
The real breaking point in the current troubles had to do with the Alleghany Regional Hospital. Planned since 1976, the community raised $1.5 million in a very successful fund drive, believing that plans to expand the sewage treatment system were well under way. But this June, the engineer hired to design the expansion revealed that it may not be ready when the hospital is - a possiblility that could delay the hospital opening.
"The thing which the hospital really blew the lid off," said one leading citizen.
Since then, the alliances and feuds have become more pronounced. Van Lear, a former officer of a railroad workers union, has refused to appear in the Covington-Clifton Forge Labor Day Parade organized this year by his fellow supervisor Clarence Farmer, president of Local 675 of the United Paperworkers International and one of the two-man board minority.
"He told me he wouldn't have anything to do with anything I was associated with," said Farmer, with a shrug.
The grand jury - which includes a former supervisor, one of the largest landowners in the county (the U.S. government is the largest if you include George Washington National Park), the owner of a local men's store, a school board member and the wife of a former supervisor - surprised everyone when, in response to a routine question from the judge, they said they wanted to be emphasized as a special grand jury to look into "the operation of Alleghany County."
"They said it was because of all the publicity and street talk," said clerk of the court Robert Hubbard, who is one of those feuding with Van Lear.
"They wrote out this statement in their own handwriting. They wouldn't even hand it to me, but gave it straight to the judge.
"We were all at a loss. There were a lot of stunned faces because nobody knew what was going on. We looked up in the law books and found that when a grand jury asks for a special grand jury they become it."
The special grand jury met for the first time on July 18 and could meet for many more months. They have asked that the names of the witnesses they subpoena be kept secret, but anyone can sit on the steps of the courthouse and see who is going in.
"In Fairfax or Washington D.C., it wouldn't make any difference," Hubbard said. "But here everybody would know and ask you 'what happened? what they ask you?'"
The special grand jury has been a filing cabinet in the courthouse vault. Only they possess the keys.
Meanwhile, a group of about 25 taxpayers has filed eight "freeholder petitions" under an obscure section of the Virginia code that allows them to try to stomp "improper" payments by the county board. They claim as much as $230,000 has been misspent.
The commonwealth's attorney, Harold St. Clair, was required to file six of these petitions that met basic standards as lawsuits for the state.
Since Hubbard is clerk of the board as well as clerk of the court, thus, these suits created the peculiar situation of Hubbard having to record a suit and then be served with it by the sheriff.
Meanwhile, Farmer and fellow supervisor Harry Walton, a retired dairy farmer and collector of rare books, say administrator Thomas is "unqualified" and "incompetent."
"When he turned in the ($6.5 million) county budget it was the biggest mess I ever saw," said Farmer.
In his letter applying for the job 10 years ago, Thomas cited as his qualifications his experience in real estate and engineering and as a tax assessor.
His resume notes, "in 1939 I bought the Floyd (County) Gulf Station, which I sold later in the year. I then moved to Roanoke where I completed a course in Ballard's Welding School. While I worked for Garst Brothers Dairy in Roanoke, I simultaneously bought and sold automobiles in 1941 I entered the Martin O'Brian School of Aviation, studied meteorology and navigation, and soloed in October, 1942 . . ."
He goes on to list his experience as a garage and used car business owner, a beef cattle farmer, and surveyor, and notes that he holds certificates proving he has taken college level courses in engineering.
"You can't be a county administrator without rubbing somebody's bristles wrong," Thomas said, "I think I've done a good job."
Supervisor Waters says Thomas is qualified and competent. "He's a family man," said Waters, "He's got a son who's a practicing attorney in Falls Church. And he goes to church regularly."
Van Lear, another Thomas supporter, said, "He has a good knowledge of field work that has to do with equipment and men, pipelines and such of this nature. He has a good feel for obtaining state and federal grants to relieve the tax burden."
Actually, one of the complaints is that Thomas failed to pursue about $40,000 in grant reimbursements for a year and half, and that he failed to properly file for cost increases on a sewer project.
Thomas said that if the hospital fails to open as scheduled it is because he was not told of its location until last summer when application was for the building permit.
"They jumped the gun on us," he said, "The first thing I knew was when they started to build the hospital."
Hospital administrator Royce Harrell said that Thomas knew where the hospital would be located by Feb. 15, 1977, when the board passed a resolution agreeing to supply the hospital with adequate sewerage. An option to purchase the land had been signed a week before.
"By late spring we knew they hadn't started construction of the plant expansion," Harrell said. "There were continuous delays in getting grants, because they couldn't get the plans approved by EPA until the State Water Control Board approved them, and that required revision of an areawide plan."
Once, when Farmer asked for an itemized bill for some engineering work, Thomas said he would "scratch it up," according to minutes of the board meeting. When Hubbard and St. Clair held up payment of the same check, people listening to the meeting on a local radio station were treated to one of the not infrequent clashes between the Van Lear-led majority and the Farmer-Walton minority. "I don't approve of it! I don't expect to put up with it!" Van Lear shouted.
"We see it as a basic difference in management philosophy," said Walton. "We think there's a lot of waste, inefficiency, and incompetence that is wasting taxpayer's money." One example he and Farmer cited of their differences with the board majority is their preference for open meetings.
"Once Van Lear wanted to have an executive (closed) session, and I objected but was outvoted, so I went," Farmer said. "It turned out he wanted to talk about some telephone calls some of the girls in the office had been making and paying for by putting money in a kitty. This is the sort of thing I think should be han-Freedom of Information Act was died by an administrator, not take up board time."
Recently an effort to hold a closed session in violation of the state's thwarted when a Roanoke reporter objected and forced Commonwealth's Attorney St. Clair to rule the meeting would be illegal.
"I deny we've done anything illegal or improper," said Van Lear in response to the various charges. "If we're in such poor management why did the Roanoke Times rate us among the best in the area?" He was referring to an article comparing tax rates.
In June, the State Water Control Board found that county's sewage treatment plant had violated the "effluent limits" in 16 of the previous 17 months, and ordered a reversal by September under threat of legal action by the state. Thomas supervises the administration of the sewage treatment plant.
The county seems to be complying with the state order, said State Water Control Board regional inspector Timothy P. Mallan.
"The problem is, they don't have the expertise to run these systems," Mallan said. "I've told them a number of times they should get outside help, but after awhile I felt I was running against a brick wall . . . the basic problem was a lack of maintenance. Equipment would break down and they wouldn't repair it, they just didn't pay enough attention to it."
Other officials are afraid the grand jury investigation and attendant publicity will be bad for Covington and the county. "People used to think of us as that smelly town between Roanoke and the Homestead," said one official. "Now they've cleaned up the (paper plant) pollution a lot and it's really a pleasant little town."
A settled strip one mile wide and 25 miles long through the middle of the county is the retail and entertainment center for five surrounding counties.
The main occupation, now that the C & O Railroad is not as important as it once was, is working for the Westvaco Paper Plant, or the Hercules polypropylene fiber plant.
Another occupation is farming. When asked what the main crops were, one county official said, "Raising a ruckus, that's what."