Even by the standards of this boomtown county on Washington's southernmost commuting fringe, the Shootout at the Courthouse, as townsfolk call it, was a raucous affair.
When it was over, the Stafford County attorney had been fired. Supervisors on the County Board had accused one another of malfeasance. And two citizens groups that picketed and then packed the red brick courthouse to cheer and jeer were threatening to sue their elected leaders.
In Stafford, a county that has doubled in population from 20,000 to 40,000 in only one decade, political potshots have become a way of life.In the last two years, three of the county's highest officials have been fired, demoted or forced to resign. During that same period, the county has been in court almost continually with neighboring jurisdictions while its own records have been examined by investigators from the FBI, the Environmental Protection Agency, the federal Office of Revenue Sharing and the State Police.
"We're awfully close to being a laughingstock in Virginia," sighs Supervisor Charles Wandrick, 44, who was born and reared in a Stafford that he now can barely recognize. "It's embarrassing."
Wandrick was one of two supervisors on the six-member board who opposed the firing two weeks ago of County Attorney William Harris. Wandrick praised the 35-year-old Harris and his six-year tenure, then accused members of the board majority of firing him only because his legal opinions restricted their own power.
"Usually a person gets fired for not doing his job. Harris was fired for doing it too well," said Wandrick, who called the firing a "total disregard of the public trust" and warned his colleagues the firing constituted "malfeasance in office."
The board majority countered that Harris was fired because he had lost their confidence. That loss came just a month after the board approved a new one-year contract with Harris and a few weeks after they were told by Harris that two industrial building permits they had approved were illegal.
"The Board of Supervisors was elected by the citizens of this county, not Mr. Harris" says W. Hansford Abel, the 73-year-old supervisor who cast the decisive vote to fire Harris. Both building permits were for businesses in Abel's district. "I don't think we need any dictators to come along and tell us what to do."
The conflict in Stafford seems a textbook clash between development and zoning, and in many ways repeats the expansionist history of Fairfax and Prince William counties to the north. In the last decade Stafford, which straddles I-95 between Washington and Richmond, has been catapulted from a rural enclave of farms and pulp mills to a bedroom community with new shopping centers, schools and constituent demands.
That growth resulted in part because of the county's location in a rapidly developing land corridor and partly by invitation. Until last year, when federal investigators began roaming Stafford's courthouse looking for irregularities in county contracts, Stafford was very aggressive about selling itself to industry.
"The fundamental problem is we grew too fast," John A. Torrice Jr., chairman of the board of the Peoples' Bank of Stafford, said last year during another political shootout in Stafford that led to the demotion of County Administrator N. C. Sharp. "Now we're suffering the growing pains."
County roads, built during more rural times, have buckled under heavy traffic. Homeowners have complained about shoddy workmanship in new, rapidly constructed housing developments. The biggest complaint has been over water and sewer problems. The county is just now completing a $20 million water system to replace the wells and septic fields used by most private and commercial properties. Whole neighborhoods are suing the county over the fees they are being charged for that new system.
Although Stafford approved a county development plan in 1975, that plan only suggested that new construction be channeled around existing water and sewer lines. Even the most ardent supporters of development in Stafford concede that developers have not followed the suggestion.
"Sixty percent of our growth has been allowed to develop outside sanitary districts," complains Supervisor James Winkler, another first-term member. "Even when we do make a plan, we just turn around and ignore it."
Winkler, a logistics manager at Fort Belvoir in Fairfax County, blames the board for ignoring many of the zoning recommendations of its planning commission. He says old-style politics in Stafford are ill-suited for new, more suburban realities.
Citizen groups have echoed that theme in a spirited letter-writing campaign to local papers. In a recent letter to the Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star, Norma Redfern of Hartwood wrote: "It's hard to teach an old dog new tricks, but Stafford must now begin to comply with its ordinances regardless of whom it might affect." Another letter to the same paper called the Harris firing a "travesty to be added to the long list of misguided actions the board has recently taken," and concluded, "Stafford is not a mom-and-pop operation any more."
Al Hartkorn, a founder of the Committee for Public Trust in Stafford, said his committee is planning to file lawsuits against the board for firing Harris.
"It's not so much that we have anything against firing county attorneys," said Hartkorn from his Washington office where he is a project manager for an engineering firm. "But this one was performing very well. It's like the old Greek tale, you get rid of the bearer of bad news."
Two of the four board members who voted to fire Harris are farmers. One owns a gravel-trucking company and the other is a local merchant. The brunt of the blame for the firing has been borne by Abel, who had supported Harris until the attorney ruled against granting two building permits in his district.
"I think the Board of Supervisors of this county on the whole has done an outstanding job," argues Abel, who has served on the board for 30 years and refuses to apologize for his style of service. "When you look at all the industry we attracted and all the people who want to move here, we must be doing something right."
Other county officials say the upheaval is just part of public office in Stafford.
"I like to create order out of chaos," says Richard Bain, the county administrator hired to replace Sharp last year, and one of Harris' loyal allies. "I am prepared to be discharged at every meeting."