Like his father and grandfather before him, Vernon Ford came naturally to public service, starting his career in Round Hill, Va., as a deputyto the Loundoun County treasurer and a principal who doubled as a teacher at a small elementary school.
It was a career that eventually took him to the highest appointed post in Arlington County government -- the job of county manager, a position he held for the last five of his 22 years with the county. But his years in public service ended abruptly Oct. 1 when he was fired by the County Board.
The Republican majority on the board, which in August had announced its plan to fire him, overruled the other two members, a Democrat and an independent, who opposed the ouster and accused their colleagues of "backroom politics."
Last week, nearly five months after the announcement, Ford agreed to talk about the issue, something he had refused to do while he was negotiating his pension with the county, and to reflect on his years in office.
The 51-year-old Ford, who earned $59,000 a year as county manager, said he plans to stay in Arlington and work in the private sector. "What that's going to be is still open at this point," he said.
Ford said he views his dismissal as a "political act" by the board's three Republicans, and he criticized what he called the "irregular" way in which it was handled. When board chairman Stephen H. Detwiler told him Aug. 3 that the majority wanted him to resign, "(Detwiler) said he didn't like my style," Ford recalled. "I've had the same style for a long time. It's part of your personality, and I'm not about to change.
"I think (the way the firing was handled) says a lot more about the board's management style than it does about mine. . . . I've heard from hundreds of people, and I'm grateful for their support. There seems to be some feeling of outrage that I've been treated as I have. . . . If the manager is treated the way I've been treated, what does that say for the board and the way they would treat another employe?"
Ford complained that he was not properly notified of his dismissal, which the board voted on while he was on vacation in China. He said he was also very upset that some of his supporters were not permitted to speak on his behalf at a recent County Board meeting.
His supporters, mostly neighbors and fellow church members, wanted the board's majority to reconsider the pension Ford had been granted because of his 22-year tenure with the county.
Ford had asked for a $22,000 pension, the amount he would have received if he had retired at the normal county retirement age of 60. But the board majority decided to impose an early retirment penalty and granted Ford only a $13,000 annual pension.
Because of his problems, Ford said, he would favor changing the terms under which the county manager is hired. The manager, who is responsible for the day-to-day operations of the county government and for drawing up the county's proposed budget, serves at the pleasure of the County Board, which means the board can, at any point, fire a manager with whom its members are unhappy.
"I think the manager ought to have the option to have a contract," Ford said. "That's the place to spell out severance and whatever else the future manager and board want to agree on."
Such a change would require enabling legislation from the state legislature. So would another proposal Ford thinks would streamline the county government: creating a department of finance.
The manager controls the purchasing department and the budget and accounting department, among others, but he does not have total and immediate access to information on assessments and revenue collections. Those divisions are run separately by the treasurer and commissioner of revenue, both elected officials who do not answer to the county manager.
"The board expects budgets to be balanced, bills to be paid and revenue estimates to be accurate," Ford said. And although there is cooperation from those departments, he said, "You can ask for information, but you don't have the same access to it as if they were run by somebody who was responsible to the manager." Ford would merge the major functions of the two departments into one under the manager as other local jurisdictions have done.
The County Board has asked the Arlington delegation to the General Assembly, which opens next month, to back a series of changes affecting the structure of the county government. They include giving the board the power to appoint the county attorney, which the manager now does, and giving the board more influence in the selection of department heads now appointed by the manager.
Ford is against the proposals, saying the manager must have confidence in those with whom he works closely, and the employes need to be insulated from the ever-changing political power structure of the board.
The shifting control of the board can make the manager's job more difficult, particularly if there is no unity among the members of the majority party in control, Ford said. During his more than two decades in the county manager's office, Ford worked for boards dominated by both major parties.
"You can have a number of occasions when the chairman tries to be the leader and his teammates don't want to follow," he said. "There is not always a clear majority position, (so) it's hard sometimes to perceive or identify what the policy is."
Because of changing political majorities, the county administration has provided the continuity in Arlington government, particularly since the county manager form of government was adopted by the county more than 50 years ago, Ford said.
"I'm proud of the continued reputation for excellence in management in Arlington," he added. "It's not something I created, but I believe I have contributed to its continuation. I'm proud of the recognition we have gotten from the financial community, the business community and the professional community."
While he was county manager, Ford pointed out, Arlington won its long-sought AAA bond rating, awards from the International City Managers Association and the continued support of the business community, as evidenced by economic development in the county.
"I think economic development has been going along very well," he said, citing as a bench mark the 5 million square feet of office space constructed during his five years as manager. Acknowledging that some citizens object to the high-rise developments, Ford said there would inevitably be controversy. But he praised the county for encouraging redevelopment by the private business sector, terming it a "rational way" to respond to the increasing demand for property around Metro stations.
Calling his former staff a "talented and productive work force," Ford said he is concerned that they get treated and paid fairly. He said he thinks they are undercompensated in comparison with teachers.
Ford said he is also "concerned about politicizing the administration, and I'm even more concerned about (continuing) open government."
Noting that some of his supporters were not allowed to speak at a recent County Board meeting, Ford said, "If we have an open government, there's an opportunity for people to speak out on fair treatment and how political things are getting."
By politicizing the administration, Ford said, he meant that "most people agree that my dismissal was a political act. What comes next? . . . There are a lot of uncomfortable people over at the courthouse (the county government seat) waiting for the other shoe to drop."