For as long as a lot of officials can remember, a Stafford County sheriff's deputy has sat in the back of the room at county supervisors' meetings to make sure spectators don't get out of line.
Nowadays, however, it's not the spectators the deputies are worried about; it's the board members.
"There are times that it has come close to" fisticuffs, said Lt. Curtis Correll of the sheriff's department. "It has gotten pretty hot. And it seems to be accelerating lately, what with the budget and some of these other things."
Officials say the flare-ups are a symptom of changing times. Until recently, Stafford County, which is 50 miles southwest of Washington, was a predominantly rural jurisdiction. Today it is on the verge of becoming a suburban bedroom community--just as Prince William County did 10 years ago, and Fairfax County did earlier--as new workers search for cheaper housing than is available closer to the capital.
The rapid growth, coupled with citizen demands for more services and a paucity of tax dollars, has put tremendous pressure on county board members who have differing opinions on how to resolve the problems, county officials said.
Exacerbating the situation, they said, is the fact that this is an election year for three of the board's six members.
A dispute between board members G.W. Embrey and Charles Wandrick recently carried over into a corridor while a board meeting was in a brief recess. They were heard by everyone as they left the chambers and walked into the hall.
"Don't you threaten me," Wandrick told Embrey.
"Well, we'll just meet up there on the road and settle this," Embrey replied.
"I'm warning you, G.W., I'll use that deputy if you don't watch it," Wandrick said as he walked away.
Wandrick, who is the board's chairman and represents the Griffis-Widewater District, and Embrey, supervisor from the Rock Hill District, both face reelection in the fall. The term of George Washington District Supervisor Alvin Y. Bandy also expires this year.
Eight times during voting at seven recent meetings, Bandy and Embrey joined with Hartwood District Supervisor E. Lloyd Chittum to create a tie. Each time the deadlock had to be broken by John Nere, an at-large supervisor who functions as the board's tie breaker.
Nere's role as a tie breaker is a relic of county government that most Northern Virginia jurisdictions abolished years ago by adding a seventh supervisor.
"I used to sit around and guess how they would vote," Nere said. "Lately, I have not had to guess: It has ended in the tie. The problem is that they don't understand or don't want to understand" each other's positions.
"Some of these things have to be addressed. It's not a deliberate thing, but some of them honestly feel that some of the new ideas aren't good for the county," Nere said.
County Administrator Richard Bain has introduced most of the new ideas, Nere said. "You can see the criticism of him. It's seen publicly, at the meetings."
While Nere does not agree with Bain on every proposal that Bain brings before the supervisors, he said he understands why Bain wants things changed, so he goes along with most of his requests.
Other board members, he said, do not always understand the administrative techniques Bain wants and are quick to oppose them.
"I'm not saying that to understand is to agree. I don't mind if you and I disagree. I just think you should know what you're talking about first," Nere said.
Bain said the most important idea for the board to accept is this: "You have to spend money to save money." That's why he propsed a 1984 budget that provided for a 16 percent increase in the property tax rate at a time when taxpayers already have been hit with a 30 percent jump in the assessed value of their properties. The county's last assessment was four years ago.
"I'm an agent of change, and I was hired for that reason," Bain said. "The people on the board knew there had to be change. The financial condition of the county was deplorable."
Bain said Stafford has had to spend $3.2 million more than it anticipated so far this year, a situation Bain likens to "not having the money in our checking account for emergencies."
To improve the financial picture, Bain has said he wants to implement financial management procedures suggested by the accounting firm of Arthur Andersen & Co. Bain said part of the reason some supervisors and other county officials oppose the procedures is that they fear they will lose some of their own power.
Embrey has another view. "Oh, I'm not against all the new building," he said. "I just think they other county supervisors and Bain are spending too much money. There's people that just can't afford all this spending."
A major change suggested by the accounting firm would centralize accounting and purchasing functions. The county has three departments performing the same accounting job and lacks a purchasing department.
"They are apprehensive about losing their authority," Bain said. "They don't like change. People resist change. But like that saying about death and taxes, change is another thing that's certain."
Despite resistance, Bain said, he was able to convince the board to abolish an all-powerful "personnel committee" that had been appointed by the supervisors and was charged with doing all the county's hiring and firing.
"Now people are hired for their expertise and not for who they know," he said.
Those who oppose Bain's policies would like to get rid of him and they let him know how they feel. Bain said he knows he is treading on thin ice.
"I'm prepared to be discharged at every meeting," he said. "I can't be effective unless I am prepared to be discharged."
But even if he is fired, there's nothing the county can do to stop the growth, Bain said.
"Stafford in the last 20 years has had a tremendous residential growth, and those who have benefited from it will promote those candidates that will best protect the program of rapid commercial development," he said. "That will be the issue in the fall election."