On the afternoon of June 2, while a truck filled with black powder sat threatening to explode in the Springfield interchange and angry commuters stewed in their cars, Fairfax County Executive Robert J. O'Neill Jr. was heading south on Interstate 95, golf clubs in the back of his county-owned Ford Explorer, on his way to a local-government conference in Chapel Hill, N.C.
The decision to leave Fairfax for the conference in the middle of one of the most dramatic emergencies the county has experienced in years has drawn criticism from some Republicans and Democrats on the Board of Supervisors, to whom O'Neill reports.
The county also yesterday issued O'Neill a check for about $2,000 to replace his golf clubs--a set of Callaway woods including a Big Bertha driver, which can retail for up to $400. The clubs were stolen from the Explorer while it sat in the parking lot at the Sheraton Hotel in Chapel Hill. The county also paid about $2,000 for the stolen golf clubs of a friend of O'Neill's who drove down with him to the conference.
Some officials and others said that the incident raises questions about O'Neill's judgment.
"There is a perception problem. In retrospect, it would have been better judgment for Bob to have stayed in Fairfax County," said Supervisor Gerald E. Connolly (D-Providence), a strong supporter of O'Neill's. "Everyone is entitled to one lapse in judgment."
Supervisor Elaine N. McConnell, a Republican who represents the Springfield area, said she did not know that O'Neill had gone to the conference and was not in the county during the evening of June 2.
"I would like to have known," she said curtly yesterday.
O'Neill yesterday said the important decisions about what to do with the overturned truck had already been made by the time he left for Chapel Hill about 3:30 p.m.
"I had confidence in the incident commanders who were there," he said. "The decision to close the interchange and I-95 for the afternoon was cleared with me before I left. I was reachable the entire time."
O'Neill said asking the county to replace the stolen clubs was proper, too. If he had been in a personal car, he would have been covered by his own auto insurance, he said.
"Nobody has informed me that I needed some other insurance on the car," he said.
O'Neill and William H. Hansell Jr., executive director of the International City/County Management Association, were heading to a meeting of local-government groups on the issue of technology.
The two left 24 hours before registration for the conference. By 3:30 p.m. on June 2, as they drove south, crews had just opened the hatch on the explosive-filled truck, and officials were still warning of danger because of the possibility of lightning strikes. The scene was cleared and the interchange reopened about 9 p.m.
Supervisor T. Dana Kauffman (D-Lee), who spent the day at the scene of the incident, defended O'Neill's decision to leave.
"If any elected official was to be upset with Bob, it would be yours truly, and I was not at all upset," Kauffman said, adding that he does disapprove of reimbursing O'Neill for the golf clubs. The clubs were stolen from the Explorer between 10 p.m. on June 2 and 8:30 a.m. on June 3, according to Chapel Hill police. A cellular telephone was also taken.
"If it was a laptop, I'd say no problem," Kauffman said. "Golf clubs, I have a problem. I'm sorry, but I don't think we should be covering them."
County officials say O'Neill and the county attorney are the only county employees who can be reimbursed for the theft of personal articles from county cars, which they drive exclusively.
O'Neill argues that his employment contract gives him exclusive use of the Explorer and makes the county responsible for taking care of insurance for it. He said yesterday that he has submitted a claim under his homeowners policy but that the insurance company has said it covers only items stolen from his home or an auto he personally owns.
William Bailey, the president of the Federation of Citizens Associations, an umbrella group for homeowners associations, agreed with Kauffman.
"Whether it's his own car or the county car, it should be his own insurance, not the county's insurance, that pays," Bailey said.