Prince William County Executive Bern Ewert, the headstrong manager whose relationship with supervisors has continued to sour over nearly three years, is in danger of losing his job, according to several board members.
The eight-member Board of County Supervisors met behind closed doors yesterday to discuss Ewert's future as Prince William's top manager. Some supervisors wanted to vote in that session on whether Ewert should continue in his job, but they couldn't get a majority to agree to take the vote, according to two sources.
Officials said that effectively means that action on Ewert's status will wait until next year, after chairman-elect Sean Connaughton (R) takes office in January.
Ewert's $125,000-a-year job has been on the line for months as a power struggle has intensified between him and the board over his agenda for the county. Earlier this year, supervisors put any discussion of Ewert's tenure on hold until after the election.
Now that two weeks have passed since the Nov. 2 election--when Connaughton routed veteran board Chairman Kathleen K. Seefeldt (D)--talk about the executive's future has intensified.
Three supervisors, some speaking privately, said this week they think Ewert should go. One supervisor said she was undecided, and another has expressed support for Ewert. Of the remaining supervisors, two wouldn't comment and another didn't return a telephone call.
"There has been frustration for some time," said Supervisor Edgar S. Wilbourn (R-Gainesville), one of Ewert's strongest critics. "It's no surprise to Bern Ewert there are problems. There's one person that had every opportunity to correct the situation and make it better, and that was Bern himself."
Ewert declined to comment yesterday. Seefeldt, who will serve as chairman until the end of the year, also declined to comment.
Connaughton said that although he's aware "there is some dissatisfaction at the board with regard to Ewert's performance, I would prefer that no action be taken against him until I have an opportunity to evaluate for myself what his future is with the county."
Sentiment for letting Ewert go has grown among the supervisors just as many of the growth-control policies he has embraced as manager of this fast-growing county have proven popular with residents. Voters booted Seefeldt from office after 23 years, largely because she failed to put the brakes on development.
In a county struggling with its image as a land of endless subdivisions and strip malls, Ewert, 57, has launched a series of bold proposals aimed at slowing Prince William's rapid residential growth while trying to spur some types of commercial development.
"He's had some great ideas," Supervisor Hilda M. Barg (D-Woodbridge) said of Ewert, noting that she was "not committed" to either keeping the county executive or letting him go. "When you look at what's come to Prince William County on his watch, it's a lot."
A veteran manager of cities including Roanoke and Galveston, Tex., Ewert proposed a plan to set aside Prince William's western end as a rural enclave, to ask for more money from developers and to eliminate about 40,000 potential houses from county planning maps. At first the sweeping blueprint for growth management got a skeptical greeting from supervisors. But 15 months ago it was approved by the board, with resounding support from residents.
The county executive also grabbed attention with plans to develop Prince William's 20-mile Potomac River shoreline and helped to lure a mixed-use marina and waterfront retail district under construction at the mouth of the Occoquan River.
Ewert's efforts to bring commercial development to Prince William have borne fruit. America Online Inc. is building a $550 million data center outside Manassas, and a handful of smaller high-tech firms are arriving. Covad Communication Inc., an Internet-access company, announced yesterday it will open a major data center just outside Manassas, bringing about 1,000 jobs.
But at almost every step of the way, supervisors have bristled as the county executive they appointed charged ahead with many of his ideas without consulting them. Several haven't liked his blunt, ambitious style. While activists praised his leadership on the slow-growth plan, he announced it on his own, leaving the county's elected officials scrambling to take credit for it.
"There was too much cowboying going on," Wilbourn said.
Ewert faced similar criticism over the way he proposed a bond referendum to build a scenic waterfront parkway to link the towns of Occoquan and Quantico without consulting the board beforehand. The plan self-destructed in 1998 after he spent more than a year campaigning for it.
Board members say they were especially miffed last fall when a minor personnel matter became a major public embarrassment. The county's Public Works Department had fired a probationary employee, Wally Jabbs, a construction company owner from Occoquan who had been hired to dispense building permits from the front desk.
Jabbs's family and friends then launched a campaign on his behalf at board meetings, publicly accusing county officials of not giving an adequate explanation for his dismissal.
Embarrassed supervisors, who said they were in the dark about the matter, eventually directed Ewert to provide Jabbs with the information he sought, and the controversy simmered down.
"Bern should have said to us beforehand, 'This is why we let him go,' but that never happened," said one supervisor, who asked not to be identified. "He could have nipped it in the bud."
Ewert's struggles with the board have cost him dearly. The board declined to give him an annual raise in September 1998, voting to only reimburse him $2,200 to cover the cost of private disability insurance.
The board awarded him a 4 percent raise in April on the condition that he attend a management class to improve his communication skills with supervisors and county staff. His next salary review is scheduled for March.
If Ewert were dismissed, his contract requires that he receive severance pay equal to three months' salary, plus a month for each year he has served the county.