Just two weeks into Sean Connaughton's first term, Prince William supervisors appear to be sending the new chairman a clear message: Forming a coalition won't be easy.
Tensions between Connaughton and several supervisors exploded into public view at the board's meeting Tuesday, as a seemingly routine but symbolic appointment to a regional planning organization turned sticky. The Republican chairman lost his bid for the post and found himself with the support of just two of the eight members of the Board of County Supervisors.
The flap underscores the hurdles the Connaughton could face in pushing the bold agenda for change that swept him into office in November, defeating veteran Chairman Kathleen K. Seefeldt (D).
Connaughton accused Seefeldt of presiding over two decades of sprawl in Prince William and pledged to do more to address the effects of growth. But Seefeldt also presided over an intensely loyal board, some members of which are suspicious of the young political novice.
Last week's flap concerned the board's representative to the transportation arm of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, a prominent regional planning group. The Transportation Planning Board, made up of about 20 delegates from local jurisdictions in Virginia, Maryland and the District, helps decide which road and mass transit projects get federal and state funding.
Prince William's representative had for years been Seefeldt, who is well-known in regional planning circles. Connaughton--who tried to delay action on the appointment--assumed the post was his but had the support of just two board members. Five supervisors had other ideas and voted instead to appoint Supervisor Hilda M. Barg (D-Woodbridge) to the transportation group. Connaughton was named Barg's alternate.
Barg has for many years served as Seefeldt's alternate on another transportation planning board, the Virginia-based Transportation Coordinating Council. Supervisor Maureen S. Caddigan (R-Dumfries) was next in line to represent Prince William at the larger Council of Governments, but Caddigan said she would yield her seat to Barg.
Barg's supporters said she earned the appointment because of her experience. But Supervisors Loring B. "Ben" Thompson (R-Brenstville) and Ruth T. Griggs (R-Occoquan) said the board chairman stood the best chance of fighting for Prince William's needs.
"What message are we sending if we aren't sending our board chairman as our representative?" Thompson said during a lengthy and tense public debate on the appointment.
Barg said later that she did not know Connaughton sought the post.
"I was set up for a fall, and I didn't like it," she said.
She then called the flap Connaughton's "first big lesson" in communication with the board. "I attribute this all to inexperience," she said.
Connaughton said that he spoke to Barg after the meeting and that both agreed there were no hard feelings. "We'll work together as a team for Prince William County," he said.
But it's clear that might not happen right away.
"I didn't know he had a problem with [Barg's appointment]," said Supervisor Mary K. Hill (R-Coles), who was miffed by Connaughton's recent move to hire her aide, Jane Beyer, as his assistant. "If there's anything he needs to do, it's build consensus, to communicate with us. It doesn't serve the interests of the county when we start getting divisive."