Since taking over day-to-day operations in early 2018, Hill has startled and shaken up Virginia’s largest jurisdiction.
He addressed concerns about sexism and racism in the fire department by appointing the agency’s first African American chief and encouraging him to focus on equity. He canceled office leases and consolidated staff in what he described as a bloated $4 billion budget.
And he has told his elected bosses that Fairfax must rethink its vision for the future if it wants to remain Virginia’s chief economic engine, especially with Amazon building a new headquarters in neighboring Arlington that will transform the region. (Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
The county must be more nimble, he argues, and more responsive to and reflective of its increasingly diverse population. It must be a model of innovation, to draw more upwardly mobile residents, while also tending to aging infrastructure and the needs of a growing number of elderly and poor.
“I feel for them . . . they hired somebody from James City, but I’m really a New Yorker,” said Hill, 51, who grew up in northern New Jersey but most recently worked in sleepy James City County, Va. “I look at this like: ‘All right. That’s my competition. My competition is New York, not James City, so let’s roll.’ ”
Hill has earned high marks from the Board of Supervisors and civic leaders. But he has agitated some of the old guard by cutting perks and often rejecting the prim orderliness that once defined the county executive’s office.
Union leaders call him divisive. Even his supporters on the county board sometimes need to remind him who is in charge. Hill said he’s gone as far as telling residents who’ve chided him over the county’s tax rate that “if you don’t like it here, leave.”
“Fairfax has always had this ‘Pleasantville’ feel to it, and Bryan is different in that sense,” said Dave Lyons, a director at the Fairfax Workers Coalition union. “It’s taken a while for people to get used to his style, which is very upfront.”
The right way to do business
Hill, who earns an annual salary of $268,000, is the first African American county executive in Fairfax, population 1.1 million. Soon after he got the job — replacing a
40-year county veteran — comments posted in an online community forum called him “an affirmative action hire.” Other messages were blatantly racist, which Hill said he found both offensive and comical.
Inside his fifth-floor suite in the county government complex, he encountered a few veteran bureaucrats eager to show him “the way we do business.”
“I said: ‘I’m glad that’s the way you do business here, but is it the right way to do business?’ ” recalled Hill, a numbers geek who was credited with restoring James City County to fiscal stability. “If it is, then that’s how we’ll do business.”
With the board’s backing, Hill pushed out a well-liked fire chief tainted by his management of a sexual harassment controversy and replaced him with Chief John S. Butler, a former Marine who has created a women’s mentoring program and an “equity and inclusion council.” Union leaders call him fair-minded.
Hill also attacked government waste, including 36 separate “strategic plans” and $15 million per year to lease office space around the county while portions of the massive government center sat empty.
The county is moving operations in-house and developing an overarching strategic plan that will focus on nine priority areas. The plan will be framed by a “One Fairfax” initiative adopted in 2016 that requires racial and social equity to guide decisions on schools, public safety and even land use.
“I’m trying to get these people to understand: What the county did 30 years ago was great,” Hill said. “But what do you want to do in the next 30 years?”
On a recent evening, about 20 Springfield-area residents listened politely at a community center as Hill explained his vision for a Fairfax that is equitable as well as efficient.
“We’re a little dysfunctional,” Hill said. “And we’re changing that culture.”
Some in the crowd said they appreciate the challenge Hill faces in harnessing the competing demands of quiet suburban neighborhoods like theirs, expanding pockets of poverty and the increasing bustle of Tysons.
“Let the guy do his job,” said William Peabody of the Fairfax County Taxpayers Alliance, which advocates for fiscal restraint. “He’s under a lot of pressure.”
“It is critical that we make sure that we continue the stability that Fairfax County is known for,” Bulova said.
Pushback from unions
The budget meeting was cordial and long. Deep into it, a school board member noted that educators were getting $4 million less than what they wanted. Hill texted schools Superintendent Scott Brabrand from two seats away.
“Four million dollars?” Hill recalled typing into his smartphone. “You’ve got a $2.3 billion budget. Man, you should be able to fart that out.”
Brabrand looked at his phone askance. But the message was received, and the complaints from the school system stopped. The $2.26 billion allocation remained the same.
Before Hill’s arrival, such negotiations in Fairfax were more acrimonious, with school officials insisting they were being shortchanged. For the past two cycles, the system has pared down its requests, and the county and school boards met more frequently to go over the numbers.
Brabrand said he and Hill charted the course together, including teacher raises and money for more instructors and schools. Along the way, they became friends.
“In leadership, you’ve got to make sure you take the work seriously, but you don’t take yourself too seriously,” Brabrand said. “Bryan . . . wants to perform well. He wants the county to perform well. But he wants to make it enjoyable.”
Hill has gotten a cooler reception from some unions, especially after he proposed raises that didn’t keep pace with the region’s rising cost of living. In meetings, he frequently noted that public safety workers have better contracts than other employees.
“He’ll immediately put you on the defensive and make you uncomfortable,” said one labor leader, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid antagonizing the county.
Firefighters union President Ron Kuley said he has felt disrespected by Hill on several occasions.
“His personality and his way of doing business is very opposite to what I’ve dealt with,” Kuley said. “When you’re dismissive or don’t want to listen, we’re going to have some issues.”
Hill said he bears no animosity toward any union official but resents when Kuley and others have tried to pit him against the county board. He appeared to be mocking Kuley at a meeting in March, when the fire captain suggested limiting cost-of-living increases for older, higher-paid officials to free up funding for those lower on the scale.
“Is that because you’re old?” Hill quipped, as other union leaders looked on.
“I’m sorry?” responded Kuley, 51.
“Is that because you’re old?”
“I know I don’t look like it, but I have 27 years on the job,” Kuley said, awkwardly.
At a board hearing a few weeks later, Kuley spoke directly to the supervisors.
“The men and women who keep Fairfax safe every day are asking you, the Board of Supervisors, to strongly advocate and support our budget priorities,” he said, glancing at Hill on the dais.
The county executive, smiling, stared back.
“We’re going to direct him to do things; he’s not going to direct us,” McKay said. “For a while, he had a challenge adapting to that.”
Upping the 'coolness factor'
One of Hill’s central objectives is to better position Fairfax for Amazon’s arrival.
The county also tried to attract the retail giant but lost out to hipper, more transit-friendly Arlington.
Now, McKay said, the county needs “to up our coolness factor.”
To help with that, Hill hired a deputy county executive named Rachel Flynn, who previously worked for Google. She will oversee economic initiatives and emphasize smarter transportation options — including a driverless shuttle bus between the Dunn Loring-Merrifield Metro station and the Mosaic District shopping complex.
“We were built on an old model that we thought would work, and it’s not really working anymore,” Flynn said.
The urge to update has been central to Hill’s approach, and it has sparked resistance.
In one such case, Hill saw a chance to save $150,000 by having the staff that serves the county board do the same work for the planning commission, which had its own employees.
Commission members argued to Bulova and other supervisors that the move would create a conflict of interest.
The supervisors sided with Hill.
The county executive aims to get a new set of spending priorities in place by December so he can offer a clear road map to the newly elected board.
That means more change and more resistance from people who, he said, “have been doing it the same way for many years.”
The outcome “will either be a breath of fresh air or a downfall,” Hill said, reflecting on both Fairfax County and his standing in it.
“But I’m pretty sure it’s going to be a breath.”