Jefferson defends Board decisions

Published 1:55 pm Wednesday, September 20, 2017

DeGroft says Isle of Wight employees paid enough

By Ryan Kushner

Staff writer

RUSHMERE—Past controversies and some personal accusations surfaced during the first public forum between the candidates vying to represent the Hardy District on the Isle of Wight County Board of Supervisors, the only race in the county with two competing candidates on the ballot this November.

Incumbent Rudolph Jefferson is currently seeking a second four-year term in the supervisor seat that represents the only minority-majority district in the county, with former School Board member Herb DeGroft running as his challenger.

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During the meeting, which was hosted by the Isle of Wight County branch of the NAACP Monday, Sept. 11, DeGroft pledged to fight for tighter management of personnel costs in the county, handing out a 2015 salary comparison sheet that claimed the county paid its administrators some of the highest salaries in the region. {mprestriction ids=”1,2,3,4,5,6″}

“We pay Isle of Wight County employees a competitive pay,” said DeGroft. “We don’t have to be the top, we don’t want to be the bottom, as long as we’re competitive.”

To save more funds, DeGroft also championed consolidating services between the county administration and the county’s school division, such as sharing custodial services or a financial department.

“Anyone can crunch numbers,” DeGroft said.

In his opening statements, Jefferson defended raises given to county employees during his term on the Board, stating that the staff had helped bring the municipality from a $7.8 million budget deficit early in his first term, to a nearly $1 million surplus in the county budget this year.

“We empowered the county staff to come out with cost-saving efforts, and they did a marvelous job,” said Jefferson.

The raises were initiated after a salary study in the county was completed in 2015, the average increase being $3,700 for full-time employees.

“It was the right thing to do to give those employees the raises that they needed,” Jefferson said.

Jefferson was also the only Board member initially willing to stick with another 2 percent employee salary bump for fiscal 2017, which had also been recommended in the compensation study but was eventually nixed by the Board.

Jefferson said that when he was first elected in 2014, he came to the Board with a list of needs for the Hardy District, which included the clearing of Bradby Park, a donated plot of land named after long-time Hardy Supervisor Henry Bradby. However, International Paper’s closure had an adverse effect on the county financially, according to Jefferson. The paper mill closed in 2010, leveling a nearly $5 million blow to the county’s annual tax revenue stream.

“A lot of improvements that we wanted to make around the county, we had to put on hold because of that void,” Jefferson said.

Jefferson said that the Hardy District has not received the benefits or attention typically given to other districts in the county.

“For years and years, the Hardy District has been slighted,” he said, adding that he hopes to be re-elected to continue pushing for what he called “equality and justice for all.”

The Rushmere Volunteer Fire Department, a staple and point of pride for the Rushmere community, was a topic of interest during the forum, with DeGroft noting that the organization and its facility deserved more aid and appreciation from the county.

Jefferson, a longtime firefighter with the department, said that its facility has received funding for a new roof, new pavement and a heating and air conditioning system since he’s been on the Board.

The forum allowed for questions from those attendng to be written and read to the candidates by Isle of Wight NAACP branch president Valarie Butler, who moderated the meeting at First Gravel Hill Baptist Church.

One question asked DeGroft what he had accomplished during his time on the School Board, and why he had resigned. DeGroft said he looked out for the needs of students individually. As for his decision not to run for re-election in 2013, DeGroft said that with the significant debt the division was incurring, he “half seriously, half jokingly” informed the superintendent at the time, Katrise Perera, that he wasn’t sure he wanted to run again.

In 2013, a chain of racist and derogatory emails, one depicting bare-chested tribal women holding spears with the caption “Michelle Obama’s high school reunion,” were forwarded by DeGroft to then-Newport District Supervisor Buzz Bailey. The scandal drew calls and petitions for both men’s resignation, and DeGroft didn’t resign, but did not seek another term on the School Board that year.

The infamous email chain was brought up in a question at the forum, which called the reference to the former First Lady “tasteless.”

In his response, DeGroft also called the email “tasteless” and the act of his forwarding it “unthinkable,” but that he had been forgiven.

“I know I was forgiven because that next January, this organization [the NAACP] gave me this plaque that says, ‘For your outstanding and dedicated service to our community, we greatly appreciate everything you do,’” said DeGroft, holding up the plaque he had brought to the meeting. “This hangs in a place of honor in my home, because that’s how much I appreciate it.”

DeGroft had some contentious times during his tenure on the School Board, and was at one point characterized as an obstructionist by his fellow Board members, with former Smithfield District School Board member Barbara Olin describing him as “a thorn in our sides” in 2007.

During Monday’s candidate forum, Rushmere resident Cleo Kelly chastised DeGroft for what she said had been a statement he had made in The Smithfield Times critical of former School Board chairman George Bradby. Kelly said that DeGroft’s statement to the paper was that if a snake was under Bradby’s chair, it would bite him unless the superintendent informed Bradby of its presence.

“I didn’t like that, because it was rude,” Kelly said.

DeGroft denied ever making such a statement, resulting in a tense exchange with Kelly.

There are only two references to a snake, a chair and DeGroft and Bradby found in The Smithfield Times’ archives. One came in a Times’ editorial dated April 2, 2008, and stated that Chairman Bradby’s general frustration with DeGroft on the School Board was becoming an issue for productivity.

“At this stage, it seems that if Mr. DeGroft pointed to a snake coiled under the chairman’s chair, the chairman would allow himself to be bitten rather than acknowledge that his fellow board member was correct,” the editorial states.

The second reference comes in the following week’s issue, April 16, 2008, and is a letter to the editor from Kelly, who called the statement “an insult to [Bradby’s] intelligence.”

Back at the forum, Jefferson received a couple questions scrutinizing activities outside of his Board duties, with one asking whether he thought it was a conflict of interest to be an officer of the NAACP as well as a member of the Board of Supervisors.

Jefferson responded that he did not believe so.

“[The NAACP] represents all people in trying to unite all people in this country,” Jefferson said.

DeGroft agreed.

“When you have people with character, such as Rudolph, there’s no conflict of interest because they’re going to look out for the best interest of the people, regardless,” DeGroft said.

Statements made by President Donald Trump regarding law enforcement were also a topic for the candidates during the forum. A question cited Trump’s July statement that police no longer need to prevent a suspect’s head from hitting the squad car when making an arrest, and asked the candidates what their response was to the encouragement to “rough up” criminals when making an arrest.

“First of all, I think it’s a disgrace for any commander-in-chief of the United States of America to tell a police force to be rough with a person that’s being arrested,” said Jefferson. “That’s a shame.”

Jefferson said that he also believes the Isle of Wight County Sheriff’s Office is better than that.

“I don’t think Isle of Wight County would stoop that low,” Jefferson said.

DeGroft said that sometimes law enforcement is required to use extra force when on duty.

“It’s wrong for anyone to recommend, though, that just arbitrarily people be treated roughly and give no consideration to whatever their physical, mental handicap may be, because that demeans the person,” DeGroft said.

The next candidate forum will be held Tuesday, Oct. 10 at The Smithfield Center.

Bradby Park

Questions surrounding the status of Bradby Park were raised several times during the forum with the Hardy candidates.

The 50-acre park has sat largely dormant in Rushmere since being donated by Virginia Timberline, which developed Lawnes Point, to the county around 2005.

Assistant County Administrator Don Robertson explained at the end of the meeting that Timberline had offered to clear part of the property before the donation, a proposition eagerly accepted by the county at the time.

However, as the economy “went down the tubes,” the county did not have the immediate funds to make improvements to the park. So, as time progressed and no further action was taken, the portion of the land cleared by Timberline developed into wetlands, according to Robertson.

“As it turns out, it was a very bad decision,” Robertson said of the initial clearing of a portion of the park.

Part of what the county is doing now is waiting for the wetlands to gradually clear up, so that when it does, the county can move forward with the project without running into costly environmental concerns, according to Robertson.

“There is some degree of intentionality of delaying the project, because ultimately it would save the taxpayers a lot of money,” he said.

Henry Bradby served on the Board of Supervisors for nearly 30 years, retiring in 2005. He died in 2014.  {/mprestriction}