Terpenny saga is democracy at work

Whether you agree with the Floyd Town Council’s desire to hire Lance Terpenny as the new town manager or not, Thursday night’s meeting — which drew about 50 interested citizens of the town and county, was democracy at work.

Council members took a rare and open step of explaining their position and their interview process to those attending. The seven citizens who spoke expressed their views calmly and the end result was a civil discussion on the issue.

Terpenny, told to resign last week by a Christiansburg Town Council that said it has lost confidence in their manager for the past 16 years, will almost certainly be confirmed when the Floyd council meets for a special session Monday night. He will become the Floyd’s fourth town manager in the past five years and the first with actual experience managing a town — going from the state’s third largest town (42,000 population) to one of the smallest (population 436).

When asked by one citizen if they asked Terpenny why he sought a job that was obviously a step backwards, the Floyd Council retreated into secrecy, saying it would not discuss specific answers in an interview.

Council members said they “vetted” Terpenny with members of the Christiansburg Town Council but did not say if there was any other form of background check on their new manager. Vice Mayor Mike Patton admitted he did receive a report that suggested Terpenny was too close to developers but insisted the town had made it clear that they would be in charge, not the new manager, and that they expected the manager to follow Floyd’s vision, not his or Christiansburg’s.

This report comes from talking with various attendees at Thursday’s meeting. I serve as Floyd County’s representative on the Alcohol Safety Action Program’s New River Valley advisory board and the board met in Christiansburg at the same time as the Floyd Town Meeting.

While in Christiansburg Thursday, I walked with several town officials, local businessmen and residents about their departing Town Manager. Most had strong opinions in both support and criticism.

There’s little doubt that Terpenny had become a polarizing town official in the last couple of years — much of it because of the town’s new Aquatic Center, a massive project marred by cost overruns and a controversial deal with Virginia Tech.

But opinions vary on whether that was Terpenny’s fault just as opinions vary on his abilities.

“We’re losing the best town manager in Virginia and you’re lucky to get him,” says Christiansburg Police Chief Mark Sission.

Christiansburg Town Council members say that while they lost confidence in Terpenny’s ability to continue to serve as their town manager, they believe he is an effective administrator.

Terpenney told the council he wasn’t happy in the job and that the pressures and controversies in Christiansburg were affecting him and his family.

Concilman Ernie Wade said the decision part ways was “mutual” and the “thing to do.” The Christiansburg council voted unanimously for Terpenny’s resignation.

“I hate it,” says councilman Mike Barber. “He’s a good man.”

One Christiansburg businessman, who asked not to be identified, said Terpenny became a “lightning rod” for numerous controversies.

“He was the point man on development issues, on the aquatic center, on traffic problems, on everything. He took the heat even for things that were beyond his control,” the businessman said. “He had been on the job for a long time, maybe too long.”

Municipal administrators, as a general rule, don’t last 14 years on the job. Terpanney’s length of service for one town is rare. Statistics compiled by the American Society of Public Administration shows the average town, city or county manager lasts about eight years.

Questions remain over Terpenny’s generous severance package that let him walk away from the job with a year’s salary and benefits but the decision to give him that package was the Christiansburg Town Council’s and it is up to the voters of that town to decide if it was the right decision or not.

Floyd citizens spoke their piece Thursday night and others can do so on Monday night — if they choose — before our town council votes to hire the new manager.

Terpenny takes a job that pays about $50,000 a year — far less than the $128,000 and change he received for the job in Chrisitansburg.  In Christiansburg, it cost each resident of the town — men, women and children — $7.65 a year for a town manager.

In Floyd — at $50,000 a year — a town manager costs each of Floyd’s town residents $114.68 a year.

Some came away from Thursday’s town council meeting in Floyd feeling that their concerns had been addressed and answered. Others feel time will tell if the decision was the right one.

The bottom line is that residents of Floyd had a chance to air their concerns and ask questions. Those who did exercised their rights in a democracy.

That’s the way things are supposed to work.

I’m satisfied that the town council, for the most part, feels it did a good job in selecting a new town manager. I’m concerned that they not interview each of the 10 finalists for the job but stopped interviewing at four when they offered the job to Terpenny. From all accounts, Terpenny aced the interview and the council made up its mind and stopped looking once they talked with him.

But like it or not, the Floyd Town Council is the legislative body that represents the 436 residents of Floyd and its 120 registered voters. Those voters will decide in future elections if the council made a right or wrong decision.

Several of those who attended Thursday’s meeting tell me they are willing to “wait and see” and give the new town manager a chance to prove himself.

That’s the best course of action at this point. I’ve done my job here by raising issues for public discussion. If my concerns turn out to be wrong, I’ll be the first to say so here and admit I was wrong.

Floyd could benefit from someone with his experience if he adapts to Floyd’s way of thinking. Besides, he rides and customizes Harleys and that’s a strong point in his favor.  In Christiansburg, fellow Harley riders call his garage the “Garage Mahal.” 🙂

I’ve done my job. The citizens of Floyd who took time to appear and speak Thursday night did theirs.  On Monday, the Town Council will do its job. Then it will be time time to let Lance Terpenny do his.

(Updated at 8:30 a.m. to add additional information)

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13 thoughts on “Terpenny saga is democracy at work”

  1. Thanks for a fair, balanced and responsible analysis. I do wish you could have attendended that meeting since your BS detector seems to be pretty reliable (I didn’t get to go either). Are you going to the Monday meeting?

    While not close, I’ve been and acquaintance of Lance Terpenny for much of his tenure as a Christiansburg employeed. Some things I’ve heard about his personality are true, but shouldn’t necessarily affect his performance as town manager. The “lightning rod” thing is definitely true and should be considered a professional hazard the same as with the job of mayor, school superintendant, clerk, etc. Whatever goes wrong, it’s your fault; successes just mean you’re doing your job.

  2. Doug, I appreciate the fact that you are helping citizens of the town of Floyd to raise their awareness of what’s going on here. With our local newspaper published only on a weekly basis, it’s easy to miss out on important happenings. Your thoughts about having just a county governing system instead of both town and county make sense. Any ideas on getting started implementing that?

  3. Jody,

    I think there will be a lot more at issue than merely dissolving the town. For example, what about town water and sewer? The density of businesses and residences in the town preclude individual wells and septic systems. Therefore, the necessity of the infrastructure, maintenence and cost of the water/septic system. As town residents, businesses and homeowners pay an additional tax, part of which is presumably for the “benefit” of having such a system. I, on the other hand, living out in the county have my own well and septic and am responsible for the upkeep and cost of said system. Were the town to dissolve, would my taxes go up to maintain a system that provides me zero benefit? The money would have to come from somewhere if there weren’t an additional town tax anymore. I for one would be totally opposed to paying yet again for something that provides me zero benefit on top of having to pay for my own system. This is but one example of questions which would have to be answered.

    • Greg, thanks for your input. Good points. I like the convenience of living in town, but our water bill surely is high.

    • There are a number of county residents outside the town limits on town water and sewer already. You might ask the Public Service Authority how this issue is handle presently. It’s possible that they are a cost recovery operation although that would be a surprise to me.

  4. It is my understanding that water/sewer is under the jurisdiction of a joint town/county PSA and that it is independent after having town and county reps appointed when it was first established.

  5. Yes, the PSA (Public Service Authority) is a cost recovery operation. It is also not a ‘Town’ operation but a joint operation between the County and Town – the board is appointed by Board of Supervisors and the Town Council. The Town is very small in size. There is very limited space available for any growth which means future growth will occur outside the town limits (see Dollar General, Family Dollar, Mickey G’s, etc…) This puts pressure on the Town because the Town does not see any Tax Revenue from these businesses unlike the in-town businesses that have to pay Town taxes (as well as Town citizens). In my oppinion, the Town should either expand in size or dissolve as a seperate entity.

  6. OK, ‘…saga is democracy’..I just can’t agree.

    The ‘kiss-up/positive’ quotes from ‘insiders’, such as Councilman Barber and the Chief of police, are ‘no brainers’. After all, why would Barber, for instance, want to ‘tell the truth’ about the Town’s problems…he’s one of the ‘closed-door’ mongers.

    The saga, in this case, is simply a sad saga. The only signs of democracy have been the few that, on short notice, attended the single-meeting (minus the Mayor!) of Floyd Council that was apparently an attempt to ‘ice the cake’ for Terpenny.

    The posts about the article mostly relegate to water and sewer issues. Important concerns. It seems that concern about any consideration of combining the Town with the County points to the need for a separate article?

    If Floyd wants projects that resemble the Aquatics Center (cement pond) project in Christiansburg that was supposed to cost $7 million, but ‘went awry’ to a $10 million COST-OVERRUN (let alone, years late)…that’s $17 million, rather than $7 million (overpriced at that point)….then let the Mayor and ‘his’ Council proceed with ‘the’ Town Manager.

    @Karen: ‘…Town should…expand..or dissolve..’..:
    Don’t worry, if the ‘done-deal’ (initially made behind ‘closed door’ policy) is finalized, Floyd will most likely expand. That is, if the legacy of the proposed Town Manager proceeds. Just beware of cost-overruns and ruination of the ‘Republic of Floyd’.

    • Every now and then someone reminds us we are not a democracy. We have a representative gov’t. Good idea if you ignore how the choices are selected by a monetary system driven by folks with enough money to buy their agenda. Campaign promises matter, but only to the extent of execution. We know how that turns out. Then we can wait till the next election and another decision choosing the best of the worst.

      I hope everyone read this blue sky report. You don’t need a degree to run some rough numbers in the pond potential. 1300 bleacher seats? The VT investment of 5 million over 20 years? Look back to council meeting conversations and Lance over time. The debt service and operating costs (probably underestimated) make it appear VT gets a freebie.

      I just saw the C’burg mayor stating the same old nonsense. Of course, any venue of attraction will increase meals and lodging revenue. How does that offset the expenses of the white elephant going forward. Earn it here, and burn it there, and lose money.

      http://www.roanoke.com/news/nrv/wb/254121

      I like the part where it says it’s one of the few such fabulous facilities in the entire country. Does that make it a good idea or is it evidence that it’s a really bad idea?

      Lance sounds like someone else only this won’t last 50 years and have a happy ending in some history book.

      “I would be more optimistic if I could just ignore the facts.” I don’t know who to attribute it to but it stuck in my mind.

      Maybe Floyd will experience some annexation and the project could be the biggest wind and solar powered ferris wheel in the country. Hey, I can see Sarah Palin’s house from here.

      Happy Monday. Rush over to the the pool and get your membership while they’re hot.

  7. I would hate to see the town gov. go away and leave it all to the supervisors. They do not seem to have much interst in the town, and sure have enough to do to run the county. The development is going to happen on land in the county and the town council and town manager will have no say in how it is done. We citizens need to let the county board of supervisors know how we feel about development,etc. With no real zoning anything can happen. With zoning, we may not be able to do what we want with our own land.

    • Zoning, no matter what the county or town, can lead to citizens literally losing the rights to their land.

      Sure, some reasonable control or laws related to trash, for instance, are a given. However, one local council member said, upon retirement, that, “the most difficult thing I encountered was telling people what they can and can’t do with their land”. One honest councilperson..

      Repression of rights, costly hearings, and rumored pay-offs are some of the negatives of zoning. Let freedom ring.

  8. Hey Doug, Whatever happened to your requirement that folks use their real names? Did that fall by the wayside? Just wondering.

    • Rick:

      I deleted or blocked more than 50 anonymous comments because they contained charges or claims that were not backed by a link to an actual source or were just outright slanderous. I also blocked one persistent commenter whose posts were simply a string of insults to others. Otherwise, given the sensitivity of the issues, I let other posts stand. I never had an outright requirement that all posters use their full names. I only said that posts that contained claims that crossed the line would have to be backed by a poster’s full name.

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