More Than a New Seat at the Table: Interview with Phyllis Randall, Chair of Loudoun County’s Board

More Than a New Seat at the Table: Interview with Phyllis Randall, Chair of Loudoun County’s Board

On Jan. 2, Phyllis J. Randall was sworn in as the fourth Chairman of the Board of Supervisors in Loudoun County’s history who was elected by voters countywide.

It is an office that immediate past Chairman Scott York had occupied for the past 16 years. Following a change in its governance structure, Loudoun elected it’s first at-large chairman, George Barton, in 1991, followed by Dale Myers in 1995, then York in 1999.

Randall is also the first Democrat elected at-large, and only the second who does not have an outright majority of fellow Supervisors on the nine-member Board from her political party.  Loudoun’s Board includes six Republicans and three Democrats.

She was elected last November after a spirited race with Scott York (I) and Charles King (R).  The home stretch of that race turned into a brutal battle between veteran York and newcomer King, with Randall mostly staying out of the fray. Randall garnered 38 percent of the vote, but the strategy worked as York and King split the balance.

The Tribune’s editors met with Chair Randall on June 24 for an in-depth conversation about her first six months in office, her objectives and her leadership style.

What’s been the biggest positive surprise to you as Chair of the Board?

The Board itself. My colleagues themselves, and our willingness to try to immediately put the elections and partisanship behind us and work together for the county.

How did you choose who sits where on the dais? 

At first I thought who cares where they sit, but then I realized that we have five new members coming in, three of whom have never sat at a dais before, so it was important to me to set the dais so that people who were new could sit next to people who had been there for a while. Of course, Mr. Buona being vice chair sits to my right by tradition, and I wanted Mr. Higgins also sitting next to me because it’s my belief that you can gain knowledge anywhere but it’s hard to gain wisdom. And in my opinion Mr. Higgins was the wisest person on the board.

Yesterday, the board was geared up to consider a resolution establishing a month to recognize the LGBT community. Previously, there was a resolution on gun violence awareness. What’s your view of bringing resolutions like this to the board?

My feelings are that any elected body should be able to talk about those issues in a way that’s civil, constructive and helpful.  Now you may want to vote against the resolution, and that’s fine, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have the conversation. I don’t think we can be a county, a Commonwealth or a country that’s unable to talk about hard issues. You vote how you vote, but civil discussions are always appropriate to have.

It was unfortunate that the gun resolution was tabled.  The fact that the board did not have the conversation on gun violence, awareness and prevention does not mean the conversation gets shut down. It just means, unfortunately, that the board did not lead on the issue.

I don’t know if resolutions are the most substantive way to approach the issues, and I won’t argue that maybe it belongs in a different place.

Last night the Board overruled the Planning Commission on its recommendation for AT&T’s proposed facility on Short Hill Mountain.  What happened?

When you read the Comprehensive Plan, some of these kind of things are somewhat vague, and reasonable people can disagree. How I read it, AT&T’s application was not in line with our plan. Which is why as we go forward to revisit the plan in a more holistic way it’s important to put in more clarity and safeguards around zoning.

The Commission has no reason to do anything but what they think is correct, and they did their job. And it was up to me to do my job, and that meant going to the site, combing through the plan, and talking to my commissioner and the staff.  I reached a different conclusion. That’s how it should be done; we’re not supposed to put a heavy foot on the planning commission, and I don’t.

But it this case the AT&T application went from a special exception to a commission permit, even before it was considered by the Planning Commission, and people wonder how that happened.

I don’t think that should’ve happened, and there’s not a clear answer on how it happened. I think it’s important now to go back to the commissioners and say tell me how you got from there to here, tell me what your thought was.

So was it to be a data center or a transmission facility?

I’ve been there and was told it’s a switching station, it’s a transmission facility. I have no reason to not believe them.

You made mental illness and its treatment a major issue in your campaign and it is your professional background. You also talked about the homeless in Loudoun. What do you want to see done differently?

We’re never had a strategic plan around the social safety net in Loudoun. We grew so quickly that we’ve been trying to catch up with schools and roads and things like that. We’ve missed the fact that if you land 250,000 more people in a county since 1990, you’re going to have people with various issues. We kind of seemed surprised that opiate and heroin addiction issues are here, but why be surprised. These kind of issues come with people.

In Loudoun you have to suffer quietly, because on its surface it looks like we don’t have a lot of issues with mental health and homeless issues. But the truth is we do, and the sooner we are able to say it, the sooner we can deal with the issues. Homelessness looks different in Loudoun than in many other places.  When you walk down the W&OD trail in some other places you see people in tents. They’re not camping. They’re homeless.

How is the affordable housing program in Loudoun working?

It’s not necessarily working. I went to a forum where I was a little discouraged to hear someone say if I’m going to have affordable housing next to me I want everyone there to have a criminal background check and make sure they’re not sex offenders. The idea that you would equate affordable housing and people who may have criminal records or be sex offenders is unfortunate. In Loudoun County, affordable housing means someplace for teachers to live, and police officers, firefighters and nurses. Workforce housing is sorely needed.

I’m going to bring a board member initiative forward in July on adaptive reuse, which means to take office buildings that are sitting not rented or maybe one-third full and perhaps do some different zoning and so it can be used as an apartment building, or for lofts or condominiums for affordable housing. If we’re going to say we want millennials to move to Loudoun and retirees to stay here, we have to give them some place to live. Adaptive reuse is one thing we can look at.

As a follow up, what are your thoughts on turning the Arcola school into apartments?

I looked at it for a long time and supported it.  The zoning permitted it, it’s a public-private partnership, it’s affordable housing, and it’s housing for people with disabilities of which we have almost none in the county. I walked doors and asked people about the airport noise there, and I heard about this from not a single person.  Yes, I am concerned about airport noise, but we didn’t rezone for a residential development at the end of a runway. It’s already zoned for that. If it were a rezoning application I would’ve voted against it.

Are we paying our teachers enough?

The question isn’t if we are paying them enough, it’s if we are paying them a competitive salary.  We need to start bringing them up to a level that’s competitive. Or else you’re going to have teachers who after so many years under the belt will go somewhere else where they can make more money.

This year was your first time through the budget process. Did it accomplish what you were looking for?

I almost wish the elections could be pushed up or pushed back so you don’t land a new board smack in the middle of the budget season. I think overall the budget discussions were very substantive and civil, and went very well. Was I happy with the transfer amount that we gave the schools? I was not. We left a delta that was larger than I wanted to leave. A lot of things were cut from budgets past, and they were trying to do some catch up for some things like middle school deans, so this was a budget not only for this coming year but also to catch up.

Candidates talked about all-day kindergarten last year but it doesn’t seem to be getting a lot of attention now. What should we do?

My commitment is to get there as soon as possible. Given what the school buildings will allow, we can get to about 75% of all kids in Loudoun County having all day kindergarten.

I just came back from an economic development trip in Korea and China, and I was honored to speak at a high school in South Korea. Every single student I met in that high school spoke clear English and most were working on their third or fourth foreign language. I asked the principal and he said we start teaching English in the third grade. Here we have kids coming out of high school with four years of a foreign language and they come out not being able to speak anything.

In Loudoun and most of America we do it exactly backwards. We should put more of these programs in the younger grades. Where you start informs where you end. The way our government decides how to build prisons is based on how well five and six year olds are doing on tests. Can they read, are they doing the work, are they in school systems that aren’t failing, informs what these kids are going to be doing in eighteen years.

Can all of these objectives fit into the board’s strategic planning efforts?

We can’t address and solve every issue in the country, but we can do what we can for Loudoun County.

What’s your position on Metro coming to Loudoun?

I get asked all the time if you were on the board would you have voted for Metro. I would have.  Metro will open Loudoun to the rest of our region in a way that’s never happened in the past. There are concerns about Metro including reliability, safety and the finances. But I’ve met with the new general manager of Metro and he has an open door policy and a strategic plan. I will always advocate for more federal and state funds for Metro, but I also think that Metro has a lot of issues to work through first.

Do you have a mentor on the board?

I’m kind a wonk, sort of a geek. I’ve been watching all the issues for years, so I wasn’t uninformed coming in. But I will give a lot of credit to the two men who sit alongside of me – Ralph Buona and Geary Higgins. Especially early on. I like to say I have knowledge on one side and wisdom on the other. I have other members in my life in the political sense. [Former chair of Fairfax County’s Board] Kate Hanley has been a large mentor to me and someone I’ve called on. She now on the Metro board.

Kate was one of the first people who came to me and said you should run for office, and I said to her you are out of your mind. That was about 20 years ago, so she has been in my ear for a long time.

How does your family feel about your new role?

On election night, I called up my eldest son in college and said Ashon, I won. He said mom I’m so proud of you, you made history this is fantastic, and he posted on Facebook. I called my youngest son who is a freshman at VCU and I said Aaron, I won. And he said good, and guess what mom we have a new Chick-Fil-A on campus. Perspective.