2007-01-10 / Front Page

Super-sized supervisors?

With a majority of three deciding issues for the entire county, should more districts be created?
By Richard Foster

With the 2010 U.S. Census looming, some of the county's politicos are bandying about the notion of expanding the Chesterfield Board of Supervisors from its present five members to seven members.

At a recent neighborhood association meeting in Brandermill, Supervisor Art Warren floated the idea, declaring his support for it. "I brought it up," Warren says, "because I think it's an important topic given the size of neighborhoods like Brandermill, which has 11,000 residents." And with the county's population now numbering more than 290,000 people, each supervisor represents about 60,000 citizens. "I would favor seven board members because it would make it easier for constituents and the public to have input before their board of supervisors," Warren adds.

Former board member Joan Girone, who was on the county board from 1976 to 1987, says "the timing is right" for making such a change and she's also been looking into it, unaware that Warren had brought it up. She's been researching the issue and hopes to put together a coalition of county business leaders this year to support the change.

"We are a county of [nearly] 300,000 people and a majority of the board is three members now, and so a majority of three members of the board will make decisions for 300,000 people, and I think that's incredible," Girone says.

Every time a national census is conducted, the state must redraw district lines for the state House and Senate districts, and cities and counties also redraw magisterial district lines. Accordingly, Girone would like to see the issue of adding new districts and supervisors brought up to county residents on the 2007 ballot, when the supervisors are up for election.

However, the move would not require public approval or even General Assembly approval, according to county spokesman Don Kappel. "As part of its 10-year redistricting process, the board of supervisors could potentially increase the number of districts" by a simple majority, Kappel says. Such a move can only happen once every 10 years, after the census data is delivered to the county.

Not all past and present supervisors think it's necessary or even wise to increase the number of districts in the county, however, and the board doesn't plan any formal discussion of the notion at this time.

Supervisor Dickie King says he hasn't given the matter a lot of thought, but adds that "I know to get a consensus for seven or nine [board members] is a lot more difficult than five [members]." And Supervisor Don Sowder says that "right now I think we're fine."

Former Supervisor Harry Daniel, who ended his 20 years on the board in 1999, says that the question of adding more board members was discussed in the 1980s, but it was decided that five members was sufficient. The county has grown considerably since then, Daniel allows, but he says, "A member of the General Assembly has roughly 80,000 or 90,000 constituents, so why can't one [county] supervisor represent 80,000 or 90,000?"

Henrico County has operated with five supervisors for decades and has just 10,000 fewer residents than Chesterfield.

Chesterfield County is the most populous locality in the state with just five supervisors or council members. "When the population grows, you need more representation," says John V. Moeser, professor emeritus of urban studies and planning at Virginia Commonwealth University and a visiting fellow at the University of Richmond's Center for Civic Engagement. "When you represent that many people, it makes it difficult for all the interests to be represented by that one vote. It gives that one person inordinate influence particularly when someone is absent as was the case the other day with a major zoning issue … and two of the supervisors were absent, so that left only three people, and three people made a decision that really affects the entire county."

Some county gadflies have theorized that the county supervisors, all of whom are Republican, might be opposed to adding more districts for fear that the GOP's influence could erode in Chesterfield, but Moeser says that shouldn't really be a fear: "A solidly Republican majority will draw lines so that the Republican Party can retain that majority vote and not just a majority vote, but a handsome majority at that," Moeser says. "Gerrymandering is just the nature of the beast."

But the county is growing, bringing in some new voices and cultures, and "to close them out entirely or to restrict a growing voice just to token representation is in my view counter to what we know to constitute democratic rules," says Moeser. "Democracy goes hand in hand with social justice."


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