Changing Albemarle’s Obstructionist Culture

By. Neil Williamson, PresidentBronco photo credit UVA media relations

Late last year when the University of Virginia hired Bronco Mendenhall as their new football coach from Brigham Young University, he brought with him great expectations and a promise of culture change.

In four short months, he  has made his point clear according to an Andrew Ramspacher article in the Daily Progress:

“There will be no numbers on the jerseys in the spring,” Mendenhall said Monday. “Nothing on the helmets, other than their names on the front.” …Welcome to the Mendenhall era in Charlottesville, where everything is earned.

While Virginia Football has yet to win (or even play) a single game under Mendenhall, his passionate attention to detailed accountability has made a significant impact on the culture of the football organization.

Albemarle County may be in the same place as Virginia Football was in late December as they are in the process of replacing a significant portion of its senior staff.  County Attorney, Chief of Police, County Engineer, County Clerk, Planning Director and County Assessor are all in the midst of transitioning.

Does Albemarle senior staff matter as much as Virginia’s Head Football Coach?

The short answer is yes.

While most elected supervisors may last four, eight or perhaps twelve years, the majority of Albemarle’s well compensated senior staff has 20+ years of service.

As the Board of Supervisors and County Executive contemplate the replacement of long tenured staff, what is the goal of these critical hires?

The Free Enterprise Forum has long compared the ideal staff role in the government approval process to be analogous to a mortgage broker – yes the process is daunting but staff’s job is to see you through it.

Today, too often, staff’s answer seems to be “no one ever got fired for saying no to a new project”.

Considering Albemarle’s newly  found economic development passion, should the County Executive and Board of Supervisors look for an outsider, Mendenhall-like, Senior staff change to lead the paradigm shift and finally alter Albemarle’s well known culture of obstructionism?

If Albemarle suddenly became a place where deals get done in rapid pace how might that impact quality development in the development areas?

Alternatively, might Newton’s first law of inertia prove to be too strong to attract a top notch change agent?

Is Albemarle really ready to embrace the change they need to be truly competitive in the economic development arena?

If Albemarle is willing to make a cultural shift welcoming new business activity (and jobs) to the development area – they should look beyond the County office building for candidates for senior staff.  The most innovative candidates will likely come from other successful local governments and the private sector.

This really leaves four key questions:

Does the County Executive and the Board of Supervisors have a vision for a new, economically vibrant, job rich Albemarle County?

Can these senior staff hires significantly advance such a vision?

Will Albemarle reform the well documented obstructionist culture?  Does it want to?

Once again only time will tell.

Respectfully Submitted,

Neil Williamson, President

Neil Williamson is the President of The Free Enterprise Forum, a public policy organization covering the City of Charlottesville as well as Albemarle, Greene, Fluvanna, Louisa  and Nelson County.  For more information visit the website

Photo Credit: UVA Media Relations


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