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Column: Community is better due to administrator
Friday, August 17, 2012
By GEORGE LYLE -
In his typically understated way, Benny Summerlin used to tell this story about his first day as county administrator of Henry County: “On my first day on the job, I had a suicide note on my desk and the state police were searching my building. I figured the job could only get easier.”
Near the end of his tenure, before his death Wednesday, I am not sure he would say the days always got easier. But 10 years passed and his remarkable record of service will not, and should not, go unrecognized.
Of course, Summerlin’s (he was Benny to everyone who worked with him) first day on the job as county administrator came in March 2002 with the revelation that the prior county administrator was corrupt and later would be charged and imprisoned twice for theft and other crimes related to his time in office. It was one of our county’s darkest hours. Four years later, another investigation, this time of the county’s sheriff’s office, resulted in more corruption charges, an imprisoned sheriff and more unwanted negative news about our community.
Public corruption is an outrageous breach of trust and insidious for many reasons. But to the employees who work in the government affected by the corruption, it is particularly painful. The innocent public servants are either guilty by association or incompetent for not discovering the deceit. Public scorn comes into the building and onto workers at every level from the meter reader to the county’s top leadership. To this day, disgruntled citizens still send checks to the county with memo lines referencing corruption.
But during these dark hours is perhaps when Benny shined brightest. His calm demeanor was virtually unflappable. Even under great stress and amidst uncertainty, he had an amazing ability to gather information quickly, assemble the team necessary to make decisions, build consensus and discern the next steps. No important meeting with Benny ended without him asking the group: “What’s our path forward?” It was his way of reinforcing the message: “We are going to take action on what was discussed here, and do we all know what we must do?”
He was also keenly aware that the public trust in their local government could be broken with one or two newspaper headlines. He also realized that trust would not be restored so quickly. Public trust is built one deed at a time, one day at a time, over and over. In short, you have to earn it with good, honest work.
And there has been plenty of good work on Benny’s watch. When he was appointed county administrator, the county’s uncommitted fund balance, essentially the county’s savings account or rainy day fund, was below $1 million. This was dangerously low for a county with an annual budget in excess of $100 million. He authored (and the board of supervisors approved) a decade of balanced, conservative budgets that consistently grew the uncommitted fund balance. The fund now stands at around $15 million and allows the county greater financing opportunities for economic development deals, cash to match critical grants, and opportunities to make capital improvements without having to borrow money. All the while, the county’s tax rates are in the bottom half the 95 counties in Virginia.
But while the county saved money and kept taxes affordable under his leadership, the county did not neglect its work product. His calm demeanor and fiscally conservative budgeting were balanced by his vision of making Henry County a great place to live and work.
Recreational opportunities for our citizens are at an all-time high. Parks and Recreation has consistently grown, offering more opportunities for free and low cost activities for citizens. Benny supported the Smith River Sports Complex and served on its board, and a marina in the works at Philpott Lake also was an important project to him.
A joint economic development effort with the city of Martinsville was reenergized, and the county has acquired 2,000 acres of land for industrial development and entered into agreements with the city of Martinsville to share the revenue from future industrial growth.
At a time of record demand for social services, Summerlin answered the call and worked with city leadership (sometimes twisting arms) to relocate the department’s headquarters. County citizens are receiving increased levels of emergency medical care as career paramedics now assist our local volunteer rescue squads in answering calls for medical help.
He was too modest to take credit for those initiatives, but they happened on his watch. He helped assemble the parties to make all those projects, and many more, come to fruition. He helped clear that path forward.
There is a long record of good works associated with his service to this community beyond his term as county administrator. He began his public service as an eighth grader when he volunteered with the Martinsville-Henry County Rescue Squad, a service he continued for more than 20 years. After college he was hired as a Henry County sheriff’s deputy and later worked undercover and as an investigator. He was still a sworn law enforcement officer in Virginia at the time of his death. By 1985 he was the county’s first public safety director and increasingly gained more responsibility before being named deputy county administrator.
As a sheriff’s deputy, the closest he ever came to exchanging gunfire was with another deputy. Summerlin and other officers were covertly watching another deputy who was believed to be involved in some petty crimes or abuse of office. The officer being investigated discovered Summerlin and the others in hiding and confronted them with his hand on his weapon, and the investigating officers drew theirs. Calmer heads prevailed, and the deputy was ultimately fired. Summerlin never relayed the story as a heroic act. It was just part of the job of being a deputy.
But this brief event is telling. Investigating one’s own coworker for corruption is not a popular assignment. But he did it. He did it even if unpopular, even if it meant accusing a fellow officer of wrongdoing and even if it proved dangerous.
He did it because the public’s trust is earned one good work at a time.
Thirty-one years of service to Henry County have brought many good works and our community is a better place because of his service.
(George Lyle is the Henry County attorney.)