Shift in power steadied Henrico’s future
Henrico County was on the verge of becoming an urban county in the early 1930s, but its government was not organized enough nor properly equipped to handle the growing daily demands it faced in order to operate efficiently, a state auditor wrote at the time. County residents took note, and a grassroots effort began to change the system.
The result: voter adoption in 1933 of the county manager form of government – a form that in the years since has proved a model for nearly all other county governments in Virginia but one that remains the only specific one of its kind in the state.
"That decision to go to the county manager form of government with a professional person heading the county on a day-to-day basis is what has led the county where it is now," said Bill LaVecchia, who served as county manager from 1984 to 1992.
For the impact it has had on Henrico's advancement through the 20th and 21st centuries, the establishment of the county manager form of government ranks No. 5 on the Henrico Citizen's list of the most significant moments in the county's 400-year history.
Several key factors prompted county voters in September 1933 to adopt the county manager form of government, author and county historian Nelson Wikstrom wrote in his 2003 book County Manager Form of Government in Henrico, Virginia: Implementation, Evolution and Evaluation. Among them: concern among citizens about the way their government was run and its financial situation; a report by the state auditor criticizing the management of the county's Board of Supervisors; and the popular displeasure with the idea of allowing the state to maintain county roads.
A grassroots effort among citizens in favor of the county manager form of government ensued, Wikstrom wrote, led perhaps most prominently by Henrico Citizens' League chairman J. Randolph Tucker. In a Sept. 19, 1933 referendum on the issue, voters narrowly approved the plan by a margin of 364 votes – 1,685 to 1,321.
There was controversy in the aftermath. The vote had prompted a new election that November for the four spots on the Board of Supervisors, whose sitting members originally were to serve through 1935. None of the four ran in the 1933 election, but they refused to surrender their seats to the newly elected members Jan. 1, 1934 and instead filed suit to stay in office, arguing that they should appoint the first county manager. A Henrico Circuit Court judge agreed with them but later was overruled by the Virginia Supreme Court, which authorized the newly elected supervisors to take office
and appoint a county manager.
Implementation of the county manager system allowed Henrico to implement a more professionally run government at a time when such organization was critical, former longtime deputy county manager Harvey Hinson said.
"It certainly has had a lot to do with the success that Henrico's had," said Hinson, who retired several years ago.
Prior to 1934, elected supervisors held control of the county and had the ability to make appointments and name department heads – a reality that in the minds of many created a system too politically based. The adoption of the county manager form of government transferred those powers to the county manager, who serves at the pleasure of the board as a whole and for whom political ties are less likely to cloud decision-making, supporters of the format reasoned.
Once the system was in place, the way Henrico functioned as a locality changed.
Henrico's first county manager, Willard Day, "had a keen interest in urban planning," Hinson recalled. "He came with the [necessary] background and he almost immediately started to have an impact on the Board of Supervisors and made them aware that they needed to come up with a Comprehensive Plan."
The county began working on planning regulations in the 1940s "when most in the country didn't even know what the word planning – as we know it and understand it today – was," said LaVecchia. "The county had zoning and subdivision ordinance in the 1950s, which was unheard of back then except in new York City and a few other places."
Though simple in nature and scope compared to the type of ordinances and regulations that exist today, those early documents nonetheless created a framework for future growth that most other localities lacked.
"The county has pretty much, from the day it formed the county manager form of government, been ahead of the curve," LaVecchia said. "They rank up there with the best."
Only seven men have served as county manager in the 77 years since the form of government was implemented. Edward Beck, who served from 1952 to 1977, held the position longest. Current county manager Virgil Hazelett, who has served in the position since 1992, is the second-longest tenured. All seven were civil engineers – a fact that
helped each navigate the challenging landscape of infrastructure demands for a growing urban county, Wikstrom wrote.
In the same vein, Hinson credited a little-recognized decision early in the county manager form of government that appointed the county manager to sit – with voting privileges – on the four-member Planning Commission (at the time there was no Three Chopt District).
"He had the deciding vote, if needed," Hinson said. "And the changes in this time period were very significant."
The county manager's influence as a professional on a body of appointed officials undoubtedly factored into some of the critical land use recommendations and decisions being made by the commission, Hinson said.
To Hinson, it was no surprise that Henrico chose to be unique, and a leader, in the way it organized its government.
"I've always called it the Henrico way – the culture of Henrico and its citizens," he said. "History has proven that they always do things that seem to be – and history proves it out – the right decisions."
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