Sussex County Virginia is broken

sun and moon stylizedSussex County, Virginia sits between Prince George and Surry, Southhampton, Isle of Wight Counties and is home to some famous landmarks, like the Virginia Diner, and plenty of stores selling peanuts.

It also is home to a county government that appears to be broken in profound ways. The administration is directionless, unorganized, and in violation of several FOIA laws.

Let’s start with the basics. In order to run a government, even one that is incompetent, there must be some basics, some rules. One of the first ones is that the citizens must be able to communicate with their government. In a modern world, that increasingly means email and websites. Sussex County has a website and email. It is the form that those necessities take when you look closer at the county as a whole where you discover problems.

Administration, Sheriff, two other departments, and the school division all have their own email systems and IT networks being maintained by separate contractors. This means that there is no central repository for county records like emails and performance logs for blocking software (prohibited web addresses), and the statutory curation and storage of these records for the purpose of meeting the Virginia Code. The code involved concerns the availability of the documents in a reasonable statutory time limit (5 working days) that can be extended in court.

article graphic2Let’s say I want to ask a government body for records including emails from the administration, the Sheriff and the Building Inspector. In the current state of storage of these records the items would need to be gathered from 3 or 4 separate networks and email servers. The law provides for 5 working days, but I have sincere doubts that Sussex County could put their hands on any particular piece of information. Maybe not even in two weeks.

In a properly configured and maintained system, all the records for the entire county, except for the schools usually, are under one system and one system administrator.

How can a county communicate between each department and the Administrator without an easy to use system of sharing documents and other materials between those departments? And since they use email most likely to accomplish what they could otherwise do on a good network, we are back to the fractured, splintered system of four different contractors performing essentially redundant work.

In normal organizations, that is to say, ones with a normal System Administrator who is responsible for all the network operations, there are established procedures for the care and maintenance of these systems to serve the needs of the educators and students in the division. (In a school example for instance)

Network administration is a science. There are protocols to be followed for the operation and maintenance of not only the system, but the records stored there for the benefit of the citizens of the county. Regular back ups are performed to make sure that all files are available to staff and students in the school example.

In the county, the transfer of information must be cumbersome as a reality of the convoluted system of patchworks that is the county’s IT system.

Computers are used in every facet of a business or government. Plans, projections, budgets, planning documents for every department. These are all sensitive mostly public records. The backbone of record keeping for taxes, property documents, survey and engineering information and reports are all items that can be found in a consolidated system.

Let’s just forget about the fact that the way it is now is cumbersome and illegal. Let’s forget that the county is most likely exposed right now for not only the record keeping violations. Efficiency has also taken a big hit here.

Computers make it possible for efficient work to be done in repetitive tasks especially. The cost in inefficiency is staggering.

Let’s forget about all that for a minute.

Wouldn’t we, as citizens, have not only a desire for the government to do their jobs well and efficiently, looking after the interests of the people that elected them, the county residents, wouldn’t we also want our government to do its business in an open and honest manner?

A situation has come to my attention that involves the Board of Supervisors and a meeting held recently on a Saturday. Two members of the board were absent. The others evidently decided, without a quorum or an approved agenda, to disburse $100,000 to a person who was going to be helping promote and advise on the county’s so-called ‘mega-site’ for economic development. This is similar to designated development zones, and is state-sponsored.

At least 7 or 8 violations of the Virginia Freedom if Information act were present at the meeting. If there was adequate notice to the public for the meeting is unclear. I am still looking into that. The fact that more than 2 members of the board were in the same location discussing public business, especially if none or improper notice was give for the meeting, is also illegal.

Procedures for the determination and approval of the agenda were not present. The money in question was to be disbursed to the person by way of a check, and there was little or no discussion of the matter. To my knowledge, a very casual atmosphere existed.

Upon returning, the other two members, who had been absent on prior commitments, found out what had happened, planned and executed an emergency meeting last Wednesday to undo the damage done in this largely ridiculous situation. I am not sure, but I believe the meeting was held on Wednesday due to laws regarding emergency meetings of the board. The regular board meeting took place on Thursday. I was unable to attend.

This is of course, embarrassing for the county, and for me as a resident of the county. I expect to see the affairs of the county carried out in an efficient, modern manner. There is an underlying reason for some of this, which is the subject of the next chapter in this story.

Drunk on money.

Stay tuned.

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Mark Brooks

Independent Journalist/Photographer --- Retired Land Surveyor originally from Colorado. USN Veteran. Involved as a citizen and journalist in politics and open government locally and sometimes statewide. Interests: photography, music, justice and equality for everyone.

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