MAN ABOUT TOWN: Who’s in Charge Here?

Falls Church Times Columnist

November 8, 2010

Who really runs this town? At the Falls Church Times, we’ve been asking ourselves that for a couple of years now. Of course we’ve never come up with a good answer, because there is no sole authority figure. But since the power brokers have shifted dramatically in the last few months, the question is worth reconsidering.

One person who used to be high on our list has taken a big fall. No, not our former mayor – she still has one vote on City Council, just as before. I’m talking about Carol Jackson, CEO of the Falls Church Housing Corporation. In the past, some of us wondered if Ms. Jackson, backed by former vice mayor Steve Rogers and developer Bob Young, might be the most powerful figure in the City. But with the failure of the Wilden seniors high-rise project, the FCHC has fallen on hard times, and the Jackson/Rogers influence on City planning has tumbled.

So who’s the big winner? I already noted that the City’s mayor only has one vote. A mayor is in a good position to advance policy, but there are no guarantees – especially when you don’t command a majority. The previous City Council saw five members voting in lockstep, but the new Council is all over the map. Mayor Baroukh has only two strong supporters – or is it three? I’m never sure. At any rate, it’s not an assured majority.

A weak City Council necessarily has less power over the City Manager, and Wyatt Shields appears to be in ascension. Last week he did a remarkable thing: By writing a “Guest Commentary” in the Falls Church News-Press, Shields crossed the line between serving the City and advocating policy. Although his submission ostensibly might be viewed as a “report to the taxpayers,” it can also be seen as an attempt to bolster the City Council’s position in its escalating spat with the School Board.

Perhaps the mayor asked Shields to write the article. If not, there are too many cooks in the kitchen.

At any rate, if I had to guess who’s the City’s most powerful figure I would have to say Shields. Even though he serves at the pleasure of City Council, he’s the one driving the bus. If the Council doesn’t like the way he drives, about the only thing they can do is replace him, which for a divided Council is tricky, and certainly treacherous when the bus is traveling 60 mph.

So Shields is in charge, and probably feeling pretty safe. Word on the street is that our former chief financial officer John Tuohy didn’t quit – Shields fired him. This is troubling to me, because from my perspective Tuohy had long warned the Council of an impending financial meltdown, whereas Shields likes to paint a rosier picture.

After what will be five months without a CFO, Shields has finally appointed Richard LaCondré. My first question was, given the City’s financial turmoil, who would want the job? And my next question is: why did Shields decide on LaCondré?

LaCondré was the finance commissioner for Sullivan County, New York, for seven years until he suddenly took early retirement in 2007, resulting in rumors that he had been forced out. During LaCondré’s tenure, an audit revealed that Sullivan County’s fund balance was $7 million less than reported. The problem was blamed on accounting errors within the County’s Division of Health and Family Services, and LaCondré appears not to have been faulted. But to suddenly see your fund balance cut in half is a major shock, as we in Falls Church well know.

According to a knowledgeable source, when LaCondré was at the height of his influence, Sullivan County made some very bad financial decisions concerning its landfill. The question is whether LaCondré should have prevailed upon the decision makers to take a wiser course. At any rate, he again was not blamed.

The only official black mark on LaCondré’s record dates back to 1997, when he was censured, reprimanded, and fined $500 by New York State’s Professional Misconduct Enforcement office for failing to return records to a client.

For the past two years, LaCondré has worked for the city of Tallahassee, including as interim personnel director. News reports featuring his name during this period mostly concern Tallahassee’s budget deficit and the resulting city employee buyout package that LaCondré oversaw.

So, our city manager has chosen a CFO who has experience with suddenly evaporating fund balances, with very bad decisions by elected officials (their landfill = our waterworks), and with coping with budget deficits through city employee buyouts. (Should we infer anything from that last clause?)

This is not a judgment on Mr. LaCondré. I’ll wait to see the tenor of his memos to City Council. If, like former CFO Tuohy, he provides some stark warnings, then well and good. But if his reports are all sweetness and light, we’ll have reason to suspect that a higher power figure is pulling the strings.

November 8, 2010 


16 Responses to “MAN ABOUT TOWN: Who’s in Charge Here?”

  1. Abe Wheeler on November 8th, 2010 8:13 am

    Help us all if Shields is in charge.

  2. Mike Smith, Falls Church on November 8th, 2010 8:53 am


    Truer words were never spoken. A divided Council leaves us with Shields with the keys to power. Looks like he has chosen a CFO to his liking, so we should hear cheery financial reports as the Little City rolls on down a pretty steep hill.

    Just to review, by the way, the City has lost or will soon lose more than just the CFO. When the last person leaves it will be Shields who will be left to turn out the lights in City Hall.

  3. Greg Thacker, Falls Church on November 8th, 2010 12:20 pm


    Though I appreciate the ‘alternate view’ of the city that you and the FCT provide, I am disappointed that you frequently choose to use your soapbox for speculation and innuendo.

    Is there a purpose to your attacks? Do you feel that tearing down hard-working civil servants is somehow serving the community? In our current political culture it is popular to attack those with power as being inept or ill-intentioned, but I do not see how continuing that trend is providing a public service.

    I praise the hard-working citizen journalists that have made the FCT a viable alternative news source. I thank you for enlivening our debates through your frequent and controversial opinion pieces. I caution you that irresponsible muckraking does not serve anyone well – It only lowers the quality of discourse and draws resources and attention away from where they are truly needed.

    Your speculation regarding who has power in the city conveniently ignores the role of the press in shaping public opinion and the out-sized roles that you and Nick Benton play. I encourage both of you to use that power responsibly to support the community and not drag it down.

    Thank you!

    GEORGE SOUTHERN RESPONDS: I don’t know Greg Thacker, but upon reading his well-crafted criticism, I immediately wished that he would volunteer to write for the Falls Church Times. We need more citizen journalists to balance out the once-weekly 800 words of opinion, speculation, and criticism dished out by the Man About Town. That said, I do feel that there is room in the Falls Church Times for one column a week that sometimes (often?) may venture slightly across the line. But if the Falls Church Times were dominated by writing such as mine, I admit that we would not deserve to be called anything more than a blog. But in self defense: I do believe the press has a vital role in pointing out important information about city hall officials that otherwise would not be public knowledge. Some call that investigative reporting, some call it “muckraking.” Whichever, until the birth of the Falls Church Times, that kind of information was not available in our City. While framed as an opinion piece, I feel I did include some interesting facts in this week’s column that taxpayers should know. I hope at least some of my readers agree.

  4. John D. Lawrence, City of Falls Church on November 8th, 2010 1:09 pm

    Apparently I’m the slow one in the class (again). As I understand it (and according to sources I’ve checked) the City Manager form of government is very similar to a company that has a CEO (the City Manager) and a Board of Directors (the City Council). The Council/Board appoints a CEO/Manager, but it’s the CEO/Manager who oversees all administrative operations and implements policies. He/She runs things. Would anyone be surprised to find that a CEO was considered “in charge” of a corporation? Doubtful. The difference here is that we have a Board of Directors that meets every week rather than quarterly and is very hands on. So the Council creates a vision, passed a budget, etc. and the Manager implements this under close scrutiny from the Council. In general, that’s what seems to happen. Not always smoothly. Not always successfully. But it generally happens. Does that make Wyatt “in charge”? The Mayor? The Council? TJ the Tiger? I don’t think that matters.

  5. John D. Lawrence, City of Falls Church on November 8th, 2010 1:11 pm

    George: I DO know Greg Thacker and I’d second the idea that he start writing for the FCT.

  6. Robert Thomas, Falls Church on November 8th, 2010 2:32 pm

    Lunchtime on Monday is always a good time to get your weekly dose of crazy. That is, until Thursday when the Little Weed is released. George, I would like to hear more about the new CFO in straight forward fact based article complete with interviews with Mr. Shields and the new CFO himself. That would be more helpful than your doom and gloom conjecture, entertaining though it might be.

  7. Suzanne Updike on November 8th, 2010 4:19 pm

    Greg is right — this kind of opinion writing isn’t helpful……

    Regarding Wyatt Shield’s recent commentary in the FCNP — I personally appreciate reading about the different financial projections. How does that ‘cross the line’ into advocacy — because he explains that the city council is attempting to provide early budget guidance?

  8. Richard Donnely on November 8th, 2010 6:43 pm

    I believe we often contradict ourselves….we demand “transparency”, but when our City manager puts out an explanation of something, we call it “advocacy”. Do we not want a City manager who advocates for things? If there was State funding available for our city, would we not want him to “advocate” for it…..would we not be upset with him if he did not “advocate” for it. The City manager writes an article, knowing full well that people will attack him for it, but he writes it to try to explain his belief, and that of the council that he works for and with. I’m sorry, but I dont see how thats a bad thing, even if I may not fully agree with his reasoning, I appreciate him stepping up.

    I have commented before, and George, your response was to ask me to write for the FCT. Identical to your rebuttal of Mr. Thacker…I would suggest that doing, rather than commenting on, is the true sign of democracy in action.

    Another question: So is it an opinion piece, or a news article? If its laced with factual items, are you a journalist, or are you just a spectator making comments? The line is getting more and more blurry with each week. If you are a journalist, please do some investigating, fact checking, and source verification, and write journalistic pieces. If you dont, even if you claim facts in your articles, you must resign yourself to being one of the masses of “bloggers”. You just cant have it both ways.

    I wish the FCT would give some journalistic guidance. I know Mr. Benton doesn’t follow his, but at least we can call him on it when he doesn’t. With the FCT, we dont know what we are reading from whom. There is really no journalism going on. No real news stories are investigated, followed up on or reported. The FCT is more of a blog that publishes City news releases when they come in, and uses that “filler” as its news. Fluff stories about farmers market or the latest play do not a newspaper make.

    GEORGE SOUTHERN RESPONDS: Richard — Man About Town is an opinion piece “laced” with factual items. That’s not a new idea — in print media we call it “op-ed,” meaning that it is not an editorial, but appears (in the old days) on the page opposite the editorial page. I won’t try to dispute your criticism of my op-ed efforts, but in characterizing the Falls Church Times as a “blog that publishes City news releases,” you do a great disservice to the “other George” — George Bromley, our dedicated City Hall reporter who, week in and week out, covers almost every City Council session, reporting on them carefully and dispassionately. You won’t find much opinion driving GB’s reporting — he puts in the hours and delivers an honest product. If you want to be accurately and impartially informed about what City Council is doing, you can either read GB’s reports, or you can spend several hours a week attending the sessions or watching the tapes.

  9. Bill Brew Falls Church on November 8th, 2010 6:49 pm

    I would like to add my voice to the points made by Mr. Thacker and Ms. Updike about the tone of this column.

    I found this definition of muckracking — to search for and publicize, as in newspapers, any real or alleged corruption by public officials, business executives, or other important persons .

    That sure sounds to me like that is exactly what was done to Mr. LaCondré.in this column.

    He has just signed on to work for the City and instead of interviewing him and reporting on his plans as the CFO, we are given a mishmash of petty sniping. This is investigative journalism?

    Let’s review what is provided.

    First, we are told that Mr. LaCondré, in 2007, “suddenly” took early retirement from his position as chief of fiscal management for Sullivan County, New York, and that there were rumors at the time that he was forced out.

    On checking the linked article, however, it appears that Sullivan County offered early retirement to its employees and that Mr. LaCondré took the offer. Oh, and the article says that the rumors were denied.

    Then we learn that there was an audit during Mr. LaCondré tenure that found that that Sullivan County’s fund balance was $7 million less than had been reported. The article notes that the auditor reported that there was a “breakdown in communications of accounting personnel in the Division of Health and Family Services” which led to the problem. Mr. LaCondré is not mentioned as having any role in the breakdown or any other responsibility for what happened.

    Next, an unnamed “knowledgeable source” is cited for the notion that Sullivan County made some very bad financial decisions concerning its landfill. This happened, according to the source, “when LaCondré was at the height of his influence,” apparently justifying the question “whether LaCondré should have prevailed upon the decision makers to take a wiser course.”

    Guess we can guess what answer we are supposed to arrive at, but alas, this storyline in the column ends by noting that Mr. LaCondré “again was not blamed.” It is also worth noting, from the linked news report on the fund balance issue, that the issue of the landfill was apparently one of some consequence in the county, with one elected official being quoted as saying that he had made campaign promises – “like ending importation of trash” – that would be hard to fulfill with the lower fund balance.

    Having failed to find any actual issue with Mr. LaCondré’s work in Sullivan County, we are told about something which occurred in 1997 in his work as a CPA when he was sanctioned for failing to return records to a client. No other information. No attempt to discover what might have happened. No seeking comment from Mr. LaCondré. Just dredging up a professional infraction from thirteen years ago.

    And from all of this, we are told that Mr. LaCondré “has experience with suddenly evaporating fund balances, with very bad decisions by elected officials (their landfill = our waterworks), and with coping with budget deficits through city employee buyouts.”

    But we are cautioned that this “is not a judgment on Mr. LaCondré.”

    Fooled me.

    GEORGE SOUTHERN RESPONDS: Mr. Brew and Mr. Thacker both write compelling arguments. My wife, the sweetest person I know, agrees with them. I, being obstinate and less than sweet, continue to insist that the Fourth Estate should ask the hard questions and reveal information that is relevant. I did not write about anyone’s personal life, only about details of professional history. Nor did I make anything up. Nor did I allege any corruption, which is the defining word in the definition of muckraking supplied above. A public servant necessarily sacrifices some privacy. We know what his or her salary is, for example. But to cut to the chase: the question is — as taxpayers, are we better off (better informed) by reading this article, or does it supply nothing of any worth? And one more thing — my efforts to interview the former CFO were always blocked by the City Manager.

  10. Andy Rankin (Falls Church) on November 8th, 2010 10:21 pm

    Richard, I’ll back up George (Southern) on his comment about George (Bromley) doing real reporting. I just wish the FCT had 4-5 Bromley’s for every Southern. I think established newspapers build a reputation with hard work reporting and then can sprinkle in some editorial – but that’s really hard to do with a volunteer organization like the FCT.

    I wonder if the FCT gets enough readers now that if they sold some ads they could afford to hire a part-time reporter to do more reporting. Personally, I’d gladly click on some ads in exchange for more real news articles.

    Hey George (Southern), did George Bromley ever request an interview with the CFO? I’m wondering if City officials would have been more accepting of the newsman doing the interview instead of the opinion piece guy.

    GEORGE (SOUTHERN) REPLIES: My attempts to communicate directly with the former CFO date back to my earlier days as a reporter for the FCT, before I degenerated into an opinion columnist. On one occasion the City did set up a meeting with the City Manager, the CFO, and both Georges (Bromley and Southern). But I never got to meet directly with the CFO, nor was he allowed even to respond to my emails. I believe that he would willingly have done so otherwise, because he was always responsive when I snagged him in the corridor during Council meetings. (And Andy, if you know of anyone interested in working as a part-time reporter for pennies an hour, send him our way.)

  11. Barry Buschow on November 9th, 2010 10:54 am

    George you are a good writer and your articles capture my attention. I just don’t always know when you leave fact for fiction……I believe everyone is concerned that we don’t have both the “Nick News” and the “George S News” in our little city.

  12. J Bowman (City of Falls Church) on November 9th, 2010 12:32 pm

    I like the Falls Church Times news and comments. As with any editorial, it is up to the individual to sort out whole truths from half facts.

    That said… the question was….”Who really runs this town?”
    Of the six mentioned in the article, only two live in our Little City.
    My hope and support is for Mayor Nader Baroukh (and our elected City Council.)
    Our City manager is in charge of balancing the budget, assuring that we have needed services……and telling us the truth.

  13. Mike Smith, Falls Church on November 9th, 2010 2:19 pm

    J. Bowman:

    I, too, hope for a Council that’s in charge. Alas, they have not gotten together enough to do that. As for the three things you hope the City Manager is in charge of – he has great difficulty with all three, mostly the last.

  14. Carol Jackson on November 9th, 2010 6:00 pm

    Hey George, one of my few remaining friends suggested I might enjoy reading your latest “op-ed”.
    I COMMAND you to stop picking on Wyatt and his not yet installed, newly hired CFO.
    Don’t make me send Steve and Bob to find you…
    Carol Jackson


  15. Louis Olom, Falls Church, VA. on November 9th, 2010 10:02 pm

    You are trying energetically to provide us with a well written badly needed competitive newspaper and you are gradually succeeding. But don’t give us that stuff and nonsense about the most powerful man in the city. When you are here a bit longer you will recognize that the most powerful man in the city is its civic minded people who express their views in many ways. And if this doesn’t work, the electorate will show and has shown its power. We have a great small city record. See what has been accomplished in the last half century. Not perfect, but recognizable performance and progress. Get a larger telescope.

  16. Dale Walton on November 10th, 2010 2:18 pm

    Lou Olom is not the only “senior” citizen of Falls Church. I have lived here for close to 50 years. But I do agree with Lou for the most part….no one person or body runs the City. Power of course runs in cycles. Dominate personalities control at times and the state of the City at any given time and turnover are factors. I would add that given the precarious condition of the City at the present time makes it difficult to identify one person or body that controls because no one is willing to assume the political risk.

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