Sometimes you strike a nerve.
Sometimes you don’t.
My recent column on how Southwest and Southside Virginia are underrepresented on the governing boards of Virginia’s four-year state colleges and universities definitely struck a nerve.
I heard from lots of readers, who generally pointed out one of two things:
- What about board members who grew up in Southwest or Southside but now live somewhere else? That’s a fair point of criticism. For my census, I went with where people live now. By that measure, the Virginia Tech Board of Visitors has no one from Southwest or Southside – but two board members grew up in Southside (but still no one from Southwest).
- What about non-college boards? Depending on people’s particular interests, I was sent a long list of boards to look at where some people felt this part of the state was woefully underrepresented. So here goes.
Some of these boards seem to have decent regional representation, some don’t. And often Southside comes out worse than Southwest. Lynchburg doesn’t necessarily consider itself as part of Southside, but it also comes out poorly in representation. For a metro area of its size, you’d think there’d be more people on state boards. There aren’t. I understand part of that: We’ve just finished a run of two Democratic governors, neither of whom had much political support on this side of the state. The supporters they needed to reward with appointments were mostly on the other side of the state. Still, there are some Democrats in Lynchburg. You’d think Terry McAuliffe and Ralph Northam would have rewarded some of them with board appointments. (Northam did have two cabinet secretaries from Lynchburg, so there is that.)
In any case, all this gives Gov. Glenn Youngkin some opportunities to balance things out as terms expire and he gets an opportunity to put his stamp on state government. I assume that, as a Republican, his appointees will be more conservative than those of the previous two Democratic governors – but will they be more geographically representative of the state? We’ll see.
Let’s start with the state’s two highest courts, whose appointments are made by the General Assembly, not the governor.
Virginia Supreme Court: The court has seven seats. Two are currently vacant. Of the five justices, two are from the Richmond area, two are from Hampton Roads and one is from Southwest Virginia: Teresa Chafin of Russell County. Over the years, the high court has had regular representation from this side of the state. For a time, Cynthia Kinser of Pennington Gap was chief justice. With only seven justices, it’s hard to check off every geographical box, but Southwest Virginia is certainly represented on the court now. Southside is unrepresented, although Chief Justice Bernard Goodwyn grew up in Southampton County, if you want to count that. As a strict constructionist, I would not but others may see things differently. At the moment, it’s Northern Virginia that’s most notably not represented on the court. Of note: The court has five senior justices, think of them as semi-retired justices. One of those is Lawrence Koontz of Salem.
Virginia Court of Appeals: This is one of the most egregious cases of lack of geographical diversity that I encountered. The court now has 17 members. Of those, 14 are from the urban crescent. The only exceptions are Clifford Athey of Front Royal, Lisa Lorish of Charlottesville and Frank Friedman of Roanoke. So, viewed another way, there’s only one of 17 justices from west of Charlottesville – and no one from Southwest or Southside Virginia. Yet another way to view this: Virginia has 11 members of Congress, elected from geographically based districts. We have more geographical diversity among those 11 members of Congress than we do the 17 members of the Virginia Court of Appeals. “Diversify the Court of Appeals” probably doesn’t make for a snappy bumper sticker slogan, but the geographical imbalance on this court seems pretty flagrant. (Of note: One senior justice here is Bill Petty of Lynchburg.)
Now let’s move on to boards that are appointed by the governor.
The State Board for Community Colleges: This board is interesting but it’s one that the governor has been at odds with. He wanted the board to restart its search for a new chancellor; it went ahead and hired one anyway – although now he’s backed out for unknown reasons. At one point, Youngkin hinted he might replace the whole board. He didn’t, but the dust-up still elevates the profile of this board as a regular round of appointments (or reappointments) rolls around. Of the 15 board members, only one lives outside the urban crescent: board chair Nathaniel Bishop of Roanoke. In my scorekeeping, this board ties with the Virginia Court of Appeals for having the least geographical diversity. Assuming you don’t count Roanoke as part of Southwest Virginia (folks farther west sure don’t), then there’s no one from Southwest or Southside on this board – although one, Maurice Jones, did grow up in Mecklenburg County. This seems like two big omissions; it seems easy to make the case that community colleges mean more to Southwest and Southside than to other parts of the state. Those are the two parts of the state with the lowest educational attainment. If that’s to change – and today’s economy demands it change – then the solution is going to come through the community college system. If the governor wants to make a statement with the community college board, he could make it about the lack of representation from the two parts of the state most counting on a successful community college system to help change their economic fortunes.
A question: Virginia has 23 community colleges. Granted, they’re not all of the same size. But what if there were 23 board members, one from each school’s service territory? Feel free to discuss amongst yourselves.
Virginia Board of Education: This board has nine members. Three seats are vacant. Of the other six, one is from outside the urban crescent – Pamela Davis-Vaught of Bristol – so here’s a board where Southwest Virginia is represented but Southside isn’t. Given the nature of Youngkin’s campaign last year, he probably has some ideological messages he wants to send with these appointments, but if he wants to keep geography in mind, he should look for messengers outside the urban crescent, particularly Southside.
State Council of Higher Education for Virginia: This board has 13 members, 12 appointed by the governor. By law, one must have been a president or chief executive officer of a state institution of higher education, and at least one must be a sitting school superintendent. And then the 13th member is the head of the Virginia Economic Development Partnership. Of those 13, only one is from outside the urban crescent – and he lives in Charlottesville. So, yes, here’s another example of Southwest and Southside being shut out completely.
Virginia Economic Development Partnership: Here’s a board where some members are appointed by the governor, some by the General Assembly. Here’s also an example of a board that does have geographic diversity. Board members include Nancy Howell Agee of Salem, Deborah Flippo of Salem, Richard “Rick” Harrell III of South Boston. Near as I can tell, though, there’s no one from far Southwest Virginia. (Update: I’m told that Dan Pleasant, previously in Fairfax County, has now moved to Danville, so that’s one more from the southern part of Virginia.)
Next up: Three environmental boards, two of which have been in the news in recent years because of decisions (or non-decisions) related to the Mountain Valley Pipeline and the now-abandoned Atlantic Coast Pipeline.
Air Pollution Control Board: It has nine members. Of those, one is currently from Bedford County (Hope Cupit). Youngkin recently made two appointments, one from Charlotte County (James Patrick Guy II) and one from Wise County (Donald Ratliff). So here’s an example of Youngkin actively diversifying a board, at least geographically.
State Water Control Board: It has seven members. One – Lou Ann Jesse-Wallace of Russell County – is from Southwest Virginia. All the others are from the urban crescent, so here’s yet another example of a board with no Southside members.
Waste Management Board: It also has seven members. There’s only one – Jeffrey Crate of Montgomery County – from outside the urban crescent.
There are a bazillion state boards. Each one is important to somebody. Many we wouldn’t expect to have geographical diversity due to the nature of their work. The Soybean Board probably needs people from soybean-growing country, right? Then-House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn came in for criticism when she appointed some people to the Virginia Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission who didn’t live in the commission’s operational footprint. Sometimes, though, boards that appear to be regional in nature may not be. The Virginia Port Authority board in the past has had members from Southwest Virginia on the theory that products from this part of the state get exported through the ports. Now it doesn’t.
There is one very important board, though, that always had diverse geographical representation. That’s the Commonwealth Transportation Board. That geographical diversity is mandated because some members represent specific districts: Bert Dodson Jr. represents the Lynchburg District, Ray Smoot represents the Salem District, Tom Fowlkes represents the Bristol District. Then there are some “urban at-large” and “rural at-large” representatives. None of the current rural at-large representatives are currently from Southwest or Southside – they’re from Culpeper County and Accomack County, other places that would otherwise go unrepresented. This district system makes sense for transportation because that’s how road-building dollars are allocated. It might make less sense for, say, the Virginia Court of Appeals or the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia. Or would it? How else can we guarantee that Southwest and Southside have their fair say in the governance of the state?