Editorial: Knowledge loss in Williamsburg and James City

Williamsburg and James City County are on a slow and steady decline, knowledge-wise.

That's not to say the people making decisions in our schools and respective local governments are buffoons – at least most of them aren't. Still, there's a lack of history and perspective that many of today's officials, elected and hired, just haven't attained or retained from their predecessors.

About a dozen key leaders have retired or left in the last decade or so. Their departure, voluntary or not, is felt almost daily. More are likely to leave in the near future.

Sandy Wanner – Probably the most important missing piece. Wanner retired as county administrator in 2010, but offered to come back after the supervisors fired Robert Middaugh last November. The new supervisors majority wouldn't have it, initially bungling an attempt to hire former Newport News City Manager Ed Maroney, then paying an executive search firm that produced a lackluster list of candidates.

Wanner, trained by the venerable Jim Oliver, knew how to work in the background. As one local official explained it to me this week, "Sandy simply got things done." Wanner commanded the right mix of respect and fear from his employees.

Larry Foster – The longtime director of the James City Service Authority found his niche in running the county's water system. Foster's country charm was always in effect, matched by a sincere mandate to treat his customers with respect.

Ned Cheely – Served for close to two decades as the head of Parks and Recreation, helping make the county's facilities among the best in the state, if not the nation. He ably trained his successor, John Carnifax, to uphold those standards.

Carol Luckham – James City's human resources director for many years, Luckham seamlessly monitored one of the best local government benefits packages in the state.

Bill Porter – For many years the assistant to Wanner, Porter could step in when Wanner was away and handle supervisors meetings without a glitch. There was a sense of teamwork there that doesn't exist today.

Bob Ryalls – Just retired as James City's district chief, Ryalls was the county's first paid paramedic. His depth of knowledge about firefighting is irreplaceable.

Stan Stout – One of James City's best known police investigators, Stout was revered for his undercover work decades ago, and for his administrative prowess later on.

Emmett Harmon – Recently retired as police chief in James City, Harmon was a fierce defender of his officers. He groomed two able men to continue his work, new Chief Brad Rinehimer and deputy chief Stephen Rubino.

Less known to the public but integral in James City County were Marvin Sowers in planning and Tom Pennington in technology, both now retired. And John Horne, in his previous role as director of development management, played a key role in the county's purchase of Jamestown Beach Campsites and the Jamestown Yacht Basin.

In Williamsburg there's a similar loss looming. City Manager Jack Tuttle is nearing retirement, but hasn't formally announced. Like Wanner, he has a knack for getting things done. Dan Clayton in Public Works is similarly invaluable and close to retirement.

What made these jurisdictions so successful also threatens to haunt them. Employees were generally happy, and many chose not to seek other jobs. That created a bigger threat that's now becoming manifest: a mass exodus when the group reached retirement age.

Perhaps Wanner's greatest contribution to James City was preparing for the departure of himself and others. He implemented succession planning, purposely moving employees around to train them for future roles. We've seen it work in Parks and Recreation with Cheely givng way to Carnifax, and local native Adam Kinsman is in line to become the next county administrator.

Here's an opportunity to meld the minds of leaders past and future. Bring in Wanner to tutor Kinsman in James City. Tuttle has been grooming Jodi Miller, and had her present the 2015 budget earlier this year. Continue the process, department by department, so that there's always someone capable in line.