Almost any local elected official can relate a story about constituent contacts in unlikely places – the woman who, seeing the bumper stickers on my car, stopped me in the post office parking lot this week and asked if I “worked for Penny.” When I said I am Penny, she threw her arms around me and said she was a teacher who hoped for a pay raise in the next budget. The constituent who recognized me, even when I was hooked up to dental equipment and Novocain, and started a conversation, apparently not noticing that I could not respond. Then there’s always the grocery store, where often I am asked “can I talk to you for just a minute?” That happens, hopefully, before the frozen foods aisle! My favorite, though, was when I attended a funeral home viewing for a long-time constituent, and the widow responded sweetly to my offer of assistance with “can you have the pothole at the end of my driveway fixed? We’ll be having a lot of visitors this week.”
Regardless of the location and circumstances of a constituent contact, public service at the local level is an honor and a privilege, and very gratifying, too. Local officials make more decisions that affect everyday life than anyone across the river in Congress. They may not be earthshaking, like declaring war or addressing the federal debt limit, but local decisions certainly can make a difference. Helping to resolve a community issue, like parking or potholes (road maintenance is a state responsibility, but I advocate with VDOT about road problems every day), takes time, but working together, patiently, often yields desired results. Individual problems get resolved, too, like the mother whose adult daughter needs mental health treatment and a group home residency; a patient who needed intervention for the ambulance bill he received; and another widow who was simply overwhelmed by the paperwork after her husband died.
Such duties may not be in a job description of an elected official, but the human needs are there, and ours is sometimes the first number called when someone needs help. If the question or problem to be resolved is not within specific county authority, my staff and I try to assist, even if only to provide a name and phone number for a state or federal agency that has jurisdiction.
The governance responsibility that is at the center of a local official’s duties is both informed and assuaged by these personal human stories. With a population of more than a million residents, Fairfax County has longtime families, here since George Washington’s day, and newcomers, who may have arrived just last year. Each one has a story, and each account provides insight into culture, concerns, and expectations, sometimes intimately so. Telling that story to an elected official creates a positive relationship built on trust, discretion, and dignity, and one of the most rewarding facets of the job of Supervisor.
Penny Gross is the Mason District Supervisor, in the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. She may be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.