August 1, 2002
At a Glance
In Fairfax County, six of 10 members of the Board of Supervisors work in those positions full-time, three are self-employed, and one has a part-time job.
The six full-time supervisors are Kate Hanley, at-large, board chairman, and supervisors Sharon Bulova, Braddock; Penny Gross, Mason; Cathy Hudgins, Hunter Mill; Dana Kauffman, Lee and Michael Frey, Sully.
Supervisors with other employment are Gerald Connolly, Providence, a public affairs consultant; Stuart Mendelsohn, Dranesville, part-time attorney; Elaine McConnell, Springfield, owner of a private school and other businesses, and Gerry Hyland, Mt. Vernon, an attorney with his own law firm.
The Board of Supervisors is evenly balanced with five females, including Chairman Kate Hanley, and five males.
The county has an all-male leadership team composed of the county executive and his two deputies, the director of information technology, and the chief financial officer.
DRANESVILLE DISTRCT SUPERVISOR Stuart Mendelsohn, one of three Fairfax County supervisors with school-aged children, said spending more time with his family is more important to him than serving a third term.
Even though his re-election in 2003 was virtually assured, Mendelsohn announced last week that he won’t run, saying he made an agreement with his wife, Laura, at the outset of his career in public office.
“For me, it’s not a money decision,” Mendelsohn said. “In ‘95 I set out that if elected, I would do two terms and stop. We talked about that seven years ago.
“To me, you go in to say ‘I’m going to make a difference’ and [then] go on. It gives you a sense of urgency to get things done. Everyone was telling me I’d change my mind. But I haven’t,” Mendelsohn said.
“He kept his promise to me. He is a man of his word,” said his wife, Laura. “There’s no changing his mind. No matter what he does, he puts his whole heart into it,” she said.
With their two daughters entering the fifth and eighth grades this fall, Mendelsohn opted out of the 2003 race for supervisor, saying he wanted to spend time with them before Michelle, his elder daughter, graduates from high school in 2007.
It’s been a tumultuous year for the Mendelsohn family.
Aug. 8 is Stu Mendelsohn’s 50th birthday. In February of this year, his mother, Florence Mendelsohn, died just 27 days after the death of Faith Dick, Laura Mendelsohn’s mother and chair in the 1960s of the Democratic Party in Dranesville District. Neither death was anticipated.
But Mendelsohn says that even before those events, he already knew he would not run again.
MENDELSOHN’S DECISION raises the question of whether it is realistic for Fairfax County to advertise the position of supervisor as a part-time job that pays $59,000 a year. The Fairfax County Economic Development Authority estimates median household income in the county at $103,000 in 2001.
Supervisors have traditionally been viewed as citizen-statesmen who keep their day jobs after they are elected.
“I think the supervisors earn more than that, but as a matter of public policy, I am not sure they should be paid more than that,” said John Foust, a Democrat who is considering a run for the Dranesville supervisor’s position in 2003. “There should be a sacrifice that comes with public service.”
“It should be an incentive to keep the supervisors engaged in a profession. You learn a lot of things trying to meet a payroll that will be useful in that job,” Foust said.
But Mendelsohn, now in his seventh year in office, says the job should be full-time.
“The county is just too massive,” he said. “This would be a great job if it were full time, and paid like it.” Doubling the existing salary to $120,000 would be more in line with the job duties, Mendelsohn said.
“I clearly spend more than 40 hours a week [on supervisor duties]. A typical week as supervisor is somewhere in the 50-55-hour a week. During budget time, it’s more like 70-75 hours a week, and higher than that during hearings, if I’m in a messy land use case.
“All of us have other jobs, we’re actually working them. My law firm expects me to bill hours,” he said.
“That is the dichotomy of the position,” Mendelsohn said. “There are only three of us [Mendelsohn, Gerry Connolly (Providence) and Dana Kauffman (Lee) who have children in school.
“There’s a reason for that. They get to go to some neat stuff, but that’s not always their first choice,” he said. “You’re out a lot of evenings, and weekends.”
Mendelsohn said he tries to manipulate his schedule so he can attend his daughters’ school and sports events and dance recitals.
“I control my schedule, but it’s still hard,” he said. “You want people with kids in school [to run for office], who will be interested in school things.
“While I am saying the position ought to be full time I am not sure I want to have career people doing it,” he said. “Look how many of our [state] delegates and senators have jobs. At least in this area, there aren’t that many,” he said.
In 1993, Fairfax County considered linking supervisors’ pay to a percentage of what circuit court judges are paid. Because they are state employees, that would remove supervisors from the dilemma of raising their own salaries. But nothing came of that suggestion.
IN FAIRFAX COUNTY, the 10-member board of supervisors is elected. They hire the county executive. In Montgomery County, voters elect the county executive, who “runs the show,” Mendelsohn said.
“I don’t see anybody wanting to change what we have now,” he said.
“Voters like having the ability to call up their supervisor” to get problems solved, Mendelsohn said.
Each supervisor has an office budget of $331,000 to pay the staff. Mendelsohn has seven workers, all of them classified part time although they spend many more hours working out constituents’ problems, he said.
Mendelsohn is one of two supervisors who work for outside employers.
Two others, businesswoman Elaine McConnell (Springfield) and attorney Gerry Hyland (Mt. Vernon) are self-employed.
WHEN HE WAS ELECTED, Mendelsohn had his own law firm, Mendelsohn and Ishee, in Fairfax.
Later, he joined the law firm where he now works part-time, Piper, Marbury, Rudnick and Wolfe in Washington, D.C.
Since he joined the Board of Supervisors, Mendelsohn said, he has done less real estate and litigation and more corporate work, because “it is the least deadline-driven.”
After he leaves county government, Mendelsohn said he will work full-time for the law firm.
His wife, Laura, was a project manager for a defense contractor before she met Mendelsohn, married and had children. Now, she is a stay-at-home mom.
His daughters, Michelle and Sarah, haven’t yet realized the impact of their father’s decision, said Laura Mendelsohn, because “their lives haven’t changed.” But they notice his accomplishments.
“We love to go to Great Falls Library. It wasn’t there before their dad did it,” Laura Mendelsohn said. “And the playground out there”
[at the Grange].
“And the [July 4] fireworks.”
WHAT DOES A SUPERVISOR need to be successful?
In addition to his law degree, Mendelsohn has a master’s in environmental engineering. His undergraduate degree is in ocean engineering.
Having three degrees has helped him ask better questions of county staff, Mendelsohn said. Otherwise, “you are at the mercy of what they tell you.”
More important, he said, “is a history of being involved in the community. That is more important than education or anything else. You have to know the community.
“You won’t know all the things that come at you, but you have to put some time in working in the community,” Mendelsohn said. “Even then, you have to learn a lot, listen a lot, and read a lot.”
Job satisfaction comes from “Encouraging people who have an idea, and not kill it along the way.
“The ball fields at the library [in Great Falls] were done by the community,” he said.
“I had to make a bunch of motions to make it happen.
“But in Dranesville, they may be a tough bunch of constituents, but when you get them all going in the right direction, there’s nothing you can’t do,” he said.
Mendelsohn, a lay speaker in the Methodist Church, said he lives by a quotation from Sir James Barrie, the author of “Peter Pan:”
“Those who bring sunshine into the lives of others cannot keep it from themselves,” Barrie wrote.
“That’s what I’ve tried to do my whole life,” Mendelsohn said.