Thursday, March 31, 2016

Amazing grace

Rebecca Dickson, third from left, listens as Board of Supervisors Chair Bob Minnick reads a resolution commending her on service to the county. She is surrounded by (LtR) Ken Peterson, Susan Lascolette, Ned Creasey, and Manuel Alvarez, Jr. Lisa Beczkiewicz is partially visible in the background.

On July 20, 2009, forty years to the day after man first landed on the moon, Rebecca T. Dickson took the oath of office as Goochland County Administrator. She assumed command of a governmental ship of state that was wildly off course, beset by abysmal dysfunction within and economic turmoil without. A trip to the moon might have been an easier undertaking. Her tenure of office ends today, March 31 as she retires to follow a new motto “I walk by faith,” and deal with health issues.

At Ms. Dickson’s investiture, an event attended by many prominent local government officials, Dr. John Thomas of the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Policy spoke of his love for local government and its role in our culture. The devastating consequences of failed institutions, shown during the financial meltdown, said Thomas, reveal the importance of effective management in a functioning society.

The task of local government, he contended, is to deliver scores of public services, often in partnership with other groups. It is government’s role to bring all of the players to the table in a mutually beneficial collaboration, which cannot happen under a command and control model; government managers must be team players to implement a shared vision.

Those words were heady stuff to Goochlanders who knew only an arrogant—often rude—command and control type of county government. The sitting chair of the Board of Supervisors ironically thanked interim administrator Lane Ramsey for bringing “new ideas and a professional way of doing things” to Goochland.

Ms. Dickson swore her oath in a quiet, yet firm voice. Although she had impressive experience and credentials, there was some skepticism that this slip of a woman would be up to the formidable task, which turned out to be worse than expected, of getting the county back on track. Her iron will and steely determination had not yet revealed themselves.

Ms. Dickson told the assemblage that she was eager and excited to become part of the Goochland team, a new term in the county lexicon. She was humbled by her selection and pledged to use her passion for excellence in public service for the benefit of all to build on the county’s successes and deal with its challenges.

“You end up where you should be in spite of yourself,” she observed about her life’s journey to the Goochland County Administration Building. “But it all comes down to grace. The grace of others that provided me with opportunities, the grace that provided safety nets, the grace to forgive and continue to work with me when I was clearly out of line. We all need grace and should grant it and receive it when we can.”

Ramsey, one of her mentors in Chesterfield County, said that he “had never seen anyone fall in love with local government and apply her passion to achieve goals.”

And apply her passion for excellence she did in spite of a plethora of enormous roadblocks. In her first days on the job, Ms. Dickson must have drawn deeply on her personal well of grace as she uncovered layer after layer of “challenge” in county operations. She is believed to have taken a significant pay cut to come to Goochland and could have returned to Chesterfield had things not worked out. Rebecca Dickson does not retreat.

In her early years, the county struggled to provide services as revenue dwindled. Unlike many other places, Goochland avoided a tax increase. The county budget was cut to the bone, and then some. The school division claimed that without a significant infusion of cash, funded by higher real estate taxes, education in Goochland was “circling the drain,” and refused to explain why the money was needed.

Ms. Dickson brought fresh eyes to old problems and made changes, some with a scythe, some with a scalpel, mindful of their long term consequences. Perhaps her most significant innovation changed the prevailing "we can't" attitude into a "how can we?" quest to make things happen.

Along the way, some long time county employees were freed “to pursue other interests”. New faces came on board with badly needed skills, especially in the finance area. Under Ms. Dickson’s leadership, the entire staff learned to work smarter, harder, better, and most important of all, together to serve the citizens. The spirit of collaboration in county government that blossomed during her tenure united disparate tasks into common goals. Folks had a good time as they worked, earning the satisfaction of a job well done. Ms. Dickson never missed the opportunity to commend a person or department for their part in achieving goals. Many county employees contend “This is the best job I’ve ever had.”

To be sure, not all of the initiatives proposed by Ms. Dickson were popular, yet she heeded the advice of Winston Churchill during World War II, to “keep calm and carry on.”

The 2011 election brought a new direction in policy and attitude. So many positive changes have come about that it is difficult to remember the bad old days. Under Ms. Dickson’s leadership, Goochland government was transformed from a joke into a model.

Indeed, Goochland Circuit Court Judge Timothy K. Sanner remarked that Ms. Dickson “has lead Goochland through a remarkable recovery so that it now stands as an exemplar for good government throughout the Commonwealth. Her wisdom, strength, and vibrant personality has motivated those around her to put aside personal differences and seek common ground for the good of the county…She is a difference maker.”

County staff and other well-wishers filled the room at the start of her last Board meeting on March 2. After being presented with flowers and a resolution of appreciation for her service. Ms. Dickson smiled to forestall tears during a bittersweet farewell speech sprinkled with her trademark self-deprecating quips.

She claimed that she was just the “middleman” between the board and an unbelievable staff, who makes it all happen. “That (Goochland County Administrator)was a pretty lucky seat, but the work comes from staff and the best board, I know in the state, maybe in the county, to get things done.”

“You always try to leave a place better than found it, I hope I’ve done that for Goochland, you’ve certainly done that for me,” Ms. Dickson said. She took issue with the notion that Goochland lacks an identity “I’ve never seen such a sense of place since I’ve been here.” She promised to stay involved and thanked elected and appointed officials and the community for their support.

“You don’t know how lucky you are until you face something like this, and I’m pretty darn lucky. I’ve had the luck and luxury to have worked with a lot of stellar people in my career, but there are no more terrific people than Lisa Beczkiewicz and Norman Sales to work with. We could win a five legged race because we are so much in sync.”

Ms. Dickson thanked the board for its support and believing “we could accomplish the things we did,” alluding to the trip to New York to secure a AAA Standard and Poor’s bond rating for Goochland in 2015.

“Positivity and optimism trump everything,” she declared. “Anything can happen.”

Go with grace Rebecca Dickson; may your walk in faith be joyful and long.

1 comment:

Ned Creasey said...

Sandie, You have really hit the nail on the head with this. Ms. Dickson came at the right time. Had not, as well as a new board later, this county could very well went down the tube. Amazing how "faith" seems to work things out. Thank you for you many fine pieces including this outstanding one.

Ned S. Creasey
District 3 Supervisor