Farmer, conservation activist, and 2019 county Board of Supervisors candidate Tia Walbridge will no longer emcee County Chairwoman Phyllis J. Randall (D-At Large)’s rural summit planned for Friday, after protests from western supervisors Geary M. Higgins (R-Catoctin) and Tony R. Buffington (R-Blue Ridge) that her involvement made the summit a political event.
They also complained that they had been excluded from participating in the event rather than simply attending, and Higgins suggested it may constitute a violation of the board’s code of ethics, or a misuse of county funds, since Randall’s office staff organized the event.
The complaint quickly turned into a political flashpoint, with social media outcry, former Republican state chairman John Whitbeck editorializing against the summit’s apparent political nature and former School Board member Jeffery Maged writing to board Vice Chairman Ralph M. Buona (R-Ashburn) to request censure against Randall. Buona nominated Maged to a county advisory panel, the Other Post-Employment Benefits Investment Committee, in 2017.
Walbridge, a sheep farmer, founding board member of Save Rural Loudoun, associate director with Loudoun Soil and Water Conservation District, and member of the Virginia Agricultural Council, announced in September that she would challenge Buffington for his seat representing the Blue Ridge District on the Board of Supervisors. She was also scheduled to emcee the rural summit.
Randall said Walbridge called her and asked to withdraw from the event after seeing a Facebook comment suggesting reserving rooms on behalf of white supremacists, contacting CNN, and “sit back and watch the cavity searches.”
“The post shook her and shook me, to be quite honest,” Randall said. “And she called me and what she said is—and she is correct—that this summit it too important to the rural west, and these things have become a distraction and maybe even slightly dangerous.”
Instead, Hillsboro Vice Mayor Amy Marasco will emcee the event.
Walbridge said she withdrew because her involvement got in the way of “conversations are just so much more important.”
“The fact that they’ve made it political, I think, is very unfortunate, and the issue at hand is just such an incredibly critical one to get right this year,” Walbridge said. “We have to make some pretty major decisions as a county for the future of western Loudoun.”
The county Planning Commission is currently working on the county’s new comprehensive plan, amid discussions about other programs that might help the county’s rural lands like a transfer of development rights program or Buffington’s proposed conservation easement assistance program.
In an email to supervisors Wednesday afternoon, County Administrator Tim Hemstreet said with Walbridge’s removal from the program, county staff members would be allowed to participate in the program. Department of Economic Development Executive Director Buddy Rizer is scheduled to appear on a panel discussion, “View from the Inside: Tools available for the Rural Economy.”
“Since the event is no longer a political event, and staff believes that our presence at the Rural Summit provides a positive impact to the Rural economy, County staff is permitted to attend the event and to participate,” Hemstreet wrote.
Randall has not conceded that the event was political in nature.
“There are times we should give one another a break,” Randall said. “There are times when—the partisan atmosphere is so high right now. Every decision is seen through these not just partisan eyes, but terribly suspicious partisan eyes.”
On Wednesday afternoon, it was also decided the summit will include a tribute to Malcolm Baldwin, the prominent Loudoun County conservation leader who died Monday. The summit is planned for 8:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Friday, Nov. 16 at the Salamander Resort & Spa in Middleburg.