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George Barton Liked Being in Charge

Chairman of the last all-Republican Board of Supervisors died last week.

George Barton, who died Nov. 24, was one of the most influential people in Loudoun County during the 1980s and ’90s. He was a major player in the media, government and education during an era when the county was much smaller, both in population and the harder to quantify “sense of place.”

He was a small-town editor at a time when Leesburg was still a small town, and Loudoun was a small county. When Barton edited the Loudoun Times-Mirror, it wasn’t unusual for community leaders walk in and complain about something they had read in the paper. 

He wrote a weekly column that bore his photo and gave readers a sense of where the editor stood on issues large and small. And he was the kind of editor who would lend not just his name, but his energies, to charitable fundraising campaigns.

This was just before I came to Loudoun, so I never had the chance to see him in action as editor. But his influence was obvious. He had hired and groomed a cadre of young reporters, many of whom went on to successful careers in journalism, public relations and government. Their admiration for his leadership skills was obvious.

It should also be noted that he was a volunteer firefighter and a Vietnam War veteran who received the Purple Heart four times.

I first got to know Barton after he had left the Times-Mirror to start his own public relations firm. In February 1990, the Board of Supervisors, then chaired by Democrat Betty Tatum, had decided to form a “blue ribbon committee” that would make recommendations about how local government should be reformed. Barton agreed to chair the committee.

At the time, the board was composed of eight members, each of whom was elected by district. The chairman was elected by a vote of the board members.

With an even number of members, the board often found itself deadlocked 4-4 on critical issues. The committee recommended a ninth seat be added – a chairman who would be elected countywide, by the voters at-large. Other recommendations included adding legislative aides for board members and strengthening the use of standing committees.

All of these recommendations were eventually enacted. The position of “Chairman at Large” was in place in time for the elections of November 1991. Barton himself decided to run for the position and won by a wide
margin – not just countywide, but in each of the county’s eight election districts.

The Republican Party nearly swept the county elections that year, winning eight of the nine seats on the board. When the only Democrat, Thomas Dodson, resigned mid-term for professional reasons, the board appointed Republican Ready Snodgrass to take his place.

That was the last time one party held all the seats on the board until January 2012, when the current board took office, a fact that has invited comparisons between the two boards.

Barton governed from a position of political strength, and he was indeed a strong chairman. He held a popular view that the previous board had spent too much time debating issues, was determined that his board be decisive. For the most part, it was.

In fact, the board’s tendency to make quick decisions, with a minimum of debate, led Barton’s old paper, the Times-Mirror, to write a critical editorial about the “quick-draw board.” 

Barton was not happy. “The media roundly criticized the past board for being indecisive,” he complained. “Now the board is being criticized for being too decisive.”

Barton decided not to run for re-election. The next chairman, Dale Polen Myers, governed from a much weaker position politically, with a board majority that opposed her on key issues. Scott York, who followed Myers as chairman, has wielded only as much power as each board would give him – sometimes, quite little.

Barton became an administrator at Shenandoah University, then a teacher. It was a good fit for someone who liked being in charge, and who had a broad knowledge of how things work in the real world.

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