A supervisor’s cat has left many people scratching their heads about the responsibilities of political aides, and whether the line between personal favors and use of taxpayer money has been crossed.
What may be comical to some has irked others and been deemed a terrible misunderstanding by the aide in question. However, questions about that one incident have compelled other aides to come forward. And while the cat may get the attention, its only part of the concern expressed by these aides, who say they were compelled to share their experiences with potential voters.
The aides worked for Supervisor Andrea McGimsey (D-Potomac) at some point in the last four years and have offered their own accounts—some on the record, some off—of their time on the job. The first accounts appeared on the blog Too Conservative under anonymous aliases, but since then more and more aides have said they wanted to discuss their experiences—good or bad.
When asked, McGimsey said she had read something purportedly written by one of her aides, but was not sure if it was the Too Conservative blog or not.
“I read something at one point that sounded like a fictional narrative,” she said, adding that she was disappointed to hear concerns were raised with mainstream media outlets as well. “I’m saddened by this. I feel like I’ve worked hard for the county and done really meaningful work.
Among the more concerning complaints are requests several aides said Supervisor Andrea McGimsey (D-Potomac) made for them to perform personal chores for McGimsey while on county time. More than one reported being asked to care for her cat, Buster—although no one admits having actually done it while at work—or to troll through newspapers looking for articles pertaining to McGimsey for a scrapbook.
But it was the cat that prompted action. During a meeting among the supervisors’ aides, McGimsey’s current aide Alex Delgado mentioned he was going to feed her cat and clean out the kitty the litter.
“That upset so many of us that one of the aides went to [County Administrator Tim] Hemstreet about it,” said an aide from another office. At least four aides present at the meeting confirmed the account, including Jessica Echard, who made the complaint.
“I went to the county administrator,” said Echard, who worked for Supervisor Lori Waters (R-Broad Run) before leaving town for an internship. “The meeting was actually over,” Echard explained, saying Delgado raised the cat care half-jokingly. “’Oh yeah, she just told me to put it on my time sheet.’ We all just stopped and said, ‘Whoa, that’s not OK.’”
Delgado said the entire situation was a misunderstanding with the other aides and that the situation got blown beyond what it actually was.
“No county money was spent to take care of her cat,” he said. “She and I have a friendship beyond [supervisor-aide]. That’s all that was.”
McGimsey said another aide once voluntarily checked on her cat while she was out of town, but that she relies on friends to help care for Buster. The aide had a key to her home because she has a home office and provides access to her aides.
“I would never ask an aide to spend county money to take care of my cat,” she said. “I said, ‘If you want to check on him, that’s great.’ It was a personal offer.”
In the case of Delgado, McGimsey considers him a friend.
“It was a personal favor, not for the county. Alex and I are friends,” she said. “I keep my personal business personal.”
But it was no joke to the other aides present at that meeting. Echard said she did not believe Delgado thought much about it, but other aides had complained about the same request and even worse treatment.
“I left and I decided that was my last straw,” she said. “I’m done having this abuse going on without anyone doing anything about it.”
What concerned several of the aides who heard the “cat chat” is employees do not want to be uncooperative to a superior and may find it difficult to say no to an employer’s personal favor. That could be particularly difficult for someone who finds his or her boss difficult to please. McGimsey said she takes pains to ensure her personal and county business are separate, and that anything done was done as a personal favor, rather than as an employee.
And several of McGimsey’s aides, present and former, are vehement supporters. Like Delgado, Khalial Withen enjoyed her time with McGimsey.
“I had a great experience. I learned a lot. It’s a really stimulating environment to work in,” said Withen, who worked on McGimsey’s 2007 campaign and then served as her aide. “It was an amazing opportunity for me. It was hard to leave.”
Delgado, who started working for McGimsey last December, echoed many of the same thoughts, saying he has a very positive relationship with his boss and that she has been a role model for him.
“She has been very willing and open to help me in a lot of ways. And I am thankful for that. If I were to leave for any reason I think she and I would still be friends,” he said, adding that he has learned a lot in his 11 months there. “She has always been supportive of everything I have done. She has always given me positive reinforcement, and has always critiqued me in a way that is professional and that makes me better.”
But others who said they joined McGimsey’s office happy to support the policies and beliefs held by the Democratic supervisor only found a work environment in which they could not be successful, or happy.
Shanyn Ronis worked a short time for McGimsey in late 2010 and recently described her first day on the job, during which the supervisor called to inquire whether a plane ticket had been purchased.
“She said ‘Has this been done?’” When she learned it had not, Ronis said, she launched in an abusive rant before calming down and attempting to soothe the clearly upset aide. Then, Ronis said, McGimsey asked, “’We’re still friends, right? Pinky swear?’”
McGimsey recalled being upset that she was scheduled to represent the county at an event for which a flight had not been booked, but denies getting out of line with Ronis.
“I had been told it had been done,” McGimsey explained, but then learned the ticket had not been purchased by another aide as expected. “I do not believe I went ballistic on Shanyn. She was an excellent employee. I’m saddened that she would say that.”
Many of the aides interviewed said unpredictability made working for McGimsey difficult. For Debbie Hawk, who worked for McGimsey in 2009, that ultimately drove her to resign.
“Everyone wants to do a good job, everyone wants to do well for their employer, but it’s hard when you have to guess what they want,” Hawk said. “It really wore on me. And the treatment just got more and more degrading.”
“I never knew what to expect from day to day,” said another aide who asked not to be named. “I would get to work and have no less than 6, 7, 8 voicemails, and they all said something different.”
Lori Stevens, who worked for McGimsey early in the supervisor’s term, said she became uncomfortable working in the office.
“She is very, very demanding and she is very harsh,” Stevens said. Stevens said she does not feel she received the worst of it, but found it equally difficult to see others treated poorly.
McGimsey said she has high expectations, but believes she’s fair to her employees.
“I’m a fair boss and I expect good work from my employees,” she said. “I definitely have high expectations of my team. We have a really important job. We have a lot of responsibility to the people.”
Most of the aides interviewed said they felt belittled if something was not done to McGimsey’s expectations—even things they did not know they needed to do. Several aides said they were expected to tell McGimsey how to dress for events, provide minute details in directions to various events including landmarks and all the parking available in the surrounding area, and make multiple duplicate copies of important items for McGimsey’s private employer, Oatlands.
McGimsey denied requesting copies of items for Oatlands. The only thing she said she ever asked her aides to do regarding Oatlands is to send her county schedule to her Oatlands email address on a weekly basis.
"That's completely not accurate," she said. "I would never use county tax dollars for Oatlands."
Hawk said once she put in for her resignation “all conversations stopped. I couldn’t get her on the phone. I had to go to our liaison to help make the transition work.”
One aide, who asked not to be identified, said throughout her tenure in the office, McGimsey was “inconsistently accessible,” which made for a very frustrating work environment that often left her at loose ends.
Ronis described the office atmosphere as chaotic, and communication difficult.
“She has no idea how to have interpersonal relationships with people working under her,” said a former aide from another supervisor’s office. That aide, like Echard, said she often found McGimsey’s aides in her office in tears, needing consolation. “She just talks down to them and demoralizes them.”
“That is unacceptable and must be stopped,” Echard said. “It is not okay. They do not deserve to be treated like that.”
Aides reported going to the County Administration with their problems and concerns, but because they are political appointees and at-will employees there is little that can be done. Aides do not have a grievance policy or procedure as other county employees have. Earlier this year during the debate over whether aides should be reclassified to participate in the Virginia Retirement System, the possibility of adding a grievance policy was discussed, but ultimately rejected, by the board.
Hawk said county staffers deserved many accolades for their responsiveness to her and other aides’ requests for help.
“We have an amazing staff for this county,” she said. “People need to know that, too.”
Echard said she has long wanted to express her concerns about McGimsey publicly, but that she was worried it would reflect poorly on her former boss.
“It would look like a partisan attack from our office,” she explained. But with the recent movement by several of McGimsey’s former aides to reach out to the media whether on or off the record, she felt it was time to come forward.
Many of the aides interviewed said they also grew increasingly concerned by seeing their boss, in their eyes, “unprepared” to do county business, and their unspoken requirement to keep the office running, including attending applicant and community meetings alone, and alerting McGimsey specifically to what emails needed to be answered with what level of haste. “She rarely answered her emails. Maybe one out of 100,” one aide, who also asked not to be identified, said.
McGimsey acknowledged that she delegates authority to her staff for work that does not require her involvement, but said she handles most applicant meetings after the Planning Commission makes a recommendation and the applications come before the board.
“I usually meet with the applicant myself,” she said. “For the most part, I try to.” She did acknowledge that when a constituent contacts her office it is almost always her aide who responds and works with county staff to find the answer or solution to the problem. “A lot of that I don’t need to be directly engaged with that because the staff knows what to do.”
Stevens said McGimsey creates problems through poor organization skills that aides must rectify.
“She create problems and aides must clean them up,” Stevens said. “Then she turns around and blames whatever pieces are left on the aide who’s been trying to fix everything.”
Hawk said there were numerous times before the Board of Supervisors went completely digital that she would pick up board packets before a meeting and they would be unopened, untouched. Hawk said she routinely took things to and from McGimsey’s home to be signed or for or from a board meeting that “if I hadn’t done that it wouldn’t have been done.”
“She was never in the office,” Hawk said. That was a statement repeated by the other former aides, with one saying she could “count on one hand the number of times she physically came into the office.”
Stevens agreed. “The aides are the ones doing the work she should be doing,” she said.
McGimsey said because the county has central offices in Leesburg, she prefers to work from her home office, which is currently in the Potomac District. [Editor’s note: After Jan. 1, 2012, McGimsey’s home will be in the Broad Run District.]
“I am not in the office a great deal. I tend to stay in my district,” she said. “The county doesn’t have district offices.” She noted she is in Leesburg more now because her job at Oatlands takes her out that way more regularly.
But outside the county building McGimsey has been one of the most active supervisors, often attending conferences and events as a county representative. According to the Board of Supervisors’ expense reports, items such as hotels, airfare, mileage, event registration and meals are included under the “Conduct of Business” category. Each supervisor has a budget of $8,000 for that category, with the exception of Chairman Scott K. York (R-At Large), whose budget is $9,600.
From the beginning of her term to mid-October of this year, McGimsey’s spending totaled $23,164. By comparison, York – whose responsibilities include serving as the county’s primary representative – spent $19,491 during that time. The other seven supervisors saw significantly less spending from Supervisor Eugene Delgaudio’s (R-Sterling) $6,283 down to Waters, whose expenses amounted to $281.
Included on McGimsey’s expense reports are a number of conferences and events with the National Association of Counties, the Virginia Association of Counties, the U.S. Green Building Council, the Local Climate Leadership Summit, and numerous mileage reimbursements.
“If you look at our county bios, you’ll see why,” she said. “Other supervisors, they just basically represent their district. They don’t step up to sit on the organizations for the whole county.”
She said she felt compelled to volunteer for a number of positions representing the county because the organization to which the county belong often lobby on Loudoun’s behalf and so someone should be speaking up on its positions.
“It is all county related businesses. These conferences, it is work,” she said.
McGimsey said that while she’s surprised at the backlash, some employees were not up to par.
“There have been performance issues,” she said.“When someone tells you something is done, you would expect it to be done. I am saddened by this. I feel like I have worked really hard for the county and am proud of the work I have done with my aides.”
Ronis and Stevens have family members who are running for office and weighed carefully whether to speak up or fear it could impact those relatives. But in the end, they and other aides said they felt they were doing a service to the community.
[Clarification: A response from Supervisor McGimsey was added regarding her employer because she had not previously been made aware of the comment.]