It’s a phrase borrowed from the corporate world: “managing by walking around.”
William Semple of Warrenton, newly announced candidate for the town council, said in an interview Thursday that he’d like to govern by walking around.
Semple said that he has spent the last few months walking around Ward 2 with his poodle Sophie, talking to residents about their concerns.
The current occupant of the Ward 2 seat, Alec Burnett, said Monday that he will be running for reelection. All ward seats will be decided in a May election; winners will take office in July. At-large council seats and Mayor Carter Nevill’s position are not up for reelection until 2022.
Although Semple thinks the town council is doing a good job, he would like to see its members engage more in the community.
Semple said, “I think Alec’s [Burnett] a good guy. He’s a smart guy and has been a part of this community for a long time. I’m not running against anyone -- or anything. I’m running for the ward.”
He also emphasized that he thinks the town has a strong staff. Town Manager “Brandie Schaeffer is very effective,” he said.
He added, “the police force is superb, the town staff is marvelous. I don’t have any real complaint. I just want to take things one step further.”
Communication is a priority for Semple. “You get on council and it’s the last you ever hear from them. They don’t communicate with their constituents,” he said.
He’d like to see improved transparency. “The decisions we make locally affect us much more than anything happening on the national scene. When policy is being developed locally, citizens don’t get involved until it’s fairly far along. They need to know about things earlier, so they can be prepared to respond. There should be no surprises.”
Semple envisions a ward-specific newsletter and website that lets people know what’s coming up for discussion at council meetings. “They need to be involved in what happens to their neighborhoods.”
Semple is a U.S. Navy veteran and entrepreneur who licensed his patented search technology to Fortune 500 companies. In addition, Semple has been a senior development officer for the National Symphony Orchestra, Washington Opera and National Trust for Historic Preservation. He said he has also been a consultant to national associations on strategic planning and membership development.
And, he plays clarinet in the Fauquier Community Band.
The 73-year-old admits that some of the people he engages with while walking on the Greenway don’t know who represents them or even what ward they are in. “I didn’t either, until I started walking. If I am elected, they’ll know who I am.” He said he’ll make it easy for constituents to reach out to him and share concerns.
Semple admitted, “I see myself as the problem that needs to be solved.” He said he doesn’t attend council meetings in person; he watches them on video from home; he claims his idea for “push technology” would engage more people.
He added that even though he did not attend all the comprehensive plan public meetings over the past few months, “I have downloaded every snippet of information I could find online about the comprehensive plan and been in conversations with the planning department.”
Semple said he believes in “organic growth, not in peripheral growth that causes undue pressure to the town.”
He said he wants to make sure the comprehensive plan doesn’t give future councils too much flexibility. “We should have a vision of what we want Warrenton to be.”
He said in a press release announcing his candidacy, “On the ballot is the future of Warrenton. Shall we continue to be a neighborly small town or another sprawling suburban center with mounting crime, higher taxes and services stretched beyond capacity?”
Semple said in the release that “he views with alarm the town's vision to inflate the population... fueled by rezonings, special exceptions and variances; taxpayer-funded expansion to the sewer plant and sharply increased density. The plan is a solution in search of a problem,” he said. “What we have here is a failure of imagination.”
He added in the press release that the comprehensive plan being developed calls for a strong “live-work community.” He asked, “Do we really want Warrenton to develop three to four levels of multi-family housing over commercial in the business district? Warrenton as we know it today would evaporate. I lived in Clarendon (Arlington) during early days as an urban village. Many of these images would be perfectly fine in Arlington. But here?”
Semple said the town's plan for the future should be decided by the newly elected council, rather than by the “lame duck council.”
He said, “To go along with the plan that accomplishes some of these goals but keeps it all sane, we also need execution, and this is where the rubber meets the road: the devil is in the details. Our scope must remain consistent with an overall vision of what the town can and should be. I am for appropriate, organic growth, but feel that growth for growth’s sake is not the way to preserve the values we cherish in this town.”
Semple, whose family has lived in Fauquier for generations, has a deep connection to Warrenton’s historic district. He and his wife Sally live in an 1880 Victorian home in Ward 2. He said he has done work himself on the home and the “guest cottage” behind it.
“I built this room,” he said, referring to a bright study with lots of polished wood and well-maintained details. “I’m not afraid to get book to learn how to do something, get a hammer and a saw and do it. I learn, I do, I make mistakes and I learn.”
Semple believes Ward 2 is eclectic, and that’s a strength. He talks about a neighbor who survives on disability payments. “I helped him get his driver’s license back, I helped him get his voting rights back. He can’t do heavy labor, but he can hold a ladder. We built this room together. That’s neighborhood.”
He concluded, “I love Warrenton. I want to find a way to inspire people to believe in this town.”
Robin Earl can be reached at email@example.com