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Cole taking unpaid leave to serve in legislature

BY JEFF BRANSCOME

Del. Mark Cole is taking unpaid leave from his new job as Spotsylvania’s deputy county administrator while the General Assembly is in session.

Cole, R–Spotsylvania, confirmed that the county is paying him only for the hours he actually works—which was 12 this week—and not for his full $125,000 annual salary. His hourly rate is $60.

The Spotsylvania Board of Supervisors in December unanimously voted to appoint Cole to the position. The controversial hire opened up board members to accusations of  cronyism.

Cole’s first day on the job was Jan. 2, seven days before the start of the General Assembly session.

He said he’s attended several county budget meetings as deputy administrator. County Administrator Doug Barnes is scheduled to present his proposed 2013–14 budget next month.

“At the start of the session, things are kind of slow, so I have more time to come into the office and do some work,” Cole said. But he said he expects to work fewer hours for the county as the session picks up.

Cole said he took personal leave during previous sessions when he worked for Northrop Grumman. He was laid off from that job in September after 27 years with the federal contractor.

  “It’s pretty much how I’ve done it ever since I’ve served in the General Assembly,” Cole said. “It’s just now I’m working a new job and don’t have any personal leave to take.”

In addition to his county pay, Cole makes $17,640 annually as a member of the House of Delegates, as well as a $170 per diem during the session. He and other delegates also receive a $1,250 office allowance every month. When members attend legislative meetings outside the session, they get $200 per day.

Supervisors Chairman Paul Trampe said he didn’t realize that Cole wasn’t being paid his full county salary during the legislative session.

“If that’s the case, that sounds reasonable,” he said of the hourly pay.

Supervisor Benjamin Pitts, who also said he didn’t know of Cole’s pay arrangement, said he thinks it makes sense.

“Mr. Cole should not be paid for work that he’s not doing for the county,” he said. “If he’s not working a full, normal day for the county, he shouldn’t be paid for working a normal business day for the county.”

Pitts said in an interview last month that he would’ve preferred it if Cole had resigned as a delegate, saying he was concerned about how much time he would be able to devote to the job.

“Mark and I have talked about that, but I still have some concerns,” Pitts said.

Cole told The Free Lance–Star after he was hired that he could work nights and weekends and telecommute, which he said he did in his previous job. He said this week that he told supervisors during his job interview that he would take unpaid leave during the session.

James Campbell, executive director of the Virginia Association of Counties, said a number of school teachers and administrators have been elected to the General Assembly. But he said it’s unusual for someone to be appointed to a high-level local government position while holding state office.

“We do have a citizen legislature, so virtually all the legislators work in some job,” Campbell said in an interview last month about Cole’s new position. “It’s just a matter of the employer allowing sufficient time for them to do their legislative duties.”

Stephen Farnsworth, director of the University of Mary Washington’s Center for Leadership and Media Studies, says he thinks it was a “wise choice” for Cole to take unpaid leave.

“I think that if  a person is getting two full-time salaries at one time, that’s going to raise a lot of questions, especially if they’re both public salaries,” Farnsworth said.

Overall, he was critical of Cole’s appointment, saying  that it raises questions of political favoritism and how fairly other candidates for the job were treated.

Cole donated to the campaigns of Supervisors Ann Heidig, Timothy McLaughlin and Trampe, all of whom were elected in November 2011 on conservative platforms. Those supervisors disclosed the contributions—the largest of which was $300—before voting to hire Cole last month.

Some supervisors have cited Cole’s fiscal conservatism and experience in local and state government as reasons for the hire. Cole was a Spotsylvania supervisor from 2000 until he became a delegate in 2002.

Cole has said it’s not unprecedented for a state lawmaker to work in local government, and he mentioned former Sen. Edd Houck as an example.

Houck was an assistant principal when he was elected in 1984 and became an administrator for Fredericksburg city schools in the early 1990s. He said in an interview this week that he always took a leave of absence without pay during General Assembly sessions.

In fact, Houck said that the Spotsylvania school system hired a retired administrator to fill in for him when he was an assistant principal. The division paid the interim employee with savings from Houck’s unpaid leave, he said.

As an administrator for city schools, Houck said, he would continue to check work messages even during his leave without pay.

“I never did really totally walk away from the job,” he said. But he added: “It was limited because  the pace down there is just so horrific.”

Cole has stressed that Virginia has a part-time legislature, which requires most lawmakers to have other jobs. 

“The legislature was intentionally set up as a part-time legislature in order to have people from all walks of life throughout the commonwealth be able to participate,” he said.

Jeff Branscome:  540/374-5402

jbranscome@freelancestar.com

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