News & Features » Miscellany

Henrico's pioneering, problem-solving board of supervisors chairman, proves homework and hard work still can prevail over politics.

The Education of Pat O'Bannon

Chatting with Henrico's police chief, Pat O'Bannon stands in the center of a room at St. Mary's Hospital. County officers, activists, social workers, nurses, nuns, doctors and hospital execs are here to celebrate a new shelter for women and children on the run from domestic violence. They gather around her.

When it's time for speechmaking, O'Bannon applauds the coalition: Bon Secours Richmond Health System, Commonwealth Catholic Charities, the Richmond YWCA's Sexual Assault Program, the Richmond Salvation Army, and others who lent time, services and money to the effort.

Then former Virginia attorney general and gubernatorial candidate Mary Sue Terry steps to the microphone. She describes the undertaking as a case study in leadership, an "example of how a group of people came together under the leadership of servant-leaders to identify a community problem, work collaboratively and develop a strategic plan."

Terry also is describing how O'Bannon herself works. When she joined the board of supervisors in 1996 and became aware of the county's domestic violence statistics, she prodded her fellow supervisors to do something about the alarming trend. "More than half and sometimes three-quarters of the homicides in Henrico are domestic situations," she recites.

It wasn't a priority with O'Bannon's fellow supervisors, but the police were on board. So she helped them connect with St. Mary's officials to create the public-private partnership that became "the truest partnership I've ever worked in," says Sister Joanne Lappetito, senior vice president of Bon Secours. "Everyone just pulled together and we did the job."

O'Bannon had seen the problem clearly — Henrico's domestic violence victims had to flee to shelters in Richmond and Chesterfield County — and engineered a solution.

Today, months after the reception, the shelter has yet to open its doors fully due to staffing problems. Of course, few projects go as smoothly or as successfully as most politicians would like others to expect. But O'Bannon doesn't spin or offer excuses. She's unruffled. Wait and see. With time and attention, it will all work out just right: That's the way things usually work.

Figuring out how things work on a regional level requires people skills and a patient intellect that doesn't blanch at minutiae. But gathering information is one of her great strengths. "Pat approaches problems in such a systematic way," says attorney Elizabeth Dwyer. As the planning commissioner for the Tuckahoe District, which O'Bannon represents, Dwyer is appointed by and works closely with her.

"Her first inclination is to study the problem, and she takes the time and makes the effort to do that," Dwyer observes. "She comes up with a reasoned and really informed opinion. …When she has to deal with conflict ... she makes a real effort to understand all points of view. I've never seen her go into a problem with a preconceived impression."

Patricia A. Steinmetz O'Bannon

Born: 1950, Richmond
Family: married to John O'Bannon III, M.D.; children John, Virginia and Andrew
Education: B.S., Virginia Commonwealth University, 1971
Experience: English teacher, Douglas Freeman High School; community news editor, Richmond Suburban Newspapers; development associate, Central Virginia Public Broadcasting
Current Service:
Governor's Local Government Advisory Committee to the Chesapeake Bay
Henrico Safety Commission
Henricus Foundation
National Association of Counties - Large Urban County Caucus, Leadership Committee
Richmond Academy of Medicine Auxiliary
Richmond Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, vice chairman
Richmond Regional Planning District Commission, treasurer
Virginia Building Code Technical Review Board
Virginia Workforce Investment Council
Like a school marm teaching trigonometry on a spring-fever afternoon, O'Bannon can send you daydreaming as she painstakingly moves from point A to F to P to Z on zoning and traffic and budget matters. Most notably, she turned herself into an expert on telecommunications towers long before most people knew they would become the decade's suburban NIMBY issue.

Wonder why people would object to putting a tower in a cemetery? Ask Pat. Need to know how needs for analog and digital communication might differ in the next 10 years? Call her. She's such an authority, O'Bannon was tapped to serve on a national telecommunications steering committee.

Educating herself is how O'Bannon approaches everything. Of course, local politics is a learning lab each time the phone rings. It's a Miss Manners alert every hour of every day.

What exactly can one say to the homeowner who won't hang curtains, but who does shower and prance in the altogether before the bedroom picture window fronting the sidewalk? How does one feel neighborly toward a resident who loves animals so much she keeps four dogs in an unfenced yard? How does one advise the homeowner who videotapes any neighborly transgression to put a lens cap on it?

O'Bannon learns as she goes along. When she started working zoning cases as a citizen advocate, she took a class in storm-water management to get the skinny on runoff from building sites.

Typical of her passion for lifelong learning, she later took a course in mediation.

The first time she really tested those skills was — of all things — in a 1996 dispute over a fence. Two subdivisions had been warring over where and how to build the fence. O'Bannon knew the fundamentals: Remain calm, list grievances, find where they agreed, move forward by focusing on the areas of disagreement. Sounds simple, right? But after much back-and-forth: stalemate. O'Bannon opined that they could build two fences, as long as they left enough room for a lawnmower between them. No dice. Weeks later, she said, "OK, I'll make the decision. They both got mad at me and both sides blew up. ... Then, they made the decision themselves."

When she started thinking seriously about running for office, she took a class in campaign management. "I was aiming toward something," she says. "I didn't know exactly what then."

Jump to Part 1, 2Continue to Part 2

Add a comment