Straight talk from departing county administrator

Straight talk from departing county administrator

Steve Nichols reveals what he’ll miss – and what he won’t 

By Christina Dimeo

 Fluvanna County Administrator Steve Nichols, 65, will retire July 3 after seven years as the county’s most powerful employee.  

Eric Dahl, former assistant county administrator and finance director, will take his spot in the corner office. 

 Widely credited with fostering professionalism and transparency between county government, the Board of Supervisors and citizens, Nichols cited strides on water and sewer infrastructure as the greatest accomplishment of his tenure.  

In order for a rural county to grow, a “core requirement is to make sure that anything you have to fund is not paid for completely just by the homeowner,” Nichols said in an exit interview with the Fluvanna Review. “Today, most of the funding for county government comes from the pockets of homeowners in our county. That’s not unusual in a rural county, but we are a little bit out of whack because we have very little business and commercial interests in the county relative to what we would like to have.” 

 Fluvanna has two main sources of income: real estate and personal property taxes, Nichols said. If businesses start carrying more of the tax burden, “regular taxpayers” don’t have to shoulder as much of the weight. But businesses have a difficult time moving into the county without water and sewer infrastructure. 

To combat this problem, county government has developed two water projects: the $11.6 million Zion Crossroads water and sewer system and the $11.1 million James River pipeline. “Infrastructure costs money,” Nichols said. 

 The first will connect the Zion Crossroads area with up to 75,000 gallons per day of treated water from the women’s prison on Route 250. It will also route between 100,000 and 125,000 gallons per day of sewage back to the prison for treatment.  

The James River water project will pipe water northwest through Fluvanna to Louisa County with the understanding that Louisa will eventually provide up to 400,000 gallons of treated water per day to Fluvanna’s Zion Crossroads area. The historic nature of some of the land slated for construction, however, has delayed the issuance of a necessary permit.  

The projects have required a massive amount of communication between county government and the Board of Supervisors – a board that Nichols said is “spectacularly good to work with.”  

“It wasn’t always fantastic” working for the board, Nichols said. “But this board – for the last several years – is a really strong, collaborative, professional, respectful board. They appreciate the efforts of staff. They are professional and collegial to each other even when they disagree… And they don’t do it with any nastiness or any subterfuge. They may strongly and vehemently disagree, but they do it as professional colleagues, not as enemies.”  

Nichols heaped similar praise on his staff. “I could not ask for a more dedicated, amazing group of people that [impress] me all the time with the stuff that they think of, do and get done,” he said. “Whether you agree with the policies and how we do things in the community, or whether you like all the laws that are set, this county staff cares about our citizens and works really hard to provide great service to meet their needs. We want to know when we do well, and we equally want to know if we’re not meeting expectations because we want to fix it.”   


The difficulties of not having enough money, people or space are common to all public service roles, Nichols said. Instead, he pinpointed communication as his biggest challenge as county administrator. 

“Keeping the people we serve informed – it is really hard,” he said. “It’s really hard to communicate with everyone effectively… It’s hard for people to be positive about local government – or critical of local government – without the facts. And our job is to get them the facts… We’re never going to please everyone, but oftentimes when people know the true story, and know the facts, it informs their opinion.”  

Nichols pointed to a quote by John Maynard Keynes he keeps on the wall of his office: “When the facts change, I change my mind.”  

“I wish I could convince everybody of that,” he said.  

Then he nodded at a second quote by Nelson Mandela: “I never lose, I either win or learn.”  

“I love that one; I live by that one,” he said. “I think it’s the most positive way to look at life. I didn’t get my way or I didn’t get what I wanted – does that really matter as much as what you do after that? And when you go through and experience life and learn from it, that’s a positive to me. I just love that outlook. I use it around here all the time.” 

In order to improve communication, Nichols asked supervisors to approve a new assistant county administrator position that includes “a variety of programs that we’ve always done piecemeal – we’ve never had somebody fulltime dedicated to them.” In this role, Kelly Harris will act as the public information and Freedom of Information Act officer, as well as the officer for special projects and internal controls. “It’s an incredibly good fit for the county,” Nichols said. “It’s a great way for us to improve the things that we have not been able to do as well.”


Nichols took the job in 2012 after retiring from almost 40 years in the military. “This was a chance to serve in my community,” he said. “In the military you’re always serving in someone else’s community – your country or someone else’s country – but not in your community. You only live there for a year, or a year and a half, or two years. In my almost 40 years we moved 23 times around the world.” 

The longest Nichols and his wife, Brenda, were ever in one location was for three years and one month. Taking the county administrator job “was a chance to serve my friends, colleagues, neighbors in my community. And so that’s why it was an incredible privilege for me, because I got to serve my neighbors.”  


But moving into a small community had some surprising elements. 

“When you didn’t grow up in a small rural county, you don’t have a clue how many relationships there are,” Nichols said. “Neighbor relationships, familial relationships, marriage relationships, former teammate relationships – you don’t know that this person is that person’s cousin. Still to this day – I’ve been here in the job over seven years – I still find every week, ‘Oh my God, I didn’t know you were related to that person.’  

“You have to be very careful and sensitive to that, because it’s not that way in the military,” he continued. “We’re all a mix and a blend and we come from all over the world, but your sister, your brother, your uncle, your cousin is not in the seat next to you because you’re not in your hometown.” 

When asked if he was ever bitten by that dynamic, Nichols laughed. “It’s a pleasant minefield – that’s kind of how you have to look at it,” he said. “I’m not much to mince my words. I’m about mission, about getting things done. I’d like to be softer about it sometimes, but I’m mission driven, and when we have a task to get done, that’s really important… You can really step on something and say the wrong thing to the wrong person, but it’s also pleasant to know we have such strong relationships in our community.”  

Those very relationships are Nichols’ favorite thing about the county. “That’s the most rewarding thing about living here – the collective neighborliness of the people around,” he said. “If you need help – if you don’t get it – it’s because either you didn’t ask, or no one knew you needed help, because here it is just an automatic thing.”   


Nichols and his wife bought their home in Lake Monticello in 2007. She moved in while Nichols was deployed to Afghanistan, then he arrived in August 2008, retiring from the military soon after.  

“My daughter and son-in-law lived here; that’s why we moved here,” Nichols said. “She’s our only child. Our son-in-law is from Fluvanna and they went to college together. When they settled here we knew we would be here as soon as I retired from the military. Wherever our daughter was going to be, we were going to be.” 

Steve and Brenda Nichols moved to Nahor Village in 2012, just after he became county administrator, and lived there until this past April. Now they live in the Pantops area of Charlottesville.  

“Again, we’re following our daughter,” he said. “Our daughter and son-in-law built a house at Pantops three years ago, so we knew when we retired we were going to follow them. We’re just down the hill from them, and our granddaughter. It’s wonderful.”  


Nichols has been harboring a retirement dream ever since he saw The Way, a film featuring the Camino de Santiago, a trek that pilgrims have undertaken for 2,000 years.  

He leaves Sept. 1 to join the pilgrims, walking 500 miles across France and northern Spain to the cathedral in Santiago where the remains of St. James are said to be buried. “You stay in hostels along the way. Everything you need is on your back,” he said. “It’ll be four to six weeks depending on how many detours I take.”  

Nichols will walk by himself, but looks forward to meeting pilgrims along the way. “When I saw that movie, it just intrigued me. I started researching and reading. It’s a way to experience the world in a totally different way than when you’re riding in a car or flying on a plane,” he said. “I think it’s going to be spectacular.”   

Words of wisdom 

While Nichols is hiking the Camino, Eric Dahl will be learning the ropes of the county’s top job. Nichols has already passed along his words of wisdom, which he called “the most important advice a senior leader can get.”  

“Be a lot more worried about doing your job than keeping your job,” Nichols said he told Dahl. “If I were worried about keeping my job every day, I wouldn’t have taken the same challenges or the same risks or tried to get as much done. If you’re worried about keeping your job you want to please everybody all the time, and you cannot please everybody all the time.”  

Nichols said he came by that piece of wisdom honestly. “I’ve always been of that bent because I’m a little bit reckless compared to some others,” he said. “I’m not worried about making a mistake. I worry about getting stuff done. And the only way you’re going to get stuff done is to try, to experiment, to make an effort. If you sit and wait and try to find the perfect time, the perfect circumstance, or the perfect information before you make a decision, you’re never going to get anything done.” 

Nichols said he doesn’t remember a time in his 30 years of senior leadership roles in which he deliberately decided not to worry about keeping his job in favor of doing what he felt was right. “I’m self-confident enough, and always have been, to not really worry about…keeping my job,” he said. “If I’m worried about my job, I must not be doing my job very well. There’s not very many times when you’re going to get canned just because the person didn’t like you. Who cares if they like you or not? Are you doing a good job?”  

This maxim may not be a universal truth, Nichols acknowledged. “After the bad things that happened in 2012 when the five most senior people in the county lost their jobs, just before I got hired, that was a huge trauma, a huge shock,” he said. “The staff was wound up, worried and upset. But that was because of a specific circumstance. I still think that if you do your job well every day, you’re not going to have to worry about keeping your job.” 

Nichols pointed to another secret of success. “There’s an old saying my staff has heard me use: ‘When my boss is interested in something, I’m absolutely fascinated.’ Because I should be,” he said. “I may not want to do it personally; it may not be my personal choice. So what?” 

Saying goodbye 

Nichols had an immediate answer when asked what he’ll miss about the job. “The people. Always the people,” he said. “It’s the relationships you build. It’s the people you know. It’s the teamwork, the esprit de corps, the feeling of accomplishment alongside someone else, that is really important. I’ll miss that.” 

That doesn’t mean there aren’t any elements of the job Nichols won’t mind leaving behind.  

“I will not miss having so darn many evening and weekend meetings,” he said. “It’s an incredibly strong and heavy time commitment away from family. When you’re working five 12- or 14-hour days, and you’ve got four evening meetings and one weekend event, it doesn’t leave a lot of time for yourself or for others.” 

Nichols joked that his top priority when he returns from the Camino is to stay out of his wife’s kitchen. “Honestly, I don’t know,” he said. “I’m certain I will be involved in organizations, on boards, commissions, committees…but I don’t have any specific plans other than playing golf and traveling. It will be nice to take a breather. I love being in the outdoors. If I want to take a walk at 2 in the afternoon, I can.” 

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