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Arlington board publicly rejects conflict-of-interest charge by fellow member

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The majority of the Arlington County Board on Saturday publicly rejected member Libby Garvey’s charge that another board member has a potential conflict of interest that could compromise board decisions on transportation projects.

But board Chairman Mary H. Hynes, in a statement co-signed by board members J. Walter Te­jada and Jay Fisette, reaffirmed the county attorney’s opinion that Chris Zimmerman has no conflict of interest. The three board members declared themselves “dismayed” by Garvey’s decision to release her e-mails on the topic to the news media. Zimmerman consults for a company that is working on Arlington transportation projects, including portions of the Columbia Pike streetcar system.

Garvey, who wants to delay a Monday vote that would set guidelines for how Arlington County government would manage public-private partnerships on transit projects, had told fellow board members in an e-mail Wednesday that the county risked public embarrassment, given that Zimmerman recently began working as a consultant for AECOM Canada East in the Montreal area, a fact he disclosed in an Oct. 25 letter. AECOM has been involved in many parts of Arlington’s Columbia Pike project, and its representatives were among those who briefed the board on the issue it will vote on Monday.

County Attorney Stephen MacIsaac said in a memo to the board Thursday that Zimmerman does not have a conflict of interest under Virginia law. He said holding board members to a standard of avoiding an appearance of a conflict of interest “creates an untenable ethical standard that is neither required . . . nor practicable.”

Zimmerman, who rejected Garvey’s request to recuse himself from Monday’s vote, said in an interview last week that he does not have a conflict and if one arises, “I’m going to do the right thing.”

Public officials in Virginia are required to disclose any potential conflicts of interest each January. Hynes said in Saturday’s statement that Zimmerman’s early disclosure of his consulting contract “is a reflection of his commitment to transparency.” She said the board will present a resolution Monday that will make government actions more transparent.

The unusual board statement was released by e-mail midway through the board’s Saturday session, during a 30-minute lunch break. After Hynes sent it to reporters, the entire board resumed deliberations on land-use issues.

The exchange is the latest flash point in the continuing controversy over the Columbia Pike streetcar system. The board voted 4-0, with Garvey abstaining, in July to build a streetcar line with Fairfax County. The $250 million capital project is awaiting word on federal funding. Garvey has since said she favors a bus rapid transit system and pushed for a public, independent cost-benefit analysis of the streetcar project. Zimmerman, the most prominent of the board’s streetcar supporters, says there has already been an extensive public vetting and the board has twice voted for it.

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