Council of local governments in heated dispute over gun violence position

April 7, 2013

The Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments is typically a cooperative group of top government officials from nearly every county and city in the Washington area. They work together on coordinating police and fire issues, transportation, growth planning and environmental matters.

Last month, in response to the Newtown, Conn., school shootings, the COG board of directors voted to take a position on gun violence and support measures such as an assault weapons ban, closing the “gun show loophole” and approving firearms waiting periods. The resolution entirely adopted a position paper issued in February by the International Association of Chiefs of Police.

But the vote angered some members, who said the organization was venturing far from its mandate of finding solutions to regional problems and into the controversial realm of politics.

The boards of Loudoun and Frederick counties promptly voted to withdraw hundreds of thousands of dollars in annual funding from COG, and Prince William County and the city of Manassas threatened to do the same if the resolution wasn’t reversed. Loudoun, Frederick and Manassas called the policy “inappropriate and disrespectful” of the views of individual localities and not proper for COG to weigh in on.

Ahead of this Wednesday’s COG meeting, three local leaders launched a move to reconsider the policy declaration by sending it to a committee. That was good enough for some. But not all.

“This thing needs to be reversed in its entirety and put to a quick death,” Corey A. Stewart (R), chairman of the Prince William Board of County Supervisors, said in an interview.

His county’s board passed a resolution saying that such declarations are beyond COG’s scope and that it would withhold its almost $300,000 in annual dues if the gun resolution is not reversed.

“We’re not going to be paying dues to an organization that has strayed from its mission,” Stewart said, saying that Virginia municipalities cannot address gun control.

Falls Church Vice Mayor David F. Snyder also does not want the matter studied further. He wants COG to stand fast behind the police chiefs’ recommendations. He said the issue was appropriate for COG to consider because gun violence affects schools and police, which are funded by local governments.

“To go back on that sells out our first responders,” Snyder (R) said, “our public employees, our public, and does so in response to intimidation in the form of withholding dues, which I believe fundamentally undermines COG for the future.”

Prince George’s County Council member Karen R. Toles (D-District 7) said she was disappointed by the prospect of counties withholding money from COG. The police chiefs’ organization “is a nonpartisan group,” Toles said. “This is not Republicans and Democrats. . . . I hope we don’t have to wait until a Newtown happens in one of these jurisdictions before people stand up and take a position.”

Although COG is known for crossing county and state lines on issues such as homeland security and water quality, the group “regularly adopts policy resolutions on issues that are part of its core work program,” said Chuck Bean, its executive director. Bean said he was hopeful that the efforts of those calling for reconsideration would result in reaching common ground.

But COG officials said they did not know whether a city or county would be ejected from the organization if it decided to stop paying its dues.

Three officials are trying to resolve the dispute — Fairfax Board of Supervisors Chairman Sharon Bulova (D), Loudoun Board of Supervisors Chairman Scott K. York (R) and Alexandria Mayor William D. Euille (D). The trio met in Bulova’s office last week and drafted a letter to all 34 COG board members seeking to have the policy reconsidered and sent to the appropriate committees for study.

“I’m hopeful we can find some language, some middle ground,” Bulova said later, “where COG can be a voice on this issue of gun violence, gun safety, safety in our schools and mental health. All of these are appropriate subjects for COG to discuss and come to some consensus on.”

Also last week, a second letter went out from 12 other local officials, signed by county leaders in Montgomery, Fairfax, Charles, Prince William and Arlington counties, acknowledging that some members “do not feel that COG should wade into the issue of gun control.” By studying the issue, the letter said, “we may be able to identify an alternative plan to proceed on this very important issue, without dividing the region.”

The issue was first raised at COG’s February meeting, in which Snyder suggested the group should respond to the Newtown shootings. In March, the police group’s position paper was presented as a possible COG policy. The paper calls for “the adoption of common sense policies that will assist in reducing gun violence.”

After some heated discussion in which Toles and Phil Mendelson (D), who is a COG vice chairman and chairman of the D.C. Council, called for the policy to be adopted, it passed 15 to 5. The no votes came from Loudoun Supervisor Matthew F. Letourneau (R-Dulles), Manassas City Council member Jonathan Way (R), Fairfax Supervisor Penelope A. Gross (D-Mason), York and Gaithersburg City Council member Cathy Drzyzgula (D). Fourteen members, including D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D), Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D) and Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett (D), were not present.

“Taking a position like this opens COG up to being used as a forum for political issues that are not constructive for the region,” said Letourneau, whose county pays about $250,000 a year in dues to COG.

He said that he supported the idea of reconsidering the issue and that the episode has “forced a discussion about the role of COG and the types of issues we should be discussing.”

Tom Jackman is a native of Northern Virginia and has been covering the region for The Post since 1998.
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