Concern raised over Manassas council member funding his ballet group

June 20, 2013

Manassas City Council member Mark D. Wolfe (R) is the unpaid executive director of the Manassas Ballet Theatre, and his wife is the group’s paid artistic director. This week, he voted to give the organization $23,000 of city money.

The funding came as part of a $142,500 package the council agreed to direct to arts groups on a 4 to 2 vote. If not for Wolfe’s support, the measure would have failed, because city rules require four votes to allocate money.

Since Monday’s vote, council member Marc Aveni (R) and Mayor Harry “Hal” Parrish II (R) have sought an opinion from a city attorney about whether Wolfe violated any state conflict-of-interest laws. City Attorney Michael Vanderpool did not return calls for comment.

During the vote, Aveni said he was concerned about the appearance that public officials were giving the ballet special consideration. He cited Wolfe’s role as executive director and noted that Parrish is on the group’s board of directors. As mayor, Parrish does not usually vote, and he did not vote on the funding package.

“There is an appearance there I find troubling,” Aveni said at the meeting.

In a later interview, Aveni said that Wolfe should have recused himself, calling the vote “unethical” and “inappropriate.”

Wolfe said in an interview that because all the arts funding was combined in one package, he could not choose to recuse himself solely from the decision on the ballet. In the past, council members considered arts funding line by line, and he did choose not to vote when funding for the organization was considered, he said.

This year, Wolfe said, the council established a new process in which four staff members reviewed applications from arts groups and made recommendations to the council. The council simply signed off on those suggestions, Wolfe said.

“Why is there presumed a conflict?” Wolfe asked. “The vote was for the staff recommendation. . . . I did not influence or have influence towards [funds for] the ballet or any other organization,” he said.

Parrish echoed that. “I hope people will recognize that the council was not a part of the process except to choose the process,” he said. He said he wants to ensure that the city has followed the law and will seek to address the issue head-on. “If we’ve done something wrong, we ought to fix it,” he added.

Wolfe, who runs an air conditioning and heating services company, is an unabashed ballet supporter who often brings up its performance schedule from the dais. His wife, Amy, is the group’s artistic director, earning $36,000 a year, according to the group’s 2012 public tax return.

Wolfe, elected in 2008, noted that the ballet received dollars from the city long before he joined the council. From fiscal 2006 to 2012, the ballet received $138,000, or about 11 percent of the city’s $1.2 million allocation for all nonprofit groups, according to budget documents.

The Manassas Ballet also received $58,234 this year from surrounding Prince William County, according to budget documents.

Wolfe signed a “conflict of interest act declaration” regarding the vote a day after it was taken. It says that the disclosure form is “continuing in nature” but that council members should verbally declare when they have a conflict, as appropriate.

Wolfe said he has long advocated on the ballet’s behalf. “I don't make a secret” of it, he said.

Wolfe is on vacation, as are other members of council, much of this month. Parrish said he plans to address the potential conflict-of-interest issue in July, when the full council is available.

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