Loudoun Board Bars Use Of Builder Campaign Funds
Wednesday, July 2, 2008
Loudoun County supervisors voted yesterday to bar themselves from accepting campaign contributions from builders and others with proposals before the board as part of a broad effort to restore public confidence in a body that some have viewed as too close to the development community.
Supervisors voted overwhelmingly for the change, with only Eugene A. Delgaudio (R-Sterling) dissenting. Delgaudio said such a policy was tantamount to curbing freedom of expression.
But Lori L. Waters (R-Broad Run) said it was a necessary step, even though it will put incumbent supervisors at a disadvantage when running for reelection against challengers without such limitations.
"We are holding ourselves to a higher standard . . . than the people who might challenge us," Waters said. "But I think that it will help build the public trust, not only for the people, but for the applicants, so we're all clear what the rules are."
The change is part of an ethics package proposed in January by Supervisor James Burton (I-Blue Ridge), who has called for greater transparency in the wake of rapid growth in the county -- growth that he and other critics have said was spurred by county leaders who were too friendly with developers.
In recent elections, developers and others in the building community have contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to local political campaigns. Some of the county officials who have benefited the most from the donations -- Republicans Stephen J. Snow (Dulles), Bruce E. Tulloch (Potomac), Mick Staton Jr. (Potomac), Jim Clem (Leesburg) and Delgaudio -- were generally supportive of the growth, which they said was a sign of economic strength. All but Delgaudio have been replaced on the board.
In January 2007, the close relationships between developers and some supervisors were detailed in a series in The Washington Post. Shortly after the stories were published, local authorities announced a federal probe into potential public corruption in Loudoun County. To date, authorities have not announced any charges.
Bob Maistros, who worked for Snow's campaign, said Snow and others were unfairly labeled as unethical because of their pro-growth perspective.
"People took the growth issue and implied that anyone who wasn't no-growth was in the pocket of developers. That's unfair and it's inaccurate," he said. "That's what damaged the public trust in the board, the use of the ethics issue as a proxy for the pitched battle over growth versus no growth."
In the end, in the face of intense opposition from residents who blamed the growth for their crowded schools and roads and rising tax bills, past supervisors rejected several high-profile development proposals. Still, it wasn't enough for voters, who ousted pro-growth supervisors (with the exception of Delgaudio) in favor of those who were critical of growth.
The current board has sought to be open in its relations with the community. During every regular board meeting, board members engage in a detailed and sometimes lengthy disclosure period in which they list all the people they have met with since the previous meeting, such as landowners, business owners, community activists and journalists.
John A. Andrews II, a developer and former School Board member, praised the board's decision yesterday to decline campaign contributions from those who have issues pending before the board.
"I just think it makes for cleaner government, so I have no problems with it," he said.
One plan to improve accountability, however, has not come through. Last year, in an effort to improve its reputation and save the county money, the previous board voted to hire an inspector general to conduct internal investigations. But supervisors did not follow through this year because of the tight budget.