Drive to change Arlington's government fails

By Christy Goodman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 5, 2010

The petition drive to change Arlington County's type of government failed last week, with the measure being short by about 1,350 signatures and then losing 2,200 other names because the group had employed a felon.

The Committee for a Better Arlington, composed of police, firefighters and members of the Republican and Green parties, needed to collect 14,350 valid signatures for its measure to make it onto the November ballot. The group's goal was for residents to have the opportunity to shift Arlington's day-to-day management from the county manager to the County Board.

Just before the final count, the group, which had turned in more than 16,000 signatures to the Circuit Court, had 13,000 valid signatures, said Linda Lindberg, the county's general registrar. Then Lindberg found that Cheryl Simmons, a felon and therefore not a registered voter by Virginia law, had collected the third-most signatures for the group.

Simmons was convicted in 2006 of felony embezzlement, having given friends and family members discounts at the Hecht's department store where she worked, police said. Simmons could not be reached for comment.

"We found out a woman was a felon and had circulated 123 pages we counted," Lindberg said. "I had to disqualify them and remove them from the count."

Mike Staples, head of the firefighters association, said he learned of Simmons's criminal past when the signatures were disqualified. He said the fault lies with Colorado-based Signature Masters, the company hired to help collect signatures.

"The bottom line is that this company hired someone they obviously shouldn't have," said Staples, who said his group is consulting with lawyers to find a remedy.

Shawn Wilmoth, president of Signature Masters, said he was contracted to train local residents to collect 12,000 signatures and he met that obligation.

"Cheryl Simmons had actually passed a background check," Wilmoth said. "It was an issue with the background-check company we are dealing with."

Wilmoth said he has used the background-check company in other campaigns with Signature Masters and with a previous business that worked with nonprofit groups.

"This is the first time we've had an issue like this arise," said Wilmoth, who declined to name the background-check company because of legal action.

The petition drive cost nearly $40,000 and was paid for predominantly by the police and firefighter associations and a few individual donations.

Staples said he will meet with County Manager Michael B. Brown this week to discuss their concerns. "Obviously, we'll work and try to have a good relationship with him," Staples said of Brown, but the group will continue to "push for the things that are right."

"I spent a lot of time out on the streets and talked to a lot of people," Staples said. "There was a significant amount of interest in having a voice in how their government runs. I don't want that to be lost in all of this."

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