The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, in an effort to give the county more flexibility in local law-making and to protect Fairfax from annexations by towns and cities, may ask the state legislature to grant the county a charter.
A board-appointed 11-member special study committee, composed of state legislators and supervisors, has been working since May to draft the proposed charter. The board will hold a public hearing on the charter on Nov. 29.
According to Sen. Joseph V. Gartlan (D-Fairfax), who heads the study committee, the supervisors will probably vote on the charter in December. If they approve, the document would be forwarded to Richmond for action in the forthcoming legislative session. A two-thirds majority would be required in both houses for approval.
In Virginia, charters are usually held by cities and towns. Charters define the structure of their local governments, bestow police powers, spell out relationships between departments, regulate how boards and authorities operate and delineate their financial structure - among other things.
In recent years, the legislature has been reluctant to grant Northern Virginia localities all the powers they have requested. A charter proposal from Fairfax County would be certain to receive detailed scrutiny in Richmond.
"The kind of charter we have drafted would give us in Fairfax County the kind of flexibility towns and cities now have," said Michael Long, assistant to county executive Leonard Whorton. "Now, if we want to do something, often we have to go to the General Assembly for legislation affecting all counties," he said.
"For instance, a few years back when we wanted to give our consumer protection office more power, we had to go to Richmond for a law affecting all consumer protection offices in all counties in the state," said Long.
If a Charter is adopted for Fairfax County, it could be amended according to the county's needs. Each amendment would require general assembly approval, but would affect only the county of Fairfax, greatly simplifying the legislative process.
"The charter would be evolutionary," said Long.
According to Gartlan, a charter with language prohibiting annexation of parts of the county would be an insurance policy for Fairfax in case anti-annexation legislation affecting counties fails to pass the legislature.
Long said that the study committee has used the city charters of Richmond, Alexandria, and Suffolk as models for the Fairfax document.
Under the charter as it is now drafted, several changes would take place. First, Whorton would become "county manager" rather than executive, which, according to Long, would remove any misunderstanding about his status as an appointee of the board.
"This is to straighten things out," said Long. "In goverment, 'county executive' usually means someone who is elected."
Also according to the charter, the board of supervisors would be required to act on a new budget by July 1 of each year. If they failed to do so, the manager's proposed budget for the new fiscal year would automatically become effective.
"This is kind of a fail-safe device," explained Long. "Richmond has it."
Also the county would be empowered to exercise eminent domain by the "quick take" method that is currently used by cities but not available to countries. Under "quick take," no judicial process is involved unless a property owner objects to selling to the county. Then the court must decide on fair market value of the property.
One part of the proposed charter would prohibit sections of the county, like Reston, from incorporating and towns within the county, like Vienna, from changing their status to cities. This is certain to provoke controversy in Richmond from pro-Reston legislators. The language has yet to be worked out for these portions of the charter, Long said.
Some opposition to the proposed charter has surfaced - primarily from the Fairfax County Federation of Citizens Associations around the county.
According to the FCFCA president, John Lynch, the federation's board of directors feels there is insufficient time for public review and comment on the charter between now and the upcoming state legislative session.
"A September time frame would be needed at the very least," said Lynch.
At their regular monthly meeting, to be held tonight at 8 p.m. in the Fairfax Hospital Cafetorium, federation members will consider a resolution stating that "there is no pressing need for a major revision to our form of government," and that a charter "is not necessary at this time."