Fairfax County's citizen-activist "Green Team" may have won yet another bond referendum this month. But to many park supporters, the margin of victory -- 51 percent to 49 percent -- was a tad too close for comfort.
Louis Cable, Fairfax County Park Authority assistant director, said he thinks the closeness of the Nov. 2 vote -- there were 81,941 "ayes" to 78,314 "nays" -- does not necessarily mean 78,000 voters are anti-park. Rather, he argues, the economy, coupled with what he calls "misinformation" and other factors, may have prompted the large "no" vote that produced the narrowest margin of victory for park bonds since both county and regional park authorities were founded in the 1950s.
A charge that one conservative citizens' group group indulged in a last-minute misinformation campaign to defeat the bonds has aroused substantial controversy.
Charges of misinformation about county bond issues abounded in the final days of the election, in fact, and almost all of them involved the Fairfax County Taxpayers' Alliance, the county's longtime self-appointed budget watchdog. It was virtually the only organization opposing the park, road and Metro bond issues, all of which were approved by the voters.
The relationship between the county government and the alliance over the years has been confrontational at best. Typical was the alliance's last-minute suit against the Board of Supervisors in which the alliance unsuccessfully attempted to block distribution of voter guides it called "biased propaganda."
Now, county officials and pro-bond citizens are charging in turn that the alliance itself published a bulletin, delivered to many residents the day before the election, that clearly misstated facts about the bond park bond issues.
The alliance bulletin urged voters to vote against the park bonds because, it said, the county and regional park agencies were planning to spend $20 million to buy another 4,500 acres of unneeded park land.
In fact, the $58 million in bonds will add only about 300 acres of park land to the county and regional park agencies. Most of the park bond money is going to develop existing parks, say officials. A glance at the acreage and money figures cited by the alliance in its brochure shows them to be those used in the 1977 park bond referendum.
"It was definitely misinformation, using 1977 figures," said county park authority chairman James F. Wild last week. "I don't know if it was intentional or not. But the Taxpayers' Alliance this year really had an influence on the election, with their last minute TV and radio spots and posters and bulletins."
Wild said he thought some voters may have been confused about the bonds. "I talked to a number of people who thought it was for one year, not seven years."
But he also admitted the amount being sought at one time may have contributed to the problem. "I think $58 million is too much for one year myself," he said. "Also, where it appeared on the ballot didn't help, being sandwiched between two $25 million bond issues" for Metro and roads.
Taxpayers' Alliance president Elbert M. Stever offers no apologies. He claims the use of five-year-old figures was justified because, he said, some of the bonds authorized in the 1977 referendum still have not been sold.
"We were pointing out that land is being taken off the tax rolls for park land . That's the point. They haven't acquired it yet," he said. " . . . And the Board of Supervisors was distorting things. They didn't tell the taxpayers what the effect of the bonds would be. They said that taxes wouldn't increase, when we all know you don't get something for nothing. . . . Our bulletin was accurate."
County figures, however, show that most of the land (61 percent) authorized in the 1977 bond referendum has indeed been bought. Park officials say purchase of the outstanding acres has been delayed largely because of bond interest rates, which until recently were extremely high.
The alliance claimed in its suit against the county (its sixth against the county over tax issues in as many years) that the county voter guides didn't tell "the truth of the tax impact of the bonds."
A Fairfax Court judge ruled "there is no legal obligation that says the Board of Supervisors must present the pros and cons of the issue in this brochure." He also noted that the pamphlet told voters that not selling the bonds "could contribute to a tax rate decrease."
Lorraine Foulds, coordinator of the Green Team citizen park support effort in 1977 and active in this fall's Green Team drive, said, "We felt [the Taxpayers' Alliance bulletin] influenced voters. It was unfortunate. It made voters mad unnecessarily. I worked at the polls on Election Day and a lot of people came up angry, clutching bulletins in their hands, and telling me, 'We don't need any more parks,' and things like, 'I can see plenty of parks from here.' "
Regional park authority executive director Darrell Winslow, however, sounds a moderating note.
"The facts were incorrect . . . but they're not bad guys," he said. "They're good to have around. The bottom line is we were very fortunate to win in these economic times and considering the large amount of money involved."
Even so, the closeness of the squeaker park bonds victory has prompted the park authority to approach George Mason University about the possibility of its doing a post-mortem study of the election.