Alexandria Commonwealth's Attorney John E. Kloch released an opinion yesterday saying that a city Planning Commission member violated the state's conflict-of-interest law by voting for a controversial road extension June 3.
Vernon Cockrell, who owns a hardware store, 156 apartments and a vacant lot near the planned $4.8 million Bluestone connector road project, voted with the majority when the commission approved it, 4 to 3.
While finding that Cockrell violated the law, Kloch decided not to prosecute him because the violation was not willful, according to Deputy Commonwealth's Attorney Randolph Sengel.
Kloch was out of town and could not be reached.
The prosecutor began investigating the vote after James Snow, a local lawyer, wrote to him last week requesting an opinion on whether Cockrell's vote was in violation of the law. "I didn't see where it would have an impact on my property, and if anything, I thought it would be detrimental," said Cockrell, an appointed official who has served on the commission for 24 years.
His properties are on Duke Street near Wheeler Avenue, less than a block from the planned connector between Duke Street and Eisenhower Avenue.
"As long as I've been in office I've only looked out for the best interest in the city," Cockrell said, adding that he will not vote the next time the road issue comes up.
Before the Planning Commission's vote recommending approval of the project, the City Council, which has the final say, had tentatively approved it by voting to request federal and state funds.
The Planning Commission now must make a recommendation on the path the road would take, and the council is expected to give the project final approval in September.
Mayor James P. Moran Jr. pointed out that the council already has given tentative approval for the project and said he was surprised at Kloch's decision not to prosecute on the grounds that he believed that Cockrell had not intended to violate the law.
As vice mayor in 1984, Moran encountered a conflict-of-interest problem that forced him to resign from office.
"I didn't willfully violate" the conflict law under which he pleaded no contest, Moran said yesterday. That misdemeanor charge involved his vote on a parking lot matter in which a business partner was involved.
Last May, Moran was elected mayor.
Moran and most City Council members say the Bluestone connector is needed if the Eisenhower Valley area is to be developed to its potential. Some residents of the area say it would generate too much traffic and hope to block it.
Snow, whose letter initiated Kloch's investigation of Cockrell, said last night, "No one is out to get Mr. Cockrell. I was not suggesting that Mr. Cockrell had profited by this or is lacking in integrity because of it. He has been a dedicated public servant for a long time . . . . It was just a question of whether a public official had violated the statute."