Two Fairfax County supervisors are dipping into taxpayer funds to charter buses that will bring 100 supporters of a proposed satellite government center to a public hearing Monday, a hands-on lobbying effort that was criticized yesterday by other board members and a county watchdog group.
In addition to $200 to charter two buses, Supervisors Gerald W. Hyland (D-Mount Vernon) and T. Dana Kauffman (D-Lee) have designated $300 to provide a box lunch--with sandwich, apple, chips and a cookie--for each supporter who agrees to come, and perhaps testify, on behalf of the $39.5 million construction project.
The proposed South County government center has the backing of Hyland and Kauffman, who see it as a boon to their constituents along Route 1. They argue that the facility would save money by moving county employees out of rented space and would help spark the commercial revitalization of the aging corridor.
In letters mailed this month, Kauffman and Hyland offered the free transportation and food as an incentive to get people to testify at Monday's board session. "We need to work together to make it happen. I need your help and support for the center," Hyland's letter says. "Please contact me to reserve a meal and a seat on the bus."
Other supervisors, including some Democrats, and the leader of a taxpayer watchdog group said they were surprised to hear about the busing plan and angry that county funds would be used. Republican Supervisor Stuart Mendelsohn (Dranesville) said he was offended by the idea.
"I just think this sets a terrible precedent that we are going to use public money to transport people to lobby the Board of Supervisors," Mendelsohn said. "Frankly, there are people whose taxes are paying for this that are opposed to this project."
Board Chairman Katherine K. Hanley (D) called the effort by Kauffman and Hyland to arrange positive testimony "unprecedented," while Supervisors Elaine N. McConnell (R-Springfield) and Gerald E. Connolly (D-Providence) said it is an inappropriate use of public money.
"I understand the fervor behind this," Connolly said. "But I don't believe any taxpayer money ought to be used in an organized attempt to lobby ourselves. That's just not something I'm comfortable with."
Hyland and Kauffman yesterday defended the busing idea, which Hyland said would be paid for out of his office budget. In Fairfax, supervisors receive $287,534 each a year in discretionary money to spend in their districts.
But that didn't appease critics such as Marcia P. Dykes, head of the group Citizens for Sensible Taxation, who called the use of county funds "appalling." Dykes, an opponent of building a new government center, is one of 79 people signed up to speak on the subject before the board.
"Why should they be using county money for their own cheerleading section?" Dykes asked. "We should readdress the amount of money we give the supervisors to run their offices."
Kauffman said many residents of his district are elderly or poor and might not be able to attend the meeting without help. He said chartering two buses and paying for food is part of a "grass-roots effort" on behalf of a worthy cause.
"One of the charges to us as local leaders is to lead," Kauffman said. "We are doing our part to make sure the people who support [the center] are out there to support it."
Hyland said residents who oppose the project are welcome to ride the buses, although he conceded that the purpose of the charter is to make sure that the county board auditorium is filled with proponents.
"I support this project unequivocally. But I respect anyone's position which may be different from mine," Hyland said. "I'm encouraging people to come out and indicate their support. I believe the majority of people support it."
Several supervisors said Hyland and Kauffman may have hurt their cause by paying for the buses and food.
Mendelsohn said one way to judge the amount of public support for or against an issue is by looking at the number of people who turn out at a hearing. Knowing that most of the supporters on Monday will have been bused in will diminish their testimony, he said.
Supervisor Michael R. Frey (R-Sully) agreed, saying: "I never thought it was an effective way to lobby my colleagues to make them sit through a three- or four-hour hearing because you stack the deck. It doesn't really sway me, particularly when I know they have been bused in."
CAPTION: Supervisor Stuart Mendelsohn said he was offended by the busing plan.
CAPTION: T. Dana Kauffman called it a "grass- roots effort" for a worthy cause.