The Falls Church city manager has been accused of siding against a proposal on the ballot Tuesday that would give residents the ability to limit large-scale residential projects in the downtown area.
Backers of the proposal said that City Manager Daniel E. McKeever's criticism of the development limits, in a public memo released at a City Council meeting Monday, could cost them votes and defeat the measure.
The city manager, who is hired by the mayor and council, is a nonpartisan position. The accusations highlight the fine line government officials must walk to avoid appearing to support candidates or ballot questions that voters will decide. State law requires local governments to present both sides of a ballot issue fairly when releasing information to the public.
David F. Snyder, one of two council members who support the development restrictions, said McKeever's memo "was clearly a statement of political positioning . . . and I'm appalled that city staff should be allowed to provide opinions at taxpayers' expense."
McKeever said the memo was a response to a question from Mayor Daniel E. Gardner, who had asked him to look at potential problems if the measure passed. McKeever said that although he knew the memo would be released publicly, he had no intention of influencing city residents.
"This memo was not intended to play the role of explaining to the community the good points and the bad points about a referendum question," McKeever said. "And any suggestion that it was completely mischaracterizes the role of the city manager and his responsibility to respond to a question from the City Council."
The ballot proposal, if approved, would cede some control over development projects from the city government to residents. It seeks to ban any residential structure from being built on commercial property if it increases the city's population by more than 1 percent, unless voters give their approval.
It was put on the ballot through a petition of several hundred residents, who said they believe that recently completed residential complexes and others being planned draw too many new families to the city of about 10,000 people, further crowding schools and draining other city resources.
Opposing the measure is Falls Church's most powerful political organization, Citizens for a Better City, whose members dominate the school board and city council. The group's leaders said the measure would scare off residential and commercial developers, costing the city needed tax revenue as Falls Church attempts to remake its downtown.
In his memo, McKeever wrote: "Unfortunately, this amendment will do nothing more than add another layer onto the already existing regulations, thereby sending a loud and clear message to the development community." He said attempts to micro-manage the market place usually result in failure.
Under a 1953 New Jersey Supreme Court ruling, municipal governments cannot use public funds to advocate how residents should vote on ballot issues. Such public agencies should provide "a fair presentation of the facts," which "will necessarily include all consequences, good and bad, of the proposal." The Virginia attorney general has affirmed that decision twice.
Gardner, a member of Citizens for a Better City, said that City Attorney Roy B. Thorpe found that McKeever acted appropriately. Thorpe was on vacation and was unavailable to comment.
Lou Mauro, a supporter of the ballot proposal, said the campaign for the development limits has been difficult because of the opposition from the Economic Development Authority, Chamber of Commerce, School Board and City Council.
"It's not fair to all the citizens that all the organs of government put out such a one-sided assessment," he said.