Should Fairfax County taxpayers pay for their supervisors' newsletters and television programs in an election year?
A majority on the county Board of Supervisors thinks so, saying those materials serve informational, not political, purposes. But critics, including some candidates running for board seats next fall, said the mailings and shows give the incumbents an unfair advantage at taxpayers' expense.
By a 7 to 2 vote, the board has extended until June 30 the date when supervisors can host TV shows on the county's station, Channel 16. Previously, supervisors had to stop the programs after Jan. 1 during election years.
The board, at its Dec. 9 meeting, also rejected a proposal by Supervisor Michael R. Frey (R-Sully) to roll back the election year ban on supervisors' district mailings from June 30 to Jan. 1.
All 10 county board seats are up for election in November.
The cost of TV production and mailings is not a significant part of the $2.5 billion county budget. But the appearance of spending tax dollars to benefit officeholders is unfair, contended Frey, who was joined by board Chairman Katherine K. Hanley (D) in voting against loosening the rules on how the supervisors communicate with their constituents during an election year.
Supervisor Stuart Mendelsohn (R-Dranesville), who is not seeking reelection, was absent for the vote.
"The taxpayers shouldn't be funding campaign advocacy, and that's essentially what the newsletters [and TV shows] become," said Frey, who added that he will not send out newsletters or host the shows next year even though he will seek reelection.
"Clearly, there are advantages of being the incumbent, and I just think stretching that use of taxpayers' dollars into election year is an inherent advantage that isn't right," he said.
But Supervisor Elaine N. McConnell (R-Springfield) countered that the newsletters contain key information about zoning meetings and goings-on in a district.
"We need to get out information to the public," she said. "I have many residents who get very upset if they are not notified. . . . Certainly if we abuse that, then there's something to be concerned about, but the intention here is to get information out on a regular basis."
McConnell added that she does not distribute newsletters and only occasionally hosts a TV show.
Most supervisor mailings focus on what meetings and events are happening in a district. But they also frequently include flattering photos and awards a supervisor has recently won.
Critics said that although the information may seem innocuous, the materials give supervisors greater exposure among voters as well as provide a subtle way for them to tout their accomplishments.
"It appears that they are getting the taxpayers to subsidize their campaign, which is basically what this is," said John F. "Jack" Herrity, who has announced he will challenge Hanley for board chairman next year. "They should get their message out and their picture out based on their own campaign funds."
Hanley agreed. She said she does not distribute a newsletter but will most likely host a TV show on technology early next year.
"The policy should be more restrictive," she said. "But it's better to have the [current] policy than nothing at all."