A divided Loudoun County Board of Supervisors yesterday took a step toward prohibiting its members from taking campaign contributions from people or groups with pending development applications before the board.
After an emotional debate over whether the measure would make county government more accountable or strip some constituents of their right to shape political debate, the board voted 5 to 4 to seek the necessary approval from the Virginia General Assembly next year.
Board Vice Chairman Bruce E. Tulloch (R-Potomac), who offered reluctant support for the measure, tacked on an amendment that would ensure that the prohibition on giving campaign donations would also apply to special interest groups "taking a position on those applications."
Tulloch denied that there was any "pay-to-play" mentality among board members but said he would support asking Richmond for legislative authority to enact such a measure.
The focus on ethics follows recent stories in The Washington Post showing how a circle of public officials and their friends in the development community have dominated land-use decisions in Loudoun. In 2003, during one of the periodic swings between pro-growth and slow-growth movements in the county, developers contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to supervisors' campaigns.
Loudoun Commonwealth's Attorney James E. Plowman and the U.S. attorney's office in Alexandria have opened a corruption investigation in Loudoun.
Supporters of the campaign finance prohibition argued that the measure would send a clear signal to the public that government decisions on development in the fast-growing county were not swayed by money.
"They need to have clarity from us," said Chairman Scott K. York (I), who sponsored the legislation.
Supervisor Lori Waters (R-Broad Run), who backed the measure, said such a rule would not prevent developers and property owners from talking to members of the board and making a case for approving a project; it would only keep them from giving the supervisors campaign contributions at the same time.
But Mick Staton Jr. (R-Sugarland Run), who opposed the measure, said that the prohibition would effectively force builders and property owners to choose between two fundamental rights: supporting a candidate with whom they agree or seeking to maximize the value of their property.
"This is nothing more than the restriction of political speech and the disenfranchising of property owners in this county," Staton said.
Another opponent, Supervisor Stephen J. Snow (R-Dulles), accused York and other supporters of the legislation of trying score political points in an election year and currying favor with The Post, whose stories he said offered only "innuendo" about wrongdoing.
Having lost at the polls when the current pro-growth board was seated, Snow said, slow-growth proponents were trying to criminalize policy differences and demonize the development community in a way reminiscent of McCarthyism and the Spanish Inquisition.
"Heretics -- I guess that's me: I believe you have to have planned communities with infrastructure and homes for workers," Snow said. "Every four years: They didn't anticipate that they were going to be thrown out on their rears last time."
Supervisors Eugene A. Delgaudio (R-Sterling) and Jim Clem (R-Leesburg) joined Staton and Snow in voting against making the request of state lawmakers.
On a related ethics proposal, York withdrew a motion to begin recording closed executive sessions of the board, saying county attorney John R. "Jack" Roberts had advised against it. The county attorney said, however, that board members could request that an executive session be recorded and that it would be legal if a majority of the board members present agreed to it. York suggested such a measure because of an alleged discrepancy in Tulloch's advice to the board on buying a parcel of land.
Tulloch alerted the board to the land deal, urging them to buy the land for schools and telling them that other buyers were lined up willing to pay more than the county would. But the amount that the other buyer said he was prepared to spend was substantially less, according to the Post series.