The first accounts of Fairfax County Board Chairman John F. Herrity's actions on three development votes seemed to point to serious disclosure lapses. But at a board meeting yesterday, Mr. Herrity's colleagues took a closer look at complications in the disclosure laws, recognized their weaknesses and then unanimously supported his proposal for an improved system. They realized that any one of them might have been embarrassed as Mr. Herrity was, given the way the system works now.

The county ordinance in question requires every zoning applicant to disclose in a sworn affidavit, filed as part of the application, any campaign contribution of $50 or more that any participants in the zoning proposal might have made in the past five years to any member of the board. There is also a requirement that each board member disclose, before voting on any zoning application, whether he or she has received in the past five years a contribution of $50 or more from any of the participants.

In Mr. Herrity's case the several contributions in question were reported at the time they were originally received. But Mr. Herrity pointed out that in two of the zoning decisions, the applicants filed affidavits under oath "in which they had sworn that their participants had not made any contributions to my campaign. Those sworn affidavits were in error -- inadvertent error, I am sure -- but nevertheless an error upon which I in those two instances had relied in part, to my detriment." The total contribution in two cases was $200. The chairman went on to note that "in fact in the very package of zoning applications which we have before us this morning there is an applicant who has failed -- inadvertently, I am sure -- to disclose in his sworn affidavit a contribution to my campaign."

The difficulty for supervisors is that many applicants involve large partnerships, sometimes with more than 100 individuals. Recognizing and/or matching those names with campaign contributors can be a complicated bookkeeping operation. Mr. Herrity proposes that a county staff person keep all records for every supervisor and check for necessary disclosures. It's a good idea.

*Strict disclosure laws are good monitors of connections between contributors and elected officials. But when they raise suspicions merely because contributions already reported to the public aren't reported again, years later, by either the developer or the official, the procedures need sharpening. Mr. Herrity's rough passage underlines the need.