It started with a click, an inadvertent camera flash, and a burst of anger and apparent bullying by the chairman of Loudoun County’s Board of Equalization. It ended with a quiet bit of legislating in Richmond during the recent session that turned control of that board over to the Loudoun Board of Supervisors, and in just a few months completed a huge revision of the way property is valued and taxed in America’s richest county.
In December, the Board of Supervisors turned the tax assessment function over to the Commissioner of the Revenue, having fired the county assessor who worked under them, Todd Kaufman, months earlier. The Commissioner of the Revenue is a single elected official who oversees assessment in most Virginia counties, but had relinquished that job in Loudoun years ago. For those home or business owners who don’t like their property tax assessment, they can appeal to the Board of Equalization. That board currently is appointed by the circuit court of each county in Virginia, including Loudoun. But in February, both houses of the General Assembly unanimously passed a bill adding a new section to the law which grants Loudoun County and Loudoun County alone the ability to appoint the Board of Equalization. Gov. Bob McDonnell signed the bill in March, and it goes into effect July 1.
Theoretically, this could play out well for Loudoun taxpayers while maintaining a separation of powers. The revenue commissioner now oversees assessments, and is one person (rather than the nine-person Board of Supervisors) who can be blamed and voted out if he does a poor job. And the Board of Supervisors now oversees the Board of Equalization, which previously had almost no oversight because the courts were hesitant to meddle with a body whose decisions might come before them on appeal. The supervisors will continue to set the tax rate, but they no longer control the person who imposes that rate.
“There were a lot of transparency and serious operational questions about the way that the Board of Equalization had been operating,” Supervisor Matt Letourneau (R-Dulles) said. “To many of us, it became clear there was not accountability. We were concerned about how they were operating, what they were charging. We had reports of meetings not being recorded or the recorder turned off. That’s all stuff that can’t happen when you’re dealing with a public entity.”
Letourneau said the supervisors will always have to “battle the perception that we’re going to control assesments. But if we have a Board of Equalization that’s transparent, that follows the rules, holds open meetings, and we appoint good people, hopefully this will work well.”
J. Scott Littner, the current chairman of the Board of Equalization, did not respond to a request for comment. His term, along with the terms of two other members of the five-person board, expires in December, which should give the Board of Supervisors the opportunity to promptly remake the equalization board with folks willing to conduct the public’s business openly.
It was Littner’s actions, at an equalization board meeting in June 2011, that launched a contentious battle between his board and the supervisors, cost taxpayers $83,000 in legal fees, and spurred the supervisors to seek the legislation that gave them control of the equalization board. “The Bradford case was just the tip of the iceberg,” Letourneau said, but it was part of the domino effect that wound up changing Loudoun’s assessment process.
“The Bradford case” is a reference to Beverly Bradford, a part-time reporter for Patch.com and Lansdowne resident, who was trying to follow the tax case of the National Conference Center, which was appealing its $49 million assessment. But the board of equalization didn’t post its agendas or any case information online, it often just slapped a piece of paper up outside its office listing the dates of pending cases. The BOE’s website remains skimpy on information about what actions it has actually taken, even though it conducts public hearings of tax appeals. Kaufman told me the board often didn’t allow his assessors to testify, even though it was their assessments that were being appealed.
But Bradford found out that a hearing was set for the National Conference Center case, which was interesting because Loudoun County was interested in buying part of the Lansdowne property for a planned high school. As the hearing proceeded, Bradford decided to snap a photo from her seat. Unintentionally, she set off her flash. The board members looked at her, and Littner apparently stopped the meeting twice to walk over and berate her, Bradford and four witnesses later testified. Then the board summoned a sheriff’s deputy and told him to seize the camera and destroy the photos, the deputy testified. Instead he escorted her outside the hearing room, and while Bradford was outside the board voted to reduce the conference center’s tax assessment by $5 million.
Bradford filed a civil lawsuit against the BOE for violating the Freedom of Information Act. This was a small claims suit in General District Court. But the BOE hired a private lawyer, John Flannery, who fought Bradford furiously and ran up $60,000 in legal fees. The BOE submitted this bill to the Board of Supervisors for payment. The supervisors were outraged, refused to pay, were dragged into court by the BOE and had to hire their own lawyers, costing taxpayers another $28,000. The case settled with the supervisors agreeing to pay the BOE’s legal bill up to $55,000, and the supervisors turning to Richmond seeking legislation to appoint the BOE themselves.
The legislation failed last year. But shepherded this session by Del. Jill Holtzman Vogel (R-Fauquier), it passed easily.
Bradford lost the lawsuit in April 2012. She was seeking $2,000 in sanctions, Freedom of Information Act training for the BOE, and payment of her $17,000 legal bill. Loudoun General District Court Judge Julia Cannon recited Bradford’s version of events as the factual sequence of the case — apparently rejecting Littner and fellow board member Edward Maurer’s sworn denials that Littner left his seat and confronted the reporter — and then made the logic-defying conclusions that the board was not required to provide its agenda to anyone, even if asked; that state FOIA law permits a rule requiring advance notice of any photographic intent (it does not); and that the deputy the board called to the meeting and instructed to seize Bradford’s camera “was not acting as their employee or agent.”
Bradford’s case shone a light on the BOE’s practices, and led to new management and perhaps new procedures for the board. But she is not rejoicing over her place in history. She termed the ruling in her case “perverted justice” caused by “a toxic mix of hubris, cowardice, perjury, and taxpayer inattention.”
She agreed that now, in effect, “voters will elect the tax assessor and can fire and hire that person every four years. But no matter who wins an election,” Bradford added, “taxpayers need the Virginia FOIA to defend their right to watch what government does when the door to the board room shuts in their face.”