A long-standing perk for lawmakers in Virginia’s largest jurisdiction has fallen victim to the state’s stricter ethics laws.
No longer will members of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors enjoy free access to county swimming pools, golf courses and other park facilities — amenities that can run about $4,300 for an annual golf membership and $669 for a basic yearly fitness pass.
Fairfax County Attorney David P. Bobzien advised supervisors earlier this month to stop using the passes because they could be construed as illegal gifts and theoretically could affect lawmakers’ votes on park funding and other decisions.
The change in policy comes in response to state gift standards adopted last spring by Virginia’s General Assembly in the wake of an ethics scandal involving former governor Robert F. McDonnell (R). Among other things, the standards limit the value of what any individual or entity can give public officials in the state to $100 per year.
Bobzien declined to discuss the county’s policy change, and the county park authority would not say which other Fairfax officials are given free passes and whether they will continue to receive them.
The passes have been quietly distributed for decades, and were criticized by anti-tax activists in 2000, when park officials sought $418,000 in additional user fees from residents.
At that time, the passes were available to the board of supervisors and the parks board, members of the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority — most of whom did not live in Fairfax — and more than 50 retired Fairfax park administrators and former board members.
No neighboring jurisdiction offers free park passes to its elected officials, although most allow county employees — including elected officials — to buy passes at a discount. Fairfax also offers discounts to county employees.
The gift rules adopted by the Virginia General Assembly don’t specify whether the limit applies to park passes, high school football tickets or other benefits that locally elected officials have long taken advantage of within their districts.
Critics say the rules are so vague that government officials must decide for themselves whether free passes — or even small banquet dinners — should be included.
“What you end up getting is a mishmash of standards across the state,” said Quentin Kidd, director of the Judy Ford Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University.
Bobzien advised against using the free park passes after some board members questioned whether they would now be considered illegal, said Sharon Bulova (D), chairman of the board of supervisors.
“No one willingly accepted what would be considered a gift,” said Bulova, adding that she has never used the passes. “But these are the kinds of questions we’re asking.”
The value of the passes is just a tiny fraction of the $1.3 million or so that Fairfax collects annually in county park fees. In the past, defenders of the free passes said that they were a good way to encourage county lawmakers to stay familiar and involved with county facilities.
But with the budget tight and tensions running high over county finances, questions about the park passes are stirring anxiety among the 10 supervisors on the board.
Supervisors John W. Foust (D-Dranesville) and Linda Q. Smyth (D-Providence) said they had never used their passes — “I suppose, because it always seemed to me that the Park Authority needs the money from the fees,” Smyth said.
First-term supervisor Kathy L. Smith (D-Sully), who took office in January, said that she wasn’t aware of the perk until a pass arrived in her office — and she has never used it. Fellow freshman Daniel G. Storck (D-Mount Vernon) said that, while he hasn’t used a free county pass, he sees them in the same way as the free train passes that Metrorail provides to its board members.
“If I’m doing my job, I’m asking people, “What do you think? What’s working? What’s not?’ ” Storck said. “Do they need to give me a free pass to do that? No. But I’d definitely go to something more frequently if there were no barriers to doing it.”
Supervisor Penelope A. Gross (D-Mason), in office since 1996, would not say whether she has ever used her parks pass. But she questioned whether the passes should be considered gifts, saying, “those kinds of things should be more fully explained under the ethics rules.”
Supervisors John C. Cook (R-Braddock,) Catherine M. Hudgins (D-Hunter Mill) and Jeff C. McKay (D-Lee) did not respond to requests for comment.
Supervisor Pat Herrity (R-Springfield) said he has used his pass — mostly to swim inside county pools — and, based on the attorney’s guidelines, will now pay the county back.
Herrity said unlimited access to county parks allowed him to see first-hand how the park authority is functioning, an argument echoed by several other board members.
“If I thought this was wrong, I clearly would not have been doing it,” Herrity said, adding that he’s still calculating how much he owes. “Now that I know it’s wrong, I’m going to make restitution. And I’ve already bought my pass going forward.”