by Evan Macbeth
Chair, Loudoun County Democratic Committee
The past two weeks have seen several more troubling examples of the secrecy and questionable ethics of the new all-Republican Loudoun County Board of Supervisors. Such actions are not new for these Supervisors; in just four months they have repeatedly raised the ire of Loudouners with their hyper-partisanship, counter-intuitive budget cuts, and fealty to developers and campaign donors. One way they are accomplishing their controversial goals is by discussing them and enacting them secretly, behind closed doors. This Board of Supervisors has met in Executive Session -- that is, closed sessions out of view of the public and the media -- for at least a portion of nearly all of their official meetings. They have done it far more than previous Boards, and far more often than intended by the narrow exception to open meetings required by the Virginia Freedom of Information Act.
As with these other closed-door activities, the Board’s actions earlier this month have stymied the transparency and accountability necessary to make representative government work. Their actions have, at a minimum, frustrated public input and further tainted the Board with appearances of impropriety.
- On May 1, Vice Chair Janet Clarke issued an update to constituents about the vote approving changes to Belmont Ridge Road. However, the vote did not occur until the next day, May 2. Clarke blamed the precognizant update on a staffer’s typo. (Supervisor Clarke predicts the future, Loudoun Times-Mirror online, May 4). More likely, Clarke and her cohorts had inappropriately discussed the issue and reached an agreement in private. A formality? Perhaps to some. But state law on legislative meetings, and the concerns of affected residents in Brambleton, say it is wrong.
- On May 2, the Board was to have discussed the controversial OpenBand franchise agreement. Despite the concerns of thousands of affected Loudoun residents, County Attorney Jack Roberts recommended the Board hold this discussion in closed session. The Board claims a pending legal action mandates that they discuss the issue behind closed doors. However, the lawsuit cited has not yet been served on the County (despite being filed with the Court months ago), and OpenBand insists it is not actively litigating the matter. (Supervisors defer OpenBand discussion until June, Loudoun Times-Mirror online, May 2; Supes: No Final Vote On OpenBand Franchise, Leesburg Today online, May 2)
- At the May 2 meeting, the Board went into executive session briefly, then announced they were deferring the OpenBand application to the June 12 public meeting. The Board maintained jurisdiction over the matter, however, rather than referring it to the County Communications Commission. One must wonder why.
- One must also wonder the reasoning of Loudoun County Attorney John Roberts, who advised the Board in that May 2 executive session that the Supervisors who received large campaign contributions from OpenBand did not need to recuse themselves from voting on the application. This despite the fact that OpenBand was one of the largest campaign contributors to several of the Supervisors, and donated nearly $50,000 to five of the Supervisors and their local Republican party in 2011. MC Dean, OpenBand’s corporate parent, donated $10,000 to Eugene Delgaudio, $3,000 to Matt Letourneau and $500 each to Janet Clarke and Ralph Buona. William Dean, President of OpenBand, personally donated $8,000 to Suzanne Volpe, $5,000 to Janet Clarke, $5,000 to Ralph Buona, and another $2,500 to LeTourneau. On top of this money to the Supervisor candidates themselves, MC Dean contributed a whopping $15,000 to the Loudoun County Republican Party. For these Supervisors to then hold closed-door meetings to discuss business dealings with such large-scale campaign contributors is offensive and reprehensible.
- On May 8, the Supervisor-appointed Courthouse Grounds and Facilities Committee delayed their public meeting to hold a 45-minute, unscheduled closed-door session. As reported by the Loudoun Times-Mirror, a member of the media was removed from the room, and members of the public were kept waiting outside, while the committee received “legal advice.” (Locked doors at the Loudoun County courthouse grounds meeting, Loudoun Times-Mirror online, May 8) With no on-going or pending litigation, it is unclear on what basis the Committee sought to use the narrow exception to the Virginia Freedom of Information Act that allows County committees to meet behind closed doors. The matter before the Courthouse Grounds Committee -- the status of Christmas and Holiday displays on the Courthouse grounds -- is one of the most controversial and well-publicized facing the County government, and one on which many Loudouners seek to give input.
Why are the Republican Supervisors hiding their actions behind closed doors? First, they can. There is no member of the opposition party to observe and report on the actions taken in Executive Session. The Republicans’ complete control of the entire County government lends itself to such abuses of power. Second, they do not want to publicly discuss their decisions and actions in support of major campaign contributors or their stances on controversial topics, like the Courthouse Displays. The Board is using closed sessions to plot their moves, make deals and generally discuss matters of public concern, and public trust, as far as possible from the view of that public they were elected to serve.
This Board of Supervisors needs to come out from the shadows and discuss public policy in public. The citizens of Loudoun County have a right to know what decisions are being made, and how. They deserve the right to give their input and bear witness to the actions and decisions that will affect their lives.