Two issues dominated the first year of the current Loudoun County Board of Supervisors’ lineup – the question of whether to approve extending Metrorail’s Silver Line to Dulles Airport and into Loudoun County, and charges surrounding Sterling District Supervisor Eugene Delgaudio.
The Metrorail decision was not only the Board’s most important decision of the 2012, it may have been the most significant in decades. Seen as a major economic development stimulus by the business community – and some supervisors – it was also strenuously opposed by many residents for a variety of reasons, most notably the cost of the project and means of financing it.
With an all-Republican board that placed a high priority on economic development, one might have thought that the decision would be a slam dunk. It wasn’t. For weeks leading up to the decision, many observers had trouble counting five votes in support of the project, and the issue became a test of Chairman Scott York’s leadership abilities. The uncertainty lasted until the final vote, when Leesburg District Supervisor Ken Reid surprised many by casting the deciding vote in favor of the project.
I believe the board made the right decision in the end, but its difficulty in arriving at a decision resulted in a lengthy, heated public debate. Reid paid a political price for his vote, enduring a firestorm of criticism from rail opponents, many of whom were fellow Republicans.
Delgaudio was the other big newsmaker in 2012. First, an anti-gay rights organization he heads was deemed a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Then The Washington Post broke a story that aired charges made by a former Delgaudio aide who claimed that he had directed her to engage in political fundraising while she was drawing pay from the county government. She also alleged that Delgaudio had created an abusive work environment for her.
The possible scandal spread beyond Delgaudio himself, when it was alleged that York and Vice Chairman Janet Clarke had known about the aide’s charges for months, and had not taken appropriate steps to address the charges. By the end of the year, York had issued a public apology, Clarke had withdrawn her name from consideration for another year as vice chairman, supervisors had tightened up policies regarding their use of aides, and a prosecutor was looking into the possibility of bringing criminal charges against Delgaudio.
Budget Priorities and Messages
In its first round of budget deliberations, the board clearly signaled where it placed its priorities, with economic development at the top. Programs deemed not to be “core governmental services” – such as the Master Gardeners and Drug Court – were eliminated, and others barely survived straw votes.
Compensating the county workforce was not a high priority. Although employees of neighboring local governments received pay increases, the Loudoun workforce saw its raise more than offset by changes in the way the employees pay into the retirement system. The board also set about making serious cuts in the benefits of employees and retirees.
The board sent another clear message when it signaled that it intends to curtail school spending next year. As a result of its actions last year, and signals for the year ahead, employees of both the county government and school system were left with the prospect of stagnant compensation and shrinking benefits in the foreseeable future.
As the new board members took office, I wrote that the first meeting of the year often sets a tone for the rest of the board’s term and gives indications as to who will emerge as leaders. I might have expanded that to include the first two meetings of 2012, when the board gave some early indications as to what lay ahead.
In the first meeting, Ashburn District Supervisor Ralph Buona was named to chair the Finance, Government Services & Operations Committee, one of the most powerful positions on the board. This was expected, as was Buona’s emergence as one of the board’s leaders.
On the other hand, Clarke, who was elected vice chairman in the first meeting, shot herself in the foot at that same meeting when she tried to block a former political adversary’s reappointment to a seat on the economic development commission (EDC). The move backfired when it turned out that the EDC member’s term had not yet expired, and Clarke was left with egg on her face.
At its next meeting, the board voted to kill a program that enlisted volunteers to clear illegal signs from roadways. Although the program was effective and inexpensive, it apparently offended some board members who resented having their political signs confiscated, along with those placed by their political supporters. This, too, made the board look petty and vindictive.
However, one supervisor broke form the majority and voted against killing the program – Broad Run Supervisor Shawn Williams. It was an early signal that Williams was willing to break from the majority, as he did several times over the course of the year – most notably when he called for sanctions against Delgaudio. By the year’s end, his emergence as a voice of reason and conscience – while avoiding sanctimony – was one of the bright spots of 2012.