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Getting Purcellville Out of the Conflicts of Interest Trap

August 7, 2015 by Andrea Gaines filed under Editorial, Opinion No Comments
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Three Virginia laws address openness in government: the Virginia Freedom of Information Act (VFOIA), The Virginia Public Records Act (VPRA) and The Virginia State & Local Government Conflict of Interests Act (VCOIA).

VFOIA guides how public bodies conduct their meetings and regulates access to government records. VPRA establishes basic rules about what constitutes a public record and what the government’s responsibility towards that record is. VCOA regulates how involved a government official may be in an item being considered in their official duties if he or she has a financial interest in that item.

Locally, Virginia’s conflict of interest law has garnered much attention in recent months as weeks as Purcellville grapples with major zoning change proposals. It’s time to make these conflicts transparent to the public, and get Purcellville out of the conflicts of interest trap.

Is The BZA Compromised?

On June 9, the Purcellville Town Council appointed former Purcellville mayor and attorney Eric Zimmerman to the town’s Board of Zoning Appeals. The 4-2-1 vote saw Mayor Kwasi Fraser and town council member Karen Jimmerson voting against Zimmerman’s appointment, with council members Doug McCollum, Ben Packard, Joan Lehr and Patrick McConville voting yes, and John Nave abstaining.
Fraser and Jimmerson’s no votes focused on Zimmerman’s potential conflict of interest regarding local businesswoman Mary Ellen Stover’s challenge to the Vineyard Square project.

A week after his appointment, it was disclosed that Zimmerman is the attorney for one of the parties that has a substantial financial interest in Vineyard Square, meaning that, Zimmerman would, in effect, serve as the attorney for a Vineyard Square investor and a member of the BZA as it heard Stover’s legal challenge.

During his interview for the post, in responding to a question from town council member Karen Jimmerson about “Having close relationships with developers, people in land use” while Zimmerman noted at the time that “obviously if I’ve represented that party any time in the recent time, I would recuse myself … “ he did not mention the Vineyard Square connection and his representation of one of the note holders, accepting the BZA post anyway.

Zimmerman went on to remove himself as representative of one of the Vineyard Square note holders – but only after the attorney confirmed it was a conflict of interest.

In another appeal to the BZA, Rogan, Miller, Zimmerman, PLLC is the legal representative of James Alfred and Barbara T. Mason for a commercial occupancy permit on behalf of Green Acres. Zimmerman was required to recuse himself on this appeal as well.

Serving Two Masters

As reported in a recent Blue Ridge Leader, Town Council member Patrick McConville has served the town of Purcellville for many years. However, McConville recently accepted a position at Bowman Consulting, a company with several major development projects/proposals under consideration by the Purcellville Planning Commission and Town Council, including the Purcellville Crossroads annexation, Vineyard Square, the Cottages at 32nd Street, and the 262-unit residential Autumn Hill Mayfair development to name a few.

We reprint Mr. McConville’s recent financial disclosure letter in full:

“On tonight’s agenda is a report from the Town’s Community Development Department regarding the Purcellville Crossroads Annexation application, for which the applicant is Pleasants Kline, LLC, and an item concerning approval of the Meter Size and Availability Fees for the Vineyard Square project, for which the applicant is Chapman Group LC.

As I announced at our Council meeting on June 9, 2015, I have accepted full-time employment as a Land Survey Technician with Bowman Consulting Group. Bowman provides engineering and consulting services, which may include survey work, to Pleasants Kline LLC concerning the Purcellville Crossroads Annexation application, and to Chapman Group LC, concerning the Vineyard Square Project.
Because of my position as a Member of Town Council, I do not, and will not, personally work on the Purcellville Crossroads Annexation application or the Vineyard Square application, nor will I work for Bowman on any project within the jurisdictional limits of the Town of Purcellville.

I am fully committed first and foremost to serving the interests of the citizens of Purcellville. I am confident in my ability to participate fairly, objectively, and in the public interest in the Purcellville Crossroads Annexation application and the Vineyard Square application, as well as in other land development applications for which Bowman provides its consulting services. For these reasons, I plan to participate as a Council Member in those discussions and decisions.
Thank you.”

Who Is Representing The Citizens?

Small town politics is bound to involve elected officials, neighbors and business owners who know each other, work together, and do their part to weigh in on the big-picture issues facing the community’s future.
But, at some point, the process needs to be opened up. At some point the playing filed needs to be leveled so that everyone’s interests are defended.

Purcellville is at a crossroads with respect to how get out of the special interests trap. Citizens need to be given the power to take their community back.

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