Citizens Committee to Explain Bonds

Citizens Committee to Explain Bonds

Impartiality will be a challenge, members say.

Janyce Hedetniemi has a lot of public speaking ahead of her. Between now and Nov. 5, she will be speaking to civic groups and homeowners associations about the bond referendums on this year’s ballot.

Hedetniemi is the Braddock District representative to the 2002 Fall Bond Referendum Committee, a group of citizens appointed by the Board of Supervisors to inform voters about the bonds. She is also the committee's chairman. Representatives from the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce, the League of Women Voters and the Federation of Citizens Associations also serve on the committee.

Hedetniemi was recommended by Braddock District Supervisor Sharon Bulova (D) and approved by the Board Aug. 5.

Hedetniemi also serves as president of the Oak Hill Citizens Association and sits on the Fairfax County Transportation Advisory Committee.

Although the bond referendums have not received as much attention as the sales-tax referendum, their outcome is important to the county.

"The tax increase may serve to put this aside," she said. "I think that it's important for people in the county to know the assessment."

NEXT MONTH voters will be asked to decide on a measure that would sell bonds to generate $60 million for public safety and $20 million for the Park Authority. Roughly $29 million of the public-safety bonds would be used to build a new communications and emergency center. Calls to 911 are currently answered by dispatchers working in an old elementary school in Annandale. The public-safety bonds also include $25 million to renovate the Jennings Judicial Center in downtown Fairfax and to consolidate all the courts in one building. An additional $5 million would go toward making improvements to fire stations in the county.

The $20 million park bond would give the Fairfax County Park Authority $15 million to buy rapidly vanishing land for parks and would put $5 million toward maintaining existing parks.

The citizens committee “will respond to citizens’ request for presentations,” according to Debra Bianchi, of the county’s Public Affairs office, who serves as the staff liaison to the committee.

“They would go out and explain why a particular facility might be needed and why the county might be interested in purchasing parkland.”

To do that, Bianchi said, it is crucial that the committee members remain impartial during their presentations.

“They would not go out to a group and say, ‘You should vote yes on these bonds,’” she said.

Talking about the need for new public-safety facilities and parkland does not represent a conflict of interest, because people could recognize the need for new facilities while opposing the bond sale to build them, she added.

“They may agree that there’s a need, but they may not feel that it’s a priority for them at this time.”

The Dranesville District committee member, Chris Cole, said he would not let his personal support for the bond referendums interfere with his explanations during meetings with citizen groups.

“When I speak on behalf of the bonds, I am going to be neutral,” he said. “My basic job is to answer questions about them and to stimulate interest in them and not to take a position on them. We have to be careful when we speak to groups that we stay neutral.”

But Cole also speaks passionately when talking about the need to make improvements to parks and public-safety facilities.

“The $60 million bond speaks for itself,” he said. “The county needs it.

“Obviously all the committee members are interested in seeing them passed,” he added, but noted that “we’re an information group, not a cheerleading group.”

“We are admonished as a committee to take a very nonbiased and neutral informative and informing position,” said Hedetniemi. “It is a challenge, and I think each of the supervisors selected people they felt could handle that.”

"I'M ALWAYS leery of the government setting up organizations to lobby citizens for more money,” said James Parmelee, a Republican activist, who has been leading the efforts to oppose the sales tax.

While Parmelee would not say whether he supported or opposed the bond referendums, he said he was “upset” that the Board would use taxpayer money to set up an organization charged with informing citizens about ballot issues.

“It will be information if they allow people on both sides of the issue to have the same number of words,” he said.

“There’s certainly a fine line between advocacy and providing information,” said Bianchi. She added that the committee had been working with the County Attorney’s Office to make sure it was operating legally.

“I think it’s an information resource to explain to the citizens what we’re doing,” said Michael Long, of the County Attorney’s Office.

“I don’t think there’s anything troublesome about it. It’s certainly fair for the government to explain what it’s doing.”