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Summerville Begins Board Race

County Board candidate turns stadium fight into campaign issue.

As leader of the No Arlington Stadium Coalition, Sarah Summerville is counting small victories in an ongoing fight against efforts to bring major league baseball to Arlington. Now she’s counting on parlaying those successes into political clout.

Summerville grabbed headlines Wednesday, June 4, when she made public an opinion from the Freedom of Information Advisory Council, which says that Virginia Baseball Stadium Authority officials may have violated “the spirit of openness of FOIA,” by restricting access to certain press conferences.

The Stadium Authority is an entity of the state, and as such is subject to the Freedom of Information Act and other laws guaranteeing public access to meetings. After protesters were barred from a March 29 Authority press conference, anti-stadium organizers sought the advisory opinion.

Stadium opponents have argued for months that Authority officials violated those laws. “This is our state government here. This is not a private corporation,” said Summerville.

Maria Everett, the Council’s executive director, wrote the opinion based solely upon information provided by Bryan Phillips, an attorney working pro-bono for No Arlington Stadium.

In the wake of the opinion, Summerville’s group filed a massive request for Authority files under FOIA. Just two days later, Summerville filed paperwork officially declaring her intention to run as an independent for one of two County Board seats up for election in November.

Summerville will challenge incumbents Paul Ferguson, current board chair, and Walter Tejada, along with Republican nominee Rich Kelsey. “I’m having fun,” said Summerville, although her campaign has yet to reach full swing.

SUMMERVILLE’S GROUP has dubbed the potential ballpark the “stealth stadium,” because they say planning stages flew under the radar of citizens and media outlets until recently.

“People should have been going to these meetings all along – the press, the people,” she said. “These meetings should have been reported on all along.”

No Arlington Stadium Coalition now has a six-member media team working pro-bono to publicize the group’s efforts. It remains to be seen whether Summerville will retain that support in her bid for a County Board seat.

For much of the last two weeks, there were rumors in Arlington’s political establishment that Summerville would make an independent run for a board seat, with Republican backing. But in a meeting late last month, members of the Arlington Republican committee decided not to sign on with the former Democrat Summerville.

Despite the setback, the No Arlington Stadium leader says she will continue to solicit GOP support. “They delayed the decision. That’s just where it is at this time,” she said. “There’s a long time between now and November. In political terms, it’s a lifetime away.”

SOME BASEBALL SUPPORTERS say release of the opinion amounts to nothing more than a political red herring from Summerville.

“If you’re losing on the facts, you try and take people’s eye off the ball, and that’s what’s happening here,” said Tom Brooke, co-chair of the Arlington Baseball Coalition.

Opponents have failed to provide convincing evidence against stadium plans, he said, so they have resorted to criticizing the process.

Authority officials deny any wrongdoing. By law, certain topics like land acquisition do not have to be discussed in open meetings. Following a closed meeting, all members of the body must vote to certify that only eligible topics were discussed in that closed session.

“In my five years of involvement with the Authority, we have never had a dissenting vote in any of those decisions,” said Brian Hannigan, a spokesperson for the Authority. Hannigan noted that attorneys for the Authority have been present at all meetings to ensure adherence to the law.

WITH OR WITHOUT Republican support, Summerville’s main issue, at least for the time being, is her opposition to an Arlington stadium. “I don’t want to get into the issues yet,” she said. “I just want to let people know I’m running.”

With a solely baseball in her platform so far, Summerville runs the risk of losing voters’ attention in the middle of the summer. Major League Baseball’s owners are set to decide come mid-July whether to move the Montreal Expos to Northern Virginia, Washington, D.C., or Portland, Ore.

If the Expos head elsewhere, Summerville could face three-and-a-half months of campaigning without a viable main issue in her platform.

But Summerville, an attorney, has had political experience in the past. She ran the 1992 Clinton/Gore campaign in Alabama and afterwards accepted a position assisting small businesses in the procurement process with the Pentagon.