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Mendelsohn Speaks His Mind

After eight years in office, Dranesvile's Supervisor has two board meetings left before the Nov. 4 election

Is this the same Stuart Mendelsohn?

Since he became a “lame duck” after announcing in July, 2002, that he won’t seek a third term as Dranesville District Supervisor, Mendelsohn, the affable guy who worked tirelessly but anonymously on civic projects in Fairfax County long before he moved to Dranesville District, has shown a churlish tendency to speak his mind.

“We can’t control him,” joked staff member Linda Lammerson, the Dranesville supervisor's liaison for parks.

She should know. She had to explain to the Friends of Riverbend Park why Mendelsohn voted “no” to a proposal that included restoration of the park's operating funds from the county’s FY 2003 $39 million budget surplus. On the same day, Mendelsohn's aides were telling Riverbend supporters how hard Mendelsohn had worked to get the money back.

“Because of my position [as chairman of planning and zoning] with the Great Falls Citizens Association, we have worked closely with him and his office,” said John Ulfelder, a resident of Great Falls and an attorney for West*Group.

“I wish he were running again. He’s been terrific to work with, and responsive to our issues and concerns on any given issue,” Ulfelder said.

He declined to comment on Mendelsohn’s recent broadsides against candidates who’ve accepted contributions from West*Group.

“I am speaking from my experience as chairman of the planning and zoning committee for the planning and zoning committee,” Ulfelder said.

IN AN INTERVIEW LAST WEEK, Mendelsohn said his recent outspokenness is no joke for his staff. The more honestly he speaks from the dais, the more difficult it can be for them to conduct constituent services with balky county employees, Mendelsohn said.

But his constituents like it.

“He’s freer. He doesn’t seem bound by the constraints of incumbency,” said Adrienne Whyte, chairman of the McLean Citizens Associations planning and zoning committee.

“Everyone I’ve talked to says, ‘man, he’s on a roll. He’s quick to call a spade a spade.’”

“He’s outspoken,” Whyte said. “He’s fiercely protective of his constituents. It’s really a freedom that I wish he had felt four years ago.”

At a meeting of the supervisors on Sept. 29, as Supervisors Gerry Hyland and Gerry Connolly were congratulating county workers and Dominion Virginia Power for their effectiveness in dealing with damage from Hurricane Isabel, Mendelsohn interrupted from the dais.

“Before we get too self-congratulatory,” he said, “an awful lot of people lost sight of the fact that 9,000 people were still without power” a week after the storm.

“Everybody was already into the high fives,” he said. “But if you were one of those 9,000, you weren’t too happy.”

Mendelsohn pointed out that a backup source for electric power to Fairfax County’s four water treatment plants might already be coming on line this spring at Lorton, possibly avoiding calls to build a $50 million supplementary power source for the four of them.

But his anger was more visible during a discussion of Springfield Supervisor Elaine McConnell’s motion on Sept. 22 that the board vote against a five percent tax cap on yearly increases in the county’s real estate tax assessments, which yield most of the revenue stream that pays for schools, public safety, and county employees.

Mendelsohn accused McConnell and other board members of using county staff to build their argument against the tax cap.

Connolly, the Providence supervisor, called Mendelsohn and Sully Supervisor Michael Frey “know-nothings.” As two of three Republicans on the 10-member board, Mendelsohn and Frey frequently vote in the minority. And on the issue of the tax cap, it was the third board Republican, McConnell, who was leading the Democrats into the vote.

Mendelsohn said Connolly acted “like a child” in the discussion. “That’s great leadership. He gets into name-calling,” he said of Connolly.

The vitriol between Connolly and Mendelsohn can be traced to last December, when the board was to hear and decide a development proposal at Tysons Corner in Providence District which gave West*Group a special exception to build 1,354 new residences on land formerly zoned commercial. Action by Connolly delayed the hearing a month, and forced Mendelsohn to recuse himself.

But it had simmered in other disputes on issues that involve the interface between Dranesville and Providence Districts, their supervisors, and their respective constituencies.

MENDELSOHN SAID Connolly was “hypocritical” for demanding that he be recused from the debate on West*Group’s proposal, while not disclosing the work he had done for World Resources, Inc., in 2001.

“He doesn’t dispute the facts,” Mendelsohn said of his perception that Connolly had a conflict of interest on the same issue. “He doesn’t have a defense.

“I think it’s an ethical issue. I think it’s outrageous,” Mendelsohn said.

Connolly reports multiple campaign contributions for $199 from West*Group, which Mendelsohn also sees as unethical.

Although they are legal and exempt from a law that guides the actions of local government officials in their business dealings outside the county, Mendelsohn said the contributions offend his ethics. At $199, they glide just below the “radar” of public disclosure before the board’s land use hearings, which is required for donations of $200 and more.

Mendelsohn doesn’t like the $10,000 political donaton given to Connolly in July by people linked to the Lerner Corporation, the month after the Board of Supervisors approved Lerner’s long-standing proposal to build 540 residences in a 31-story building next to a new Metro station at Route 123 and Tysons Boulevard in Providence District.

“It’s $10,000 contributions in close proximity to land use decisions. I think it’s a path the county should not go down. We’ve had such a clean county,” said Mendelsohn.

Connolly says all his contributions are legal, and that his services for World Resources were known to the Fairfax County attorney before he took the assignment, and not deemed a conflict. “It is unfair to penalize us three weeks before the election” for accepting legal contributions from developers, which constitute only 14 percent of the $700,000 in donations Connolly said he expects during his campaign for board chairman. He also noted that World Resources does not do business in Fairfax County and is an environmental company, not one involved in development.

MENDELSOHN ENTERED government service in 1993, when he applied for an appointment as Dranesville District’s representative to the Fairfax County School Board.

He was appointed by then-Supervisor Ernest Berger, a Republican.

Mendelsohn became the first supervisor from Great Falls since Mark Turner, Sr., held the office in the 1940s, when Great Falls was considered part of Herndon. They are the only supervisors not from McLean in more than 50 years.

Because it has a town council and government, Herndon’s issues don’t often overlap those in McLean and Great Falls, and Route 7 divides the two areas of Dranesville District.

After piloting his district through a contentious redistricting in Great Falls in 1994, Mendelsohn ran for supervisor when Berger stepped down to run for board chairman.

After two terms, he announced he would not seek a third. He gave plenty of lead time, making the announcement in July 2002, more than a year before the election.

He cited family concerns and the demands of his law firm, Piper, Rudnick in Reston.

Although it’s full-time plus, the chairman’s job only pays an annual salary of $59,000.

“That’s one reason I don’t run for chair,” Mendelsohn said. “I can’t afford to do it full time.”

When he first ran, Mendelsohn said he wanted to make government better. He admired politicians like Clive DuVal, the former Virginia senator, once a Republican who became a Democrat. Mendelsohn, once a Democrat who later became a Republican, still recalls a day when both he and DuVal volunteered to help at a Special Olympics competition at the Episcopal School in Alexandria.

“Most politicians came and left,” Mendelsohn said. “[DuVal] stayed for the whole day. Then, as we were cleaning up – [DuVal] had to walk up that long driveway on his way out.

“He was picking up trash along the way. That really impressed me.” With no one watching, and the event concluded, DuVal’s stewardship of the property he visited represented “the epitome of public service” and a standard Mendelsohn still respects, he said.

NOW THAT he’s leaving, Mendelsohn says it’s up to the voters to decide what kind of government they want.

“If the citizenry gets energized, like they did in California,” we could have a 7-3 flip” on the Board of Supervisors,” he said.

“The issues are clear. The citizens need to decide. Do they want to control spending and taxes and solve transportation? Or not?

“If not, they can’t complain if we have 53 percent tax increases in Dranesville District.”

“It is a question of whether the issues get framed, and whether the citizens pay attention.”

“I think [Mendelsohn] has been a very good supervisor – excellent, actually,” said Whyte, who sometimes argues against his proposals. “I would go farther than ‘very good.’ I might not have always agreed with him. “He’s done good things for the environment, protection of the neighborhoods. He’s supported our efforts with trails.

“I honestly believe he’s been an excellent supervisor.

Mendelsohn, who supports Republican Joan DuBois as his successor, says constituent services are the most important function a supervisor has.

“We get notoriety for budgets and land use,” he said. But most people who interact with my office do it with constituent services. I basically pay [my staff] for volunteer services. They do it as a spin-off of their community activism.”