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Question of Ethics

Board responds to attack on disclosure with new ethics package.

In an effort to gain back the trust of Loudoun residents after revelations of many possible conflicts of interest in approving new development, the Board of Supervisors will consider adopting new ethics guidelines at its Feb. 6 board meeting.

The package, which was introduced by Supervisor Lori Waters (R-Broad Run) and Chairman Scott K. York (I-At large) was co-sponsored by three other supervisors, Jim Burton (I-At large), Sally Kurtz (D-Catoctin) and Jim Clem (R-Leesburg).

"This has a lot of disclosure in it," Waters said. "There would be no question about that."

The package builds on the formal Code of Ethics and Standards that was proposed by Burton in 2005. When Burton proposed the original package it was signed by only five members of the board, the same five supervisors who are sponsoring the new package.

"It is still a good document," Waters said. "This will just put some teeth to it."

The action follows a series of stories about conflicts of interest in the land-use process published by the Washington Post last month.

After a year-long investigation into the communications and workings of the county government, the newspaper published three stories calling into question some county officials close relationship with developers who had active land-use applications with the county. The articles alleged that Loudoun's land-use decisions were being governed by a few political leaders' close relationships with developers and applicants.

UNDER THE NEW package, Supervisors who did not sign the code of ethics would then forfeit one-half of their district's funds. The funds were $87,746, a portion of which pays the Supervisors' aides' salaries, as of the end of 2006. Waters said it is important that there are consequences for failing to sign.

"We need to say that we are going to abide not only by the law of Virginia, but today we are going to abide by our own code of ethics," she said. "This does raise the bar."

In addition, under the new code of ethics, any complaints or potential violations of the code would be brought before the board for a full, public review. If the board establishes that a violation occurred, it could impose penalties such as being removed from committee assignments, being censured.

"I think this is a starting point," Waters said. "You can't be prescriptive enough to address any situation."

Waters added that she did ask Commonwealth Attorney James Plowman to look at not only what actions of Supervisors cross the legality line, but also which actions come close to crossing the legality line.

"That's where we will be able to see if state law is enough," she said. "Then we can go to the state legislature."

Currently there is no state law that applies directly to Loudoun County. The State Conflict of Interest Act states, however, that "No officer or employee of a state or local government or advisory shall accept any money, loan, gift, favor, service or business and professional opportunity that reasonably tends to influence him in the performance of his official duties." The act states that any money received as part of a campaign fund or for constituent services is not considered a conflict of interest.

ON FEB. 5, during the General Assembly's session, a bill originally proposed by Sen. Jeannemarie Devolites Davis (R-34) was approved unanimously by the Senate and sent to the House of Delegates. The approved bill states that members of the Board of Supervisors, Planning Commission and Board of Zoning Appeals must give full disclosure on special-exception applications, amendments to the zoning ordinance map and Comprehensive Plan amendments requested by the owner or purchaser of the land.

The proposed bill states that " … prior to any hearing on the matter or at such hearing, [a member must] make a full public disclosure of any business or financial relationship which such member has, or has had within the 12-month period prior to such hearing, with the applicant in such case, or with the title owner, contract purchaser or lessee of the land that is the subject of the application."

"I think this is a good first step," Sen. Mark Herring (D-33) said. "[Now] we can look to see if any additional things are needed."

Herring did not support a similar bill introduced by Devolites Davis during the 2006 session because it would only have applied to Fairfax County. Herring said that while it is positive that the current bill applies to the entire commonwealth, he would like to see a future bill that applies only to the Northern Virginia area.

"I think [a bill] should be applicable to planning district eight, Northern Virginia, where land-use issues are handled similarly," he said. "My preference would be for the Northern Virginia delegation to work together to create some workable legislation for the area."