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Who Speaks for Mount Vernon?

Mount Vernon Council caught in spat between new executives and former committee chairman.

Two years ago, David Dale decided to create a Web site for the Mount Vernon Council of Citizens Associations’ Committee on Planning and Zoning, which plays an advisory role for any potential development in the area. Dale, who had been committee chairman, bought the Web site name and made decisions on its content: mostly meeting agendas and documents regarding specific planning and zoning cases that were before the committee.

But last week, visitors to the Web site could find more than agenda items. Stamped across the page was this message, repeated over and over: “Censored: By the Council Chairs.”

The message was posted by Dale himself and did not interfere with any navigation of the site. But it is a vivid illustration of a controversy that has been roiling the council.

Three new co-chairs have taken office for 2007: Dan Burrier, Dan Rinzel and Jerry Ireland. They will be the executives of a body of more than 60 presidents of civic associations with no legislative power but strong influence with county officials and Mount Vernon District Supervisor Gerry Hyland.

Burrier and Ireland say they were elected on a mandate to bring change to the Council. “We have 40 or 50 years of history on the Council of things just basically being the way they are. No one wants to do anything that’s going to upset anybody,” Ireland said. This has meant rubber-stamp reappointments of Council co-chairs and chairmen. The new co-chairs have broken with that tradition and, as the P&Z Web site indicates, some people are upset.

No one disputes the co-chairs’ right to choose whether to reappoint their committee chairmen for another year. To make their decision, the co-chairs distributed questionnaires to all serving co-chairs and the their possible replacements. Jim Davis, chairman of the Environmental and Recreation Committee, resigned before submitting his questionnaire. Dale answered the questionnaire, but was not reappointed to his post by the co-chairs. He was the only chairman to be passed over. Dale had led his committee for more than two years and Davis had been there a decade.

IRELAND CITED Dale’s Web site as one reason for the co-chairs’ decision to appoint Jay Spiegel, a newcomer to the P&Z committee, to replace Dale. By creating the Web site without permission, and updating its contents without approval from the Council, “he usurped the authority of the Council and the Board,” Ireland said (the board is an oversight body within the council that includes the co-chairs and the committee chairmen). The Web site was not linked to the official Web site of the Council.

Among the items Dale posted were guidelines for developers who needed to present proposals to the committee. Dale presented these guidelines informally to previous co-chairs, but did not bring them to the full Council for a vote. Ireland called this “a complete lack of respect for the process and for the responsibility he has as a committee chair to the board and to the Council.” He also said Dale posted the resume of Pat Rea, a candidate for co-chair that he supported, but ignored the others.

Dale acknowledges posting the resume before the election was a “mistake,” but defended himself against other charges. He said the previous co-chairs told him they wanted to review the guidelines, but that a full vote was not required because the guidelines were an internal matter of committee policy.

Former co-chairs Mack Rhoades and Bob Reynolds said they recognized the Web site as a valuable tool for the committee and anyone who needed to deal with it. Reynolds said the Web site “filled a vacuum and it displayed significant leadership and initiative.”

Rhoades agreed, but added that the co-chairs told Dale he needed to ask permission before taking steps like publishing a Web site under the auspices of the Council. He added that refusing to reappoint a committee chairman is an unprecedented step, but the controversy over the decision on Dale is misguided because the co-chairs must be able to work with their chairmen. If they can’t, that is all the reason they need not to reappoint them.

IRELAND SAID THE WEB issue is but one example of “many, many concerns for a lot of different things” that the co-chairs had with Dale. Among them, he criticized Dale because for not leading the committee to create a comprehensive, long-term vision for the corridor, instead dedicating it to isolated issues as they arose.

He also accused Dale of ignoring a conflict of interest during the decision-making process for the failed King’s Crossing project. Dale is also president of the Spring Bank Community, which borders the site, and had direct negotiations with the developers, JPI, in that capacity. Dale was also party to a sealed settlement with JPI after a bulldozer plowed a road through part of his backyard.

Dale said he asked both his committee and JPI about this conflict, and both told him to continue chairing the P&Z committee. He said that if the committee had ever voted on the project (JPI withdrew its bid before any vote occurred) he would have recused himself.

Ginny Wells has represented Engleside on the P&Z committee since 1998. She said Dale’s Web site fostered a new transparency within the committee by giving all members access to important documents. She said he made a point of spelling out who he was speaking for whenever JPI was an issue, and that he always gave everyone in the meetings the opportunity to state their position. “He was very fair.”

DALE SAID he is not convinced that the mandate for change cited by the new co-chairs truly exists. He compared the co-chairs to a posse of new sheriffs riding into a sleepy western town. “I don’t think the town really was asking them to shake things up.”

Dale said he believes there is an unspoken reason for his failure to be reappointed: the dispute over whether to turn the undeveloped North Hill site into a park or affordable housing. Davis and Dale were both advocates for a park. Ireland has called for workforce and affordable housing on the site. After debate within the P&Z committee and the council itself, a motion in favor of affordable housing was rejected.

Ireland characterizes this explanation as “completely false” and a “personal issue” of Dale’s. He said North Hill never figured in any of the co-chairs’ discussions with Dale.

But Dale believes the writing was on the wall. “I had a clear sense that they wanted to get rid of me,” Dale said of the questionnaire application process. “There was nothing I could have written on that form that would have changed that.”

Dale said that until the current co-chairs criticized his Web site, no one had ever questioned his right to maintain it independently of the Council. “No one has ever asked me,” he said. “I’m not resisting authority, I’m taking initiative to do what is right.”

As for his Web site, Dale said that during a closed board session, he had been told “in completely explicit terms they don’t like me having the Web page. They think I should take it down.” He said he is not sure what he will do with the page.

But Dale said the controversy over the chairmanship “is moot, because I am not fighting to be the chair of P&Z. I do not want to be the chairman… that is all water under the bridge.”