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Council Notebook

No Representation

The Alexandria Board of Zoning Appeals is facing a legal challenge to its recent decision on the waterfront, and city officials are denying them an opportunity to have legal counsel.

“We are being denied due process,” said Geoffrey Goodale, a member of the BZA. “The city attorney is playing fast and loose with the facts.”

Tuesday night, members of the City Council considered a request from the board for legal representation in an appeal city officials are pursing in Circuit Court against the board’s recent ruling on the waterfront. At issue is a determination from Planning Director Faroll Hamer that citizens could not bring a protest petition forcing a supermajority vote for the zoning change, which would increase density at three sites slated for redevelopment from the existing 300,000 square feet to 800,000 square feet. The stakes are high because the plan passed on a five-to-two vote, one vote shy of a supermajority. During a late-night meeting in April, the Board of Zoning Appeals voted to overturn Hamer’s determination.

City Council members now say appealing the board’s ruling is an important step in setting a precedent to make sure citizens don’t bring a protest petition any time neighbors don’t like a development.

“This has nothing to do with the waterfront,” said Mayor Bill Euille. “It has a lot more to with the fact that this will limit future development.”

In response to a series of emails, Councilman Paul Smedberg offered a motion for the city to spend up to $5,000 on legal representation for the board. Then City Attorney James Banks said he knew of no role for an attorney representing the board, which is not a party in the appeal. Vice Mayor Kerry Donley criticized the effort as a political gesture to placate critics.

“If you are going to put a dead skunk on the table,” he said, “we might as well call it a dead skunk.”

Smedberg eventually withdrew his motion, and council members pledged to offer legal support if any individual members of the board become a party in the case.

“We need legal counsel now,” replied Goodale.

Whistleblower Hotline

Do you know about waste, fraud and abuse at City Hall? Get out your phones. Alexandria is preparing a new hotline for city employees or citizens to become whistleblowers. It’s an idea originally proposed by Councilman Frank Fannon after a number of embarrassing ethical problems in recent years.

The list includes a human resources employee charged with embezzlement, a Chinquapin Recreation Center employee charged with embezzlement, a meter maid convicted of pocketing quarters, a DASH employee who was taking taxpayers for a ride and a Fleet Services division chief who sold a city-owned trailer to a local farmer for $3,500. Late last year, Deputy General Services Director Timothy Wanamaker resigned after city officials learned he pled guilty to a felony charge in a New York federal court after admitted to using work-issued credit cards to pay for non-work related travel and expenses.

“We are guardians of $508 million of taxpayers dollars,” said Fannon. “We have to let our citizens know we are not going to tolerate any waste, fraud or abuse.”

City officials hope to have the new hotline operational later this year.

Accounting, Not Ethics

School officials say ethical problems weren’t at the heart of recent accounting problems with system’s budget office. It was just bad accounting.

“We continue to find no evidence of personal gain,” said School Board Vice Chairman Helen Morris in an update to City Council members this week.

Earlier this year, an independent audit of the school system’s capital budget program found what investigators called a “dysfunctional environment” at the Beauregard Street headquarters. That led the city’s vice mayor to call for Superintendent Morton Sherman to step down, although School Board members disagreed and decided to stand by their man. Now, School Board members say the problems identified in the audit have been corrected even as school officials are looking for more ways to tighten the budgeting process.

“While we had many of the proper procedures in place, they weren’t being followed,” said School Board Chairwoman Sheryl Gorsuch. “Now we have confidence that they are.”