Feb. 12, 2013 — After a year in office, we know that the new Republican majority on the Spotsylvania Board of Supervisors has broken campaign promises. They also promised to be more open and ethical than the previous Board. Looking at their actions, it looks like the Republicans have broken that promise, too.
In 2004, the previous Board adopted a Code of Ethics ”to assure public confidence in the integrity of local government and its effective and fair operation.” It has been endorsed and signed by Board members, top officials and appointees ever since. Out of the 18 ethical tenets, these are perhaps the most important ones that govern the actions of Board members:
Act in the Public Interest
Recognizing that stewardship of the public interest must be their primary concern, members will work for the common good of the people of Spotsylvania County and not for any private or personal interest….
Comply with the Law
Members shall comply with the laws of the nation, the Commonwealth of Virginia and the County of Spotsylvania in the performance of their public duties. These laws include, but are not limited to: the United States and Virginia constitutions; the Code of the County of Spotsylvania; laws pertaining to conflicts of interest, election campaigns, financial disclosures, employer responsibilities, and open processes of government; and County ordinances and policies.
Conduct of Members
The professional and personal conduct of members must be above reproach and avoid even the appearance of impropriety….
Decisions Based on Merit
Members shall base their decisions on the merits and substance of the matter at hand, rather than on unrelated considerations.
Conflict of Interest
In order to assure their independence and impartiality on behalf of the common good, members shall not use their official positions to influence government decisions in which they have a material financial interest, or where they have an organizational responsibility or personal relationship that may give the appearance of a conflict of interest.
In accordance with the law, members shall disclose investments, interests in real property, sources of income, and gifts; and they shall abstain from participating in deliberations and decision-making where conflicts may exist.
Gifts and Favors
Members shall not take any special advantage of services or opportunities for personal gain, by virtue of their public office, which are not available to the public in general….
Policy Role of Members
The Board of Supervisors determines the policies of the County with the advice, information and analysis provided by the public, boards, commissions, and committees, and County staff. The Board of Supervisors delegates authority for the administration of the County to the County Administrator.
Members therefore shall not interfere with the administrative functions of the County or the professional duties of County staff; nor shall they impair the ability of staff to implement Board policy decisions.
Looking at these once again, I would say that the new Republican Spotsylvania Board has violated all of these ethical guidelines. For instance, the proposed Route 3 bypass had been reviewed and advanced by state and regional government officials, experts and private sector partners for eight years. They invested hundreds of thousands of public-private dollars. Studies showed that the road would alleviate congestion on hated Route 3 for 30 years, and its alignment was the least intrusive of other alternatives studied, perhaps impacting four or five properties. Granted, any property impact is problematic, but this alternative was better than others that would have destroyed hundred of homes, not to mention the historic battlefield and the beautiful Rappahannock River.
But the new bypass might’ve impacted Supervisor David Ross’s property. Ross, a retired Marine and government employee who had never been involved in local affairs, ran for office for the sole purpose of killing the road project to save his property. He was subsequently elected, and two months later on the night of his first meeting, the first vote he made was to stop the project, and his Republican cohorts followed suit. With that one vote, Ross killed the road project, saved his property from being impacted and therefore, personally benefitted, and violated six, if not more, tenets in the Code of Ethics. Legally and according to the County’s Code of Ethics, Ross should have recused himself from voting, but he did not. No one, not even the County Attorney, said a thing. Oh, he and his Republican colleagues, all of whom were backed by the Tea Party and like to brag about saving tax dollars, ended up wasting hundreds of thousands of your tax dollars.
It was bad enough that Ross and his Republican Board killed the badly needed road project and wasted tax dollars. They also forced the Commonwealth Transportation Board to take away the $14 million dedicated to the project and give it to a project in Stafford County. Moreover, Ross and his Republicans didn’t have an alternative plan to fix Route 3 traffic for the next 30 years. Their big idea was to get VDOT to synchronize the lights on Route 3, which made things better for a week – until someone “unsynchronized” them during Sunday church service at Life Point - but it’s not a 30-year solution.
In their ignorance and arrogance, Ross and his colleague, Tim McLaughlin, started bragging to people, as recently as a November HOA meeting in Lake Wilderness, that they had a plan to build the outer connector along the Route 20 corridor in Orange County. This came as news to property owners, preservationists and state and regional officials, who have never seen any real plans and would have to approve and fund the project. Of course, Ross and McLaughlin don’t have a plan, nor do they have any idea where the money would come from. They are finding out that they are no longer barking orders in the Marines; they are finding out that the pesky thing about being an elected official is that you have to govern….
Fast forward to the budget and tax vote in April. At least two of the four Republican Board members – Heidig and McLaughlin – are substantial property owners. Heidig owns the Lake Anna Winery, and McLaughlin owns over $3 million in commercial and residential properties, which he manages on the side in his real estate business. During the tax deliberations, McLaughlin and Heidig led the charge to cut the property tax, directly benefitting themselves. Furthermore, McLaughlin led the plan to cut the BPOL tax, which, again, directly benefitted his real estate business. Again, legally and according to their Code of Ethics, Heidig and McLaughlin should have recused themselves from voting. But, again, no one, not even the County Attorney, said a thing.
(As a side note, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that McLaughlin is ethically challenged. It was reported by LeavingMyMarc during the 2011 election that public documents indicated that McLaughlin committed voter fraud and dodged Virginia state taxes by claiming as his primary residence in Florida a house that he sold in 2005, while also claiming to live in Spotsylvania since 2002.)
God knows what these guys did over the summer months when no one was watching, but jumping to the fall, the Republican Majority came up with the plan to directly hire the deputy county administrator and other department heads. This move not only subverts the authority of the County Administrator, but it also violates another tenet in the Code of Ethics:
The Board of Supervisors delegates authority for the administration of the County to the County Administrator…. Members therefore shall not interfere with the administrative functions of the County….
Then, to add insult to injury and to commit more ethical violations, the Republicans worked with Republican State Delegate Mark Cole to hire him as the new deputy county administrator. (As was noted in reports, Cole, a professed government-hater, was laid off from his government contracting job.) Cole and the Republican Majority had campaigned together in 2011, and exchanged campaign contributions. One would think that hiring Cole was and is an outright conflict of interest, not to mention the appearance of one, but they were allowed to vote and give Cole his new cushy job with a salary and benefits approximating $150-160,000 a year.
It is almost comical and very Spotsyltucky-esque that the government-hatin’ Republican Majority, who each now receive 2-3 government paychecks a month, would turn around and give a top government job to their friend and fellow government-hater, Del. Mark Cole, who is also on the government dole. But, as they say, we get the government we deserve, and Spotsylvania voters elected this bunch….
As I mentioned in a post last month, the ethical violations surrounding Cole’s hiring go beyond Spotsylvania. According to the International City/County Management Association (ICMA) Code of Ethics, the hiring and retention of Cole violates at least two of the tenets, possibly more: personal relationships, conflicting roles and participation in elections. In any case, his hiring does violate common sense and our intelligence when he and the Board try to convince us that out of 104 candidates, Cole was the most qualified.
After a year in office, the new Republican Majority has broken promises and committed ethical violations that would sound alarms in most towns and counties. But, no one, not even the Freelance Star, or the Spotsylvania Democratic Committee, or the County Attorney, or the people of Spotsyltucky say a thing. And so it goes….