Board to Consider Transparency Measure in Wake of Emails, Allegations
Chairwoman Mary Hynes announced resolution on Saturday. It will be discussed Monday in conjunction with public-private partnerships.
The Arlington County Board on Monday will consider a new transparency measure in an attempt to squash recent allegations that one of its member's employment creates a conflict of interest or appearance of a conflict.
The resolution, announced in a statement Saturday by Chairwoman Mary Hynes and board members Walter Tejada and Jay Fisette, would complement the county's likely adoption of guidelines for public-private partnerships to fund major transportation projects.
It is in direct response to board member Libby Garvey's release this week of a series of emails where she expressed concern about the new guidelines — specifically, about public safeguards and about board member Chris Zimmerman's involvement in the decision-making process.
Hynes, Tejada and Fisette, in their statement, said they were "dismayed" by Garvey's release of the email correspondence. Garvey's allegation that Zimmerman has a conflict of interest in the upcoming vote on purchasing procedures "has no basis in Virginia law or fact," they stated, citing County Attorney Stephen MacIssac's recent opinion on the matter.
In October, Zimmerman notified the board that he had begun doing consulting work for AECOM's Canada East Region — work that would be limited to the province of Quebec.
Garvey — who was elected to her first full four-year term in November on a platform that included opposing the planned Columbia Pike streetcar — seized on this, citing a number of Arlington County projects in which AECOM has been involved. They include a number of transit, planning and housing initiatives, along with a review of streetcar cost estimates and helping brief the board on public-private partnership best practices just last month.
The new purchasing guidelines the board will consider Monday, based on the Virginia Public-Private Transportation Act, or PPTA, would essentially help the county finance the $250 million streetcar project.
Zimmerman has said he notified the board and senior county management of his consultancy on the front end precisely to avoid any potential conflict of interest or appearance of conflict.
In one email, Garvey stated that following adoption of the new guidelines, AECOM would "quite likely" submit an unsolicited bid to the county.
The new resolution, if passed, would require County Manager Barbara Donnellan to keep the board informed of any unsolicited proposals, post them on the county's website and implement a plan for public review should any be deemed worth of further consideration, according to the statement released Saturday.
"We have every confidence that this level of transparency will provide the Board, County staff and interested Arlingtonians with the information they need to consider whether any PPTA proposals meets our goals in a way that is fiscally prudent and operationally efficient," Hynes, Tejada and Fisette stated. "Despite Ms. Garvey's allegations, Monday's proposed action presents no conflict of interest for County Board members and, again, have no basis in Virginia law."
Elected officials' emails are considered public records by the state Freedom of Information Act and therefore open to public copying and inspection. The only emails Garvey released that might not be subject to FOIA were ones that originated from her personal account.
Earlier this year, the Center for Public Integrity ranked Virginia as the fourth-worst state in the country regarding open government and anti-corruption laws and practices — receiving, along the way, failing grades in public access to information and ethics enforcement.
In his legal opinion, MacIssac cited the state's "notoriously complex" Conflict of Interests Act and stated Zimmerman's employment didn't give rise to a conflict because the board member doesn't have a financial interest in the specific matter the board will hear Monday — changes to the county's purchasing procedures.