Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Public Input: What it Means

Scott York, Chair of Loudoun Board of Supervisors, articulated, at a meeting some time ago, that voters vote elected officials into office and by doing so they trust the elected official to make decisions on their behalf. His assertion at that meeting was that public hearings are meaningless because, by voting a person into office, you have already made your voice known. 

A recent letter to the editor, by one of my colleagues, included this statement: 
Further, it is unreasonable to assert that any one group represents the interest of the entire Town. We do not have a community vote for every item before council, but a representative system where the people elect governing members who are chosen to make reasonable decisions that are in the best interest of the Town as a whole, not a subset of the resident population or group with a particular view.

Here is my main problem with this type of thinking:  A vast majority may not come forward and say anything, and that is typical with our busy lives and schedules. But does that make the voice of those who write or speak out less valid? Our new Blue Ridge Supervisor was elected by a mere 15% of the eligible voting population. Do we relegate all of our voices to that 15% for the next four years and refuse to hold public hearings? Of course not.  In the 2014 Town Election, broken down by council member, we each were voted in by roughly 16% of the eligible voting population. Do we ignore the other 84%. 

Now, does this mean that someone who did not vote in an election has no say in the public process or governance going forward?  I am sure the majority of us would answer no. In a democracy, it is the public that determines where it wants to go, and the role of our elected officials and staff is to get them there. The Town Survey is an excellent indicator of where town residents want to go.

When it comes to public input, I have seen the separation of speakers into out-of-town or in-town residents. The sole purpose of delineating a person as an in-town resident or one that lives outside of our limits is to diminish their voice.  Perhaps when developers speak up at our meetings and declare their love of Purcellville, we should ask them where they live. Do we give their input more weight because they own a business or a parcel of land, or both?  As Town residents of Purcellville, we not only own land here, we live our daily lives here. Everything that occurs in this town affects our families, our schools, traffic, taxes, and our quality of life. The developer who speaks at our meetings only has his bottom line affected. Why does his voice continue to hold seemingly more weight?  

Public participation will not succeed if it is not genuine. If the decision makers use it as a way to sell a pre-determined plan or solution and do not genuinely care about stakeholder concerns, then the whole process is suspect. Public participation is not a one-time event.  

With regards to the length of time for such processes, transparency and accountability should always trump administrative expediency. 

Then there are those who cling to the myth of the 'Silent Majority.'  In a democratic society, those who choose to remain silent also elect to be ignored. Politicians use the idea of the 'silent majority' to convince their opposition that they are backed by those ready to spring into action. It's like filling Fireman's Field with ghosts and convincing ourselves that we can hear them clapping for our team. 

If a 'silent majority' exists in Purcellville, what prevents them from being heard? Perhaps, they are afraid. Intimidated? Bullied? But how could this be so if they are the majority? If they are not heard because they do not speak up, then their presence cannot be used “in absentia” to win an argument.

If a silent majority is to be given legitimacy in this community, then the “vocal minority” who exercise their democratic rights by being heard, who act out their responsibilities as voters, taxpayers, volunteers, or political candidates should not be intimidated or diminished. If such a 'silent' power exists, it’s time the people who are part of to speak up and help shape the future of this community. We need their voices, energy, and vision. What we do not need is political manipulation camouflaged as meaningless rhetoric.

With regards to the Zoning District Use Changes being discussed tonight, I believe the town has had an open dialogue with the public.  Three public input sessions were held, and there have been numerous opportunities for public input since.  By holding these public meetings and information sessions, we gain many benefits to involving the public:  
  • Information and ideas on public issues.
  • Public Support for planning decisions.
  • Create good will which can carry over to future decisions.
  • Spirit of cooperation and trust between the agency and the public.

I attended most of these public meetings, and much of the residential public commentary toward these changes was negative, as have been the many emails the council has received since. Input from local businesses and churches led to the revision or repeal of many of the changes.   

We should open up our minds to all manner of input at all times.  Elected officials are supposed to put constituent interests above their own. I still can't fathom how these zoning use changes do that.    

Monday, November 9, 2015

Zoning district use changes as a cause for concern......

The Purcellville Town Council has a meeting Tuesday, November 10th and will be discussing and possibly voting on the zoning district use changes being proposed.  

I have struggled with this one specifically since the intent has been to simplify the code. I agree with removing duplicative terms and uses and perhaps condensing districts and truly simplifying the code. Simplify means to reduce and yet many uses are being added to areas where they currently are not an allowable use. Some are by-right and others by SUP (Special Use Permit). By-Right refers to projects that are permitted under current zoning and do not require any legislative action by the Council. They are approved administratively and do not require public hearings.

Some of these uses have been rejected by residents and the planning commission during recent applications submitted to the town (Catoctin Towne Center). In a town as small as Purcellville, many uses will have a significant impact. I have read comments that we need to remove SUPs because they cost too much for applicants, which can be $2K. While that is understandable, who does that benefit the most? The applicant, but it denies the primary stakeholders (residents) in our town say in our planning process. Who is asking for this removal? The developers and their land use attorneys. That is a small price to pay to make sure that residents are protected, and the assets of our town are as well.

How does this protect us? If a drive-thru establishment is by-right and it is built and causes traffic back-ups and more traffic on a particular road, the town will have to pay to mitigate this issue. If a large residential development is built by-right and creates traffic or generates more students than projected, we are all forced to pay to reduce this problem. Both area high schools will be over capacity the year after next.

The developer of by-right uses is not obligated in any way to produce a proffer to the town. A proffer is an offer by a landowner during the rezoning process to perform an act or donate money, product, or services to justify the propriety of a proposed rezoning. Our town debt is nearly at its max, and we can't afford to reduce or negate our ability to negotiate proffers from potential development. One of my colleagues stated that these proffers are minuscule. However, I object to this statement especially when the Catoctin Creek Apartment developer was willing to proffer $1Million for a 20-acre development.

Some of my colleagues argue that we need these developments to equalize our water/sewer rates or tax rates. If growth paid for itself, the County would not be at its debt max and neither would the town. It is a fools game to think that growth is going to reduce any costs to residents. All development comes with a price tag, via increased police, fire/rescue, utility maintenance, etc.

For a few decades, city planners have swapped long-term obligations for short-term cash, expanding at an unsustainable rate and developing land they could never afford to maintain.

For example, a street section is in need of repair or resurfacing, which will consist of milling up and replacing the asphalt. The development along the road has stagnated in favor of new growth on the periphery of town. Because of this, over the estimated life of the new street, the town may expect to collect a total of $27/foot for road repairs. The cost for repairs will run between $80 and $100 per foot.

I have been reading a blog called Strong Towns for quite some time.  They advocate for a change of thinking in how we develop and to shed the "dead ideas" of the suburban era, including these: 
  • That local governments can grow without considering the public’s return on investment. Being blind to the financial productivity of our places has led to inefficient use of public infrastructure investments and allowed local governments to assume overwhelming, long-term financial obligations for maintaining infrastructure. 
  • That local budget problems can be solved by creating more growth. More growth in the same unproductive pattern will only increase our economic problems. What is needed is an approach that improves our use of existing infrastructure investments.
  • That attracting a large employer is the key to local economic prosperity. In an age of globalization, this strategy may provide short-term gains for some local governments, but it is ultimately a race to the financial bottom. 
  • That property owners can develop their property as they see fit while at the same time obligating the public to maintain the new infrastructure.This type of indirect subsidy creates enormous long-term financial obligations for taxpayers, increasing local taxes and reducing local competitiveness.
Their recommendations include: 
  • A stop to infrastructure projects that expand a community’s long-term maintenance obligations.
  • A full accounting of all short and long-term financial obligations local governments have assumed for maintaining infrastructure.
  • The adoption of strategies to improve the public’s return on investment and improve the use of existing infrastructure.
  • Significant changes in the standard engineering approach to road and street design, shifting emphasis away from increasing automobile-oriented mobility and toward increasing pedestrian mobility within neighborhoods while eliminating accesses and intersections along auto corridors.

Under the current pattern of growth, the only way to pay for projects is with more growth. That is the definition of a Ponzi scheme.

I hope you will share this post and encourage you to please attend our council meeting.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Hubris in action in Purcellville

While traveling back to Virginia yesterday, I received an email from a citizen containing a letter from Mr. Eric Zimmerman, who was appointed to the Purcellville Board of Zoning Appeals Commission by a 5-2 vote on June 9, 2015 and is a local land use attorney:
The letter has no date or to who it was addressed to.  This letter was not circulated to the PurcellvilleTown Council, and apparently it was provided to Mary Ellen Stover's legal council. 

I voted against Mr. Zimmerman's appointment to the Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA) because I knew of his business relationships with the applicant of Vineyard Square, which is the center of the BZA hearing appeal that begins tonight. During his interview with the Town Council, I asked Mr. Zimmerman outright about a potential conflict of interest and close relationship with developers. The following is a transcript of his answer to my question:  

Fair question, I get that a lot from people who are not in my profession, talks with young people.  “It’s that you train yourself to disassociate yourself with whatever your own personal feelings might be and look instead to the issue at hand.  I’m not sure who the party is that you’re talking about that I’ve represented that might be coming before the BZA… obviously if I’ve represented that party any time in the recent time, I would recuse myself.  I guess, you know, that’s one thing about the law: we go out of our way to avoid even the appearance of impropriety.  Even though we may feel like, I can get beyond that, we don’t even want to appear that there’s any kind of bias or prejudice on our part.  So I think that I can separate myself from, easily… and I’ll be candid with you, I’m not trying to brag or anything: I’ve represented an awful lot of people in this county.”  I grew up here, I know an awful lot of people, impossible not to greet them by their first name when they walk in the door, but “if I’m given the opportunity to serve the town again in this position, I know that I – I feel very strongly that I can do it in the right way.”

Mr. Zimmerman had an opportunity to inform the town council of his conflict of interest when specifically asked about it and he chose not to. As the trustee for the Vineyard Square property note holder, he and his client, who holds the note, stand to benefit the most from this property being financially successful. He misrepresented himself.  This letter likely resulted from the special mail delivery to homes by the Blue Ridge Leader informing residents of the upcoming BZA hearing regarding the zoning administrator's decision on the Certificate of Design Occupancy for Vineyard Square (hearing begins tonight at Town Hall, 7pm).    

I do not believe that simply allowing Mr. Zimmerman to resign as a trustee is enough to allow him to serve. The five Council members who voted him to the BZA board may have voted against him given this information.  Our town council was misled by him. In light of this, I feel justified in questioning his ethics and ability to be unbiased on the BZA. I believe the town council should be allowed to decide whether he continues to serve or not and that we convene to appoint alternates to serve ASAP.   

I sent an email to the entire Purcellville Town Council which included Mr. Zimmerman's email: 

To say I am disappointed and aghast that anyone is even considering allowing Mr. Zimmerman to continue on the BZA is an understatement.  The appearance of a conflict is enough,  and simply resigning in his position is not enough.  His appointment is solely to affect the outcome favorably for the applicant and we interviewed candidates who had no prejudice or conflict whatsoever and this is simply unacceptable,  and in my opinion, reflects poorly on our town,  staff,  and council.   

I received one written response of disagreement from a member of Council. 

I did not know this until today that BZA member Chip Paciulli recused himself from the BZA appeal hearing on June 19, 2015.**  Though his interest with the applicant may not qualify as a perceived conflict of interest, in an effort to not "confuse the process and detract from the primary issues before the town," he chose to do so.

The Virginia Conflict of Interest states that the appearance of a conflict is enough to present a conflict.  We owe it to our residents and everyone who comes before the town to represent them in the best way we can and with integrity. 

The BZA hearing between Mary Ellen Stover and the Town's Zoning Administrator is about whether or not the ordinances of the Town are being followed and who exactly enforces certain aspects of our ordinance.  This hearing does not "stop" the project or take away the zoning for the project.  

All along I have said that our town government should be equitable in how it administers decisions and conducts the business of the people. Above all else, we should remove any appearance of special treatment to any individual resident, business, or applicant before the town.  

**UPDATE: July 2, 2015:  At the BZA hearing last night, both Zimmerman and Paciulli discussed their potential conflicts and how they were resolved and/or eliminated.  I am disappointed that Mr. Zimmerman will be allowed to serve on this board.  I feel strongly that he knew of his interests when he interviewed for the BZA position and misled our Council.  One may assert that Mr. Zimmerman was not aware of the potential conflict.  Feigning ignorance bears the hallmark of dishonesty and I've always had a hard time of tolerating blatant duplicity.  

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Unified or Fractured? Neither?

Constitutions, charters, statutes, and ordinance provide the source of authority for elected officials and staff in the policy-making and day to day process of managing the town.  A clear understanding of roles and responsibilities increases our effectiveness.  Whether legislative or executive, our goal is to serve the community.  

Our Town processes are most efficient and productive when we work well together.  Each of us has a role to play and has defined responsibilities.  Conflicts arise when the needs and responsibilities of one are not understood or respected by another.  

Our staff can be a tremendous help in developing ideas, structuring processes, and keeping us on the straight and narrow. I have served just under one year; there are many situations and instances that will arise that I have little or no experience with.  Myself and my colleagues on the Council must rely on staff to provide us with a myriad of information so that we can fully perform our duties. Neither of us is free from imperfections.   

When there is a concern, be it staff or council, the matter should be discussed privately. I did that. However, my colleague chose not to.  Public criticism only makes martyrs. 

I am disappointed that my moment of misunderstanding, miscommunication, and frustration on my part was made public last night by Council Member McCollum.  There have been numerous private emails from my colleagues that I consider disrespectful and undermine our sitting Mayor. However, I have not chosen, nor has the Mayor, to provide provocation and attempt to undermine this council by taking it to the public.  

The actions last night have made me ponder who exactly is providing the fuel for this narrative that we are a fractured entity.  

Definition of Fracture:(with reference to an organization or other abstract thing) split or fragment so as to no longer function or exist.

We continue as a council to function.  We continue to move things forward. I even tend to agree with this council member most of the time. I agreed with him and he with me several times last night. Therefore, I don't agree that we are fractured.  

But let me provide some history.  Last year, some members of our town council attempted to deny Mayor Fraser his authority to appoint a member to a local governing committee. That and the efforts since, to undermine and discredit him have sadly left me more suspect than I would like to be.  

When I listened to the council meeting (May 12, 2015) a day later, it perplexed me as to how Council Member McCollum was appointed by the VML when they do not make the appointment as he stated in his comments. Research showed that countless other municipalities included it as an agenda item.   I sent an inquiry solely to the Mayor and the Town Manager in an attempt to temper my angst and keep it private. The Town Manager promptly provided the background and through a series of emails we came to an amicable consensus on how to proceed under the same circumstances in the future. The issue was resolved quickly between me, the Town Manager, and the Mayor. After my email was circulated to the entire council,  I expressed to everyone that my initial email(click to read) was poor messaging and terse, and I apologized in a subsequent email (click to read)  to all who saw it.  The Town Manager also apologized to me as well. 

Comments about my emails were edited and spoken out of context last night, and that is why I chose to publish them.   At no point was my communication an attack personally on Council Member McCollum and I made that clear in my council comments at the dais.  It was not the intent of my message, and several others did not interpret it as a personal attack on Council Member McCollum either.  Council Member McCollum never attempted to have a private conversation with me about my intentions even though there were public comments made last night by other council members that we should pursue that course in these situations.   

I was concerned about the process and making sure that each and every member of this council is provided the same access. We have four new members of council, and there are many nuances and procedures that we will not know of until a situation surfaces.  Staff and our veteran council members should provide leadership. They won't always catch everything or be at the ready, but we look to them on guidance.   

Regardless, we have been fighting for the heart and soul of Purcellville. We have been working on our budget, moving forward on initiatives such as the survey, economic development, and assessing our assets to better align our future.  We are having to attend annexation meetings that require the attention of town council and its residents.   

This is the second time this narrative of being a "fractured" council has been brought up at our meetings and it is truly a non-issue. Inserting this into our council meetings is nothing more than an attempt to divert the public and media attention from the issues that truly matter to the residents.

Our spoken words and actions have power, and they can and will define us.  Once out, we can no longer hide from them or the truth of who we are.  Disagreeing is the hallmark of democracy. However, respect must come from both sides.  

"Management is doing things right. Leadership is doing the right things."- Warren Bennis

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Development, Annexations and the Northern Collector Road

On Friday May 1, 2015, Joe Bane and J. Roncaglione hosted a meeting to discuss the proposed annexation of two properties. One is a 67 acre property north of town off Berlin Pike bordering Route 7 and the other is 84 acres located west of town off Business 7.  Several members of the Purcellville Town Council, Purcellville Planning Director Patrick Sullivan, Blue Ridge Supervisor Janet Clarke, Hamilton Town Council Member Craig Green, as well as other elected officials attended both meetings from Loudoun County. 

Both proposals included data centers. The landowners talked about how data centers would bring in significant tax revenue into the Town and County and could be used to relieve the Town’s large debt without raising taxes.

Residents voiced their concerns over the developments and countered many of the points raised by the landowners.
  While there was no consensus or general agreement regarding these projects, it is good to see developers coming to the public and involving them in the process and starting a dialogue.   

“In a negotiation, we must find a solution that pleases everyone, because no one accepts that they must lose and that the other must win... Both must win!”   ~ Nabil n. Jamal

A few days later, on May 5, 2015, there was a Purcellville Area Northern Collector Road Follow-Up Meeting hosted by Board of Supervisors Janet Clarke and Geary Higgins. Residents of the Wright Farm community are concerned about the impact of the annexation proposals and the Northern Collector Road on their neighborhood.

Proposed alignments for the Northern Collector Road

Even though the Northern Collector road was added to the County Transportation Plan in 1995, the homes in Wright Farm were allowed to be built starting in 2003 in close proximity to the easement for the road and in some instances the road would eliminate a home, traverse a homeowner's septic field, wells, and comes within a short distance of multiple homes.  Many of the homeowners were not provided any information about the road when they purchased their homes or not until their closing and they weren't made aware of the size and nature of the road. The Loudoun County study to determine the need for the road will include projections with and without the completion of the Route7/690 Interchange.   

Knowing that there was an easement for a road, the county and town (since PUGAMP was in effect when Wright Farm was built) should have mitigated these issues during the zoning and site plan review for this community and should have required the homes be built such that any future road’s impact would be low. 

The Northern Collector road is being pushed to the forefront now that the Mayfair development has commenced construction and a section of the Northern Collector Rd was proffered.  In addition, several property owners along the proposed road (pictured above in yellow) are actively seeking annexation into the Town of Purcellville so they can develop their land with higher density uses since town utilities are needed to allow for such development.  

This area was changed during the 2003 Countywide Remapping and Rural Remapping in 2006 which remapped properties on the north side of the Town of Purcellville from A-3 (agricultural residential) to JLMA-3 (Join Land Management- 1 house per 3 acres).  

I believe that all residents inside and outside of Purcellville should be involved in determining the growth pattern and development around Purcellville.  Zoning is a social contract and it has become all too common to constantly up-zone property and change the landscape and nature of an area to the will of developers and the detriment of area residents.  I don't purport to stall progress or growth and nobody thinks these parcels will sit vacant forever. I do believe that any growth conversation must involve public dialogue because the decisions that get made must represent the values and preferences of those who live here, not just those who wish to develop here and live well outside of our town.  

Changing demographics and the nature of how people shop online have contributed to a shift in how development will occur going forward.  What worked for another town may not be appropriate for Purcellville.  

Catoctin Circle (in red) was the first collector road in Leesburg.  

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Baseball and Small Towns.......

April 18, 2015 heralded in the 55th Season of the Upper Loudoun Little League.  It was an honor to take part in the Opening Season Ceremony.  
Haske Baseball Field in Purcellville
Norris Beavers ULLL President, Karen Jimmerson, Mayor Kwasi Fraser,
and Dr. Timothy Johnson, National Sports Medicine Institute 
Upper Loudoun Little League began in early 1960s and serves baseball players age 5-12 in western Loudoun County.  Previous Purcellville Town Council Members saw the value of purchasing and preserving the fields at Fireman's Field that surround the Bush Tabernacle. Current President, Norris Beavers, after decades of volunteer service to the League, will be retiring from his duties this year.  Perhaps I can start the rumor or a movement to name a street, building, or something in the Town of Purcellville after Norris in recognition of his incredible contribution to league sports and a sense of community here in our town and in Loudoun County.
Norris Beavers speaking to the crowds on Opening Day.

Michael Hughes, ULLL Purcellville North Area Representative, making player introductions

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Recap of April 14th Council Meeting

Well, another meeting and it is becoming more and more apparent that there is a machination in motion against Mayor Fraser (though I am often a target as well).  I can't be sure what the intention is, but perhaps some of our colleagues shy away from new ideas that collide with their world view. However, I believe that conflicting ideas that challenge you or go against your "group" belief can be difficult, but it can lead to progress.  If we don't continually challenge ourselves and question what we do, why and how we do it, then we won't shed the things that don't work and build a better tomorrow.

Chairman of the Planning Commission, Gil Paist, came before the Town Council and expressed his dismay that Mayor Fraser included in his April Newsletter an agenda for the Comprehensive Plan Review Training for the Planning Commissions taking place April 18th at Town Hall.  Chairman Paist's complaint was centered on the fact that the agenda was posted before it was fully finalized.  I fail to understand how this necessitated the chair of the commission publicly trying to flog the Mayor for something quite minor and was merely an effort by the Mayor to inform the public. From my point of view,  this was an attempt to find fault where there was none for the sake of putting a notch in the unfounded totem of so-called contrived mis-steps.

Any discussion about the Zoning Administrators Determination for Vineyard Square was suppressed by a motion put forward by Council Member Lehr.  Looking back at the previous council's lawsuits and similar determinations and legal actions, those councils seemed to take liberty with regards to commentary about pending legal action.  I believe the public deserves to know some of the details of this appeal and why it is being put forward.

I would have liked a chance to appeal the Zoning Administrators decision as a town council, but I did not see the letter immediately since it was distributed via our town clerk and not the zoning administrator and done so late on a Friday afternoon, which guaranteed it would either not be seen or not seen for a few days, as was the case. We were never advised of of any course or action after the zoning administrators decision was released and there was no mention of it until I spoke publicly at our last town council meeting.  As I have said publicly before, I believe this decision may be against our code and that it is merely a backdoor way for the developer to get the extension that was sought back in June and July of 2014.

We discussed the Purcellville Business Association and their current presence on the town website and literature. As I have previously written before, it seems imperative that as a town we make sure that any and all we do business and align with are who they say they are.
Town of Purcellville Business Guide.
More information than listed on our Town Website. 

The PBA has purported themselves to be a non-profit for years and have only recently begun to pursue that status and have readily admitted they currently do not have status as a non-profit entity.

The PBA provided documentation at our meeting that they were a non-stock corporation; non-stock corporations are formed for non-profit purposes.  However, non-stock corporations are not barred from making profits from their activities, it is just that their profits are not distributed to their members or directors.  

The town currently asks for verification of non-profit status when renting the train station due to different rental fees for various types of organizations.  If the town is going to promote the PBA through town literature and other means, we should at the very least verify across the board.
Fairfax County Website

Currently the Town of Purcellville's website has no business presence or directory of stores or restaurants in town. Equity in treatment is important to me and I support incorporating all of our local businesses into our online presence.  I believe that EDAC (Economic, Development Advisory Committee) is going to try and implement a visitors icon on the website eventually.  This is long overdue and critical, especially when the top engine search for Purcellville is our Town website.

I am not against aligning with the PBA, I just don't agree in the continued exclusivity of the PBA with the Town.  There seems to be a wall of separation between the Town and the Business community and the PBA should be narrowing that gap.  The PBA should be a key partner in assisting EDAC with expanding the Town of Purcellville's web presence for our business community because after all their focus should be on the businesses.  

Mayor Fraser pushed forward reasonable requirements that the Planning Commission have public input sessions during the zoning use changes that are being brought forward at this time.  Several colleagues believe that since all public meetings are open to the public and the public can speak at the beginning of those meetings that a public input session is not warranted.  The changes being put forward are akin to what would occur during a Comprehensive Plan review and as such it is seems prudent to treat the current undertaking in a similar manner.   A true input session allows discourse and input in a meaningful way from the public.  If the public chooses not the engage, so be it, but we must as a governing body ensure that each and every citizen has true access to the processes of its government.

The other subject of the night was......TAXES!   The council has had three budget work sessions and will have another one on Thursday, April 23, 2015.  The council passed a lower property tax rate than what the town manager recommended, however due to increases in assessments and the rate passed, there will be a slight increase in the average property owners tax bill. As council member Lehr put it, it will be less than $5 a month.

Mayor Fraser and myself voted against the meals tax as we are both fearful that in time there will be too much reliance on this tax and it will be hard to revert back to a lower rate that is more competitive and in line with our neighboring communities and one which will put more money into people's pockets and have lower cost to the restaurants that operate here.

The budget is lower than the previous years budget due to less capital improvement spending. However just like your personal finances and the increase in the cost of doing business, the town must also endure those increases.  This budget enables us to maintain our AAA rating that the previous council secured for the town and maintain the high level of services our residents have come to expect.  The next budget meeting will focus on refining our spending for the next fiscal year.   I wasn't sure what to expect from this budget season, but the town staff has been most helpful in their explanations and making necessary cuts so that we can deliver a solid budget to the town.

The Town Wide Clean up was last Saturday.  I enjoyed my assignment picking up trash along Main Street with Mayor Fraser.  We stopped in a few businesses to say hi and enjoyed the honks and waves from folks driving by.  Please consider volunteering to be part of this terrific yearly event that helps keep Purcellville Green and Clean.

Enjoy the beautiful weather!

Friday, March 27, 2015

Council Comments from March 24, 2015

I have made my Public Comments from the March 24th, 2015 Town Council Meeting available via Scribd.  Included was my response to the most recent editorial in the Purcellville Gazette.

This meeting included a presentation from the International Mountain Bike Association which can be viewed also via Scribd.  I believe in open dialogue about economic opportunities in Purcellville. Members of staff and town council will only consider those which will not destroy the natural environment and can be done in the least impactful manner to the environment and the neighboring property owners.

Brad Quinn, from the Purcellville Volunteer Fire Department, also gave a presentation on the operations and funding of our local Fire Department.  80% of all Purcellville residents do not know that our fire department is a volunteer organization with 120+ volunteers.   Members of our community volunteer their time and energy to provide fire services which saves close to a million dollars a year in operational costs to taxpayers.  When you get their envelope in the mail, please consider making a donation or do so at this link.  

The weather in Purcellville for Spring Break is looking pleasant.  Enjoy your travels and time off from school or work.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Letter to the Editor - Leesburg Today

It is nice to see a supportive letter to the editor in the Leesburg Today.  It has become clear during my short time in office that some will try and exploit anything, no matter how innocuous, in an effort to destroy efforts at good governance.  Since the complaint was lodged during our council meeting, several of my other colleagues have participated in similar email exchanges between council members with nary a corrective refrain given. The hypocrisy is quite palatable
I have been accused have having an "agenda."  If representing the people and doing what is right and just is an agenda,  then so be it.  Just because I am unwilling to go along with the past established political culture in Purcellville doesn't mean I have an agenda.  As an elected official there are certain expectations and practices that are acceptable and not acceptable, and I am simply doing the job I was elected to do.    
"The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don't have any" -Alice Walker
I encourage the public to be more active and involved in their local government.  That involvement is what keeps the power balance in check and holds those who hold elected office accountable.  

Dear Editor: 
Want to know a surefire way to keep residents from coming back to town council meetings? Adopt Purcellville Council member Doug McCollum's proposal to reduce e-mails between council members.

Rather than hash out some details before the next meeting, residents would be stuck listening to hours and hours of debate and questions. You would have far less transparency, because there's a good chance no one would show up.

Furthermore, Council member Karen Jimmerson is correct in noting that those interested in transparency should be happy to know that there is a "paper trail" of conversations between council members. "Transparency" does not mean "we need to know every last detail of what ever member of the council is thinking." "Transparency" means making the most relevant information open and readily available to the public. It seems to me that the Purcellville Council is far more transparent than a certain potential U.S. presidential candidate, and that's something the council should be proud of.
Joe Luppino-Esposito, Round Hill

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Recap of the March 10, 2015 Council Meeting

Our evening started off with Boy Scout Troop 743 leading our meeting with the Pledge of Allegiance.  The Troop stayed to watch the proceedings as they seek to gain a merit badge based on civic engagement.  As everyone recited the pledge, it brought me great joy and pride hearing the many voices filling our Town Hall and seeing the process of government being open to all who came to take part.  

The council chambers were quite full last night as speakers came to give their comments on items on our agenda.  

First up was Chuck Izzo, owner and operator of Appalachian Outdoor Readiness & Essentials  who gave a presentation on how the Town could benefit by becoming an Appalachian Trail Community.™  The program is designed to recognize communities that promote and protect the Appalachian Trail (A.T.).  Towns, counties, and communities along the A.T.’s corridor are considered assets by all that use the A.T. and many of these towns act as good friends and neighbors to the Trail. The program serves to assist communities with sustainable economic development through tourism and outdoor recreation, while preserving and protecting the A.T.  Participation has no economic cost to the town but could provide many great returns for increased tax revenue with an increase in visitors.  

Friends of the Watershed made a presentation about their desire to open the 1,200 acres of Town property surrounding the reservoir to outdoor recreation.  Many residents and supporters spoke in support and the owners who abut the watershed property spoke in opposition.  It is clear that the group does not wish to create hardship for the surrounding property owners and ultimately this is about opening a constructive dialogue and working with every stakeholder to come to a consensus everyone can be happy with. The pros and the cons will be balanced and hopefully a workable solution can be reached in the future. 

Last night our Council Meeting included an item on our agenda that caused me enormous concern. We were tasked with deciding whether to approve a text amendment to add a zoning use back into the CM-1 district, which would allow the Valley Energy propane company located on Hirst Road to expand their business by bringing their use back into conformance.  Every member of council expressed their desire to allow Valley Energy the opportunity to expand, however myself and the mayor believed that a different route should be sought in order to adhere to the comprehensive plan and preserve the integrity of the town and its zoning.  Here are my council comments that I read during my speaking time.  

The purpose of my substitute motion was to change the zoning in the CM-1 district where Valley Energy is located since this location is more suitable for M-1 uses and ultimately my wish was to combine or collapse the district to bring all current uses into conformity if that zoning was to take any business out of conformity (which was a concern that Councilmember Lehr expressed).  Essentially it was an attempt to accomplish the same thing for Valley Energy but without changing the zoning in areas where it is clearly not a desirable use to have a large propane/petroleum distribution center on Hirst Rd east of Hatcher or Maple Ave.   Several council members argued that safety was no real concern indicating that the safety rate is quite high.  I feel that the worst case scenario should be considered since this involves a highly explosive gas and and allowing this use so close to residential homes is against the plan's directive "to minimize serious adverse effect within or beyond the limits of the district."  From the discussion, which can be listened to on the Town's Website, it became clear that our Comprehensive plan lacks clear definition which explains why several interpreted the text amendment to be contrary to our Comprehensive Plan while others did not.   

Valley Energy stated at the March 10th Public Hearing that their operation fuels over 3,500 vehicles a month; primarily commercial vehicles/trucks (which, in my opinion likely does not include the larger propane trucks that re-fuel there for home delivery and the even larger tankers that bring fuel to the facility). This would add even more traffic through our small town if expanded. Agreeing to a zoning which will allow an increase in the business without any economic offset to the town or traffic impact study means town taxpayers will be burdened with the cost of road repairs. Heavy trucks damage roads much more than an average car; road damage from one 18-wheeler is equivalent to 9600 cars. The average gross vehicle weight of a midsize car is 3,400 lbs.   Listed below you will see Virginia's weight restrictions on hauling flammable liquids.  The average propane tank truck has a low gross vehicle weight of 33,000 lbs with an empty tank but can be quite large.   

Since this text application incurred no cost to the applicant, the taxpayers instead pay in the form of the many staff hours that are needed to procure and process this application and advertise it for public hearing (and of course the repairs to our roads).  If it comes to pass that the applicant does not expand but instead sells their business to a competing gas company simply because this zoning increases his value, the town can then only hope to benefit if the company eventually expands and this wasn't done merely to turn a profit and increase the return on investment that many developers have used to justify their zoning requests in the past.    

The previous zoning code that was deleted in 2008 included an 80,000 above ground storage limit and the new amendment has no such restriction. Valley Energy currently has two 30,000 gallon tanks and they wish to add another one, giving them 90,000 gallons in above ground storage.   In my opinion that was a major shortcoming and needs to be rectified by this town council immediately.   Taking action to put in reasonable restrictions that protect public health and the integrity of our zoning should not be controversial.   

With regards to the Directive for Zoning Use Changes, I inquired about whether all previous actions that have taken place thus far by the Planning Commission could be considered corrupted on the basis that there was never any motion made by the Town Council or the Planning Commission to initiate this direction.  Our legal council indicated that it did not. With that said, I have grave concern about the veracity of claims by planing commissioners that no zoning use changes are taking place with regards to the work they are doing.   I support eliminating uses no longer applicable in town, those that conflict with the comprehensive plan or that are duplicative in nature.   I voted to support the continued work so that all work thus far is not wasted or in vain, but I believe that zoning use changes being implemented before a thorough comprehensive plan review is premature and should not be put forth.   

It is inappropriate for business and land owners to ask the town at our meetings to include zoning that directly benefits them with no cost or impact that eliminates the town's ability to collect proffers. Hearing discussions in planning meetings about creating floating PDH districts that would allow mixed use zoning by-right while developers are coming before the town with plans reflecting those wishes is outrageous and deserves much scrutiny.  The proposed Zoning Uses Draft Review changes are beyond the pale in terms of proposing outright zoning changes that would severely impact this town and would strip the public of public input, in many cases, if these uses were approved. The planning commission's recommendations will be sent to the Town Council and we can chose to take action or not, however these developers count on the public not paying attention and by the time it reaches a public hearing I fear the brakes are all but near impossible to put on.   Unless residents become more engaged and involved, these developers will seek to continually circumvent a system that was designed to protect the average citizen. 

Purcellville is $60 Million dollars in debt. Our per capita debt is higher than some cities that have declared bankruptcy. If we continue on this course of giving everything away for free while taxpayers are left to pick up the bill, we will cease to exist.  Some have declared that if we don't grow we die. Clearly growth doesn't equate to economic gain considering the enormous growth that Purcellville had and our current debt.  Reckless decisions have costly consequences.  

Given everything that has been said so far in the press and beyond about myself and Mayor Fraser, it is obvious that discrediting attacks, whatever their motive, generally take place under heavy disguise. 
It is important to look at what others claim they are doing verses what they are really doing. It seems that the two meet a lot less often than one might think.  

As I have said before, I will always try and prove in a clear, logical manner my motives and point of view.  There are those who create distractions from the main points. They merely finger point to make sure the finger doesn't point back to them.  

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Teacher Pay In Loudoun County

There is a lot of chatter in Loudoun County these days about teacher salaries now that the School Board and the Board of Supervisors are discussing the next school year budget.  Many of my neighbors are teachers and I see every day the hard work and hours they put in. I often think of those teachers who made a difference in my life growing up.  We entrust these teachers to be with our kids 7 hours every day.  A teacher who can pay their bills, live close to work, and feels valued, in my opinion, creates better teachers who can concentrate on the task at hand instead of worrying about constantly keeping above the water line.  

What we must consider when we talk about teacher salary is inflation and how that erodes those salaries that some folks think are too high. A starting teacher salary in Loudoun County in 2000 was about $35K. With yearly step increases, that salary would be roughly $59K today. The buying power of that "increased" salary would be roughly $58K today, which means the teacher actually makes $1K less (sort of). This only includes average inflation and no other added salary erosion items such as increased cost for health care coverage. 

BUT: Teachers in Loudoun County did not receive their expected step increases on their salary for five years. So let's take that same teacher and give them a step increase for only 10 years and you end up with a salary of roughly $45.5K. The teacher who started with our school system in the year 2000 has a buying power that is $10.5K LESS today.  Let that sink in.  

It's no wonder that the turnover in teachers is so great, and no wonder that one of every three teachers who leave teaching within 10 years cites low pay as the reason. Most CEOs can articulate how employee turnover hurts the bottom line.  High turnover among teachers in public school classrooms undermines school stability, serves as an impediment to educational reform, and hurts student achievement, a study by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching finds. Investing in our teachers is investing in our children. 

"If an unfriendly power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war." ~1983 government study A Nation at Risk

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Council in Review, Wednesday, February 25th

Last night's Council Meeting was met with some challenges. Statements that were made by my colleagues on Council were somewhat misleading or were unwarranted and I wanted to take an opportunity to address them here. 

A comment was made by a member of Council that we should have had Valley Energy's request for a rezoning on our agenda last night and not put other lower priority items or entertained a presentation from "a vendor trying to sell us something."   The reality is this council and our staff have not fully agreed on the process on how best to bring Valley Energy into compliance and that is, in my opinion, a reason it was pulled from the agenda.  There has been much deliberation on how to accomplish this without committing the town to such a sweeping zoning change in the CM-1 district.  

With regards to the presentation by Socrates, there doesn't appear to be a requirement that we all agree on a presentation before council, as was suggested, and as such, any member of the public can come before the council to submit an idea, a thought, or commentary.  In an effort to make our public finances easily transmittable to the public, we have been presented with reasonable options and ideas for how to do this. Pushing back on efforts to provide true financial clarity of the town's finances will ultimately be judged by the voters. Sadly the public is denied true access to their government's spending so that they can make an informed decision about those same elected officials.   

During Council comments, Councilmember McCollum and Lehr expressed their displeasure with council members using email to communicate and express their opinions instead of during council meetings. Councilmember Lehr felt that email can carry a "different tone" and it should be reduced greatly.  I have used email with my colleagues to either express a point or to convey a thought that is relevant to a subject that originated via email.  My actions via email have not been to make a final decision or to conduct the business of the town in secret, but to convey my thoughts and opinions in an effort to express myself to my colleagues and get further clarification.  This is an opportunity for myself and my colleagues to clarify something before it comes before the public. Some of my colleagues may fear the ability of the public to FOIA our emails. I can only speak for myself on this;  I feel that using email creates a record of reference and can provide me with clarity on the issue or the content of the "conversation." Council members should have no expectation of privacy in either sending or receiving electronic messages. Talking face to face or via phone could be viewed as conducting the business of the people in private. The underlying principle of the open meeting provisions of FOIA is that the public has the right to witness the operations of their government and by communicating via email, I believe I am adhering to this. 

One of the items discussed last night involved the Town's participation in a joint collaboration on a Town of Purcellville/Purcellville Business Association (PBA) Volunteer Awards Program. This was initiated for the first time by the previous council in March of 2014 and we were asked as a council the week before whether we wished to pursue this collaboration.  I expressed my thoughts via email and publicly last night.  Because the award would be presented at a paid to attend event at the Loudoun Country Club, I feel that it closes the presentation of the award to the general public and an award bestowed by a public body should be done openly and with full access to all.   Though it was suggested the award could also be presented at a subsequent council meeting, it would be duplicative.  

Local governments work with non-profit organizations to accomplish many public purposes. Unfortunately, some of the very attributes that make non-profits attractive partners can also present challenges to the their relationship with local governments.  Chambers of commerce in the US operate almost exclusively as non-profit entities known as a 501(c) (6). During our meeting, Councilmember Lehr stated that the PBA is a 501(c) (6). Unlike charities, these non-profits have the authority to represent their members in public policy debates. They may lobby and take positions on actual or proposed legislation and may legally endorse candidates for public office and/or ballot propositions. The PBA offers a voice to our local business community and their members are active volunteers in our community. My hesitance to partner too closely with the PBA as an elected governing body is that we have a duty to act on behalf of and to serve our constituents' interests and the public good. The lines can be blurred when members of the PBA and the Town Council are too closely aligned.  When elected officials may be perceived or may possibly benefit by shaping the very laws which may serve the interests of private parties they are closely aligned with,  it may give the appearance of a conflict of interest.  It is for this reason I believe this current council should carefully consider their relationship with the PBA and do so with the express intent to solely promote Purcellville as a place to do business and further economic development. Doing so will foster and maintain an amiable relationship between the Council and the PBA. 

Councilmember McCollum stated his desire to see this council operate as a more "cohesive unit" and indicated that we should seek an outside consultant to assist with this.   While it is a wonderful sentiment and certainly in a perfect world that would happen, it can't always be the case that we act in tandem on agenda items and I believe we have acted appropriately as a council procedurally.   I have 6 people living in my house and I can no more please or agree with all of them all of the time any more than you can get 7 individual members of council to.   In the scheme of things, I believe this council has voted in tandem more than they haven't.  I have seen dialogue and productive changes taking place that we have come together on. Disagreeing time to time is inevitable. However,  it doesn't precipitate an intervention or indicate a failure to be a unit.  The business of the town is still being conducted and progress is continuing to be made.  

The Streetscape Phase II Improvement was unanimously approved last night. Town Staff is working to make sure businesses and the public are well informed about the construction and I am encouraged by the dialogue that has taken place thus far with the businesses to mitigate any negative consequences that will occur during the 200 days that construction is slated to take place. 

Phillip Message of the Bush Tabernacle/Purcellville Teen Center gave a Presentation to Council on the activities and events going on there.  Mr. Message has done a significant job of attracting new events and bringing visitors to Purcellville.  

I am pleased to announce the final Settlement with Crooked Run Orchard has finally taken place. This concludes a decade of continual lawsuits between the town and a small family farm in Purcellville. Town staff was critical to bringing this to a conclusion and I am happy to have played a role in it. I am looking forward to using our town resources in ways that truly benefit our residents and contribute to the enhancement of our town.  

The recent weather events have kept our public works department quite busy and as usual they do an excellent job of keeping our streets safe and passable during these snow events. In the meantime, I hope everyone will be safe and warm as our next weather event slowly rolls in.