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.