Out of sight, out of mind

Loudoun Board of Supervisors Chairman Scott York (R) made it clear from the start back in January that he wanted to put a big smiley face on the actions of his new all-Republican board to prevent the disaster of the previous GOP-majority Tulloch Board (2003–2007), which matched its corrupt giveaways to the developers with a remarkably confrontational and offensive public posture, which was a bit of a giveaway in itself. The Tulloch Board’s majority made a point of deriding anyone who spoke up for historic preservation, environmental safeguards, or who even attempted to make the obvious point that throwing the county open to unbridled growth would send property tax bills soaring to meet the need for new schools and other services.

The York strategy in its first six months has been to cloak its giveaways to the developers in bland congeniality while keeping any hint of controversy swept under the rug. A series of amendments to the zoning and development rules were adopted in snappy 9–0 votes with little, or in some cases literally no, discussion. (When you have a unanimous board, you can work wonders with what’s called the “Consent Agenda”: items that all of the supervisors agree to ahead of time are adopted at each meeting in a really snappy big package of goodies without any debate).

The very nice e-mail newsletters the new supervisors send out with wearisome regularity are part of the strategy, too. Our elected officials are working very hard to present themselves as sort of a cross between a cheery camp councilor and Hints From Heloise, informing us of community information we can much more easily find elsewhere (particularly nice was Scott York’s enthusiastic announcements of upcoming events by community cultural organizations whose budgets were zeroed out by this Board), vaguely attempting to claim credit for the good deeds and hard work of others (they all encouraged us to participate in a canned food drive being organized by a community group and then proudly announcing how many cans had been collected), or pretending to be In Charge in Time of Crisis (Janet Clarke, R-Blue Ridge, won the prize here during the storm and power failure, repeating ad nauseam the updates posted by the local power companies on their web sites. Memo to Janet Clarke: (a) if we don’t have power, we probably can’t read either your e-mails or Dominion Power’s website; (b) if we do have power, we can go directly to Dominion Power’s website rather than wait for you to cut and paste the same information).

With the notable exception of the Metro vote, the Board has done a fine job of keeping any controversy out of the public eye. The few times they have stepped in it, they’ve swept up the mess behind the scenes. Their MO is either to give the public the bum’s rush and pass items which are sure to raise a stink so quickly that the citizens don’t know what him ’em and don’t have time to organize any meaningful opposition or speak up (e.g., abolishing the volunteer illegal-sign clean-up program), or the few times when they’ve realized that even they were about to go too far, the grown-ups on the Board have simply tidied things up out of public view again before anyone can speak out and raise a ruckus that even our local newspapers might be forced to report on.

The full story of the very odd recent episode in which Ken Reid (R-Leesburg) nominated to the Historic District Review Commission a woman notorious for trying to destroy the very existence of historic districts has yet to come out. But it was a fascinating case in point of how York is able to conduct the real business of the board out of public view — as well as revealing more clearly the real agenda of supervisors such as Geary Higgins (R-Catoctin), whose actions more and more expose him to be just another Loudoun Republican extremist masquerading in sheep’s clothing.

The episode began on June 19 when York was out of town (WHERE do all of supervisors go all the time, I wonder?) When the HDRC nominations came up on the agenda, Higgins, who has tried to pretend he’s sympathetic with historic preservation, immediately moved to suspend the rules.

Had this motion passed, it would have allowed the Board to nominate and confirm appointees at the same meeting — rather than following the normal rules that require nominations to be voted on at a subsequent meeting, a rule intended of course precisely to allow for public notice and comment. The motion however failed (it requires a supermajority and two supervisors voted no). Reid and Higgins then placed in nomination their candidates, both of whom have dubious records of commitment to historic preservation, but Reid’s choice — one Milari Madison— was truly outrageous.

Anyone who has worked on historic preservation in Loudoun, in Virginia, or possibly even anywhere in the United States, knows about Ms. Madison, who bought a historic property in the historic district of Waterford, fought a lengthy series of legal actions seeking to demolish the house and build a new McMansion in its place all the while allowing the house to deteriorate, and then initiated numerous lawsuits, petitions, and other actions seeking to invalidate Waterford’s historic designation, and for good measure also began filing perhaps hundreds of frivolous and meritless legal, zoning, and administrative complaints against neighbors and others who had opposed her efforts while also threatening to file libel suits against people who report these facts. This made Ms. Madison a hero to the very confrontational and obnoxious “property rights” faction of the far right that dominates the Loudoun County Republican Committee.

Reid’s and Higgins’s plan to rush through their two nominees to the HDRC in this surprise move was foiled by their failure to suspend the rules, which gave time for the citizens to actually learn what they were up to and express their opinions about the suitability of appointing to an important commission someone who wants to destroy the very purpose of that commission. In the ensuing uproar, Reid then claimed he did not know about the “concerns” with Ms. Madison, an argument that surely wins the prize for Least Plausible Excuse in the history of mankind, given the well-known fact that “Ken” assiduously combs every media outlet every day to see if his name is there and that Ms. Madison’s actions in recent years were extensively covered in the Washington Post and even in our local newspapers.

At the Board’s next meeting one of those tidy little miracles happened. York quietly told all of the people who came to speak against the nomination that they could go home; he introduced a motion to suspend the rules, which passed without opposition; then his motion to name three new nominees to the HDRC, not including Ms. Madison, was adopted also without opposition. Obviously “Ken” had had his knuckles rapped in the meanwhile since he obediently fell in line as well. (Nice if the public had been in on that, but so much for that pesky open meeting law.)

A similar bit of deft parliamentary rug-sweeping apparently occurred at the final meeting before the Board’s “August” recess last week. Again, fearless Ken had stepped in it by boldly proposing to eliminate funding for the Loudoun Museum, on the grounds that they were not being businesslike enough in their operations. (Ken claimed to citizens who contacted him that he knows all about business, having for years published what is perhaps the single worst written and edited “newsletter” in the Greater Washington area; it consisted of nothing but reprinting FDA regulatory actions that anyone can obtain for free from the Federal government, and charging inflated sums to corporate clients for this intrepid journalism. But I digress.) The Museum’s funding was to come up for a vote by the full Board on July 17, but lo and behold it simply vanished from the agenda with no word or explanation.

Stay tuned!

UPDATE: Actually (sharp-eyed reader Mary Vidaver tells us) Scott York did offer an “explanation” of sorts for the Museum funding decision disappearing from the agenda at the Board’s final pre-recess meeting last week: That Geary Higgins was out of town (what, again???), so the discussion should wait until he returns. Of course, that could be ages if his recent attendance record is any indication . . . .

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