The Virginia Association of Counties celebrated its 80th anniversary earlier this month in Bath County, Virginia. Nearly 1000 local government officials from 92 of Virginia’s 95 counties participated in the annual conference, meeting as committees and attending many workshops, where topics ranged from Protecting Your County’s Revenue and Responding to Hot Environmental Issues, to How to Convince Legislators in the General Assembly and Hydraulic Fracking: What Does It Mean for Localities?
Local officials heard from former Congressman Rick Boucher, who is the co-chair, along with former Lt. Governor Bill Bolling, of the Commission to Ensure Integrity and Public Confidence in State Government. Governor Terry McAuliffe created the commission to address ethics issues that arose out of the federal prosecution and conviction of former Governor Bob McDonnell on corruption charges. Fairfax County Board Chairman Sharon Bulova represents local governments on the commission. Congressman Boucher outlined the focus of the commission in its very short time frame to prepare a preliminary report due to the governor next week. Items to be covered include gifts and loans to public officials, conflicts of interest, disclosures, oversight and enforcement, and post-public service employment restrictions.
VACo members urged that the commission ensure that current and future changes are applicable and practical at the local level. For example, would the new rules require disclosure of a bouquet of flowers sent to a local official by a business or lobbyist? Or attendance at a fundraising luncheon for a local non-profit organization? Should a local official even participate in a drawing for prizes at a meeting or community event? Would winning the 50/50 drawing at a Rotary breakfast require disclosure? Are these activities part of expected community service for a local elected official, or are they considered Conflicts of Interest subject to disclosure?
Among the new requirements this year is twice-a-year filing of financial disclosure forms by local officials, replacing the previous annual requirement. Local officials have urged that the filing still take place locally, because many officials from smaller counties rely on their County Clerk to assist with compiling and preparing the forms in timely fashion. The Clerk could then forward the completed filings to a central repository at the state level. In all cases, the financial disclosures filings are available for review by the public, as they are now.
Additionally, expenses and reimbursements in excess of $200, paid by a county for a local official’s attendance at meetings and conferences that are crucial to his or her policy or fiduciary responsibilities, must be reported on a Conflicts of Interest disclosure form, unintentionally suggesting that they are comparable to vacation trips or recreational events paid for by lobbyists or prospective public contractors. While attending such meetings may be of interest to the public, it does not raise conflict of interest issues. As the newly elected president of VACo, I have appointed an ad hoc committee of local officials from across the Commonwealth to study the issues and make recommendations to the commission as it moves forward. Surely Virginia would benefit from strengthened ethics laws, and we all look forward to the recommendations of the Ethics Commission.
Penny Gross is the Mason District Supervisor, in the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. She may be emailed at [email protected]