By Chris Teale (File photo)
At city council’s public hearing on June 13, Vice Mayor Allison Silberberg recused herself when discussion turned to the future of the Old Town Theater, for which building owner Rob Kaufman of PMA Properties had applied for a change in the special use permit. She disclosed that he had donated approximately $100 to her campaign, and so she left the dais.
It came on the back of her campaign in the Democratic primary for mayor, during which she said that any contributions she receives from developers who do business with the city would be returned.
“I feel that if a developer is bringing business before the city council, I would be returning their money,” she told The Washington Post in an article published June 5. “My actions speak for themselves. What others do with their campaign funds is up to them, but I think it would be of interest to our citizens.”
She used the statement as a way to differentiate herself from her opponents in the primary election — Mayor Bill Euille and former Mayor Kerry Donley — both of whom had few qualms taking contributions from developers. In the end, Silberberg took victory by approximately 300 votes earlier this month.
“I didn’t realize that [the Old Town Theater] was going to come before us,” Silberberg said at the hearing. “A few weeks ago, Mr. Kaufman generously gave — I believe a $100 contribution — to my campaign. I want to disclose that. Thank you sir for your generosity and thoughtfulness.
“I thought this situation with the Old Town Theater was completed. It was in the paper, that’s what we were told. I thought that Mr. [Jeff] Yates was taking it over, purchasing it. I’m sorry it didn’t work out. In lieu of that, I feel it’s incumbent upon me not just to disclose it, but to recuse myself. I appreciate what you’ve done in terms of renovating it.”
As such, Silberberg’s recusal raised some eyebrows amongst those present and her colleagues on the dais, as on the surface there appeared to be a discrepancy in her words and actions. But in an interview Tuesday, she clarified her position and said that she mailed Kaufman his check back this week — more than a week following the hearing in question — in keeping with her principles of not taking contributions from developers who do business with the city.
“I said that I had received a contribution of $100 from Mr. Kaufman during the campaign, received numerous contributions, but I thought the business with the Old Town Theater was behind us, because that’s what we were told, and that Mr. Yates was taking over the theater,” she said. “I have, since that meeting, mailed the check to Mr. Kaufman this week, in fact. If I had known in advance that he was going to come back to us, but he might have other projects, he hasn’t brought anything else to the council during my time there that I can recall.
“Things were fast and furious during the campaign, but I try to be extremely careful if anyone is bringing business before the council, it’s my personal policy to return their contribution with a thank you note. Again, during my time on council he had not brought anything, and I thought the one thing he had, had come and gone many months earlier. That’s what we had been told, and the staff, I asked the staff about it and they said they thought it was done too.”
Silberberg blamed the oversight on a tough period that encapsulated a gruelling primary election on June 9, city council’s legislative meeting the following night and the public hearing on Saturday, June 13. She said that given the time constraints placed upon her by all those commitments, she had been unable to view the docket for Saturday’s hearing until the Thursday afternoon, even though it was released by the city on June 8. Had she done so, she said she would have been able to act sooner.
“The election was on June 9, I didn’t know until Thursday night or Friday that it was even on the docket, because I hadn’t had the chance, we had a meeting on the Wednesday night,” she said. “I didn’t see the Saturday docket, the public hearing docket, until the Thursday night or Friday afternoon. I was going over it with staff, and I saw it, I think I saw it Thursday night when I looked at it to prepare for that staff meeting.
“Friday afternoon when I saw it, I said, ‘I thought that we were done with this?’ And they said, ‘We thought we were too.’ I said, ‘Well, I’m 99 percent certain that I received a $100 check from Mr. Kaufman. I will double-check that, but I am pretty certain, and that means that I am going to have to recuse myself.’ I could have returned it Friday night and written the check, I could have done that, and in retrospect I wish I had. But I thought it was too late to do that. It wasn’t, in retrospect. I’m doing the best I can, I’m acting as quickly as I can.”
Silberberg also said that she believed that Kaufman had not done any business with the city since she was first elected to council in 2012. But she noted that having returned his check, she would not have to recuse herself in the future if he brings anything else before them. She also said that her delayed returning of a check was an outlier, given that every other campaign contribution from a developer has been returned that very same day.
“There’s always a possibility [of an oversight], but I try to be very careful,” she said. “I did return a $1,000 check the day I received it to Jeffrey M. Zell [of developer JM Zell], and $200 to Donald Simpson, Jr [of Simpson Development].
“Those were the only two that I thought were applicable. If there were others, I can always return it later. I’m grateful for people, for their generosity, but if they bring business before the city, it’s my personal policy to return the contribution. All the other donations that were made by people who bring business before the city, the day that I received it was the day that I wrote the check and the day that I mailed it.”
The vice mayor added that as someone determined to preserve the historic feel of Alexandria, it pained her to recuse herself from the discussion on the century-old theater, as it is something close to her heart. However, she said she stood by her principles, as she felt it was the right way to proceed.
“I thought it was the right thing to do, to recuse myself, but my feeling about it is that to protect and preserve the theater, even if it became in some different role in life and whatever that means, a store or something, it should remain basically intact,” Silberberg said. “Historic preservation is very important as a core value to our city, and to me personally, so it was hard to recuse myself but I thought it was the better part of valor.
“I’ve now mailed the check, I don’t know if he’s received it yet.”