Defining ‘business before council’

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Democratic mayoral candidates Mayor Allison Silberberg and Vice Mayor Justin Wilson.
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By Missy Schrott | mschrott@alextimes.com

Both candidates vying for mayor have taken an ethical stand regarding donations to their campaigns. Mayor Allison Silberberg and Vice Mayor Justin Wilson each have claimed they do not accept contributions from those who bring business before council.

While it is not required that candidates reject contributions from the developers and businesses that rely on city council decisions, each mayoral candidate has separately asserted that doing so is a policy he or she has always followed.

However, the broadness of the term used – “business before council” – begs the question of what these personal policies mean.

Is taking a contribution from a developer who seeks council’s stamp of approval on a multimillion-dollar project the same as accepting money from a resident who testifies at a public hearing against that same development? Is taking a contribution from a restaurant owner three years after he went in front of council the same as accepting one just three days before council is to determine the restaurant’s fate?

Silberberg said she returned donations because of conflicts of interest four to six times since being elected to city council in 2012.

Wilson said he remembered returning contributions three times and rejecting offers of contributions at least another four times since his first term on council in 2007.

Among Wilson’s contributors for his council and mayoral campaigns are Alexandria Toyota, Washington Gas, Del Ray Restaurateur Mike Anderson, Don Simpson Sr., Don Simpson Jr. and Rob Kaufman of PMA Properties, all individuals or businesses who have been before city council during Wilson’s tenure.

Wilson has accepted a total of $5,276 from Alexandria Toyota for his campaigns between 2009 and 2017. The company brought applications before council that required action in 2008, 2012 and 2014. Wilson did not recuse himself from these votes and in 2014 made the motion to close the public hearing and accept Alexandria Toyota’s requested changes to its special use permit.

Wilson received two $250 donations from Rob Kaufman, former president of PMA Properties, one in 2009 and one in 2017. While the contributions don’t align with Kaufman’s appearances before council, he was involved in at least one board of architectural review appeal and four SUP applications that came to council between 2008 and 2016.

“As I’m aware, he sold all his properties, so he doesn’t have anything before the council,” Wilson said of Kaufman’s most recent donation.

When asked to explain his policy, Wilson said there is a degree of discretion.

“You know, it’s always a discretionary kind of interpretation,” he said. “I mean, you have to kind of think about when someone has something before council or why they might have something before council and what type of request they might be asking. Obviously I take everything on a case-by-case basis, but generally speaking I don’t take anything from anybody who has anything before council, and I’ve refused contributions as recently as a few weeks ago.”

Over the years, Wilson has also accepted several contributions from Don Simpson Jr. and Don Simpson Sr. of Simpson Development Company. The company’s website boasts building numerous prominent city buildings and complexes, including the Bradlee Shopping Center, Landmark Mall, Alexandria Hospital and multiple private and public city schools. Simpson Sr. contributed a total of $1,700 to Wilson’s campaigns between 2009 and 2015. Simpson Jr. contributed another $500 between 2015 and 2018.

While Simpson Development no longer constructs buildings in the volume it once did, it is still involved with commercial leasing and property management in Alexandria. On May 12, 2012, council approved an SUP for a restaurant at 2850 Eisenhower Blvd., a property Simpson Development leases out. One of Simpson Sr.’s donations to Wilson came 10 days before the vote, on May 2, 2012.

Wilson said he was not aware of Simpson’s relation to anything that’s come before council since he’s been elected.

“I’m not aware that Simpson has had anything before council in over a decade,” Wilson said. “I’ve never, ever, ever in my time on council had a meeting with Simpson or talked to him about a potential application. Ever. He’s never had anything before me in my time on council.”

Both Wilson and Silberberg accepted contributions in September 2017 from Daniel Roth and Jesse Wuertz, Potomac Yard residents who spoke against a development in their neighborhood at a public hearing just a month later.

Silberberg also received donations from Loren Needles and Jeremy Flachs, residents who have actively opposed the Karig Estates development in the Seminary Ridge neighborhood since mid-2017.

The two spoke at planning commission and city council meetings related to the development, and Needles is among those who filed a lawsuit against city council about the project on March 19. He contributed $500 to Silberberg’s mayoral campaign on March 31. Silberberg had previously cast the lone vote against the development at the Jan. 20 council public hearing.

Silberberg said she views residents who weigh in on city issues differently from developers who bring forward proposals.

“If a resident is concerned about an issue, whether it is pushing for common sense gun reform or pushing for more funding for schools or pushing for better road maintenance … residents pushing for a certain cause weigh in in all kinds of manners. That’s not a conflict of interest,” Silberberg said.

“A resident is not bringing business before the council. That is like night and day,” she said. “The developer for the building in Potomac Yard or for the building in Karig Estates, I wouldn’t accept a contribution from them.”

Though the statement that one doesn’t accept contributions from people who bring business before council can be interpreted in different ways, both candidates said they were proud of their transparency on the topic.

“The whole issue falls in line with my commitment to pushing us to have a higher ethical standard across government,” Silberberg said. “I think that everyone who’s elected, I would think that they would all want to do this. I’ve been doing this since I ran in … 2012. If I knew that they were bringing business before the council, then I would thank the donor and return their contribution.”

Wilson said he’s taken several steps toward a more transparent government during his time on council.

He said he’s written and passed legislation that requires local government officials to disclose large campaign contributions they receive when in office, has worked with the city registrar to become the first jurisdiction to put campaign finance reports online and has helped change city code to require developers to reveal financial interests they have with council members.

“I don’t just talk the talk,” Wilson said. “I actually bring actual accomplishments to try to improve transparency to the public, so I’m pretty proud of my record on this issue.”

Campaign finance reports are available on VPAP.org. The next report, which will cover the period through May 31, is due June 4.

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