Dear Leesburg Patch Editor:
The 4-3 vote to eliminate half the parking on King Street to build a wider sidewalk shows how money talks in politics.
Despite hours of testimony, a petition by some 2,000 patrons of downtown stores and Leesburg residents opposed to eliminating half the parking on King Street, Leesburg Town Council members Kelly Burk, Dave Butler, Katie Hammler and Marty Martinez disregarded the will of the people Oct. 8 and voted to approve the plan supported by a minority of downtown property owners and advocates widening the sidewalks at a cost of more than $1 million to town taxpayers, like me.
I could not figure out why some of these four council members were so steadfast in their vote. But then I got a hunch about looking at their campaign contributions – and sure as day, they received thousands from many of the wider sidewalk proponents – specifically, lawyer and downtown property owner Peter Burnett and his partner Don Culkins; Michael O’Connor, who owns Palio’s and at least two buildings on the west side of King Street where the sidewalk would be widened; Jim Sisley, who makes a living trying to rent commercial buildings, and Neil Steinberg and his wife Katie Kidder of Photoworks, who have been longtime supporters of getting rid of the majority of the parking.
I checked the Virginia Public Access Project (www.VPAP.org) and state and Loudoun Electoral Boards (http://www.sbe.virginia.gov/cms/Campaign_Finance_Disclosure/View_Disclosure_Reports/Index.html and http://www.loudoun.gov/index.aspx?NID=181). The records state that Michael O’Connor and Palio's gave $1,800 in direct cash and in-kind donations to Ms. Burk for her 2011 Board of Supervisors campaign and 2012 race for town council. In addition, Mr. Burnett contributed $950 to her various campaigns, Mr. Caulkins $200 and Mr. Sisley $300. This totals $3,150 from wider-sidewalk advocates.
Mr. Butler received $500 from O’Connor & Fierce (which is one of O’Connor’s companies) for his campaign for House of Delegates in 2011, $663.75 from Mr. Sisley and $1,000 in in-kind photos from Photoworks – a total of $2,613.75.
Katie Hammler received $649 from the sidewalk advocates – $250 from Palio’s for her 2012 campaign kickoff, $200 from Mr. Culkins and $199 from Milt Herd, who also testified for the wider sidewalk.
To be fair, Photoworks also does work for Mayor Umstattd and Mr. Martinez, but the amount of contributions was small. I could not find any donations from these sidewalk advocates for Council members Kevin Wright or Tom Dunn, who supported the will of the people, along with the mayor.
I think Council members Burk, Butler and Hammler should have disclosed this during the proceedings before they voted in June and Oct. 8. In fact, when Mr. O’Connor appealed a denial of a BAR ruling for Palio’s on April 9, the Council voted his way, and Ms. Burk and Mr. Butler, who got support from him, did not disclose these donations, according to the minutes http://www.leesburgva.gov/WEBLINK8/PDF/bbuwab55reaf5hz5yxn3cr55/4/2013_tcmin0409.pdf. But there is no law requiring this as there is for our Board of Supervisors.
[Editor’s note: The Loudoun Board of Supervisors has a self-imposed restriction against voting on land use changes within 12 months of receiving donations from the applicant.]
However, I think the Council should set a policy to require disclosure and maybe recusal if a member has received a donation from an applicant. I believe the media and we opponents of the plan were not diligent enough in bringing this to light before the sidewalk vote. But perhaps if we opponents of this plan, who wanted to keep most of the parking, had been more involved in the political process, maybe the vote would have been different.