With Election Day less than a month away, candidates for Leesburg Town Council seats had an opportunity to share their campaign platforms and visions for the town before a packed house at the Leesburg Senior Center on Monday night.
The three candidates for mayor, as well as four of the five vying for three Town Council seats on the ballot, participated in the League of Women Voters-organized forum. The lone absence was Vice Mayor Suzanne Fox, running for re-election for a second four-year term. Fox had to make an unexpected early trip to Idaho for the birth of her first grandchild.
The concerns about increased partisanship on the council and questions about whether town elections, which under state law are nonpartisan, should move from November back to May were raised by audience members during the 90-minute forum moderated by Loudoun Now publisher Norman K. Styer. Several candidates said they would be in favor of moving the elections back to May. Although lower turnout would be expected, many said they felt the elections then were far less partisan when not lumped in with November’s general elections.
But some defended their decision to seek a party endorsement.
“I am not ashamed to say I accepted the endorsement of the Loudoun County Democratic Committee,” council candidate Neil Steinberg said. “By accepting the endorsement, I got an army of people that know more about running campaigns than I do. Getting there is the hardest part and it takes a lot of work. Trying to do it by yourself would be virtually impossible.”
Steinberg said he would not be in favor of moving the elections back to May, as staffing polling locations for non-November elections costs the town a significant amount of money.
Mayoral candidate Ron Campbell, a current sitting council member who won his first council term in 2016, said the partisanship on the council can be problematic. Campbell sought and received the support of the LCDC two years ago, but did not seek party endorsement for his mayoral bid.
“People refuse to talk to each other because of the party they belong to. I’ve received criticism from the democratic committee for talking to Republicans. It’s ridiculous when we need to get the people’s business done that it can come to that level,” he said.
The issue also was addressed by Fox’s husband Bill, who read statements to the audience on her behalf. “[Suzanne] has decided to take on the motto ‘principles not partisanship.’ She’s made a genuine effort to live by this motto. This approach has served her well. You can ask anyone who’s served with her she is a principled problem solver, a ridiculously hard worker and a great advocate and representative for her constituents,” he said. In her first bid for council in 2014, Fox sought and received the endorsement of the Loudoun County Republican Committee. She did not seek an endorsement this year. “I think it’s important now more than ever to improve our quality of discourse. I believe people want leaders who are … productive. I think we’ve seen too many examples lately of government bodies plagued with divisiveness and dysfunction,” she said in a statement.
Candidates were also asked what council accomplishments they were most proud of, and what they believed could have been done better or differently. Mayor Kelly Burk, running for her second mayoral term, said she was proud of the council voting to deny the controversial Meadowbrook commercial application over the summer. In terms of “do-overs” she said she wished she had not supported the creation of the Economic Development Steering Committee. That committee was formed following the spring 2017 budget deliberations at the suggestion of Campbell, one of her two challengers, to look at updates to the economic development section of the Town Plan and formulate recommendations. Burk criticized both the money spent on the facilitator, who largely did not run the meetings herself, as well as on staff time spent on the endeavor.
“I regret that I supported that,” she said.
Although not currently on the council, candidate Kari Nacy said she was proud of the council’s decision last week to support the HHHunt application to construct a memory care facility on Morven Park Road. She, along with incumbent Vanessa Maddox, said she would like to see some better collaboration between the town and Loudoun County.
Development was also a key question posed to candidates. In particular, they were asked to share their viewpoints on the potential development of both the Westpark Golf Club and Rogers Farm.
Nacy said the potential development of the golf course was one of the big drivers in her decision to run for council. She noted the golf course is literally in her backyard as a resident of the Country Club neighborhood.
“The biggest thing I’ve heard from the citizens of Leesburg is slow down the residential development, give us a break, let us have a breather,” she said. “I understand we don’t have any control over people’s private property. But what we do have control over is rolling up our sleeves, doing the hard work, meeting with staff, meeting with the developer so when it does come across council’s desk it’s something that everyone wanted; it isn’t a surprise.”
Councilman Tom Dunn, re-elected to his council seat two years ago but now challenging Burk in his third bid for mayor, said that opposition to the Meadowbrook application showed that neighboring residents did not want the commercial development eyed for that area. Other areas of town, however, would prefer commercial over residential, he said. Perhaps another look at the Town Plan is needed to determine what the best zoning for remaining vacant land is, he suggested.
“Government does have the ability to rezone properties,” Dunn told the audience.
Burk called the potential development of the Rogers Farm property a “heartbreaker.” She suggested that the council could explore putting a historic overlay on a part of the property to save some of the historic structures, like had previously been done with the Paxton property.
But, with Virginia a Dillon Rule state that limits the authority of localities, sometimes the council’s hands are tied when it comes to by-right development, some said.
“Property owners should have the right to do what they want with their property even if we don’t like it,” Councilman Marty Martinez, vying for his fifth council term, said.
The matter of the Eastern Gateway plan, currently before the council for review, was also broached. That area of the town, stretching from River Creek Parkway to the bypass, is eyed as the last frontier for development in the nearly built-out county seat. Some candidates also pointed to needed updates in the Town Plan for guiding future development.
“We need to have a vision of what we want Leesburg to look like in 20 years,” Martinez said.
Campbell pointed to sections of the Town Plan he called outdated to underscore the need for comprehensive updates.
“It says by 2030 we should have over 30,000 jobs created in the Town of Leesburg. I’m not sure how we can fit that. The reality is not an achievable vision. To talk about jobs, jobs, jobs and do nothing about it. … We must change the vision and then have a process and procedures that match that vision,” he said.
The protection of historic resources was also a hot topic, with Leesburg lately weighing the future of its ownership of the Sycolin Cemetery.
“We need to be as diligent about protecting African American cemeteries as we are Confederate cemeteries so we make sure we have an unvarnished picture of what history is,” said Steinberg, who noted that state law had long held special protections for Confederate burial sites.
Maddox said it was important that Leesburg preserve “American history,” including the legacy of African Americans in the town.
“The matter of protecting historic cemeteries and American history is critically important,” she said.
Adequately staffing the town government was also addressed, with Town Manager Kaj Dentler noting in recent budget presentations that significant staffing additions could be needed to meet service levels in future years. Several candidates pointed to the Leesburg Police Department in particular.
Maddox pointed to a recent tour she took of the police department, which is planned for a $12 million expansion.
“You really need to see how crammed they are in there. There’s no space left,” she said.
Several candidates voiced support for adding to the police force, although some were more reluctant to give carte blanche for more staffing increases.
“We don’t need to add to staff just for adding to staff’s sake,” Dunn said, although he voiced support for providing the police with needed resources.