Following Oaklawn rezoning, Leesburg councilman calls for open government
For months – beginning in spring and running into August – Leesburg Town Council entered into closed-door, executive sessions to discuss a locally-based company's expansion into the Oaklawn community south of downtown. In order for the expansion to occur, a section of land near Oaklawn residences needed to be rezoned, something council agreed to on a 5-2 vote in early August.
Council members hailed the rezoning and yet-to-arrive business expansion as one that will bring millions of dollars in tax revenue and more than 100 jobs to the community.
But they did so without ever naming the company.
Now, beyond the prestige and economic benefits of the unnamed company, comes the question of good governance. At the onset of negotiations, the company required the town, county, Oaklawn developers and state to sign non-disclosure agreements while expansion talks were in the works.
The Times-Mirror reported the company to be K2M medical devices Aug. 14.
The non-disclosure agreement was a primary instigator of constituents' concerns – that and a litany of closed-door sessions, Dunn said.
"The current council has had closed sessions that have resulted in a questionable hiring process for the new town manager, setting of bad water rate policy, many lawsuits, weak land negotiations and most recently, the non-disclosure agreement connected to the Oaklawn rezoning, which has concerned many in the Stratford and Oaklawn communities," he said.
Dunn ended up voting in favor of the rezoning, but he said he did so because of the project's benefits. If there was a vote strictly on the process, Dunn said he would have voted no.
“There are times when we've gone in there and said, 'what are we doing here?'” Dunn claimed of some council executive sessions.
Leesburg Town Council is not alone in holding closed sessions for prospective business activity, and there's no evidence of wrongdoing in relation to the Oaklawn property, but a lack of transparency – perceived or otherwise – has flummoxed Leesburg residents.
“The majority of the homeowners I've spoken to moved into the Oaklawn development with the understanding that it would eventually become … a place where you can walk with restaurants and retail,” Sally Atkins, treasurer of Oaklawn Homeowners' Association, told town officials at an August hearing. “Quite frankly, the expeditious and secretive nature taken by this applicant and the whole rezoning request has taken many residents by surprise.”
Virginia's Freedom of Information Act law exempts council from having to openly discuss “a prospective business or industry or the expansion of an existing business or industry where no previous announcement has been made of the business' or industry's interest in locating or expanding its facilities in the community.”
Governing bodies throughout the commonwealth will shut out the public when it comes to economic development efforts and property acquisition, but simply because the practice is within legal bounds does little to quell constituents' anxieties, said Virginia Press Association Executive Director Ginger Stanley.
Stanley said she understands how keeping a prospective business anonymous can be essential in early negotiations, but at some point citizens need to be brought into the discussion.
“There comes a time when good local government needs to bring citizens into the process, which can be helpful to a local government. Citizens can bring information that can be helpful, more so than just a few decision-makers,” Stanley said.
Town of Leesburg spokeswoman Betsy Fields said there's nothing out of the ordinary about the way the Oaklawn rezoning was handled. The town has routinely kept the names of economic development prospects anonymous until the deal is closed, and applications can be fast-tracked for a variety of reasons, Fields said.
Governments withhold the name of the business to limit competition from other communities.
“It's not a done deal, and until it's a done deal it remains confidential,” Fields said, referring to the business prospect at Oaklawn.
But “everyone knows,” Dunn said. And he expects the major expansion announcement, planned for later this month, to proceed.
This story has been updated from an earlier version.