Challengers John Whitbeck and Robert Ohneiser—standing on opposite sides of the stage—spent 90 minutes in Leesburg on Oct. 9 making their case to become the next chair of the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors.
Standing in the middle of the two, incumbent Phyllis Randall laid out why she believes she should be elected to a second four-year term.
More than 120 people gathered at Ida Lee Park in Leesburg for the third and final debate organized by the Coalition of Loudoun Towns (COLT). The previous debates featured candidates running for the Board of Supervisors seats in the Blue Ridge and Catoctin districts.
Funding Metro, transportation ideas
With Metro expected to arrive in Ashburn next year, Randall (D) said Loudoun is prepared for the costs by leaning on the gas tax and funding from the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority. She said she supports Metro coming to Loudoun, adding that it will open the region to the county and bring in billions of dollars in investments.
“We already have a surplus of money in the bank," Randall said. “We are well funded for Metro already. We have $99 million in our ‘rainy day' fund for Loudoun County, so not only do I support Metro, not only are we paying for Metro, we are doing it lowering the tax rate year after year.”
Whitbeck (R) said Metro was sold to address traffic congestion, but he said that won't happen until Loudoun has an express train to Washington D.C. Metro needs to be incentivized for its use, he added.
“I don't believe anybody is going to actually use Metro to increase their commute time from the Ashburn or the Dulles station all the way to Washington D.C. if stop after stop means an hour and a half or over an hour and half commute,” Whitbeck said. “The next board has a responsibility, and the chair should lead the fight to get that express train from here to Washington D.C.”
Ohneiser, an independent, added, "Commuters are not treated fairly by the county” when looking at the price residents pay for buses to Washington D.C. compared to those coming from West Virginia.
“Are we going to differentiate the rates that our residents pay when we put in $373 million into the Metro?" Ohneiser asked.
Relationship between county and Town of Leesburg
In terms of the Town of Leesburg’s rugged relationship with the county, candidates said better communication is key.
The question follows a flare-up in June when the Board of Supervisors voted to make Loudoun Water the presumed utility service for businesses and residents in the Leesburg Joint Land Management Area, or JLMA. Done without any notice, the vote is presumed to negatively impact revenues for the Town of Leesburg.
Before voting to update the Comprehensive Plan, the board’s stance was that developers were paying higher water costs when building in the Leesburg JLMA.
The action raised concerns that future relationships with the county and six other towns in Loudoun could be in jeopardy.
Randall, who abstained from the vote, said she wanted to exercise Robert's Rules or Order to bring the matter back up for a vote. After failing to gain support from her Republican colleagues, she said voted “no.”
“There are ways we have to get together and talk about how to deal with this, and so I will do what I have been doing by continuing to talk to mayors from all of our towns that I appreciate so much,” Randall said.
Whitbeck said he didn’t disagree with the end result on the JLMA, just on how it was done. If elected, Whitbeck said he would like to see the matter addressed between both groups.
“It pains me to see our county’s relationship with the town has deteriorated to the level that it has,” Whitbeck said. “It’s no secret that Leesburg and Loudoun County are not functioning as partners anymore after what’s been going on.”
Considering Ohneiser as a candidate
Considering he has not fundraised or launched a website, Ohneiser was questioned why voters should vote for him. The independent candidate hung his hat on his volunteer work and experience in the community. He urged voters to visit his campaign page on Facebook.
“Unlike running a campaign, I am willing to serve—that’s the point," Ohneiser said. “I’m not trying to get an A+ in campaigning. I’m a retired attorney that has no conflicts. I’m completely capable after working for 45 years in the six-figure category. I understand how to run meetings ... I don’t need 50 signs out there, people know my name.”
Ensuring bipartisanship on the board
After previously serving as the chair of the Virginia Republican party, Whitbeck was asked how he would ensure bipartisanship on the board.
Whitbeck responded by talking about his work and history in the community.
"I have 20 years of experience at the local level serving as a substitute judge, on the criminal justice board, and on the government reform commission," he said.
His remarks opened the floor to Ohneiser saying that he, running as an independent, could get along with both parties. He also questioned if Whitbeck could serve as chair, be a parent and still run his law firm.
Randall attacked Whitbeck’s work over the past two and half years.
“Mr. Whitbeck was happy to say what he’s done 20 years ago, eight years ago, but what he didn’t talk about was what he did in the past two and half years," Randall said. “What he didn’t talk about was that he was on Donald Trump’s team. What he didn’t talk about was that he said it was his duty to support Corey Stewart. What he didn’t talk about was how much money he took from the NRA, what he didn’t talk about was all the incredible and completely eccentric and ridiculous right-winged positions he’s taken, and we also didn’t say on this board [Vice Chairman] Ralph Buona said under my leadership we got a B+ for non-partisan behavior.”
Whitbeck said in response, “Ladies and gentlemen, the definition of partisanship right there."
Comprehensive Plan: PDR programs, data center relationships
Nearly four months after the approval of the county’s land use guide, the 2019 Comprehensive Plan, candidates had mixed answers on what they would change.
Ohneiser said if elected he would put the plan back up for review in January and introduce an amendment to take out the previously approved housing units and their various definitions. He was also troubled with the handling of data centers and western Loudoun.
“The Comprehensive Plan is a developer giveaway, and it is insulting to a community with educated people that it was seen as progress, as a success,” Ohneiser said. “There should actually be less approvals, we should be reducing the number of approvals that have been in the past -- not adding 11,500 [housing units] and threatening the west, which the Comprehensive Plan is doing.”
Whitbeck said developing the Urban Policy Area was a good move, but he said said he would’ve gone further with the Transfer Development Rights program to move development rights in an appropriate areas, and he said he would've added language on infrastructure.
“We've just built and built throughout Loudoun County with no regard to our schools and our roads and in the infrastructure needed to support that," Whitbeck said. “There is nothing wrong with building attainable housing in Loudoun County, we need it. We need to make sure the infrastructure first is the policy, and that is basically a quality of life issue.”
When the plan was adopted in June, Whitbeck said he viewed the action as a broken promise with residents.
"… for the past 20 years [we have] been promised by the chairs and the boards that they would hold the line on the rural policy area. For the first time that promise was broken,” Whitbeck said.
However, Randall said there was previously no language protecting the west and that she added it in the new plan before it was approved. She also said no one in P1 or P2 -- land that was moved out of the Rural Policy Area into the Transition Policy Area -- was upset with the board’s decision.
Randall said her only change would have been to add interim uses to the Urban Policy Area.
Randall and Whitbeck differentiated on using grants for Purchase of Development Rights programs. Whitbeck, who said he supports more land for public parks, was against using grants for land purchases.
“Grant money from local sources doesn’t change the fact that its taxpayer dollars, so I just don’t believe that we can explain to people who can’t put food on the table that their money is going to open space,” Whitbeck said. “I just don’t think that is the right policy for Loudoun County, and that’s why the PDR program that exists in the old comprehensive plan hasn't been funded in 20 years."
Speaking on the future prospects of data centers -- which bring in tens of millions in tax revenue for the county -- Randall said the county needs to work to diversify its economy, and the data center community needs to continue to bolster its involvement in the community.
Whitbeck suggested that the data center community should consider helping with the expansion of broadband in rural western Loudoun as part of the joint Western Loudoun Telecommunication Initiative introduced by four local candidates.
Fiery finish: Pay raise for supervisors, fight tolls
Noting his previous experience on the School Board, Ohneiser said he would bring fairness, efficiency and community support to the chairmanship.
As for the incumbent, Randall concluded the night by saying that because of the county’s proximity to Washington D.C., Loudoun feels the “Trump Effect."
“We feel the dysfunction, the craziness, the racist policy, the divisiveness, the obstruction, we feel all that. But you know what would be even worse, it would be even worse to feel, not just to feel it but to experience it on the board, and that is what could happen if you don’t have the right people who serve on the Board of Supervisors,” Randall said.
Whitbeck said in the coming weeks he will be laying out a vision for balanced development that would protect the rural west and provide obtaining attainable housing.
He also noted he was the first candidate to propose expanding school resource officers in every Loudoun school.
Whitbeck attacked Randall for her vote that he says would have guaranteed increasing Dulles Greenway tolls until 2056 and for voting to raise taxes the last three years. Whitbeck also noted Randall's support for a more than 60 percent pay increase for supervisors and the chairman.
“Do you know who didn’t get a 62 percent pay raise next year? Teachers, first responders, county employees, mental health professionals working in our government,” Whitbeck said. “Ladies and gentlemen, it’s time for change.”
In 2017, the board approved a 62 percent raise for the next Board of Supervisors and Planning Commission, effective 2020.
Randall disagreed with Whitbeck’s remarks that she gave herself a raise, noting that it’s against Virginia law for any board to raise their own salary. She added that the supervisors' salaries have not been adjusted since 2011.
Under the new pay rate, the next board, excluding the chair and vice chair, will be paid $66,826 in 2020, which is up from the current $41,200. The vice chair will be paid $73,363, up from $45,320, and the chair will make $81,100, up from $50,000. Supervisors will then receive a 2 percent salary increase for three years.
“If anybody wants to serve in any of these offices, any firefighter, teacher or retail worker could not possible serve in these offices at $41,000 for a supervisor and $50,000 as chair. This is a full-time job, and if anyone is going to be able to do that job, they need to have a living salary, and so we did it for the next board," she said.
Before the debate, voters held up signs that said "Phyllis Randall = Higher Tolls."
Whitbeck said he was referring to the board’s January vote opposing a legislative proposal that would allow for limited distance-based pricing along the Dulles Greenway with a 10-year sunset. The measure also would have guaranteed future rate hikes for the roadway.
Only Randall opposed the motion, saying that not adopting it could lead to even higher toll prices in the future.
“I don’t know even know where he gets that number from," Randall said. “The Greenway discussion in the motion that Ralph put forward was for 10 years, not 2056, so I don’t quite know where that comes from or what he’s even talking about.”
Whitbeck double downed on his remarks, saying, "I have said throughout the entire campaign that one of the biggest mistakes was Chair Randall's vote for guaranteed annual toll increases until 2056."
He added, “The deal that would have been struck with the Greenway would have put in place a similar situation that we have now where they have 10 years of self-regulation. The guarantee toll rates would have gone until 2056 when the road reverts back to the state.”