This November, five Leesburg residents will be vying for three town council seats. The Times-Mirror contacted each of them to get their views on current town issues and find out more about them as candidates.
Todd Cimino-Johnson, a program coordinator of business and economics at Blue Ridge Community and Technical College, announced his run late last year. His platform rests on three major issues: increasing the tree canopy, developing a new business incubator in downtown Leesburg, and partnering with the county and state to encourage affordable housing, especially after last year’s threat to the low-income residents of Leesburg Mobile Park with a proposed, but ultimately canceled, sale of the park.
“If people work here, they should be able to live here,” he said. “We have to be able to offer different types of housing, not just single-family homes.”
With his background in business, Cimino-Johnson envisions working with council, the economic development department and ideally an educational institution to turn the former Mason Enterprise Center into a place where people can drop in with an idea for a product or service, and receive training and help for every step of developing a new business.
To understand local businesses’ needs, Cimino-Johnson, along with incumbent candidate Neil Steinberg and Mayor Kelly Burk, running for her fourth term, will hold a virtual roundtable for small businesses on the morning of Sept. 13.
“We are a diverse community, and I’m just here to facilitate making our town a better place,” he said. “I want to be responsive, one that’s open to hearing all ideas from anyone and everyone.”
Colin Doniger, a yoga teacher, decided to run for office after council’s handling of the vaccine mandate last year. He disagreed with council’s decision to require all town employees to get fully vaccinated for COVID-19, get a medical or religious exemption, or lose their jobs, which resulted in the departure of a handful of staff, including seven police officers.
If elected, Doniger plans to push for the council to issue a public apology for the vaccine mandate and to reinstate the laid-off employees with back pay. Other highlights of Doniger’s platform include opposing high-density projects that he says could negatively impact traffic, reducing property taxes, minimizing the time council spends on proclamations, and increasing law enforcement presence in schools, including resource officers in elementary schools.
When asked about affordable housing, Doniger said it was important to balance housing needs with property owners’ rights, and does not support government-subsidized housing.
“I believe in a free-market system,” Doniger said. “I believe in having this kind of mindset that people are more capable than we think they are, and I’d rather encourage people to lift themselves up.”
Doniger said that he would bring his business know-how and collaborative personality to council.
“I’m a proactive person rather than a reactive person,” he said. “I understand business and I know how to get things done.”
John Spence, an architect with Hughes Group, also decided to run because he was concerned about council’s handling of the vaccine mandate. However, he wants to focus on the council’s future decisions, he said.
“I don’t have an axe to grind,” Spence said. “I feel like just a regular, middle-class guy. I have integrity and common sense.”
If elected, Spence said that he would focus on making commonsense decisions, removing unnecessary restrictions for small business owners, and looking closely at proposed developments, holding developers responsible for providing solutions to traffic and density issues. Most of all, he wants to keep quality of life for all Leesburg residents at the forefront of every vote.
Spence’s platform includes encouraging small business incentives, establishing a fund to help businesses maintain buildings in the historic district, incentivizing affordable housing, making the town more walkable by adding sidewalks and potentially working with the county to overturn the plastic bag tax, which he says primarily impacts low-income residents.
Spence, who volunteers with Tree of Life Ministries, interacts regularly with low-income families, including residents of Leesburg Mobile Park.
“These people get forgotten a lot of times,” Spence said. “A lot of those people are really struggling, so whatever the town can do to incentivize affordable housing or even setting aside land for that purpose, I think that’s critical.”
Neil Steinberg, the only incumbent, says that he hopes to continue his hard work on council if re-elected. With his wife, Steinberg owns Photoworks, a photography, imaging and framing business downtown.
He points to the town’s successes over the past few years, even during the COVID-19 pandemic, as an example of his record. As a member of the airport and technology and communications commissions, he oversaw the town make IT advancements that prepared it for remote work during the pandemic.
“We managed to not miss a beat, the town didn’t close a single day,” Steinberg said.
Steinberg said he would maintain his emphasis on supporting the downtown, working on affordable housing solutions, investing in walkable and bike-friendly areas, environmental improvements like managing stormwater runoff, and erecting more electric vehicle charging stations.
Steinberg, who voted for the vaccine mandate, stands by the decision, saying that council was following the guidance of higher government bodies, science and their best knowledge at the time.
“Can we argue that in trying to deal with COVID in the first place, because it was such an unknown quantity, there was a bit of a scramble? I would say yes,” Steinberg said. “We can also state definitively that masks and vaccines are a proven quantity, and we know they work… I believe at this stage our residents are far more interested in their daily lives now.”
Patrick Wilt, owner of Black Walnut Brewery, said that he’s running to better support Leesburg small businesses.
“Leesburg government needs to begin working for everyone,” Wilt said in an email. “I’ve spent the past eight years watching the town dismiss and bully residents and small family businesses while granting favors and exceptions to wealthy property owners and developers. The town’s regulations and culture must be changed so that everyone can enjoy their freedom and prosperity.”
Wilt cited several instances of alleged inequitable treatment, such as the King Street Station development being allowed to build and benefit from 65-foot-tall structures, while neighboring structures could not.
Wilt’s platform includes lowering property taxes, simplifying the permitting and licensing processes for businesses, and making the cost of living and doing business in Leesburg “less burdensome” by reducing or eliminating business fees and taxes, he said. Instead of providing affordable housing, Wilt would support job training and skill development programs, “reducing the need for low-income housing,” he said.
Wilt supports intelligent development, he said, with a mix of residences and businesses, and more parking around the downtown area. Because of this, he would like to see development of the Liberty Street lot—sooner rather than later.
“My background in large corporate business and in small business entrepreneurship provides me with unique skills and perspectives,” Wilt said in an email. “I also bring a perspective of non-partisanship.”