Vienna Town Council members may choose not to meet with developers outside of public meetings, or converse with them only in the presence of town staff, but the Council cannot prohibit such gatherings, Town Attorney Steven Briglia said.
Banning such meetings might violate the First Amendment and likely would run afoul of the Dillon Rule, under which Virginia localities may exercise only those powers granted them by the General Assembly, Briglia said at the Council’s March 4 joint work session with the town’s Planning Commission.
“Not only could I not find any [legal] authority, but it would be prohibited under Virginia law,” he said.
Public meetings in Virginia are defined as having three or more elected officials and the town cannot expand that definition, Briglia said.
Council member Pasha Majdi on Jan. 29 took the unusual step of issuing a press release calling for a ban on private meetings with developers who would be submitting applications under the town’s Maple Avenue Commercial (MAC) zoning ordinance.
“I’ve been very frustrated by developers hiring high-priced attorneys who then request off-the-record meeting with me, and then developers having the chutzpah to claim that I’m biased against their application because I refuse to meet with them off the record,” he said.
Briglia had agreed with Council member Douglas Noble at a Feb. 11 work session that developers seek such confabs early in the process to gauge Council members’ initial response to proposals and avoid costly plan revisions.
“Developers want the feedback,” Briglia said then. “If [a proposal] is dead on arrival, they want to know it earlier than later.”
No one can force Town Council members to have off-the-record meetings, Briglia said at the March 4 meeting. Conversely, Council members should not give developers the impression that one elected official is speaking for the entire body, he added.
Council member Carey Sienicki said it was her duty to represent the entire community and that attempts to restrict interactions were not appropriate.
“I don’t feel I have a need to limit that in any way,” she said. “It’s a fundamental right.”
Planning Commission member Sarah Couchman said attempts to limit such meetings with potential MAC developers further would hinder what has been a contentious process.
“This is another effort to make the MAC even more difficult,” she said.
Council member Howard Springsteen said he would prefer to have any off-the-record meetings with developers at Town Hall with staff members presents.
Springsteen added that one developer pushing a non-MAC project a few years ago had threatened the Council with consequences in another commercial area if that initiative were not approved.
“People do this all the time,” he said. “This guy is a pain.”
Noble offered a different take.
“This is how the big-boy game is played,” he said. “Say ‘no.’ That’s OK.”
Council member Linda Colbert also urged colleagues to stand up to any such pressure.
“It’s up to all of us to hold ourselves to a standard and not succumb to a threat,” she said.
After nearly a half-hour of discussion on the topic, Council members agreed not to give town staff any directives on the matter.