(Updated at 2:15 p.m.) Following a heated debate, last night the Arlington County Board adopted guidelines allowing the county to enter into public-private partnerships for transportation projects like the planned Crystal City streetcar.
The Board spent hours discussing and hearing testimony about the Virginia Public-Private Transportation Act of 1995 (PPTA) before ultimately adopting the guidelines in a 4-1 vote. Board member Libby Garvey was the lone dissenter, raising numerous questions about the PPTA and its safeguards. She reiterated previous statements she made about wishing for more time to examine the implications of adopting the guidelines.
“This is an incredibly complex legal document here and I don’t know that we should be doing it on the fly,” Garvey said.
“We’re not doing it on the fly,” countered Board Chair Mary Hynes. “You’ve had it since November 9. We’ve all spent time on it and have been briefed on it.”
Last week, Garvey brought up a concern regarding Board member Chris Zimmerman’s participation in the PPTA vote, claiming it was a conflict of interest due to his consulting work with AECOM, a large construction, design and transportation conglomerate. Arlington County Attorney Stephen MacIsaac informed the Board there was no conflict of interest, and the three other Board members spoke out on Saturday (December 8) against Garvey’s request for Zimmerman to recuse himself from the vote.
Audrey Clement, who ran for County Board as a Green Party member, spoke to the Board in support of Zimmerman recusing himself.
“The matter before the Board tonight involves no monetary transaction. Nevertheless, Mr. Zimmerman may well have the appearance of a conflict of interest because his employer, or client, will undoubtedly seek a contract in the future,” said Clement. “The guidance to be adopted by the county tonight will be the vehicle by which it secures the county’s business. Therefore, I think Mr. Zimmerman, and I agree with Libby Garvey on this point, ought to recuse himself from tonight’s vote.”
Clement further suggested that the county’s desire to adopt the PPTA indicates it doesn’t have enough other funding to construct the streetcar without help from the private sector.
Current state senator and former Board member Barbara Favola also took to the podium. She congratulated the Board for considering the guidelines.
“I see no reason why you would not pursue this additional tool,” said Favola. “Of course, you have to work at it, you have to make it work for you. You have to remember your job, you have to remember that you are responsible for being transparent. But I have confidence that you will do that.”
Garvey, who has previously expressed reservations regarding the streetcar project, said she believed Monday’s vote brings the county one step closer to implementing the streetcar plan.
“If we vote today we are one vote away from awarding the contract for the streetcar,” Garvey said.
She was reminded that the vote was about adopting guidelines, not making a decision about the streetcar construction.
“I would respectfully disagree with your interpretation, Mrs. Garvey, of what this Board has just talked about,” said Hynes.
Zimmerman largely refrained from participating in the debate, only offering a statement immediately before the vote. He noted his disclosure of his consulting work in order to avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest, and re-stated the County Attorney’s view on the matter.
“I take very seriously my obligation to maintain the highest ethical standards, to which I have held myself since I took office,” said Zimmerman. “I have been advised in consultation with the County Attorney that I do not have a conflict of interest arising out of my professional work that would require me to make a formal disclosure or would disqualify me from participating in the consideration of the PPTA guidelines now before the Board.”
The guidelines will go into effect on April 1, 2013. Until that time, the county will work on putting in place the necessary processes and resources for considering proposals under the PPTA.