One of the great things about being a member of the Manassas City Council is that you don’t have to follow the law. The Mayor doesn’t notice when councilmembers trample on the Code of Virginia, and as long as the action is for the benefit of some liberal cause the City Attorney Martin Crim, who is paid $200 per hour to attend council meetings and provide what passes for “legal counsel,” will compliantly look off into the distance and pretend he’s not listening. There really is no better place to be if you want to funnel taxpayer money to your own pocket.
Action Item Twelve on last Monday’s agenda involved the city gifting taxpayer money to non-governmental entities that aren’t performing work for the city. In addition to handing money over to the Hylton Center to defray their operational expenses (something we were told would never be necessary when the city took on their capital costs), the city once again decided to hand over public money to a private ballet school that competes with other dance schools in the area that don’t receive public money. Last year Manassas turned over $18,000 to the Manassas Ballet Company, but that wasn’t good enough this time around, so this year the council voted to increase that amount to $23,000.
Mayor Parrish sits on the Board of Directors for the Manassas Ballet, but since this wasn’t a tie vote he didn’t cast a vote and didn’t violate any law if you take a literal view of Virginia Code §15.2-953. Councilman Mark Wolfe is the Executive Director of the Manassas Ballet (in an unpaid capacity we’re told) but his wife Amy Wolfe is the salaried Artistic Director. Wolfe voted in favor of this gift to an entity which pays a salary to his wife. The failure to disclose a personal conflict of interest in this matter and his subsequent vote in favor of this gift violates Virginia Code § 2.2-3107, § 2.2-3112, § 2.2-3115(H) and § 2.2-3112 which govern conflicts of interest within local governmental bodies. Violations of that part of the Virginia Code are punishable as Class 1 misdemeanors, and a knowing violation could result in a person being removed from office.
§ 2.2-3122. Knowing violation of chapter constitutes malfeasance in office or employment.
Any person who knowingly violates any of the provisions of this chapter shall be guilty of malfeasance in office or employment. Upon conviction thereof, the judge or jury trying the case, in addition to any other fine or penalty provided by law, may order the forfeiture of such office or employment.
You can see the part of the meeting where this happened here, starting at the 56:52 mark and going to 1:05:36.
It boggles the mind to consider that any elected official could possibly conceive of voting on a matter in which they had a personal interest just from a personal ethics standpoint. It shouldn’t take a provision of the legal code to make an elected official realize that they might not want to vote on a matter where they get cash from the government body on which they sit. There is a provision of code however that specifically proscribes that kind of behavior, one that Wolfe is quite aware of given that he has recused himself from votes in the past, and one that a $200 an hour attorney licensed in Virginia and whose practice of law almost entirely involves giving legal council to the City of Manassas should damned well know about.
How the heck did everyone suddenly get a case of the stupids?
Perhaps it was just inconvenient to comply with the law that Monday night. Maybe most of our elected officials are just utterly incompetent and cannot spot such a huge conflict of interest. Perhaps even some space alien kidnapped the city attorney, replaced him with a simulacrum entirely unfamiliar with the Virginia Code and is now subjecting poor Martin Crum to horrific experiments. I don’t know why the law was trampled on like this, only that it was and those in attendance should have darned well known better.
What I do know however is that if this isn’t fixed in short order criminal complaints are going to be sworn out and Mark Wolfe is going to be getting a summons to appear in court. The taxpayers aren’t going to stand for this sort of chicanery.
UPDATE: Wolfe is playing a similar game in Prince William County, where he chairs the PWC Arts Council which is the county entity that doles out money to nonprofits. This came in from a reader this morning:
Note this item from the Board meeting yesterday; Item 5.D. arts grants awards. Even the arts grants panel members apparently supported a cap on grants to any single group of $50,000 to keep more money available for small and new organizations. The only group affected by the cap was Wolfe’s ballet. Staff decided to waive the cap so Peacor, et. al. could give Wolfe an extra $8,234.40. Nearly $60,000 of taxpayer money to subsidize a private dance school whose performances at the Hylton Center are attended by only a tiny fraction of the PWC population. $60,000 would hire an entry-level teacher or police officer. Instead, we continue to line Wolfe’s pockets.
UPDATE 2: The Washington Post picked up the story, revealing that the day after the vote Wolfe submitted his disclosure of an interest in the vote that he was legally required to provide prior to the vote. And that somehow makes this all better. Wolfe’s story is that because other groups were getting funded in addition to the Manassas Ballet it was OK for him to vote on a matter in which he still had a personal financial interest. Now the City Attorney is trying to figure out a way to justify what happened so this vote won’t have to be tossed out, which shockingly is taking quite a bit of time to figure out.
If there’s a question of what the law means, which Wolfe alleges in the article, there’s a venue established to decide exactly that kind of question. It’s called a court of law. Let’s have a trial.
UPDATE 3: The Manassas City Council has decided to address this by having a “do over” vote on Monday, July 8th. If only the rest of us were so lucky to just “do over” our willfully unlawful behavior.
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