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County Attorney: Zimmerman's Employment Does Not Create Conflict

Opinion based on 'notoriously complex' state law.

Arlington County Board member Chris Zimmerman's consulting job with a subsidiary of a global company that works with the county does not constitute to a conflict of interest or appearance of conflict, according to County Attorney Stephen MacIssac.

MacIssac put the opinion in a memo responding to questions raised this week by Arlington County Board member Libby Garvey.

Thursday, Garvey released a series of emails in which she expressed concern over the county adopting guidelines based on the state's Public-Private Transportation Act, or PPTA, which the board will decide following a public hearing Monday. Specifically, Garvey is concerned with the lack of public safeguards in the law and with Zimmerman's involvement in the process.

Adoption of the new guidelines would allow the county to enter into various public-private partnerships and essentially help finance the $250 million streetcar project.

"…To suggest that Mr. Zimmerman's employment relationship gives rise to the appearance of a conflict that precludes him from voting on the PPTA guidelines creates an untenable ethical standard that is neither required … nor practicable in managing the conduct of Board members as they transact County business," MacIssac's memo states.

In October, Zimmerman announced to his colleagues that he had begun consulting with AECOM's Canada East Region — work that would be limited to the province of Quebec.

AECOM is a global company that has worked with Arlington County on numerous projects, including some involved with the Columbia Pike streetcar — of which Zimmerman is a chief proponent — and was one of the companies to brief the board on best practices regarding public-private partnerships last month.

Zimmerman has said the reason he notified the board and senior county management of his employment was that in case a conflict or appearance of conflict did arise, he would recuse himself. So far, he said this week, that hasn't happened.

MacIssac describes AECOM Canada East as a "sister subsidiary" of AECOM.

The county attorney's opinion is based on his interpretation of Virginia's Conflict of Interests Act, which he describes as "notoriously complex." Generally, MacIssac states, it prohibits "personal interests" in "transactions" coming before the board and in contracts with the county.

Zimmerman has no financial interest in the matter of the procurement guidelines, MacIssac states. To suggest anything beyond that, as Garvey has, is speculation.

"… Claiming an appearance of impropriety based on future, speculated events establishes a rule that is not grounded in any well reasoned principle, and subjects Board members to allegations of unethical behavior based upon no discernible rule. While individual Board members are free to make their own personal decisions about ethical issues, I would caution against the County Board creating expectations about how their fellow Board members should behave in circumstances like those involving Mr. Zimmerman," MacIssac concluded.

Change Agent December 08, 2012 at 08:07 PM
How many other County Board members have *ever* been employees of corporations that hold contracts to conduct paid work for Arlington County? Since the County Attorney is a direct employee of the Arlington County Board, does he not have a conflict of interest in issuing any opinion? When a real or apparent conflict of interest exists, the subject individual should recuse himself from all discussion of the matter not just the voting. Mr. Zimmerman should either terminate all financial ties with AECOM or resign from the County Board.
Michael Doan December 10, 2012 at 01:15 PM
How could Zimmerman's ties with AECOM NOT be a conflict of interest?
Peter December 10, 2012 at 05:15 PM
Seen on another blog: AECOM's corporate offices in Montreal were raided by Quebec provincial anti-corruption police on November 6th. Also seen on another blog: numerous photos and links to videos about state-of-the-art bus rapid transit.

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