Can county officials remain unbiased for referendum vote?

The biggest chunk of the bond referendum—$15.2 million—will pay for a second-story addition and modernization of Woodbrook Elementary School. Staff photo The biggest chunk of the bond referendum—$15.2 million—will pay for a second-story addition and modernization of Woodbrook Elementary School. Staff photo

The Albemarle County Board of Supervisors voted 4-2 July 6 to hold a $35 million bond referendum for school improvements in November, and some locals think county officials will not be able to educate the public about the new ballot item without advocating for it.

Virginia Code allows local governments to clarify a referendum, but insists they must remain neutral in their explanation. Former school board member Gary Grant says county officials may have already slipped up.

“A couple supervisors, in my opinion, have been advocating,” Grant says. “When, in my opinion, they shouldn’t be.”

He notes that Diantha McKeel, the supe who doubles as vice-chair of the board, said at the June 1 BOS meeting that it’s going to fall onto “the school system and the school board to get out to the community and really fight for [the referendum] and explain these projects.” She added, “What I’m hearing is the details can still be explained very clearly at the polling sites.”

Details McKeel referred to would denote specifically what the $35 million bond referendum will go toward—if it passes.

The biggest chunk—$15.2 million—will pay for a two-story addition and modernization of Woodbrook Elementary School, with $10.9 million proposed for learning space modernization across all schools, $6 million slated for a Western Albemarle High School addition and $2.9 million for school security improvements.

At the June 1 meeting, BOS chair Liz Palmer wanted to hang “great big things that you can read from a distance”—posters—inside the polling places to break down the $35 million for voters.

According to Grant, a former reporter at WINA and The Observer who talked with local Virginia Electoral Board member Clara Belle Wheeler, the Electoral Board will publish the wording of the referendum exactly as it appears on the ballot on posters and explanatory materials distributed inside the voting precinct. In her e-mail to Grant, Wheeler says, “No further explanation of any referendum is permitted.” Wheeler did not respond to an interview request.

Jake Washburne, with the county’s registrar of voters, says the code does allow additional explanatory information, however.

“They can’t say, ‘Rah rah rah, vote for this,’” Washburne says, but the governing body may provide
a neutral explanation of each referendum question in 500 words or less.

In his blog, Whatever Albemarle, Grant questions if, to be fair, supervisors will instruct staff to also hang “equally large ‘educational’ charts showing what the tax increase will be if a $35 million referendum passes” inside polling places. Not that he’s against the capital improvement projects, he says, as long as Virginia law is adhered to.

County attorney Greg Kamptner, who will write the question that appears on the ballot, did not respond to an interview request. He has, however, provided to county officials written legal guidance, which says the BOS may pass a resolution in support of or opposition to the referendum. Advocacy prohibitions also do not apply to county officials acting in their individual capacities, he says, or when they’re “off the clock,” Lee Catlin, assistant county executive for community relations, told Charlottesville Tomorrow.

Says Grant, “It’s going to be hard to police that.”

Corrected July 14 at 10:23 to reflect that the proposed addition onto Woodbrook Elementary School will be two stories.

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