The fuzzy ethical domain of a County Board member

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As the heat gets turned up on Dorsey’s fate, I wonder if the other members are in a position to comment on integrity, , or recusing themselves from critical conversations. Let’s take as an example.

Most people know Erik through his much-referenced home maintenance business, Clarendon Home Services. Positioned as a small family business, Erik made the case that he was the right candidate for the County Board because his experience in Arlington as a business owner and planning commission chair made him better able to find innovative solutions.  His campaign page outlines a desire to improve services and support comprehensive planning to include schools and transportation.

Notably missing from Erik’s campaign page or published bios is his other company, Off-Trail Homes LCC. Incorporated in October 2016 and dissolved in October 2019, Off-Trail Homes was a residential building company. Off-Trail Homes, owned by Erik Gutshall, purchased 300 N. Jefferson Street, in October 2016 from fellow Planning Commission member Steve Cole for $445K and built a house on it, which sold for $1.45 million in November 2018.

While Dorsey’s behavior leaves much to be desired, there are no rules governing the decision. It is purely an ethical decision for Dorsey. The county citizens wait to see if their prized candidate, the one they voted in based on his good decision-making skills and strong financial fundamentals, who can’t afford to live on the County Board salary, who lied about paying back a contribution, and who lost Arlington a valuable seat on a regional board, will make the right decision and step down.

Likewise, Erik Gutshall has an ethical decision to make. He might want to think about his own behavior, reflect on the optics of his decisions, and stop with the critiquing. How does one sit on a planning commission and then the county board talking about housing policy and simultaneously own a development firm that he never talks about. Is it unethical to take an affordable property, make it unaffordable, and gross a million dollars on it and yet be championing affordable housing? Is it coincidence that the board has recently amended their definition of missing middle from affordable housing to a range of housing types?

At a time where is dominating the Arlington conversation – economic development, infrastructure pressures, tax leniencies and more – I believe our community has a right to know the personal interests that our Arlington County Board and County Staff have in or any of the associated firms. Do they own stock? Are they on an advisory board? Do they own property that these companies seek to purchase?

Being a Dillon Rule state, Arlington must stay within the ethical guidelines of Virginia. Notably, Arlington has pushed the state for more present-day guidelines including compelling the General Assembly to pass a law enabling Arlington to hire an independent auditor or the ability to ban smoking in an Arlington owned space. Looking at these examples, they hardly seemed provocative, but at the time they were important to meet the progressive culture and beliefs of the Arlington electorate. It’s now time for Arlington again to push on ethics reform where the General Assembly has been noticeably lame as Nicole Merlene highlighted in her February 13 article.

Both Dorsey’s and Gutshall’s behaviors are a call for Arlington to adopt the strictest possible ethics rules that would be consistent with Arlington’s authority to enact such ethics rules under the Dillon Rule. Arlington must have the will to say that we believe that transparency is the first measure of building an inclusive, healthy community.

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