CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (WVIR) - Albemarle County will have to replace three members of its Economic Development Authority (EDA), including the chairman, after sudden resignations on July 21 in protest of a new financial disclosure mandate.
The mandate was adopted as a result of a multi-million dollar embezzlement scandal in Warren County uncovered in 2019. A new law passed unanimously in the General Assembly earlier this year mandates that all members of similar authorities state-wide file a statement of economic interest every year. The deadline for the first statement is August 1. That led Authority Chair W. Rod Gentry, and members David Mellon and James Atkinson to resign from the board at this month’s meeting, pushing back on the new mandate’s necessity.
“We have a liaison Diantha McKeel sits on the EDA as a liaison to the board, so everything is very public,” Gentry explained. “We don’t even control the checkbook, we have that in Finance Department, which I think is exactly as it should be.”
The law would increase the amount of disclosure required by members of EDAs around the state. Previously, they were required to complete a two-page long Financial Disclosure Statement, outlining employment, business interest, and real estate holdings. Now, authority members are required to complete a 25-page Statement of Economic Interest covering personal debt, securities, gifts, and more. It is the same kind of form filled out by the Governor and other executive branch members.
“The Statement of Economic Interests form is straightforward. Hundreds of state and local elected officials all across Virginia fill it out every year. EDA members may not be elected, but they still have important discretion over how the county invests in businesses,” 57th District Delegate Sally Hudson said in a statement. “It seems fair to ask them to disclose their financial interests just like county board members. Upfront disclosure is a more consistent way to reduce potential conflicts of interest than relying on voluntary recusal should a conflict arise.”
That information being accessible to the public through the Freedom of Information Act, gave Gentry serious pause.
“The internet trolls, who look for things like that, certainly would have the ability to have a field day with that,” he said.
Public Policy Analyst Neil Williamson says he fears that the increased disclosures will only serve to reduce the number and quality of applicants to the Authority in the future.
“Having people who are willing to step forward and serve is critical to making the checks and balances work,” he explained. “This makes it much more difficult to have quality people with the backgrounds, we’re looking for serve on the EDA.”
The county pushes back on that idea, and says they are anticipating filling the spots in the weeks to come, despite the new requirements.
“Every individual has to make that choice to look at what are the requirements of serving and, is that a good fit for, for what you’re seeking to do to serve your community,” Albemarle County Communications Director Emily Kilroy said.
Gentry says that the resigning members all hope that some common ground can be found by the general assembly in the future, like having the statements on file with the commonwealth’s attorney but not directly available to the public via FOIA.