RICHMOND — Arlington County stands to lose $100,000 in road-maintenance funds as reimbursement — or, some would argue, punishment — for a contentious environmental lawsuit county officials filed against the state and the federal government.
House Speaker William J. Howell, Stafford Republican, and state Charles J. Colgan, Prince William Democrat, introduced budget amendments that would withhold the funding and would mark the second time in as many General Assembly sessions that lawmakers in Richmond have targeted the county in response to the lawsuit.
The dispute began when Arlington sued in federal court in August 2009 to block proposed High-Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes along Interstate 395, arguing that the federal government and the state did not meet requirements for an exemption that allowed the project to go forward without a full public-health analysis and public review. The lawsuit also argued that the project would worsen air quality in the construction area and disparately impact low-income and minority communities.
Many legislators in Richmond decried the legal action as frivolous, but perhaps its most controversial aspect was that it personally named several individuals, including then-state Transportation Secretary Pierce Homer, who remained a defendant even after he left office in early 2010.
“It is the belief of the commonwealth that it is inappropriate for Arlington County to sue the former secretary in his personal capacity, and that this error was compounded when it failed to dismiss him from the suit when he left office,” the House budget amendment reads.
Federal Highway Administration (FHA) program manager Edward Sundra was added to the lawsuit in 2010, becoming the fourth individual charged with “blatant and intentional” neglect of anti-discrimination laws, along with Mr. Homer, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and FHA Administrator Victor Mendez.
The state abandoned efforts to build the project on Interstate 395 in February 2011, and Arlington subsequently dropped the lawsuit. Last July, Mr. Homer was denied repayment of his attorneys’ fees after arguing that he deserved them as a “prevailing party” in the lawsuit.
The legal action strained the county’s relations with Richmond, where many were outraged that individuals, including a career civil service employee, had to defend themselves against charges of civil rights violations for approving the construction project.
The House during the recent legislative session passed its version of the budget with the amendment intact, but the Senate has not passed its budget or the House plan. It remains to be seen whether the amendment will remain when lawmakers gather in special session to craft a spending plan after adjourning without passing a budget.
Arlington officials say the amendment is punitive.
“There’s a lot of feeling among people that Arlington continuing that lawsuit, and especially against individuals … was an abuse of its authority, and this is designed to punish Arlington for having continued it,” said Delegate Robert H. Brink, Arlington Democrat.
Last year, Delegate Timothy D. Hugo helped kill a bill to extend the sunset date of an additional 0.25 percent on a hotel tax that would have generated an estimated $3 million for Arlington County through 2015.
The Fairfax Republican, citing the HOT lanes controversy, said that if the county had a million dollars to spend on a lawsuit, then it didn’t need the money that would come from the tax.
The measure was killed, and the county was ultimately billed more than $2 million for the lawsuit.
Mr. Brink agreed that the lawsuit should not have continued to include Mr. Pierce in his personal capacity, but that items such as this year’s budget amendments were unnecessary.
“I made clear last year that I thought that the suit probably shouldn’t have gone against individuals,” he said. “I don’t think that punishing the county as a whole for an action that the county took in good faith defending the rights of its citizens — I don’t think that that’s the proper way to go.”