COURTHOUSE – John Atkinson, the city treasurer, is following what was a self-funded anti-light rail advertising campaign in local newspapers with the formation of a political action committee, or PAC, focused upon influencing the City Council.
Atkinson on Monday, July 13, said recent ads in The Beacon, a Beach-focused tabloid published as part of The Virginian-Pilot, and The Independent News led to an outpouring of support from members of the community. This included thousands of people who responded to an appeal to write “no” on the ad and mail it in. According to Atkinson, reached by phone, the ad also brought one “yes” respondent.
Atkinson purchased a second advertisement in The Independent News this month discussing his plans for the effort, called No Light Rail. The ad again appeals for money to aid the effort, and Atkinson in an interview said nearly $20,000 in contributions have been delivered to him.
“I’m stunned by the amount of money that’s come in,” he said, discussing contributions from hundreds of people.
“I think the response dictates that I pick up the ball and run with it,” he added.
Prior to Atkinson announcing the PAC, state election officials told The Independent News that Atkinson may not need to form a PAC because the effort did not seem poised to sway a particular election. Atkinson said he has different advice, and he was dealing with more money than anticipated.
“Money has been coming in every day,” he said. “It’s still coming in.”
He said his effort may fund what might be considered an exit poll advisory “referendum” on light rail in November. Supporters might pulse registered voters leaving the polls, and the result would be forwarded to the City Council. He expects that voters will reject this, and it will signal to the City Council that light rail may cost them politically.
Among other things, the formation of a PAC may allow citizens to know some of the contributers to Atkinson’s effort. PACs in Virginia file quarterly reports and must disclose the identities of contributors who give more than $100.
PACs are hardly rare, but this involves a constitutional officer seeking to influence policy actions by members of the City Council. The effort addresses those members of the council who supported moving forward with efforts to further study and prepare for extending light rail from Newtown Road to Town Center. The City Council also set aside $20 million toward the project.
Atkinson said his effort is separate from his elected office. As a citizen, he said, he opposes the impact of funding light rail, namely the property tax hike included in the city’s spending plan.
City Councilmember Barbara Henley, who has supported city efforts to explore and prepare for light rail, said she had not experienced a situation quite like this one.
“Obviously, he feels very strongly about the issue,” Henley, who represents the Princess Anne District, said Tuesday, July 14.
“I certainly respect his right to disagree with us,” she said. “There’s so much more to it than he’s portrayed.”
She said there has been a great deal of focus on how ridership may be initially, but light rail discussions now are part of long range planning and development.
Additionally, Henley said she is concerned that the “referendum” Atkinson has discussed may confuse voters, since there already was a referendum about exploring light rail.
“I kind of hate to see the process short circuited,” she said.
Mayor Will Sessoms learned about the PAC from a reporter.
“Good for him,” Sessoms said.
“I just wish everyone would settle down and wait for what the true costs are going to be,” the mayor added.
Sessoms also said there are long term benefits to making an investment in future transportation capabilities. Without it, 25 or 30 years down the line, he said, “our city and our region will be left out in the cold.”
Atkinson said the previous referendum was not clear direction for the city to build light rail.
“I don’t think the citizens have approved it,” he said. “We’re going to find out. It’s not a good deal. When you mess with my money, you get my attention.”