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A former Fairfax County attorney is saying she was improperly dismissed from her job after winning election to the City of Fairfax council.

Nancy Fry Loftus had worked as an assistant county attorney for 17 years and was elected to the City Council in May.

The Fairfax County attorney cannot publicly comment on the case at this time because it is a personnel matter, according to county spokesman Tony Castrili.

According to Loftus and her attorney, Chap Petersen, Bobzein originally gave her his blessing to run when she approached him about the subject in February.

“I’ve lived in Fairfax City my whole life, and I felt like I wanted to do more,” Loftus said. When an incumbent council member decided not to seek re-election, she decided to run.

Loftus said she had a verbal conversation with Bobzein and “he was very enthusiastic and supportive,” she said.

On Bobzein’s recommendation, she also spoke with a deputy county attorney who specializes in personnel matters, who told her that there was a state law protecting public employees who want to run for office in Virginia.

Loftus said she followed those conversations up with an email confirming her understanding of the verbal conversation. She then got on the ballot and began campaigning during her free time.

Because of this interaction, Loftus said she felt “blinsided” when she received an email and a 30-page memo from Bobzein April 17, 19 days before the election, informing her that her job was at risk if she was elected to the city council.

“I didn’t know what to do,” Loftus said. “I felt like he had given me a terrible ultimatum.”

The memo suggested that Loftus had not informed her supervisor of her campaign and that Bobzein had just learned of it April 9, Petersen said. It also said that there would be a conflict of interest between her job as an assistant county attorney and her city council position.

Loftus and Petersen dispute the notion that there would be an inherent conflict. Loftus’ position involved tax liens, which could only arise against a county taxpayer. After the April 17 memo, she also consulted the Virginia State Bar ethics counsel, which said there would be no inherent conflict.

Further, Petersen, who is himself an attorney in private practice and a state senator, said it is very common for elected officials who are attorneys to negotiate any potential conflicts between clients and their votes as an office-holder by recusing themselves when necessary.

“It’s a very common, ordinary event in politics,” Petersen said.

Regardless of the potential conflict of interest issues, Petersen added, state law is very clear that the county cannot prevent its employees from running for office.

“If you are a local government, you can’t forbid your employees from being active in politics,” he said.

Virginia code Section 15.2-1512.2 states that employees of any locality cannot be prohibited from participating in “political activities” as long as they are out of uniform, on their own time and are not trying to use their position to solicit donations or support. Included in the definition of “political activities” it lists “becoming a political candidate.”

According to Petersen, the county has said that this means that they can’t prohibit someone from running, but that it does not apply to actually holding elective office.

“That is the most bizarre interpretation,” he said. “It doesn’t make any sense … otherwise there would be no point in having the statute.”

Petersen said he and Loftus tried to cooperate with Bobzein to come up with a way to resolve the concerns. They are still willing to negotiate but will consider whether to sue the county if the dispute cannot be resolved, Petersen said.

kschumitz@fairfaxtimes.com