Happy holidays from the Alexandria City Council! As we close out 2016 and think about our resolutions for 2017, let’s look back on the important civic issues our Council chose to prioritize this week.
On Tuesday evening, December 13th , two members of Council, Mayor Allison Silberberg and Councilwoman Del Pepper, nearly derailed a citywide Arts Master Plan for the personal benefit of Torpedo Factory artists by attempting to insert a sentence regarding the facility’s future governance. Nevermind that a public engagement process is planned for 2017 so the entire Alexandria community may weigh in on appropriate ways to reinvigorate the city facility with the most untapped potential. Nevermind that it’s a citywide arts plan that focuses on more just the Torpedo Factory and offers creative ways to bring art to all corners of Alexandria. Thankfully on Saturday, the rest of the Council objected and adopted the Arts Commission’s original recommendation, but not before wasting nearly two hours over two days on the issue.
Also on Tuesday, December 13th, the full Council also voted unanimously to empower a working group to review whether the City should institute a veterans commission. Nevermind that the City has 70+ commissions already. Nevermind that veterans issues, per se, are not a primary function of local government, and the rationale for the proposed commission has yet to be made. Nevermind that even as staff resources are thin and city budgets are tight, the Mayor proclaimed that it would be “an honor” for overworked city employees to staff a new committee of marginal value.
During a cavalcade of public speeches at Saturday’s public hearing, Mayor Silberberg personally responded to nearly every speaker during the “open mic” portion of the meeting, delaying debate on the business at hand during a meeting twice delayed because of inclement weather. Council spent more than hour and a half (rather than the allotted half hour) on pop-up items not even on the agenda, including items that will soon be addressed at other meetings—a Taco Bell, traffic issues, Torpedo Factory governance, and on and on.
Council dawdled on a case to grant a special use permit for a new diner on Duke Street because of an adjacent church with complaints about parking—a case that by all measures, should have been handled administratively by staff months ago. As the discussion started, it seemed Council was willing to let the church have its way—before it even heard from the restaurant. They flirted with requiring the restaurant to remain closed on Sunday mornings. The flirted with traffic calming. They flirted with deferring the application for the neighbors to reconcile their differences, even though a similar deferral by the Planning Commission a month ago failed to achieve anything meaningful. After more than an hour of hearing and debate, Council basically adopted the staff recommendation, but not before asking the applicant to reduce its hours of operation from 5:30 a.m. to 6:00 a.m., in the “spirit of the holidays,” as the Mayor put it. It’s more Scrooge than Santa from the City Council for a small business trying to make a go of it.
To be fair, Saturday’s hearing had its highlights: approval for new affordable housing and a homeless shelter at the Carpenter’s Shelter site, and the go-ahead for a new Patrick Henry K-8 school. Yet even in adopting measures our community should be proud of, Council dithered over the sufficiency of parking at the Patrick Henry site (which required approval to build more parking than the city code requires).
As Council begins 2017, we can only hope that members will focus their precious time and attention on issues that matter. Saturday public hearings should not be allowed to be commandeered by any crowd with an axe to grind. Keep the public comment, but move it to the end of the agenda. And if the Mayor doesn’t have the good sense to avoid extended colloquy with each and every speaker instead of simply moving on, the other members of Council should have the courage to speak out and keep meetings on track.
More importantly, Council must redouble its efforts to focus on the major issues. Too much time is wasted on pet issues like King Street Christmas lights and red brick architecture, while our schools burst at the seams with new students, homicides reach a 9-year high, and budgets suffer from an imbalanced tax base. Given the quality and competence of City staff, Council must not wallow in the finer details of development proposals better left to their expert advisors. A key characteristic of leadership is trusting when to rely on the recommendations of others. Council would be wise to consider this, to free themselves from the minutia, and focus on the bigger picture. And we would be wise to help them, by resolving ourselves to demand such focus.
For 2017, here’s hoping Council—led by Mayor Silberberg, with the urging of all of her colleagues—will be resolved to focus more on the City’s major challenges, and less on the small stuff.
In other words, more forest, and less tree canopy.
– P.C. Publius
December 20, 2016