To the editor:
On September 12, five West End civic associations hosted a candidate forum focused on issues confronting the city’s west side that was attended by all of the candidates running for Alexandria City Council. These same civic associations invited the mayoral candidates to participate in a similar forum, but as Mayor Bill Euille’s campaign staff explained, the incumbent is way too busy to spend an evening with West End voters.
A review of comments during the forum, especially from the four past and present city councilors who voted for Washington Headquarters Services at Mark Center — Tim Lovain, Del Pepper, Paul Smedberg and Justin Wilson — indicates why our elected officials would want to hide from West End voters. The forum revealed that no city councilor has any idea what happened or what to do next:
• Lovain said he advocated for the Victory Center — the other site in Alexandria under consideration — and should not have taken staff’s advice.
• Pepper repeated what she has said publicly — that no one wanted WHS at Mark Center.
• Smedberg said the decision should not have been made in closed sessions.
• Wilson said they decided the issue based on erroneous data.
These responses were disturbing and do not augur well for the future. Since 2008, elected officials have repeatedly assured residents that WHS was no big deal. City Hall enthusiastically supported the site in writing. Once it became obvious that the project was a very big deal and a planning disaster, city councilors tried to distance themselves from the decision, saying they really opposed it all along. While the mayor gave gushing endorsements of the project when Mark Center was selected, Euille now asks us to forget about his support.
The 2011 Department of Defense inspector general‘s reports and other documents from the time tell a very different story from that offered by City Hall. It tells a story of city officials working with the developer and Army to get the building at Mark Center, of city officials arguing with the state Transportation Department when Richmond raised valid and serious concerns about the site. It tells a story of city officials informing the inspector general — for its 2011 report — that they stood by their original enthusiastic endorsement of the site, despite public proclamations to the contrary.
It also tells a story of finding no one in Alexandria raising any questions about this decision despite officials’ retroactive opposition to WHS. It tells a story of Fairfax County explaining why the Mark Center site was insane and Alexandria officials’ silence. It tells a story of one of the fastest-awarded $1 billion contracts in federal government history. It tells a story of the Army refusing to do further analysis because city officials thought the Pentagon annex would bring no significant impact to local roads — after a few minor improvements.
The stories told at the candidate forum two weeks ago were just as disturbing. City staff is to blame; the Army is to blame; VDOT is to blame; Fairfax is to blame; and city councilors were weak and helpless. When the decision was made, they were asleep at the switch and apparently at the mercy of malevolent forces.
As for the future, the four city councilors’ position is that there is nothing they could have done or can do to change the outcome. Why this recommends them for another term is never explained. City Councilor Frank Fannon — as well as challengers Bob Wood and Allison Silberberg — correctly observed that the decisions were made in a backroom and electing the same crowd and expecting different results makes no sense.
The time has come for city officials to stop treating the West End as a cash cow. The mayor and two city councilors who survived the last election — Pepper and Smedberg — also enthusiastically supported the city’s Beauregard corridor redevelopment plan that will triple the density around Mark Center. They rushed to pass this unfinished plan over the objections of local residents without any explanation for the haste or appreciation of what it will cost the taxpayers. Then again, city officials might be considering returning the West End to Fairfax County. By doing so, the complaints about the painting of Alexandria (which excludes the West End) hanging in city council chambers certainly would cease.
– Joe Fischer, Joseph Gerard, Mac Olsen and Frank Putzu,