Alexandria officials explore new outreach tools

By Erich Wagner

Discussing community involvement with city affairs, Mayor Bill Euille recalled a recent email exchange with a West End resident bemoaning the lack of redevelopment in her neighborhood.

“I replied and told her that the Landmark Mall redevelopment plan was just approved out of the planning commission, and it was up for a city council public hearing for approval that coming Saturday,” he said.

Euille hopes that the city’s ongoing What’s Next Alexandria initiative will cut down on similar confusion in the future by providing residents with better information about upcoming events and hearings as well as more opportunities for community feedback.

City officials held the final community input meeting on the program Monday night, and they are asking for comments on a draft handbook for resident engagement, available on alexandriava.gov.

The plan calls for city commissions and departments to alert the community to upcoming decisions early in the process and through a variety of media, like social networking sites that allow residents to air their views in new ways.

“Not everybody feels engaged or [or they are] feeling left out through normal processes, and we decided we wanted to correct that and expand it,” Euille said. “… And it’s an opportunity to share best practices [among departments] and learn how one department is doing a fantastic job and how the other one might need to improve.”

But Frank Putzu, an occasional critic of the city as well as a member of the Seminary Hill Association, said that he attended one of the meetings and felt the tone was more focused on minimizing the impact of civic and community associations.

“I was disappointed,” Putzu said. “There is a hypocrisy to lecturing people about civility when [the city is] suing everyone who disagrees with you.”

Bill Hendrickson, president of the Del Ray Civic Association, said that although he had been unable to attend any What’s Next community meetings, he looked forward to the draft proposals.

“The issue of encouraging greater civic engagement is a challenging one, because relatively few people do get involved,” Hendrickson said. “The city has a lot of boards and commissions, and they have a rather mixed record in terms of producing much of value.”

City Councilor Paul Smedberg stressed that while the scheduled formal meetings are now over, residents should continue offering suggestions and feedback on the proposal. He said such a response is necessary for many issues with which the city grapples.

“There’s also a responsibility of residents to engage and understand what the issues are,” he said. “There’s responsibility on both sides to come together.”

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