Alexandria Government to be Probed

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The City of Alexandria government will be the subject of an inquiry by an outside party, the City Council decided Tuesday.

The inquiry comes after Norfolk Southern Corporation setup and operated a potentially dangerous ethanol transloading facility without City Councils or Mayor Bill Euilles knowledge. The facility, which transfers the highly flammable chemical from rail cars to tanker trucks, operated for seven weeks without the citys ability to adequately fight a spill or a fire should one have occurred. It sits a stones throw away from residential communities and an elementary school.

Some of the specifics of the inquiry (city officials are not calling it an investigation) are yet to be determined but much of the parameters are intact. Council voted unanimously that Vice Mayor Del Pepper and Councilman Ludwig Gaines play a major role in the probe, acting as principle liaisons to the independent third-party reviewer, according to a council memo. The two city officials are members of the Norfolk Southern Community Monitoring Group, which will advise the investigator.

Ultimately, the goal of the inquiry as well as all the other things that are going on is to make our government better, Councilman Rob Krupicka said. And if the poor communication oversight of the facility opening teaches us anything, its that accountability and openness has to be higher priorities for the City Council.

I would say were very happy, said Ingrid Sanden, President of the Cameron Station Civic Association, the group that first requested the inquiry. Its been a lot of work to get the council to this point to be really honest.

Under the agreement, Pepper and Gaines, along with the monitoring group, will develop a list of qualifications the independent reviewer must possess and recommend the scope of work that is to be covered. The liaisons will then bring it before Council for approval. Employees identities will remain confidential.

In addition to Pepper and Gaines, the monitoring group contains various community members, school representatives and city staff.  According to a memo from Councilman Paul Smedberg that was the basis for Councils deciding conversation, The inquiry should include all city departmental input related to the site and the facility, which includes numerous city staff members from a diversity of departments. However, the monitoring group will only guide the investigation select specific issues to review, develop a series of questions and frame a report to be performed by a third-party investigator yet to be named.

[The Council] seems to understand our point of view and theyve talked to their colleagues about it, Sanden said. It seems that everybodys on the same page and we welcome the fact that Del and Ludwig have been very open to having this monitoring group involved.  A very open process thats what their goal is I think here.

Weve had a little bit of a history at Cameron Station with not getting information even when weve asked for it   and that needs to stop not only in Cameron Station but all over town. Its not a communication problem. Its a systemic problem of not engaging residents who are affected by such huge issues. So were hoping that this does shake things up a little bit.

Council members seemed to agree that the inquiry must be done thoroughly yet expeditiously without a large burden to taxpayers. As of now, the Council hopes to complete the inquiry by Nov. 30, but will give the reviewer 60 days from the point of hiring to question and analyze staff members.

I appreciate the emphasis on getting this done quickly, but I think the focus should be first on getting it done thoroughly, Gaines said.  And I think thoroughly and quickly dont always match.

The decision came the same night the council heard grim revenue and budget projections from its staff, and the cost of the inquiry is still undetermined. The fiscal impact of the authorization, which was the main contention between council members, will not be decided until Pepper and Gaines confer with the monitoring group, though figures ranged from $10,000 to $25,000 during the discussion.

The city has spent about $80,000 thus far on outside consultants and other efforts toward the Norfolk Southern debacle, according to City Manager James Hartmann. The figures Council discussed could be small depending on who is hired, Hartmann said.

My only concern is, I do not want to be in a situation where a month from now you come back with a contract with an amount of money that is wholly unreasonable, Councilman Justin Wilson told Gaines, who seemed wary of nailing down an exact cost before someone is hired for the job. The money is expected to come from the contingent reserve fund, though it is up for debate until the specifics of the effort are laid out.

Whats outlined in the motion tonight, were supportive of, Sanden said. If youre going to spend any money at all you need to get a thorough investigation [or] inquiry. Otherwise youve wasted $10,000 instead of getting a really bang-up job for $20,000.

When it comes to healing the wounds in the public trust, this is a step in the right direction, Gaines said. It can be viewed in a number of different ways as a negative, as a waste of money but I think restoring the public trust is priceless because once you lose that, quite frankly, the government doesnt function.

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