Dons fix our election process: Its not broken!
Alexandrias Mayor and City Council will soon make a decision which will have a profound impact on how our community is governed, and whether we the people will continue to have any effective voice in that process. Council will vote May 13 on whether to move the election of our Mayor, Council and School Board from May to November. (Technically, Councils vote will be on whether to put the question to a referendum this November. But asking the voters in a Presidential election whether they would also like to select our Mayor and Council while they are at it simply yields a foregone conclusion.)
The active engagement of our citizens in the governmental and electoral processes of our city is a hallmark of our public life. It is central to what makes ours a great city, a real community, and a government of the people, by the people, and for the people.
The argued benefit of moving our municipal election to November is that it would increase the number of people who vote in that election. That would almost certainly be the superficial result. But the unintended consequences of such a move could do grievous harm to the quality, intensity and importance of real and meaningful public participation in our public life. We might strengthen the appearance of government by the people, but in fact do critical damage to the reality of that ideal in Alexandria.
More than 15,000 citizens typically vote in our city elections in May. If the election were shifted to November, that number would probably increase significantly, at least in years in which a presidential or gubernatorial election headed the ballot. But would that mean that the quality and importance of citizen participation in Alexandria government has increased proportionately, virtually overnight? Certainly not, and perhaps quite the contrary. It would simply reflect the reality that many more people vote in national and statewide than in local elections, and that having come out to do so, many of those additional voters might vote also for the local offices if they were included on the same ballot.
The Councilmembers advocating the shift argue that it would increase voter turnoutbut that is very unlikely. Eligible voters who ever turn out for any election (including all those who ordinarily vote in our local elections) probably vote in Presidential elections already: it is unlikely that any additional voters would be motivated to turn out by the addition of local offices to the ballot.
The sheer number of votes cast for local offices on election day is but one measure of the significance and importance of public participation, and by itself not remotely the most important. The value of our public participation in Alexandria is measured also by the engagement of citizens in our political campaigns, both as volunteers and as contributors; by the openness of our process to new candidates, representing new energy and fresh ideas, in both parties; and by campaigns featuring robust debate and competitive candidates. It is measured by the engagement of parents and citizens representing a broad range of opinions and a shared commitment to our children, in our nonpartisan School Board elections. It is measured by active participation in the public policy debate once t he government has been elected, at public hearings and in other contacts with our elected representatives, both through our civic associations, community groups, and individually. And it is measured, perhaps most importantly, by the focus of public attention on the Alexandria candidates, issues and policy alternatives during our city election campaignsthe sort of concentrated attention which engages most of our citizens in that discussion through local media coverage, candidate forums, and family and neighborhood discussionswhether all of them actually turn out to vote on election day or not.
By all of these measures, the quality and importance of public participation in the choice of our local government would be drastically reduced by shifting our municipal elections to November.
In Virginia, election of one or more national or statewide offices heads the ballot every November. With a closely contested presidential, senatorial or gubernatorial election heading the ticket, the ability of city council or school board candidates to attract campaign volunteers would be seriously impaired. Contributions would flow first to the highly sophisticated national and state fundraising campaigns, leaving little for the local candidates. Local candidates, especially new candidates, and especially school board candidates, would find it virtually impossible to get their message heard amidst the torrent of communications about the national and state campaigns, and prohibitively expensive to do so. Which contest will the media , and the voters, concentrate on: McCain vs. Clinton or Obama for President? Gilmore vs. Warner for Senate? McDonnell vs. Moran for Governor? Or whether Pepper or Krupicka gets the most votes for Alexandria Council and thus becomes Vice Mayor?
Probably the single most important determinant in whether or not people vote in an election is how important they think it is to them to do so. They will vote if they believe, first, that the outcome of the election is important to their interest and quality of life, and second, that their vote may be important in determining the outcome. If its important, they will vote; if not, they wont.
Why dont more people vote in May? Probably because the contests are not very competitive. Its no accident that more than twice as many people voted in Februarys Presidential primary as in the last City electionbecause the races were important, and vigorously contested. Switching our local election from May to November would make it less competitive, not more, depressing the publics interest in the outcome even more.
Conducting our city elections all by themselves, in May, tells our voters that this is the most important election they should follow and participate in as citizens of Alexandria, and in which they can have the most important impact. Shifting the election from May to November shifts it from the most important election to the least, from the top of the ticket to the bottom.
The City Council should not jeopardize our rich tradition of citizen government in Alexandria by moving the election to November.
Michael E. Hobbs, Alexandria
(Mr. Hobbs served as Alexandria Republican Committee Chair from 1998-2000; two-time president of the Old Town Civic Association; as a board member and officer of Agenda:Alexandria; and is current co-chair of the Alexandria Federation of Civic Associations.)
Remembering Frances Ellen Pickering
Seeing the tribute in The Alexandria Times and those by her family and friends at her services last week brought back many memories of Ellen Pickering and our service together on the Alexandria City Council from 1976 to 1979.
Ellen described her decision to run as an independent from a last minute draft by her friends, and included in her campaign ads the slogan You can add quality to Council. I am quoted in the press reports on election night that the most interesting result was the phenomenon of Ellen Pickering.
Nominally (I think) a Democrat, she was never a partisan. The issues she cared about and which defined her both before and during her Council tenure cut across party lines.
In addition to outspoken concerns for preserving open space, more parks and saving trees, Ellen Pickering expressed a strong and personal concern for the plight of the homeowner facing with huge increases in assessments and high mortgage payments with 10 or 11 percent interest rates, and for the less affluent, especially poor children.
Whether it was the Torpedo Plant (she wanted it demolished for a park), Metro (she correctly worried about its impact on development in Alexandria), o
pposition to the quixotic schemes to build huge office buildings in Potomac Yard and the interchange on the massive interchange proposed to connect the Parkway with the Yard, her rhetoric could scold the rest of us in a tone as a cross between an old testament prophet and your mother telling you to eat your vegetables.
She took pains to separate her views on an issue from the persons or group advancing it, and was always a polite and gracious person.
Like Arnold Palmer, she had her army, a group of dedicated citizens from all over the City who she could marshal to oppose projects, public and private,that in her view compromised values important to her. Particular scorn was heaped on projects advanced by the then Director of Transportation, Dayton Cook. She was resistive to the argument that some particular projects was justified simply because would add revenue and broaden the Citys tax base. That was not her idea of progress.
Even though she did not prevail on many of her issues, such as the Torpedo Plant, her views had a material impact on the final product.
Ellen Pickering sat to my right for three years and we enjoyed each others company. We had only one serious argument, the completion of Eisenhower Avenue though what is now Cameron Run Park. The road had been built at both ends and needed only this stretch to close the gap. Ellen was opposed to this, as were a number of citizens; the rest of us wanted to finish the four-lanes.
After some debate, we got her to support doing only two lanes through the Park. A later Council put the missing two lanes back, but if you look carefully at the pavement you can see Ellen Pickering at work right next to the lake named after her nemesis, Dayton Cook.
I last spoke with Ellen Pickering for the last time in the Council Chamber in the Fall of 2007; just a couple of old pols watching our successors at work. She turned to me and said I dont think they care what I say any more. I doubt that is true; as Mayor Euille said, She dedicated her life to the City.
And we are all grateful for that.
Robert L. Calhoun, Alexandria
Mr. Calhoun is a former member of City Council
HOPE for Alexandrias mentally ill
Stigma, the stereotyping and labeling that characterizes others in unfair and hurtful ways, affects many groups of people. But how many of us realize that the way we talk about and treat people with mental illness can have a direct impact on their ability to recover?
A groundbreaking World Health Organization (WHO) study of schizophrenia found that persons with this mental illness in developing countries fare better than those in developed countries, such as the United States — a surprising finding, given the dramatic advances made in the treatment of mental illness in developed countries. The reason, it turns out, is simple: the developing countries provide social support to their community members in need.
According to the Presidents Freedom Commission on Mental Illness, the stigma of mental illness in the United States is the primary obstacle preventing Americans with mental illness from getting care. May is Mental Health Month, a time that our community should begin taking concrete steps to address this problem.
Schizophrenia, depression, bipolar disorder and a range of other mental disorders affect one in five Americans, according to the U.S. Surgeon General.
Thats about 27,600 people in Alexandria (20% of our population of 138,000). Alexandria youth are especially vulnerable.
In a Youth Risk Behavior Survey of more than 2,000 students last year at Minnie Howard Ninth Grade Center and T.C. Williams High School, 36% of the girls and 20% of the boys reported having sad or hopeless feelings for more than two weeks in a row in the last 12 months, resulting in their discontinuing usual activities. Of these students, 38% of the girls and 20% of the boys reported that they had considered suicide. At the Middle School levels, 30% of 613 girls and 15% of 569 boys surveyed reported that they had seriously considered suicide. (Alexandria Youth Risk Behavior Survey: Final Report, February 2008)
But we know that the stigma surrounding mental illness keeps many Alexandrians young and old alike – from seeking care and treatment which, if started in the early stages of the disease, can mean the difference between recovery and long-term illness.
The Partnership for a Healthier Alexandrias Mental Health Anti-Stigma HOPE Campaign urges all Alexandrians to: Help fight the stigma of mental illness, Offer support to a friend in need, Promote respect. Educate.
Mental illness is a brain disease.
Another step we can take as individuals is to avoid stigmatizing language. Finally, please join us at two major community events this month in Alexandria
Mary Riley, Alexandria
Riley is chair of the Alexandria Community Services Board