BEHIND THE DAIS – Council Agrees to Outline of Independent Inquiry


The City Council agreed to terms Tuesday outlining the scope of the independent inquiry to be performed on city staff in reaction to the ethanol transfer facility that began operations in April on the West End. The Norfolk Southern facility transferred the highly flammable chemical without the knowledge of the citys nearby residents or upper echelon officials, and the publics safety was at risk for several weeks before the fire department obtained the equipment and training necessary to combat a potential spill or explosion.

According to the agreement between the Norfolk Southern Community Monitoring Group and the Committee of Inquiry, comprised of Vice Mayor Del Pepper and Councilman Ludwig Gaines, every member of the citys staff is subject to the inquiry and can be interviewed by reviewer, yet to be named. The qualifications for the reviewer were also established.

After working with the work group we were able to hammer out what we think are some very broad but very pointed qualifications that are before us for the reviewer, Gaines said.

The investigator will have about five weeks to complete the inquiry, which officials noted was an ambitious timetable but feasible based on the thousands of emails and other documents that have already been released by the city.

Realistically, [the timetable] is tight, said Ingrid Sanden, the president of the Cameron Station Civic Association who steered the inquiry movement. This just points to the fact that whoever they choose needs to be able to hit the ground running. If theres good work happening we want to see that it is allowed [to continue] even if it takes a little longer. Sanden added that the monitoring group and the civic association are happy with the outcome so far. 

The reviews scope will cover the period from June 2006, when city officials first met with Norfolk Southern, to May 15, 2008, when the city manager first informed the City Council and the mayor of Norfolk Southerns West End occupation. The reviewer will make findings regarding the city staffs actions and inactions regarding notification of City Council and the public regarding NSRCs proposed and actual use of the Van Dorn Yard as an ethanol transloading facility, including what transpired during the period to be reviewed, the people involved and the decisions that were made, according to the agreement.

The agreement has a quirky component to it, as Pepper and Gaines are prohibited from speaking unofficially to one another about the inquiry. The monitoring group has a quorum of five people, and because the two officials are part of that group, they have to give a three-day notice before planning to discuss elements of the inquiry for freedom of information reasons, Pepper said.
The reviewers final report is scheduled for completion on December 13.

New Metro Station In Transit
The feasibility of a Metro Station at Potomac Yard became clearer Tuesday when Council adopted a resolution establishing two groups that will work towards solidifying a plan and eventual implementation. 

Traditionally, one group of stakeholders and community members comprises a feasibility group, but the approach, which includes the two-pronged Potomac Yard Planning Advisory Group and the Potomac Yard Metrorail Station Feasibility Work Group, will supplement one another, officials said. The Advisory Group will focus on the traditional planning elements like density and urban amenities and the other on more technical aspects like potential ridership and financials.

Director of Planning and Zoning Faroll Hamer called the two-pronged approach unusual but the mayor and council members commended her approach as a serious move towards making the station a reality.

I think it is a smart approach, especially if we are serious about this effort truly serious about this effort, Councilman Paul Smedberg said. We needed to take a step like this to really see that it is feasible, and if so, how we are going to make this happen.

The potential Metro station would coincide with high-density development at Potomac Yard that officials hope will bring urban commerce and residential space to the area. Mayor Bill Euille, who is on the Metro Board of Directors, sees the possibility as within reach.

Metro is certainly awaiting the opportunity to collaborate and work with the city, Euille said. The ice has already been broken and so they will be assigning designated staff ASAP to begin that exercise.

Trolley Drivers Getting Friendlier?
Stephanie Brown, president of the Alexandria Convention and Visitors Association, presented a previously unveiled advertising campaign currently underway aimed at drawing tourists to the city from around the country. One of the focal points of the campaign is the new trolley system running from the King Street Metro Station to the waterfront.

But Councilman Smedberg noted that hes received some complaints about negative interactions with some of the drivers and the lack of information about the city available to newcomers. If we are advertising this we want to make sure people are being received well, he said.

Brown said there has been a pretty complete turnover of the trolley staff and that the ACVA is holding a training session for the drivers involving customer service and knowledge throughout the city.