OUR VIEW | Three Out, Three In

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As three City Council members leave their posts next week, they will look in retrospect at both highlights and lowlights: They planned one of the toughest and most translucent budgets in the citys history during a campaign year, but endured protests from city workers demanding higher pay and better benefits. That was before the height of the economic downturn. And some think spending can be cut further.

Mass internal miscommunication and non-communication in the government resulted in a company transporting a dangerous chemical, ethanol, near a dense neighborhood and elementary school last year, an operation that officials still say they want ousted today. The errors of city officials and city staff were apparent, at least after the fact, from an unprecedented release of information by the city to the public, creating transparency that might not have been covered by Freedom of Information Act requests alone.

The out-going Councils tenure saw scores of planning and initiatives aimed at smart growth around transit, be it the coming redevelopment of the area around Braddock Metro Station, re-energizing the Potomac Yard Metro possibility or the supposed redevelopment of the Landmark Mall area, complete with promenades for pedestrians and cohesive mass transit routes for commuters. But implementation seems to be in slow motion, especially in an economy that has left everyone and everything without much spending money.

Council reached a $34 million deal with the Mirant power plant, which is spending the money on environmental safeguards, and began the Eco-City initiative, a comprehensive plan of environmental sustainability, including Phase II of the Environmental Action Plan passed during their last legislative session. But an even larger budget gap for the city is projected during next years budget season and most of the necessary funds, though not yet committed to the budget, could easily lose out to other endeavors.

Finally, one of the most controversial votes by the Council was one of its last. Elected officials acted against many residents wishes when it recently moved municipal elections from May to November in a 5 to 2 vote. It was perceived as a political move by many; a last-ditch effort for an all-Democratic lame-duck Council to wield its power. It was also seen by some as sour political grapes on the parts of the two councilmen who lost their seats, Tim Lovain and Justin Wilson. There was certainly no rush necessary.

But on the other side of the fence, this Council and ones past deliberated for years on the subject. The move is also likely to produce higher voter turnout (opposition to the ordinance argued the quantity of votes may rise but the quality of the votes will be worth less) by being more inclusive. Finally, though Wilson and Lovain were asked by name to abstain from voting in a lame-duck Council, fellow out-going Democratic Councilman Ludwig Gaines, who voted against the ordinance, was not.

Such is in the past. It is now time to look forward, toward the next group of the citys policy-makers: recently elected Kerry Donley (D), Frank Fannon (R) and Alicia Hughes (I) and incumbents Mayor Bill Euille, Vice Mayor Del Pepper, Rob Krupicka and Paul Smedberg. The new Council can learn from, question, carry out and build on the last Councils efforts without wasting money already spent on planning initiatives; focus on prioritizing what the citys overall goals should be in this unique economy: Economic development, education, public safety, working with non-profits to provide services social and otherwise to constituents and environmental consciousness.

The most recent Council members planned, planned and planned (foresight probably kept the budget gap from being even worse). The next Council needs to implement, implement and implement the development plans on which the previous one spent taxpayer money to initiate. The new Council will have to prioritize capital improvement projects with the initiatives like Eco-City to reach a balance. This may mean focusing on developments that are realistic according to the budget and capital improvement program which the current Council and city manager have done possibly putting some projects on the shelf.
The new-look Council, now with more diversity of politics, gender, race and background, can learn from a study commissioned this past term that, when complete, will give Council the tools needed to streamline the government. Maximizing the efficiency of employee pay while providing its workers with deserved salary and benefits can be achieved.

There is now no room for a gaping void in communication and discourse among elected officials and staff members when it comes to the safety of its residents. The ethanol debacle proved this. The new Council can proceed, too, in its attempts at mitigating Norfolk Southern Corporations presence, though not at the endless expense of taxpayers, as the prospect of ousting the company from the city legally and for good does not look promising.

Finally, there are nuances to be worked out with the new November elections before they begin in 2012. The new, more diversely minded Council should examine, extract from and codify the following possibilities: staggered terms, non-partisan elections, keeping municipal elections in non-national and state election months and dividing the city into wards for election purposes. Looking into these possibilities could induce compromises among differing views.

To list all of the successes and failures of the out-going policy makers is seemingly impossible yeomans work (especially because some will not be seen for many years down the road) as is the part-time public office at times. In three years, the reputation of the incoming Council members will likely be equally abstract, though bringing their new ideas and new voices to the table while learning from, building on and thoughtfully differing with the voices of their colleagues. Getting there will certainly be interesting and, hopefully, fruitful.

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