Why have resident-led boards if city councilors don’t listen to them?

Why have resident-led boards if city councilors don’t listen to them?
Alexandria City Hall. (file photo)

By Dino Drudi
(File Photo)

To the editor:

The way city council handled the food truck issue is indicative of a troubling trend of recent origin: city council circumventing, overriding, short-circuiting and disrespecting its appointed boards, commissions and task forces with a growing and alarming frequency.

Why even have these bodies if city councilors don’t feel bound to give formal consideration to their recommendations or even wait for them to fully vet an issue?

Halfway into its term, this city council has overruled the traffic and parking board three times. The first time, the board’s chairman wasn’t even given the courtesy of being forewarned until an hour beforehand. The city council also overruled the planning commission when it allowed lights at T.C. Williams’ new tennis courts.

Now city councilors have adopted a food truck pilot program before the city’s task force even issued its report. Their recent treatment of the city’s appointed boards, commissions and task forces is so back-handedly rude as to demean the residents who serve on and appear before them.

This is a new phenomenon, coinciding with — and likely an unforeseen consequence of — the rescheduling of city council elections from May to November. It is worth noting that this is a civic, not partisan, concern because Democrats have won majorities on city council in May elections as far back as anyone can remember.

These May elections consisted primarily of a relatively small core of informed voters — regardless of party. The stated rationale for shifting to November was to increase turnout, but the increased turnout brought a larger proportion of less informed voters. The trade-off city council consciously made was to substitute quantity for quality.

City council has similarly substituted quantity for quality by overriding its appointed boards, commissions and task forces. Desperate to bring issues to closure — and clear the docket so other items can be taken up — city council imposes artificial deadlines on its appointed boards. And when the substance of their work required more time — like in the case of the food truck task force — they took the issue away from them and made a hasty decision.

I doubt anyone would have foreseen that, as a result of changing the election to November, city council would run roughshod over its appointed boards, but that is one of the consequences of this change. When these appointed groups bring forward recommendations, although it might be listed in the docket, it has no formal standing before city council unless one of their number moves and another seconds. If city councilors prefer the city staff’s recommendations instead, the resident-led board’s recommendations fall by the wayside.

In more legalistic terms, city council gives every issue a de novo hearing, even though an appointed board, commission or task force already has heard it. In parliamentary procedure, a committee report has automatic standing on the agenda without needing to be seconded for consideration. If city council is to give issues de novo consideration, why bother to route them through appointed boards, commissions and task forces in the first place?

Giving every issue a de novo hearing means city council operates not under normal due process, but under a carte blanche set of operating principles vulnerable to abuse of power. The relatively small core of informed voters who dominated May elections served as an electoral check on this potential for abuse of power. Now some other mechanism must be designed to achieve this end.

City council should change its operating rules so that the reports and recommendations of appointed boards and commissions are treated like committee reports and automatically come before the council for a vote. Although city councilors could amend these reports and recommendations, if they wanted to do something entirely different, they would have to vote down the resident-led group’s recommendations first.