City council candidates clash at final forum

City council candidates clash at final forum

By Chris Teale (File photo)

The series of city council candidate forums ahead of Election Day on November 3 came to a rousing climax on October 14, as the 11 candidates clashed over issues of development, tax and debt among other topics.

Previous forums had been more subdued, but this one, hosted at the Lee Center and sponsored by both the Old Town Civic Association and the North Old Town Independent Citizens’ Association with assistance from the Federation of Civic Associations, mixed things up.

Each candidate had two green pieces of paper to indicate to moderator Charlie Huettner that they wished to interject, either to agree or disagree with a previous speaker, and the format produced some intriguing moments as candidates took each other to task.

City Councilor Justin Wilson (D) was especially keen to make use of his rebuttals, particularly in efforts to disprove the assertions of Republican challengers Bob Wood and Townsend “Van” Van Fleet. Both have raised concerns about the level of municipal debt the city has incurred in recent years — approximately $500 million with $65.7 million in debt service — but also have criticized city councilors for insufficient investment in infrastructure. Wood did not bring up the issue at this forum, but when Van Fleet did, Wilson went on the attack.

“The math doesn’t add up,” he said. “I can’t reconcile a conversation about debt with all the things we’re doing across the city.”

Later, Wilson used his second rebuttal to take Monique Miles (R) to task over an answer she gave related to the city’s affordable housing stock. Miles questioned why 12,000 units of affordable housing had been lost and suggested the city start enforcing its ratio of building the same number of affordable units as others.

Wilson took exception, accusing Miles of misunderstanding the difference between public and affordable housing and adding that the affordable housing units have not been lost, but their rents have gone up and so they cannot be classified as affordable.

Other candidates argued over the role of tax incentives given to companies to encourage them to move offices to Alexandria. Both the National Science Foundation and U.S. Transportation Security Administration received incentives to relocate to the Port City, something incumbent city councilors defended but some of their challengers took issue with.

Democratic city councilors Tim Lovain and Del Pepper argued that the collateral effect of those two federal agencies moving to Alexandria will create economic growth, but challenger Fernando Torrez (R) expressed reluctance to believe that incentives were best for the city.

Later, the discussion switched to the long-delayed redevelopment project at Landmark Mall, and Torrez promised that if elected, ground would be broken there by the end of his first term. Pepper argued such promises would require tax incentives to get things moving, especially as anchor tenant Sears recently came under new ownership and must renegotiate with the property owner, the Howard Hughes Corporation.

“It’s not just an easy, slam-dunk thing,” Pepper said, referring both to Torrez’s assertions and challenger Phil Cefaratti’s (I) insistence that council has not negotiated hard enough with the developer to ensure progress will be made.

Those moments were the biggest flashpoints between candidates, although there were some other testy exchanges, especially when it came to development projects in the city and balancing them with the need for green space. Wood accused city councilors of not planning green space effectively enough, especially in new development areas like Potomac Yard, echoing a previous comment from Miles about the growth of residential development.

“We really need to be thinking about not putting up more condos and townhouses, but thinking about the effect of doing that,” Miles said.

In addition, the challengers railed against incumbent city councilors after a question of whether the city gives too much away to developers in the project approval process. City Councilor John Chapman (D) was in agreement, although he argued that developers must do more to help increase the city’s stock of affordable housing and its infrastructure. Others were more strident in their criticism of how the city handles development.

“We’ve got to take back our city from the developers,” said Van Fleet. “We let them get over time after time after time. This has got to stop, and it’s got to stop now.”

Alexandria’s infrastructure needs caused something of a disagreement between City Councilor Paul Smedberg and challenger Willie Bailey, both on the Democratic ticket for November’s election. Bailey accused developers of not being held accountable and leaving it to the city to fund sewers, roads and schools to the city. Smedberg took exception with that, arguing developers have contributed hundreds of millions of dollars to the city to help address its infrastructure needs.

While no candidate landed any knockout punches, the format gave attendees a chance to hear positions debated and discussed, and council hopefuls were able to contrast their views in a public setting for the last time in what has been a gruelling election season.