By Kathryn Papp, Alexandria (File photo)
To the editor:
For the past five years, I’ve watched and participated in various kinds of citizen engagement in Alexandria. Ample opportunity is given to residents to speak and engage with city management, both elected and appointed, but the bottom line is that citizen intelligence rarely makes it to the finish line.
Council and staff regularly use a great variety of techniques to dismiss and sideline expert resident counsel from what is a nationally recognized, highly educated population.
These routines include dismantling city-offered petition processes like the protest petition, which requires a supermajority vote from council for approval of a project, making concealed, high-impact decisions like the BRAC building, setting up one-way online communications; conducting surveys that are city-serving; ignoring legal requirements to inform citizens of key docket items like waterfront redevelopment; holding large public meetings with no tangible outcome; validating council and staff’s directives through persistent and often overwhelming meetings, and finally making legal threats like over the waterfront plan, eminent domain, etc.
Where might this end? People speak when they can make a difference … they stop when they can’t. This is called the spiral of silence, as witnessed by those charged with building democratic societies around the world. Its natural breeding ground is an oligarchy or dictatorship. It is sustained by arrogant self-righteousness.
Since Virginia was instrumental in framing our democracy, the current situation in Alexandria is ironic. But the best way to change it — through city elections — is virtually blocked by a tangle of requirements and, to be frank, divisive politics. There is little incentive for those now in power to initiate and implement changes to the voting system that put them in control. Extreme emotional language does not lend itself to moderation.
Being denied impactful speech and electoral change means residents are forced into legal action to challenge council decisions. This is no way for a city to govern. It is time to start engaging in the messy business of compromise and to stop unseemly attacks from the dais and in legislative meetings. Devise practical ways of inserting residents’ ideas, and prove that Alexandria is, indeed, an all-inclusive place to live.