By Chris Teale (File photo)
The city moved a step closer to forming a veterans commission last week, after councilors instructed City Manager Mark Jinks to start the process of forming a group at their last legislative meeting.
The initiative is being led by Mayor Allison Silberberg, and has support from a number of veterans’ groups in the community.
During the November 29 meeting, Silberberg cited a letter sent to her by re- tired U.S. Gen. Bob Wood and signed by John Sims of the city’s veterans advisory group, Doug Gurka, the commander of American Legion Post 24 in the city, Emily McMahan of veteran business group Capitol Post and others backing the plan.
“As much as Alexandria is home for veterans and their families, a base of operations for veteran owned businesses, and transition site for military members moving into civilian life, there is no entity within the city that coordinates and advances the needs, activities, and growth of this remarkable community within our community,” the letter reads.
Currently, the Alexandria Veterans Advisory Group meets on an informal basis and has done so for several years. Silberberg said the proposed commission would formalize the work advocating for veterans issues.
“We have a commission for so many issues under the sun here, but I do think this is a gap,” she said. “An informal group of volunteers has been meeting for the last few years, but they don’t really have an official voice here.”
Among others on the dais, there was broad agreement about the need for such a commission.
“The mayor’s right that there is an area of policy here that is not completely covered by boards and commissions that are out there,” said Vice Mayor Justin Wilson.
Under Silberberg’s proposal, the commission would have around 14 members: one appointee from each city councilor; one representative from Capitol Post; one representative from the American Legion Post 24; one representative from the Friends of Rocky Versace; one representative from the EOD Warrior Foundation; one representative from the chamber of commerce; and two veterans who live in the city.
The exact scope of the group is still to be determined, although it should become a little clearer during council’s next legislative meeting on December 13. At that meeting, Jinks is slated to provide a resolution for council to vote on to form an ad hoc veterans group.
That ad hoc group would then meet and look to determine the commission’s scope, then return its findings to council for final approval and the establishment of a permanent group.
McMahan said in an interview after the meeting that the commission could serve as a central resource for veterans in Alexandria, who make up approximately 11.8 percent of the city’s population.
“I think what it could do is create a one-stop point of contact at the city,” she said. “We are an organization that focuses on businesses, careers and the community. It would be great to have an organization that’s at the city level really coordinating all the resources that veterans might be interested in.”
The lack of certainty about which city department would be broadly responsible for the commission’s work gave councilors some cause for concern. While City Councilor John Chapman said that the ad hoc period would allow the commission’s future work to be fleshed out, City Councilor Paul Smedberg questioned whether city government s the best potential leader of such an endeavor.
“I’m wondering in this case, given the nature of some of the groups involved and the nature of some of the work involved and the scope of the work involved, is the city the right partner to be the lead in this?” Smedberg asked. “Should it be the nonprofit community and the organizations that are already together, and the city be the secondary player in this to foster some of this in the best way they can? Where would this fall?”
Councilors also questioned the cost associated with a new commission, which would not have a budget but would re- quire at least one member of city staff to devote time to it.
“A commission has staff, it isn’t somebody who just schedules and does the clerical work for the commission,”
Jinks said. “There will be questions, what are best practices, what is this city doing, how does this program work? Somebody’s got to do the professional legwork in order to make a commission effective, and that is staff time. At this point, we don’t have a person whose plate is not already full who would be a logical position to fulfill this.”
Silberberg said cost should not be an issue, and said that she was sure members of city staff would be willing to get involved with a such a worthy cause.
“We have people who have served five or six tours in Iraq or Afghanistan that need to know that we care enough to have a commission,” she said. “Drawing a line in the sand about cost is one thing. I don’t think this is going to cost us, per se. If I were on staff, I would think it would be an honor to be a part of it.”