Mayoral candidates spar in first debate

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Vice Mayor Justin Wilson and Mayor Allison Silberberg at the first mayoral debate on May 2 at Mount Vernon Community School. (Photo Credit: Missy Schrott)
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By Missy Schrott | mschrott@alextimes.com

Mayor Allison Silberberg and Vice Mayor Justin Wilson faced off in the first mayoral debate on May 2 with a discussion that showcased their different approaches to leadership.

The debate, hosted by the Del Ray Business Association, took place in the auditorium of Mt. Vernon Community School. A crowd of residents, community leaders and city council candidates almost entirely filled the room.

It came as little surprise that Wilson and Silberberg, who have a history of clashing opinions and disagreements on the dais, put on full display their differing leadership styles and stances on city issues.

Wilson said in his opening statement and repeated throughout the debate that his approach to leadership involved building coalitions on council and that one of his greatest priorities was investing in infrastructure.

Silberberg reiterated throughout the evening that as a leader she valued inclusivity and public input and, if re-elected, she would focus on livability.

While the candidates appeared cordial and agreed on some issues such as pedestrian safety, certain topics sparked tension; Wilson repeatedly attacked the mayor’s voting record, forcing Silberberg to spend rebuttal time defending her frequent lone dissenting votes, while Silberberg brought up the 5.7-cent property tax hike Wilson advocated for in the FY2018 budget several times.

Over the course of the 90-minute debate, moderator Julie Carey, NBC News4’s Northern Virginia bureau chief, asked the candidates their stances on a host of issues submitted by community members. Her questions ranged from noncontroversial topics such as street lighting in Del Ray to hard hitters, including the meals tax increase dedicated to the city’s affordable housing fund tentatively passed by council last week. Carey said, when soliciting questions for the debate, she had more submissions about affordable housing than anything else.

Wilson said he did not support the proposal or dedicated funding. Silberberg said, while not ideal, Bailey’s proposal was the best choice in front of council.

“I had a choice between the meals tax that would go toward dedicated funding for the affordable housing fund, or would go, as the vice mayor wanted frankly, to unspecified, the general fund. To me that wasn’t a good choice,” Silberberg said.

Silberberg said dedicated funding was necessary to ensure funds would go toward affordable housing.

“I’m fully committed to dedicated funding for the affordable housing fund,” Silberberg said. “It’s really a yes-or-no question. I’m fully committed to it and my colleague is not and so, with all due respect, that’s what it comes down to. [Affordable housing] can’t compete with all the other issues when it comes to the budget. It’s just not strong enough in a way, even though it’s a core value here. It needs protection.”

“Affordable housing is infrastructure,” Wilson said. “So I believe we should use general funding sources to fund affordable housing. The mayor’s right: I am opposed to dedicated funding for affordable housing. I’m also opposed to dedicated funding for anything.”

Wilson accused Silberberg of voting against several past projects that had affordable housing contributions, including Ramsey Homes, St. James Plaza and the Beauregard plan.

“With all due respect, that’s really a perversion of my record,” Silberberg said before proceeding to defend her votes.

The two clashed again over the topic of shared parking. While both said they support pursuing the concept throughout the city, Wilson said Silberberg voted against the new commercial parking standards, which would facilitate the measure.

“One of the benefits of the package that was passed by the council to make changes to our commercial parking standards was actually to facilitate [shared parking] and make it so that staff administratively can work with parking lot owners and businesses to share that parking and more efficiently use it, which ultimately eases the burden of parking congestion on our neighborhoods,” Wilson said.

“I think we should be seeking shared parking opportunities always … so we didn’t need that vote in order to do that,” Silberberg countered.

When asked what they would do to support small business in the city, Wilson and Silberberg agreed it was important to streamline permitting processes to make it easier for small businesses to start up. They had differing views, however, on what those processes should look like.

“I was proud to shepherd through the council a package of small business zoning reforms that, unfortunately, the mayor was the only member of the council to vote against,” Wilson said. “… We took out a lot of the public process that involves the planning commission and council and set a very clear set of checklist items for small businesses that, if they meet them, they can get open.”

“By putting through those zoning reforms, with all due respect, it reduced the amount of community input,” Silberberg countered. “… I believe that it really is on all of us in city government to make sure that the community is heard in advance of such a decision.”

While Wilson used Silberberg’s voting record as a weapon, Silberberg’s jabs at her opponent centered on the property tax increase he promoted. When asked how they would prevent a similar tax hike in the future, however, neither candidate made any promises.

“We know there will be no property tax hike this year – imagine that, in an election year,” Carey said, provoking laughter from the audience. “But people fear that next year’s going to be a makeup year. What, if elected mayor, can you promise to homeowners about keeping property taxes under control?”

Silberberg said she asked City Manager Mark Jinks during budget guidance last fall and in previous years to hold the line on taxes.

“Last year, I fully supported the city manager’s proposed budget,” Silberberg said. “… What I couldn’t support is the historic tax hike, initiated by my colleague Vice Mayor Wilson.”

Wilson said investing in infrastructure now would save money in the future.

“My approach to the budget on every one of the now eight budgets that I’ve been a part of on the city council has been the same, which is holding the line on the operating side, but investing in our infrastructure,” Wilson said. “… Every year that we delay infrastructure investment, those costs escalate by 5 percent. … Every year we delay those, we are setting a fiscal trap for the future.”

Carey, while describing the issue as not “earth shattering,” also asked about the candidates’ views on lights at the T.C. Williams High School football field. Silberberg and Wilson expressed differing views, but did not explicitly declare stances.

Silberberg spoke first, defending the history of the neighborhood that backs up to the field. When her time was cut off, Carey said she’d take the response as a “no” to lights.

Wilson appeared to support lights at the stadium. He said the city should not be proud of the history of the T.C. Williams property acquisition, but there was room for compromise.

“I’m willing to work with neighbors and figure out a compromise to ensure that we get the investment that we have made out of that school facility and are able to utilize it for what it is, which is a school field next to our only high school in the city,” Wilson said.

Wilson and Silberberg agreed on some topics, including the planned Potomac Yard Metro station’s progress, which both said was slated to open in late 2021; increasing council salaries, which both described as overdue and continuing to strengthen school security without turning schools into metal detector fortresses.

The two also agreed on the importance of addressing public safety compensation, a topic that triggered outrage from many in city law enforcement leading up to the budget adoption May 3. Silberberg said solving the compensation issue was a priority and a “team effort” across council. Wilson said he was proud of have put together the package council is supporting.

“I think we have now set aside a significant amount of resources to try to address these issues,” he said.

The debate ended on a positive note, with Carey asking candidates to say something they admired about their opponent. Silberberg applauded Wilson’s commitment to his family, while Wilson said he admired the mayor’s empathy and tireless service to the community.

In the closing remarks, the candidates acknowledged their differences.

“We, as a city, are certainly at a crossroads,” Silberberg said, “and the question is, ‘What kind of community do we want to live in?’ There’s a great deal at stake in this election for our beloved historic city, and we have an important choice to make, and I’m fighting for a livable Alexandria.”

“This is very much an inflection point for our community,” Wilson said. “This election has already gotten a fair amount of attention, and I think it’s gotten attention because there’s two very different visions for our future that are on display in this election. My vision is that Alexandria should be a community where we [don’t] just talk about our progressive ideals, but we actually see them in reality.”

The next mayoral debate, hosted by the Alexandria Chamber of Commerce, will take place at T.C. Williams High School Auditorium Monday, May 14 from 6 to 7 p.m. To submit a question, email Maria Ciarrocchi at mciarrocchi@alexchamber.com.

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