Agenda:Alexandria reflects on 20 years of debate

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Agenda Board Members Joan Renner and Todd Ruopp interview the then-new city manager Jim Hartmann (Photo by Nina Tisara / Nina Tisara Photography)
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By Alexa Epitropoulos | aepitropoulos@alextimes.com

Agenda:Alexandria, which celebrated its 20th anniversary on June 10, started with a particularly contentious election season and a Rolodex.

Former City Councilors David Speck and Lonnie Rich were running for re-election in 1997 when the issue of police pay was raised.

Rich drew ire from the police union for his view. The union had proposed increasing police pay by 10 percent and pay for other city employees by 7 percent, which Rich countered by proposing an 8 percent pay increase across the board.

“They were pretty angry about it and there were some other politics there that had sort of left me on the short end of their stick,” Rich said. “…They had signs all over town basically saying ‘Support local police – vote ‘no’ Lonnie Rich.’ It was like having the Army running against you.”

Speck and Rich were both re-elected, but Speck said the nature of the debate stuck in his mind.

“It became very heated, very emotional, very personal and very ugly,” Speck said. “Everyone, when they go through the swearing in, gives little speeches about the things they want to accomplish and I said, ‘We can’t go through something like this again. There has to be some means by which issues of consequence and controversy can be discussed other than in a campaign and other than in the heat of an issue.’”

Speck looked to Arlington’s Committee of 100 as a model. The now four-decade-old institution brought community members together to discuss a topic. The goal wasn’t to reach a conclusion, but to air out issues and discuss and debate different points of view. Alexandria, Speck said, didn’t have anything like that.

Speck and a small group, including George Pera, Glenn Hopkins and Mike Holm, gathered to discuss creating something in the city. They poured through their Rolodexes and came up with a list of 500 city residents from a variety of realms and perspectives, including those involved in business, civics, religion and neighborhood groups, and invited them by mail to a dinner meeting to discuss the possibility.

About 200 people showed up, Speck said, which led to a committee being formed as a sounding board.

“There was such a need – a repressed need – in the community where there was a vehicle for something like this to emerge,” Speck said. “People responded immediately.”

Holm, a lawyer who had previously served as chair of the Alexandria Republican Party, became the first chair and his idea for the organization’s name, Agenda:Alexandria, won over simply naming it the Alexandria Committee of 100.

Holm said what made Agenda:Alexandria’s discourse different than what was happening in council chambers or on the campaign trail was its bipartisan approach.

“Essentially, what was going on is everything was becoming political, every issue was an R or D issue, regardless of whether that was appropriate or not and a number of us felt there was a gaping hole for the citizens of Alexandria with respect to a lot of these hot button issues,” Holm said.

“And there was a gaping hole because the only thing they ever heard from were candidates with vested political interest or civic association advocates who had their own issues and their own approaches to what they supported and didn’t support.”

The first year, Agenda:Alexandria tackled a number of those topics. The first forum in May 1998 was about transportation. They brought in experts in the field, including Stewart Schwartz, executive director and founder of Coalition for Smarter Growth, and Bob Chase, a community transportation advocate, to debate. Holm said it worked because Schwartz and Chase, though experts in the subject matter, didn’t have a stake in either side.

“That became the model for us. We tried to have debates once a month about these issues and the idea was that we hoped our attendees would listen to what they said, ask questions, which they were allowed to do, and, at the end of the day, know a whole lot more on whether they support or are opposed to these things. You weren’t getting it from the mouths of politicians, but from people who were experts in these different topics,” Holm said.

The format of the forum has stayed true to that model over the last two decades.
Eight months out of the year, Agenda:Alexandria hosts a dinner and panel discussion, featuring experts on each month’s topic.

The issues discussed have ranged from voter apathy to the city’s juvenile court system, historic preservation to school budgets, economic development to civil rights and gun violence to city elections.

The topics aren’t always controversial or political in nature. Michael Pope, a journalist and the organization’s incoming chairman, said some of the most interesting topics to him are
those relating to the city’s history, including urban renewal in the 1960s and 1970s.

Agenda:Alexandria, for that discussion, brought in a developer from that era, a resident who had filed a lawsuit working to stop urban renewal and a BAR member who had once been in favor of urban renewal but had since changed sides.

Pope said Agenda provides an arena for discussion that’s not provided anywhere else in the city. He said the organization’s bipartisan nature and its bylaws, which, among other things, prevent political candidates from speaking on panels, set Agenda apart.

“Contributing to the discussion, being a forum for debate, that’s the most important part,” Pope said. “The most important part is being a forum for the most important issues facing the city.”

Terri Hauser, a longtime Alexandrian who serves as an Agenda board member, said she appreciates that she walks away from a meeting feeling more informed than when she arrived.

“One of the things I like is it is a truly bipartisan organization. We work hard to keep the balance of political leaning on the board,” Hauser said. “I like that we discuss things in a collegial fashion rather than yelling and screaming at each other. I think that’s something that’s refreshing in politics and civic discourse. You learn something at every program and sometimes things you never expected to learn – sometimes programs you think are going to be real sleepers turn out to be fascinating.”

Hauser brings up a forum that Agenda hosted on recycling, where the Torpedo Factory brought art made from recycled elements, as an example. She said some of the events that stick in her mind are a discussion with former Virginia Gov. George Allen and former U.S. Rep. Jim Moran about how politics has changed since the 1990s and a recent conversation that brought together Baby Boomers and Millennials.

“Agenda allows a broader in-depth discussion of the issues. It sometimes helps people understand difficult issues,” Hauser said. “Sometimes it makes people more aware, and sometimes solutions actually seem to congeal.”

Hauser said, while the city was working to decide a site for the Potomac Yard Metro, Agenda:Alexandria hosted a forum about it. During that discussion, a final site began to come into focus.

“It can bring a lot to the table,” Hauser said.

Speck said Agenda:Alexandria has been able to last for two decades because of its ability to hash out the issues, without subscribing to a particular worldview or landing on a be-all-end-all solution.

“It’s so easy to frame things in very stark ways – it’s good or it’s bad. The benefit of Agenda:Alexandria is it helps people understand that things aren’t always assigned to these precise categories of ‘good’ and ‘bad,’” Speck said. “Most issues are nuanced and I think that you sort of see that in a non-political discussion.”

Speck said, more often than not, the forums show people on both sides that the edges of contentious issues are blurry – and that there’s not always one right answer.

“People come to those meetings on controversial subjects. The people that argue those two sides feel strongly and confident that their view is the right one. When you get things out of the political environment, you discover that it’s not that simple and not that easy,” Speck said.

Moving forward, the founders of the organization see Agenda:Alexandria continuing to occupy a significant role in Alexandria’s political discourse.

“Having these debates on issues gives people a basis for taking a position publicly on a particular issue and it provides fodder for citizens to learn about an issue and when something is being debated before council, to speak to members of council about their view on a particular issue,” Holm said. “There’s not any reason it shouldn’t be an important catalyst in how policy is set.”

Pope said he hopes Agenda will continue to do the same thing it’s done for 20 years.

“Hopefully, we’ll continue making noise,” Pope said. “The most important thing is to continue to be that place for discussion without taking sides. It will continue to be a forum for ideas, based on debate, but not advocacy, not supporting anything, not opposing anything. Ultimately, it’s fun too.”

Speck said Agenda won’t ever stop certain issues from becoming hotly debated – but hopes that it can, in the next decades, serve as a model for the way debate should be.

“Issues that affect people’s neighborhoods or quality of life are always going to create energy and focus and strong feelings. Nothing has changed in that regard. I think, to the extent that there’s a way for some of that conversation to take place with sort of an underlying of civility, it makes issues slightly less contentious. There’s still going to be disagreements – there always are,” Speck said. “… But there’s also a place for people that are on different sides of an issue to come and talk – and I’d like to see more of that.”

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