By Cody Mello-Klein | [email protected]
Change was in the air of the T.C. Williams High School auditorium on the evening of Jan. 2 as Mayor Justin Wilson and the incoming city council were sworn in on stage.
It was a night of firsts for both Alexandria as a city and the individuals on stage. Four of the six incoming councilors, Vice Mayor Elizabeth Bennett-Parker, Canek Aguirre, Amy Jackson and Mo Seifeldein, are first-time elected officials and join re-elected councilors John Chapman and Del Pepper on city council.
In a first for city council, all seven elected officials took an ethics pledge, administered by Clerk of the Circuit Court Edward Semonian, promising to serve the public with “integrity, impartiality and transparency.”
While the night was dominated by new faces, former Mayor Allison Silberberg and former councilors Tim Lovain and Paul Smedberg spoke as well. They reflected on the hard work and accomplishments of city council during the last term, which included the institution of the ethics pledge.
They also offered words of advice to the incoming council, passing the torch to their successors, who will have to deal with numerous difficult issues over the next three years. Silberberg stressed that the incoming councilors need to balance expanding the tax base through development with concern for the people affected by council decisions.
“As important as it is to serve with an eye on our budget, it is also incumbent upon all of us to serve with one’s heart,” Silberberg said.
Silberberg went on to address a topic that loomed over the entire night: Amazon and Virginia Tech’s imminent arrivals in the region. Silberberg said that technology and innovation are the future and Alexandria has the potential to become the center of that future.
Wilson, in his first speech as mayor, said the tech giant’s arrival will bring infrastructure and housing issues, and that this is just another sign that Alexandria is growing fast and on the cusp of change.
“The question for us is whether or not we can chart a path of inclusive growth,” Wilson said. “How we ensure that the growth that occurs in our city lifts all of our residents and improves out quality of life.”
Inclusive growth along with economic sustainability and healthy political discourse were three governing principles Wilson said the council should use as a north star as they steer Alexandria through the next three years of change.
“I believe that Alexandria can be the small city that does big things,” Wilson said to close his speech. “Let’s chart that course. Let’s get to work.”
Several officials mentioned the importance of supporting Alexandria’s small business community in light of decreased federal funding and Amazon’s arrival.
“We know that as many of our businesses face more competition, as industries change, it’s going to be more incumbent on us to look at creating opportunities to keep them in a city like Alexandria,” Chapman said.
School capacity, city infrastructure and affordable housing were topics of conversation throughout the night, along with continued development in the West End.
“We are seeing substantial development activity in the Landmark Mall area and in the whole West End. Here is where considerable develop- ment could and should take place,” Pepper said before repeating her slogan, “The West End will rise again.”
On a night that ushered in one of the city’s most diverse city councils in terms of ethnicity, race and gender – if not political affiliation – diversity and inclusivity were two words that were frequently repeated.
“I’m happy and excited to be a part of the most diverse council ever elected,” Bennett-Parker said. “We elected Councilman Aguirre, the first Latino elected to serve on council, and Councilman Seifeldein, the first Muslim and first immigrant to serve.”
Bennett-Parker also noted the gains women are making in Alexandria, as in the rest of the country, though in both cases change is a work in progress. This is only the third time in 18 years that council has been composed of half women, and a significantly smaller number of women than men oversee the city’s various boards and commissions.
“This issue is important because just as we must thank those who came before us and led the way, so too must we hold the door open for those that come after us,” Bennett-Parker said.
Throughout the night, the incoming council had one eye on the future, looking not only at what issues will arise but how it will overcome those issues. With inclusivity at the forefront, several officials made it clear that work- ing together is the best path forward.
“I refuse to believe that a city where an African immigrant Muslim like myself is elected to council, where once George Washington sat, isn’t able to solve common issues in challenging times,” Seifeldein said.