By Cody Mello-Klein | [email protected]
City council’s first public hearing of the fall is shaping up to be epic in length and community engagement, with major items like Seminary Road on the docket for Sept. 14.
For the four newcomers to council – Vice Mayor Elizabeth Bennett-Parker and councilors Amy Jackson, Canek Aguirre and Mo Seifeldein – the hearing will be one of the most significant moments of their first eight months on council.
Ahead of the hearing, the Times spoke with the four newest members of council, as they reflected on their first eight months in office, their expectations coming in, the challenges they’ve faced so far and what they’re anticipating moving into the fall.
All four of the city’s newest councilors came off the campaign trail excited and full of expectations, they said. And while many of those expectations were measured and based on advice from former and current members of council, moving from the campaign trail to the day-to-day realities of serving on council was a challenge.
For some, it was a matter of time – literally. Serving on city council is supposedly a part-time job, but all four of the new councilors said they quickly realized that was not the case.
“I think the first couple months, particularly, were incredibly intense,” Bennett-Parker said. “… Council is considered a part-time job. It is not a part-time job, and I did know that going in. I expected it to be more than a full-time job, but I think having that expectation and then living that day-to-day, it’s an adjustment getting used to that.”
Even before they were sworn in, each member of council had to attend a dozen or so two-hour long training sessions with staff from different city departments. Once they were sworn in, meetings, public hearings and event appearances started piling up.
Time became a precious commodity, and for councilors like Aguirre, who ran his campaign on a platform of access and responsiveness, that was frustrating at first, Aguirre said.
“Of course, being new I want to be everywhere, I want to go to everything, but you have to realize you can’t do that,” Aguirre said. “You can’t be everywhere. You can’t be at everything.”
Aguirre has come to terms with that reality, even as his political position has forced him into a spotlight he’s not used to, he said.
“I am a ‘we’ guy. I’m like, ‘We are doing this together.’ So, one of the hardest things during the campaign, and even now, is to say, ‘I did this,’” Aguirre said. “I’m the type of person who [finds] it hard to take credit for something. I don’t like that, but this thrusts you into that position.”
While he’s gotten used to the spotlight, Aguirre said he still has a tendency to linger toward the back during events.
For Jackson, certain realities of the job challenged her expectations, she said.
“I was looking forward to being on a team–and I am on a team and it’s a great team – but the team is different than I thought it would be in terms of actually collaborating more on things to improve Alexandria,” Jackson said. “The difficulty lies in the Sunshine Law where if you have three or more of us at a sitting, that’s a public meeting. It’s difficult unless we make it a public meeting, but then of course we’re tied to a calendar.”
In some ways, the essence of the job did match the new councilors’ expectations.
“Public service is rewarding and challenging, which is what I expected,” Seifeldein said.
The specifics of process and procedure were a hurdle for council’s four newcomers. During the January public hearing, Mayor Justin Wilson had to remind some councilors when and how to put forward a motion.
The public hearings since then have gone smoother, not only because the four new councilors better understand the process but because council has gelled as a unit over the past eight months, Aguirre said.
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“Because of how smooth the budget went, and we didn’t have so many controversial things on the docket, it helped us as a group to kind of start off with that,” Aguirre said.
The three more experienced members of council – Wilson and councilors John Chapman and Del Pepper – also helped smooth the transition. Wilson, in particular, has made a point of emphasizing open communication between members of council, Aguirre and Bennett-Parker said.
“I have to give kudos to the mayor. He’s done a really great job of keeping communication open and keeping us informed of different things that are going on,” Aguirre said.
When the new council was elected, many noted the diversity on the dais, not only in terms of race, gender and age, but background and perspective. Jackson said that diversity has been an incredible asset.
“Because of that [diversity] everybody has their own comfort zone in terms of their own perspective, but we’re all challenging each other to think outside each other’s comfort zones and outside of each other’s boxes,” Jackson said.
Of course, the four new councilors acknowledged disagreements do occur on and off the dais. There have already been a few split votes in the first eight months.
“Sometimes we disagree, but we’re able to do that in a positive, respectful manner,” Bennett-Parker said.
Finding a process
Between the information presented by staff, the voices of constituents and the words of other councilors, listening is a significant part of the job, Jackson said. Learning how to sort through all the information and come to a conclusion is just as important, and each councilor has figured out their own process.
“Totality of the circumstances or the overall weight of the information and evidence presented is my general guidance,” Seifeldein said. “Often, advocates and activists focus on one factor to make their points, which is alright. However, I consider all factors and weigh them accordingly. Some factors may weigh more than others, but no one factor is determinative.”
“It’s just looking at all the information I’ve collected from various different sources and trying to weigh all of that and then also thinking through assumptions that have been made or how the information came to us,” Bennett-Parker said.
Between the pay-by-phone parking program, a proposed halal chicken butchery and the e-scooter revolution coming to Alexandria, council has already voted on a few contentious issues. In cases like these, Jackson said it’s important to have a solid “sounding board” outside of council.
“[I] have an awesome sounding board that will not repeat anything I say,” Jackson said. “Honestly, I’m very, very lucky to have the circle of friends that I have. … I have some really close friends that are really intelligent. They were part of my ‘kitchen cabinet’ during my campaign.”
Many say Alexandria is a city that operates like a small town. In cases, like the proposed halal chicken butchery or the upcoming Seminary Road vote, coming to a conclusion for a vote and coming to terms with what that vote means to friends and neighbors are two very different things, Aguirre said.
“You can’t please everyone. It’s just not going to be possible, so I think one of the hardest things is being able to say ‘no’ to your friends, being able to say ‘no’ to people that helped you get to where you are,” Aguirre said. “You still have to have conversations with them. You still have to explain your viewpoint.”
Early on, somebody asked Aguirre, ‘What do you want to be known for when you’re done with council?”
The question threw him off at first, Aguirre said. He hadn’t even finished his first year. But after giving it some thought, Aguirre, along with the three other new members of city council, said he has plenty of goals.
While the first eight months have been largely defined by learning the ropes, completing the budget process and granting land-use permits, the four new councilors have been able to check off some things on their “to do” lists.
Bennett-Parker said she’s excited about a program she’s working on to provide every Alexandria City Public Schools student with an Alexandria library card. She said she’s also proud of the Butterfly Effect mural she had painted on upper King Street.
Aguirre and Jackson said they are proud of their respective work improving access to government services for non-English speakers and increasing affordable housing options in the city.
Seifeldein said that the work council has put into improving Alexandria over the past eight months has been impressive, but that most efforts are ongoing.
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“I am proud of the work I have done, which includes … passing a balanced budget without raising taxes, an ambitious environmental action plan, legal funding to guard against family separation, funding early childhood education and fighting for affordable housing,” Seifeldein said.
Fall and beyond
Council business never really slows down, even in the summer when council isn’t convening for public hearings and legislative meetings, the newcomers said. Councilors spend their long summer days at public events and meetings for the various boards and commissions they serve on.
Without as many night meetings, the summer is also a great opportunity to catch up on long-delayed meetings with constituents, Aguirre said.
Now, council is back in session, and the four new councilors are anticipating what is sure to be a busy fall session, they said.
“I feel great and I’m ready to tackle the fall session with more energy and tougher questions,” Seifeldein said.
Starting in September, council will vote on the contentious Seminary Road project, followed shortly by the Patrick Henry swing space issue and the e-scooter pilot program. That’s not to mention the ongoing effects of Amazon’s arrival in the region.
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Outside of regular meetings, council will have joint work sessions with the school board and with Arlington City Council at the beginning of October, plus CIP budget meetings.
Some councilors said they’re already concerned about the latter. Jackson said this year’s budget is going to be “gruesome” compared to last year’s.
“I don’t foresee this upcoming budget season being as simple as the last one,” Aguirre said. “I think we’re going to see some CIP issues.”
Despite all the expected and unexpected challenges that this new cohort of councilors will face, with eight months under their belt, they all said they are feeling confident about the discussions, questions and votes ahead of them.
“It’s definitely been interesting and fun, but I am really looking forward to this next session to get going,” Aguirre said. “We’ve all learned a little bit more. We’ve all grown a little bit more.”