Our View: Public input reflects healthy governance

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The stretch of Seminary Road between North Howard Street and North Quaker Lane. (Photo credit: Missy Schrott)
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Saturday’s city council public hearing on how to redesign Seminary Road was an example of democracy in action.

A controversial issue that both divided and galvanized the community brought more than 100 residents forward to speak their minds to city council, in addition to those who observed from the audience and tuned in at home. Many of the speakers were insightful and eloquent. While a few made snarky comments, the majority provided personal stories and nuance that made each person’s testimony compelling.

This process united Alexandria’s various civic associations. Leaders from these groups expressed satisfaction at this devel- opment and indicated they intend to be more of a political force moving forward. This is a positive development for public engagement in Alexandria.

The issue also motivated bicycle enthusiasts, pedestrian safety advocates and many others living on or near Seminary Road to testify in favor of the “road diet” option.

Saturday’s public hearing made clear that there is significant support for this alternative within the City of Alexandria, support that we admit we previously underestimated.

A process like Saturday’s public hearing lets people on both sides of an issue hear what their neighbors think, which helps create empathy. Civic association leaders testified in favor of keeping Seminary Road at four lanes, while some dues-paying members of those same associations respectfully testified in favor of a road diet.

Several members of city council also demonstrated real leadership on the dais. Newcomers Amy Jackson, Mo Seifeldein and Canek Aguirre took the lead in peppering staff with questions during their presentations, which set the stage for council’s full discussion of the issue after public testimony had wrapped up.

Vice Mayor Elizabeth Bennett-Parker and Councilor John Chapman were especially impressive as they explained their reasoning for, in the case of Bennett-Parker, and against, in the case of Chapman, the road diet option. Bennett-Parker detailed her extensive personal research – which is becoming a staple of her council tenure – on the topic in explaining why she was voting for the road diet.

Chapman explained why he, like Transportation and Parking Board Chairman William Schuyler, had supported a road diet on King Street but felt the circumstances were different on Seminary Road. Chapman also contended this vote was premature, as it didn’t allow sufficient time for the culture of driving on Seminary Road to change – as it did on Quaker Lane – when the speed limit was lowered from 35 to 25 miles per hour.

It was appropriate that the final council vote was 4-3, given that both the road diet and four lane proposals had roughly equal support in the community. While we are sorry the road diet passed, and still think it’s inappropriate for that stretch of Seminary, the process worked on Saturday.

Unfortunately – and stunningly – instead of celebrating the fact that 110 Alexandrians signed up to speak at the public hearing, the tremendous civic engagement this issue generated or the fact that his preferred road diet prevailed, Mayor Justin Wilson fumed at the end of the hearing that “this can’t happen again.”

When pressed by the Times to explain his public hearing statement, Wilson said he meant the process needs to be expedited because in the case of Seminary, a year-long process on a 0.9 mile stretch of road had put too much strain on everybody involved.

The irony with Wilson’s frustration is that council needn’t have considered this issue at all, which would have saved at least eight hours of time. It was city staff, which made clear their preference for the road diet option from the start, that appealed the matter to council even before the TPB voted. Clearly, staff read the tea leaves and anticipated the TPB’s vote in favor of four lanes on Seminary.

The problem with “expediting the process” is that residents would certainly be left with less input if the same process isn’t followed when, say, Duke Street is due for repaving and a road diet is proposed. Worse, if what the mayor has in mind is a text amendment that requires all repaved roads to undergo road diets, then residents would have no input at all when future major arteries are up for repaving.

The democratic process is often messy. Contentious, divisive issues are part of that process. Every year in Alexandria, a handful of important topics result in lengthy public hearings like Saturday’s. Far from being a problem that “can’t happen again,” meetings like Saturday’s showcase our city’s health. And public input, even six hours of it, is the straw that stirs the drink.

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