Our View: Who do our leaders work for?

Our View: Who do our leaders work for?
Intersection of Seminary Road and Greenwood Place. (Photo credit: Missy Schrott)

The debate about whether or how to restructure Seminary Road is expected to draw to a close with a vote at Saturday’s city council public hearing. All parties involved appear to be frustrated with the process, as three letters on the following opinion pages attest.

The way this issue has been handled by city staff and city council raises two important questions about local representative government, which reverberate well beyond what happens on Seminary Road:

Who do our city staff, mayor and city council actually work for? And to what extent should we expect staff and council to defer to the wishes of those most impacted by their decisions?

One of the most controversial aspects of the almost two-year Seminary Road process has been the way input from non-Alexandrians has been treated as the equal of opinions expressed by residents.

Surveys seeking input on options for Seminary Road did not require respondents to list a city or state of residence. This means that while those who oppose narrowing Seminary Road are almost all local – primarily nearby residents and city fire officials – those who favor a road diet are as likely to be bicycle advocates from out of state as they are Alexandria residents.

Perhaps on some level we all aspire to be citizens of the world, with no national, state or local boundaries and in which we only think globally. But in reality, because utopia doesn’t exist, the United States is a representative democracy, while the City of Alexandria has a city manager/city council form of government.

In Alexandria, residents elect the mayor and council, who function as a legislature and in turn select the city manager, who functions as an unelected executive. Most other city staff report solely to the city manager.

The unfortunate aspect of this setup is that unelected, largely unaccountable city staff wield enormous power over local decisions through their control of process. And process includes details such as whether to consider surveys that don’t include the city and state of respondents.

A cynical analysis of this process would lead to the conclusion that city staff favor the option of narrowing Seminary Road referred to as a “road diet” and deliberately designed the process to produce a desired result. We would be less likely to hold this opinion if this process happened less often.

The second question, concerning the extent to which our elected officials should listen to residents, is interrelated but different.

Public input isn’t supposed to be a box to be checked so that city staff, the mayor and city council can then push through whatever they want. If that’s not our local method of operation, then why are so few initiatives that come before council defeated? The only one in recent memory that failed was the proposed Business Improvement District in Old Town that met with overwhelming opposition from potentially impacted businesses and residents.

Yes, NIMBYism is alive and well, and small concerns by a few generally should not stand in the way of the greater good. But conversely, the wishes of a small number of advocates/lobbyists/zealots should not overrule the clear wishes of residents from large swaths of Alexandria. This is true for Seminary Road – but it’s also true for other issues.

Perhaps the most honest and convincing input on the Seminary Road debate came from former Alexandria Fire Chief Robert Dube. While Dube, in an interview with Alexandria Times editor Missy Schrott, declined to comment on Seminary Road in particular, he clearly stated that he believes narrowing major roads in general is detrimental to public safety. Will council consider the professional opinion of its own former fire chief when deciding whether to narrow Seminary Road and other main city arteries?

We believe city council should heed the clear preference of Alexandrians and leave Seminary Road at four lanes. We also believe this is unlikely to happen, and that the goal all along has been for council to consider, then pass, the road diet alternative.

Alexandrians can take heart from the following: If your local elected representatives do not heed your clear wishes, then you have the ability to vote them out of office. Saturday’s Seminary Road vote may be the first salvo in the 2021 local election.