To the editor:
In the seemingly relentless attacks on civic associations and the citizens who spend countless hours trying to stay informed about city issues, Planning Commission Chair Nate Macek struck a new low at the Feb. 4 planning commission meeting. He added his voice to the chorus of those disparaging the value of civic engagement through civic associations, which have existed for decades and have provided valuable feedback to city officials.
In 2018, the city’s Joint City Schools Facility Investment Task Force issued its final report. One recommendation that the Task Force made was: “Leadership must lead and resist substituting leadership with engagement. Civic engagement is critical, but should not be treated as a substitute for strong leadership by elected officials.”
Some of our elected officials wasted no time in demonstrating their commitment to this philosophy. During the Seminary Road debate, Mayor Justin Wilson met with the unprecedented alliance of 13 civic association presidents. Based on his comments at that meeting, I got the impression that he thought he knows best, and his knowledge of transportation conditions and needs along Seminary Road superseded that of everyone in the room and anyone who opposed the road diet.
Right before council voted 4-3 to remove car travel lanes from Seminary Road, Wilson stated that the city cannot again have “this kind of knockdown, drag-out battle on every road in the city.” He dismissed the efforts of the 13 civic associations and warned that processes would have to be put in place to allow the city to make future decisions more quickly.
Taking their lead from the mayor, Vice Mayor Elizabeth Bennett-Parker and Councilor Canek Aguirre questioned the very legitimacy of civic associations and how they represent their residents.
Macek has taken the anti-civic association sentiment that now pervades city hall to a new level. While questioning staff about comments that residents made regarding proposed changes to small business regulations, Macek opined, “I think we have to keep that in mind too that there is a sort of self-selection bias in terms of who gets involved in neighborhood associations and civic associations and some of the anti-business views that people who comprise the membership of those organizations represent, and so there is naturally going to be a bias against relaxing the conditions by a group like that.”
I have had the privilege of working alongside many members and leaders of civic associations. The vast majority of these dedicated civic leaders have jobs or businesses. To dismiss them as being anti-business if they dare to question the policies put forward by city staff is arrogant and ill-informed.
Macek has made his bias against citizens clear. When residents spend hours preparing testimony to give before the planning commission, they expect to receive a fair hearing. Sadly, it is clear from Macek’s remarks that he dismisses any- one who comes before the planning commission representing a civic association as being biased. Ironically, his prejudice is the very definition of bias.
Members of Alexandria’s many civic associations are proud to be part of “a group like that,” and will continue to raise our collective voices for fairness, honesty and transparency in our city, despite attempts by some of our current elected and appointed officials to marginalize and minimize the role we play in a city that claims to value civic engagement.
-Carter Flemming, Alexandria