Our View: An important session

Our View: An important session
Photo/Cody Mello-Klein

City council returns from its summer break next week and will immediately begin considering issues of great significance.

At its Sept. 8 legislative meeting, council will examine the important and divisive topic of whether and how to create a community police oversight board. Proponents say a board is needed to preempt police violence like other communities around the country have experienced, while opponents say a board is redundant because the Human Rights Commission already has oversight of complaints about police.

We aren’t satisfied with either an all new board or the status quo and think the need for ethical oversight goes beyond the police de- partment to include all facets of government.

Alexandria needs an independent ombudsman who would investigate complaints about police behavior and would also be the city’s overall ethical watchdog. During the debate on ethics reform in 2016, Councilor John Chapman at one point proposed an ombudsman. It’s still a good idea.

Council also may consider a zoning amendment that was approved Tuesday night by the Planning Commission regarding allowable floor area ratios for public schools. See today’s Times page one story, “Bigger Schools?” for more details.

We commend the commission for its compromise vote, which retains the requirement for a special use permit for buildings with FAR above the amount allowed in specific zones. That means the public will still have a say because each school proposal must seek a size waiver above a .35 FAR. But the proposal also allows building designs to be considered up to .75 rather than the previous cap of .60.

This compromise seems reasonable to us, given the city’s lack of land and the need for schools to become larger as a result. At the same time, it retains the public process and doesn’t simply allow these larger schools to be approved “by right.” Another contentious issue that may come before council this fall is the Heritage development that the Alexandria Board of Architectural Review recently deferred. This development is simply too large for the city’s Old and Historic District and needs to go back to the – much smaller – drawing board.

There’s a limit to the amount of traffic and density this city can handle, and this development more than any single project that’s been proposed in recent years would do irreparable harm to the fabric of our city.

And then there’s the budget. How does the city make ends meet while suffering enormous revenue losses due to the pandemic? How does a city whose economy is largely based on tourism survive when the tourists don’t come?

We will be curious to see how City Manager Mark Jinks wields his magic pencil during this year’s budget process, as his skills as a budget crafter will be tested as never before by the coronavirus-caused budgetary hole.

The city’s flexibility in allowing restaurants and retail stores to set up shop on sidewalks and even into roadways has helped many local businesses stay afloat during the pandemic-caused shutdown and partial reopening, which has also kept revenues going into city coffers. Bill Reagan, executive director of the Small Business Development Center, explores some of the ways Alexandria has pivoted during the pandemic in his column on the facing page.

Council has many important decisions to make this fall. For everyone’s sake, we hope there are no more major minefields we all have to navigate.