Our View: Council must reclaim policy-making role

Our View: Council must reclaim policy-making role
The walking path through Chinquapin Park. (Photo/Missy Schrott)

Policy can be developed in many ways, and some are definitely better than others. Sometimes policy percolates out of think tanks. There, it has the advantage of often being developed by experts in the relevant field. But policy developed in this way can also be impractical – more ivory tower than rubber-meets-road – and driven by ideology.

Sometimes policies are implemented expediently out of necessity and analyzed later. The best policies are implemented on a trial basis and then revised and ultimately copied elsewhere if reliable data proves the desired outcome was both accomplished and is beneficial.

In nationwide and statewide elections, policies often become lynchpins of campaigns. Sometimes a politician is elected largely on the basis of a very specific policy proposal. A case in point is former Virginia Governor Jim Gilmore, a sometimes resident of Alexandria, who campaigned and won by emphasizing one key policy: to eliminate the hated car tax.

This kind of clear choice is great for citizens, who can base their vote on whether they agree with the overarching policy vision and then decide if those they voted for fulfilled their policy promises.

Our local elections tend to be less policy driven. This is partly because Alexandria has become a one-party town, lacking in wholesale competing visions. And that’s too bad, because voters need to deliberately select a particular vision or else it’s chosen for them. For instance:

Do readers remember conversations during prior City Council elections about whether parking should be diminished throughout the city? About whether adding bike lanes should be the top priority when designing or re-paving roads? About whether density waivers for developers are the best way to obtain more affordable housing? About the tradeoffs involved with deferring maintenance of sewers and outfalls?

We sure don’t.

This is largely because policy in Alexandria is being driven by city staff and it’s generally a done deal by the time it’s presented to residents and then to City Council for “input.” So, our elected leaders currently have little say in actual policy decision-making, but rather simply approve or very rarely deny the policy vision placed before them by staff.

For residents, this type of “input” is like a lopsided marriage, where one spouse gets to decide whether to buy a house, how much to spend, what neighborhood to buy in and the house’s design – and the other gets to decide whether the bathroom should be blue or green.

Relationships like that can work if the spouse with no real voice prefers to leave the work, and decisions, to their partner. But large numbers of Alexandria residents have made it very clear they don’t want to be like the voiceless spouse.

All manner of groups – civic associations, those advocating for in-person school, environmentalists, advocates for transparency – are increasingly vocal about wanting more input into city policy decisions.

A clear case in point is the frustrating case of Taylor Run. See today’s page one story, “Turmoil over Taylor Run,” for a recap. This is an instance where policy was driven by city staff obtaining grant funding that, once obtained, committed the city to a particular course.

In this instance, it’s a course that involves significant and seemingly needless destruction of one of the largest undeveloped natural habitats within Alexandria, in pursuit of funding that’s being granted so that the city can check a box to receive credit for reduction of pollution that is mostly absent from the site.

Alexandria’s policy is being driven by pursuit of environmental credits rather than actual protection of our local environment. It’s being driven by grant attainment rather than deliberation about what’s environmentally preferable for this site. That the city hasn’t, and refuses to, conduct its own tests for phosphorus and nitrogen levels at Taylor Run says it all.

Our city staff are by and large capable and dedicated. But it’s their job to implement policy, not determine it.

Fortunately, we find ourselves in the midst of a local election just as resident groups seem most upset about having their voices muted.

Each citizen should be sure they understand the policy vision of all candidates for council and mayor before voting in the June 8 Democratic primary. Alexandria needs legislators who are prepared to re-assert council’s policy-setting authority.