By Olivia Anderson | [email protected]
Monday night was filled with pivots as the incoming Alexandria City Council took office in a virtual ceremony prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic and a surprise snowstorm.
Add on top the fact that Mayor Justin Wilson took the oath from Spain, where he has remained after testing positive for COVID-19 during a family vacation, and the result was a ceremony that was, at the very least, unconventional.
“It sucks,” Wilson told the Times before the ceremony. “This is now my fifth time taking the oath and it’s always a special moment and it feels a little less special on a Zoom. That’s kind of disappointing and sad. But they say rain on your wedding day is good luck, so this is a good omen for the council. … I’m gonna take it like that.”
The virtual ceremony began with Alexandria Clerk of Court Greg Parks swearing the new City Council into office. Wilson went first and was followed by council, consisting of incumbents Amy Jackson, John Chapman and Canek Aguirre, and newcomers Sarah Bagley, Alyia Gaskins and Kirk McPike.
Gaskins nominated Jackson for vice mayor, with McPike seconding. Jackson received the most votes in the election at 14.58%, or 32,077 votes. She was sworn in unanimously.
During her speech, Jackson said that COVID-19 recovery efforts will remain a top priority in the coming months for council. She also thanked her team and family, particularly her mother.
“I’ve always had [my mother as] a role model to look up to, knowing nothing stood in her way, and I hope that I’m still being a role model to my own children and all youth to say, ‘Nothing should stop you or stand in your way of succeeding in your goals and your dreams that you hold dear and want to accomplish in life,’” Jackson said.
Gaskins told the Times that the swearing-in ceremony was one she would never forget.
“While I never would have imagined that I would be sworn in virtually, I am so thankful that our amazing city staff was able to make it possible,” Gaskins said. “The thing I will remember most is taking my oath and hearing my son running around screaming in the background.”
Bagley shared a similar sentiment, acknowledging that she would have preferred the ceremony to take place in person but that safety is a top priority, particularly as the highly contagious Omicron variant spreads throughout the region. Plus, she said, virtual meetings are far from a foreign concept at this point in the pandemic.
“The virtual ceremony, more than anything else, was a reflection of our city staff and virtual tools yet again rising to the moment and working to find a way. I announced my candidacy online via Zoom, did most of my primary campaigning online or socially distanced, so it was almost fitting to have the installation happen remotely as well,” Bagley told the Times.
The ceremony also paid homage to the previous council, with outgoing councilors Elizabeth Bennett-Parker, Del Pepper and Mo Seifeldein all reflecting on their time on the dais. They shared words of encouragement for their replacements and also their hopes for the future of Alexandria. City Manager Mark Jinks attended his last council meeting on Monday, ahead of his retirement.
A repeated notion Monday night was that although the previous council accomplished much, the COVID-19 pandemic got in the way of additional achievements.
Bennett-Parker, who was elected to the House of Delegates for the 45th District in November, pointed out that this will mark the fourth time in Alexandria history that the council is half female. Before 2019, it had been 18 years since voters elected a half female council. She used her speech to encourage diversity in future councils.
“The 2019 council was the most diverse in terms of race and gender and this council is just as diverse, if not even more so. As we strive to have a government that reflects our population, I hope that we are starting a trend,” Bennett-Parker said. “There’s a lot of interest, locally and nationally, in electing women, people of color, LGBTQ+ individuals … but while organizations exist to provide candidate training and campaign support, their work seems to stop after election and I haven’t seen anyone really focused on retention.”
Making decisions with the city’s future as a north star will be crucial, Seifeldein said.
“As you move forward and make decisions like that, just know that you’ll make difficult decisions, you may not see the benefits immediately, but we as a community as a whole will see them,” Seifeldein said. “I look forward to what you guys are going to do.”
Pepper also expressed confidence in the upcoming council. Pepper, who is the longest serving councilor in Alexandria’s history with 36 years on the dais, called the incoming slate a “winning ticket.”
“I’m certainly going to miss not being able to vote on anything that has to do with Duke Street or Landmark Mall or the Mirant Plant or a whole series of other things, but I have great hopes for what’s coming to us,” Pepper said. The ceremony also included a prerecorded procession, announcement from the town crier and ethics pledge.
Administered by Parks, in the ethics pledge the six councilors and Wilson all promised to uphold the city’s Code of Ethics and Conduct by serving with “integrity, impartiality and transparency.”
Several officials dedicated a portion of their speech to addressing the importance of polite disagreement and respectful engagement when it comes to solving larger issues.
“I don’t think I’m right on everything, I don’t think any of us believe that about ourselves so I do value the opportunity to be criticized,” Chapman said. “Sometimes I can get a little loose and so sometimes I do need to have my concerns, my thoughts, my perspective questioned because that does tighten up how and what I bring to this community.”
Many also highlighted the unique circumstances surrounding the ceremony that led to its virtual format.
“We were going to be in person and then the snow hit, and then folks were in a different country, and some folks were sick, and we were gonna do hybrid, and maybe we were going to switch to here or there – all of these things we had to deal with, and yet I never cease to be amazed by the versatility and ingenuity of our staff,” Aguirre said.
The general tone of the night, while more subdued than previous installations, still exuded a sense of hope for the future. McPike, the last speaker of the night, expressed excitement for restoring LGBTQ+ representation on the council.
McPike said that council will aim to serve its constituents by tackling challenges such as flooding, housing affordability, climate change, supporting schools and “advancing Alexandria’s progressive values in an era where we cannot count on support from Richmond.”
“It is now on us to do our part to show that progressive governance can work, that we can bridge the divisions that exist within our community and tackle hard problems in effective ways,” McPike said. “ … If we do our jobs well, Alexandria can be a light that shows the way to a better future for our region and our Commonwealth.”
[Read more: School Board sworn in during virtual ceremony]