City Hall Watch: Whose priorities are these?

City Hall Watch: Whose priorities are these?
Bill Rossello. (Courtesy photo)

By Bill Rossello

After their spring retreat, City Council announced its six priorities for their current term. Why is it not surprising that the list doesn’t seem to reflect community preferences very well? Listed first is “Recover from the COVID-19 Pandemic.” No doubt the pandemic was disruptive and tragic, but the crisis has passed. Most residents have returned to some semblance of normal life. Why this is still at the top of the list is befuddling.

In describing the priority to “Provide Diverse Housing Opportunities,” council declared the need to “reconsider our zoning model and explore other tools.” Outside of council, developers and a few activists, no one is demanding more density in a city that already has diverse housing choices. The next one, “Define Our Community Engagement Approach,” implies that city hall lacks something so basic to municipal government. An approach to effective, honest and transparent engagement should already exist.

A noble objective is embodied in the “Support Youth and Families” priority. But this seems more like an admission of failure by a city that already has so many programs in this area. Long-time city watchers will undoubtedly say, “Well, it’s about time,” when they see “Foster Economic Development” as a priority. Particularly after more than a decade of seeing Arlington do what we haven’t – pursue smart redevelopment that attracts larger businesses and related economic activity.

Here’s one that reflects a truly astounding admission: “Develop a Compensation Philosophy.” How can a city that prides itself in sound financial management and valuing employees, have no compensation philosophy? It certainly had one in the 1990s and 2000s. What happened?

So, whose priorities are these? While many residents might agree with some of them, here are some seemingly more pressing alternatives to council’s list:

As serious crime has become more prevalent, City Council has de-emphasized one of its most basic functions: policing. So, perhaps one priority should have been to “Ensure Security.” Low pay levels, defunding the school resource officers and establishing a police review board have led to an exodus that leaves us short by some 30% of the authorized force.

How about “Maintain Infrastructure?” City officials were dragged kicking and screaming to get on this in recent years. It was mostly state government officials who forced the city to address the environmental disaster of our raw sewage flowing directly into the Potomac. And it was Del Ray residents who fought the city on flooding issues that city officials blamed on climate change and homeowner negligence.

Everyone loves their neighborhood, but residents from the West End to Old Town are now up in arms about city policies that threaten theirs. Playing around with zoning ordinances and bonus height density is the latest affront to them. “Save Our Neighborhoods,” might have been a spot-on priority.

Interesting that improving schools is a common campaign theme of local officials, but when it came time for the last council to govern, they spent more time condescending to ACPS than discussing education. A priority to “Support Quality Education” would have resonated well throughout the community.

And how about “Address Traffic Challenges” as a priority. Nearly all of Alexandria’s 80,000 households have one or two motor vehicles. While increased density and “mobility” policies increasingly favor some 6,000 bus riders, a few hundred regular bike riders and a few scooter riders, congestion just gets worse.

Finally, there is a reckoning ahead, as city staff finally pointed out at the recent council retreat. This city is about to become much less affordable for residents due to city hall’s deferral of capital improvements over many council terms. There have been few times when “Manage Impending Financial Challenges” would be a higher priority. What’s becoming crystal clear is that council’s misalignment with resident priorities has come at great cost, particularly to our quality of life. Perhaps they should plan another retreat to discuss how to better align with residents’ priorities.

The writer is a civic advocate, management consultant and long-time Alexandria resident.