A trustworthy process

A trustworthy process

To the editor:

I would like to express my appreciation to city staff – particularly Jesse Maines, Camille Liebnitzky and City Manager Jim Parajon – for their fair-minded community engagement process regarding Strawberry Run’s stream restoration. Not as well-known as Taylor Run’s effort, Strawberry took a “just the facts, ma’am” approach.

During this process we learned from staff. For example, Liebnitzky explained the best way to slow the stream’s erosive velocity is by using “stepped” efforts like a series of log jams. Additionally, staff gained our respect by considering wood – rather than boulders – for a more ecological mitigation of Strawberry’s erosion which affects the Chesapeake Bay.

The staff conducted a serious community engagement process by not limiting citizen statements to one to two minutes, without offering a reply; rather, they engaged us in respectful back-and-forth discussions on the community’s concerns. Consequently, regardless of the final staff recommendations, it will do so with the confidence of many involved that their proposals were sincerely discussed and considered.

I’d therefore like to add balance to Mayor Justin Wilson’s recent council comments about a “happenstance” decision to return $3 million dollars of state grants to the Commonwealth. His concern was that “we’re going to be coming back to them [Alexandria’s citizens] to seek to deal with this, not just for $3 million dollars, but potentially many, many millions more.”

The deadline to use the grants – $800,000 for Strawberry; $2.2 million for Taylor – did run out during the long engagement process. However, for Strawberry, it resulted in saving the taxpayers many times the $800,000 precisely because the city took time to engage the community:

After city staff agreed to measure the amount of Strawberry’s pollutants flowing into Chesapeake Bay, it concluded that its plan to spend $1.6 million – the $800,000 state grant and $800,000 from Alexandria – would buy three-fourths fewer pollution credits than it had estimated by using Natural Channel Design. Staff judiciously identified other means to achieve the mandated pollution credits.

The staff earlier agreed to also re-examine the only NCD done by the city – in 2010, in Strawberry – and informed council it had failed. Staff located a 2013 city presentation explaining how the NCD had begun failing after one month and completely so within three years. It raised the question: would another Strawberry NCD avoid the same fate, risking $1.6 million taxpayer dollars?

During the reexamination, staff assessed a head cut, or small waterfall, the community warned was in the southern portion of Strawberry. The staff informed council, “This head cut must be stopped from advancing upstream … and [eroding away] whatever is placed there” – a definite savings of $1.6 million.

The community also pointed out NCD’s engineering design was based on a stream velocity of 9 feet per second from a 100-year storm, but that a city study calculated Strawberry’s velocity was 22 feet per second for a 10-year storm where NCD’s construction would begin – potentially jeopardizing the taxpayers’ $1.6 million investment.

Subsequently, staff decided to forgo NCD and pursue a minimal intervention approach for Strawberry, estimating its two alternatives are a few hundred thousand dollars – not “many millions” – more than NCD’s original $1.6 million cost. Inflation is largely responsible for the additional cost, but the presentations, particularly using wood, showed significant ways to reduce that price for taxpayers.

But I write most to underscore the staff’s professionalism, starting with the city manager, who oversaw a public engagement process which truly engaged citizens. I learned the value of professionalism after being elected as the second Democrat congressman since the Civil War in a nearly 2:1 Republican district.

I remember 10 packed town halls – many with upset Tea Party patriots – as we discussed the pending healthcare bill, the Affordable Care Act. During each town hall I learned two things: I was wrong on some aspects of the bill and worked to change them. Second, I earned trust by engaging in a demanding public process, and was re-elected by 20 points.

Likewise, the staff’s Strawberry engagement made for both better policy and earned trust as they proved themselves good stewards of taxpayers’ dollars.

–Joe Sestak, Alexandria