Digging a bigger hole with the community

Digging a bigger hole with the community
Bill Rossello. (Courtesy photo)

By Bill Rossello

Civic association leaders often find themselves going to bat for a smaller group of residents on an issue of little import to the community at large. If you are worth your salt, you address it regardless, especially in a city where elected officials seldom seem interested in a cause for regular residents. 

This became glaringly apparent in light of the city’s goofy decision to place playing field light poles on the Hammond Middle School track. Virtually no one aside from the immediate neighbors of the school, some physical education teachers and some joggers are concerned. 

Yet, it is in those moments of civic discourse on such an issue that you learn what city officials are really made of. How they react and interact speaks volumes about their priorities as public servants. In local government, those moments also serve as a remarkably accurate predictor of future behavior on the big issues that affect tens of thousands of residents. Despite their seemingly minor significance, they end up being moments that actually matter. 

What happened at Francis C. Hammond Middle School was a simple case of the city trying to expand the capacity of a playing field at night to meet growing community demand. Installing lights for the playing field there has been proposed twice now during the past dozen years. 

The surrounding community would rather not have lights, but has been willing to accept them under one simple condition: That the city control chronically abhorrent adult behavior around the field and the back parking lot at night. 

On this, the city and ACPS have failed miserably. They have simply ignored valid concerns and deflected accountability among departments. 

This latest time, the Department of Recreation, Parks and Community Activities applied in the spring of 2022 for a special use permit. They appropriately engaged sports groups, the School Board and the community in eight public meetings. Each time they presented the location of the light poles as outside the outer edge of the track. 

But unfortunately, that placement fell within the 35-foot legal setback from a right of way, which would have violated their own rules. By the fall, it became clear to RPCA that the poles could not be placed there. Apparently, they changed the pole location to be right on the track. 

Who installs light poles right on one athletic facility mere feet from the sideline of another athletic facility? Apparently our city does. 

And they told absolutely no one. After the fact, RPCA deputy Jack Browand responded in the most bureaucratic manner possible to the civic association’s letter on this issue: “Pages 179 through 184 of the staff report (attached) clearly identify the three light pole’s [sic] location in the inside lane of the track.” 

I see. Good CYA work on behalf of the city, but does that reflect the city’s stated priority to “ensure that engagement is efficient, effective and accessible to all stakeholders?” Hmmm. Was the city afraid of openly showing the changed pole location, and therefore reopening stakeholder engagement on this topic? 

In an apparent rush to beat a pending lawsuit opposing installation of lights at Hammond, RPCA began installation, initially digging holes straddling lanes two and three of the six-lane track. When alerted by Seminary Hill Association that the lights had been placed on the track, the contractor moved them to the “right” location in what most would consider lane one of the track. 

Mayor Justin Wilson and two City Councilors initially blamed the contractor for the poles being placed on the track, but in subsequent comments by city officials, that assertion was notably absent. It appears that RPCA gave its contractor the wrong dimensions. 

Wilson later admitted that the poles’ placement was “suboptimal.” Then he backtracked on Fox 5, saying that the final location “was clearly documented in the docket materials [11/12 Council public hearing materials]. There’s no lack of clarity on this and … I think was discussed with the community in the process leading up to it.” 

That is false. The new location was not discussed with the community prior to the poles’ installation. 

Two Councilors have expressed concern, but only Vice Mayor Amy Jackson has expressed outrage. ACPS was characteristically unresponsive except for the Hammond principal. Seems like the former superintendent’s “gag order” on School Board members is still in effect. 

What do our local leaders’ actions on the Hammond light poles portend for the future? 

If deception, incompetence and nonresponses are what we get on a small project of importance to only a few residents, why would we think city officials will behave differently on much bigger, more complex and much more expensive projects like Duke Street in Motion and the transformational overhaul of the city’s regulations in Zoning for Housing? 

The writer is a civic advocate, management consultant and longtime Alexandria resident.