By Mark Eaton
“I don’t know about you guys, but maybe it’s just because I’m old. As it gets late and we continue talking about the same stuff. … It’s just me, but you all can finish up. I’m done.”
So said School Board member Willie Bailey at 11 p.m. prior to leaving an October 5 public work session. The work session, which followed a two-hour Board meeting, adjourned because of the absence of an in-person quorum.
The Board was seeking consensus on proposals to revise when and how Board members are elected and the length of their terms of office. This is a gnarly topic with numerous variables and alternatives – to fully engage with its complexities at a late hour requires concentration.
Some might see Bailey’s departure as one more example of government dysfunction. Others may admire Bailey for being self-aware and realizing that fatigue precluded his meaningful participation in the work session at a late hour. In any case, the episode reveals much about public service in Alexandria.
We want our officeholders and city staff to bring experience, insights and wisdom to their positions; however, it seems that the most important attribute might be stamina, or at least the ability to stay awake.
We expect to see elected officials, in the words of former Mayor Bill Euille, “out and about” at weekend and evening events. They are also expected to attend numerous meetings of indefinite duration. At some point, glassy-eyed brain-lock sets in.
Of course, elected officials run for their positions; meetings and communications with constituents and others are part of the job description. Even so, the question of how many excellent decisions, or insights that contribute to excellent decisions, occur after 10 p.m. could be a topic for an academic study by an enterprising political scientist. The anecdotal evidence suggests that the answer is “not many.”
Every Council or Board meeting is divided between topics which require members to act as witnesses – such as proclamations, public comments and staff reports – and topics that require engagement and debate. The former almost always occur early in the meeting when members are freshest.
Complex matters often require detailed interactions with staff or experts which leads to the proliferation of topic-specific work sessions that involve discussion, but no formal vote.
At best, a modest amount of time is dedicated to actual debate in the regularly scheduled meetings of the city’s public officials.
These realities – and the media’s tendency to cover Council and Board meetings more than work sessions – can lead to a common Alexandria reaction when controversial issues such as zoning reform surface: “Why haven’t I heard about this?”
Inevitably, there are those who assert that issues are a surprise or are being rushed to adoption. City officials anticipate, or respond to, this sentiment by scheduling more meetings, work sessions or community forums. A current example: it seems that an event relating to zoning reform has been scheduled about every other day from now through the end of this month when Council is scheduled to vote on the package of reform proposals.
In the distant past, I chaired the School Board. Once or twice, when the proposed agenda was light, I canceled a meeting which resulted in instant and unanimous acclaim from my Board colleagues and the ACPS senior staff. There are times when people reach their collective limit and progress will not be significantly compromised by omitting a meeting.
Of course, every participant is partially responsible for how long a meeting goes. Repetitive and off topic remarks take time, as do staff responses to questions from unprepared participants.
Two U.S senators, members of the self-proclaimed “world’s greatest deliberative body” and a talk Mecca, had valuable insight on public service. The late Senator Howard Baker offered this advice:
“Listen more often than you speak. Once again, as my late father-in-law, Everett Dirksen, once admonished me in my first year in [the Senate], ‘occasionally allow yourself the luxury of an unexpressed thought.’”
So, if you encounter an Alexandria elected official who seems a touch snappish or who responds curtly to a message, you might give that person a break. They were probably up late.
The writer is a former lawyer, member of the Alexandria School Board from 1997 to 2006, and English teacher from 2007 to 2021 at T.C. Williams High School, now Alexandria City High School. He can be reached at email@example.com and subscriptions to his newsletter are available free at https://aboutalexandria.substack.com/.