A Monumental erosion of civic trust

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A Monumental erosion of civic trust
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To the editor:

Trust is won in drops and lost in buckets. City Council – and, worse, supposedly nonpartisan city government functions – have forgotten this axiom since the announcement of the Potomac Yard arena proposal in December 2023.

Consider:

• Economic analyses and proposal documents have been released piecemeal, with elements redacted, and in some cases, via media leaks.

• Other than describing competing analysis from the District of Columbia as “wildly inaccurate,” city leaders have refused to detail a response, claiming that the city cannot engage with “everyone” – though an adjacent polity is hardly “everyone.”

• Monumental Sports & Entertainment has begun to engage civic leaders in its own campaign efforts, including a Super Bowl party attended by the current mayor and at least one candidate for City Council.

• The communications staff at city hall have used the city’s social media communications to evangelize for the “immediate” benefits of the project.

What the city describes as community engagement has taken the shape and form of a campaign. A campaign that uses selective information, an accelerated timeline and a tone of the experts know better to circumvent democratic deliberation and debate.

I’m not writing to debate the arena – that’s a longer discussion, and it should be a longer discussion. It would be unwise to rush one of the largest tax-increment financing deals the country has witnessed. Rather, I want to challenge the approach taken by city leaders to “engagement.” It risks a severe erosion of civic trust in a city that, like much of the country, has seen a decline of trust over the last several years.

A better engagement campaign would:

• Slow down to allow time for meaningful debate, especially in light of upcoming elections.

• Make it an actual deliberative debate rather than a campaign. The proposal commits the city to $100 million in funding. That deserves debate, not parties and pop-up events.

• Establish an open-access digital repository of proposal-related documents. This should include the ability for citizens or other entities to share alternative proposal analysis.

• Engage a neutral third-party to conduct polls of Alexandria residents, and publish the results.

One doesn’t need to default to conspiracy theorizing to assert that democratic deliberation, in the best sense of the term, should not be secondary to corporate interests or timelines.

That we should default to transparency rather than technocracy. That trust is less a matter of the position you take on an issue, and more a matter of how you enact the principles that led you to that position.

Or maybe Alexandria Democrats simply forgot how to be Democrats.

-Mark Tonsetic, Alexandria

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