City Hall Watch with Bill Rossello: Three more years?

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City Hall Watch with Bill Rossello: Three more years?
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By Bill Rossello

In a couple of weeks, early voting will begin for the Democratic primary for mayor and City Council. The field is dominated by six incumbents, two of whom are running for mayor. Only the current mayor is sitting this one out. Three councilors are running for a second three-year term, two are running for a third term and John Taylor Chapman is running for a fifth term.

The big question for voters: Do they all deserve another term?

Let’s look at Council’s record over this timeframe when most of them followed the urbanist ideology to a tee and largely ignored the obvious preferences of a majority of residents on major issues.

As part of the Zoning for Housing package of proposals it approved, this Council ended single-family zone protections and eliminated important parking restrictions. A second term for the incumbents would likely lead to a rush to pass a phase two of the controversial initiative, eliminating most remaining lot restrictions.

Traffic congestion is up and mobility is down for the approximately 90% of Alexandria homes that depend on motor vehicles. Looming projects like Duke Street in Motion promise significantly higher density, dedicated bus lanes and traffic gridlock along narrowed major corridors. Beauregard Street would be next. Meanwhile, Council has dramatically increased its subsidization of what is now a free DASH bus service. Yet, residents still observe buses riding around empty or nearly so most of the day.

Council’s spending and pressure on the School Board haven’t had much impact on education quality, teacher retention or parent satisfaction. In the area of school security, some current incumbents were part of the previous Council that made the unwise decision to remove school resource officers, only to later reverse the decision in the face of public uproar. Parents, teachers and students still hold legitimate school safety concerns.

Several incumbents are committed to an unprecedented election year tax rate hike to address the city’s increasingly challenging financial situation. Rather than employing fiscal restraint to deal with the shortfall, members are recommending dozens of costly additional items to the city manager’s proposed budget. So, Alexandria is likely to remain the Northern Virginia jurisdiction with the highest tax rates and fees in nearly every category.

This Council continued a long history of disappointing economic development efforts. Most of the current Council felt that the arena deal was their opportunity to finally bring big revenue to the city, but it reflected just how out of touch they are with the pulse of the community.

Incumbents devoted funds to fighting climate change, a challenge best addressed at other levels of government. Meanwhile, they largely neglected our tree canopy, attacked our clean natural streams and claimed building rooftops as green space.

Despite this Council’s formal commitment to community engagement, some councilors publicly denigrated residents – including recognized experts – at public hearings. Add to that a continuing pattern of biased city-administered surveys and town hall events where resident questions are carefully screened and residents are prohibited from speaking.

Some new candidates may be worse. One is an avowed urbanist and co-author of an online blog with a penchant for sophomoric rhetoric attacking respected civic leaders with whom he disagrees. Two others are School Board members; enough said based on that group’s ineptitude in recent years.

One more big question: Does the financial support from big money development interests matter? Mayoral candidate Alyia Gaskins and Councilor Kirk McPike have received huge donations from organizations and people affiliated with companies that stand to gain from more local development. Donation information is available at the Virginia Public Access Project website, vpap.org.

What are disaffected voters to do? First, do your homework before voting. Visit incumbent candidate websites to see what they claim are their chief accomplishments. Did their proposals and votes meaningfully improve things in the city?

Note which ones are coordinating efforts on their campaigns. In an unprecedented move, Gaskins, along with Councilors Sarah Bagley and McPike, are unabashedly endorsing each other.

By all means, explore the new candidates’ websites. Some – including James Lewis, Charlotte Scherer and Jonathan Huskey – are offering new ideas for long-standing issues.

Only vote for candidates who promise to address the city’s most critical issues. That may leave you voting for fewer than six candidates. Remember, the more candidates you vote for, the more you dilute the power of your vote for your top picks. Finally, don’t fall for lofty rhetoric from the incumbents since only the record matters. On that score, it’s been a disappointing three years.

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

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