Process matters in decisions

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Process matters in decisions
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To the editor:

When I first ran for City Council in 1979 I was pretty confident that I understood most of the major issues and had a good feel for the community – I had lived in Alexandria all my life, and still do. The first big campaign event was a forum for all the candidates in one of the active neighborhoods and there were lots of questions about current issues, some controversial and some easy, addressed with “yes or no” answers.

But the first time I was asked about a possible issue that might materialize during the new Council term, I stumbled and fumbled my way through a response that satisfied no one. It was a complete disaster. When it was over, a political mentor pulled me aside and asked if I knew why it had gone so badly.

My response was pretty much the proverbial deer in the headlights, and, in retrospect, that was an insult to deer. So, my friend told me: “You tried to give the answer that you thought people wanted.”

Those few simple words were an inflection point for my political life and probably for life in general. Trying to tell people what they want to hear ultimately satisfies no one, but what people did want to hear is how I made the decisions that did not always have clear cut answers. How did I gather information? How did I process differing opinions? Who did I listen to?

In short, how did I reach conclusions about issues important to the community without trying to be a hero to some and avoid being an enemy to others? Votes – major or minor – will not always go the way people want, but if they think that it was a vote based on something other than whim and a finger in the air, then I expected the debate on the next controversy would be civil and constructive. It usually was.

Why am I telling you this 45-year-old story about my political enlightenment? Because it leads me to the arena at Potomac Yard debacle – I don’t use that word lightly – and the upcoming mayoral race. More precisely, it is the Democratic primary in June that is likely to determine who will serve for the next three years.

There are two contenders, Alyia Gaskins and Amy Jackson, both women serving on the current City Council, both well-known and experienced and committed to serving. I am supporting Gaskins for the exact reasons I noted above: The importance of reaching a conclusion from a methodical, thorough review of facts and data and that is what is always needed when one wants to lead Council.

I am not especially prescient, but anyone who has ever served on Council will attest to the fact that at some point during the next three-year term, there will be an important, consequential and controversial issue that no one knew was coming. Six months ago, the idea of a sports arena and entertainment center with the Washington Capitals and Washington Wizards moving here was not on our radar.

Prior to the announcement that the deal was dead, Gaskins wrote that she would continue to assess all the information, much of which was still yet to be public, and assess the risks, potential return, impact on surrounding neighborhoods and infrastructure remedies before making a final determination.

There is nothing wrong with gathering public opinion and, obviously, listening to your constituents, but when your goal is to give people the answer they want, it only works until there is a larger/louder group wanting a different answer. Alexandria desperately needs new revenue sources that are recurring and significant to take pressure off residential taxpayers.

Selecting the next mayor is both a challenge and an opportunity for the voters. The choice is not good versus bad, but about one’s judgment and leadership.

There’s an old saying in politics that some people run to be something and some people run to do something: Spend a minute talking to Alyia Gaskins and you’ll know which one she is.

-David G. Speck, former member, Alexandria City Council

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