About Alexandria with Mark Eaton: Being heard

About Alexandria with Mark Eaton: Being heard
Mark Eaton (Courtesy photo)

Voting has begun in the Democratic primary for mayor and City Council that will be held on June 18. Being heard, or the importance of being heard, is a distinct theme in the contests for city offices and in city affairs in general.

A criticism of the all-Democrat City Councils elected in recent years is that fresh and different views are not “being heard” in City Hall. Similarly, the effort to make Council elections like the School Board’s by implementing a ward system is based in part on the argument that the current Council did not “hear” the electorate in November 2023 when Council unanimously approved the Zoning for Housing revisions to the zoning code.

Others have suggested that the city’s elected officials did not “hear” the community’s more recent opposition to the proposed sports and entertainment complex in Potomac Yard. As evidence, anti-arena advocates point to silence about the project before its splashy rollout and that officials did not condemn the proposed project immediately, or at least sooner.

The flip side of “We-are-not-being-heard” is “You-are-not-listening.” Assertions that city officials engage in faux listening and performative community engagement by requiring written questions at City Council town halls and similar events and by declining to engage in back-and-forth discussion from the dais during comment periods in public meetings lead to accusations that officials are not listening.

I first ran for the School Board against three incumbents. In candidate events, I said, “In Alexandria, you can get a School Board member to talk to you. Getting one to listen to you with an open mind is much harder.” Of course, this triggered immediate and indignant responses from the incumbents. According to news accounts, a similar exchange involving a newcomer seeking a City Council seat and incumbents occurred in this year’s campaign.

Hearing, understanding and agreeing are three very different things and it is easy to overlook their differences.

In nine years on the School Board, I found that it was tempting to nod thoughtfully, adopt a pensive expression and say something neutral like “interesting proposal” in response to an idea that was wacky, or worse. I tried to take a more disciplined approach which involved saying something like, “If I understand you correctly, and I think I do, I respectfully disagree for the following reasons …”

Those disappointed in the decisions of elected officials or senior city or ACPS administrators may not be giving them sufficient credit for understanding when they attribute an unfavorable decision to, “They just didn’t hear [me] [us] [the community] [anyone smarter than a brick.]”

It is also possible that the person or persons involved in the decision heard the arguments, understood their complexities and disagreed with the case made by the disappointed advocates. One test of leadership is whether the reasons for the disagreements were arrived at after careful investigation and thought about the pros and cons of the issues, and whether reasons for the decision were expressed completely and courteously.

None of this argues for conflict for conflict’s sake in city affairs. Many people are conflict-averse. Almost everyone wants to be liked and the equivalent of being liked in politics is being elected or reelected.

The “because-the-decision-did-not-go-our-way-we-were-not-heard-by-the-decision-makers” stance does not address the merits of an issue. Rather, it is an argument based on a subjective assessment of the quality of the attention paid by someone else. As such, it is a form of personalization – an approach that inevitably degrades the quality of debate.

Some may point to the name-calling and vitriol in national politics and ask why there should be an expectation that Alexandria’s community discussions should be more elevated. This is a variation on the argument that, in the end, an electorate gets the elected officials it deserves.

Benjamin Franklin is said to have responded to a question about the form of government chosen by delegates to the Constitutional Convention in 1787 with, “A republic, if you can keep it.” Part of “keeping it” is being aware when the debate shifts away from facts and reasoning based on facts into the realm of the personal.

There is another reason to do better in Alexandria than the mess across the river in the United States Capitol: because we can.

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 aboutalexandria@ gmail.com and subscriptions to his newsletter are available free at aboutalexandria.substack.com.