From right: Wiley Mitchell, Jim Moran, Connie Ring, David Speck, Lonnie Rich, Frank Fannon, moderator Michael Lee Pope.
Six former city council members offered a critical appraisal of Alexandria’s political climate and processes at a panel discussion on Monday, Oct. 22.
The panel, hosted by Agenda:Alexandria, a nonprofit, comprised a bipartisan mix. Panelists included Wiley Mitchell (Republican), Jim Moran (Democrat), Carlyle “Connie” Ring (Republican), David Speck (Republican-turned-Democrat), Lonnie Rich (Democrat) and Frank Fannon (Republican). They served a combined half-century, with terms going back to the 1960s.
The group generally agreed that Alexandria politics used to be better off for being more bipartisan.
“Alexandria is a stronger community, politically, if there are competitive parties,” said Speck. “It’s unfortunate that we don’t have a competitive environment now.”
“Even though I am … a very partisan Democrat, I agree … about the need for balance in our community,” said Rich. “One of the worst decisions we’ve made, a few years ago, was to go to November elections. I wish that we would [go back to local elections in May, the last of which occurred in 2009]. The current council could do that, and I think they should. It would give more attention to the City Council races and not have it mixed up in either statewide races or federal races.”
Mitchell concurred, saying that, in a November election, people vote mainly for federal and state offices, but don’t know enough about local candidates.
“It is wrong to come into a state election or a local election knowing only the candidates who are running for federal [office]. You do great damage to the stability of government in that way,” he said.
Speck suggested that staggering terms might improve the city’s political culture.
“We’re the only city in Virginia that elects everyone at large,” he said. “If you had staggered terms, you would have fewer people running, more timely focus on issues, more focused debate. … I’m unhappy that we’ve never really had [a] full-throated discussion in this community about making that change.”
Panelists were also generally critical of council’s decision in the 1990s that the School Board be elected rather than appointed.
“That was one of the worst mistakes that we could ever do,” said Speck. “As much as City Council got caught up in in school issues, because we appointed the School Board, at least we had taxing authority, so that we could look at the decisions we made and make a judgment about how much money was needed and how to raise it.”
Ring, who supported the shift, said: “There was a need to get better qualified people to run for those positions and be … more representative of the whole community. … Now I have some reservations about whether we cured the problem.”
Panelists offered more mixed views about development in the city and about the balance between private and public interests.
Asked about the development on the waterfront, Fannon said: “My big thing was putting too much density down on the waterfront. And also I’m big into property rights, and part of this whole plan was the threat of eminent domain to take private property from a property owner in the Boat Club. … People are still feeling rubbed the wrong way [about that]. A lot of people that live on the east side of town still think there’s too much commercial development, where you’re mixing it in with residential housing.”
On the other hand, Speck said: “What really has to be considered is what’s at stake in not having the waterfront be developed and attractive. Alexandria faces some very serious revenue issues because of the limitations on how it can grow and where it can get revenue from.”
Moran said he regrets that the city didn’t increase density around its Metro stations when the stations were built.
“We listened to people who had their own agenda, which did not fit into a larger vision of what this city could become,” he said. He thinks Arlington did a better job balancing the preservation of neighborhoods against development around Metro, and that their tax base and economy are now better off as a result.
Most panelists disagreed with council’s recent approval of stadium lights at T.C. Williams High School.
“Any development that’s put together now with a DSUP, it really doesn’t mean a thing if four City Council members eventually decide that they don’t like it. So that’s basically what this whole T.C. lights [issue] has ended up proving,” said Fannon. He thinks it would’ve been better to put the lights at the George Washington Middle School field instead.
On the other hand, Mitchell noted that no council can bind a future council with a legislative decision.