Webster defines a populist as "A believer in the rights, wisdom, or virtues of the common people." In New England that belief is given substance and form in the Town Meeting.
Sixteen years ago that tradition of true local government democracy came to Fairfax County. It arrived as part of the overall commitment to shared governing by a new member of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors.
A native New Englander from Holden, Mass,, deeply impressed by citizen participation in local government decision making, he promised to institute that tradition in his district if elected. He won that election and he kept that promise.
Every year since then Gerald W. Hyland, Mount Vernon District Supervisor and Vice Chairman, Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, has hosted his "Town Meeting" in January. That is where the people get to come face-to-face with their county leaders, elected and appointed, and they come face-to-face with the people.
His one-on-one approach has its summer counterpart in "Gerry's Lobsterfest," another New England tradition. As a fund-raiser it mixes good food with good friends with a lively exchange of ideas and opinions.
"When I was elected 16 years ago the commitment I made was for an open door and citizen involvement in the decision-making process on every subject," Hyland said in a recent interview. "The rest of the Board at that time said I was nuts when I held the first Town Meeting. Now almost all supervisors have one."
Hyland believes, "We have remarkable residents here. They are very bright and talented individuals. It's awesome what we have here. Our people are our strength. That makes my job both easier and more challenging."
Recently, Hyland announced that he will seek a fifth term to continue that challenge. And he has no intention of changing his governing style. "Allowing the people to participate is very important to me. Always has been and always will be," he said.
AFTER GRADUATING from Holy Cross University, Hyland spent 30 years in the U.S. Air Force on active and reserve status retiring as a colonel. He originally came to the Washington area as a law student at Georgetown University and went on to get his Masters in tax law from George Washington University.
While at Georgetown, he met his late wife, Carmen. They eventually opened a combined law practice in Old Town Alexandria. Although he has lived in Northern Virginia most of his adult life, through various tours of military duty, he became a permanent resident of the Mount Vernon District in 1969.
Prior to his first successful run for supervisor, election to public office had eluded him on three previous attempts. "I always had a desire for public service," he said. "My family was very involved in New England. I served in various appointed positions before seeking office."
He recently completed a term as president of the Virginia Association of Counties. A magnolia tree was planted by that organization outside his new office in the Mount Vernon Government Center to honor his volunteerism.
Over the past 16 years Hyland has been actively involved in virtually every major development pertaining to the Mount Vernon District. But, three that have particular significance to him are the revitalization of Richmond Highway, the transformation of the Lorton area, and the drop in the crime rate along the Route 1 corridor.
HE RECALLED THAT revitalization started with a request to the County Executive."Everything seemed to be going to housing. I inquired what about redevelopment or revitalization," he said.
"When I first came on the Board a $150 million bond referendum had just passed. I asked for $1 million to do some improvements along Route 1. None of my fellow Democrats supported me," Hyland recalled.
"But, Tom Davis, who, as a Republican, was now in the minority embarrassed them into giving me the $1 million by saying that he was surprised they would not support one of their own for such a very good purpose. I've never forgotten his help at that time. That's how the whole Route 1 project got started," he acknowledged.
"As chairman of the Revitalization Committee I encouraged citizen groups to help plan and decide what types of revitalization should occur," he said. Today, that effort is going full throttle from commercial and land use revitalization, to new transportation initiatives, both highway and mass transit, to safety programs, and the eventual redesign of Route 1 itself from the Stafford County line to the Beltway.
The transformation of the Lorton area is personified by the creation of Laurel Hills, formerly the D.C. Correctional Facility known as Lorton Prison. Hyland played a major role in that happening along with U.S. Representatives Thomas M. Davis, III (R-11), advocate of that first $1 million request, James P. Moran (D-8), and Lee District Supervisor Dana Kauffman.
"That whole area has gone through a real transformation. We've done some exciting things in Lorton and citizens have been involved every step of the way," Hyland said.
"We formed task forces to study the destiny of the area and plan the redevelopment of the site," he said. One of the real pluses, according to Hyland, is the Lorton Arts Center project. A multi-use arts complex on the former site of the Lorton Women's Workhouse, "It is something we have needed in this area for a long time," he said.
THE OTHER development at Laurel Hills which Hyland touts is the new South County High School. "This is a unique approach to capital construction . It should be a model for the rest of the county," he said.
The $62 million school is a joint public/private partnership between the county and KSI/Clark Construction that "will enable us to build the school without county funds or a bond issue." It involves a land sale to KSI/Clark the funds from which will be used to liquidate the debt on the school. It also enables the school to open by 2005, three years ahead of schedule.
In the area of crime reduction, Hyland noted, "The crime rate has dropped precipitously. When I came into office the Route 1 area had the most index crime in Northern Virginia. Now the McLean/Tyson area has more index crime. We accomplished this through increasing revenues to police operations and other corrective measures."
But, there is one major bur under the saddle of local government in Hyland's view, residential real estate taxes. And, the irritation of that bur is exacerbated by the State General Assembly's refusal to "give counties the same taxing powers as cities."
Hyland pointed out, "If we did have that authority we could reduce residential real estate taxes by five cents. When I first came into office the assessments and real estate taxes were way too low. The market had far exceeded the assessments because the market was so hot. But, in bringing them into line, it was going to be a major jump in taxes."
Hyland recalled, "One woman's assessment jumped from $250,000 to $475,000. She called me on the phone and went on for a half hour. When she finished I said I had only one question — would she sell it for the assessed valuation? She said absolutely not. When I asked why, her answer was the assessors hadn't seen the inside. It was worth far more than that."
Due to the high number of senior citizens in his Mount Vernon District, Hyland finds the escalating property assessments to be especially damaging. "At the time of this first increase in assessments I brought two proposals to the Board," he said. "One would limit the rise in assessments in any given year and the other would allow citizens to postpone increased property taxes when they reach 65 year of age. The taxes would be paid eventually when the property was sold or as part of the estate settlement upon their death," Hyland explained. Neither has been adopted by the Board.
AS HE BEGINS his campaign for another four years in office, Hyland has five top priorities on his "To Do" list.
* The most important issue in the near term is the future of Inova Mount Vernon Hospital. "It is absolutely essential that this hospital remain viable," he said. As he told the Task Force, operating under the aegis of Inova Health System, now looking into the facility's future, "My mind will remain open as long as the hospital does."
* Breaking the dependence upon real estate taxes to fund local government. This is coupled with gaining greater taxing authority and more control over the destiny of County government.
* Continued Route 1 revitalization efforts including transportation initiatives and pedestrian and vehicular safety programs coupled with commercial and residential development.
* Abatement of aircraft noise. "This is still a problem for many of our residents. This present push to increase the number of flights at Reagan National has to be fought. It only means more noise and more pollution, "he stated.
* All the issues pertaining to Fort Belvoir. "We need to replace Woodlawn Road. We need to press the Army to use their transportation funds to build new improvements," he emphasized. Other issues include: The Woodlawn Little League Fields, the site of the U.S. Army Museum, increased traffic flow with the build up at the base, and better interaction between the Army and the Mount Vernon community.
"We have been very fortunate in the Mount Vernon District. We've seen a real difference on Richmond Highway — $12 million worth of development and more coming. It is now seen as a real opportunity," he said. "We are getting there faster now."
But, in the end, for Hyland it all come back to that old New England custom of not only citizen involvement but also citizen government. "For the time I've been in this office, I have such a thing about citizens being a real part of the governmental process. As I look to the future, I want the people of Mount Vernon to be a real part of the subjects that affects and impacts their lives," he said.
As an example he cites the Mount Vernon Circle issue. "It started with great antagonism and division. Then to see all parties come to a total agreement is how the process should work," he said.