What a difference six months makes. Last June, the special Reston Community Center (RCC) governance review panel voted 10-1 to recommend that the RCC board adopt a plan that would change the way in which its members are selected. After much debate, the panel settled on a plan that called for five geographic seats — one for each village center including Town Center — and four at-large seats. This past weekend, the RCC board moved one step closer to rejecting that recommendation and staying with the status quo.
During its annual retreat in Warrenton, Va. over the weekend, the RCC board reviewed the recommendations. It was the first time that the board had officially taken up the topic as a group even though the final report was submitted last July.
According to members who were there, the biggest debate on Sunday was, not surprisingly, about the potential of breaking the board into five separate regions.
THREE RCC BOARD members, former past chair Ruth Overton, current chair Beverly Cosham and Terry Smith, sat on the special panel that met for two months last summer. All three member voted in favor of the plan that would divvy up seats according to districts, much like the Reston Association Board of Directors does.
In a non-binding straw vote on the issue, five members of the board, including Overton, Cosham and Smith, voted against the recommendation to break the board up into distinct districts. Fred Greenwald and new members Bill Bouie also indicated their preference for the status quo, or all at-large seats.
Despite her earlier vote, Cosham said she had not yet heard a good argument for changing into a district format. "I don’t know where the heck my head was when we did that, I really don’t," Cosham said, defending her change of heart. "The more I have discussed it, the less I liked it and the further I got away from it and more I looked into it, the more I thought, ‘hey, I made a mistake.’"
Though the addition of a Town Center seat, dubbed the Dulles Corridor district, was largely seen as a peace offering to the Reston business community, it was the chamber’s appointed representative, Michael Horwatt, who cast the lone dissenting vote in the district debate.
And now Overton, who chaired the governance panel, thinks the district idea is no longer needed. "Yes, I have changed my mind," Overton said. "The main reason the districts, at least in my mind, were proposed was a way to give the business community a better voice in what happens and I think there are better ways to do that than districts."
Cosham, the new RCC chair, echoed her fellow board member’s sentiments. "It’s like Maya Angelou says, ‘You do what you do until you learn better.’"
AFTER FURTHER CONSIDERATION, Cosham and Overton said they thought the district plan would do more harm than good.
"My feeling about districts is that it further divides as opposed to bringing people together. I feel it is important that the board feels responsible to the entire community, not to any small particular district," Overton said. Most of what the community center does goes beyond geographic boundaries. It’s not quite the same with RA because there are specific facilities that are in the RA districts — your pool, your tennis courts, things that are really peculiar to where you live."
Frequent RCC critic Robert Goudie was a member of the governance panel last summer and he expressed concern over the recent flip-flop by the RCC board members who were also on that panel. "That would be a real lost opportunity for our community. This is the first time that reform has been considered in the 29-year history of the tax district," Goudie said. "We had reforms that in virtually all instances were unanimously recommended by the panel including [Cosham, Overton and Smith]."
Goudie said that adding five district seats to a nine-member board would increase voter turnout and candidate participation in the preference poll. Opponents of the plan worry that a district plan would unnecessarily divide the community. "The concern that this would lead to the Balkanizing of Reston is ridiculous," Goudie said.
"Would RCC be anymore Balkanized than RA, the Board of Supervisors, the House of Delegates, the state Senate or the school board all of which have district seats. Every democratically elected legislative body is done by districts. There is a reason for that. All we are trying to do is get a fair representative cross-section of the community.
Cosham has heard the argument before and she says that it is an unfair comparison. "We are not RA. We are not RCA. We’re a community center," the board chair said. "I think the programs are far reaching and our for the entire community."
NEW MEMBERS Carl Levine and Joe Lombardo were joined by existing members John Lovaas and Mariana Tafur in supporting the recommendations. Unless there is another change of heart among at least one of the five no-votes before the Feb. 2 board meeting, the recommendation, one of the cornerstones of the panel’s findings, seems to be headed to defeat. "I would like to see the board honor what I thought was a good compromise reached by the governance task force," said Lovaas. "The district proposal in my mind will provide a more representative board to the community over time."
Cosham understands that some people may be disappointed in her latest vote, adding that if she could "go back in time" to change her initial vote, she would. "We debated everything and we came to consensus and majority rules," Cosham said. "So there may have been some people who weren’t happy with the straw votes that we took but we are going to have the actual vote in the long range planning."
Levine said the retreat was productive and cordial, but added that he will work hard to change the minds of those who now oppose the district plan. "The real votes will be taken at the Feb. 2 meeting," said Levine, one of the business-backed candidates.
While Smith penned the final governance panel recommendations majority report last summer, he said on Tuesday that he didn’t remember specifically voting for the proposal in June. "To say that I initially supported it is something of a misnomer," Smith said. "I think there was an agreement that given the way things were going on the governance committee that was probably the way things were going to go, but I am honestly not sure I did vote for it, in fact I don’t think I was there at that time."
PANEL RECORDS show that Horwatt was the only member of the 11-person panel who voted against the plan. "I think Bill and Richard’s plan is pretty good," said Smith back in June. "It does capture that area that we have not got before. There is a business interest there, and it would give them a voice."
Smith said that his misgivings about the district plan began to emerge soon after the June vote, adding that the panel was always set up to be advisory. "I think it is really important to note that the committee was really established for the purpose of coming up with recommendations not with coming up with a mandate," Smith said. "So, that what came out of it was something for the board to consider. It was really up to the board to decide which way to go."
Overton agreed. "Nothing has truly been decided yet, but from the very beginning the recommendations that the governance panel were just exactly that — recommendations," she said. "It has always been the purview of the board to accept them or not accept them as they deemed fit."
Levine said he thought there was a chance that the Feb. 2 vote will be different from last weekend’s straw vote. "There has been vacillation from the get-go on this issue," he said. "But I am vehemently opposed to going back to the status quo."