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Hearing from the Public ...

Reston Association board held its first public hearing on the governing documents Saturday.

In an effort to hear community comments, the RA board heard from residents at the first public hearing on the governing documents, which are scheduled to go to referendum Oct. 31.

While about 20 people came out on a Saturday morning to voice complaints and praises for the proposed governing documents, many criticized the Reston Association’s communication campaign.

The meeting was the latest step in a process that RA started more than two years ago to revise the governing documents, which have not been changed since 1984.

In the last few months at public meetings, the board has argued that it is “vital” to revise the existing documents to make them more modern, more flexible and more functional for the future, particularly for financial viability.

RA president Jennifer Blackwell has called the referendum “one of the most important votes that RA members will make in the next 20 years.”

BUT RA HAS HAD difficulty getting the message out, a common theme at the hearing.

“Why now? Why is it important to change this right now?” asked Simon Rakoff, who attended the hearing.

While the board was present for the three-hour hearing, Blackwell responded to most of the questions and comments, speaking for the board. “It was determined that these documents didn’t reflect a lot of current laws and they didn’t secure the financial future of Reston,” said Blackwell, responding to Rakoff.

Further into the hearing, Rakoff returned to the issue of communication. “The approach here seems to be causing the problem,” said Rakoff. “The way that this is getting messaged is being perceived as spin.” He said he had read one of Blackwell’s letters to the editor, and said it sounded to him like it was saying vote yes because RA says to vote yes.

Several others in attendance had similar concerns.

“My concern is the manner in which this process has unfolded,” said Jane Wong, a long-time Reston resident. “I have concluded that the very good thing the board has done [by revising the documents] has also confused the public.”

Wong mentioned that after reading all the letters to the editor for and against the proposed documents, that now she doesn’t know whom to believe. “PR to the public has become a bigger impediment to the passage of the documents than the documents themselves,” she said.

Verne Hess, who has noticed strong support for both sides of the issue, said he thinks RA still needs to make a case for all the changes.

“It seems to me there might be some case, but you haven’t made it,” said Hess. “It seems you have good intents … but I think you’ve made a mistake in the approach.” He added that RA might want to rethink the effort and try to change one to three major priorities. “Then you’d have a much better chance.”

Kathy Joyner went so far as to say she felt “threatened by the ad campaign.”

However, there were others at the hearing, like Ellen Douglas, who thought RA was doing all it could to keep people informed on the issue. “I think that with this particular project, the Reston Association has done a phenomenal job of getting the word out,” said Douglas. She added that there seems to be a perception the message hasn’t been adequately made public.

In an opening statement at the hearing, Blackwell was optimistic that the message was getting through, mentioning some of the community outreach meetings that had been held. “A lot of the problems people had with the proposed documents were things that we could do with the 1984 documents,” said Blackwell. “[The proposed documents] are making explicit what we do today,” she said. She noted that the entire process has been a “two-way street” in which the board has done its best to incorporate comments from residents along the way.

YET FOR SOME at the hearing, the argument wasn’t enough. “I find it unpersuasive when you keep saying there are not a lot of changes,” said James Hubbard, adding that changes are not being explained well. “You need to make clear what those changes are because these documents look so different than the old documents,” said Hubbard, who’s lived in Reston since 1975.

Responding, Director Barbara Aaron (Hunters Woods) argued that the documents are moving toward clarity. “We really have to have every member, and that includes us, be able to understand these documents and we are trying to clean that all up,” said Aaron.

But many people said the 70-plus page document, filled with legalese, hasn’t been reader-friendly.

“Believe me, [the documents are] not easy to understand. In fact, they’ve gotten worse,” said Hubbard. “They sound like an abusive lease where everything goes in favor of the Reston Association.”

Hubbard was particularly disturbed by the fact that there isn’t any clear and comprehensive explanation of the changes from the existing document to the proposed document. “That’s at the heart of this,” said Hubbard. “I don’t have any trust in you, if you don’t do that.”

But Suzi Jones disagreed with that argument. Jones served nine years on the RA board, including time when the documents were changed in 1984. “There were so many changes [this time], it was almost impossible to red-line the old document,” said Jones. “These documents have to be able to go to court and hold up. I wouldn’t want to dumb it down.”

SUPPORTERS AT THE HEARING asked the audience to look at the bigger picture.

“I think the revisions of our documents are absolutely vital to Reston’s future,” said Jim Jones. “I don’t think this is a power shift to the board. I think it’s an appropriate balance.”

He also emphasized the need to compromise for the sake of Reston’s future. He said he thought that maintaining the assessment cap was a mistake, and that a future board “could be back here in 10 or 12 years discussing the same thing.”

“But I certainly will support [the documents] if it’s the only thing that’s going to work politically.” Jim Jones also argued that the language in the proposed document was necessary to reduce ambiguity.

But even supporters had suggestions. Suzi Jones didn’t think commercial membership was a good idea for the proposed documents. “I think that’s a hot-button issue,” she said. “I’d let that one go.”

Some people were less willing to compromise. Vera Hannigan offered the board a laundry list of provisions in the proposed documents that she opposed.

“I’d like to thank the board for amending the most fatal flaws in these documents,” said Hannigan, referring to the board’s decision a few weeks ago to restore the assessment cap. “Nevertheless, there are still some very egregious flaws.”

Hannigan said the there is a basic shift of power from the members to the board “imbedded” in the document. She said she opposes the resale fee, which charges $250 to people buying homes in Reston. RA staff has estimated the fee could generate about $360,000 a year. “This is not applied just to newcomers, but residents who move within the community,” said Hannigan.

If the fee is approved, Hannigan is worried about what the money will be used for. “Is it going to offset assessments?” she said.

Aaron, who has several years experience in real estate, pointed out that many other communities in the area charge a similar fee to raise revenue.

But that did not allay Hannigan’s concerns. “Just because other places are doing it doesn’t mean Reston has to do it,” she said.

Hannigan was also concerned about the termination clause in the document that requires 80 percent approval from all voters. In other words, if a vote like this ever took place, and 80 percent of all eligible voters cast ballots, all 80 percent would have to approve.

“If this community ever decides to go to town status, and I don’t know if it will, but now that you’ve made the threshold at 80 percent [total support], it’s impossible. It can never be reached,” said Hannigan.

However, Blackwell said that the clause had no impact on the decision to incorporate. “This is not prohibiting town status,” she said.

ONE PARTICIPANT at the hearing asked what the board will do if the referendum fails. “What is plan B?” asked William Smith.

Blackwell said there isn’t a plan B right now.

“With all the money being spent, I don’t see the board trying to go to [another] referendum anytime soon,” she said.