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Votes

On to Richmond

City leaders stake out positions for the upcoming General Assembly session.

When he was running for City Council in a special election earlier this year, Justin Wilson found himself in an unusual predicament. Because many voters would be out of town for the summertime voting, his campaign wanted to encourage absentee balloting. Yet the code governing requirements for absentee ballots was set to change on July 1 — just as his campaign was moving into high gear.

"This posed a real quandary for us," said Wilson. "We planned to send absentee ballots out to voters, but we had to wait until the last minute because of the new requirement."

Because of House Bill 1936, patroned by Del. Melanie Rapp (R-96), absentee ballots would require the last four digits of the voters’ Social Security numbers instead of all nine digits. As a result of the change, the application form that was in use when the campaign started was not the same one that was in use when the election took place. So both candidates in the special election had to wait until the ballot application form was revised before they could send out blank applications for voters to use if they wanted to apply for an absentee ballot.

"Unfortunately, there’s not an easy way to draft legislation to address this," wrote City Manager Jim Hartmann in a memorandum to City Council members last month. "One possible solution is to give the executive secretary of the State Board of Elections limited authority to suspend implementation of a change in the law for a special election that is underway."

NOW THAT THE November election is a fading memory, city officials are planning their strategy for the upcoming legislative session of the General Assembly in Richmond. The preliminary legislative package contains 32 proposals — everything from reforming election laws to requiring cigarettes sold in Virginia to be manufactured with "self-extinguishing paper." A preliminary document compiled by the city manager’s office contains a laundry list of proposals to support as well as measures city officials plan to oppose. A public hearing on the legislative package is scheduled for Nov. 19 at City Hall, and a final version is scheduled to be adopted on Nov. 27.

With Democrats taking control of the Senate, Alexandria stands to have increased prominence in the halls of power. Sen. Richard Saslaw (D-35) will likely become the majority leader and chairman of the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee, and Sen. Patsy Ticer (D-30) is in line become chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Conservation and Natural Resources. Because one of the city’s major areas of focus will be killing any proposal to remove the State Air Pollution Board’s permitting authority over a coal-fired power plant in Alexandria, Ticer’s potential leadership role in the Senate could become critical to this effort.

"I’ll have the bully pulpit, but I won’t have the ultimate authority," said Ticer. "My personal opinion is that it’s very important to have a citizen board with permitting authority, and I haven’t seen a need for efficiency demonstrated."

ANOTHER MEASURE city leaders hope to support is a plan to limit public access to trade secrets involving franchise agreements. This is a proposal that emerged during contract negotiations involving a citywide wireless network earlier this year, a plan that stalled after City Council granted a franchise to a company in the midst of a leadership change. After the franchise was awarded, records became a matter of public record as a result of the State Freedom of Information Act. But city leaders want to limit access to proprietary information in the proposals.

"If this action had been a procurement (as opposed to the award of a franchise), the procurement law would have allowed a bidder to identify proprietary information when submitting it, and keep the information from being disclosed even after the franchise was awarded," the city manager wrote in the preliminary draft of the legislative package. "City staff recommends that the Freedom of Information Act be amended to allow a franchise to identify proprietary information that will not be subject to FOIA disclosure."

Other efforts the city supports include funding for preservation at Fort Ward and the ability of localities to implement a homestead exemption that would allow homeowners who live in their homes to deduct 20 percent of the value of their property when determining their property taxes.

Another measure city leaders plan to support is an effort crack down on the payday lending industry, which many feel unfairly targets low-income people. The draft package expresses support for efforts to prohibit such loans or at least cap their interest rates at 36 percent.

"The payday lenders put a lot of money into hiring lobbyists last year," said Bernard Caton, the city’s legislative director. "The opponents tend to be local governments and those who advocate for people who are economically disadvantaged."