To the Editor:
Former Councilman Lonnie Rich decries the long period it takes for council to vote on some issues [“Sometimes, Just Vote and Move on,” commentary, Nov. 29]. I am sure he had in mind the time it took for council to vote on either the Waterfront Plan or the Beauregard Corridor Plan. A casual reader of his opinion piece in the Gazette might think that citizens had something to do with this long period. That is completely untrue.
Under Planning Director Farroll Hamer public participation has become a grueling exercise in endurance for those citizens with enough stamina to attend the meetings. On several occasions I heard Ms. Hamer mention that 100 meetings were held on the waterfront plan. As I said at the final City Council public hearing, what we really had was one meeting which was later repeated 99 times.
Ms. Hamer and her staff present a plan. They hear the public reaction and then they wait for some period of time and present the same plan again. Any changes attendees asked for at the previous meeting never occur. If changes are made, they come at the behest of interests outside the public process.
For example at the very end of the Beauregard Corridor meetings, the boundary of the area to be rezoned was expanded to include the Goodwin House retirement community. This change appears to have come at the behest of Goodwin House management. No citizen attending the meetings ever asked for a boundary change at that location.
Finally after a long period of contentious meetings, for both the waterfront and Beauregard plans, the mayor and his senior staff scheduled the controversial plans for a vote. Not scheduling them earlier was entirely their choice. Council listened to a lot of comment at the public hearings, and then at least the majority of council voted for the plans. In the end, the outcome was no different than if the planning director had held five meetings instead of 100. Most of the citizens who cared enough to familiarize themselves with the plans were angry. Being ignored has that effect on people.
I attended the first meeting of What’s Next Alexandria during November. We did an exercise on what it takes to be a good citizen participant in a public planning process. As I usually do at such meetings, I did the exercise as I was asked. It was harmless and since we were not debating any serious issue, congenial. However, if the city leaders want to improve our planning process, they need to look elsewhere than the citizens for the culprits of the dysfunction. We are not to blame in this, just as we are not to blame for how long it is taking council to reach decisions.