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Crisis of Governance and Leadership

This is the third in a series of columns, coordinated by former council member Lonnie Rich, that includes other past city leaders writing on governance and politics.

Alexandria’s reputation for good governance has been severely tarnished over the last few years in large part because there has been too little debate about issues of real concern to the community. There is absolutely no reason to believe that the situation will change for the better with the re-election of Mayor Euille and the election or re-election of six Democrats, the majority of whom seem to share Mr. Euille’s one-shoe-fits-all vision for Alexandria.

Nothing illustrates this situation better than the waterfront planning process. Citizens opposed to the current plan have now spent over $150,000 fighting the city in court, and there is no end in sight. Who benefits from this mess? Is it the taxpayers who are footing the city’s legal efforts to extinguish the rights of their fellow citizens and neighbors? I think not.

It’s bad news for City Hall that the Supreme Court of Virginia has accepted a lawsuit filed by three residents known as the “Iron Ladies,” which claims, among other things, that city staff and elected officials knowingly violated the rights of citizens when they approved the waterfront plan last January. The lawsuit is good news, though, for residents deeply disgusted and angered by the lack of honest and thoughtful public discourse on the environmental, financial, and community benefits of development projects like the waterfront, the Beauregard Plan, and the $500 million or more Potomac Yards metro.

City staff and elected officials attribute such conflicts to disagreement, misunderstandings, or misinformation, as if the problem lies with citizens. Engage us they say. Are you too busy to sit through an all-day Saturday council meeting just so you can speak for three minutes, be lectured to, and then be told that you have been heard? Well now you can simply tweet your views! You will still be ignored, but it will be a lot less demeaning and time consuming.

Taxpaying citizens feel disenfranchised by their government. But instead of addressing the problem at its roots, City Hall’s response has been to pretend they are listening when in fact their goal is to shut down debate. It’s quite easy really. Create a commission, stock it with hand-picked appointees, hold lots of meetings, take testimony, and then do whatever it was that you were planning to in the first place. The newly expanded and reconfigured Waterfront Commission is just such a body, but there are many others. But hold on Mr. Citizen, we do listen.

Real dialogue has been largely squelched. Even the influential Planning Commission has lost its independence and is largely a foil for the City Council and its agenda.

The local election should have changed the leadership at City Hall, but it didn’t. Too many voters had no idea who was running for local office or why. Hence, the national election swept in seven Democrats, five of whom accepted the BRAC-133 boondoggle hook, line and sinker, four who voted to move the local election from May to November, and six who would have or did support the waterfront plan. It also swept out the opportunity to create a local government that should represent the views of the entire community.

The election was a loss for this city. Clever political partisanship has created a one party system with no real democratic checks and balances. One Alexandria? That’s a myth.

The crisis is real. It’s a crisis of governance and leadership. Sadly, I see no prospect for change anytime soon.

Andrew Macdonald grew up in Alexandria. He served on the City Council from 2003-2007. He ran for mayor in 2012 as an Independent.