Letter: Boards, Commissions and Power Politics

Letter: Boards, Commissions and Power Politics

To the Editor:

The city’s boards and commissions have grown to total 76 and were mostly established in the 1980s. Recently, Vice Mayor Donley signaled the use of boards and commissions to press forward city projects, such as staffing the Beauregard Advisory Group, but this use is also apparent in pushing forward the waterfront plan. Exploited like this for tough issues creates the perception that these city-appointed groups are little more than power arms of city hall.

In most cases boards’ and commissions’ charters require them to make policy recommendations to City Council and to draw on city staff for support within reason. This is where violations of their charter are apparent. It has been noted that staff can even effectively instruct them not to weigh in, as happened in the case of the waterfront small area plan — the Environmental Policy Commission was told to be silent for fear their information could be used as “Trojan horses.” That EPC complied is in violation of their charter. Brownfields, stormwater runoff and climate induced flooding (the mayor of Norfolk has acknowledged this risk) should have been reflected in this plan, as potential costs are high for both developers and the city. Not a pretty pony, just fact of the matter.

Now, in its drive to keep the waterfront plan alive, the Board of Architectural Review was asked to hold a “preliminary” review session on July 25 so that an incomplete application for a Certificate of Appropriateness can be used to present the architectural and site drawings for the proposed hotel of Carr Properties whose Purchase Agreement is due to expire on Dec. 31. Short of hearing opinions on the aesthetics of the drawings, this is a meaningless exercise. Current zoning cannot support the certificate as submitted. However, the site pictures are well crafted in that they obscure how the total mass of the building when set against an 18th century backdrop, is out of character — a major objection of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

But there is good news. The Board of Zoning Appeals not only honored its charter but also was one of the best examples of good governance to be found anywhere. From start to finish the BZA process, discussion, and measured and considered recommendations could serve as a case study for any well-respected school of government. However, it is also an example of what happens if a board or commission fully complies with its charter and honorably and responsibly represents citizens but offers a recommendation that seriously questions city staff and council judgment. In this case the board’s recommendations were not only rejected but also assaulted.

It is difficult to believe after reading the city charters for these groups that they were intended as anything but legitimate ways to make superior public decisions, especially those of great consequence. As with the super majority vote, they were established to add legal consequence and weight to what a part-time city council can do. Any city that has grown as rapidly and relentlessly as the City of Alexandria must use all available resources — for their substantive contributions, not their power enhancing and public relations potential.

Cleaning up now would be a good idea. An annual review of boards and commissions is required of the city manager, and Mr. Young’s distinctive and relevant experience combining city management and a business degree means his first annual report and recommended changes could be the beginning of much needed structural change.

Kathryn Papp